By Alexandria Petrassi
The sky outside my building in Chicago is slate-gray, heavy with a promise of snow, as I settle into a coffee shop booth for my phone interview with Christina Olson, author of the forthcoming book of poetry from Stillhouse Press, "Terminal Human Velocity." She is calling from Kentucky, where she teaches at the low residency MFA program at Murray State University. Of course, the weather is at least a little better there in January, but nonetheless our conversation starts with winter. I learn that winter is one of the many images threaded throughout her latest collection. “When I was writing the early poems, it was the coldest winter on record, so one of the things that happened after I moved to Georgia is that I started romanticizing winter,” she says. Despite our talk about winter and the miles between our phone lines, our conversation is warm and engaging; a welcome break to my Monday afternoon.
As we begin our introductions, it becomes apparent that Christina Olson has a different background than most poets. “This is a bit of an over-simplification, but I always introduce myself as a poet who comes from a family of engineers,” she tells me. She found poetry in college, though she originally intended to study Interpersonal Communication. “Surprisingly—even to myself—I’ve fallen into a pretty traditional academic path,” she says, “but there has been a couple little detours here and there.”
One such detour? After graduating with her MFA from Minnesota State, she found herself working in healthcare marketing. It’s here that the earliest poems from Olson's collection and some of the mindset behind "Terminal Human Velocity" took root. “Two things happened in that job: even though I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the work, I realized I had to do something more creative. And my head was filling with this random flotsam about death and disease and things that will kill you,” she remembers. “It got me thinking...how do we reconcile the big fallible machine that is the human body? And then how do we make sense of it? What can we learn about what it means to be human when we look at science and the natural world?” These questions manifest themselves throughout her latest book, though she didn’t set out to write a collection on the topic. She says her approach was more: “How do I feel about my life? Complicated! Let’s write a poem. Do you want to write it about you? No! Let’s write about Ernest Shackleton.”
"Terminal Human Velocity: the book for the person in your life who doesn’t know they like poetry,” she jokes. “And who also maybe wanted to know something about horseshoe crabs." - Christina Olson
So figures from history, both large (like Ernest Shackleton, an eighteenth century Antarctic explorer) and small (Elvita Adams, who jumped from the Empire State Building only to be blown back inside after falling one floor in 1979) grace the pages of her collection, along with what Olson calls “last love” poems (poems written to dead people) and poems that recognize the beauty in the scientific. “Fact is not inherently interesting; stories are,” Olson says. “Even when I think I’m not telling a story, I realize it is a story.” Her skill with narrative in poetry is showcased in "Terminal Human Velocity," which looks at both macro and micro narratives, working to tell the story of everything in between. These poems are interested in what it means to be human, and approaches their questions through narratives of other people discovering the grand scale of our world. It’s a collection where the mind is firmly grounded in the body; it’s equal parts wonder and fear of what it finds.
As we move on from "Terminal Human Velocity," I ask Olson about the best writing advice she has for other writers. Her best advice is to remember patience: “You need to practice craft, but you also have to respect the amount of time that process takes. I don’t think a writer should be project driven, I think they should be process driven. Process takes time. Craft takes time.”
Before we wrap up our conversation, I ask her if there’s anything else she wants readers to know. We spend a minute talking about the at-times seemingly elusive accessibility of poetry for some readers, and how she hopes the narrative in her poems offer an access point. “'Terminal Human Velocity': the book for the person in your life who doesn’t know they like poetry,” she jokes. “And who also maybe wanted to know something about horseshoe crabs.”