Poetry as Compacted Emotion (An Interview with Ola Bjelica)

At the completion of our collaborative project The Solitudes, Ola Bjelica and I met in a google doc to chat about how the poetry and art came together. The conversation flows easily between us, especially considering we've never met in person!

Brianna Tosswill: How did your writing practice start? (Did you write as a child? Do you keep a journal?)

Ola Bjelica: I did write as a kid, mostly short stories… I’d turn school assignments into stories (e.g. an essay about some big event in history into a little story in which the key people would talk to each other as though I knew them personally), write pastiches as well and try to mimic  fave authors. I didn’t keep a journal, but that’s because my grandma insisted on it and I was never one to do as told. It had to flow naturally.

BT: I also have had a contentious relationship with regular journal writing. I’ve found that I only properly keep a journal if I’m feeling distanced from the people around me.

OB: Ah, well the journaling… I realized pretty early on that I didn’t like being forced to write about my feelings. And so I never did it intentionally. At least when it was about putting my own thoughts under the spotlight. In reality I’m quite shy. So I’d seldomly write about myself (only when unprompted) and could write days on end about anything and everything unrelated to me haha does that make sense?

BT: like about what kinds of things?

OB: Love, friendship… also I wrote stories about people in war-torn places; my way of processing that I was one of them, I guess.

BT: Is that something you’re comfortable sharing about?

OB: I suppose I should start by saying that war broke out in my home country about two years after I was born, and about two years after that we emigrated. So I left “home” when I was very young, and my relationship with the “motherland” has always been very complicated, and part of that is because of the very ugly nature of the war that was fought. 

All war is ugly, but it feels personal when you’re in it. And not because you’re taking sides, but because you’re deeply saddened by it and ashamed of it. Ashamed because your birthplace is the aggressor in this case. I HATED where I was from. For a long time, avoided answering the question even. My parents (my whole family, actually) was and still is very anti war, and that’s why we left. The thing that broke my heart is that my family and our family friends come from these different places that were once united and were suddenly warring. It was a very confusing time, because all of a sudden my dad’s best friend got drafted to fight for “his country” and my dad got the call to fight “for his country” and they just sat there looking at each other. That was the last straw. I mean, imagine. Seeing your best friend on the battlefield aiming a gun at you. So my dad used whatever links he had to get us out and as far away as possible. And as a kid I just, yeah, I just couldn’t understand how and why it came to war and whose decision it was seeing as so many people refused to take up arms. 

BT: I can’t even imagine. I’m sorry you had to experience that so young. I know, even on a small scale that feeling at odds with the general politics of the place you live can be super confusing and isolating.

OB: Thanks! (And you’re absolutely right!) To be honest, I was sheltered from most of it. I have childhood friends who stayed… I left. Not to say that leaving didn’t have its own set of challenges, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a kid and remain in a place that has hit rock bottom. I owe my parents so much, and I’m very lucky I had a chance at a somewhat “normal” childhood. I know others weren’t as lucky. 

BT: Do you think that this gratitude you have for not growing up inside the conflict inspired you to write about what alternatives you might have faced? Inspired definitely feels like the wrong word, but...

OB: Inspired is a good word. I never wrote about alternatives per se… I usually wrote the same thing over and over: four friends singing and talking at a table, knowing it was the last time in a long while because each of them was getting called away. I just couldn’t come to terms with it. Or process it. I am very attached to my friends, and the thought of separation, a forced, unwanted separation just tears me to bits. So I’d sit there and imagine what these four people would say to each other, what they’d think about, if some of them would have tried to justify it, or if they’d try to plot an escape from it all… 

BT: One of the strangest things happened when I learned as a child about violent conflicts from the outside. I had this terrible arrogance to think, why didn’t they just leave? As a child you can contemplate the difference between death and survival but more nuanced human obligations are trickier. I hate that you had to think about it so regularly but I also admire you for considering over and over again the variety of emotions that could be evoked.

OB: I learned a lot from it, that’s for sure. It formed some of my thinking fairly early on. Like being a pacifist for example. There is nothing that will ever convince me that war is justifiable. I also have a complicated relationship with politics. And definitely a healthy dose of skepticism towards anything related to patriotism and nationalism and so on. Not sure if it’s healthy, but in my mind it is. 

BT: No, I agree with you. Do you feel like connecting into the feelings that inspired The Solitudes? I was going to ask you what your relationship with capital C Creativity was but it feels a bit glib. 

OB: Yes, for sure. It’s a big part of my identity, and it is -- I am certain -- one of the reasons I have Solitude as a companion. Such experiences can rarely be fully shared or understood by people. It is isolating to feel like you have no country (literally) and don’t want to be associated with the one you were born into. These feelings are common: I am definitely not the only person to have experienced this, but to the individual it always feels isolating.

The poem “fluent” for example is closest to how awkward and unnatural it feels… to feel like a foreigner in your own home, or not be able to relate to that culture (and not really want to relate either). It’s a loneliness you carry. 

Fluent, the Solitudes, Ola Bjelica "my mother tongue/feels foreign/in my mouth"

As for the relationship with creativity (or Creativity)... there are Creatives in my family. My dad writes poetry and draws, and my sister is a painter. I have always loved creative people and secretly hoped I’d be one someday. But I didn’t really consider myself one.

BT: I think it’s kind of too bad that the Canadian school system kind of tries to sort you, as early as the beginning of highschool into studies based on what you’re good at, not what you want to learn. And if you’re a promising young scientist (for example) then you’re discouraged from pursuing more creative studies. I almost didn’t take art all the way through highschool because I was good at “academic” things, and that outranked my being good at creative things, even with super supportive parents.

OB: It would have been a damn shame if you disregarded your talents. Your work is so beautiful and it is a much-needed shot of hope and beauty and tranquility… you have a talent and I’m grateful we get to experience it and appreciate it. 

As a society we have a very complicated relationship with the arts and creativity. On the one hand, we need it, can’t survive without it, and yet we continue to undervalue it. It’s baffling. One of the world’s many contradictions. I wonder if it’s partly fear… What do you think? Why was your “academic” prowess more valued than your artistic talent?

BT: I honestly think it has to do with a lack of example. I didn’t know any adult, professional artists (or creatives in any capacity). I’ve since expanded my definition and I can see the strong roots of creativity in my parents’ extra-occupational interests: my dad’s woodworking and my mom’s interior design. But I want kids to know that creative careers exist. They’re hard and complicated and unpredictable, but so are a lot of the things we call “stable”. The world is changing!

OB: We need more examples of creative careers that are unpredictable but thriving. I find that a lot of the discourse seems to be getting it wrong: that creative work is inherently precarious. I think--am quite determined actually-- that it is only precarious because it is not valued enough. I suppose that the thing that irks me is that as an artist the only way (at least based on what I’m hearing from you and friends in the arts, my sister included) to have more control and security is to wear these multiple hats. And while there are undoubtedly benefits to that (more freedom, more involvement and an ear that’s closer to the ground), I feel like it’s also a big ask considering the emotional labour that goes into the process of creating. 

BT: It definitely is not easy or wonderful all the time. I try to listen to myself and take physical, mental, and emotional breaks even before I REALLY need them.

OB: It seems to me that artists have to be so resilient.

BT: Can you share with me the experience of writing the Solitudes specifically? Did they all come to you in a short period of time or did you work on them for a while, I seem to recall something about marginalia?

OB: About 2, 3 months into the pandemic I had a really hard time sleeping. Just so, so much pent up energy and more hours in the day to think. I would lie in bed and just think about random things… I’m sure everyone had moments like this during this past YEAR. I hadn’t written anything in a long while, and as I mentioned earlier I don’t like to write about myself or my feelings. But I felt a deep need so I started writing stuff in the margins of books that I was reading. That’s how that started. And maybe it was the lack of space that informed the format who knows, but I certainly didn’t expect my thoughts to come out as poems. And then I was just hooked I guess. I couldn’t stop. It became a challenge, a play of sorts if you will to try and pack whole worlds of feeling into few words. And it somehow made me feel better knowing that I could make these emotions more compact. Easier to carry.

BT: How has writing the Solitudes, and sending it out into the world altered your perspective on being alone (or has it)?

OB: I honestly can’t believe I did send it out into the world. I didn’t mean to, at first. Hahah it was totally meant to be this thing I wrote to cope and then hide somewhere. I’m not sure what propelled me to do it. I saw your work and thought ok actually if this could help someone… The thing is, personifying Solitude made it easier for me to perceive it in others. So I decided I could share. BUT, I still wanted to hide, so I hid behind a pseudonym!

BT: Which has been kind of fun actually. Very new to me as well. 

I think it’s so wonderful that a book’s first message is often “you are not alone”. Someone else has thought these thoughts and felt these feelings and even though you thought you were the only one, you’re not. And a book can be a tool to express those feelings to another reader, or even to meet other readers who identify with it. So by writing these poems down, it’s kind of impossible for anyone to be alone while they read them.

OB: That’s the thing, I knew you would be wonderful to work with. Your empathy translates through your art, and I knew that if I was going to put this out there, it had to be a) a collaboration, and b) a memento to understanding and empathy at a time when we need it most. 

BT: you’re gonna make me cry.

I had the vision for the Solitudes illustrations pretty early on, but sometimes I hear you talk about Solitude as your “companion” and the word strikes something in me and I have a completely different vision of what it could be. I think that’s the measure of excellent writing. If everyone perceives it in exactly the same way, it becomes less like a book, more like a movie.

OB: Ha! Now you’re going to make ME cry.

ACTUALLY. I’ve been meaning to ask you about your vision for the Solitudes. From the start I wanted you to do your own thing and didn’t want to limit or influence your vision in any way. How did the “movie” play out in your mind and what informed those visions?

BT: The structure came first, as they often do for me which is why I know I need to make books instead of flat drawings or paintings. A friend of mine (Phoebe Todd Parish aka flycatcher press) posted a flexagon that she had made from some proofs of her larger prints, and I was mesmerized. I had encountered the format of flexagon (there are actually a bunch of different ones!) before but with your poetry circling in my brain it just clicked. The poems sometimes read like mantras and a book that encouraged repetition seemed perfect.

I also decided I didn’t want any people in the illustrations. We started seeing these haunting photos early in the pandemic of empty plazas and streets. They were really powerful. Also the first person perspective in the writing put me in a visual first person perspective (like some video games).

OB: To be honest, I’m relieved you opted for no people in the illustrations. You’re right, the pandemic-induced emptiness is powerful as both image and concept.

BT: I also took a lot of inspiration from my commute to work. I was collecting inspiration (like mental photographs) in the late fall which meant it was already dark by the time I left work. The streetlights (and the halos I always see around them) felt like an echo of human presence. 

OB: One of my faves is the facade with the windows and the few lit windows. It’s a gentle reminder that we’re still around though the streets are empty. 

The Solitudes Apartment Building Isolation

BT: Yes! I think apartment buildings are an important symbol during isolation for two reasons. High density places have been hardest hit. And also, even when you don’t see your neighbours, you hear them! I grew up in a detached home but I’ve lived in a variety of big and small apartments since I was nineteen. I still find them mostly fascinating, slightly annoying, lol. I actually don’t mind noise, but I hate it when my downstairs neighbours smoke.

OB: haha yes, me too! 

I’m a city girl, through and through. 

You are absolutely right, the apartment building is an important symbol. What strikes me is that these apartment buildings are simultaneously a shelter and a potential health hazard. 

There are all of these discussions about the mass exodus to rural areas and the suburbs… the death of downtowns and urban life as we know it. 

BT: This makes me so sad.

OB: Yes, but I’m hopeful. Cities have been places of death and decay and life and resurrection. They themselves embody all of these processes and are proof that rarely do things really, truly perish.

BT: I think it comes back to resiliency. Resiliency of artists and writers, feeding resiliency of connection, feeding resiliency of community. 

OB: Yes, and this is not to say that rural areas do not possess those qualities, or have benefits or aren’t as conducive for creativity as urban areas. It’s only that cities are places of conflict and clashes as well as bonding and community as you say -- all of these things (conflict and creation) are necessary at times, and are also timeless.

 

...

 

The Solitudes is a poetry experience that has no official beginning or end and no designated duration. It is a series of 3 flexagons displaying illustrations intertwined with poetry, that can be read for as long or as little as you like, in repetition. Get a closer look and purchase here.



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