Alexandra Oliver, reading her own book while posing in a void.
Alexandra Oliver understands people. As a poet and author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, she’s developed a keen ear for other voices and represents people from all walks of life: the preschooler, the old man, the rebel, or even strangers in the laundromat. Her poems often take the form of monologues, such as in “The Village Arsonist” (originally published in The Raintown Review), which captures the reader with the everyday voice and warmth of her speaker, while still adhering to the skillful application of strict formalism that has made her work well-respected. Other times, Oliver’s speaker describes her subjects with an ironic distance, taking an almost voyeuristic perspective, but still allowing the reader to peek into the daily lives of others transformed by the whimsy of her imagination.
Now trawling round the high streets, I can see
this weird, black, glittered wave, the girls borne high
on surfboards unseen to the naked eye,
their soft shell bellies peeping teasingly
and colt legs crammed in boot-tops. Click, the heels
wade into the undiscovered sea,
all shipwrecks and the tender teeth of eels.
— From “The Girls and The Eels”
After exchanging emails with Oliver, I think that her approach to community has a deep impact on the crafting of her poetry. Community, to Oliver, is multifaceted and worthy of a poet’s participation and attention, and is the inspiration for exceptional poetry.
Jess Taylor: You’ve lived in a variety of different cities (Vancouver, Toronto, Paris, Seattle, and most recently, Glasgow). How does having explored multiple geographies change your experience with literary community?
Alexandra Oliver: I’m essentially a social person; I love meeting new people, swapping ideas and undertaking projects. I’ve had that experience everywhere that I’ve lived. Glasgow has been a little different, owing to familial obligations and concerns with the book (see my answer below). I think it’s important for a writer to be involved with one’s peers. It helps one learn and grow. It stimulates you to stay creative. It keeps you from peering into your own navel, making the same poems over and over again, cavorting in the amusement park of your own mind.
I’ve moved around so much, and it’s had a double effect on me. On the one hand, I get to see new things, and that’s really tonic. On the other hand, one realizes how fleeting and temporary everything is, and this can lead to a hermetic, almost defeatist, mindset. You need to shake yourself and get outside when that happens.
I’m a big believer in the musty old adage, “Wherever you go, there you are.” When I begin conjuring the material for a poem, I pretend I’m like a film camera, taking things in from different angles and perspectives. I’m a noticer; I like to turn things over and examine even the most superficially boring aspects of everyday life. Then, sometimes, something mystical and often outlandish enters the room and you get a poem, a real poem that works on different levels. That’s the best outcome of all, and an elusive one at that. But none of this happens without community. By community, I’m not referring to only the literary community, but also those that exist in other spheres: people on the street, in shops, in doctors’ offices, on the bus, at the school gates. You need to take everyone in as part of your circle.
JT: Having published a book, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, through an Ontario press, Biblioasis, do you find that you still have roots in some of the literary communities here in Canada, or have you established yourself in a community in Glasgow? How are these literary communities different?
Alexandra Oliver: When I came to Glasgow, I knew it wouldn’t be forever, as my husband was here on temporary assignment. Somehow, when you have a contract in your hand, all that bureaucratic certainty stands between you and the possibility of making a real and total spiritual investment in a place. The spectre of leaving hangs over you like a thunderhead. It creates a terrific, and often unbearably poignant sting when you are with new friends, revelling in a new environment. You know it’s all got to end sometime. That being said, I’ve been pretty keen to dip my toe in. I’ve found that the folks in Glasgow—including the literary folks—are terrifically friendly. Thus far, I’ve given two formal readings: I’ve read as part of Jim Carruth’s [http://www.jimcarruth.co.uk/] wonderful Mirrorball series and at the University of Glasgow. I’ve also read informally as part of the Seeds of Thought series at the Glasgow Centre for Contemporary Arts and at friends’ houses. Other than that, I haven’t done a hell of a lot here, save for writing continuously and socializing with other writers. I’m just sort of taking things in. Scotland, as you probably know, is readying itself for the separation referendum. Whilst one doesn’t feel excluded here, there is a definite focus on the galvanizing of the local spirit, a reorienting towards local traditions and resources. In a case like this, I’d much rather be a spectator.
Also, there’s the question of timing. Tormentors went into pre-production when we moved to Scotland and saw its release a year after—I’m afraid that I’ve been living in the world of the book, and therefore, I’ve been dealing with the Canadian community more. When I went on tour in Canada, back in October of last year, I honestly felt soppily overwhelmed by what German-speakers term Sehnsucht, that longing for something far away and indefinable. As I had been removed from that realm for 14 months, I knew that there was a fair dose of goofy, unreal idealism in the mix. When I think about the “scene” in Toronto, or Hamilton, or Vancouver, I’m always heartened by how much more you can get away with now, by the chances people are taking. Writing poetry in form, for example, was roundly criticized up until five years ago. But now, it’s not such an outlandish act. Smaller cities and towns are starting up new literary events. Small presses are creaking into action. The blogosphere is ablaze with creativity and comment. It’s all very exciting. I wonder what it’ll all be like to go back to.
JT: Are there any community-based projects you’ve participated in or support that you’d like to draw attention to?
Alexandra Oliver: I’ve been lucky enough to do all sorts of community-based projects during my career, but I particularly love—and champion—working with kids and young adults. Lately I’ve been volunteering at my son’s primary school, which is in a pretty tough area in Glasgow. Some of these children have seen awful things at home—everything from poverty to addiction to neglect to physical abuse. But they come alive with poetry. It sparks something in them. Maybe it’s partially the fact that Scotland is a land that loves verse and the impulse just hovers in the air. But, at the end of the day, what I really think is that kids respond to the idea of making pictures with words. By the time most people reach adolescence or adulthood, they’ve had this pre-conceived notion drilled into them, of poetry as some sputtering, decaying old jalopy rattling along, dragging the cans of history behind it. Poetry can be brought back into the light and shown as being fresh, progressive, shocking, crazy, fun, and, above all, relevant. But school administrations aren’t going to do this alone. Nor are the teachers. Nor is the curriculum. Poets have to keep going in there making magic by inspiring the poetry lovers, and maybe (hopefully), the poets of tomorrow.