A Conversation with Laika Author Maggie Olszewski
“Addressed to the Soviet dog who perished in space, Laika threads moments of love and loss into an astonishing lyric lament on isolation, queerness, coming of age, and womanhood.” – Black Sunflowers Poetry Press
Maggie Olszewski is from Columbia, South Carolina, and is currently studying English at Smith College. She was named a Top 15 Foyle Young Poet of the Year by the UK Poetry Society, and has received a national gold medal from Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Her work has also appeared in Jasper magazine.
Laika is available for purchasing here.
D: So I know you wrote this for your senior year chapbook project, but why the story of Laika? What was the impetus or inspiration for writing about it? And did you write it for someone or something other than yourself?
M: I’m trying to think back to the beginning of senior year. It was my first class that year so I was coming into it very nervous because I’d never really written a whole themed poetry collection before, or that much poetry at all to begin with. I’d only really done one poetry class so it was kind of scary. We just read the book Edith, and I was obsessed with it because the whole concept of it is just stunning and I thought it’d be really fun to write about an animal and in the way that book is written with some direct address. I was thinking about animals that I know of, but struggling to think of anything. And then I think it was like 2am one morning and I was, you know, up late stressing and I remembered six or seven years prior I had heard about Laika in a history class. I was always really into space stuff and her story affected me.
So I think it just sort of hit me. And it’s still tragic and very sad, and I felt a connection to the story and it made me feel really emotional. So I thought that would be a good avenue to take. I ended up using it as a way to talk about my emotions and other things that I normally kept out of my poetry, like with being queer and struggling with my family and so many things. So I think it was like a way for me to take her experience, or what I made of her experience, and make it into this very human thing that I could understand and then maybe other people could also understand through that lens.
D: That’s beautiful, I think you did an amazing job of capturing that. And I think that’s a pretty good segue into the next question. I mean, Laika’s story is so tragic, and I think you handle that sadness beautifully. But, would you also view this chapbook as having hopeful tints well, or at least that it engages in the sense of youth and vitality and longing? And how did you convey such sadness while also engaging in those themes?
M: Yeah, I would say so. I didn’t intend for it to, for sure. I think going into it, I was, you know, very mentally ill. I was struggling a lot, and I remember going into it like, I’m gonna use this as a way to just vent. I’m gonna get out of my emotions, feel real sad, and get it out on the page. And honestly, reading back on it now, I’m much older and I’m much better, and it’s very lovely to see that I feel like I healed in the process of writing it. I think that hopefulness does come through in some of those poems, and I think part of that was relating to her story. In a metaphorical way obviously, I can’t know what she actually went through, but relating to it on this level of her not making it out. She died, and I didn’t—I was still alive, even though I felt very isolated and very alone and kind of out of control in some way.
So I think a lot of that hopefulness came from me telling myself that I can keep going from here and I make it but the thing I’m talking to can’t. I sort of found myself being like, this is a privilege that I have, which is weird because obviously, I don’t know her. It’s a very much just on the page relationship, but I started to feel very much like I wanted to think about the future as I was writing this. I didn’t want it to just be stuck inside, thinking that it’s all going to end with me like it did with her.
D: Another thing I noticed was this theme of adolescent imperfection, as well as coming of age. In a lot of ways, you and Laika both come to age in this collection. You both go on these journeys, and obviously Laika’s is already set in stone. How were you processing those themes of adolescence and coming of age while writing this collection and what did they kind of mean to you?
M: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there are a couple things I’ll start with. For one, and this is a personal thing, but I’d just gone through my first ever breakup, like, the week that I started writing like Laika. And so part of it is that, in my head, that feels a big part of adolescence, in terms of dealing with and learning about love and what it means to love and be loved and how scary that is and how exciting it is and all those things.
And that was like a big emphasis for that part of it—the adolescence, the contending with what it means to be a person who has friends and has relationships and has family and is coming into the world. So going back to the idea of Laika not really getting to live past that moment and realizing that I guess I had felt kind of stunted and in a way, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to figure things out. And writing the book definitely helped me not feel that way anymore. I also think, reading back, that does come through a little bit. And, again, I was 17 at the time and I’m 21 now.
It’s also very interesting, like I remember when I got the proof back from my publisher and there were a lot of things where I thought, if I was writing this poem now, I would change X, Y, and Z or I would rewrite this line and I would do whatever. But I think I made a conscious choice to leave it the way it was when I wrote it, when I was 17. Because some of the parts are written in a way that I probably wouldn’t write them now, that I would definitely change. I think some of the poems come across as kind of raw. I think that’s important because I wrote a few of those poems in one go at 3am and I was like, “This is done, I don’t want to touch it again because this is all I have to say.” And they’re almost entirely in that form, still. I edited a lot of them, but I think I pretty much wanted it to feel raw, in terms of being imperfect. I didn’t want it to feel overly polished, if that makes sense, because I didn’t feel really polished at the time. I didn’t think that would work with the topics I was discussing.
D: Yeah, it really does come across as very raw, very much like it was written in the moment. And I’m curious about this, you know, just getting into college and out of high school and a lot of Fish Barrel’s readers and contributors will be curious about this too, I imagine, but what was the publishing process like from your perspective? What did your involvement look like? And what was it that encouraged you to put Laika out there?
M: So I submitted Laika to a lot of contests in senior year and a couple poems went through Scholastic and then I just sort of backed off for a bit because a couple of them had won some stuff and I thought that was good enough for me. And then it was my freshman year of college and I was looking through my files on my computer and I found Laika again and I was like, you know, I’m still proud of myself for writing a whole chapbook because I feel like I haven’t done anything that big since I went to college. It’s been, like, class class class homework homework homework. I haven’t really done a full project in a while. So I was just like, I think this is, you know, pretty good. I went back and edited a little bit. I didn’t do much, but I went through and reordered some things and changed some typos and that kind of thing. And I thought about it and decided I wanted to at least see if it was worth anything. So I submitted it in November or December of my freshman year to, like, a billion people. I was going crazy. My father was like, why do all these cost money? And I was like, I’m so sorry. And so then I think it was early the next year that I got an email from Black Sunflowers that said they want to publish this as part of their next cohort of checkbooks.
And at first, I was very excited, obviously. But I was also confused because I’ve ever actually done this before. I didn’t know if I needed to withdraw from other competitions or how any of this works, but they walked me through it, and it was a very smooth process. And I did the proofing with them and everything, and it was very fun. They were very excited about the project and it was definitely a very new experience. It was a lot of trusting other people with things that I previously hadn’t. I was basically handing it off and being like, yeah, you publish it, you take it, you edit, you make the cover and everything else. And that’s not something that I’m very good at. I think I’m a very controlling, perfectionist type of person when it comes to my stuff, so it was definitely difficult being like, yeah, you guys take the reins on this one. It was a good experience to have. And they were very helpful with me along the way and whenever I had a million questions, they would email back quickly with all the answers and calm me down. It was a very cool experience, and I’m glad I submitted it because it’s become a very cool thing.
D: Awesome, that sounds like a really great experience to have. And you mentioned a couple minutes ago reordering the chapbook, how was that process of ordering the poems? And did you write them all originally in order or like were you jumping around? Did you always kind of know where a poem would lie in the collection?
M: I think I wrote them all out of order, that’s one thing that’s definitely very true. I was in Mamie Morgan’s class, and she’s very good with ordering stuff. So I wrote them all out of order, submitted my chapbook for workshop, and it was all scrambled. There was no coherent order, I hadn’t even tried at that point. People had suggestions about where the poems should go, like this one should go last and this one first and whatever. But I got very confused about the order of what I wanted to be revealed when, or what I wanted to talk about, because there were some themes that pulled through and I didn’t want to send all the poems about my mom to the end, or put all the poems dealing with queerness at the beginning. I wanted to spread all the themes out, which was definitely something I focused on.
The only poem that I think I wrote specifically in order was the last poem, because I didn’t have a last poem, and I remember it being the night we were supposed to submit our chapbooks and I still needed a last poem. So I turned that one out, submitted it for my manuscript, and I’ve edited it a bit since then. But that was the only one that I wrote specifically to be in order, the rest I was mostly making sure the themes were divided up. And if certain poems had something in conversation with another poem, I kind of wanted to have those next to each other. Then I tried to put shorter poems between longer poems and that kind of thing, so there wouldn’t be really tiny poems back to back. You know what I mean, all those sorts of considerations.
D: That’s something I definitely noticed—I feel like a lot of these poems are bending form and none were really the same. How were you viewing poetic form as a function of the chapbook? And what does form do for a poem for you?
M: So, I love reading form poetry, but I’ve never been really good at it because I am a bit of a rambler on the page. And so a lot of those poems originally started out around four pages long because I don’t know how to stop talking when I write. So I had to cut down on a lot, and that was a part of the process too. One of the only poems that I remember wanting to have a formal idea for was the one that’s just a list of places. I wanted to make it a list, I didn’t want it to have sentences, I wanted it to kind of look like a box on the page because I wanted it to feel like this soliloquy, almost. But most of the other poems happened a bit haphazardly, which I feel like is kind of apt for the book. Most of them it was like I’d write this three page long essay, and from there I’d cut it down and try to make it look like a poem and read like a poem. And then from there I’d think about how it’d probably look better broken into stanzas or into one line, just sort of playing around with how it looks.
Also, I wanted to do a few short poems, like the prose poems. That was also a conscious choice, I wanted to tell some stories, and I just wanted it to feel more sporadic. It felt like I had a lot of ideas and I had a lot to say so I kind of wanted it to feel like I was a kid who just throwing things at the person I’m speaking with. You know, because that’s kind of how I felt. I had so many things in my head and I wanted it to feel a little more chaotic. So a lot of it was having more restrained poems, and then having some poems that are really unwieldy and then dividing those up.
D: Names are a big part of what makes up this collection—especially the nicknames Laika has, and obviously Laika is the title. What did those names mean for you in writing the chapbook? And I think I saw this in an interview with Ada Limón a few years ago, but the interviewer asked her a question about poetry being an act of naming. Would you say that this chapbook is a way of naming yourself, in a sense?
M: That’s really cool. Yeah, there are multiple things I think about that. I don’t know if they were conscious when I was writing Laika but when I was reading back I definitely realized I talk about names a lot. That’s a big thing. And I think that was probably a subconscious thought, and I’ve always loved names. I spend a lot of time on naming websites reading comments and I just think names are so fascinating. So that’s just a background thing about me, personally.
And then a couple things: one, just with me being queer, I was at a stage with myself where I felt very disjointed from myself and who I was. I was searching really hard for words that could describe me, and any name that could make me feel like I made sense to myself. I think a lot of it was the desperation for fitting into something, and I think names and labels and titles are a big part of that, these real things that I was thinking.
My name is Maggie, my mom gave me that name, and my dad wanted to name me an Italian name, one that was more his side of the family. I remember growing up and being sort of resentful of that, because my mom wasn’t around and I used to get really angry that I had the name that I have because, even though I love my name now and I think it fits me, I was mad that it fit me and mad that I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was a name that I would live with forever without having any say, and it wasn’t the name I connected with in terms of the person who gave it to me.
So I think I was contending a bit with that too, on top of the idea of labels. I was sort of thinking about being given all these names and other things from the people who are taking care of you and not being able to have a say, or not being able to have any control over that. It was just this sort of micro example of a bigger thing I was feeling, which was just a lack of identity with myself. I think I saw that you’re kind of given all these things and titles that you didn’t ask for, from people who don’t speak your language really. You don’t understand what they’re saying.
D: We kind of touched on this a little bit earlier but I thought there was something so poetic about how you’re writing about these super complex issues about feelings and struggles that a dog doesn’t necessarily experience. Is there something valuable to you about the innocence Laika had of never really experiencing love or womanhood or queerness or like growing up, in a sense?
M: Yeah, all of that. I think that was part of the fascination I had, because I think part of the chapbook is me trying to contend with her not understanding what I’m saying. But reading back I think there’s definitely a lot of stuff, almost like I’m throwing things at her and knowing she might not know what I’m talking about. And so there was a level of me using her in a couple different ways. In one way, I was relating to her in that I didn’t understand anything I was talking about either. I was also confused about womanhood and queerness and family and friends and I didn’t know what was going on. So I related to that idea with her.
And also, part of it was her lack of understanding added to my desperation, which felt very apt for where I was at. A lot of it is sort of begging somebody, who can never understand, to understand what you’re going through. And that’s a thing a lot of people have felt, that somebody will never really be in your shoes and you’re trying to translate this for them but you can never correctly do that. Being somebody that doesn’t even have the words for what you’re feeling, and trying to explain this to a creature, I guess, who can’t even understand the words you’re saying, let alone make sense of them. I think it adds an interesting sort of desperation and innocence on both our parts. This naivete, where I don’t fully believe she’s going to understand me, but I want to believe that really badly, because I need somebody to understand it. I’m sort of putting that onto her, in a way.
D: Specifically in “Letter to Someone I Used to Love That Could Also Be to You, Laika, Depending,” you end by exploring what’s real and not real. And I think this could definitely relate to what you were just talking about. To you, what in this collection is real and not real? How much gray space is there within that dichotomy?
M: So, that’s a really good question. That’s something that I’ve always struggled with in my poetry, because I have a tendency to write about things that aren’t myself. And so this was the first time I was writing things about myself in a really honest way. There are definitely quite a few poems in there that are not true, or are based in things that happened to me. But most of it is true, but there are definitely things that aren’t. There are stories about womanhood, for example, that weren’t mine, that I changed about things that happened to me. Part of that was wanting it to feel a little messy, and I didn’t want it to be entirely my story, or entirely about me. I wanted to cover things that I was afraid of happening to me or that I dreamed of happening to me or things that my mother told me about. Things that still exist to me but not in a real way. And I’ve had dreams that were so real that I’ve experienced borderline traumatic responses, and I feel like I’ve heard other people’s stories enough times to be scared of things that happened to them. And so the idea of stories being shared and experienced in dreams or thoughts that can still impact your day-to-day life, especially when it comes to things that are experienced by a lot of people, like womanhood, like periods of isolation, like being a kid—a lot of people experience these things. So you’re constantly hearing all these stories and all these tragedies, and you’re inundated with other people’s experience with these identities. I wanted it to feel like things were rippling together between me and the outside world.
I guess a good poem that’s an example of this, I think it’s “An Apology,” is based on things that happened to me, but with slight changes. So with the article my dad gives to me, with the ice cream scoop, that’s a real thing that happened, but my dad did not send me that article. But I wanted to include that story and have my dad in the center of it because the connection of my dad sharing that with me felt important. And even though I don’t specifically mention South Carolina or where I live, I wanted to be set in my home space, being my implicit home of Columbia, South Carolina, and the Southeast. I wanted it to feel like this othering of a place I understood.
I wanted to include those touches of non-reality, or my non-reality, to confuse it a little bit, because I felt very confused. In my brain, things were bleeding together. I used to stay up pretty late watching the news with my family, and a lot of things I’d watch were like “random kid gets kidnapped” and “random kid gets hurt” and heists and whatever and I’d be like seven and those things would traumatize me. I was deeply afraid of my windows, and I heard about some girl falling into her toilet once and then I’d be scared of toilets for a year. And so my world has always been defined by other people’s experiences in a way, and I wanted to bring all that together by including things that weren’t entirely factual.
D: Last one, what is the most important part of Laika that you want people to take away?
M: Oh man, I mean, a part of it is that I definitely want people to take away a sense of identity. Even though I’m talking about things that are about me and who I am, I wanted ideas to come across that were relevant emotionally to other people. I would love it if there was some emotional resonance with some people, or if they felt seen or understood by certain poems or lines, the ideas that I talk about. Writing it, I was trying to feel less alone, so I’d love it if that was a way for other people to feel less alone, or seen, or understood, or represented in some way.
Laika is available for purchasing here.