Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Skool Visit: Interview with Alexandra Oliver, Poet Superlative

by Justine Brown
photo: Andie Petkus

Class, as part of our Back to Skool festivities we have a most worthy visitor, one of our best-known faculty members and rarest beauties, the poet Alexandra Oliver. Few can wield a pen so deftly. This marks the occasion of the publication of her splendid new book of poems, Meeting the Tormenters in Safeway (you will doubtless remember her last, Where the English Housewife Shines). She had just finished a barnstorming book tour of the United States and Canada when we met up with her. Read on for a glimpse into Alexandra's alluring world.

MARCH 23, 1985

Know that your beauty is all that you have--
a luminous, numinous guide to the dark
to a world where the windows are fogged with desire--
a flash of the dagger, an interesting spark.

Nothing can stop what is smooth or burns bright.
Unhindered by fat or by bone or by rash
it soars like a satellite over the heads
Of women whose bloom has dissolved into ash.

And what of the book and the life of the mind
and hair that hangs loose by the cup and the lamp
and the scratch of a pen? That is for men.
And you, my slim cygnet, are not of that camp.

The other girls wait with their freckles and hands
full of flowers and notes. Their voices are real
but their friendship is not. They will use you for blood.
They will crumple you under their terrible wheel.

Hold on to your weapons, the spike and the tooth.
Go out there and slay them. The day will come soon
when you stand on the roof and it dawns on you there:
You are nothing, outshone by the unageing sun.

By Alexandra Oliver. Reprinted with permission from Meeting the Tormenters in Safeway 
(Biblioasis, 2013)

JB: I was struck by the ferocity of the mother's advice in "Mrs. Miller Lays it out to her Daughter at the Audition, March 23, 1985", the martial language. Can you comment on this?

AO: As a teenager, I did a fair bit of theatre and I also modelled for a short time. I saw girls coming in with their mothers to auditions and go-sees. There always seemed to be a blurring of lines with regards to what the girls wanted vs. what the mothers wanted. Often you’d see the latter huddling with their progeny, conveying pearls of wisdom as to how the girls were to go into the next room and basically disembowel the competition. There seemed to be, with many of these women, a kind of transference going on, the transference of a sense of gynocentric mistrust and, at the root, personal inadequacy. Friends of mine who survived ballet and gymnastics saw pretty much the same thing. Even if you haven’t had your mother go at you in situations like these (relatively speaking, I was lucky), that atmosphere of antagonism haunts you. That’s where the poem came from. In writing it, I called upon a pastiche of moments rather than one particular incident.

I guess the poem is attempting to portray a multilayered conflict at work. I imagined one of those mothers behind the curtain, or in the green room, giving the daughter a final pep (poop) talk before pushing her out towards the footlights. On the one hand, the mother is (perhaps superficially) in league with the daughter, campaigning for her success at all costs. She encourages her to mistrust and reject female companionship in the service of coming out ahead. On the other hand, she’s chastising herself perhaps, for not having tried hard enough. When she talks about “the cup and the lamp” and the pen there’s this disdain for learning, seen by some as a more “masculine” pursuit, an obstacle to success as an object of desire. But perhaps she senses that intellectual pursuits would have completed her in some way and is both repelled by and attracted to the idea. I think the thing to keep in mind is that the poem is not necessarily about a mother and daughter, but the relationship between a girl/woman and the nightmare side of entrenched female culture (one has only to turn on reality TV or go on the Internet to see what we’re up against) or the warring sides of the female self…how we do battle with those ingrained damaging expectations. The final image—that of the “unageing sun”—is, I guess, meant to represent both the fact that time steals from everyone but also that the potential for growing in awareness and knowledge is always there.

JB: Does some of the fierceness derive from a sense that her (adolescent, presumably) daughter is displacing her in the beauty stakes?

AO: Oh definitely. I think that, in many mother-daughter dynamics, especially ones in which the mother puts a high premium on attractiveness and sexual currency, there’s the dichotomy of wanting to reinvent oneself through one’s offspring while, at the same time, proving that you’ve personally still got “it” and can’t possibly be dethroned—a reenactment of the Snow White vs. the Wicked Queen archetype. Things seem to be getting worse and worse these days, what with the propagation of the celebrity ‘ideal”--women being railroaded into seeking an aura of youth at all costs, but a media-sanctioned template of youth. Even the business of having kids is tied in with sexual attractiveness. You open a magazine and there’s all kinds of fanfare about hot pre and post-natal celebrity mothers, not to mention affiliated terms such as Yummy Mummy and (*shuddering*) MILF. I always wish I had a crossbow handy when I hear that one.

JB: What about the Tormenters? Do they represent a popular beauty ideal that the speaker has come to reject (after, perhaps, a period of coveting it)?

AO: Thinking back, I see a great floating cloud of feral flossy blondes…I remember that many of the girls I came into conflict with had that very Aryan variety of white-blonde hair, carved into Midwich Cuckoos pageboy helmets. They seemed to be a weird amalgam of applied femininity (Hello Kitty everything, pink, sticker collections, princess phones, frosted lip gloss, long, flapping white lashes) and brutal athleticism. They were either soccer players or field hockey players. Having dishwater blond hair and no skill for sport whatsoever, not to mention bad teeth and thick glasses, I stood out like a gourd in a petunia patch, and that led to bullying, real, nasty bullying--and in a girls’ school, too. Today, if anyone pontificates about the “safety” of private institutions over public ones, I just roll my eyes, because independent status is no guarantee that the misfits of this world are going to be protected. I think, to answer your question, I may have wanted to fit in at some point, just to make the bad stuff stop, but it wasn’t really in me. I think that the descriptors in the poem are just to add cinematic vividness to the proceedings; the poem’s not an indictment of the blonde mentality. Some of my best friends are blondes, as you well know.

JB: Yes indeed. Was being a Goth greatly consoling and/or protective from the powers that were when you were in high school at Crofton House?

Alexandra Oliver as adolescent vampire

AO: What appealed to me about Goth was the anachronistic element. I always felt out of my time, and I admit that I sometimes still do. Goth for me was partially about flowing clothes, mournful music, dramatic and elegant posturing and embracing the dark and subversive side of life, but there was also something poised and courtly about it that seemed very comforting. The Goth friends I had weren’t Crowley worshippers or slouchy, mumbling misanthropes. Yes, there was a certain celebration of doom and drama, but all of them had exquisite manners and wonderful vocabularies. I remember once, when I was about fifteen, coming home to find two college-aged male friends in Robert Smith hairdos, bow-necked blouses, tight breeches, riding boots and full makeup taking tea with my mum. This kind of thing made a nice counterpoint to the Amazonian super-permed norm that dominated the school hallways.

JB: Is assembling your look still performative?

AO: It became less performative after I had my son (case in point: I only wear heels if I know that a car will be involved in my plans) but, even if I’m just working at home or running errands, I always like to have something interesting going on, be it a large fluorite bead necklace, a voluminous skirt, a curious vintage scarf, an exciting hat or an Austrian hunting cape. I like to go about my daily business with some aroma of otherworldiness hovering in the air. Curating one’s look is the easiest visible way to do that.

JB: Is reading page poetry any less of a performance than appearing at a slam?

AO: No. If anything it has greater potential because you have to mediate between the audience and the book and make it lively. Sometimes, when you’re off-book, you tend to fall into stock performers “habits”--the same hand gestures, the same way of visually addressing the audience. You can find yourself going through the motions. When you have the book, the text is like a third element in the dialogue. It always tells you something you don’t know. I think, ironically, it permits a special kind of elasticity.

JB: When you "perform" or "read" poetry (take your pick), what role does your look play? Do you, for example, like to confound audience expectations? Do you see yourself as costumed?

AO: I don’t do costumes per se, but I like to dress up to read. Why not? It’s an occasion. I think it’s a way of honouring the room. The only time I’ve ever read in jeans was when I was at an outdoor festival in Washington state and my son was in a stroller and I had a nappy bag under one arm and a pile of books under the other. In my normal performing life, my rule of thumb is to try and be elegant but keep whatever outfit out of the province of costuming. I want the poems and their delivery to be the primary focus.

JB: Movie stars of today seem to have lost the sense of duty to be glamorous, appearing in sweats and the like and only getting (over) dressed up to appear at events like the Oscars. Can you comment on this?

AO: Can I have an aspirin and a cold cloth first? But to be fair, I think there are quite a few actors who have what I’ll term “the aura”. George Clooney has it, of course, and Kate Winslet is always pleasing to watch. The paragon for me is Helen Mirren. She is celestial in her beauty and dignity, and I can’t think of one picture where I’ve seen her in Uggs and yoga pants, carrying a Matcha Latte and walking a French bulldog.

JB: Do you see beauty rituals as powerful?

AO: I’ll preface my answer with a story, so bear with me. I remember back when I had just finished grad school and was starting to run out of money. I’d get regular trims at a hair school in Vancouver. One day, a helper from a care home brought in a large, pale lady in her fifties with thinning red hair. She was having the lot twisted into numerous tiny braids that stuck out all over her head. She told me that it was the only way she could pick up radio signals from her extra-terrestrial brethren throughout the cosmos. I think about that when I put myself together, not because I have extra-terrestrial brethren I need to keep in touch with, but because there’s always a style element, or assemblage of such, that makes you feel more like yourself, more able to cope. I have certain rules and regimens which make me feel a little bit more primed to go forth and conquer. Dispensing with all the trappings wouldn’t translate for me as empowerment. On the contrary, I’d feel bereft.

JB: Have you ever had a hairdo that will go down in infamy?

AO: 1984. I shaved my head and had one snaky blonde front tendril. There was some sort of red flying saucer thing in 1985. And two bad perms, one in 1982 and the other in 1991. What was I on? There are no pictures from these periods. I have destroyed them all.

JB: What item or items do you never leave the house without first applying?

AO: Moisturizer, a sweep of bronzer, concealer, tinted brow gel and red lipstick. Were the zombie apocalypse to erupt tomorrow, I wouldn’t change a thing.

JB: What are your five desert island beauty items?

AO: Right. Let me think:

1) Red lipstick
2) Rosehip oil
3) Lip balm
4) Concealer
5) A hairbrush.

JB: Who are your aesthetic heroines-- because of what they made, how they turned themselves out, or both?

AO: I have a stable of them but, for the sake of economy, let me list seven:

Isabella Andreini. She was an Italian 16th Century actress, poet and intellectual. She had great wit and charisma and the whole package was beautiful.

Edith Piaf: she was unconventional-looking, yes, but she was so unrelentingly passionate and fierce.

Eleanor Roosevelt for her moxie and the elegance of her soul.

Lee Miller: in addition to being Man Ray’s muse, she was a wonderful photographer in her own right. Even before she started doing her own thing, you can see from her eyes that she’s no cipher. Her intelligence, her innate knowingness, is all there.

Maeve Brennan: the Irish writer. She was so feisty and yet so exact in how she put herself together. She came to a bad end, unfortunately.

Dominique Sanda: the French actress. Great haunted quality. I love her in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. She breaks hearts.

Solveig Donmartin: A German actress, fantastic. Long, wild hair and red lipstick. She was the trapeze girl in Wings of Desire. On screen she was so ethereal and melancholic, but in real life, she was always the last one to leave the party.

JB: What is on the horizon for you, Alexandra?

AO: Well, having just finished the ten-city tour, I’m sort of trying to get my land legs back. Launching a book feels a bit like what I imagine launching Voyager’s golden record must have felt like for all those scientists in white coats. You set something free and hope it will communicate something, have some kind of far-reaching effect. What next? Give more readings. Finish the next book. Make a poem into a short film. But for now, I think I’ll wash the day off, reach for the rosehip oil, slap on an eye mask and go to bed.


  1. So thrilled to have one of our very own Skool Mistresses kick off the New Year and reopen the doors of Beauty Skool with a fabulous interview! What a treat. Great questions, great responses and a killer poem.

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