You know someone in The Pit even if you don’t know anyone at The Pit. That’s what makes the new poetry collection from Tara Borin so accessible—not just to people who live in Dawson City, where the bar of the book’s title is located, but to anyone who picks it up.
Borin, who has worked at The Pit (the Yukon’s oldest and longest-running bar) on and off since 2009, is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio Online at Simon Fraser University. They’ve been published in Prism International, Prairie Fire, The LaHave Review and Red Alder Review, and recently received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to work on what they call a “queer Gold Rush novel.” The Pit, however, began in 2018, with a single poem. At the time, Borin wasn’t even sure it was a poem.
“It felt like a fragment,” Borin says of the resulting poem, “Night Janitor,” about a Pit staffer sifting through the detritus of an average evening at the bar, including chip bags, condom wrappers and beer caps. “I remember sending it to a friend and I asked her if she thought it could be anything. She was enthusiastic, so I kept going and the poems kept coming.”
The characters that populate those poems are at the heart of the collection. Their circumstances are universal, yet unique; flawed and familiar in a way that feels personal and resonant. People fall in love. They hurt each other. They seem unable to stop. They build tabs at the bar. They’re painfully optimistic about paying those tabs down. They drink. A lot. They also take care of each other, hitching rides to Whitehorse and sharing pictures of kids and mourning when someone dies. Together, they form a massive family that seems connected even though they’re constantly coming and going (“Especially among the regulars, everyone is there for each other,” Borin says. “You need a job? Go to The Pit. You’re out of wood? Go to The Pit. There’s always someone there”).
And while many of the poems focus on the experiences of the people Borin watches from behind the bar, they do so without feeling voyeuristic. That was intentional, Borin says, but also innate.
“In bartending and in life, I guess, I just kind of try to meet people where they’re at. I try to keep that in mind and write from an observational standpoint and be non-judgemental,” they say. “I have had people in my life very close to me who have struggled with addiction so I do have a lot of compassion for that and I didn’t want to be exploitative. And I think a lot of people have these experiences with addiction, whether it’s themselves, or someone in the family. I think it’s a common issue and I hope they will see themselves in [the book].”
Borin makes that kind of recognition easy because their writing doesn’t criticize or condemn. For example, “Telephone” is alternately told from the point of view of Borin, answering the phone at the bar, and the perspective of a patron’s exhausted partner on the other end. I am the one/serving him beer, Borin writes. I take the rent money, the diaper fund/and break the change down for tips.
Another poem called “Reasons” begins we drink because the sun never sets or/because it never rises … because it feels good/to lose control/feels like regaining it … our wins and losses/they taste the same.
Mixed with the dark moments are light ones. The opening poem, “Desire Paths,” sets the scene, all Christmas lights and people dancing in parkas, and celebrates the sense of community found at The Pit. “Cribbage & Chill” is a hilarious recounting of an attraction that builds as the points do, with crib terms taking on a euphemistic quality. There’s also a good-natured dig, in “Sunday morning coming down,” at tourists who come to The Pit to order pints of Yukon Gold/as if that’s what/the locals do, and gleefully take pictures of bar fights as though they’re attending a Disney dinner theatre.
Ultimately, Borin says they hope the collection highlights the fact that The Pit and its patrons are special. They also hope it does so in a way that attracts people who don’t usually read poetry (“I really strive to write poems that are accessible and that my dad would read and enjoy,” they say). As Borin says, The Pit, is unpretentious. “No one is going to bark at you,” Borin says. “And everyone can meet there.”
The Pit is available for pre-order through Harbour Publishing. It will be available this spring at Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse and Maximillian’s Gold Rush Emporium in Dawson City. Follow Borin on social media (taraborinwrites.com and @tara_borin on twitter) for news about upcoming launch parties.
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