Tanya Evanson


Each time you lift a veil
Your fingers may be covered in blood or honey
This work can take years
This work can take a moment
But if you work hard enough to get over this pain or pleasure
The secret inside will be yours
- from ‘Blood and Honey’, one of the tracks on the CD The Memorists
Like many artists, Tanya Evanson has a prodigious appetite for living. In our interview, the word ‘adventure’ arose again and again like a mantra – punctuating a personal philosophy of personal and spiritual growth. For Evanson, life is a quest, a constant exploration of the unfolding mysteries of the self, and of the self’s connection to the world.
Of this philosophy, she says, “It’s more an outlook. It’s a perception, a way of seeing things. I’m totally outside of any box. I’m happy to be unclassifiable, that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t really say that I would subscribe to any one particular group, but I definitely take elements from all different kinds of groups. They could be spiritual groups, they could be artistic groups, they could be different social movements, anything. I just take what I need from all of them and then that comes out in the work.”
Evanson’s work began in personal crisis, which may partly explain its deeply compassionate and searching quality. “I think I was about thirteen or fourteen and I just had – maybe hormones, the planets, the stars, I’m not sure – but I had incredible depression, and I actually attempted suicide. And poetry saved me. 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. I started reading poetry at that time too. It started with writing, and reading came after.”
She found her spoken word voice in the mileau of Inobe Stanislaus’ early performance events at Isart, in Montreal. After several years and the publication of her first two chapbooks, Blood is Blood – A Universal Preparation and World Class Animal, Evanson relocated to Vancouver. She quickly became involved in the spoken word scene there. “I was running this weekly spoken word show for a couple of years here when I first arrived, Tales of Ordinary Madness at a place called Bukowski’s. It was a really amazing gathering place for tons of writers and performers and poets and musicians. It was a really fertile time. So I was doing that event and at the same time doing other performances around town.” Her production activities – chapbook publications, the spoken word CDs Invisible World (2004) and The Memorists (2008), the Under the Griot Tree afro-cultural arts festival (2004), and a continuing series of interart events, ANU – took shape under the umbrella of Mother Tongue Media.
Travel plays an important role in Evanson’s artistic practice. It ties directly into her sense of self, as a way of challenging herself and her level of comfort in the world. “I was really sure of myself, almost cocksure when I was young, and there was lots of anger in the work. That’s the other side of depression, anger toward the self. Then I felt really strong, I had travelled to South America for six months, lots of really strong adventures there, then came back and was sharing that work. Then when I moved to Turkey all my confidence got broken again because it was a really difficult experience. It was delicious, but difficult. Being in a foreign country, not speaking the language, being a woman who doesn’t look Turkish. Being a Black woman in Turkey was a really crazy and exquisite experience. So that removed my confidence. I came back to Canada and now I’ve found it again.” Evanson is planning another phase of travel in the near future, when she’ll explore Southeast Asia and live for a while in Turkey. “Where’s the inspiration for the writing? I usually get it from adventures that are lived during travel.”
Her initial journey to Turkey was part of the process of creative discovery which eventually led to her becoming a classically trained Whirling Dervish. According to a note on Evanson’s Mother Tongue website, “The origin of the Turkish Sufi Mevlevi whirling ritual, lies with the Persian mystic philosopher and poet Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi. It is said that he began whirling out of ecstacy after his beloved teacher Shams disappeared.”
Evanson said, “It’s all connected, that’s the beautiful thing, that poetry and whirling are one thing for me. It started around the same time that I was doing lots of poetry, that I was doing Tales of Ordinary Madness. I met a whirling dervish and fell in love with him, and went travelling with him, and then he left me in Paris in the springtime, and all of a sudden I became a whirling dervish (laughs) out of incredible heartbreak. So I guess that’s the path to becoming a whirling dervish, you have to break and not know where to turn, and then turning seems logical. Just keep turning. I guess that’s what happens to us in life, we’re born and then we have these [...] staggering returning moments. The first one was poetry, just the introduction to poetry, and the second one was whirling.”
Evanson sees her evolution as an artist as a constant learning process, one that demands of the student a high level of self-awareness. “I kind of like the idea that there’s three levels of learning. The first one is you take the information. You go to a school, you can sit with a teacher or a mentor and you take the information. The second step is you digest all the information. And after that you leave the teacher, you separate from the mentor or the institution. That way you can live what you’ve learned, and make it real, and make it yours. That’s more the phases that I’ve gone through, even studying Creative English at Concordia, even coming from there, and leaving it. Also sitting with a Sufi teacher, and leaving that teacher. Those phases like that, that keep you going, if you stay too long in one phase you don’t grow.”
Currently, Evanson is concentrating on her latest recording project, Language for Gods. She’s recently completed a commissioned performance combining whirling and spoken word poetry for this year’s Poetry Gabriola Festival. Her performance was on the theme of silence and technology, and she feels this will become part of the content of the recordings. “I’m reading a lot of John Cage and watching John Cage stuff and listening to John Cage. Looking at what is silence as well, and what cannot be said, and what doesn’t need to be said and what sometimes is better understood by not speaking. That’s why I’m also incorporating a lot of silence into my spoken word pieces, because overtalking doesn’t always do it.” Like her previous two CDs, this one will include meticulously arranged music. “I do have lots of compositions from different artists. I’m going to be working with composers, and doing some of the composing myself. But it’s going to have a completely different feel from the previous work, just because life has changed. Life changes so the work changes, hopefully always towards beauty and always towards truth. And then even that changes (laugh)!”