1090 A bottle of Blue in Dawson
INTERVIEW: Tara Borin with Nathaniel G. Moore
Tara Borin is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio Online with Simon Fraser University. Their poems have appeared in Resistance (University of Regina Press), PRISM International, Prairie Fire, emerge 19 and Best New Poets in Canada 2018 (Quattro Books). They are a queer, non-binary writer living in traditional Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory, Dawson City, Yukon. The Pit is their debut collection, now available from Nightwood Editions. Set in a small-town, sub-Arctic dive bar, this debut poetry collection explores the complexities of addiction and the person beneath, and the possibility of finding home and community in unexpected places. Among Borin’s poems are portraits of the bar’s regular customers and employees—recurring characters, like those who might appear in a dark and unconventional sitcom. The religious night janitor catalogues the day’s sins; the retired barmaid gussies up at the mirror; the regular customers and their regular habits are described to a new employee: “R has a two-drink limit. A likes a coaster. Remember, / Mrs. O takes a chilled pilsner glass / with her bottle of Blue.” – Nathaniel G. Moore
Nathaniel Moore: Let’s start with the opening poem, where “we pull hands from pockets / to lay bare our secrets / like dark gems.” The Pit is the destination, the atmosphere — and of course, with its name, it brings its own set of connotations. Did this title dare you to choose it? Was it always going to be The Pit?
Tara Borin: The bar that inspired these poems is known locally as the Pit, which makes it seem scary and intimidating, but once you’re in there you see what a welcoming place it truly is, and you feel home. “The Pit” was the working title for the collection and I definitely thought about changing it to something less dark, but in the end it stuck.
Nathaniel Moore: Can you take us through the poem ‘Wraith’? It’s a dark piece, foreboding and ghastly.
Tara Borin: This poem is a nod to the many ghost stories associated with the Pit. I also wanted to capture that strange, middle of the night, not quite sober time where you’re not sure if you’re awake or dreaming. Like, did that just happen? How did I get here?
Nathaniel Moore: Not many Canadian poets write about working at a subarctic bar. Can you tell the story of how you found work at the Pit?
Tara Borin: I used to swear I’d never work at the Pit! It’s an intense place in a lot of ways. But then one summer I just wanted a change from what I’d been doing, which was a mix of working in a much quieter hotel bar and doing janitorial work. I wanted something more challenging, so I decided to apply. My first shift was serving on Saint-Jean-Baptiste day, which is a surprisingly busy party around here because we’ve got such a large French-Canadian population. A friend and former Pit employee advised me: “lift your tray over your head with one hand, push the people out of the way with the other, you’ll be fine!” It was good advice, and I ended up working there on and off for almost ten years!
Nathaniel Moore: Who are some contemporary poets (unCanadian is fine) you admire? (In a previous interview you mentioned Al Purdy, Kim Addonizio, Kayla Czaga, and Katherena Vermette.)
Tara Borin: The work of Al Purdy, Kim Addonizio, and Kayla Czaga all directly influenced this collection. I have a lot of poetry crushes, it’s hard to narrow down! I’m always excited to see new work from David Ly, Sara Peters, Katherena Vermette, Ian Williams, and Evelyn Lau. I loved Noor Naga’s recent novel in verse, Washes, Prays.
Nathaniel Moore: How hard was it to write about substance abuse in your debut collection?
Tara Borin: I keep getting stuck on this question! I suppose the short answer is that it was pretty hard at times. My experiences with substance abuse have been both personal, in that I’ve had family members, friends, and romantic partners who have struggled with it; and professional, in that I’ve worked as a bartender and essentially contributed to it. My poem “Telephone” attempts to explore that tension.
Nathaniel Moore: Do poems have to be vulnerable to be worthwhile?
Tara Borin: I do think it’s necessary for a poem to reveal something, whether that something is a truth, an experience, or a way of seeing the world. But I think we have to be careful when demanding vulnerability in a poem or from a poet. Artists have a right to protect or reveal themselves in whatever way they’re most comfortable, and as readers we need to respect that. There’s often an expectation, in particular with marginalized writers, to reveal their deepest traumas in order to be considered worthwhile, and I think that’s dangerous. We lose so much when we judge a poem only on the trauma it contains, and forget about the craft that goes into writing it.
Nathaniel Moore: Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
Tara Borin: I did read poetry in high school! I loved Gord Downie, and he loved Al Purdy, so I read a lot of Purdy. A poem of his that has always stuck with me is “Winter at Roblin Lake.” I love how it moves from a vast, cold expanse to such warmth and intimacy.
Nathaniel Moore: Were there any themes that you wanted to explore in The Pit that you didn’t get a chance to tackle?
Tara Borin: I didn’t necessarily set out to explore any particular theme. As I wrote each piece and realized I was working on a full-length manuscript, some of those themes you see developed naturally.
Nathaniel Moore: In The Pit, the poems “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Drunk Tank” have parallels that I’d love you to tell us about. The former is a prose poem, a vignette about a troubled tenant in a major stupor, the later is a more concise reflection on excess and recovery (at least for the night in the tank) and maudlin regrets. Can you talk about each poem a little bit, nudging us any clues as to their creation?
Tara Borin: They were written at very different times in my life. When I wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” I was drawing on a fictionalized break-up. In Dawson, couples often seem to form and dissolve with the seasons. I just wanted to capture something that I know a lot of people have experienced, and specifically how being in a divey little room above the bar figures into that experience. “Drunk Tank” started out as largely fictional too, but it became more personal after the breakdown of my marriage. Early drafts of that poem were gesturing at a very general use we have for the “drunk tank” room at The Pit, and I struggled with how the tone came off as judgemental. Once I personalized it and brought myself and my own experience into the poem, that changed. As a result, it feels darker than “Heartbreak Hotel.” I think it speaks more to a disordered relationship with alcohol and getting stuck in that cycle, whereas “Heartbreak Hotel” feels more like a stop on the road.
Nathaniel Moore: Being a debut poets in Canada can be a tough business. And yes, despite what some folks may say, Canadian Publishing is a business, it’s not a “labour of love” or doing something “for art’s sake.” Sure, creativity is involved 100 per cent, and it’s a beautiful, personal experience to finish a book and have the guts to share it, but we’d all be telling lies if we didn’t care that our work is celebrated, curated, and acknowledged. In this terrible time of social distancing and isolation, what are you most looking forward to about sharing your work? You must feel proud.
Tara Borin: Thank you! I am pretty proud. I’m really curious about how the collection will be received. The Pit is a place that is dear to many people, and I hope some of them will pick up the collection and see themselves and their experiences within it. I hope I’ve done it justice. I’m both nervous and excited to receive feedback from the community of folks I wrote this for!
Nathaniel Moore: What did you learn about poets in school? Did it prepare you for 2021?
Tara Borin: A creative writing professor in my first year of university told me “switch to prose, there’s no money in poetry,” which I suppose hardened me enough to launch a poetry collection during late-stage capitalism/a global pandemic!
Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of seven books including Jettison (Anvil Press, 2013) Savage 1986-2011 (Anvil, 2013), winner of the 2014 Relit Award for Best Novel. His book reviews have appeared in the Georgia Straight, the Globe and Mail, and Canadian Literature, and he reviewed Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, by Sarah Edmondson, for The Ormsby Review. He has also interviewed Luke Inglis, Terence Young, Curtis LeBlanc, and Tom Wayman for The Ormsby Review. His new collection of essays, Honorarium, was released by Palimpsest Press (Windsor, ON) in Spring, 2021. Formerly of Pender Harbour, Nathaniel now lives and works in in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster