Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ'S TORONTO POETS 5 QUESTIONS SERIES: TALIA ZAJAC

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TTQ'S TORONTO POETS 5 QUESTIONS SERIES: TALIA ZAJAC

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets - 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Talia Zajac was born in Ottawa and is currently in her second year of the Ph.D. at the Centre for Medieval Studies, at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the marriage alliances between Catholic Western and Orthodox Slavic royal families in the Middle Ages, and associated issues of acculturation and cultural accommodation. These themes also appear in her creative writing, in which she attempts to negotiate her Ukrainian Catholic identity in multicultural Toronto. Her poetry investigates the formation and construction of the self in relation to personal memory, heritage, and history. Drawing on the lyric translation, her writing also examines the sometimes painful tensions between faith, aesthetics, and sensuality.

Talia's poetry has been published in The Toronto Quarterly, Acta Victoriana, The Grammateion, The Hart House Review, Misunderstandings Magazine, NoD Magazine (published by the University of Calgary), and Carousel. Her short story, “Dinner at the Sandstone Hotel” appears in a recent anthology, Writing Without Direction: Ten and a Half Short Stories by Canadian Authors Under Thirty (April 2010). Driven by constant curiosity and a sense of wonder, her writing has been a life-long passion.

TTQ- What is it that brought you to writing poetry and short stories? Were you an avid reader growing up and influenced primarily by the writers you were reading back then?

TZ- I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Even as a toddler, I would ask my mother to staple scrap paper together so I could draw on the sheets opposite her writing to make “picture books.” I was read to as a young child: C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, frightening Grimm fairy tales, myths and legends, tales from the Arabian Nights... My interest both in medieval history and in writing in general is certainly rooted in those magical stories. I can remember reading a prose translation of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene as an eight-year-old.

I still think that we can learn much about storytelling, structure, and psychological truths from fairy tales and myths. But in high school I was introduced to the fully fleshed-out characters of the Victorian bildungsroman, and to the richness of poetry. I think my writing became less naive, more open to metaphor. I became more aware of language itself and its limitations, the role of the (sometimes unreliable) narrator, and the structure of fictional forms and the effect they have on how you tell a story.

TTQ- Do you have a particular writing process that you prefer when starting a new poem, for example is the environment you are writing in all that important or the time of day? How long does it usually take you to complete a poem and do you go through an expansive editing process?

TZ- Inspiration for a poem can strike me when I am least expecting it, so I always carry a notebook around to jot down my thoughts or record an overheard conversation or the germ of a story. I enjoy taking long walks around the city and it is often in the course of these walks that ideas start to form.

I then go home and write down a first draft as soon as I can, so as not to lose the momentum of the writing or the freshness of the idea. I edit a poem or a story for months and often years afterward.

TTQ- What are your feelings concerning the local poetry community in Toronto? Does it promote its local poets in a positive way in your opinion or does there need to be more positive change?

TZ- The richness of Toronto’s creative writing resources is almost overwhelming, but my experience with the local poetry circles radiates out from the University community. Certainly, though, I think that more could be done to reach out to younger writers. As someone who speaks a different language at home— Ukrainian— I am aware also of how little interaction there is between Anglophone poets and writers, and the various immigrant and ethnic writing communities of Toronto. Toronto prides itself on being a multicultural city, but I’m not sure if that multiculturalism is reflected in what most people think of as “the local poetry community.”

TTQ- Whom would you rather meet at Tim Horton's, Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood? And if either one accepted your invitation of tea or coffee, what would you hope to talk about or learn from them in that brief time together?

TZ- Well, if I were to ask Leonard Cohen to share a coffee, I would first get out of Tim Horton’s, and go sit on a park bench somewhere, perhaps in one of Montreal’s lovely fountain squares. I would be interested in asking him about growing up in the French-English-Lithuanian-Jewish milieu of Montreal, the experiences of his immigrant family, how he struggled with his identity and why he felt he had found it through writing. I would like to talk about his practice of Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how he balances his faith and spirituality with his past life around Warhol’s Factory circle, and his songs that celebrate sexuality.

TTQ- If you could recommend only ONE poetry book or collection, what would it be and why? (Give us a brief review of that book)

TZ- It’s very difficult to recommend simply one book! One very interesting collection, though, that I don’t think is well known in North America is Peter Abbs’ The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems.

Peter Abbs teaches creative writing at the University of Sussex, and grew up in North Norfolk, England. He was the editor of the first Anglo-American anthology of eco-poetry, Earth Songs.

The collection opens with personal memory: his difficult rural working-class childhood, his relationship to the Catholic and Methodist (often antagonist) sides of his family, his aging father. He also writes in surprising and striking imagery about his faith, and about the environment. His language is deceptively simple, each word carefully chosen. For example, I was struck by his description “On Seeing Vermeer’s Kitchen-Maid in the Rijksmuseum”: “...Monumental in dark blues and yellows—/The maid stands steadying a household jug./ The white milk flows from vessel to vessel./World thickens. Time bulks. Breath slows.” Many of the poems are sonnets, though the volume closes with new work in a freer form.

The collection is also characterized by a deep consciousness of history and the Western literary tradition, and an awareness of where his own poetry and values fit within that tradition. This consciousness is something that speaks very strongly to me. For instance, in the poem “New Constellations” he writes: “You do not begin alone; rather, you extend/ A narrative. Through the half-open window/The breeze blows in spiked with salt/And distance. Your senses stir until/Your memories rise into new constellations.”

His poetry comes very much from his own personal memories, rooted in his childhood, but also reaches out to meditate on Socrates, on Ovid, Dante, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Osip Mandelstam. It is a volume full of surprising, sometimes unsettling imagery, but also lyric beauty, wisdom, and contemplation.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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