Alix Olson says that the idea of the angry activist has got to be a farce. "If you enjoy life and are constantly engaged in the process of living," she explains, "people can tell that you think it's a beautiful thing to live." The warm voice coming through the phone doesn't sound much like that of a militant "femi-nazi."
Olson, a nationally recognized lesbian spoken word artist, uses her voice and her words to incite political dialogue and fuel social change, and she does it with humor, passion and careful consideration. "I really respect my audiences," she says, "so I would never get up there and rant and shriek at them without a thought behind it."
Currently on tour with like-minded, Boston-based folk singer-songwriter Pamela Means, Olson is an accomplished figure on the national poetry slam circuit. Olson quickly distinguished herself on the New York City open-mic scene in the late '90s as a member of the 1998 Nuyorcian National Championship Slam Team. Since then, she has forged a solo career as a touring folk poet and recording artist, with two CDs to her credit -- 2001's Built Like That and her latest, Independence Meal. Means sometimes accompanies Olson on guitar, an artistic marriage that they both cherish. "It's magical," says Means. "We are politically aligned and very compatible artistically."
Politics is paramount when it comes to Olson's work. The contents of her poems are not limited to matters of gay and women's rights, and the issues she covers are not exclusive to lesbians and hardcore feminists. "I write about power," she notes, "and that goes for love and romance and race and sexuality and all the different forms that power and powerlessness take, and I hope that that would appeal to a broader audience." Olson can deal with many incarnations of power and resistance in the scope of a single poem, wrestling with them in a flawless flow of words that somehow weaves truth out of frustration.
One such piece, "Womyn Before," begins with images of her as a child clinging to her mother's leg at a workers' rights rally in her native Bethlehem, Penn. Invoking the spirits of historic forward-thinking women (Angela Davis and Gertrude Stein among them), she lays out the legacy that empowers her. The poem rails on unions, guns, corporations, asbestos and more. The word "tampon" does come up, but the overall message transcends the man-hating menstrual cycle so often associated with the f-word -- feminism, that is. "So in this Hallmark Hub of a century," the last verse concludes, "with its sugar cookie cutter white boy fame/I will not be afraid of being called the same names/As the womyn before me."
"[Feminism] is so often reduced to man versus woman," Olson explains, "when really it could be about the working class, for one thing; working-class women and the working-class men who are partnered with them. It's about a lot of things."
Olson also has a tendency to wrap lesbianism around political matters. "Dear Mr. President" is a war-protest diatribe that exposes the wide gap between the "national interest" and her own. "My sex is too specific for your General," she declares, and mocks the idea of herself joining the military. "I'd kiss every fine Iraqi dyke on the front line/F--k national pride/ I'd go to their side/I prefer cross-national desire to crossfire anyway." In "Cute for a Girl" she reconciles lesbianism with Christianity, imagining, "God would be a dyke if she could find someone to hold her/Instead of holding her up as the dark image of the Church of My Bedroom."
Surprisingly, Olson's radical views haven't drawn much backlash from the moral mainstream, and that, she says, is unfortunate: "I think the most insidious form of negative feedback is lack of attention. There's not a lot of boo-hiss about what I have to say. There's really just lack of coverage in national media. They ignore the fact that I'm out there and limit me to my audience."
Olson has been featured at festivals and in magazines, but mostly within the gay and feminist realm -- she was on the cover of Ms. in December of 2000, and enjoys regular coverage in gay and lesbian publications. Her most high-profile venture was a recent appearance on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, hosted by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. Opportunities such as this pose a dilemma for Olson, who refuses to swallow her anti-capitalist politics to gain greater exposure. At HBO, she was offered a roomful of free clothing from Phat Farm, Simmons' wildly popular fashion line.
"You could take whatever you wanted," Olson recalls, "but you had to wear it on TV with the tags out, so I didn't wear it."
For Olson, live performances are the most powerful medium for a radical poet, "until we steal back the airwaves." Means agrees that the small club format can take on the atmosphere of political rally. "It is very powerful to be in a room and feel like you're a part of a community of change and empowerment, where everyone is there for wanting a better world."
- Sharon Ross
- "Feminism is so often reduced to man versus woman," says Alix Olson, "when really it could be about the working class."