I first met Montreal-born poet, performer and activist Tara-Michelle Ziniuk in a van on the way back from the Trans Health Conference in Philly in the spring of 2004. As a group, we talked gender, social change, relationships and what our experiences of the gathering had been like.
Thinking back on that day, I remember her extra-strength sarcasm, her passion and her keen insights into identity politics. We didn’t keep in touch after that trip and almost six years went by before our paths crossed again. This time, it was to discuss Ziniuk’s newest collection of poetry, Somewhere to Run From (Tightrope Books, 2009) and her upcoming reading here in Ottawa — the first in about four years. I reached her at her home in Guelph, Ontario.
XTRA: When I was reading up on what you’ve been up to in the last little while, something that you said about emotion kind of intrigued me. You said that you’re obsessed with the fact that even the most alternative, interesting and intellectual people experience relationships and emotions in similar ways. Is that something that’s still a focus of your thinking and writing?
TARA-MICHELLE ZINIUK: I haven’t been writing as much in the last year since the book came out, so I wouldn’t say that I really know what my writing focus is [laugh]. But that’s not something I don’t think. It comes up a lot for me in my writing and in talking to people about my writing because I have a tendency to write about not always being the good guy in interactions — particularly in relationships. I have a history of doing that when talking about the stuff that makes you lesser in society’s eyes — mental health [issues] and insecurities and also having regrets and sides of yourself that you’re not necessarily proud of.
XTRA: All the social vulnerabilities…
TMZ: Yeah. That’s the context that it usually comes up in. People experience sadness and anxiety, or whatever it is that might not match their public persona.
XTRA: I would love to know what you think our shared underground emotional life and the similarities in our experiences say about our activist projects, our projects of social change. Do you think that that commonality is helpful or derailing or maybe somewhere in between?
TMZ: I don’t think it’s productive because I don’t think it’s acknowledged. I’m not somebody who wants to go to meetings and go in a circle and check in and be super-personal about my organizing. At the same time, I have come to be an activist because of my own experiences of poverty and institutionalized systems — and I don’t think it’s helpful to deny those experiences. I think about having left an activist project when I was in Montreal, with people who I really considered friends, saying “I’m just going to step down because I’m having a really rough winter depression.” I thought that was the most responsible thing to do because I didn’t want to be taking on tasks that I couldn’t follow through on. It’s awesome that everybody let me step down, but nobody ever called to see if I was doing okay. I didn’t really want to go back to working with those people.
XTRA: There’s an interesting thread that I’m hearing in terms of your organizing and something that I would say is true of your writing, as well. There’s this insistence on reintegrating an awareness of vulnerability, of it being central.
TMZ: In some ways, I think it’s all about exposing this universal group vulnerability. I think that I talk a good game in my writing [laugh]. I have a public persona that’s very much centred around my identity as a writer, and people probably think I’m tougher than I am. I talk about breakdowns and stuff, but when I do, there’s a level of biting sarcasm that’s there as well.
XTRA: Actually, I noticed that the official write-up for your newest collection, Somewhere to Run From, calls the book “dangerously sarcastic.” Do you think that’s accurate?
TMZ: I can’t think fast enough to not tell you the truth! The truth is that I wrote that blurb myself. [laugh] I wrote it as part of a grant proposal to get money for writing the book, and it’s somehow transcended into this thing on Amazon and on the Chapters website and stuff. If you look at it again knowing that, it really reads like a grant proposal — I’m not sure why nobody ever changed it. I hope nobody gets mad at me for admitting that! [laugh]
XTRA: But it could definitely be said that you use sarcasm as a tool.
TMZ: Yes, I do.
XTRA: I tend to see sarcasm as this spiky thing that creates distance between people, but I think the way you use it is a little bit different in that things that might be difficult to hear are made more approachable through the sarcasm.
TMZ: Well, I give people an opportunity to laugh. I know that even people who don’t understand a particular experience are going to understand a particular humour or know how to interact with it and not feel alienated by that writing or that telling. I use humour both to be protective and to be accessible. That is the conversational piece of my writing. Sometimes I want to have more dense poetic stuff, and those are usually the poems that have really light, conversational, sarcastic titles so people know what to look for and what it’s actually about. I feel fine spelling that out; I like when people do that for me! [laugh]
XTRA: It can be helpful sometimes, for sure. So what are you going to read at the Venus Envy event on April 8?
TMZ: I’m going to mostly read from the new book, which I guess is not that new anymore. It’s called Somewhere to Run From. I’m hoping to read a piece that I’ve only read once. I read it at [a Toronto] event that was mostly about visibility and disability, which Eli Claire was in town for.
XTRA: Oh yes, I was there!
TMZ: That’s right — someone introduced you to me there and I remember thinking that’s probably the girl from the car! So yes, I’m going to read that piece, which I guess is about a recent relationship I had and maybe a bit more sexual than the stuff that I read out loud tends to be. I have a few other pieces like that, which are prose poetry and don’t fit nicely into a book. I might look through some of that stuff, too, and see if I have some newer, unpublished work. There are also gestures in my book toward pregnancy, and I’m pregnant now. I’m thinking I might go backward in time and try to figure out where I was at when I wrote them. Being pregnant is distracting, so I will probably make jokes about that and make people uncomfortable. Tell some disgusting stories that no one wants to hear! [laugh]
XTRA: Great… [laugh]
TMZ: The last time I read in Ottawa was for Ladyfest at SAW Gallery [in 2006]. I don’t know what happened that night, but I had this crazy breakdown and cried for 3000 hours and refused to stay in Ottawa and went to Montreal, hung out with an ex and was a total drama queen. But I will not be doing that this time. No more breakdowns in Ottawa. [laugh] Yep, no reason not to announce that. In fact, I have this whole plan of interspersing [my pieces] with hilarious Ottawa stories.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk and Megan Butcher
Venus Envy, 320 Lisgar (near Bank)
Thurs April 8 at 8pm
Visit tightropebooks.blogspot.com for news and reviews of Ziniuk’s most recent book, Somewhere to Run From.