Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a writer, performer, activist, and new mother working in Guelph and Toronto. She has been published across North America and is the author of two collections of poems: Emergency Contact and Somwhere To Run From.
BCP: Why poetry?
TMZ: I’m completely ADD, is part of it. I also love poetry and playing with language. I think poetry offers an avenue to write literal things that are absurd even if true, and have them questioned and challenged. I like the juxtaposition of being able to be completely literal at times and entirely language based at times. Ultimately poetry is smarter than me and I like the challenge.
BCP: What is your process?
TMZ: To date, I’m a writer who writes in spurts when I’m inspired. I’m good at setting aside time to write query letters, to edit— to do the “work” of writing. But the creative part isn’t as easy for me to schedule. I’ve had writing groups in the past, which have been good for offering some set time as a structure. I don’t imagine I’ll become very regimented, but right now I want to write longer prose and do think I need to figure out something less variable in terms of structure.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
TMZ: Definitely since I was 9, in my memory. I had an early classic about a lion trapped in a cage (I spent a lot of my young life grounded.) My first poem was published when I was 18, my first book when I was 25.
BCP: Who are your influences?
TMZ: This is a hard one. My partner plays music and gets annoyed when people say their influences are who they enjoy listening to, rather than what their music sounds like.
There are writers I admire, ones I am compared to and overlap. I’m also influenced by lyrics—whether that’s hip-hop, old punk, weepy local country. I think even the language of your environment gets caught in your mind as a way words are regularized and at different times find myself playing on activist language, pop culture references and lots in between.
More specifically— people compare my writing to Bay area dyke writers Michelle Tea and Daphne Gottlieb, both of whom I’ve read and I think share a certain amount of common history with. There are writers who work in poetic prose, like Ann Carson and Gail Scott, who I wouldn’t say I write like, but who really inspire me and my desire to continue writing and work beyond my current capacity. Then there are writers like Chrystos and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore whose writing inspires me, but beyond that whose personalities, politics and processes inspire me. These are the writers I’d want on my team if there were to be an authors Survival scenario.
“These writers refuse to play by the rules! Their desks are a mess! They keep falling asleep at weird times and taking strange tinctures! Why are they winning??”
BCP: What do you try to convey to your readers?
TMZ: That you have to laugh at trauma to get over it, or pretend you’re over it. That things are all interconnected. That the toughest of us are still fragile. That shit is never going to stop being complicated, but maybe it’s not that complicated. That even some of the most complex emotions and problems are actually pretty universal. That it’s okay to eat $7 ice cream and watch an entire season of Project Runway when you come home from saving the world.
I say these things generally but usually use personal examples to convey them, especially about the interconnectedness of things. I think it’s regular to find love and lust and sex and heartbreak in our political circles. I think that activists and queers are able to and do reproduce systems and cycles of abuse and abuse of power. I think we can have the best intentions and still be indulgent. And I’m happy enough to cull personal, and sometimes humiliating, examples from my own life to get people to feel comfortable talking about these things. If that’s not too much of a manifesto, that’s what I’d like to convey.
BCP: You’re a new mother. How has that changed your writing life?
TMZ: Well, beyond an application to grad school (which I wasn’t accepted into) I haven’t written since having a baby. That said, I wasn’t writing much when I was working full time before that, or dealing with a long, emotionally consuming family crisis before that.
I guess there are a bunch of things I could say here. Having a baby has me sort of midway between my old life and my life as a parent and I’m not sure what that will mean in the long run. Right now I feel conscious of wanting to be responsible to this other person as I put work out into the world. It’s changed my day-to-day life entirely, so I’m sure that will be reflected, as I tend to write about personal experiences. That said, I’m probably also likely to be more objective about my past given that I really do feel quite removed from it at this point.
Since getting pregnant I think I’ve made a shift from thinking about the short and medium term to being differently interested and invested in the long term— so on a theoretical level I’m thinking about my writing on that level as well.
BCP: I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you read three times, and reading alongside you two of those times. Each time you read from a different place: 1) activist 2) love 3) work. What changes have you noticed in yourself as a poet over the years?
TMZ: I think it’s fairly common for young women writers to put out a first collection of poetry that is my-life-to-date, then to narrow in their focus in subsequent book— and I certainly fell into that to some extent. Performance wise, I think there’s a reality to having started performing in the 90s when spoken word culture was something very different than it is now, and riot girl was having its moment.
What’s changed? I’ve stopped being a teenager. I’ve slept with less people, and even less people who’ve made me want to hate them publicly into a microphone. What’s funny here is that I’m not sure of the third event you saw me read at, and I’m not sure which is which in that I think my activist/work/love lives have seen some major overlap over the years.
BCP: What is it about public readings that you like?
TMZ: I like to think I’m a little less of a prude and a little funnier as a performer than I am as a person. I like knowing that my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that people are engaging with it. I like knowing that there is something relatable about my experiences that people can engage with. I like knowing that there are different subcultures and scenes I can remark on and perform to that are going to hear themselves reflected and be responsive. I like hearing what other people are working on.
Mostly I like the anecdotal part of performing— that I can give context and commentary that doesn’t have a place on the page, and that I can hear more about where people are writing from and what they’re thinking at a particular moment in time or on a particular subject.
BCP: Have you ever attended writing workshops? If so, what do you think of them? Do you recommend them?
TMZ: I have, and they’ve all been pretty different. I’ve done a creative non-fiction course through a writers federation, a couple of one-off workshops that have been more niche based, and one university course in short fiction. That’s what I can remember, at least. I do recommend them, but I’d also recommend figuring out what you want to get out of the experience first, and asking questions before you sign up to make sure you’re on the right track.
I have a friend who writes pretty wildly “alternative” fiction for young adults, who swears by her writing group of grandmothers and old school librarians— because they’ve been active in the children’s market for years.
You might be looking for substantive editing, publishing advice, more proof-reading, a place to run ideas and concepts off of people—think about who you want to be doing workshops with, if that’s important to you, and what you want to get out of it. Maybe stupid example, but I had a really offensive driving instructor and always said that as long as he taught me to drive I could take it. But if you’re looking for someone to give you ethical advice about things you’re writing about, for example, you’re going to want to look to a space where people share values.
I do very much suggest writing groups. They’re casual and free and can be really impressive. So often there’s such a huge knowledge bank within our peer groups.
BCP: You recently applied to an MFA Program. As someone with two books to their name why did you decide to apply?
TMZ: Again, I didn’t get into that program, but I can still tell you why I applied. I like to think of the program as a “good ex.” Sometimes people badmouth exes and you want to say, “That person is actually decent, it just didn’t work out.” People seem stressed for me that I wasn’t accepted.
I don’t have an undergrad and was excited to be able to apply without one, as the program is very craft/portfolio based and I do have professional experience. On a pragmatic level, I hoped it would open up job and education options that aren’t currently available to me.
On a writing level, I really wanted the mentorship. I respect the writers I’m familiar with who are involved as faculty. I really want to write prose (poetic prose, young adult fiction and the text of a graphic novel— more specifically) and feel like I need outside structure and teaching to do that.
BCP: Your acknowledgement section lists the names of great writers and artists such as Trish Salah, Zoe Whittall, Emily Pohl-Weary, and Ryan G. Hinds. How important is it to be in touch with, or surrounded by, other writers and artists?
TMZ: I think it’s important to be surrounded by smart people in general and am lucky that I have been. Of the list you mention, some are close friends, some I know professionally. I think the places I’ve lived have offered some amazing brains to connect with.
BCP: Many writers look back at their first book with agony. How do you feel about your first book Emergency Contact?
TMZ: I may have covered this earlier, but if not— I feel some shame around it. I also think it reflects my age at the time I wrote a lot of the material, and the time period. I’m happy to have some documented some of that era of Toronto and activist movements I was part of here. I think my first book is a bit crass, a bit earnest, but honest. I really have my heart on my sleeve in Emergency Contact, which is hard not to feel self-conscious about, but I don’t regret putting it out at all. Sometimes I go to read something sexually explicit, or about someone or something I haven’t thought about in a long time, and get startled by my own writing, but ultimately I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
My grandfather told me Emergency Contact was over my grandmothers head, and my grandmother said she wished it were. She’s also requested that I just be straightforward in my writing from now on.
BCP: Your two book covers are very different. Emergency Contact has a very attractive picture of you holding a gun. Somewhere To Run From is not as eye catching: title, name, a straight line with sprinkles. Why such a big difference? Was it a reflection of where you were in life?
TMZ: In part, probably. I think Emergency Contact has a lot of stream-of-consciousness work in it, a lot going on at once. It tries to cover a lot and so does the cover. The base image was done by Courtney Trouble and originally had nothing to do with the book, it was her own art. She agreed to alter it, and Suzy Malik did some later design to incorporate it into the book cover. The photo was taken by a friend, Megan, also unrelated to the book, and used with permission. I mention all this to credit the artists who worked on it, but also to explain how the cover got so crowded. I hope people can look at it and notice different things at different times, and I hope that for the content of the book as well.
Romy Ceppetelli did the cover for Somewhere To Run From, and Tightrope (the publisher who put it out) prints at Coach House, so they have access to gorgeous paper and unusual book sizes and cuts. Overall the cover is less full, but there are a lot of subtleties I appreciate.
BCP: What are you working on now?
TMZ: I’d like to wean my baby and start sleep training. I’m planting some leeks in my yard. I’m editing an anthology about the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, which is dear to me. I really want to work on some prose projects, and eventually maybe theatre, but they’re all on hold for the moment.
The young adult book I’m dreaming of is set in the late 90s/early 2000s in queer/trans anarchist circles: hitchhiking, summit hopping, being so in love you want to die all the time.
The novel, which I hope to make poetic, is part-memoir but largely a fictionalized account of the year my younger brother lived with me while under house arrest. The other is less clear, but is a non-linear zine style literary graphic novel, dealing with mental and physical health, most likely.
BCP: When do you expect to have your third collection of poetry published?
TMZ: I honestly am not sure. If left to my own devices, I might focus elsewhere for the moment. I definitely would bring a poetic element to whatever I write next, but I know my heart is elsewhere for this very moment. Parenting, trying to figure out next steps on a practical level. I want to work on these other projects. I hope to look for an agent. And to publish with a mid-size press next. I’d also love to contribute to more journals and places that prioritize poetry that is not book length.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?
TMZ: Think about what you like and why you like it. Research how authors and performers have gotten to where they are based on your own interests and preferences. Go through the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers Reserve program list of publishers, look for the genre you write, and research what local small presses are putting out. Go to the Women’s Bookstore and open the inside covers of books you love and find out more about their publishers. Self-publish, put out zines and chapbooks, and blog. Don’t be afraid to say you’re working.