The $25,000 Kobzar Literary Award, announced last week, recognizes “outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts through an author’s presentation of a Canadian Ukrainian theme,” and is open to fiction, non-fiction, poetry and YA literature. Larissa Andrusyshn was a finalist for her poetry collection Mammoth (DC Books), described as "Discover Channel" poetry.
From the publisher: Witness to the process and fact of her father’s death, Andrusyshyn proceeds to find him again through a series of innovative poems that move seamlessly from the Museum to the Petri dish, the fairground to the cloning lab. Mammoth approaches the incomprehensibility of death from the perspective of Blake’s "Auguries of Innocence" and consequently develops its own mode of post-Darwinian elegy, wherein death is examined without bathos, through the paleontologist’s magnifying glass and the geneticist’s microscope.
About the author: Larissa Andrusyshyn recently completed a Master’s degree in creative writing at Concordia University where she represented the Stingers on the women’s rugby team. She was shortlisted for Arc magazine’s poem of the year in 2009 and 2011. Her work has appeared in Versal, Headlight, CV2 and Rogue Stimulus (Mansfield Press). Larissa coordinates creative writing workshops for at-risk youth in outreach schools and group homes for the QWF and The Center for Literacy. Her first poetry collection Mammoth was longlisted for the ReLit award for poetry and shortlisted for the QWF First Book prize and the Kobzar literary prize. Her favorite color is green.
Julie Wilson: In your Acknowledgements, you note such influences as This American Life and Radiolab. Mammoth has also been described as "Discovery Channel" poetry. What role did science play in your process and how much of that found its way to the page itself?
Larissa Andrusyshyn: I had always loved biology, anthropology and science. My first choice in university was creative writing, but if I had not been accepted I would have studied archeology or marine biology. The manuscript began as a sort of excavation to unpack my father’s death in a way that would avoid sentimentality. I aimed to approach it with the coolness of a surgeon or a documentary filmmaker, but I knew it was too personal for that. What emerged was a series of poems that used a false-objectivity. There is a lot of poetry in the scientific world, and the language of it is very compelling to work with. It was natural for me to write because that was what I was fascinated with. From the books I read to the podcasts I listen to, science has a huge influence in my life. I am intensely curious and I pursue the things I struggle to understand, from death to black holes; it’s all subject matter to me.
I want to write poems no one has written before, like all writers do. There is a symbiotic relationship between art and science and if we are all unraveling the mysteries of the universe we can approach it with particle physics from one direction, and music or dance or watercolors from another. I just happen to write poetry and not be adept at molecular biology. Many of the poems in Mammoth are influenced by science, and those that are not are the ones that are exploring personal history.
JW: Talk a bit about the intersection between bereavement as it pertains to a father's death and bio-intervention and our attempts to revive extinct species.
LA: The turning point in the project for me was when I read about a mammoth carcass that had been discovered in Siberia, preserved so well that scientists believed that they could recover undamaged DNA and clone it. That resonated with me immediately both in terms of the awe of that possibility and a sort of inexplicable loneliness of being the first and only one of your kind in 30,000 years. I could not escape from the fantasy of bringing my father back: my father, in a way, is also an "extinct species."
I had been writing a lot about medical and surgical intervention already, two close friends had undergone kidney transplants that year and two others had died of cancer. I had also seen my father die of the same disease. At that point, I was writing my Master's thesis and I thought it would be a book of poems about medicine and anatomy, but once I began writing about the mammoth the manuscript took on a narrative form and I felt I had to address my father's death. (I had avoided this subject for a long time.) I wanted to tell their stories and somehow the tone that emerged was both elegiac and curious.
JW: Then there's a line in "Polar Bear Caught on Ice Floe Updates Status": Have you heard the sound of breaking ice? It's like a giant door opening, a huge ungreased hinge or the crack of trees before they fall and you feel like you are about to step out into an important moment like a moon landing or something. There's a wonder in this, and throughout the collection, I'm not certain how best to describe, that speaks less perhaps to a desire to reason than something based in faith. Again in "Portraits of the Heart as Blood Donor": The heart knows/ nothing else, and so it gives.
LA: I have always loved poems that were able to mesh the tragic and the beautiful. I think most of our existence is the intersection of these two elements. No single experience feels wholly one or the other to me and so this comes out in my poems. I wanted to give the sense of curiosity and awe that I feel about most things.
JW: There's also a sense in this collection that we are all the sum of all other parts. From "Vestigial": Like the ghost limb that throbs in the empty sleeve/ reminds the soldier, the body retains its reign/ despite severance or evolution. Again in "The Mammoth Clone": This body feels like mine/ but somehow it's something/ we both belong to.
LA: The more I learn, especially about genetics, the more this is apparent. The more I broke things down, fragmented them by writing poems that personified organs or learned the components of human genetic code, it was impossible to ignore. It’s hard to define who we are in any context but when I imagine the difference between the original mammoth "specimen" and the cloned one, I can’t help but feel they are so different even if they are made of the same "components." I also read a lot of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, I saw Steven Pinker speak on the subject of nature vs. nurture and was compelled by the idea that we are made up of both our genetic ancestry (brain chemistry, nucleic acids, hereditary attributes) and also our subjective experiences.
The Kobzar Literary Award was juried by Denise Chong, Randall Maggs, Nino Ricci and M.G. Vassanji.
Other finalists included Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter (University of Alberta Press); Myroslav Shkandrij, Jews in Ukrainian Literature (Yale University Press); Rhea Tregebov, The Knife Sharpener’s Bell (Coteau Books); and, winner Shandi Mitchell for her 2009 debut novel, Under This Broken Sky (Penguin Canada).
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