Feminist performance poet Alix Olson has always considered herself a loudmouth, and for a while her mouth--and her politics--got her into trouble. But she is quick to point out that the small acts of rebellion that get you sent to the principal's office (like refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag in ninth grade) are perfect fodder for performance art. In the past few years, the 25-year-old New York-based poet has made a name for herself in the spoken word/poetry slam scene.
Olson got her start at the Nuyorican Poet's Café, a multicultural venue for poets, performance artists and writers that was born out of the New York Puerto Rican community in 1974, and included founding poets Miguel Piñero, Ntozake Shange and Maggie Estep. She has since performed as part of the Nuyorican Poet's Café slam team, which won the National Slam Championship in 1998, at the 2001 Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and has traveled to Portugal for the 1999 FalaDura Poetry Festival and to Holland last year for the 2000 International Poetry Festival. Her politically charged poetry has challenged notions of lesbian sexuality, and taken on the WTO and global capitalism: "In The New York Times, it's handcuffed protesters in Seattle/And the headline reads: 'Angry Activists Start a Battle'/And the World Bank Leaders/And the WTO and Disney and Visa and Monsanto/And Goodyear and Texaco all smile and say/'Sure is nice to own the paper on a day like today.'"
Olson's work has earned her a cover article this year in Ms. magazine and nods from Curve and Girlfriends magazines. She has just released her first CD, Built Like That, a mix of spoken word and musical accompaniment produced by Feed the Fire Productions, a company she started with poet and teacher Amy Neevel. Olson spoke with The Independent by phone over the New Year's holiday and in the middle of a nationwide tour that will take her along the West Coast and back through Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, totaling 220 shows this year.
The Independent: You are part of a really rich tradition of poetry and performance at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. Where do you fit in?
Alix Olson: In some ways, just as a woman. Spoken word is a really feminist art form, collaborative, making the personal political. I have always performed and so I felt like I was a part of the tradition before I even did it. And I think that is part of the ethic of the Nuyorican. That people keep coming and then they finally feel comfortable enough to get up and do it. There is a real levity to it as well. A sense of humor in the creativity. Otherwise you would just read The Nation, you know? And that's important. I think that laughing together is very subversive. It is not an agreement with what someone is saying but an acceptance on some level. It means that they--the audience--is willing to listen. It's a gift. I think that giving your laughter to someone is a present.
What are the differences between slam poetry and more traditional forms of written poetry?
Well, I guess what I do now is less slam poetry. It is more spoken word/performance poetry. I don't think of myself as a poet. Performance is really my passion, and spoken word really bucks the notion of what a poet is supposed to be. Slam poetry takes into account the audience. There is this idea with traditional poetry that you should be speaking to everybody or nobody. I was taught that people should hear the poem not the poet. For me, it is too traditional to remove the body and the face and the voice from the poem. In spoken word and at slams, the body and the voice and the face are always present and I think that is feminist in a way. Slam poetry is really passionate and allows for that to come through.
Luis Chaluisan, a playwright performing at the Nuyorican, was recently quoted as saying, "You know what a Nuyorican is? It is someone who finds solutions." Do you think that holds true for the poets that perform at the café?
Well, I am not sure. But for me, it is about trying to be unafraid to raise the questions. Because I am not sure if I find many answers in my work. But a solution is often a group of people realizing that they have the same problem. Sometimes, when people feel so isolated, that is the hardest step.
You wrote an article in last month's Curve magazine about connections between spoken-word communities and the queer community.
Yeah, my general hypothesis was that spoken-word communities are in essence such a mixing and melting pot and that we learn from one another so well. If you go into any slam in the United States, you are going to find a mix off all kinds of people; there aren't going to be any all-male or all-queer slams. And because we are so diverse, we all learn from one another, we have accumulated so much knowledge and power so quickly. And I think that the queer movement could benefit from that structure. I think that the queer movement needs to focus more on small communities and what their concerns are.
And you've recently started your own production company, Feed the Fire Productions.
Yeah, it is a production company that Amy Neevel and I started about four years ago. We started primarily because I was beginning to record my work. We now have two artists--Chris Pureka and Regie Cabico. And we got a grant in June of last year to start Youth Aloud, a program where we send spoken-word artists into public schools--teaching students incarcerated at Riker's Island and students at the Gay & Lesbian High School in New York.
What is it like teaching spoken word to high-school students?
Well, I think that they, like a lot of people in this MTV culture, think that it is the norm to be numb. For queer kids especially there is this emphasis on being cool. We are trying to teach them that it is OK to be passionate. And we have the art come to them, so they see themselves as important, legitimate artists. And they see that their voices are valid. Art is so commodified in this culture that it is important that it becomes accessible for these kids. So they know it can be sitting down and writing a poem; it doesn't have to be hung on a museum wall.
You are performing, along with the Butchies, in Raleigh at a benefit for the Revolutionary Association for the Women of Afghanistan?
Yeah, it is interesting. RAWA has been along for such a long time, and all of a sudden they are getting this attention and funding, and they have deserved the money all along. It just goes to show that you have to have a crisis to get people to pay attention.
Has Sept. 11 and the resulting crisis affected your writing?
Well, being in New York right after it happened, and then being on tour and seeing all the American flags has been a little disconcerting, but I try to see it as a positive thing. What the flag represents for me is so many of the things that caused all of this to happen. But I think it is a really optimistic thing, that people can organize around something. My writing has not changed. If anything, I was interested to see if people would react more. One of my first shows after it happened was in Birmingham, at this convention where there were like 2,000 student-government and fraternity students from all around the Deep South. And you know, I am really critical of the United States in my work, so I think it made me preface my work a little. Like, 'Hey, I love my country, but I think we have a right and a responsibility to help define what this country stands for.' I was pleasantly surprised. People were really willing to listen.
You've played with the Butchies before?
No, not with them, but we both played at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival last year.
Is that where your grandmother stage dived?
Who told you that? Yeah, its true. It was at the Butchies and Amy Ray show at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. We were backstage, I don't know, getting tea or something, and Amy Ray asked if anyone wanted to stage dive. My partner at the time said she was going to do it and held out her hand for my grandmother. She looked at me and said, "I'm a little scared," and I said, "No it's OK," but my heart was pounding and I was thinking, "My mom is going to kill me."
That's amazing. How old is your grandmother?
I know. She's 79. She went to the female ejaculation workshop as well. She had a great time.