Poetic Narrative: A Conversation with Christina Olson

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.”

Alexandria Petrassi is Stillhouse Press's Moonshine Murmurs Blog Editor and a first year MFA student at George Mason University.  She's also the founder of Floodmark, a poetry blog that focuses on prompts, craft features, and interviews. 

Pop Culture and Poetry: A Conversation with Sass Brown

This week on Moonshine Murmurs, we interview Alexandria, VA-based poet, Sass Brown. A D.C. native and a former George Mason University professor, Brown is avidly involved in the local literary community and the author of USA-1000, a book of poetry that won the 2014 Crab Orchard Series Poetry Award. Now she is currently at work on her next manuscript, but she took some time to talk with us about USA-1000 and her experiences as a poet in the nation’s capitol.

In your interview with Southern Illinois University Press (SIUP), you talked about the challenge of submitting USA-1000 to contests for seventeen years before it was accepted for publication. How did you approach the submission process, and do you have any advice for other writers?

USA-1000  (Southern University Illinois Press, 2014)

USA-1000 (Southern University Illinois Press, 2014)

Sass Brown: I sent USA-1000 everywhere in the beginning. Eventually, I realized that some places consistently chose my manuscript as a finalist, while others never responded with a positive note. It sounds obvious now, but the best strategy is to keep sending to the presses that like your work and publish writing like yours. In order to do that, you have to be familiar with their aesthetics, which requires a lot of homework.

A few other things I learned from the submission process: if a press' website doesn't look professional, the press may not be professional either. I learned this the hard way, when my book was accepted twice for publication prior to SIUP, but the editors didn't follow through. And if you're getting good feedback, don't be afraid to keep sending the same manuscript to the same competitions. I was worried that my book would get stale, but the final judge is different every year. Ironically, after all those years of submitting my manuscript everywhere, my book won another publication competition just three weeks after it was accepted by SIUP! Sometimes it just takes tenacity and a little bit of luck.

How did USA-1000 evolve over the years from when you first started submitting it to contests to when it was published?

SB: I probably removed and replaced about a dozen poems in the manuscript, but the rest remained essentially the same. The main difference is in the order; instead of grouping poems chronologically or strictly by theme, eventually I ordered the manuscript instinctually. I looked at the last line of each poem and let it guide me to the first line of the next. I also put what I considered to be some of my strongest poems first.

I was surprised by how much I learned from the editing process once the manuscript had been accepted. I reworked passages in a few poems, but mainly I tightened the language. Having to read it over so many times, I noticed connections between poems that either were unconscious or I had forgotten. The editing process taught me so much about what I was trying to say.

MM: You’ve discussed the themes of USA-1000, which included consumerism, longing for connection, and the difference between image and reality, in previous interviews. Do you feel that you've said all you have to say about those subjects, or are you still coming back to them in your poetry today?

SB: I'm not as focused on the longing for connection anymore, now that I'm married... or rather, many of the new poems are about negotiating the intimacy of marriage. I don't think I ever will have completely exhausted the themes in USA-1000; I have to keep writing about my obsessions because passion makes for heartfelt poetry.

But the way I approach the subject matter today is different. My new manuscript is darker. I have been struggling with chronic illness for the past five years, and it has changed the direction of my writing.  Now I am researching and writing about my experience, as well as medical oddities, experimental medicine, perfectionism, and the strange otherness of the body— especially the aging, decaying, or sick body—and the risky things we do to keep it well and beautiful.

My favorite poems are those with a complicated tone, one that shuttles back and forth between humor and tragedy. One of my friends said that the experience of reading my poems is like having been slipped a mickey; they appear harmless and amusing on the surface, but by the end, they are deeply unsettling.

You've worked as a professor of creative writing and composition at several universities, including George Mason. How has your experience teaching affected your writing, and vice versa?

SB: From my days as a counselor at UVA's Young Writers' Workshop, teaching reminded me to pay close attention to detail, to see how poems ticked on a micro level. Often, I brought in other artistic mediums (film, visual art, music, and advertising) as prompts, since I draw much of my inspiration from popular culture. I really miss teaching because it allowed me to share my favorite writing. Unfortunately, I found that I spent so much time commenting on student work that I neglected my own. It can be difficult to silence my internal teacher, editor, and proofreader when writing a first draft, but it's absolutely necessary.

Are you currently writing full time, or do you have a separate job as well?

SB: I work at the Arts Club of Washington as their award administrator of the Marfield Prize, the national award for nonfiction arts writing. It's the ideal job for a writer—part-time, so there's plenty of time to work on my next book, and a great opportunity to interact with artists in different genres. What could be better than reading books and promoting the arts for a living? We just announced this year's winner, Michael Riedel, for his book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. I’ve been planning his upcoming visit to D.C., including a school visit and an interview with Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks on May 18.

You’ve spent a lot of your life living and working in and around D.C. When people not from the around here think of D.C., they probably don’t think of a thriving literary community. What has your experience working and writing in the D.C. area been like?

SB: I moved back to the D.C. area after receiving my MFA from Indiana University. I worked as a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, VA for one semester, and then I moved back to my hometown of Alexandria.

Growing up I had a misconception that the D.C. area was a cultural wasteland, but I was completely wrong. This is a great place to be a writer; the only drawback is that our area is so spread out that some events require a car. Some of my favorite places to hear readings are the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress. Split This Rock just hosted an incredible line-up of speakers at their biannual festival devoted to social justice poetry. And with all of the universities in the area, you can attend a different writing event every night of the week.

Sass Brown will give a reading at Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD on May 12th at 7 p.m. She will also read at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria on May 25th at 7 p.m. More information can be found on her website, http://www.sassbrown.com.

Risk and Obsession: A Craft Talk With Jericho Brown

By Frank Harder

For Jericho Brown, poetry is laced with doubt. The poet should remain vulnerable, frightened even, in the midst of writing. Each line break drives the poet further into uncertainty. Ironically, Brown feels most whole when thinking in lines. The process he suggested to young poets during his April 21 Visiting Writers craft talk at George Mason involves listening and riffing, relying on reflex and intuition. With this musician’s curiosity, sounds grow to have personality. For Brown, music and aesthetics—an appealing voice, tone, or arresting image—supercedes meaning. He might tell you a poem “needs more bass,” though he’d be pressed to tell you what exactly that means.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Brown, a name which is currently buzzing in the small but fervent poetry world, is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Brown is the author of two books: the musically-driven Please (New Issues 2008), recipient of the 2009 American Book Award for Poetry, and The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), which recently won the 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award and received high praise from Library Journal, Coldfront, and The Academy of American Poets.

The New Testament , Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

The New Testament, Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

Brown’s advice to young poets was both energetic and organic during his craft talk. He selected readings from two of his essays, pausing only to clarify where his opinions on a subject had changed or complicated, and followed by opening himself up to our nervous questioning. It was this openness that kept us rapt in attention, the air of tension that characteristically surrounds a celebrity poet of Brown’s stature quickly dispelled, and the conversation livened. Listening to him speak, I sensed that the personal lies at the crux of Brown’s craft, even if the personal is a performance. Performance is closer to the self that one might think, as it keeps the speaker vulnerable in relation to his audience. “The artist’s answer is always risk,” Brown said in a tone of amused experience. “Faith keeps us breathing.”

For Brown, uncertainty drives the process. Take his poem spoken in the voice of Janis Joplin, “Track 5: Summertime” from Please. The lines “So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl/I’m such an ugly girl” didn’t initially come to him direct from the mouth of Joplin. Rather, they were lines he could eagerly get behind, but had to figure out who might say them. As chance would have it, he had Joplin on his mind. Brown’s collage-like process of sorting through lines can be obsessive, and in describing it, he inadvertently answered the one question that many writers fuss over: “Do I need to write every day?” Brown does, he acknowledged, though he distinguished between writing something every day from writing a poem every day. In a span of 3-5 years, he said, you’re bound to write about only a limited amount of obsessions. Books can arise from bringing together these obsessions, attending to and even fostering them.  “Be complete in what you want to do and go all the way,” Brown said.

Frank Harder is a graduate student with George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program, where he studies and writes poetry. He grew up in northern New York and currently lives in Fairfax, VA.

Bridge Street Hosts Release of Collected Poems of P. Inman

By Sean Pears

Photo Credit: Lieven Verbrugge,    www.synapsedynamics.com

Photo Credit: Lieven Verbrugge, www.synapsedynamics.com

On December 7th Bridge Street Books hosted a reading for the release of Written (if p then q press 2014), the collected poems 1976-2013 of P. Inman. That the poet chooses to interrupt his own name with a period is mimetic of his poetics, which has been invested for decades in disrupting, erupting, and rupturing the normal flow of language. Consider these lines from his book ocker (1982): “cudb / ea,mlaw // (spill)theor) // blome // cullen,trenm,occlu (which each occur).” If you dismiss this type of poetry as concept-driven gibberish, you dismiss a major figure of what may be the only literary movement in recent history to put Washington, D.C. on the map: the avant-garde writers of the 1970s and 80s often uncomfortably elbowed into the category of Language Poetry. Inman is a poet about whom admirers and practitioners of Language Poetry get really excited; as Doug Lang put it in his introduction, “comparing Pete with the Language poets is like putting an astronaut in with cab drivers.”

Written , P. Inman (if p then q press 2014)

Written, P. Inman (if p then q press 2014)

Written is a 728-page tome representing 38 years of work. It seems right that neither of these numbers is round. In a range of fonts and sizes, lines move right-left, down-up, and diagonally across the pages of Written. Discussing Inman’s Platin (Eclipse 1979), Craig Dworkin in the book’s introduction calls these poems “among the most linguistically drastic writing to have emerged from a period of notoriously radical lexical experimentation.” Having had a scattered exposure to Language poetry in general (and none to Inman’s work specifically), hearing Inman read these poems was…interesting. I sat upstairs at Bridge Street and, as he read, Inman moved in and out of my visual field. Sometimes I saw his face, then just the top of his head, then nothing at all. This strikes me as a workable metaphor for my experience of the poems. Images, gestures, registers would surface; then suddenly I would catch myself distracted by the titles on the Recent Arrivals shelf opposite where I sat.

The most pleasurable moments for me—not that “pleasure” is the point of this poetry and anyone genuinely interested in what the point is should buy the book and read Dworkin’s fine introduction—were those that seemed to aspire to the condition of music. The title of “OC,” which opened the reading and Written, refers to free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman. “An ice think,” the poem opens, “prosed/ trying to figure out the touch of things/ the pour gets meshed/ only or little to music/ makes of pepper.” This poem excites me. The humor, the play, the indeterminacy, the slippage in and out of meaning, in and out of self-reference. Written is a gift, an idiosyncratic window into some of Language poetry’s most radical possibilities.

After the reading I drove up to The Dougout, a venue in the basement of a small rented single-family home in Northeast D.C., for another release: Foulbrood, the new album from D.C. band Two Inch Astronaut. The band represents the legacy of a D.C. avant-garde movement contemporary to Inman: the postpunk scene of the 80s and 90s (look up videos of early Fugazi shows and you’ll get the idea). The show was everything that the reading was not—brazen, youthful, unapologetic, loud, emotional—though of course it missed some things that Inman offered too. As I stood sweating in the small wood-paneled basement packed with millennials re-living a movement we were all too young to have actually lived through the first time, it occurred me to that it is very clear where the D.C. avant-garde art movement has been. Where is it going?

Sean Pears has lived in Boston and Chicago and currently resides in Washington, DC. As a third year poetry candidate with George Mason University's Creative Writing M.F.A. program, Pears is currently at work on a mixed genre exploration of his parents' decision to leave apartheid South Africa and his own experience coming of age in a "post-racial" America. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_Pears