The Sunday Magazine

Alexandra Oliver finds poetry in old films, the loneliness of parenthood and the aftermath of disaster

Canadian poet Alexandra Oliver uses old forms to explore contemporary concerns like the consequences of technology, living in the suburbs, and leaving places behind. Her recent books include Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, Let the Empire Down and On the Oven Sits a Maiden.
Poet Alexandra Oliver lives in Burlington and is currently completing a PhD at McMaster University. (Biblioasis; David Walker)

Originally published on April 21, 2019.

Poetry written in metre is often dismissed as stuffy and sentimental. But in the nimble hands of Alexandra Oliver, formal poetry is a living, breathing, rebellious thing.

Oliver uses old forms to write about a vast array of contemporary concerns. Her poetry deals with the loneliness of new parenthood, the slow creep of fascism, Federico Fellini films, the aftermath of a terrorist attack, technology and looking at a place you've left behind through the windows of a Megabus.

She is the author of the poetry collections Let the Empire Down and Meeting the Tormentors at Safeway, and a chapbook called On the Oven Sits a Maiden. She spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about her life and work.

Here is part of their conversation.

Why does writing in formal style, in metre, appeal to you?

I think it appeals to me because when I was growing up, I had a very mannered upbringing. I had much older parents. My father was a refugee from Germany, then to Spain, then to England. My mother was Anglo-Welsh. We dressed for dinner probably until I was 18. It was like living in a Thomas Mann novel. There was sort of a Wes Anderson lunacy to everything. But there was a mannered lunacy.

I'm not the kind of person who rolls with it. I'm the kind of person who makes packing lists three months in advance. I like to feel like I can control things, and I think it's been key to my survival and my being able to navigate life.

How young were you when you came to poetry?

I came to poetry when I was about six years old. We were challenged by our Grade 2 teacher to write a poem. Poetry was always in our house and my dad was always reciting rhymes at the table ... Then when I was in Grade 2, I wrote a poem about the rain, and it was put on the wall and it was illustrated with umbrellas by everyone else in the class, including the bullies, which was great.

Do you read and absorb criticism of poetry, when the critics review your work?

I do. I enjoy reading what people find interesting or amiss with the work. I realize that in our day and age metre is viewed as fusty. It's viewed as a regressive creative gesture. So some people don't understand why I'm doing it, but there's a lot of potential.

A number of your poems are based on old movies. Why is that?

I love film. I grew up in a film family. My grandfather was a film producer in Berlin in the 1920s, and he was one of the producers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. So this was part of the background. I was kind of a lonely, bullied, geeky kid, and I took refuge in old films.

What is it about Fellini, or Hitchcock, or any of the others?

I think with Fellini, there's this idea of going back into your past and your past being this phantasmagoria. It's all very tongue-in-cheek, and everything is there. The circus is there, film itself is there. Women loom very large in Fellini's cosmology.

There are grotesques, though, in his films.

Well, there are grotesque in life. There are grotesque in memory. I think about my grade one teacher, and I want to hide under the bed. Things become larger through memory, and they are made even larger through art.

You describe your poetry as 'text-based home movies.' So they are to be watched and seen as well as read and heard?

To a certain extent, and I'd love to make films of my poems. But when I moved to the suburbs with my husband and my son when he was very small, I remember thinking, "gosh, here I am." But I went through this period of poem-making where I would go out into the world, into ordinary waiting rooms, malls, wherever. You go out, and you think, 'What if I thought of myself as a camera? What if I walked amongst people, and I looked at people, and I imagined what they were thinking and I imagined how they were interacting?' 

Your new chapbook is a cycle of 13 poems based on the Czechoslovakian film, The Shop on Main Street. For people who have not seen it, can you tell us what it is about?

The film The Shop on Main Street was directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, and it is the story of a carpenter. His brother-in-law is a member of the equivalent of the fascisti in this town, and his brother-in-law fixes things so that the carpenter Tono is made Aryan controller of the haberdashery of this old Jewish widow called Mrs. Lautmann.

Mrs. Lautmann has dementia. So she is told by this kindly member of the town, who's also a member of the resistance, that in fact Tono is not the Aryan controller. He is this young man who's come to work for her. So there's this pretense that there's this benevolent relationship, which turns into a benevolent relationship. He comes to love this widow, the widow loves him, they work together in the shop — and then things go horribly wrong. There's a roundup by the Nazis, and the Jews are taken away, and he tries to protect her and it goes terribly wrong.

It was on the curriculum of one of my favourite professors at McMaster, Dr. Roger Hyman. But what attracted me to the film was the idea of reinvention. This carpenter who has never felt himself to be much, but is happy with his life, takes on this role that's kind of foisted upon him, but he fashions another role out of it. He becomes an ally of this old woman.

The old woman is a victim. She's essentially a victim of the Holocaust, although her death occurs in a different way. So it talks about the vulnerability of older people, which is becoming more and more of a prevalent theme in my work, and it talks about how people seek reinvention and take on the mantle of reinvention.

One of the poems in the book is called "I Look Like Chaplin." What do we need to know about this point in the movie?

Poet Alexandra Oliver reads a poem from her chapbook On the Oven Sits a Maiden, which is based on the 1965 film The Shop on Main Street.

Mrs. Lautmann, the elderly widow has found a suit belonging to her late husband. Tono puts on the suit with a bowler hat, and he looks at himself and he says, "I look like Chaplin," and then he goes out on the village walk. His brother-in-law spots him immediately, and says to him "What are you wearing? Take off that suit because immediately." He becomes Other by wearing this beautiful suit.

You spend a lot of time at the end of the book talking about what people are wearing buttons and things. Why?

Because I think for me, the craft of making poetry is making. You're not just summoning this vapour of truth, you're making. You're putting things together. I remember when I was about 18 or 19 ... I was sitting on the floor of my dorm, listening to CBC. They were talking about [composer Anton Bruckner]. They were saying it was a pyramid of sound, and I had this image in my mind of Bruckner sitting with his metaphoric Lego, building this pyramid of sound. I liked the idea of putting things together, building.

How was your book Let the Empire Down sparked by a move to Scotland?

When I had my son, we were living in Seattle, and I found myself in this tremendous funk. I love being a mom, and having a wonderful kid, but you go out every day, and you're pushing the stroller up the hill and down the hill, and it's lonely.

So when my husband got a job in Scotland, I was like, "Oh, this is great." Everything's going to be fresh and new and wonderful. There was this sense that we were going to escape. But wherever you go, there you are.

How did your work change when you became a parent?

You realize it's not all about you. It's not all about the great amusement park of your own mind and your own consciousness. Somebody counts on you, and you watch your words really carefully. You become conscious of how you look at things, but you become conscious of what you leave behind.

That's scary, isn't it?

It is. In one sense, you are liberated from being egocentric, but it is scary. As a mother you lie awake thinking, what if he forgets to put his helmet on at the skating rink. What if, what if, what if, what if, what if.

Alexandra Oliver's collection Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway "zooms in on the inertias, anxieties, comedies, cruelties, and epiphanies of domestic life," writes publisher Biblioasis. (Biblioasis)

Does that inform your poetry?

There's one in Meeting the Tormentors at Safeway, "The Preschool Mothers Anticipate," which I wrote about the way women — women, men, people of no gender, of all gender — when they talk about their children, so many people project their desires onto their children and project their ambitions onto their children and say, "Oh, my child's going to do this. My child is going to do this. We've got my child in language classes, we've got our 18-month-old in coding classes."

But you never know. They carry the acorn of their soul, so it's very likely they're going to turn into their own person. [Parents] think they can anticipate what their children are going to become, when in reality they have no power.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview, and to hear Alexandra Oliver read and discuss her poems "The Ballad of Lockerbie" and "Why Girls Need Poetry."


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