Wham! Bam! and a dose of Shazam! ~ the lady lives to JAM: an Interview with Tanya Evanson

By Jade Richardson, at Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, Bali, Indonesia.


One heaped spoonful of heartache, a splash of adoration, three pinches silence, crush of one depression, add a lashing of ecstasy, turn up the volume, hit it with rum and stir that baby well ~ poet Tanya Evanson’s recipe for life on Earth.

If poets tend toward the tender, then Canadian writer, Tanya Evanson is the Tiger Lily in a bouquet of roses. The lady is loud. The lady booms on the page, she roars on the stage, and when she talks about writing, about life, and dangerous edges, her volume is set at Wake Up!

“My writing was born from heavy emotion,” she says. “Poetry came from an early suicide attempt, and my life as a Whirling Dervish came from a broken heart.”

Whirling Dervish?  Aha.

Tanya was an early teen when she made her suicide attempt. “I had incredible depression… hormones, the planets, the stars, I’m not sure. I needed a lifeline.  I didn’t know where to turn, so I turned inside myself and starting to write in a journal. That was my mirror to help me to heal myself, basically. Poetry saved me.”

Later, heartbreak in Paris (in spring, she wants to add! “because I am a poet”) brought on another crisis, and I need to turn, turning seemed logical,” which saw her fall deeply into Rumi, into Sufism and led to her becoming the only Whirling Dervish at this year’s Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival.

The pain earned her courage, compassion, and the whirling? “Well, that is partly my way to work with the Secret Language. Silence. Movements. Subtle things that speak volumes and can sometimes connect us even more than anything we say.”

As a writer and performing poet, she is a fierce, defiant and deeply intimate voice, polished like a harp, soaked like spice and pointed, like a weapon, at an emptiness lurking very close, she warns, to us all.

“We’re very close now, it’s extremely close and dangerous – to another giant forgetting,” she says. “What we’re hiding as individuals is desperately needed for our culture, it is our humanity. Writers, artists, musicians, we are at the front line of the solution.”

“This tradition of writing I’m in, call it the line of the West African Griots, the origins of SLAM, and the Troubadours. Writers out loud, ones carrying the history, the magic, the medicine, the secret, the solution, the honey and the gun – this is very old power, very ancient love. We’re the oldest line of storytellers – older than the written word. We used to tell poems, shout, dance, enchant and heal in the forests, at the camp fires, on our roaming way about the early world. I’m here, the ancient ones are also still here, some of them who have survived their silencing, and there are many now still who use writing, voice, story, silence to open the book of the soul, to show the way out of dark places. We’re inspired by this, letting it all out.”

Passing it all on, from lip to lip and eye to eye; ways to live, ways to be real, and ways to move, I mean really! Move! It’s important that we lead, because if we lose this, our humanity, our connection to each other, our true stories… well, we risk everything.”

Canadian-born Antiguan-Quebecois multilingual poet, spoken word artist, vocalist whirling dervish, Arts organiser and educator, Tanya is author of 6 artist books of poetry, 4 albums including the recent ZENSHIP (2016) , Invisible World 2004 , the memorists (2008), and Language for Gods, ( 2012).

She says the inspiration for her work is to “touch just one person. It is enough.” And to be part of something vast too, “The Arts create unity – as a manifestation, and not just an idea. We’ve got to fight this forgetting and get back to feeling the enormous blessing of being alive – the brilliance of that.”

“I see a lot of closed human books, people who won’t or can’t or have forgotten to tell true stories. As a writer, a producer, performer and dervish, I have given myself, really, to the pen, I follow the pen and turn into service – to help us all get those books open, to create spaces for sharing, to get those stories singing and have us sharing what’s inside, not just what we’re wearing as covers.”

“It’s not just about happiness, though that’s important. We need to share those threads, the sharing and strengthening on ways to live, to die, to experience the universe, to be in the world. When we share story and meditative silence together, we pass on all that. Without them, we feel a tragic loss. And we are coming to that sort of Apocalypse now. There’s a very real reason to get on this.

Take a look! We’re headed for another Giant Forgetting – a disconnect, separation. The loss of languages, a world where people feel unsafe to speak, unwilling to listen, where we look closer at our phones than at other human faces. Where we have forgotten what we learned at kindergarten; to share, to be kind how to live here, together. This is cataclysm, it’s how we lost the stories of our ancestors; the knowledge of the land, the pyramids, the mystics, the Incas, and the ways to being human.

We’re risking all that again now. We’ve got 7 billion people on this planet, and a collision between technology and indigenous knowledge – poetic language. That’s an awful lot of closed silence, being directed into devices, and an awful lot of suffering, with few words to carry it.”

She does her part in feisty, tender, wild poems, in music, song, turning and building or sharing spaces for others to express. Tanya Evanson, in full flight, on stage and in interview, is a physical thrill. “Sometimes on stage, between offering the work, I turn into the audience too, I say, ‘It’s ok. Ok. Put your phone down. Just rest a while. Close your eyes.’ That can feel dangerous to some of us, but here is the secret language, and thirty seconds of sweet nothing can provide wonderful things.”

She works in the deep emotions, and she works at the level of the child too. “I’m into Bothism: the yin-yang night-day hot-cold that make the whole. Between any two poles, I’ll always take both,” she says. “I’m a student of Buddhism and of Sufism, I feel rich, but when I look at my tax return I think, ‘Oh!’ The best lessons really were the ones from kindergarten, but where I’m working is in catalyst, transformation. I’m inspired by intimacy and by sadness.” She’s eloquent, “but I know the power of gibberish!” she winks.

So whatever you’ve got: bring that to her work. “I’ll take both; that’s your Buddha and your Rumi! Your heartbreak and your best recipe… let’s just get it all out, listen to each other, then fall, just as massively, into silence – there’s the sweetspot!  This invisible place, it can be more valuable than anything else you do all year!”

So how does she find direction? “We’re all here to serve each other, it’s part of being alive – it’s that natural to us all. I serve the truth! Can we have some more of that? The hot flames of desire, emotion, suffering bliss, and the Middle Way as well. Me, I serve the pencil, I keep out of the way of the work, and where it leads I follow.”

Look for Tanya Evanson appearing this week at this year’s Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival program, and always online at Mothertongue.


About the interviewer: Jade Richardson has done most of the usual things along the way to poetry, including studying Law, Literature, and Criminal Psychology, getting sick, traveling, being melancholic and occasionally being slayed by the wonder of it all. She won the Judge’s Prize at the inaugural Ubud Poetry Slam in Bali, as well as awards for her work in short story and erotica. She is published widely as a features writer, with a particular interest in fringe dwellers and Indigenous story-keepers, and has spent long stretches of time in tents, staring at the earth. She blogs at Passionfruitcowgirl.