When the City of Victoria recently announced the news that recent Writing / English double-major Eli Mushumanski had been chosen as the 2022 Youth Poet Laureate, we here at Fine Arts were justifiably proud. Mushumanski is the third YPL to come out of UVic’s Writing program in the past 10 years (see our stories on previous youth poets Aysia Law & Ann-Bernice Thomas), so we were eager to sit down for an interview with this thoughtful, introspective non-binary poet.
How did you get your start in poetry? What difficulties have you encountered with writing poetry?
I started writing actually as a three-year-old, and I know this because we have this little cardboard book that has two pages pasted out that my mom typed up for me. It’s complete nonsensical gibberish. But I remember wanting to be a writer, and then I wrote all the way through elementary school, all the way through high school, and then I got to UVic and I ended up getting into poetry.
I used to write a lot of fiction and kind of stayed away from poetry, so I’ve really only been writing poetry for four years. I was a very self-conscious teenager . . . . I don’t like seeing my feelings in written form. It really took my being in workshop and having to write poems [before I thought], “Oh! This is really hard: I like this.” I think poetry is more abstract [than fiction]. In a sense, it’s bigger than my own personal problems.
How do you see your role as YPL? What do you want to accomplish? I understand that you want to tackle the issue of climate change with your poetry. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you want to do that?
I’ve talked in some of my other interviews about making climate change just a little bit more manageable. Obviously, it’s never going to be manageable—it’s this massive, massive problem [with] so many different components—but it’s so big that it feels unreal. Poetry is a way to sort of connect people more to the natural world and make them really love it and care about it. The only way things are going to get better is if we feel more connected to the natural world.
I don’t think poetry on its own is going to change the world or change the environment. It’s about helping fit people feel that they could turn outward, and that it would be safe to do so . . . enabling that process is potentially something poetry could do. It’s important to feel those things: avoiding [them] is obviously not helping. I think the only way out—to use a cliché, which as a poet maybe I shouldn’t—is to feel our way through it in order to make change.
I see the current poet laureate, John Barton, is also a Writing grad: how much will you be working together? What might you learn from interacting with a more experienced poet like him—especially one who foregrounds the queer experience in his poetry?
He is going to provide mentorship—I can ask opinions and get a little feedback, which is really nice—and I actually worked with John last April for the City’s Resilient Muse series for National Poetry Month. But being able to read other queer poets like John is a really exciting thing that, 100 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do, and just having the voice of someone older in the queer community is really powerful.
I think we lost a lot of those voices between the AIDS crisis and with hate crimes happening, so I think having those other voices is really powerful to show there is a way to get older in the queer community. I know a lot of young queer people, but I don’t really know a lot of older queer people. It’s great to have the opportunity—he’s organizing some Pride readings, and he’s invited me to be part of some of those—so even just having the opportunity to stand in solidarity has been really exciting.
Where do you see yourself going after you complete your term as YPL? What are your hopes for the future?
For me, I don’t want to be a full-time writer—that may be sacrilegious to say as a poet laureate—but there are so many other parts of myself I want to bring out. I really want to go into psychology long-term: with everything that’s going on right now, people need more support in their lives.
But I am really excited to keep writing and working on longer projects . . . even just starting the position has given me the opportunity to feel this is something I can do. Ideally, I’d like to do something in psychology and then write a lot alongside that. Both of those things are very important to me.
I used to be very passionate about the idea that I was just a writer, that it was my whole identity, [but] during the pandemic, I had to let go of that. I have so many different parts of myself that I can explore, and it’s okay to explore those things; I don’t have to be tied to any one thing. I feel very lucky that I’ve had this opportunity so early on and it’s proof that, yes, [poetry] is something I can do alongside everything else.
—Story & photos by Tori Jones