“I fell into poetry kind of by accident”
“i dig her up by the roots— / i am the patriarch,” proclaims the speaker in Eli Mushumanski’s new poem that explores themes of gender identity and erasure. Their first offering as Victoria’s new Youth Poet Laureate, Mushumanski’s playful piece “Every Avocado Needs a Husband” was presented at a city council meeting and will be one of many creative works to come out of their year-long term.
“I’m excited to have been chosen,” said the recent UVic graduate in an interview with the Martlet. “I’m looking forward to getting to work more with the community.”
Mushumanski began the honorary position in January and will act as a literary ambassador for the city, taking on a variety of duties, one of which is hosting an event to engage youth. They also received a $1 750 honorarium and will be mentored by Poet Laureate John Barton, who is also a UVic Writing alumnus.
The young poet grew up in a small town in Northern B.C. and moved down to Victoria to attend UVic. Originally, Mushumanski wanted to pursue fiction writing, and had even written a young adult novel manuscript in high school.
“I fell into poetry kind of by accident,” said Mushumanski, reflecting back on their first years at the university. As fate would have it, the fiction workshop didn’t fit into their schedule, so they decided to try out a poetry course.
“[Poetry] really frustrated me at first I think as a genre,” they said. “I found it really hard. It’s a different way of thinking than most people are used to.”
It was during the pandemic that Mushumanski was able to connect with the form more deeply and experiment with it. The writer was living in a house with three roommates and going through a difficult time when they turned to the blank page.
“I think that’s the first time I really connected with poetry,” they said. “I finally understood it a little better. It certainly got me through some unpleasant moments during lockdown.”
While attending UVic, Mushumanski was the senior editor for Her Campus and the fiction editor for This Side of West. Mushumanski says that their double major in creative writing and English helped sharpen their skills.
“Poetry, for starters, really put emphasis on how I use words. I think my writing has gotten a lot more musical because of the poetry influences,” said Mushumanski, whose undergraduate thesis focused on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.
Although their earlier work was reflective and focused more on the self, Mushumanski says that they hope to turn that creative focus outwards during their tenure as Youth Poet Laureate.
“I think ideally, art also encourages you to look outward and sort of pay attention to what’s going on around you,” they said. “I think ideally ‘good’ art … makes that a little more feasible, more manageable.”
This new artistic direction will be on display this year as Mushumanski plans to put on an interactive event for youth at a community garden in the city. The poet hopes that the attendees will be able to sit with the plants, explore them, and write about the experience.
“I joined the UVic community garden in the fall and it really helped with my climate anxiety, just having a tangible way to interact with the planet a little bit more,” they said, adding that the prospective event is still in its early stages.
For now, Mushumanski has presented their first piece as Youth Poet Laureate — the idea for which came out of a passing comment from their roommate about avocado trees.
“Avocado trees don’t have a gender in the way that we consider plants to have a gender,” Mushumanski said. “They have the capacity for both genders.”
Out of this new knowledge emerged a clever poem that quietly mocks its violent speaker, a patriarch reminiscent of the 18th century, with simple non-conforming avocado trees.
“She told this to me at a time when I was thinking about my own gender and it pretty much came out in one piece,” said Mushumanski who added that their hometown didn’t allow them to explore their gender identity as the area did not see much exposure to queer culture.
The piece speaks to the budding poet’s ability to play with character and voice while also exploring nuanced themes, something they say they enjoy doing in their work.
“I definitely tend to take on other voices, other speakers,” said Mushumanski. “I really love a good, fun, sing-songy speaker that’s a bit ridiculous.”