Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Sherwin Tjia

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Sherwin Tjia

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Erin Stephenson:

Hello Sherwin Tjia,

I am a grade 12 student in the Writer’s Craft class at Malvern C.I. I wrote these questions as a way of getting a better understanding of you and your writing. I thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and I look forward to reading your responses.

The theme of relationships is present in your book The World Is a Heartbreaker; however, the theme has two sides, you shed light on both the joys and sorrows of a relationship, what has been your experience with relationships? Is any part of this book autobiographical?

Sherwin Tjia:

Hi Erin, I have had terrible relationships and wonderful relationships. I think it’s important to have both, though on the whole I wish my life was filled with more of the wonderfuller type. But that’s come with time and experience, a better bullshit-detector and a lack of patience for dealing with emotionally unstable people. A lot of that book is autobiographical, though I do take fictitious liberties sometimes. One of the blessings about writing poems so short is that it’s hard for anyone to really point at any one poem and say, “Hey. That’s all about you. You’re confessing to that.” But even if I’m not confessing to actually doing any particular thing in my poetry, I’m certainly confessing to thinking about those things.


Over the years you have worked on various projects, from illustrating comic strips to creating an over 1,000 page collection of pseudo-haikus, how have these projects helped shape who you are as a person and an artist today? Do you think that your past has helped or hindered your work as an artist?


I like to try new things. Over the years I’ve realized that I have this tendency to jump from medium to medium. There are certain wonderful poets who stay poets all their lives, producing a robust and respectable collection of like, 16 books before they die. I’m not quite like that. I jump around. Consequently, I feel like everything I do is kinda mediocre. Sometimes I think that if I only managed to stay focused on painting, poetry, comics, event-planning — then I would become great at it. But because I jump around a lot, I’m kinda good minorly at a bunch of different things, but not really great at anything. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of fun. Trying different things, going with my random notions makes me happy, which in all honesty is why I started making things in the first place.


Your form of writing is far from traditional, being unique and distinctive. How do you appreciate the works of other writers of poetry? What do you draw from them? How has your interpretation of the haiku canon influenced your writing style?


I totally appreciate the works of other poets. I think poetry’s ability to condense and convey meaning is amazing. I don’t read much poetry these days though. I read a lot in high school and university, but these days I mostly read the Internet. But not poetry. More like news, videogame blogs. It’s funny — I had this awesome English teacher when I was in high school — Mrs. Talwar. Anyway, she was this finicky British lady who always seemed very high-minded and strict (but you could tell her sternness hid a great heart), and I always just assumed she read the Classics all the time — Jane Austen, that sort of thing — anyway, I asked her what she liked to read and she got this embarrassed look on her face and she told me that she “just reads mysteries these days”. Cozies. Agatha Christie stuff. I thought that was very charming. But you know how they say that great writers read other great writers? I have to confess to you that these days I tend to read Star Trek novels and videogame magazines. I never read the Booker Prize winners or anything. I am like, the worst writer.


In your book The World Is a Heartbreaker the themes are wide spread, from Disney musicals to abusive relationships. How did you go about collecting your ideas for the book and what is your process of putting those ideas on to the page?


I basically carry this pocket-sized sketchbook around with me all the time. When I’m at a poetry reading or something and bored I like to draw the people staring at the poet. I’ll draw starting from the front of the book, and write stuff starting at the back, and at some point they’ll meet around the middle. Anyway, a lot of times I’ll be living my life and something will come to me. Or I’ll be having conversations with people and something nice will come out of that. Sometimes it’s something someone says, or something I say, and it’s a good or interesting line, and I’ll write it down. Other times it’s something I see that will inspire a line. When I finish the sketchbook (usually it takes me several months) I’ll open up this Word file on my computer and add the pseudohaikus to the list. Over time they build up.

I started writing pseudohaikus because after Gentle Fictions (my first poetry book) I really wanted to write another one, but the poems weren’t coming. All I was coming up with were great titles for poems. So after a while I had like, this list of great titles, but when I went to actually write poems to go with those titles I was just writing shitty poems to go with great titles. So that was kind of frustrating for a while. But I am the kind of person who likes to work with what is working. So then I decided I would just write great titles for poems, and that’s it — no poem to go with it, which is what I did. And then a little while after that, I hit on the idea of cutting up the titles into three lines, and making them look like haikus, which seemed to add a bit of respectability to them.


You have said that your uncle taught you how to draw and that teaching clearly helped you to become a wonderful artist. Is there anyone in specific that has taught or influenced you in a major way in regards to writing, poetry or otherwise?


No one in particular. My family isn’t particularly literary. I do remember reading this Irving Layton poem in high school where all he talked about was teaching this university class and wanting to fuck his students, and I thought that it was marvelous how honest he could be, even if it marked him out as a dirty old pervert. I remember learning about Lynn Crosbie in university, and how she’d written a poetry book about the Paul Bernardo case, and being very intrigued by her bravery and willingness to engage in the very darkest material. At the time, her work struck me very strongly because it seemed to me that Canadian poetry, as a whole was this morass of middle-class investigations. Basically a poetry version of “Stuff White People Like.” Like, all the poems were about watching their kids do a dive off the pier at their cottage or something. And then after that I got into Bukowski, but there’s only so much of him I could take. It was like he perfectly transmuted the alcohol he drank into poems. So when you read him, you get kind of drunk off him. Which is great, but too much and you start feeling shitty after awhile. But at the end of the day, if you’re interested in what’s influenced me, I think you can understand where I am coming from if you just read three books, and watch one movie. (1) Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. (2) Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. (3) Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. (4) And Harmony Korine’s film Gummo. I’m basically trying to be all those things mashed together.


Your book Pedigree Girls challenges the norms of society and pushes the reader to explore a different form of poetry. Did you have a specific audience in mind when you started writing? Have you had any persons comment on your style of writing? Have you ever experienced any type of resistance from your audience or critics? How has that affected your writing?


I am delighted that you think of the comic strips as a kind of poetry. Certainly while I was writing them I was thinking of poetry. It was when writing them that I discovered the beauty of a wordless panel. That single silent beat before a punch line is so necessary.

I started writing them because they made me laugh and I found that they got easier and easier to write. The first 20 strips were very clunky, but I felt that I would just write them until they stopped coming to me, which is really how I have organized my entire creative life. And then I managed to write hundreds of those suckers. Often I feel like I am just watering the earth, and if something happens to grow, then I just pour more water there until something substantial forms. Hopefully it grows into something I can harvest into a book or something. And then I keep watering and I see what else grows.

A lot of the strips in Pedigree Girls kind of go too far, but that desire to push material to where people are slightly uncomfortable underlies the entirety of my creative life. I am not sure why. For the most part, however, people are as delighted as I am to go to those places, to share in those inappropriate jokes. I certainly censor myself sometimes. But I think things are more interesting when people explore those interesting and honest places. A lot of times I just think of myself as a cat, curious about what’s inside that box, behind that closet door, under that couch.

Hey, thanks for your questions! I am touched and flattered to be asked to be involved with this project.

Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is a Montreal-based poet, painter and illustrator. He is the author of Gentle Fictions, Pedigree Girls and The World Is a Heartbreaker. The World Is a Heartbreaker was a finalist for the A.M. Klein Poetry Award. The Hipless Boy, a collection of short, interconnected stories told in graphic novel form is his latest book. The Hipless Boy was a finalist for the Doug Wright Award in the Best Emerging Talent category, and also nominated for four Ignatz Awards. Forthcoming in the fall is a choose-your-own-adventure style book told from the point of view of a housecat entitled You Are a Cat! In his spare time, he organizes Slowdance Nights, Love Letter Reading Open Mics, Crowd Karaoke singalongs and Strip Spelling Bees.

Erin is the youngest of two from a family deeply rooted in Toronto. As the odd ball of the family she has learned to embrace and appreciate her individuality and share it with the world. She fills her time with homework, sports, family and friends. However it always saves time for her pen and paper. With plans of attending Queen’s University in the fall, she spends many nights dreaming of her life as a Golden Gael. She looks forward to all that awaits her in the future and hopes that writing will always be a part of her life.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page