Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, Canada. Since emerging onto the Vancouver poetry scene in 1992 and being named the following year as one of the Top Ten Young Artists of the year by The Vancouver Sun, she has performed her poems at places as diverse as Lollapalooza, The National Poetry Slam, the CBC Radio National Poetry Face-Off, the West Chester Poetry Conference, the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival in Toronto. Her work has been featured on CBC Radio and National Public Radio, as well as in the 1998 documentary Slam Nation. Her publication credits include appearances in numerous journals and publications worldwide, and her first book, Where the English Housewife Shines, was released in 2007 from Tin Press, London, UK. A second collection, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, is forthcoming from Bibioasis in 2013. She is also co-editing (with Annie Finch) an anthology of metrical poetry. Oliver has taught poetry and led workshops in high schools, colleges, libraries, cultural organizations and prisons, and was one of the Directors of the Edgewise Electrolit Centre, an organization created to promote Canadian poetry and new poets through the use of new media. Her interests include form, ekphrasis, translation, performance, and creating poetry syllabi for ESL speakers, seniors, victims of violence, and at-risk youth. Alexandra divides her time between Toronto, Canada, and Glasgow, Scotland, where she teaches poetry through the Govan and Craigton Integration Network. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Stonecoast and an M.A. in Drama/Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. www.alexandraoliver.ca
Raisonettes (New Jerusalem Press, 1993)
Where the English Housewife Shines (Tin Press London, 2007)
Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (forthcoming from Biblioasis, autumn 2013)
Rhythms of Poetry (an anthology of poetry in meter, co-edited with Annie Finch; in progress)
How I teach:
Poetry is a process of sense-making, a way of taking the chaotic or the seemingly bland and mining powerful truths from it. To this end, I encourage students to take chances they might not have considered before, to be rigorous yet playful in their approach. I’m a fan of radical revisions; these might include switching perspectives (persona poems are great liberators), revamping form and shape, stretching out a thought or image into a meditation, or compressing a longer poem into something small, bright, incisive, and dazzling.
I’m also a big believer in form as a container for meaning. I think form gives the poet the means of creating exquisite tension with other poetic components (syntax, shape, voice, etc); one is able to work on so many levels and produce unexpected effects. I also think that meter can aid in leading poets along narrative or subtextual paths which they might not have initially imagined. To my mind, even if one is firmly dedicated to free verse, it is essential to be conversant in the basics of meter, if only to understand and appreciate the pulse that throbs, clangs, rattles, or murmurs through so many great poems. I am delighted to work with students who are interested in form, but this is by no means a prerequisite. I enjoy reading free verse a great deal; it too has its own mystery, its own music.
I believe that one of the great things about life is being proved wrong (in a good way, of course). I confess to having been guilty in the past of pre-judging certain kinds of poetry, and then either discovering it, or returning to it and finding that there was something there that was able to subtly shift or illuminate my own practice. It is for this reason that I encourage my students to read broadly and deeply (the latter is, of course, the most important) and to take chances on work they might never have considered reading before. This includes work from poets in translation – reading globally leads the poet to think globally.
One abiding source of inspiration for me as a writer of poetry is the confluence between the medium of poetry and that of cinema. Both art forms are sequential, segmentary, and synaptic in nature. And both are extremely immediate. The Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov coined the terms “Camera Eye” and “Radio Ear” to describe the way in which the technology of filmmaking mediates, and even approximates, human senses. I believe in these concepts, but in reverse. For the poet, it is often helpful for one to allow oneself to see like a camera and listen like a recording device. Going out into the world and taking in an environment or moment as if one were filming it in the mind allows for a kind of heightened absorption. If one thinks this way, one can “turn on” the poetic mind at almost any moment, gathering images, sounds, and narrative/emotional elements from any thing, any place. I want my students to realize that there is no beginning for a poem that is too trite or pedestrian or mundane. A waiting room in a doctor’s office may produce a poem, as may a cemetery or an abandoned beach or a basement or a cornfield. What matters, what makes the poem rich and true, is the willingness to dive deep, often to uncomfortable depths, and find the poem’s real kernel of intent.
To my mind, imitation is an essential tool for refining one’s own poetic practice and therefore a useful mode of annotation. By following metrical patterns and/or idiosyncrasies in form and feeling our way through the textures created by a poet’s use of syntax, word music, tone and imagery, we come to absorb, almost subconsciously, that which will guide us towards developing our own voices and clarifying our intent. In doing this, we also become more attuned to identifying the influences of others in the works we read. This adds an extra dimension, an element of pleasing continuity.
Though the overall emphasis of this program is on creative writing, I think that honing’s one’s critical skills is essential to really understanding poetry – not just that of others but also one’s own. To this end, I encourage my students to submit traditional essays (either shorter ones or segments of a larger paper) close readings, and book reviews. I normally prefer exchanging hard copy packets via snail mail; however, as I am currently based in the UK, this may incur for students both postage costs and delays. Therefore, I will either accept and e-mail back electronic packets, or else print out, mark up and send the work by mail (for some reason, mail coming from the UK moves at a good clip). You will notice that I write specifics (what my high school guidance counselor termed “picky-wickies”) on the poems themselves and then address the larger issues in a cover letter.
I like to hear my students’ voices from time to time (it adds a personal dimension and it really is fun reading work aloud over the phone); my suggestion is one phone call per month, but I will gladly arrange more, according to the circumstances.