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Mastadons, Coelacanths, and Health Care Marketing, Oh My!

Christina Olson joins us this month for both a reading and seminar. The following is a brief conversation we had via email with Christine about her work. We hope you enjoy it. 

PSSC: We're very excited about your reading Can you tell us a little bit about your new Chapbook "The Last Mastodon"? You've shared some of the poems from the chapbook with me and I'd love to hear more about the project. 

Of course! So I am friends with Dr. Katy Smith (also of Georgia Southern University), who studies mastodons, and somewhere in the course of our friendship, when one of us suggested writing a series of poems about mastodons, the other one didn't laugh. Instead, Katy invited me to an event called "Valley of the Mastodons," a 2017 exhibit at the Western Science Center in Hemet, CA, that would feature the in-progress work and study of paleontologists. She offered to have me accompany her out to WSC, where I'd be able to watch the scientists work in the two days leading up to the opening of the exhibit. There were maybe 15 paleontologists, and two other writers, and at least one artist, and so I got to spend three days in a museum wandering around the collections and touching all the fossils I wanted while real-live paleontologists did things like measure and take samples of tusks, which was basically my childhood dream realized. 

When I returned to Georgia, my task was to figure out how to turn what I'd seen into a series of poems. As I went back through my notes and photographs, I realized that a lot of the things that are mastodon-research-adjacent (such as Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark, and the fact that I have a porcupine skull on my desk) would need to find their ways into the poems as well. So the ensuing collection is a chapbook of poems that talk about mastodons, and mammoths, and ground sloths, but also the relationship I have with my dad, who was a geologist, and also Thomas Jefferson, who was a gentleman naturalist and also a slave owner who raped Sally Hemings. 

In addition to poetry, I work a lot in the lyric essay, and I really love the moment in a writing project when you realize that you don't have to try to force the connection between the things your research has uncovered or revealed--instead, you figure out how to let the language show those connections. Man, as a writer of both creative nonfiction and poetry, I love that moment. 

PSSC: Your interest in science dovetails nicely into your seminar on October 12, which is entitled “Weird Science: Writing Scientific Fact into Poetry and Creative Nonfiction.” I love the promise of learning how to take “true things from the natural world” and putting them into one’s writing. I don’t want to spoil your seminar, but could you talk a little bit about the impulse to draw creatively from what is traditionally considered a non-creative field? Do you have favorite examples of source material for this kind of thing you’d like to share?

I like to introduce myself as a poet who almost flunked science class, because it's true. But I've always been fascinated by science, and I grew up in a house with fossils on the sidetable and parents who were amazing about taking my brother and I out into the natural world and explaining things to us. All this is to say that even though I couldn't balance a chemical equation to save my life in tenth grade, I've never stopped being fascinated by the natural world.

About fifteen years ago, right when I was really finding my voice