EM: Tyler before we get into the important questions I'd like to open with an anecdote. It turns out that my father and I have both seen you perform, but in entirely different contexts. You and I met at the conference in March, of course, and I definitely heard your work at the 2018 conference, too. But my dad has seen you play music. My dad's the East Coast music journalist Bob Mersereau. A tweet of his from 2015 came up in my search feed of you performing at East Coast Music Week.
I bring this up because if you graduated this year, and that tweet is from April 2015, then that was only a short time before you would have started at Mount Allison, right?
TH: That is so cool that your father is Bob Mersereau. I have a lot of respect for the work he has done for the East Coast music scene! And that's right - I would have been studying at Université de Moncton at that point. Before transferring in January 2016, I studied music for a year and a half - I was taking Classical guitar and, briefly, the Baroque lute. My decision to take a different academic path and study English at Mount Allison University was spontaneous. Actually, one week before the winter term of my second year, I decided that I wanted to try something new. By the time I arrived in Sackville to register, almost all of the courses that I should have been taking were already filled, of course. That was an interesting transitional period; however, I knew that I had made the right decision. I was able to use my interest in music, and songwriting in particular, as a lens for which I would study literature. I am heading to the University of Toronto for an MA in Field of Creative Writing next year; I maintain a similar approach while writing poetry.
EM: I actually did not know that you had been an U de M student. So you were probably preparing for finals around that show.
TH: I would have indeed been preparing for finals around that time. For the first couple of years at university, I would try to get my studying done throughout the week so I could play shows on the weekend. I'm sure you can imagine this became harder to manage as school got busier. I still worked on my songwriting. Every three or four months when I was on Fall or Spring break I traveled to Nashville for co-writing and recording sessions.
EM: What was it about Mt. A that U de M didn't offer?
TH: I heard from a friend who had graduated from Mount Allison about the particular attention that the English program pays to historical groundwork. In second year, students take two mandatory courses that provide the foundation for this historical knowledge, tracing Anglo-Saxon poetry through to contemporary works. After taking these courses that combine history with writing methodology and conventions, students can really begin to identify their strengths and which areas they are interested in pursuing. I was drawn to the thoroughness of that approach. I was also drawn to the relative freedom that the program offers for pursuing personal literary interests. I was eventually able to design much of my course load around my interest in contemporary poetry and ecopoetics. In my third year, I took Mount Allison's year-long Creative Writing course where I began to take what I learned in these English courses and my experience songwriting and applied it to poetry writing.
English professors Dr. Geordie Miller, Dr. Deborah Wills, and Dr. Amanda Jernigan, each established creative writers in their own right, were always there to help when I was looking for writing advice. And I found that a lot of the general English courses that I took lent themselves particularly well to discussions about what it means to be a writer during this time, such as "Aspects of Postmodernism" and "Literature and the Natural World." There were also several readings and workshops hosted by 7 Mondays, a student-run literary journal for which I was an editor in my final year. The English department engaged student writers by inviting them to submit their work for awards, such as the Graham Atlantic Writing Prize and the Hazel Steeves Prize in Creative Writing.
EM: I actually have a copy of Dr. Jernigan's Years, Months, and Days in my shelf at home. I picked it up at the NB Book Awards back in May where she gave a guest lecture, though I'm afraid to say a lot of it was above me. I would have loved to be in one of her classes.
How did you get involved with 7 Mondays?
TH: I only became an editor for 7 Mondays in my final year. I read my first copy of the journal before attending the Mount Allison. When I got there I was eager to send in my work and eventually apply to be an editor. I think this speaks to the kind of symbiotic relationship there has been between contributors and editors; the journal, in its consistency and style, has earned the respect of many creative students who in turn want to participate.
EM: How long has it been going for?
TH: In fact, this past year, the journal celebrated its 25th year, which is quite a feat for a publication of this type. Thaddeus Holownia, an accomplished photographer and professor who served as the head of the Fine Arts Department at Mount Allison before retiring recently, helped immensely with this longevity; he worked on it with the students for over two decades.
EM: We used to have a student writing journal here at STU, but I'm given to understand it kept running into a problem where a senior student would bring it back, get an issue out, but never find a reliable way to keep momentum once they left. I think our last effort was in 2016 as part of a senior project class. I'd like to find a solution, especially where I'm coming back as a part-time student to complete a Certificate of Honours Standing this year. What do you think is key to maintaining a project like that after its senior student staff leave Mt. A?
TH: That's a great question. I am less equipped to answer this than Maia Herriot, James King, or Julia Crowell, who have each been editors for the journal since their earlier years studying at Mount Allison. Each year, the editorial board of 7 Mondays includes a couple of 1st or 2nd-year students to help with its continuation. The journal engages student writers as well as photographers; Mount Allison has its fair share of both and 7 Mondays serves as a consistent reflection of this work. The students of Mount Allison pay for the creation of the journal through a small fee added to their tuition. Alongside the support from the Mount Allison Students' Union, the Department of Fine Arts, and the Department of English, this fee helps to ensure a certain level of stability for the journal.
EM: As I'm writing to you, I've just wrapped up and posted my conversation with UNB Fredericton's Eddie Dust from that AAUEC panel. During our talk I asked him about his decision to pursue a PhD in creative writing, and I'm wondering about your grad school plans, too. Was the choice to enroll in a Master's program as spontaneous as the choice to transfer to Mt. A?
TH: In a way, it felt that spontaneous. It sounds less dramatic, though.
I came home from my creative writing class one day, late in my fourth year, and decided that was the path I wanted to take. I immediately made plans to meet with Dr. Wills to ask how I could best prepare for this. Most of my creative experience prior to that had been songwriting. I didn't feel that my poetry portfolio was substantial enough for me to apply for graduate school. But I knew this was what I wanted to do. I came to her just in time to put together a proposal to do a Creative Honours Thesis the following year. I instantly made the commitment to stay for the entire fifth year to get more experience researching and working in this area. I did have a lot of time to prepare, though it was still intense.
I've found that applying for graduate school is like adding an extra course or two to your workload, especially for a program like Creative Writing that requires you to craft a portfolio while also putting together all of the info and documentation. I'm so glad I did this fifth year. Not only did it give me enough time to really prepare for the application process, but it also gave me the space to immerse myself entirely in the kind of work that I want to continue doing even beyond graduate school. The year consisted of writing poetry and writing about poetry. A lot of my extra-curricular and social activities revolved around this path that I hadn't really realized just a year before. In hindsight, it makes total sense that this was the academic path I chose; the other day, I found several notebooks of strange, embarrassing song lyrics and other creative ideas that I wrote down when I was ten or so. I plan to bring those notebooks with me to Toronto.
EM: I also took five years for my degree. Outlines always seem so stone-set until you actually get your hands into their pliable clay.
I'd like to know about your home town, Berry Mills. You described it as a "liminal community." That's such a loaded word, especially in comparison to terms like "beautiful" which don't require much unpacking. What boundary does that place occupy?
TH: The term "liminal" actually serves as an example of convergence between my academic and creative interests. I use it to describe the sense of intermediacy in my home community - its state of constant transition and its unwillingness to be defined in any fixed sense. If you drive through Berry Mills today, you will encounter its rural quality through its farmhouses, commercial horse stables, and things like country restaurants. However, these stand alongside new homes and abandoned buildings. Berry Mills is located on the edge of Moncton and it feels as though the city limit line that separates country and city is blurred - Berry Mills epitomizes its own gradual transformation. However, this sense of an encroaching city center transforming a rural community can be complicated a bit.
The province's city centers also evoke a kind of rural quality, in some ways, or at least a small-town feeling that is quite distinct from the major city centers of each other province. I think the geographic instability of these liminal spaces like Berry Mills can serve as synecdoche for the province as a whole, and for other spaces going through similar kinds of transitions. Poetry serves as a useful method to explore these kinds of ideas, and to question the implications. In my poetry, I often draw on my surroundings in Berry Mills for symbols of this transition. Furthermore, we can try to reflect this instability through poetry with language and by playing with non-linearity. Right now, I am interested in the kind of gothic threshold of this blurred city limit line.
EM: In the bio you sent me, you said your thesis was a "diffuse interrogation of anthropocentric aspects of human consciousness." If I understood your AAUEC set well enough, there's an animal central to many human questions. Right at the front in "The Hulking Stove" there's the juxtaposition of a salmon caught versus a haddock bought, but just behind that is a changing family dynamic - a sense of tradition lost.
TH: Yes, that's right. There are similar comparisons between the plasticity of a fifth wheel and the authenticity of the old, decaying house. I am deeply interested in the relationship between tradition and progress. Certain traditions that seem to have been more common just a few generations ago around here also seem indicative of a stronger sense of human/non-human interconnection, or ecocentrism. The fifth-wheel camper, the store-bought fish, and the cold burner each evoke a superficiality or a shallowness - or at least that's what I was going for here. This is all complicated by the "hulking stove" itself, the massive and environmentally inefficient centerpiece of this old kitchen.
We shouldn't over-romanticize the past. Still, we shouldn't see it as simply behind us; we should always be questioning what it means to progress. The lyric speaker is presented as a poet trying to work through these questions, trying to write a kind of troubled elegy for this literal and metaphoric house.
EM: So when you say you're interested in the relationship between tradition and progress, is that purely as an idea you explore in writing or is that reflected in your daily living somehow?
TH: I'd like to think that this interest actually began in my daily living growing up and now comes out naturally in my poetry. One of the benefits of working on a creative writing thesis was being able to really reflect on the material that affected me throughout my degree and then having the space to apply this to my own writing, therefore enriching my experience of the material. This additional time allowed me to further develop my own critical perspective through what felt like a kind of dialogue between my own personal interests and my academic interests. It was in this last year that I truly felt like I was beginning to bridge the two. A professor that I admired at Mt. A would often quote William Faulkner in our American literature courses: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." It always seemed to serve as a kind of bleak history lesson, as it should. But over time, and especially in my fifth year, I began to resonate with this on a deeper level while writing about my home community, Berry Mills, for the first time.
This interest in the relationship between tradition and progress is reflected in my daily living. I have always been drawn to experiences that make me feel like I am part of something much larger, helping me to realize my relative insignificance; this realization always has a calming effect. Fly fishing does this for me. Over the past two summers, my father and I made a point to go to the Kennebecasis River once a week.
My interest in music comes from a similar place of tradition; music has been central to my family's culture and lineage. And on a more basic level, playing guitar or piano always requires a certain balance between what feels like instinct and intellect - muscle memory and study. I am drawn to poetry that evokes a similar balance. This is not to say that I think the relationship between tradition and progress simply parallels that between instinct and intellect. It can't be that simple, of course. But I am interested in these tensions, and how the past continues to inform our present in ways that we are not always to privy to.
EM: And are these ties to shared meaning part of the language of black bears?
TH: The black bear serves as a guiding metaphor throughout my collection of poems and honours thesis. The public discourse on black bears is paradoxical: they are often perceived as both a dangerous predator and a victim of human development and climate change. I use this metaphor in my writing to provoke empathy in difficult circumstances. It also helps to reflect a central tension in my poems: the lyric speaker strives for a lost sense of interconnection with the natural world while still confronting the teleological effects of climate change. The juxtaposition of the black bear helps to present a kind of dissonance that the speaker feels. However, in poems like "The Hulking Stove," where the bear is not mentioned, my hope is that a similar sense of dissonance will come through, and perhaps, when these poems are read together, there will be a sense that this bear is always present, though often hidden. More broadly, "the language of black bears" refers to my attempt to write in a style that reflects these tensions between instinct and intellect.
EM: Tyler thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me as you're getting ready to move to Toronto.
TH: Thanks for your interest in my work and for asking these great questions! I really enjoyed this conversation.
EM: I'm getting everyone who participated in this series to help grow my shelves at home. What good thing should more people have?
TH: I have to recommend Don Domanski's Stations of the Left Hand. Or, his Earthly Pages, which includes selections from his previous books. The accompanying essay "Flying Over Language," the afterword of Earthly Pages, is excellent, too.
EM: Where can people find your work?
TH: Right now, you can find my work in vol. 40/41 of The Nashwaak Review, vol. 14 of Atlantic International Studies Journal, and vol. 24 and 25 of 7 Mondays. If interested, find my music on Spotify or on YouTube: https://youtu.be/EkpSBJaod-s.
I've studied the hulking stove, the iron antique centerpiece
of a now caving kitchen floor. And I’ve imagined the heat;
I haven’t felt its smother and I won’t fix it
but still I sweat at this old dining table as I try to craft a vivid
past from a white rusting chair – this is what I can do.
We’ve returned to the Bay of Chaleur.
My family cooks store-bought haddock outside a fifth wheel.
They’ve said goodbye to this degenerate home already.
I stay seated and though they call for me,
I am entranced by the newspaper that aligns the cabinets
and the shoreline on the edge of my view. The dates don’t matter,
I just need to think of you walking up the lane with fresh salmon,
caught and battered by your hands to grasp what we share
before I leave. But instead I wrap my hands around the
spring handle and I press my careless palm on the burner – this is where
I feel an honest connection: the cruel coldness of metal
and the slow abandonment of a warmth
Used with permission of the author.
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