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Poetry Constellations and Writing during the Apocalypse: An Interview with Tasnuva Hayden

Updated: Jan 31, 2023


Read author Tasnuva Hayden's full conversation with Jani Krulc about writing, the climate crisis, growing up in Norway, and the role of the artist.


Find a copy of Tasnuva's debut poetry collection, An Orchid Astronomy (University of Calgary Press, 2022) at your local bookstore or online at University of Calgary Press.


Please note, this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Jani Krulc: We’re meeting today to chat about your writing and your first book, An Orchid Astronomy, in particular. I’m wondering if you could just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer and about your book, too.


Tasnuva Hayden: Hi Jani, thanks for interviewing me. My name is Tasnuva Hayden. I'm a writer from Calgary, Alberta. An Orchid Astronomy is my first full length book of poetry. I also write fiction. I’ve mostly published short stories in magazines and such, and I’m currently working on the third draft of a novel. An Orchid Astronomy is a book of experimental poetry. It follows the story of a protagonist named Sophie and her journey as she grapples with the loss of her mother and the loss of the natural world as she knows it.


JK: One of the things that struck me when I was reading this book was the effect of reading it. It was kind of, I want to say, dizzying. I think because of the different perspectives. The reader is immersed in a lot of different points of view, or if it’s more accurate to say there a number of timelines happening at once. There are details of death, climate apocalypse, quotidian snippets, nostalgia, and I found that as a reader I had to constantly resituate myself and there was a sense of instability. I’m wondering how you chose or how you came to this form.


TH: I’d say there’s only one point of view but there are multiple characters that are referred to using different pronouns. Any time there is reference to a she or a her, it’s in reference to the mother, and any time there is reference to the pronoun you, it’s in reference to the mother’s ex-lover. He or him, that is referring to the character of Sarvvis, which is the reindeer constellation on the front of my book. Sarvvis is the central character in the story. He’s a constellation from Sami mythology. The Sami are the indigenous peoples of northern Norway, which is where the book is set.

Sarvvis is the central character in the story. He’s a constellation from Sami mythology. The Sami are the indigenous peoples of northern Norway, which is where the book is set.

A little bit of background about the Sarvvis. There’s this Sami mythology where every night the Sarvvis engages in a celestial hunt. In this celestial hunt, he's being chased across the sky by three brothers who are also hunters. (These brothers are represented by the three stars in Orion’s belt.) There’s this idea that if Sarvvis was ever to fall from the sky or disappear, soon all the other stars would follow a similar fate. (This would be like a bad omen, or you know, like the apocalypse.) So the premise of the book is that Sarvvis has literally fallen from the sky and has washed up into Sophie’s village.

Regarding the structure, the manuscript is composed of fifteen poems that have been arranged into five major sections. Each section is composed of three different types or “forms” of poems: the first being an erasure or visual poem, the second being the decontextualized long form poem that rivers across the page (mimicking the stars in the sky), and the last being the freeform poem, which also contains the visual poems within them. Each section opens with the visual poem as it represents the stars in the night sky, where the brightest among them burn as constellations.

Each section opens with the visual poem as it represents the stars in the night sky, where the brightest among them burn as constellations.

Next is the long form poem, which takes the shape of the constellation falling through the sky, hurtling past other “star clusters” and “galaxies”. The final poem, the freeform poem, takes on a dense and compact form, emulating the transformation of the constellation from a celestial body to an earthly meteorite. This structure is meant to mirror the journey of the Sarvvis as he falls through the sky before landing in Sophie’s village.


As for the narrative, its decontextualization is intentional. To write this book, I generated an enormous amount of content and applied data processing techniques to sift out the “stars." Just like the arrangement of constellations are completely random, so too is the text (to a certain extent). The randomness is particularly evident in the long form poems.

The work is experimental in that it asks the reader to create meaning from the seemingly random through repeated patterns— just like the early storytellers created meaning from the random arrangement of stars in the sky.

Just like the arrangement of constellations are completely random, so too is the text, to a certain extent, which is particularly evident in the long form poems.

JK: That’s so interesting and it leads me to a question about your other pursuits. You’re an engineer. I’m assuming those are some skills you’ve taken from your work background. How does your professional background influence your writing?


TH: I feel like for this particular process, it was heavily influenced by my graduate program that I did at the U of C. The project I was working on was for the European Space Agency. The data processing I used in this book was influenced by the actual data processing I did for my project, but was extremely simple in comparison.


JK: When I first read this book, one of my questions was is this the future or is this now. I think I know the answer but I’m wondering if you could talk about that?


TH: Yes, it's definitely now. It’s set in the present tense, probably now in the past tense a bit as I’ve been working on this manuscript for a while. It’s contemporary. The apocalypse is going to be something that’s slow and protracted, especially things like climate change, population crisis, food crisis. These aren’t things that just happen and then resolve. They’re usually issues that are compounding on each other and it’s going to take a while for all that to come to a head. I believe we're currently in the apocalypse.

The apocalypse is going to be something that’s slow and protracted, especially things like climate change, population crisis, food crisis. These aren’t things that just happen and then resolve.

JK: We don’t really realize it. A number of people do, they have changed their behaviour, they are activists, pushing for a lot of reform. But a lot of people are going about their daily lives as though we weren’t in an apocalypse. If you could reach those people, not that you need to educate them, but through writing, through poetry, would you have a message for them?


TH: My only message is quite sad. If we're thinking about things realistically…it might be too late to do much about what has already been set into motion. At this point, it would really be about trying to stop it from getting worse. I know we're all talking about this 1.5 degree temp increase, if we hit that, and if we go past that it will be catastrophic. There have been no legitimate measures we have taken as a species to really curb anything significantly. It’s hard. There’s only a few simple things that the average person can do, and it’s even harder when you’re living in a country like Canada where most of our infrastructure is really centred around oil and gas. We’re very similar to the US in this regard, and also we’re very spread out.


JK: And it’s cold!


TH: And it’s cold! So it’s hard to tell people like ok, you’re living in a place that’s -20, try to eat avocadoes. No, that’s not even the point. Try to eat local. Don’t try to eat things that are coming from the other side of the planet. Support your local economies. The biggest thing most people can do is eat less meat. I’m not even advocating for going vegan because I don’t think it’s realistic to tell people either you do all of this or you do nothing. So, some big impacts are obviously eating less meat, taking transit. But these are difficult things to do in a country like Canada where the infrastructure is not super great for that. I feel like the things that we need to do actually have to come from the government. These are systemic issues.


JK: There was big news about hydrogen fusion. Do you think that is something that will be potentially useful?


TH: Nuclear fusion? Yeah, maybe it's supposed to be the golden bullet. They’re saying they should have it ready by 2030? As a scientist, I honestly don’t think that nuclear power is the great evil compared to some other things that we're doing. Electrifying the grid is going to be really helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this is not something the average person is going to be able to do.


JK: In the face of the apocalypse, the impulse to write could seem almost futile, and yet you and a lot of people still write. There is this impetus towards creativity. Why do you write?


TH: I think I write because it’s an outlet for me to express myself, to make sense of my emotions and my thoughts. For me, it’s a bit like therapy. The days I don’t write I feel cranky. I’ve been interested in writing since I was very young. I’ve always loved reading, comic books, stories. It’s an art form that I connect with. I also do visual art.

I think I write because it’s an outlet for me to express myself, to make sense of my emotions and my thoughts. For me it’s a bit like therapy. The days I don’t write I feel cranky.

JK: I didn’t realize that. What is your medium?


TH: I do painting, but my main medium would be illustration. Crayon, pen.


JK: Have you ever illustrated your own writing?


TH: I have. I actually would like to write a children’s book and illustrate it with water colours. So that’s something I’m trying to do, learn water colours. Hopefully one day you’ll see my children’s book with my own illustrations. It’s going to be a book about losing your beloved, from the perspective of a dog who loses his owner.


JK: I wanted to ask about your childhood. You grew up I believe in Norway? This book is set in Norway, so obviously it has influenced your writing. I’m curious about in what ways beyond the setting of your book?


TH: For this particular work, the setting is the biggest influence. I feel that I had more familiarity with the Norwegian arctic than the Canadian arctic, so I decided to set it there. I didn’t want to write about things I didn’t know too much about or stepping on cultures that I wasn’t familiar with. That’s the main reason it’s set in Norway. Beyond that, the project I’m working on right now is also set in Norway, but is more of an exploration of what it would be like for someone like me to grow up there. What are the challenges. When I grew up, Norway was a place that didn’t have many immigrants. It was quite a homogenous population. That has definitely affected me.


JK: How old were you when you came to Canada?


TH: Twelve or thirteen.

When I grew up, Norway was a place that didn’t have many immigrants. It was quite a homogenous population. That has definitely affected me.

J: So, you speak a number of languages. Do those languages have any influence on your writing? I assume you only write in English?


TH: Yes, I primarily write in English, but I have written in and performed in Norwegian before. I’ve actually performed it here in Calgary. I also speak Bengali, but I don’t read or write it.


JK: Is Norwegian at all similar to English?


TH: It’s similar to English. I think it’s actually easier to learn than English because it's very phonetic. How you spell something is how you say it. So there’s no guesswork there. The only real challenge is that it has more vowels than English.


JK: Whenever I read Knausgaard’s My Struggle I’m always like, what are these names?! Like, how do I say these names of people and places?


TH: So you have to talk with your whole mouth.


JK: That would be a fun class to take. I want to ask one more question. I don’t know how to phrase it – we seem to be ostensibly out of the pandemic, or at least pretending that the pandemic is over, but we’re definitely out of isolation. Lots has happened in the past 2.5, 3 years now, and a lot of political events, pandemic related events. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the role of the artist, or the role of the poet is at a moment or at moments like these?


TH: That’s such a hard question. I think the role of the artist is to make some kind of commentary about the time and the society that they’re living in. So hopefully, I’m doing that. That being said, we’re living in such a weird time. Is the role of the artist somewhat diminished because of things like social media and the fact that everyone can have a platform? It’s very difficult to say what the role of the artist is when everyone can scream at the top of their lungs. There’s no more gatekeeping, especially with poetry. Before the internet, you would've always had to go through a magazine or a traditional publishing house to get your work out there. But one of the challenges now, is it can sometimes be hard to hear yourself, or to hear some legitimate voices.

Is the role of the artist somewhat diminished because of things like social media and the fact that everyone can have a platform?

JK: Clearly people want to create art, and other people presumably want to consume. And gatekeeping can be a very negative term. Curation perhaps less so. As a reader it can be a lot of work to find something that might appeal to you. I’m just saying that the instinct to create is always there. But with a proliferation of creating, it makes it more difficult to find what might be quality.


TH: I guess my whole point is, if there’s so much out there, is all of it really art?


JK: Yeah, what is it and who gets to decide?


TH: I find that especially with the pandemic, there’s been more of a trend towards confessional poetry. I don’t know if that’s an accurate term, but writing that is very directly about personal experiences and traumas. I feel like things are more personal than political in poetry as of late, but maybe I’m not reading enough poetry. I don’t know.


JK: So returning to my question about the role of the poet. I’m thinking about it as a social role, or maybe as a moral role? The proliferation of internet poetry is more, perhaps, self-centred?


TH: I think it’s more like therapy. It’s therapy for the person writing it; it’s somewhat cathartic. I would say there are different types of poets. There are poets who are very interested in language and poetics, and there are poets who are more interested in social issues. I think it’s a hard question. I personally don’t think that the artist or the poet has a moral role. That’s actually my biggest pet peeve, in the sense of cancel culture. No, the artist is not your moral compass. They're expressing something, maybe showing something that may be uncomfortable, maybe something that’s taboo. It doesn’t mean the artist is going and doing that themselves. I don’t agree that, oh this is a toxic character, so we can’t read this book.


JK: Yes, misreadings proliferate.


TH: I just find this whole culture of people being angered by this or that a little odd. If a book is going to trigger you, you close it and put it away, you don’t try to get it banned.


JK: Certainly, and speaking of children’s literature. That’s actually a huge issue in the States right now, lots of parent councils trying to get books banned and whatnot. Okay, it’s January 2023, beginning of the year, lots happening in the world. I’m going to ask you what you’re looking forward to for 2023.


TH: 2023. I’m looking forward to finishing my novel (please let it be done this year). And my mom and I are planning a trip to Turkey, so yeah, that’s basically it for this year.


JK: Well that certainly sounds like good plans for the next twelve months.

Thank you so much for this interview!


 

Tasnuva Hayden is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta, where she works as a consulting engineer and editor for filling Station, Canada’s experimental literary magazine. Her work has appeared in Nōd, J’aipur Journal, Anti-Lang, carte blanche, Qwerty, and more. She is also the author of An Orchid Astronomy (University of Calgary Press), a book of experimental poetry cataloguing a migrating requiem of memories, mythologies, and science in the face of climate catastrophe and personal collapse.


Jani Krulc is a writer and teacher. Her first book of short stories, The Jesus Year, was published in 2013. Jani lives with her family in Moh'kins'tsis, on Treaty 7 Territory, Alberta. She hosts Flywheel Reading Series (@flywheelreadingseries) and is at work on a novel.




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