Alix Olson is an internationally recognized spoken world poet and activist. She has written and produced three spoken word CD’s, as well as multiple books of poetry. Alix was also involved in the DVD, “Left Lane,” which showcases her life on the road, touring and performing poetry. You can check out more from Alix at her website, http://www.alixolson.com.
As part of a National Poetry Month Celebration, Alix will be joining us at the OU Spoken Word Showcase tonight in Dodge Hall, room 201 4:30-7pm. Please stop by to see Alix, Detroit area spoken word artist Justin Rogers, and a handful of OU students preform their work. More info on this event here.
– Bethany Olson
Which artists or poems would you recommend for people looking to get into the genre?
I would recommend branching out, reading and listening to a range of poetry and music. Slam poetry came from and continues to be influenced by the (bridged) worlds of jazz, hip-hop, rap, folk music, formal poetry, speeches, plays and so on and so on. Too often we enter into a relationship with an art form that attracts us without learning its history- and I think that can limit our appreciation of and most definitely our contribution to that genre.
What is it you like about spoken word poetry vs. other genres?
The vulnerability it requires and the simultaneous intimacy and power it can invoke.
How did you first get into spoken word poetry? What made you decide to start writing and then performing?
After college, I moved to NYC in an effort to pursue acting and activism. I hadn’t really anticipated those as joint efforts but when I walked into the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village, my life changed. The idea that I could be surrounded by people moved to change the world through art- and to allow their art to be infected and transformed by the political world- was intoxicating. I was on the 1998 Nuyorican “slam team” in 1998 and started touring shortly after. I modeled my touring life after the folk musicians around me—it took a lot of legwork to book tours in those days. I was fortunate to get gigs early on at slam venues and college/university Women’s Centers and even once at a Laundromat- and then eventually at music clubs and festivals. My first tour was a West Coast tour that I booked by phone and postcards and a little email. I travelled via greyhound bus and slept on living room floors. It was so great.
I noticed, unlike some spoken word artist, many of your performances involve music. What is behind this choice?
I think my poetry-music hybrid genre was due to a combination of factors. One, I was influenced by folksingers like the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, Ani Difranco, Tracey Chapman) and the first “spoken word pieces” I wrote in college (like “Eve’s Mouth”) were actually folk songs. Sadly, I couldn’t really sing or play guitar very well so the hybrid that resulted was probably, in retrospect, sort of a productive failure! Two, as I began to write, perform and tour, I found myself surrounded by a community of singer-songwriters (Pamela Means, Chris Pureka, Ember Swift) that were always willing to jump in and play on my set. So, that piece was just an organic development. Finally, for me spoken word poetry is a live art form- so much of the vitality and intensity comes from the interaction with the audience. So, instruments offer the recorded version (which risks being dry without that live interaction) a little extra listening power, it wraps it in another layer of rhythm and sway.
Do you feel like slam poems need to have a political or social message behind them?
Well, I don’t think of politics as this particular range of topics like “gay rights” or “abortion access” or “who are you voting for” or whatever. I think all aspects of our lives have the potential to be politicized: to be articulated, highlighted, crafted in such a way that allows us to see the power relations embedded within whatever the thing is– and every poem has the power to do that. For me, that’s the “personal-political” combo power of a slam poem: exposing an underbelly, carving out the raw stakes, asking the audience to feel all of it together with you. Only then are we positioned to see things just a tiny bit differently moving forward- and perhaps then to change things. So, for me it’s not about a “message” per se, but about a (sometimes almost imperceptible) shift in vision. My favorite audience moments do that for me- it always makes me shiver. I look forward to lots of that at Oakland University next week!
What do you feel makes for a successful spoken word poem? A successful slam poetry event?
I think poems that seem to resonate with audiences take them on a mini-journey, have an element of linguistic surprise and play with old ideas in new unpredictable ways. Audre Lorde said: There are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt. I’ve always taken that to heart. What a relief to remove your own internalized requirement to be brand-new, start from scratch. Indeed, you shouldn’t be, can’t be, what a limiting focus! Once that pressure is lifted, there’s room to experiment with all the problems and questions and bewilderments and beautiful troubles of the world that have continued to haunt and inspire.
What has been your favorite moment in performing spoken word?
From an activist perspective as far as a political “moment,” I think the very early 2000’s. George W. Bush was in office which was obviously crushingly painful but also a time of unlimited transformative rage and laughter; radical queer momentum was beginning to pick up and that was in the air everywhere I traveled- domestically and internationally; people were not yet subsumed by things like facebook and Amazon and youtube- and instead looked to physical gatherings in bookstores and music clubs and slam venues and festivals to build (temporary) spaces of radical community. I’m not anti-internet- I think it’s a really useful political tool– but it does seem to have altered our relationship to all kinds of relationships- if that makes sense. Performing internationally also fueled my soul during that time because I felt like could say: hey look, we are not all complicit with our government’s atrocities- we are not all the jingoistic patriots/parrots that was so often being communicated through our mainstream corporate media during that time. I hope we don’t need a Donald Trump presidency for that kind of vigorous activism to prevail.
Where do you look for inspiration for your writing?
Everywhere, books, newspapers, staring into space, but perhaps the most from conversations with people, or listening in on other peoples’ conversations (favorite pastime at coffee shops). I think poets are like spies, witnesses, journalists and creators all wrapped up into one slightly narcissistic/insecure package.
When I’m “uninspired,” it’s usually because I’ve allowed myself to get so worn into the mundane treads of daily living—or too much preoccupied by myself– that I’ve forgotten to look up and out.
What advice can you give for people looking to get into spoken word poetry?
Maybe I’ve made already overstated this idea, but my best advice is to not fall into the trap of only listening to spoken word poetry. Don’t allow your voice to get directly contoured by the contours of those before you. It began as a vibrant, permeable, anti-establishment art form and in my view it can only benefit from the risk of fresh approaches.
What is your favorite spoken word poem?
My newest is always my favorite to perform because it elicits that delicious awful anxiety of not-knowing-what’s-gonna-happen. As far as having a favorite among the big bad world of spoken word poems– I am damn grateful there’s really just no way to answer that question anymore!