Example poetry

Alexandra Oliver dives into the darkness of the suburbs in the poetry collection Hail, the Invisible Watchman

The new collection of poetry by Ontario poet Alexandra Oliver, born in Vancouver, Hail, Invisible Watcherdraws on his characteristic use of formal structure and meter to examine haunted aspects of suburbia, finding darkness behind small town facades.

Oliver, who recently completed a PhD in English and Cultural Studies from McMaster University, is the author of two previous collections – Meet the executioners at Safewaywho won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award in 2014 and the 2016 drop the empire.

She is a former co-editor of Measure for measure: an anthology of poetic measuresas well as the formalist review The rotary dial.

Oliver, who got her start as a slam poet in the 1990s, has performed her work for CBC Radio and NPR, as well as at the National Poetry Slam and at numerous festivals and conferences.

Written in the midst of Oliver’s doctoral work and the pandemic, Hail, Invisible Watcher is divided into three sections: the first a series of narrative poems revealing the disturbing realities of a suburban neighborhood; the second sketching a family tragedy from the point of view of various characters; and the third a group of sonnets that offer a reassessment of the controversial 1947 short story Hetty Dorval by the late Canadian writer Ethel Wilson.

Oliver spoke with Radio-Canada Books about juggling creative work and academia, questioning the divergences of suburban life, and balancing gloom and lightness in Hail, Invisible Watcher.

Daily Horrors

“I started writing this book towards the end of 2019, but it started to gain momentum when the pandemic hit. At first, I just had a bunch of poems – for example, the suite of poems on Hetty Dorval, which is truly misunderstood Canadian short story. It’s so filled with weird resonances about coercion and manipulation by parental and colonial forces.

“But the pandemic really, really got to me. Where I live, in Burlington, Ontario, at first there was this wave of enthusiasm, ‘We’re going to do it,’ and people were banging pots for the healthcare workers and grocery shopping for others – and then it dried up and stopped. suspicious.

I started thinking about the idea of ​​a gatekeeper, the idea of ​​those forces watching us — everything from social media to negative parenting forces to the worst impulses people give in to.

“And so I started thinking about the idea of ​​a gatekeeper, the idea of ​​these forces looking at us – everything from social media to negative parenting forces to those worst impulses that people give in to. I’ve probably lost four friends during the pandemic – not to the disease itself, but to some really weird reactionary beliefs. And you just think, it’s like this movie – it’s like Invasion of the Body Thieves.

“And as I was writing, I thought this book had to be some kind of horror movie. It had to have this spirit of, ‘Here’s an ordinary place, or a collection of ordinary places, and here are these forces converging to these places” — and also this very Cronenbergian idea of ​​the body containing its own guardians, its worst drive.”

In the archive

“In the city where I live – we all live on stolen land, don’t we? – but there’s this idea of ​​’This is our city and this is how we are – it’s the tradition. In my gym, the local cable TV channel was playing all the time, and there was everything about religious freedom, tradition, and community. And there were these kind of weird heteronormative principles, and I just started thinking to myself, “Oh, this place is haunted – first of all, we’re haunting this place because we’re on this earth that’s not ours. But on the other hand, things haunt us.”

“That’s what became part of the making of the book, and also its obscurity. I started thinking about the legacy of the families. The book isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it contains elements that have been taken from my life, and also from the lives of people I know. Actress Ellen Burstyn used to say that every time she got a role, she took the elevator down into the archive of her memory I love this picture, so that’s what I did – took the elevator down to the archives.

“I wanted to explore the darkness in families, the trauma, the addiction issues, and the cycles of unkindness and misunderstanding. And so being home during the pandemic kind of became a good time to lean into those But at the same time, I really hope I’m not a Debbie Downer. [laughs] I wanted there to be elements of gallows humor. It was difficult to balance those elements, but hopefully I did.”

A nice balance

“I remember once telling a professor that I was writing a new poetry book, and she was like, ‘Don’t you think you should focus on real work?’ But you know, [writing and academics] really feed off each other. I was a mature student and I have a family. So you have all the things at home, and then you have the thesis and the courses and the foreign things from the department. So if you’re organizing stuff in the department, or if you’re doing a teaching fellowship or being a teaching assistant, you have all these moving parts. But the good/bad news is that the poems still come for you, right? The poem knocks at the door.

If the poems have this urgent rattle, they will come to you — they will approach you, and you have to listen to them.

“It’s a major juggling act. But if the poems have this urgency rattle, they’ll come to you – they’ll approach you, and they need to be listened to. Also because I was writing my thesis on the metric structure of the poetry, I found that one thing fed on the other. And I think the two projects turned out to have different dimensions because there was a symbiotic relationship.

Find the form

“I write in form because I grew up in a really eccentric family – a family with older parents, where there was some sort of code you had to use to interact with people; there was a decorum. And it was like living in some 1920s German novels – there was a way of doing and saying things. And so form has always permeated my work. When I was a slam poet, I used the shape because it helped me remember three-minute chunks of text.

“And for me, it’s also a way of broaching potentially incendiary subjects. I have biographical elements and I deal with my traumas and the things that haunt me, but I’m not the type of person where I go. writing a confessional text, so I have to find a way to codify it and using these forms allows me to create resonances of tension between how the poems are structured and how they emerge.

sometimes [a poem] is like a block of marble and you go in there and you carve it, and you shape it into something completely different.

“And how do I choose the shape? Sometimes I sit down and say, ‘Okay, I’ll give myself a puzzle – I’ll try a sestina with this idea.’ And sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t – sometimes a line comes to you, so you take that line and then you model the poem around that. Sometimes it’s like a block of marble and you go in and chip into it, and shape it into something completely different. But I think it allows for musicality, fun, and a kind of intrigue – at best, the reader can feel a vibe.

Suburban Gothic

“I love cities. I love the bustle, parties, events and people. I’m a bit introverted, but I also love diversity and being in huge groups of people, seeing what’s going on. We moved to Burlington, Ontario, when my son was two and a half, and there’s all these elements that I hadn’t lived among, like an evangelical Christian element, and there was this kind of racism and xenophobia sublimated where I live that I love, but there was always this idea that the suburbs were this infinitely scary place.

I started thinking of the suburbs as a site to examine things like cruelty, loneliness, alienation – but also moments of love and bonding.

“I really like watching movies and reading books about the suburbs. It’s this idea that you live in this place that’s supposed to be perfect, and you’re supposed to be in harmony with your neighbors. But there’s this fermenting tension, and this terrible loneliness.

“So I started to think of suburbia as a site to examine things like cruelty, loneliness, alienation – but also moments of love and bonding.”

The Sunday edition0:48Alexandra Oliver reads “I Look Like Chaplin”

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

Alexandra Oliver’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.


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