the many names that currently circle around the writing and poetry
circuits, without question, Eric Tanner has become one of the most
prolific voices of the crowd. With rebellious and creative roots
planted at BYU of all places, his life has had several unexpected
turns. From early childhood traveling, starting up Student Review,
exploring Europe, being diagnosed as bipolar, publishing his
works, and now to his newfound career in the public eye... to say
Tanner has a cultured life so far is an unmeasurable understatement.
I got the chance to sit down and chat with the man himself over a cup
or two or coffee, talking about about his life and writings, plus a
few other topics that came up. Along with photos from last month's
performance at The W Lounge. ---
(Photo via Mitch Allen)
Gavin: Hey Eric, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Eric: Kinda hard to say off the cuff, actually. I mean, what do you say? The thing is you can think what you wanna think about yourself, but you gotta figure out that that's just part of the story.
Gavin: What got you interested in writing, and what were your early inspirations?
Eric: If you're talking poetically that's kind of a long story, but I've been writing ever since I was at BYU. I was never really much of a student and I've got the transcripts to prove it. But BYU is where I realized that writing was necessary because of the activities I was involved in, like peace and human rights activities.
Gavin: Early on in your life you did a lot of moving around. What kind of impact did that have on you in your youth?
Eric: Not a hell of a lot because when you're a kid you don't realize your life is any different from anybody else's. It was later on when I came back to the U.S. that I realized it wasn't so much like others afterall.
Gavin: More average, just in different places?
Eric: Yeah, my dad was a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service and we did a lot of Pacific Rim countries. My earliest memory is getting thrown out of Indonesia during the anti-American riots. Kind of an interesting thing about that was when they stormed the embassy, rocks were coming through my dad's office window. He scrambled around on his hands and knees picking up rocks and putting them in his pocket for souvenirs.
Gavin: What made you enroll at BYU, and what was the program like while you were earning your degree?
Eric: Well, I got accepted at several schools but my dad made me go to BYU being from there and his dad was a professor there. My dad actually went to the U, so you'd think he'd know better, but I was pretty much sent there against my druthers. First year I was there all I did was play soccer on the their team as a second string.
Gavin: During your time there, what made you join up with the Response group?
Eric: I'd studied at the University of Cape Town, and that's a truly intellectual environment. In the British system there is no right answer, just the answer you can convince the professor of. And that's where I learned how to write. There's free communication, no censorship at the university at least. When my dad sent me back to BYU I stopped in Boston for three days, walked into the Tufts submission office, no transcript, nothing. In twenty minutes I got accepted. But I had to go to Provo, I walked up on the BYU campus, and I saw outside the Wilkinson Center a sign that said on the bulletin board “Are You For Peace And Human Rights? Join Response” Snap decision, I stayed. Just like that.
Gavin: From the bits I've read, you pretty much turned the organization around both financially and publicly.
Eric: I wouldn't say I had turned it around, it just started by Patty Hatch, Warren Layton and a few others a year or two earlier. So it was a toddler but we were financially in debt by $800, which is a huge amount of money if you're a student. I'm not really sure how it happened, but eventually our budget was $40,000. I left BYU with $22,000 in the Response account, and $22,000 promised. Don't ask me how it happened.
Gavin: Did you have any main goals for Response while you were its President?
Eric: No, just hold your principals, peace and human rights, no matter where, no matter who.
Gavin: Which I would assume was a difficult thing at BYU
Eric: Extremely difficult. My senior year I was rather known on campus. The first day of classes when I walked in, students would look and glare at me. Very hurt.
Gavin: I should ask then, what was the general reaction from the student body and the administration during that time you were in charge?
Eric: Extremely un-American and un-Christian and un-patriotic. Simply put.
Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start up Student Review?
Eric: I'd been shaking the bad press I'd been getting from The Daily Universe, which is the big monopoly paper on BYU campus. So the germ had been there for quite a while, especially after being at Cape Town in South Africa where there were many independent student newspapers. And because of the bad press and the personal trouble it was causing me, I was all for it. And then a guy named Brian Fogg who was also a student came up to me and suggested we start a paper. So I seized on that and was kind of the “hands-off” founder of that. In other words everyone did all the work and I got all the credit.
Gavin: How big were those first issues?
Eric: The first one was 6-8 pages done on almost no money, the paper was donated free by the printer. Eventually it reached a circulation of 30,000 and was distributed up and down the valley. The interesting thing is that we were a non-profit organization, but we were making humongous amounts of profit and were having to spend-down under the cap. The reason was because since The Daily Universe was a monopoly on campus, but they'd pissed off all their advertisers in the process and they were all running to us.
Gavin: How was it getting that all set up every week and producing it in a regular fashion?
Eric: I wasn't in the details, I picked the staff, and Editor-In-Chief named Bill Kelly. I gave it its founding documents and principals... and then I was pretty much hands-off. I took a Leadership course at BYU that was by invitation, and one of the things we studied was the transition from founder to follow-on. So I knew if it was gonna run past six months, where all other attempts failed after six months because the other founder left BYU and I was about to leave, I did my best to make sure it would run after I was gone.
Gavin: Did you take offense to the publication being banned on campus, or more of a badge of honor?
Eric: No, you just deal with reality. If that's the way the cards are played, that's the way the cards are played. You do your best to win.
Gavin: Were you a part of the court win over the university?
Eric: I wasn't there at the time, that's when I was in Vienna and had just heard the news come back to me that our first major expense was a lawyer. And that we had won on free-speech grounds. My take on it is... just dealing with things the way they are. Its not a badge of honor, anything you do in life has certain constraints you have to deal with. And BYU's constraints are that it doesn't like free press. Unless its good for them.
Gavin: Considering all the work you'd done here in Utah, why did you choose to head out and study abroad?
Eric: Well my final year I'd been invited to study at Harvard, but I wasn't keen on it because I was really tired and burned out. And unknown to myself at that time I'd been experiencing my first bout with depression. I didn't know it, I thought I was burned out. My professors came told me to take this scholarship but I turned it down at first. They said to just take it and do what I want with it. That was the operative word: Do what you want. I didn't want to do anything. So I just vegged out.
Gavin: Not a bad way to spend a scholarship.
Eric: Not too bad, no.
Gavin: How were those subsequent years for you, floating around in Europe and being virtually homeless.
Eric: I was pretty much homeless. At some point I was sofa-surfing but much of my time was homeless on the streets. If you've ever seen the movie “The Big Chill”, it resonates deeply with me. I'm Alex, the guy that's dead. I became aimless, no longer disappointed, I thought apartheid at that time would never end and I didn't see the end of it. So issues and not knowing what to do with myself, you kind of work yourself out of a possibility of never being satisfied by anything.
Gavin: During this time you discovered you were bipolar too.
Eric: My mom found me in Europe, brought me to the U.S. in Salt Lake City, and took me a year to be diagnosed. I have bipolar, which is a manic depression, mixed state which is the worst kind you can get, and I'm a rapid cycler. I've been in treatment twenty years, but in the last two years its been modified and medicated. I'm a little steadier these last few years, but the last twenty I don't have a coherent memory of.
Gavin: When you had found out, how did that affect you?
Eric: I was too extremely ill to know what it meant. Too ill to know I was ill. And couldn't recognize it, I just thought it would go away.
Gavin: What eventually led to you writing poetry about the experiences you'd had and your thoughts on the world?
Eric: Well, you know, everyone has that secret belief that he or she is a writer at heart, and I was one of those. So I dabbled and scribbled. I knew it was bad and I kept it to myself. And then I was living in Sweden with a roommate, I eventually moved to Budapest, Hungary. Ran into some friends who had told me my roommate had stolen my poem “Rhythms Of The Moon” and turned it into a video. I told them to tell him I was going to come and rip his throat out and I was going to kill him! The funny thing is no one took me seriously, but he took me seriously because he was my roommate. He hid on an island for two months. After two months I finally got got to Gothamberg, he found me and said “don't worry Eric, the video has been destroyed.” And that got me out of the closet, I was outed as a poet. And it was painful, when I thought my poem had been stolen... that hurt. Its your dearest possession being ripped out of you, but the end result was I got outed as a poet, where up to that time I had just kept it to myself.
Gavin: How did you end up meeting Chris Lebow, and how has it been having him as a constant support?
Eric: I had been in the streets and I was hitting up open mics when I could, primarily to get warm. And I guess he must have heard me one night, but it just went from there. He put me on Cowboy Voltage at Monk's, couple of other places. And little by little the courier progressed locally.
Gavin: Since you were already performing, we you more willing or hesitant with his support?
Eric: Well its kinda calculus rather than addition and subtraction. A lot of factors come into play. The progression of my wellness, the community support, opportunities. You know, poetry isn't a money making business, so you do what you can and I'm one of those people that goes where I'm allowed to go and the community has allowed me to go this far. So I'm quite happy and appreciative too.
Gavin: What made you decide to publish your works for the original chatbook and the eventual formal book?
Eric: Chris suggested I do a chatbook and he ran it off at work for free. We printed fifty copies and they sold out in two days.
Gavin: And then you released Rhythms Of The Moon early last year. Was was the process for you in picking what would go in it and how it would turn out.
Eric: It wasn't a matter of picking. The standard is 100 poems for a book, I have 90. That was all the poems I had at the time. It takes me a long time to write a poem, I'm not a crank-it-out-everyday sort of poet. I'm the kind that's considerate, thoughtful, ponderer sort of poet. Think it through. I aim for quality rather than quantity.
Gavin: I understand you're working in a CD with Kettle Black. How's that coming along?
Eric: Oh its a done deal. We did a thousand replicate CDs and they're all gone, pretty much. Just about 10-20 for myself. We put that out along with the book locally since Amazon was not equipped to handle the CD and they're all gone now.
Gavin: Are there any aspirations of releasing more work or just performing shows for now?
Eric: At my pace... it'll be five years. And technically I'm on hiatus right now. Indefinite hiatus. I focused 24-7 for six years on poetry and found out I was doing everything but poetry.
Gavin: Have you written anything since the book?
Eric: A few. I debuted four new poems at The W Lounge for the performance, I tackled a Vietnam issue for the first time. I always wanted to do a Vietnam poem but never found the right model. Five years gone by and I found the right one last summer.
Gavin: As far as poetry goes in Utah, what's your take on our local circuit and the people you see performing their works around town?
Eric: I'll just say there's a lot of personalities, a lot of characters, a lot of players in the mix. Kind of like any other business I suppose. Would-be artistic talents... they're all a hodgepodge, and everyone is just doing what they can.
Gavin: Is there anything in that mix you'd like to change?
Eric: Nah, I'm doing well, and who knows what variable helped me do well. So why change it?
Gavin: Fair enough. Being on hiatus I guess over the year you'll just be performing for now.
Eric: Only if I feel like it. I just do what I feel like because I need to get reinvigorated and excited about writing again. So its hard to know what will make me excited, But if you follow your instincts you'll be right where you're supposed to be.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote before we go?
Eric: Yeah, I'd like to plug my favorite hangouts. Nostalgia, Alchemy, Tea Grotto, and Dolcetti Gelato. Dolcetti Gelato is actually owned by an old BYU friend, Mark England. Who he himself is a very successful painter. His sister Jane England was my right-hand at BYU, she did all the work and I got all the credit. The manager of Tea Grotto is my good friend Vanessa, and its feng shuied. Great point though, great atmosphere.