"Each Hand Became a Designated Vehicle": An Interview with Tanya Holtland


Tanya Holtland is the author of Inner River, a chapbook from Drop Leaf Press. Her poetry and nonfiction appear in The Collagist, Statement Magazine, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Oxalis, and elsewhere. She has read poetry in Cambodia and at the Yale Writers' Conference, and holds English and Creative Writing degrees from San Francisco State University. A poet with roots in California and many other places, she currently makes a home in Seattle, where there is so much water.

Her essay, "What Things We Bring," appeared In Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Tanya Holtland talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about ambidexterity, prose vs. poetry, and writing at work.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “What Things We Bring”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to starting writing the first draft?

Where things come from has always been a difficult question for me to answer. I think points of origin for many of the things we are able to write or create come from the blending and unblending of ourselves with another, and time and circumstance elicit things from our rooms, the houses of us. A couple years ago I got unexplainably ill for about three months. In that strange and difficult season of fevers and intense bouts of sleep I was on my way to work, in the final days I was still able to make it in, and by the time I got to my office this essay flew out. Like much of my poetry it was not an intentional piece but more an imperative married to maintenance of well-being. Sometimes initial arrangements seem to have very little to do with me.

This essay contains references to Tom Robbins and The Year of Magical Thinking. What is the relationship between what you’re reading and what you’re writing? How often do you overtly pull other works of literature into your work, and how does what you’ve read make its way into your writing in less obvious ways?

Both of those books were in the water when I wrote this piece. Some books lily pad, become the bridge. I was thinking a lot about survival at that time, of the body and of will. I love both those authors and I tend to read pretty slowly and so for that I think certain books have more of a chance to get steeped into the landscape. If my memory were better I think I would overtly reference more often. Instead, sometimes the color of a line I love will throw shadows at feeling and my lines come out under that influence. I think of all the things that can be said some authors say perfectly, building castles to a certain feeling. We look upon in awe, rumbling with our own burgeoning generatives.

How would you describe your revision process for this essay? How much did it change from the first draft to the final? Was this piece’s revision typical for you, or different from how you normally revise?

Surprisingly, this piece incurred very little editing. It came rather quickly and largely intact. There was some shaping but it is somewhat of an anomaly in that it felt rather complete early on. Both the creating and editing of it took place at work when I’m sure I should have been doing something administrative. I owe my old boss several hours of work for this.

You are a poet as well as a prose writer, which is clear from the lyrical voice and associational logic of this essay. How do you decide whether a set of ideas is best presented in the form of a poem or a prose piece? What can lineated verse accomplish that the paragraphs of prose cannot, or vice versa?

Often it is dependent on mood. Many years ago I taught myself to write with my left hand and during that time a strange thing occurred. Based on whatever mood/phase/state I was in, when something needed to come out, depending on what it was, I would pick up the pen with either the right or left and each hand became a designated vehicle for specific content. I think of poetry vs. prose in this way. There can be a natural inclination or intuitiveness to a channel, a path towards form. It’s difficult to tell and there are times when I change from one to the other and something is lost, or conversely, something is revealed.

I began writing in my mid-twenties. In these early attempts at writing prose came out first but poetry flew me open faster and I think brought me to appreciating the dimensional aspects of the page and all that space. Prose writers do stunning things I am still learning. There is something irrevocably powerful in a beautiful line that relies on nothing but itself.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Presently I have a few chapbooks that receive rounds of attention and equal time away. I’m learning that I work cyclically and usually over long periods of time. Although, in recent years this appears to be speeding up. Each of these works has been spurred by a lot of changes happening in and out, and played marcato.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I will leave you with a few different things. If you have need for it, reading and re-reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, essays by Audre Lorde, and all the poetry you can find by Catherine Wagner. Each of these has held the year together.