My First Poem Was Jacked, Every Line: Larissa Andrusyshyn in Conversation

You have to be quick to catch up with Larissa Andrusyshyn . On any given day, she might be hosting the pub quiz in your neighbourhood, or animating poetry workshops with at-risk youth, or tending to rescue pets at the animal shelter, or riding elephants or dancing with monkeys or taking cooking classes in Thailand...well, you get the picture.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry--or how did poetry come to you? 

LARISSA ANDRUSYSHYN: My first poem was jacked, every line stolen, or fed to me by my mom for a father's day card, which you can see in the picture. My spelling has not improved.

When I was young I was obsessed with reading. I wrote on my mother's old electric typewriter, little stories, that kept getting erased or deleted. I was a morose little kid, in grade school I loved folk music; Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan, anything with sad lyrics. I remember memorizing and reciting some poetry that my mom loved (Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee") but not very much. But I had a particularly wonderful English teacher in grade 7, Mrs. Pryer, who led the class in a semester of poetry and  I wrote my first poem for her class, I still have it, about how I was like a dandelion. It was tough at that school; I was weirdo and did not relate to my classmates easily and they were all to happy to remind me of that. I just remember walking into class the morning it was due and reading it to her and a little crowd gathered around me. I felt something had changed for me right then. That poem was published in the school paper and shared at a parent/teacher meeting. I was suddenly existing, singled-out for something. I have never stopped writing since. I carried notebooks and filled them with angsty poems. I switched schools and was accused of plagiarism more than once (very flattering). I was never much good at anything else and nothing drew me like poetry did. 

It's the perfect repository for the reclusive weirdo that I am. I can write about any little curiosity I like, I can lie and I can also tell the terrifying truth. I love that I hop from subject to subject. I can fixate  on every word, line break or speck of punctuation. I love the machinery of it in that way. Poems are complex little structures and you build as much as you tear down when you make them.

SG: Many of your poems connect something comic to a variety of emergencies, large and little. I’ve known you to build and tear down in great swathes as you work, almost as though the poem were living on a huge canvas, or as a spatial installation, and I’m wondering what role you would say that kind of compositional energy plays in the things you choose to write about.

LA: It's interesting to consider that subject would influence composition or vice versa. I definitely do build and destroy a lot when I write; I'm like a city planner and a Godzilla all at once, I suppose. I think when I get caught by something enough to need to write about it there's an exuberant, over-zealous energy I have. I get downright giddy when I have a new poem banging on the door. I write way too much, go off on tangents, follow dead leads and make a giant, confusing structure out of it. I research a lot and often get emotionally attached to the subject. I can't read about a dung beetle navigating the desert using the milky way without falling in love with it really, in that sick, mad and wandering the streets kind of way. I tend also to ruminate about new poems and sometimes a first, or last, line will occur to me later and I can go back and start to see where the real poem is supposed to be. I guess I just pile the paint on the canvass and wait until I figure out what the composition is really about. I do try to let it rest before I start to hack away at it though. But it's easier to pare down than it is to build up.

I think that the subjects that draw me are often a nice tangle of comic and tragic. I gravitate toward the whimsical and surprising and very often the natural world. If my writing style influences what I write about then I think it could account for why I write about things that are too 'big' for poems. 

SG: What's inspiring you these days?

I've been to so many readings and book launches lately. Some of them even had free wine. That's pretty inspiring. 

I'm also very affected by the work I do. I run creative writing workshops for incarcerated or at-risk youth through the QWF's 'Writers in the Community' program. I get to connect to kids who really need it and I see them learn to create something that is validating to them and I get to share in their process. It's enough to keep me renewing this vow of poverty I took with no regrets. 

Larissa Anrdusyshyn is a Montreal-based poet and educator. Read her poem Hieroglyphica here.