Tara Borin’s homage to The Pit

In Romance Capital, a poem from Tara Borin’s debut collection The Pit, something magical happens. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I will say the poem was partially inspired by a hunting tale, an impromptu moose-calling contest, and a guy riding a horse into a subarctic dive bar. All of these things were real-life events that happened in Dawson City’s infamous Westminster Hotel, more affectionately known as the Pit.

Borin took those events and stitched them together to write Romance Capital. Their familiarity with the Pit runs deep. They draw the poems from the experiences they’ve had, and stories they’ve heard, while bartending there. They also wrote the collection in one of the rooms above the bar, which the Westminster Hotel rents as studio space for artists. Borin says they were “very Pit-infused – I was working there, I was writing there.”

The slim volume contains 30 short poems arranged in sections called Beer Parlour, Rooms For Rent, The Regulars, The Hard Stuff and Last Call. The book can easily be read in one sitting, which is what I did at first, to get an overall impression. Then I returned to each poem and flagged the lines that most got me in the gut, or made me smile.

Although I enjoyed all the poems, the section with the most flags is called Regulars. It includes intimate portraits that are poignant and compassionate. One example is a poem called Dearest, which Borin says is about a person they deeply care about. The fellow requires a few pints to steady his hands, but he also sings tenor and plays crib for money. Wishing they could take care of him beyond serving him drinks, Borin gently wonders “who he’d be / in a kinder timeline.”
A similar sentiment is shown in a poem called Offering. One of the regulars, whose “drugstore reading glasses / tangle with a pair of sunglasses / pushed back over her faded hair,” tells the story of when “she had the skating rink / all to herself,”

her arms float up
to shoulder level,

chapped fingers full
of sudden grace.

The bartender sees the customer “made new” in the shared experience of a memory from kinder times.
Some of the Regulars are about a specific person, others are composites. Portrait of the Retired Barmaid pays tribute to two much-loved women who once worked at the bar, as well as to Borin’s grandmother, whose drink is rye and coke. All of the characters are finely drawn in these short poems. Borin makes it possible for us to imagine the barmaid primping before her mirror, or the “bear-faced” water-witcher seated at the end of the bar with a “whisky at happy hour.”

Compared to the Klondike-era poems we’re familiar with, it seems that Borin’s poetry breaks ground by presenting a post-gold rush, post-Robert Service perspective of Dawson. Borin documents the struggles of the Pit dwellers – their addictions, disappointments, broken hearts and hangovers. When I mention the significance of their more contemporary representation of Dawson, Borin agrees: “I often say there’s so much more to the Klondike than the gold rush.”

At the same time, they recognize that there are still new stories to be mined (sorry) from the Klondike Gold Rush, and Borin is about to embark on an alternative narrative. Their next project is a gold rush adventure novel featuring queer main characters. Borin is just getting started, and is hoping to have a rough draft sketched out by September. For now, Borin is enjoying the positive reception The Pit is receiving, and is “surprised and overwhelmed” by the response from the locals in Dawson.

“I guess a part of me thought ‘Well it’s poetry so how many people are going to read it?’” they say. “But Maximillian’s, here in town, when they got their shipment in, it sold out in a few hours.”
“It’s such a nice feeling having it out there and people reacting to it and having feelings about it. It’s pretty cool.”
And how about The Pit? Will Borin ever grow weary of going there?
“No, I never get tired of the Pit,” they say. “It’s my second home.”

You can order The Pit from Harbour Publishing, or pick it up at Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse, Maxmillian’s in Dawson, or from Amazon or Indigo.