Punchy, postmodern, irreverent, surreal, somehow flirtatious and occasionally just plain weird, Sherwin Tjia’s poetry is like the most random, unkempt, one-night stand you ever brought home from a drag show.
Self-proclaimed pop-culture addict and video game lover, Montreal’s Tjia writes his bizarre and strangely charming “pseudo-haikus” as if they were the titles to larger works — but there is no larger work that follows.
The form is astonishingly short, consisting of three non-rhyming lines, usually no more than three words on each line, sometimes as short as three simple words, one after the other, not necessarily in a coherent order. Tjia says he writes these pseudo-haikus because it’s the form that appeals to him the most and is the least constraining.
“I would write a very cool title for a poem,” he says, talking around a thick cold, nasal and wheezing, “and the poem itself wouldn’t live up to it. So I cut out the middle man.”
Tjia collected them for The World is Heartbreaker (2005) published by Coach House Books — the same Toronto-based publishing house that put out the words of bpNichol, Steve McCaffery and the early works of Michael Onadaatje.
Tjia is also a painter and illustrator. He is the author of two collections of poetry and two collections of comic strips, Pedigree Girls, and Pedigree Girls Forever. This fall, The Hipless Boy, a collection of short, interconnected graphic stories will be released by Conundrum Press. He’s also the quirky organizer of Slowdance Nights and Strip Spelling Bees in Montreal, Toronto and now Ottawa.
In all, Heartbreaker gathers 1373 pseudo-haikus. The book has no plot lines, no links. For example, a potential sequence of Tjia’s opens “Occupation/Man of/Leisure” and ends with, “and after/ this, we’re/ dead,” with no seeming link in between.
The poems are (at times infuriatingly) vague in their meaning, without context or explanation; they could mean anything to anyone at any given time, and that’s the way Tjia likes it.
He hopes that each person finds a personal meaning in it and insists that he is not trying to be “purposefully opaque.”
The topics of his poems range from everything from vaginas to Santa Claus, but none of them have anything to do with the other — each one is a stand alone, like a snowflake.
For the seasoned poetry enthusiast or those with more conventional ideas about “what poetry is,” this lack of form, reason and explanation may be a little bit off-putting, even irritating. But Tjia isn’t writing for you — he’s writing poetry for people who don’t read poetry.
“My poetry is best read during commercial breaks of a television show you really love, because on commercials, what else do you have to do?”
Tjia is, if nothing else, a pop culture poet who likes to make his poetry, “immediate,” he says, imbuing it with a sense of the fragmentary moments that flitter in and out of people’s everyday lives. While he watches a lot of television and reads non-fiction, Tjia reads next to no poetry or fiction, he says, because he simply doesn’t find them interesting.
“I think I may be the lowest common denominator,” he laughs, and then coughs into the phone.
“I love Hollywood movies and video games like Grand Theft Auto. I love [that game] because if you have a few beers with it, it’s essentially drinking and driving, which of course I would never do in real life.”
His creative process, he says, is spontaneous. Most of his poems are written on the go, then edited once they are typed up and, eventually, collected together.
“Sometimes, I’ll write something and think it’s brilliant, but I’m drunk. And then I look at them in the morning and think — what the fuck was I referring to? And I can’t remember at all.”
Tjia is currently working on another collection of poems, tentatively entitled either The Little Cancer That Could or Tomboyfriend .