Q & A

Tanya Evanson: Canada’s Rising Star in Poetry and Musical Performance

Tanya Evanson. Photo by Temmuz Arsiray.

Tanya Evanson. Photo by Temmuz Arsiray.

Tanya Evanson is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets. Because of the form that she uses and the fact that her work straddles the worlds of music, poetry, performance and production, she defies categorization in a way that makes her completely unique – and she’s getting noticed. A graduate of Concordia University Creative Writing, Evanson is also the Program Director of Banff Centre Spoken Word. In 2016 she released ZENSHIP which is a mesmerizing and evocative auditory experience that explores the Ten Bulls of Buddhism which ultimately lead to Enlightenment. The album also sparked a worldwide tour, taking her from Australia to Indonesia to Vancouver to Turkey. She is a whirling dervish. Gregory McCormick conducted this interview as an email exchange over a few weeks during the summer of 2017. 

cb: Since you’ve long been associated with performance poetry, what has the transition been like from performer to page poet? Were you always writing poetry meant for the page? Or is this a natural extension of the kind of work you’ve been writing and performing for years? Obviously, your experience as a performer will allow for readings that are also polished and compelling, but do you feel that you will approach the reading of “page poetry” as a different thing than pieces written mainly to be performed (or this is an artificial distinction that I am working towards)? 

TE: There is no transition and there is always transition. I do have a history of print publication with work in literary journals and anthologies, but most often by self-publishing artist books — 6 since 1996. I used to sell those chapbooks at spoken word performances and then migrated to creating audio recordings from the work that was perfected on stage. There is a definite overlap because some pieces want the privacy of the page, while others are clearly sonic. If I listen well, the work will tell me what it wants to be, my ego just needs to get out of the way. That said, I’m not sure what this new book Bothism (Ekstasis Editions, 2017) will sound like, it is very quiet. I have to wait and see. 

cb: When you’re writing, are you thinking about both the performance qualities of a work or are you considering the work as a whole regardless of whether it will be performed? Or does it work that way? Do you perform/practice and is that part of the writing process or does the performance come from a different part of the process?

TE: Ideally, writing is a meditation. And then, who knows what is being written, or who is even writing it? The intellect can come in afterwards during the editing process — for technique, critique, research, craft. This is similar to being a student of sufism or a dervish. “Dervish” means “doorway” and is thought to be a threshold between the invisible and visible world. Like the dervish, the artist takes the invisible and makes it visible.

My work can emerge as text, sound, rhythm or movement. Sometimes a narrative memory takes the lead and a melody comes up the backend, by surprise. I never know.

It is true however, that the practice of writing text is quite different from playing music or performing dance, so like anything, each practice is given time in the workday. The possibilities are limitless for an artist who works across disciplines.

cb: One thing that I think sets you apart from so many other Canadian writers is the amazingly international collaborations that you always seem to be involved in.

How do you see your work (or genre) on the international stage? Is there more of a place internationally for work like yours which bends genres between performance, music, poetry, etc., or are genre-benders always a little out of the mainstream?

TE: There is a place for work like mine but it’s taken some time to present it abroad. The main reason is that I have always worked full time, first in marketing then in education. I did this while continuing a writing practice and responding to invitations to perform across Canada. Every few years I would release an audio recording which saw some success, but not from a full commitment.

In 2013, I moved from Vancouver to Montreal and dedicated myself full time to writing, performing and producing, and that’s when I began to seek out international opportunities, which led to tours across Canada, UK, Australia and Indonesia.

Spoken word is such a global phenomenon you know, from dub festivals in Jamaica to SLAM poetry in New York and open mics in Istanbul. Because my work straddles literature, performance and music I get to access those stages plus an even wider variety of festivals and events.

My current project ZENSHIP combines poetics, trance and free jazz. We are five musicians creating work that I believe is more universal than my solo stuff yet simultaneously more difficult to market. ZENSHIP is a text-based music project, but most literary festivals wouldn’t have the budget to bring in a five-piece band and so I’m looking toward jazz and experimental art festivals. It’s altogether a different — albeit exciting  — animal.

cb: The other day in conversation with a well-known Canadian page poet, we wondered together if page poetry had decreased in popularity in the last generation due to associations with the “ivory tower” and abstraction vs real, concrete, engaged political causes.

Since you have done so much work in the performance poetry world, that kind of poetry has long-been associated with political engagement. Did or do you feel limited by what is “allowable” in the different forms you work within? Is the topic, for example, of being a black artist in Canada something more accessible in performance than in a page poem?  

TE: I have never felt limited by art in any way. Art is limitless and unruly! However, I agree with you that print poetry has decreased in popularity, partly due to subject matter but also to the pull of Netflix and social media with its shortened attention span.

Page poetry is a private affair between one writer and one reader. It requires time to create, publish, reach and be digested. Spoken word however, is live and immediate on a stage before an audience of many in a public place. It is dynamic and emotional. It is vulnerable, loud and sometimes harshly judged with numbers. It can also go viral with a 1 to 3-minute video that directly addresses a vast audience on an important socio-political issue (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQA, indigenous rights, Islamophobia, etc.).

Topics in spoken word are not limited to cultural identity though, and artists who push through and develop a serious practice gradually expand their themes and methods of dissemination. Whether on the page or the stage, we want to hear an authentic voice that stands for something, one that does not imitate or pay attention to what is “allowable” or “not allowable.”

cb: In a piece of yours that I love, Knowledge Blues, you say again and again in refrain, “take the knowledge off piece by piece.” Maybe it’s not meant to be read this way, but I can’t help take this as a metaphor for poetry itself, that it has become too linked to linear cause & effect and abstraction. But obviously this could be a metaphor for all kinds of knowledge. How do you think knowledge limits us? Does it limit poetry?

TE: “Knowledge Blues” is a call to meditation and by extension, a call to peace. It calls on people to remove the impulse to categorize or judge. The piece asks that you stop talking, slowly undress, remove skin and bone, ideas and theories until there is nothing left but breath. The ZENSHIP album is centered around The Ten Bulls of Zen Buddhism – a progression of poems and images used to illustrate stages of enlightenment and “Knowledge Blues” is step 5: taming the bull.

Knowledge can absolutely disrupt clarity! The monkey mind is full of uncontrollable chatter. That chatter can be harmful. Meditative states, however achieved, can release epiphany, intuition, imagination and wonder at the universe itself — these are the elements that make up the poetic essence of all the arts.

“Whether on the page or the stage, we want to hear an authentic voice that stands for something, one that does not imitate or pay attention to what is ‘allowable’ or ‘not allowable.'”

cb: Your last recorded album, Zenship, is a beautiful meditation on sounds and image, with its conceptual links to Buddhism. It’s really beautiful and creative. But it lives in its own world, it seems to me, not really an album/record in the sense that we often use those terms. Yet not poetry precisely either. But yet it’s both of those things, too. It lives in some liminal space there that is incredibly freeing. Yet that space also comes with limitations in that it’s hard to know what your work is in terms of getting it reviewed or finding an easy vehicle to promote it.

Since we live in such a marketing-driving society, do you feel that your medium challenges you in terms of audience reach?

TE: Spoken Word is already an interdisciplinary genre, so it straddles literature and performance even before it attempts to add other media like instrumentation, or visuals. I mean Tanya Tagaq, Christian Bök and Saul Williams are all spoken word artists beyond categorization at this point, yet still out there being promoted, performing internationally and winning awards.

I believe it’s best to let the work lead you and not the other way round. There is nothing wrong with a grain of ambition, but money and fame are not the goal, they are side effects. The combination of concept, craft, collaboration, danger and a dose of good timing will let the audience find you.

cb: How has the work you’ve done with other poets at Banff (as Director of Banff Centre Spoken Word) influenced your own work? Are there changes in how younger poets approach spoken word as an art form? Is technology changing these forms dramatically?

TE: There are great bonds formed during The Banff Centre Spoken Word program. The two-week residency is structured so that established artists mentor emerging and mid-career artists in support of their individual projects, but the lines blur so that everybody learns and everybody teaches. Either way almost every participant breaks open to discover something new in their practice and their life.

These days, younger spoken word artists often come up through SLAM, where rules require a short poetic performance and no props. It is an important stepping-stone as long as one keeps walking. One of my goals as director of the Banff Centre program is to offer space for artists to focus on a larger body of work. These often include media or new media. Some younger artists also come up through theatre or hip-hop and so tend to have more experience with technology and experimentation. Either way, all the disciplines intersect at The Banff Centre and nourish each other.

To listen to more of Tanya Evanson’s work, visit https://tanyaevanson.bandcamp.com and http://www.mothertonguemedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @semayatavon