I’m guessing that the overlap of artists who have been featured on both CBC Radio One and Lollapalooza is relatively small. Alexandra Oliver is one who finds herself in this uncommon crossroads.
Her poetry embodies another sort of tension. Aesthetically it embraces time-tested forms, metres and rhyme schemes that most readers will be highly familiar with. Thematically the poems are contemporary, subversive and shocking.
Oliver will be giving a reading as part of the 2013 Writers Reading Series Tuesday October 15 at 7pm in Scott House, Traill College. Arthur talked to her in anticipation of this event about the divide between form and content, and her newest work Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway.
I’ve read that you prefer to write poetry in form rather than free verse. Could you talk about why you prefer that.
I’ll say it in the simplest way possible: I’m basically a very formal person. I grew up with much older parents. My parents were very fun and they were very eccentric, but they were also very mannered. When I was growing up it was the way we got things done—in a mannered but not uptight way. So I think it’s just I feel more comfortable with the constraints, I feel like there’s more freedom. You have something to work within and you can be subversive within that context. I like to have those boundaries and then be cheeky or adventurous and transgress those boundaries.
Robert Frost is famous for that as well.
Exactly. I find it’s just more fun! Robert Frost said that writing in free verse is like playing tennis without a net. There are so many poets who are really good at writing in free verse. I can think of so many free verse poets who I really enjoy, but I just can’t do it. It’s not the catalyst that makes things flow forth.
For me there has to be a set of constraints, then you can be cagey and you can find your way out of it while still in it, if that makes any sense. Too much freedom, I find, can be paralytic—you don’t know which way to manoeuvre. But if you know what the rules are, you know which ways you can move and how you can bend rules. It’s much more of a game. I’m not saying poetry is a game, but you’re able to come up with ideas in a much easier way. At least for me; for other people that’s not the case.
You’ve also mentioned before that you’re not a spoken word artist, you’re a poet who likes to read enthusiastically. I was wondering if you could explain the difference between those two things.
When I was starting out in slam poetry in the early 90s basically anything went. Then things started channelling through the Hip Hop tradition and freestyling. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a very free person so it was natural that I orient myself back to the page, to a space and forms that I could manoeuvre around, but then present them in a way that was animated and interesting.
Now that I’ve gone back to school and I’ve learned more rules that are useful for my craft I like to be on the page, but I like that work to come off the page again, so the page is the intermediary. I acknowledge the importance of oral forms—excellent freestyling and slam poetry are terrific—but for me, I like to regroup on the page and go out and present it in an enthusiastic way.
When you write a poem do you know how you’re going to read it or is that something you feel out over various performances?
Well this is the cool thing about poetry. I don’t want to sound too much like a hippie … you go into the poem with a certain approach from a certain angle, but the poem has its own life. For me, I’m really informed by cinema because I’ve studied film, and I come from a family of visual thinkers, so poetry is kind of like movie-making on the page. It’s the same kind of manipulation of image and sound, so sometimes I look at the finished product and that tells me how to perform it, as opposed to any presupposed ideas I might have about how to perform it.
When I first started out I used to stand and be very strict and I used to bark the lines out with a stern face. When I look at those videos now I think “Oh God, no no no.” I was super nervous so it came out that way anyway, but also I had a very self-conscious desire to create a tension between wild subject matter and an austere performance style. Now that I’m an old girl I can sort of channel through the work and it will tell me how to bring it out again. I don’t do interpretive dance or anything. No poles are involved in my work. No chickens, no ping pong balls. But the wonderful thing is you learn to relax a little bit and get into the visuals of the work and learn how to bring it out again.
You have a new collection out, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, and I was just wondering about the title…
I have nothing against Safeway at all! It’s about … I don’t know if you know anybody who was bullied growing up, but I had the hell bullied out of me. One day I was in the Supermarket and I ran into one of the bullies who I had known as a middle-school student. You know how it is, it’s like “Hi! How are you? It’s so great to see you!” Of course it’s not great to see them because the last thing you remember is them shoving a sock in your mouth and locking you in a locker. So it’s all about revisiting your childhood with the added obligation of having this adult veneer of “Everything’s Okay,” when really all these memories come flooding back and there’s an instinctive tweak of terror you feel.
On a larger note it’s about finding elements of panic, fear, and insecurity in these places that are meant to be very safe and catering to our convenience. The whole book was written when my family moved from Seattle to a suburb of Toronto that was reputed to be a very good suburb. It was actually crackling with a strange sense of menace—there was a lot of bitchiness and unease.
When you have a little child and that child is not yet in school you’re home all day and there’s the world of mothers. You have to meet with mothers, you have to go to these playgroups, you have to take them to preschool. Something very curious happens to women, especially in the suburbs, when they have children; they sort of regress to this middle-school dynamic of competitiveness. For many of them it’s a new way of reasserting their achievement. Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway is what happens in this superficially safe, hermetically sealed world. Is it really as appealing and safe as it purports to be?