“…the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”
“How to Be Alone” is a spoken word poem. It starts as a ‘how-to’ manual on perfecting the art of being alone. You can start in restaurants and movie theaters. Soon, though, it veers off into more wide-ranging territory. It’s about how to be creative, how to enjoy a life that you can’t necessarily control, and how to be the lord of your own tiny skull-sized kingdom.
The poem started its life as a video, the words by Tanya Davis, a singer-songwriter who was Poet Laureate of Halifax, and filmed by Andrea Dorfman, an Emmy Award-nominated animator and filmmaker. About a year after making the video, Dorfman uploaded it onto YouTube. It soon became a phenomenon with six million views from all over the world. The poem was recently released as an illustrated book.
I talked to Tanya via Skype about the difference between YouTube and the printed page, why her poem resonates, giving art away, and how some of the most universal ideas are the ones that can be the hardest to talk about.
The Millions: How did you get the idea for the poem?
Tanya Davis: The idea for the poem came mostly from my collaborator, Andrea. We were talking about solitude and being alone and how we both need a lot of alone time to get our work done as artists. It kept coming up in our conversation and, meanwhile, we were also talking about doing a video poem together. Andrea made the suggestion, “Why don’t we do one about how to be alone?” I took that phrase and wrote the poem.
TM: Did you expect the response to “How to Be Alone” — six million views on YouTube and a book?
TD: Not at all. The video was funded by Bravo, so they had the rights to screen it first. It made the rounds at festivals. After about a year, we could do whatever we wanted with it. Andrea texted me one day and said, “I’m going to put it up on YouTube”. I said, “Okay,” and then we went on with our days. Neither of us expected the response.
TM: You gave it away for free?
TD: We share a philosophy of art, which is that we make it to give it away. Of course we also want to make income and be able to support ourselves, but I don’t want to keep my ideas in my head. We set it free. If you let go of something, it can end up coming back to you in ways you never thought.
TM: How did the book come about?
TD: The book came quite some time later. It was 2010 when we first put the video on YouTube and it started to take off. For the first year, it climbed rapidly and it’s still climbing as people pass it around.
Someone had approached us about a book. We had thought about a book before, but neither of us had the time or the resources to do that. Now, the book is giving the poem a 3rd or 4th or 5th life. It’s had a long life, this poem.
TM: What difference does the format make for this poem?
TD: It makes a difference in how much a poem lasts. For me, it’s performance — that’s the shortest — then video, then print lasts the longest.
If someone listens me perform a poem out loud, I finish and it is over. Four minutes and that’s it. A person might walk away with a few points or the gist of it, but not more. With a video, it’s more solid. A person can watch it again and again. With a book, a person can read it at a chosen pace. He or she can stay on a page for five minutes. It solidifies the poem. This book is the slowest, most concrete version.
TM: Is that a good feeling?
TD: I feel more vulnerable and exposed with it in print. I’m used to being on stage…
TM: What? Can’t people throw eggs at you when you are on a stage?
TD: …but after the show is over I step off stage and I go on with my life. People can’t keep looking at me while I’m not there. But I am glad that people can spend time with it in book form and go at their own pace.
TM: Why does this poem resonate so widely?
TD: It resonates because it’s a simple, universal concept. No matter how people approach loneliness or solitude or community, we all do. We’re not that different from each other. The way we experience it is different, but we all experience love, pain, loneliness.
TM: I think of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech where he talks about how the most important realities are often the hardest, and most important, to talk about.
TD: Exactly. We all experience being solitary individuals while living in a community. It’s something we all share, so, ironically, we’re not alone in that.
I feel it all the time. I feel very alone on the planet and also inexplicably connected. Our society, North America, is so crazed with social media right now. We’re always connected, in theory, to people via the Internet in our homes. And yet, we’re growing more isolated and disconnected. We’ve put in all these devices in place, like Facebook and smartphones. Instead of going out to dinner with friends or looking people in the eye when we walk by them on the sidewalk, we stare at our computers and phones. Our time is lonely in ways that the previous generations didn’t experience.
TM: It’s important to talk about.
TD: Yes,, and people want to talk about the most ordinary things. I get emails almost every day. I try to write everyone back because I just want to connect to people while I’m here on the planet. That’s why I make things. That’s why I share things. I didn’t say anything profound in the poem. I just said what other people are thinking.