In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Christina Olson
I noticed that both your poems “[…]” and “Gut” published in Volume 24 compliment each other as they both veer into the field of a strained relationship with a father. How do you use the medium of poetry to explore painful experiences such as strained familial relationships?
I wish I had a better answer to this question, but the simple one is that like many writers, articulating something in a poem helps me articulate it in my mind. So writing out the details of the strained relationship with my father in poetry helps me give voice and shape to the relationship. It also helps me establish my version of the story, because god knows he and I are not having that conversation at the present moment. I’m writing the narrative of how I see the story unfolding, my version of these true events.
I really resonated with the poem “Gut” as I have often struggled with my own weight. Although it wasn’t as much the content of the poem as it was the specific details you used that drew me in. For example, I could visualize the mother’s Slim-Fast stored in the garage. I was also drawn in by the father’s viewpoint. My favorite line being, “Why can’t a woman with a soft body, once such a source of pleasure, keep her body just as soft but not more?” How did you go about choosing specific details to give the poem its fresh form?
Again, I wish I had a better answer to this question but the truth is that these are very autobiographical details. There were cans of Slim-Fast in the garage and women’s bodies were very much open to discussion and critique in our 90’s household, and yeah, my father was clearly unhappy that his wife’s body had changed since birthing children (the horror). As a young woman in that household, privy to all that dieting and body talk, it is something that I still carry deep in me today. I am still unpacking it today.
This poem came from an exercise that the visiting writer Tiana Clark (who is the greatest) gave my poetry workshop. I wrote alongside my students; she wanted them to write a poem about a body part a la Ross Gay’s “Feet” and I was like “oh I have to join in on this one because the word ‘gut’ lives rent-free in my head.” I absolutely stole that mid-poem turn from Ross, by the way: the moment in the poem about midway through where he says “But did you really think I’m talking to you about my feet?”
Also, if what I’m writing here about bodies and the 1990s in particular resonates with anyone, please go listen to the podcast Maintenance Phase. And if you’re already a listener, become a subscriber!
You have two full length poetry books published as well as three chapbooks, including the 2019 Rattle Chapbook Prize winner The Last Mastodon. What are the advantages and disadvantages to writing a chapbook versus a larger volume of poetry?
Chapbooks give me a tidy place to explore one or two things without fearing that any more length will distend or water down what I want the narrative arc of the book to be. I know many poets don’t think about the narrative arc in a book of poetry, but I do, constantly. It doesn’t need to be the simplistic hero’s journey or anything like that, but rather I’m always thinking about the release of information over the course of a manuscript, and what transpires from the first poem to the last. Some topics I’m interested in don’t have quite the substance or the intensity to be sustained for 60-80 pages. They are much, much more compelling and deep at 15-25 pages.
One thing that was helpful to me, to reframe my thinking, was that when I first started writing I assumed that a chapbook was just like “here are someone’s best 20 poems while they work on a longer work.” And some chapbooks do read like that to me, and that’s okay! But I’ve learned that I prefer to use the chapbook format for topics that maybe are more inherently experimental, or (like I said) can’t sustain an 80-page narrative for some reason. I have really, really come to love the challenge of a chapbook format these days. The brevity is its own set of formal constraints.
I noticed that you are a former editor at Midwestern Gothic as well as a professor at Georgia Southern University. How have these careers helped and/or hindered your own creative writing process?
Both roles give me the privilege and opportunity to constantly be talking about, thinking about, and teaching writing product and process, and both keep me in contact with authors and editors of all levels. I don’t have anything disparaging to say about not having time or energy for my own writing, or how grading student work means I have less time for my own work; I find that the opposite is true. I feel energized by being part of these communities and I feel very, very lucky to have them.
I’ve been known to assign collections of poetry that I didn’t get into on my first read as texts for my advanced classes simply because the weeks we spend talking about those books help deepen and challenge my personal reading of the texts, and I can think of a couple collections that I really appreciate now because of the conversations Advanced Poetry Writing students at Georgia Southern had about them. (I don’t introduce the books as “here’s one I sort of disliked,” ha ha ha. That would be uncool. These are more like books that everyone seems to love and I sort of like but I feel that maybe I’m missing what everyone else is so jazzed about.)
There are themes of science and history in your pieces which is especially noticeable in The Last Mastodon. How do you use research to inspire your craft?
I could talk about this for hours (and I do in some talks I give, yikes) so the short answer is that I’m very inspired by the limitations of a historical or scientific fact. The task of making that fact into art without compromising its inherent scientific or historical accuracy, this is something I find fun. Whenever I teach creative nonfiction, I always say that just because something is true, that doesn’t make it inherently interesting. It’s on the writer to discover how to shape the story of that truth into a compelling read, which, when successful, is even more compelling because it’s “a true story.”
Also, now I’m friends with a couple scientists, and I am legit scared to subvert their life’s work for the sake of a clever line in a poem. That was a rule I made for myself when working on Mastodon, and it’s served me well in matters of both veracity and craft. Like, who wants to piss off a bunch of paleontologists that were kind enough to let you hold tusks and share their whiskey?
What and/or who inspires your poetry?
Science, zoology, biology, history, food history, family, the mating habits of the grey kangaroo, the coney-style hot dog, Ernest Shackleton, horseshoe crabs, and the stories we tell ourselves about all of the above.
What are you currently working on?
I have a third full-length collection, The Anxiety Workbook, out with some presses at the moment—that book is, surprise!, all about anxiety (both “Gut” and “[…]” appear in it). And I’m about to head to Norway to collaborate once again with the amazing stone carver/visual artist Laura Moore. I can’t wait to see what’s next!
Christina Olson is the author of Terminal Human Velocity (Stillhouse Press, 2017). Her chapbook The Last Mastodon won the Rattle 2019 Chapbook Contest. Other work appears in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Normal School, Scientific American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University and tweets about coneys and mastodons as @olsonquest.