Alix Olson: Word Warrior
Concerned Women for America, a conservative women's group, named Alix Olson as one of the ten most dangerous women in this country. The reasons why became clear on a hazy summer afternoon in Madison, Wisconsin, when the twenty-seven-year-old spoken word poet and lesbian feminist took the stage at Tomboy Girl Fest.
With her big mouth and mischievous grin, Olson dominated the stage. She turned her head to the side, covered the mic with her hand, and in a nasal voice mocked the tone of an in-store announcer: "Attention Shoppers! America's On Sale!" And she went on: "We've unstocked the welfare pantry to restock the Wall Street Gentry / It's economically elementary because values don't pay! Yes, American Dreams are on permanent layaway (there was limited availability anyway)."
Olson is an electrifying performer, who seduces her audiences with wit and energy. Rocking back and forth on her heels, she spins tales of life on the road in between her loud and fiery poems. A sharpshooter with theatrical flair, Olson oozes both love and rage.
Olson's website features praise from historian Howard Zinn: "Alix brought me to my feet. She is an ingenious poet, a brilliant performer, a funny person, and serious thinker. She is, quite simply, extraordinary." Hip-hop artist Sarah Jones also lauds her: "Alix is a vital feminist voice and a true spoken word powerhouse. She is a clear alternative to a polluted mainstream."
Olson began writing as a child. Raised in a conservative Pennsylvania town by progressive political science professors, she guesses she began writing poetry at age ten. "It always seemed a natural way to translate the world around me," she wrote to me via e-mail, "and I think my words grew up with my political consciousness."
For her, art and politics are inseparable. "Poetry and art in general are a kick in the butt, a reminder that people can speak truth," she tells The Progressive. Olson speaks truth to several powers: governmental, corporate, and patriarchal.
She writes in her poem "Womyn Before": "I was still sucking my thumb the first time I sang 'we shall overcome.' " This poem relates how Olson joined a union picket line with her mother. "I asked her 'why are we so mad?' / And she parked her head down in the freezing rain and saw me / So serious and small with my big Mack Truck union sign / She smiled to herself, pondered the politics of fingers curled / 'This is solidarity,' she whispered to her baby girl."
She also takes on the media and other "pirates" in the poem of the same name: "So the hypodermic media shoots us up until our brains are entombed, petrified, lying side by side next to our 401 K's and our SUV's, chainstored in the chamber of a Wal-Mart mummy freeze / And outside that sarcophagus of American flags and 'god bless's,' our collective conscience is brought right down to its knees / Praying forgiveness for this nation exporting numbness / For treasure looting the oil, the ozone, the airwaves and the grain / These are our true colors running, and they are running away with everything . . ."
Olson is no fan of President Bush, but he's not her only target. "I certainly make lots of jokes about him and use him as part of my progressive rhetoric," she says. "But it's the capitalist machine that really scares me, not him in particular."
In "Independence Meal," she writes, "Yes, the new sharecrop / Is the flesh and bones / Behind the cell block / And the Wackenhut corpa-prison sits right on an old plantation / Birthed right over the slave graves in that soil / An African mother / its step-father is Reaganomics / A barren corporate heiress delivering a lineage of toxins."
Olson is an outspoken lesbian, and she does not shy away from sex and desire in her art. In "Dear Mr. President:" she says, "Well, I don't desire your superstar badge of bravery / For enduring modern-day slavery / In your maniacally economically-driven death trap. / Anyway, I'd give the U.S. a bad rap / I'd kiss every fine Iraqi dyke on the front line, / Fuck national pride, / I'd go to their side -- / I prefer crossnational desire to crossfire anyway."
Olson says she receives a lot of e-mails from young queer kids who are just coming out. They thank her for making queer life not just legitimate but celebratory. "And that's why I'm in this," she says. "To celebrate life experiences and whatever identity we choose to be."
Olson first became involved with the poetry slam scene in the late 1990s, when she moved to New York City "with the intention to change the world." She went to the famed Nuyorican Poets' Café with some guitar lyrics and performed them as poems. The effect was immediate. "I realized I didn't need an instrument," she says. "My voice was going to be an instrument for myself."
A poetry slam is an amplified, competitive poetry reading. Performances are theatrical and sometimes accompanied by a musician or two. Poets duel with each other, using their words and rhythms as their weapons. Individual poets form teams to compete against others. Olson joined the Nuyorican Poets' Café slam team.
In 1998, the Nuyorican Poets' Café team won the National Poetry Slam competition, with Olson performing "America's On Sale!" Soon after, local feminist groups and gay and lesbian groups on college campuses started calling her, asking her to perform. Her touring life had begun. "It just steamrolled from there," she says. "It was very fortuitous."
She has formed her own production company, Subtle Sister Productions, which published her last two books, "Independence Meal: The Ingredients," and "Built Like That: The Word." A third book, "Burning Down the House," was co-authored by the other members of the Nuyorican Slam Team. She also has recorded two CDs, and is busy working on a third, but nothing compares with seeing the poet live.
Olson tours 300 days a year. She lives out of her van -- which she named June, in honor of the late June Jordan, the poet, essayist, teacher, and former Progressive columnist -- though she does have a home base in New York. "Traveling artists are people who carry truth from one town to the next town," the minstrel explains. "We represent alternative media to each other."
All the touring may be exhausting, but she gives no hint of that. Her travels seem to energize her. "Part of what I get to see are the small council meetings and protests that are happening in towns that we don't hear about," she says. "It would be too dangerous if we heard about all the small rebellions."
Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor for The Progressive.