Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Alexandra Oliver

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Alexandra Oliver

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets - 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, B.C. in 1970. She attended the University of Toronto and received an M.A. in Drama in 1994. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and publications worldwide, including Orbis Rhyme International, Nexus, The Raintown Review, Mezzo Cammin, Future Cycle Poetry, The Atlanta Review, The Toronto Quarterly and The Vancouver Sun, as well as About.Com's Poems After The Attack anthology, a collection discussing and reflecting upon the aftermath of 9/11. Her first book, Where the English Housewife Shines (Tin Press, London, UK) was released in May, 2007. A second manuscript, The Hand of Scheveningen, was shortlisted for the 2010 CBC Literary Awards. She has performed her work at venues as diverse as Lollapalooza, The Festival of Original Theatre, The Word On the Street Festival, The Bowery Poetry Club and The National Poetry Slam as well as for CBC Radio One and National Public Radio in the U.S. She was also a featured performer and interviewee in Paul Devlin's 1998 documentary film Slam Nation.

In addition to writing, Oliver is a past director of the Edgewise Electrolit Centre, a seminal Vancouver-based arts organization with a mandate to aid and promote Canadian poets through the use of new media. She has also taught poetry to elementary and secondary school students, as well as in colleges and in prisons. At present, Oliver lives with her husband and son just outside of Toronto, where she continues to write poems and art criticism. She is an MFA candidate in the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine.

Alexandra Oliver will be reading at LIVEWORDS at The Black Swan(154 Danforth @ Broadview Station) in downtown Toronto on August 26, 2010. For more information visit her blog.

TTQ- You emerged on the Vancouver poetry scene back in the early 90's. What was is it like for you starting out as a poet back then, and what are the major differences between the Vancouver and Toronto poetry scenes? Do you remember the first poetry reading you were apart of and what was that experience like?

AO- I started writing and performing poetry in Vancouver in 1992. At the time, it was frankly like a big party; performing poetry wasn’t really a literary endeavour for us, at least at that moment. We were wild and crazy kids experimenting with how far we could push the envelope, especially in public. Vancouver had a terrific punk rock legacy that lingered in the early part of the 90’s; that energy was very real and seemed to inspire a lot of what was going on. I don’t recall hip hop influences being a strong factor until the mid-90’s. Anyhow, I had a hilarious group of friends who included folks like Robert Dayton (formerly of Canned Hamm) and these two very arch Greek-Canadian sisters, Kelly and Robin Konstabaris. It was the Konstabaris sisters who put on the first reading I ever read at, at a Jimmy Cummins show somewhere. I read a poem called “Phone Sex”; at the time I had a miserable job at the Bay (selling antique silver), and the poem was sort of a youthful nose-thumbing towards what I perceived to be the hypocrisy of the service industry. Anyhow, there was a keen and supportive audience that night; I felt emboldened by the experience and started to do more and more readings, as well as coordinating my own series. I got a lot of press very early on in my career, and I think that it was a mixed blessing. It’s always nice to have positive reinforcement, but I tended to gear my work towards performance effect, rather than craft. Not a good thing. I’ve been really lucky in my work in that the people in my life—family, friends, my husband—have been so supportive and encouraging. It’s a weird calling, poetry, and it feels good to have the important people in your corner.

As for the difference between the Toronto scene and the Vancouver scene, well…that’s a tough one. Both have their “camps”; there’s the slam crowd and then the language poetry crowd and then the academic crowd. There are some great venues in Toronto—I love the Art Bar and James Dewar’s Livewords is always a good time. Festivals tend to bring everyone together, which is why I enjoy them so much.

TTQ- Would you label your style of writing poetry as being either spoken word, performance poetry or slam poetry? Is there any real overt difference between these styles of poetry or is poetry simply poetry at the end of the day?

AO- I think divisions and factions are silly but they invariably arise, don’t they? I remember a particularly dramatic face-off a while ago between the then-poet laureate and a guy on the performance scene. I think there are differences, but poetry is such a marginalized endeavour that it doesn’t help anyone to encourage prejudices and snobbism. I see brilliance in all camps and tiresome unbroken habits in all camps. I think awareness and cross-pollination is the key. As for me, well, I don’t think of myself as a slam poet or a performance poet per se. I think I’m just a poet who’s an enthusiastic reader. I think I’ve become, as I get older, an eccentric aunt who’s a bit of a ham after a few whiskies.

TTQ- You wrote your first poetry book Where the English Housewife Shines (Tin Press 2007, London, UK). Do you have any plans to write another book of poetry or possibly record a poetry CD? What projects are you currently working on?

AO- A second book, called The Hand of Scheveningen, is in the works. It’s a lot different from Housewife, more of a gentle book. I’m going to be editing an anthology with the poet and formalist scholar Annie Finch in the second half of this year. Annie is brilliant and such a nice person to work with, so I’m stoked about that. I’ll also be launching a translation project in the near future. I’d love to do a CD and will do a CD, but I have to come up with the right vision and adequate funding.

TTQ- How much value and importance do you place on poetry workshops? Do you find they have helped you in becoming a better poet?

AO- I went to a rather ridiculous one when I was in high school, led by a rather famous Canadian female poet who shall remain nameless, I went to one in the early 90’s at someone’s house and it dissolved into a fist fight.(I kid you not) I stayed away from workshops until I started going to the West Chester Poetry Conference. That was worth it. If you’re a form junkie, West Chester is Mecca. Now I’m in the midst of my M.F.A., at the University of Southern Maine. I used to be vociferously opposed to M.F.A. programs; I thought they were indulgent and unnecessary, and didn’t produce better poets, but my mind has since been changed. Stonecoast doesn’t pooh-pooh the practice of writing in form, and I’ve learned so much from studying with Annie Finch, Charles Martin and others. My advice would be to anyone thinking about an M.F.A. to choose a program with people you actually admire as poets. I’m 500% more of an adequate craftsperson now than I was before.

TTQ- Who are some of your favourite poets and why? What's on your summer poetry reading list?

AO- There are so many! Hmm…James Merrill is a great favorite of mine right now. I think of him as a kind of spiritual uncle. His poems are very mysterious and cerebral, but they’re so tender at the same time. Carolyn Kizer is as sharp as a tack, and I’m really enjoying her collected works, Cool, Calm and Collected. Larkin’s a big favorite of mine; a lot of people write him off as a nihilist, but I think his poems have a lot of hope. They aren’t so much about nothing as the something on the way to nothing. I thrill to how Robert Browning describes marginalized personalities—he spins a good forensic yarn. As for contemporary poets, I’m really loving Leslie Monsour. She lives in Los Angeles, and writes about nature in a way that’s very personal and very ironic without pontificating. She’s also fun as a person, which makes a difference. My big project this summer is to dip my toe into translation; to this end I’ve just finished Charles Simic’s anthology of Serbian poetry The Horse Has Six Legs. I’m about to read Robert Lowell’s Imitations, and I’ve just ordered a hefty tome called Theories of Translation. Party time!

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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