“Sally = mastodons, we’ve forgotten them both!”: An Interview with Christina Olson

In her newest book, The Last Mastodon, Christina Olson makes connections between the sciences and the arts. She compares Sally Hemings, enslaved black woman and intimate companion of Thomas Jefferson whose story was almost lost to history, to mastodons who were also forgotten, as well as losses of her own. A widely published poet, Olson is the author of Terminal Human Velocity, Before I came Home Naked, Weird Science, and Rook & the M.E. She has also been published in The Atlantic, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Puerto de Sol, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume Three, among other places. In this interview, we talk about her visit to the Western Science Center’s “Valley of the Mastodons,” her process of writing a chapbook based around a central idea, and when to kill your darlings.

I really enjoyed seeing all of the different connections that you made throughout The Last Mastodon, from items that you collect on your desk, to your relationship with your father, to your experience with Max the Mastodon, to the link you make to Thomas Jefferson. 

I’d like to say that I had some grand plan to write a chapbook that utilized all these threads, but that would be a lie. The fact is, I knew I wanted to write a series of poems about the specimens at the Western Science Center and the rest sprang organically from the writing process. Of course, I knew prior to sitting down to write that Jefferson was really invested in mastodons, that he was a gentleman naturalist and a slave owner. 

But it wasn’t until I wrote the first poem for the series (and that is the first poem in the book), “Catalog of Damages,” that I realized, Oh! This poem has three threads: megafauna, TJ, relationship with my dad. Got it. Those lines came up pretty quickly, and then I decided that poem would be the map going forward and that the series would reconcile/address those three major things. The same for my desk stuff! Couple of skulls on it! Also, they’re all dead. (My relationship with my dad, that is. My dad is alive.)

I consider myself a bit of a history nerd, and I notice that in “Who Gets to Be a Fossil,” you write about Max the Mastodon, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings. It seems as if you are connecting the often forgotten Sally Hemings with the often forgotten disappearance of the mastodons. It does seem odd, or of note, that while Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with proving that mastodons still existed, he also hid his relationship with Sally Hemings. Is your connection here between Hemings and the mastodons intentional? 

Yeah, so as I said above, that was certainly on my mind. But I was also struggling with the things we choose to focus on in the historical record versus what we forget or gloss over. The example I always think of is that we like to talk about how into crops TJ was, how he was this amazing gardner and brought species to America and his astounding green thumb, and that’s true, but it’s not like he was out there in the fields or orchards doing the hard work, right? He dispatched slave labor—people he owned—and had them do it. What an easy thing to leave out of the story. 

The same thing with a certain type of person who likes to tell the story about when TJ’s wife, Martha, died—wow, he never remarried, he must have been super-devoted to Martha! Sure, maybe. But he also had a slave wife that he raped and fathered children with. And her name was Sally, and we don’t even know what she actually looked like. 

I don’t mean to draw a clumsy and problematic 1:1 line, like Sally = mastodons, we’ve forgotten them both! But I was intrigued with the idea of all the things we piece together in paleontology and history and our personal relationships: the fragments we have, the stories we think those fragments are telling us, the updates and revisions we need to make as new things come to light. 

I have never personally read poetry based on an experience where a poet was writing about the sciences. In an interview with the Poetry Society of South Carolina, you talk a little bit about your experience visiting the Western Science Center for “The Valley of the Mastodons.” Having seen a model of a mastodon as a child myself, I understand that fascination. What was this experience like? What did you decide was important to write down, and do you think that you would have written anything like this without having been a poet-in-residence at this conference? 

The experience was amazing, and I am forever grateful to my friend Dr. Katy Smith as well as the folks at WSC and the fellow paleos that welcomed me into their midst. I spent three days there and while the scientists were doing much of the hands-on research that they would use to generate findings and publish in papers, I was just wandering around, watching and taking photos and notes and getting lost in the collections. I wrote a lot of things down, but I didn’t have a game plan at that point. I just wanted to jot down weird little phrases I overheard, or spend some time touching mastodon bones. 

The book absolutely would not have happened without my being there, and I wouldn’t have been there had Katy not invited me. I mean, they would have been happy to have me—but I would have never thought to ask. That experience was huge because it taught me that science and the humanities, which are often pitted against each other in this totally false binary (I teach college, so I hear all. the. time, this bullshit rhetoric that STEM is going to get students a job and writing never will), have much more in common than they have differences. Real scientists are very much kind, charming people who will invite you out to the bar to have some beers and answer your questions and ask you questions in return. 

You write in “Among the Bones,” “The advantage to dead things is that you cannot hurt them anymore. Instead, they hurt you, over and over and over.” This poem steps away from the mastodons and the other animals that you encounter on your trip to the Western Science Center. I was wondering if you could talk about this poem’s place in the book. My hunch is that it’s meant to describe the grief that you were going through this time, or is it something else?

Yes, the short answer is the my beloved, had-him-before-grad-school-and-met-my-now-husband dog had to be put down during the same summer I was writing the manuscript. And I was grieving that, because one of the hardest, most awful mercies you can show an animal is knowing when to end their suffering and it sucks. Scheduling to kill something is an awful feeling. But grieving Truman the dog also gave me a way to think about the grief I feel about being effectively estranged from my dad, and I started to think about pain and geological timelines, and then that poem came to exist.

Being such a widely published poet and creative nonfiction writer, what is your method when putting together a book? Do you plan everything out, and then write? Do you have a specific process that you find yourself following when you write?

It depends. This manuscript was one that I wrote knowing that it would be organized around one idea—although, like I said, that wasn’t an idea beyond “dead megafauna” and the three threads popped up in the first poem and I saw that would be the threads that the manuscript would need to reckon with. 

I did a similar project with a chapbook around 2013, when I decided to write a series of poems based on the tropes Law and Order; that was eventually published as linked flash fiction, though they all started as poems. (It got rejected as poetry a couple times; I figured out that the idea of writing a narrative of a rookie detective littered with L&O tropes AND also line breaks was a bridge too far for most presses, so I just took out the line breaks, sent it out as fiction, and it got picked up right away. Know when to kill your darlings.)

But for my full-length poetry collections, those have never started as ideas. I wait a few years, until I have a critical mass of poems, and then I sit down and see what’s emerging from the collected poems. I think a chapbook is much better suited to a conceit, or at least I’m better suited to writing shorter collections around a conceit. 

As a writer myself, I find myself writing a lot of poetry and fiction, and often these skills that I’ve developed from both styles go hand in hand. As both a poet and a creative nonfiction writer, do you see your different styles of writing as separate or something that coheres together? Did you start with poetry first or creative nonfiction?

They’re super-entwined at this point, to the extent that I rarely write fictionalized poems. I’m obsessed with the lyric essay, but I’m also so uninterested at this point in my life with genre. Genre exists, it’s important, but I’m currently happiest when I’m writing my strange little flash CNF/prose poem … things (there are three in Mastodon) and pushing against the page. 

Don’t get me wrong, I need to understand both genres in order to now stand in the intersection of them. I just mean that right now I’m super-interested in chilling in that intersection. I started as poet, then I started working in CNF, and now I’m hanging out in their in-between space. It’s a good place to spend time, I think. 

Sam Zimmerman is an aspiring writer and a junior at The College of Saint Rose. She is the current president of the English Club at the college, where she spreads her love for the English language. She reads anything she can get her hands on, even the boring stuff, and in her free time she writes poetry and starts to write novels she never finishes.

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