Behind the Words: Olivia Olsen

Posted by on May 24, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Olivia Olsen

Olivia Olson

Jennifer Martelli says, “I had the pleasure to chat with Olivia Olson, whose transformative prose poem, “Abstract Onomatopoeia” was featured in Spry’s Issue 9. Olson is a fellow “Wally “(Warren Wilson M.F.A.) student, and we talked about trends in poetry, podcasts, rivers, scary worlds, and onomatopoeia.”

Jennifer Martelli: “Abstract Onomatopoeia” makes so much sense! I found myself saying the words out loud, and yes, they do sound like their meanings. You masterfully manage the emotional arrangement of the words–apart, remember, dead, winter, sky. Can you speak to the emotional narrative? How does the emotion manifest in these words, and their sounds?

Olivia Olson: As a librarian, I am often thinking about how we catalog and organize information, and as a writer, I see these structures through the lens of language. This poem was definitely inspired by careful consideration of how the sounds of words can reflect their meanings– “dead” sounds thudding and absolute, “sky” sounds wide and fluid– but it was also examining how we categorize a moment–in this case, a moment of grief– into language. I see the narrator of this poem breaking down the overwhelming experience of loss into manageable abstractions.

Let’s talk about the form of “Abstract Onomatopoeia.” How do you decide to use a prose form (hybrid? lyric flash?) as opposed to a lineated form?

I felt like a prose/hybrid form worked for this poem because it looks more like a dictionary or a science textbook. It smacks of definitions. It’s easy to organize.

Some of your other poems–”Self-Portrait as a Crow,” “You Have a Stream”–employ this quirky, almost-flash form. Your imagery is always startling and transformative. Do you find that using this form, especially in your more dream-like poems, helps with the poetic sensibility and/or the narrative?

Yes, I think that’s true, especially with “You Have a Stream,” which was supposed to sound like folklore or magical realism. I don’t know that I could say why, but any time I write a poem like that, with some godlike narrator handing down observations, I think it hangs better as a prose poem. “Self Portrait as a Crow” was a direct Rosmarie Waldrop ripoff– I was reading her Hölderlin Hybrids at the time, and I noticed that she seemed to use fragments the same way other poets use enjambed lines. Like, one of my favorite lines of hers, “But you, planet earth. Grow. Even as we read. Fonder of the dark.”  Another poet might have used line breaks to control the pace and create ambiguity, but she uses punctuation, which seems more effective in letting the reader see how each fragment means on its own and, at the same time, how it means relative to all the other fragments.

You use images of rivers and/or streams in some of your poems. The water, though real and very tactile, also has a surreal quality. Do you live near a river? What does this geographical aspect mean to you (i.e. does it have a mythological meaning)?

I do live near a small river– I hadn’t noticed that it showed up in my poems so much, but you’re right. When I can’t think of anything to write about, I go for walks along that river and try to bring something back with me. Also, water in general is pretty ubiquitous in Michigan– it tends to define our geography entirely.

What’s most striking in the poems I’ve read is your mastery of personification and anthropomorphism. One thing is another. As a reader, I’m grounded by your exact images, but like the images, I’m transformed. In “The Hurtling,” you write

Of course I tell stories–

                                “it’s too late,” the cards

                                kept squawking–

        they’ll tell the truth.

And in “Abstract Onomatopoeia,” you say: “People come home and thud their car doors closed, heavy, meant to keep all their squishy organs protected.”

Talk about your dreamy, scary world! Where do these hybrids come from?

“Dreamy” is a good word to use! If I have a topic that I tend to come back to, it’s altered states of consciousness– dreams, drunkenness, delirium. People who experience mental health disorders, memory loss, aphasias, dementia, etc work with a logical structure that challenges the norm, so we tend to view them as totally other, but that’s not true to our experience, I think. All memory is distorted, even in a typical person. A dreaming mind creates its own logic, its own Wonderland-esque world, as does the drunk/drugged mind, at times. I like to write about those moments, when the line around what we deem a “typical mind” is blurred, and sometimes the result is rather scary.

You have gorgeous rhyme and sounds in your poems. Throughout “Abstract Onomatopoeia,’ you play with sounds via alliteration and consonance. I was so happy to hear you read “Look” on the Word Riot site, just to savor the sounds in that poem. Do you read your poems out loud during the writing process?

Yes, over and over and over. That’s why I’m not a coffee shop writer. I read other people’s poems out loud, too, when I’m reading them– it just feels like a necessary part of the experience. Sometimes it’s like seeing a band play live– maybe you weren’t really that into them before your friend dragged you to the show, but the performance helped you see something in their music that you missed before, and now you listen to them all the time. I’ve come across poems like that– on the page, I just wrote them off, but after listening to them, I discovered there were things I had totally missed.

Speaking of listening to poems: we write in exciting times. I love being able to listen to a poet read their own work via podcast or website. What do you think about the poetry world embracing technology?

I’m with you on that– I listen to poetry podcasts constantly. I believe I’ve listened to every episode of the New Yorker Poetry Podcast multiple times. I appreciate how technology has allowed people access to poetry, both written and performed, and to resources for understanding and appreciating the work. In my work at the library, I run writing workshops for teenagers, and I often rely on the Poetry Foundation’s website for resources on teaching and leading discussions about poems. Thanks to their generous website, people like me can provide students with excellent insight into poems that speak to them.

I also think technology empowers the readers of poetry. There was a time when only the very well-educated could understand a reference-heavy poem by a writer such as T.S. Eliot or James Merrill, but now, if you don’t understand a reference, you can Google it. Not everyone has Internet access, to be sure, but it is more prevalent than ever, and hopefully that divide will lessen even further over time.

What can we look forward to next from you? Are you working on a project or manuscript? Where else can we find your poetry?

I’m currently finishing up my work at Warren Wilson, so that’s my major poetry project right now, and links to all of my published poems can be found on my website.

Jennifer Martelli’s debut poetry collection, The Uncanny Valley, was published in 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook, Apostrophe. Her poetry has appeared, or will appear, in [pank], Broadsided, Vector Press, and Tar River Poetry. Her prose has appeared in Drunken Boat, The Green Mountains Review, The Mom Egg, and Gravel: A Literary Journal. Jennifer Martelli has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes and is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is a book reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, as well as an associate editor for The Compassion Anthology.