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 as a poet, I realized that poetry was a way for me to write about the nonfiction books I found myself reading: big books about mass extinction or Ernest Shackleton. Or the strange little facts I remembered reading as a kid, like the fact that the coelacanth was a fish thought gone extinct with the dinosaurs but whoops they pulled one out of the ocean in 1938.
Poems--and later, lyric essays--became the way that I could talk about these things. And while poems don't have to be "true," I made the rule for myself that I would never knowingly subvert scientific fact for the sake of a narrative. I mean, the natural world is so fascinating and beautiful and ugly that it needs zero embellishment from me.
As for source material--I'm a big fan of sites like IFL Science (the IFL stands for exactly what you think it might) and Mental Floss. In an era of clickbait, you can find weird science online easily. It's the next part--where you have to fact-check the article and cross-reference the three-paragraph story with actual science--where you fall down the rabbit hole. I'm glad too that I can just jump on Twitter and find someone who is studying ground sloths and be like "Are you busy? Can you tweet me ten facts about ground sloths?" because it turns out people who study things for a living really like to tell you about it so you can geek out together.
PSSC: Your latest book, Terminal Human Velocity, which begins and ends with a curious story about an attempted defenestration is terrific. What can you tell us about the process of pulling together group of poems into a meaningful collection? Did you start out with an idea in mind or did the poems accrete naturally, like limestone in a cave?
Oh, poor Elvita Adams. But she lived! So there's that.
That book came together fairly easily because nearly every poem was something that I was just mentally chewing on at the time, so thematically they were all pretty linked. The earlier poems in that book are from 2007 and 2008, when I was working in corporate healthcare marketing, so I was spending hours researching the ways the body can--and will--fail us and then trying to make that into a postcard that a 60-year-old man in Omaha would read.
The healthcare campaigns we were running were really straightfoward, but even in that research I would come across strange little facts, so I just started keeping a file of them and then at night I would turn a fact into a poem.
I was also struggling with a couple things in my brain chemistry that weren't quite right--I was probably really depressed and definitely anxious--so one coping mechanism I developed would be reading a book about a failed polar expedition because hey, I might have hated my job but at least I wasn't frostbitten in a makeshift camp, sleeping on a pillow of frozen guano! I do not recommend this mechanism; I recommend therapy and medication and exercise and the things I've learned since then, but it did give me many things to work into poems. And I was so tired about writing about myself anyway that it was such a relief to just turn the poem into a poem about horseshoe crabs or literally anything else that was not Sad Christina. Even when I quit the job and got a little better, I stuck with the poems, because I'm always going to be fascinated by science. It just takes different shapes depending on where I am in my life.
PSSC: Lastly (and thank you for your time with this), here’s a two part question. You also write excellent creative non-fiction. Which came first, poetry or creative non-fiction? And do you find that one form lends its tools more readily to the other form when you are creating?
I read nonfiction for years before attempting to write it, so it was poetry that I wrote first. But I studied both in my MFA program, and I've always been so interested in the intersection of where both genres meet. This is a massive generalization, but I think that poets learn how to notice things, and creative nonfiction writers learn how to follow the questions that noticing a thing bring up. Good essayists follow questions and see how answers reveal themselves.
I think my work in both genres got a lot better once I stopped worrying so much about whether what I was writing was poetry or CNF. I've learned a lot in recent years about relaxing and just writing the thing.
Here's an example: I've been researching coneys for years now. The first piece I wrote about coneys was a poem, but it was in ten parts. Okay, that might need to be a flash piece. But then the flash piece came out as an essay. And then that made me think about how to write about the coney as a mass-market article, and while I liked the essay and the article I realized I had enough to say that it needed a book, and so now I'm like, okay, so I'm at work on a book-length lyric essay about a hot dog. Both genres got me to that point. I couldn't have written the creative nonfiction without the poetry.
PSSC: A book-length lyric essay about a hot dog. Cannot wait to read it! Thank you so much for your time answering these questions. Again, we look forward to your visit.
Christina Olson is the author of the full-length poetry collections Terminal Human Velocity and Before I Came Home Naked, as well as the chapbooks Weird Science and Rook & The M.E.: A Law and Order-Inspired Narrative. Her most recent chapbook, The Last Mastodon, was a winner of the Rattle 2019 Chapbook Contest and will be published this December. Other poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in magazines including The Atlantic, The Normal School, Quarterly West, Passages North, Third Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume Three. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University.
Here's a poem from "The Last Mastadon" called "A STORY ABOUT BONES"