Tanya Davis


In 2000, at the age of 20, Tanya Davis and a friend hitchhiked out to Vancouver for the summer. She picked up whatever furniture she could find in alleys, pieced together a rag-tag apartment and got a job as a roofer to pay the bills.
It was during that sojourn in Vancouver that she was introduced to spoken word. Shane Koyczan and Kinnie Starr were performing one summer night at the Church of Pointless Hysteria on Hastings, and Davis was completely wowed. She had always written poems for the page, but she had no idea that anyone took it a step further and performed their writing. She liked how front and centre the words were in this form, without sacrificing the rhythm she was used to working with in her songs.
“I was just so affected by it. I didn’t know that people performed poetry out loud,” says Davis. “It was so emotional and fiery. After that, I went home and wrote my first [spoken word] poem. I had a lover in Vancouver at that time, and she was really encouraging. She said, ‘You should do your poem at an open mic!’ That was the first time I performed. It was at Catcall at Café Deux Soleils in Vancouver.”
The reception from the Catcall crowd was warm and welcoming – a good jump-start for her as a new performer.
“It was what I needed. Something aligned for me that day. The audience gave me enough encouragement to write another poem, which I did at another open mic. It sort of rolled out from there.”
Not long after, Davis shoved off the left coast and headed home. Vancouver wasn’t feeling as good to her as it once had. She had this niggling feeling that she was on the wrong side of the country – too far from home. Her thoughts kept drifting back to the Maritimes, where she was raised.
“I had stopped writing in Vancouver. I was working a lot of different jobs and making really good money; I was in a relationship, living with my partner – but I felt so miserable. I was kind of depressed. I didn’t know exactly what I needed to do, except I thought I needed to move. I started by quitting my job, leaving my relationship, moving out of my home. I put my stuff in storage and took the bus across the country, back to PEI. I started working in a bakery there, and I started writing again.”
Davis hadn’t been home long before she caught the attention of the CBC, who asked her to participate in one of their regional poetry face-offs. She competed and won. It was what she needed – to remember that she was an artist and that people liked the work she created. As for her music, she started jamming with people again and playing more guitar.
“I decided to plop myself down in Halifax and see what happened. That gave me my poetry back, and music, and access to a really supportive, creative art community.”
Once she experienced the return of her art life, she knew she had made the right decision. Music and poetry both sprang back to life for her. Davis realized not only how much she had missed creating and creative community, but also how much she wanted art to be her full-time job. She figured she could at least give it a shot, right? That was 6 years ago, and she hasn't had a straight job since.
“All I really want to do is to work,” says Davis. “Luckily, the more I work, the more opportunities I have access to. It’s a self-perpetuating thing. I really like to work and, mostly, I just wonder if I’m getting enough done.”
A hard-to-back sentiment given her storm of productivity of late. Last year alone, Davis released three new projects: a 40-minute solo show she premiered at the Atlantic Fringe in September called Hello Change, which was a blend of songs and poems and performance on concepts surrounding identity; a new CD (her third), called Clocks and Hearts Keep Going; and a book of poetry called At First, Lonely (Acorn Press, 2011).
The preceding years saw the release of two other CDs – Make a List (2006) and Gorgeous Morning (2008), along with some very charming video poems – the best-known being How to Be Alone (2009), which Davis developed in collaboration with filmmaker Andrea Dorfman. To date, the video has received 4.1 million views. Nothing less than a poetry coup. Davis is also the current Poet Laureate of Halifax, on top of her near-constant touring. She’s traveled a well-worn path from Canada’s east to west coast and back but, more recently, she’s been going further afield. Undoubtedly this is because, in the realm of spoken word, Davis stands out. It’s starting to get her some international attention.
When I try to pin down what’s so interesting about her work, I realize it's the vulnerable humanity that shines through in everything she does. She is no preacher. She’s more humble and gracious than that. In fact, when you listen to her work, it feels deceptively casual – like talking to a friend. Her candour is pretty compelling.
There’s certainly a spiritual bent to her writing, but it’s not always overt. It’ more about there being a palpable spiritual framework underneath the writing, a way of thinking, rather than actual content – though that seems to be changing.
“When I was younger, I was a Catholic – a serious one – and now I’m really not,” says Davis, laughing. “But that shaped a big part of who I was. I was a super-Catholic. I didn’t have sex, I prayed every night before bed, and then I had an epiphany at about 20. It was around the time that lots of things were cracking open in my life. I left the Church a pissed-off young feminist, like ‘Down with the patriarchy!’ I felt lonely and mad and distanced myself from my Catholic, Acadian family.
“Since then, I’ve explored other things like Paganism and Buddhism. I’m endlessly fascinated by faith and religion and spirituality. I love to read about it, I love to talk about it, and I love to write about it. It’s a bit of a quest for truth. I don’t think truth is some unattainable thing we need to pray for or hide away in the mountains to find. It’s really accessible if you’re willing to take down the walls and be vulnerable. Why not? I’m alive now, and I’m going to die. I just want to connect with people while I’m here.”
Political sentiments also snake through Davis’ work but, again, there’s no soapbox in sight. It’s about putting human experience in a political context rather than pushing any particular dogma.
“I’m not an activist in the traditional sense. I’m not much for protests; I don’t really march,” says Davis. “But the Occupy movement was very inspiring to me, and I’m thinking about how I participate as this writer-person in helping to change our world. I’m not going to march…because I tried that...I was an activist in my younger days, and I sucked at it, quite frankly. It didn’t feel genuine. I’m too diplomatic to get outwardly angry like that, so I’m trying to find a way to participate in my own way. Our country’s politics and our fucking governments, they are definitely informing my work. How can I do work that’s genuine, that I believe in, and still be in touch with our crazy fucked-up world out there? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.”
When I ask what else is inspiring her these days, Davis answers: “Just the world, I guess.”
It’s an answer that seems to suit her work, which is a bit like a lone wolf’s love song. She watches the constant building and tearing down that’s happening all around her and puts it into verse and song. Picture one of those video cameras that records footage from a fixed point for a full year – all of that change and movement captured from a still, watchful place – and then boil the story down into some kind of beauty. That is what Davis does. And, yet, she’s in constant motion – between places, projects, ideas and identities.
“I travel a lot for work – touring as a musician and a poet. When I’m traveling, I get to meet a lot of really cool people. Meeting strangers influences me, and the generosity of strangers that I feel so lucky that I get to see every time I travel. Another influence is intimate relationships, which I think are changing in my subcultures, and in Halifax where I live. The paradigm is shifting in how we’re ‘supposed to be’ relating to other people. There’s a lot more openness happening. Like polyamory. Or how about we don’t have to have kids? Or you can be single, and it’s not a bad thing. I’m 32, and I’m single. I have lovers. I’m not going to have kids. At least not anytime soon. A generation ago, this wouldn’t have been as much of an option as it is for me right now. I find that kind of inspiring, and it’s informing some of my work.”
The shifting paradigm that she’s been observing in her communities is also something that she’s experiencing herself. Recently, she wrote about the topic in her solo show, Hello Change.
“The show is about how easy it is to cling to certain identities and then use those identities to keep us stuck or to exclude other people,” says Davis. “For a while, I used the word lesbian. I am a lesbian – I still use that word sometimes. But sometimes I say I’m bi, and sometimes I say I’m queer. I prefer actually not to say much at all, but I know that identities and labels – those words – make it easier for us to all talk about each other and talk with each other. We kinda need some of these words just to converse and tell people we meet who we are and what we do, so I see that there’s a place for them. But I don’t want to get so stuck on the idea of ‘This is the way that I am and, because I’m that way, I can’t also be this way.’ I’m trying to shed those [labels] a little bit. Not entirely, though. I do think there’s need for peers and community, obviously, but I just don’t want to be married to [it]. Part of my identity politics is that I don’t want to be totally stuck on the concept of identity because I think it can be very exclusionary.”
Through all this shifting and changing, Davis is still a flitting hummingbird. She’s working on a commissioned poem for the UN’s International Year of the Cooperative, a play for a Halifax theatre festival taking place this summer and a new collaboration with filmmaker Andrea Dorfman – not to mention the dozens of unfinished poems and songs that are always waiting.