By Alexandra Oliver
On September 10, 2013, the Canadian press Biblioasis will be bringing out my second full-length book of poems, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway. The title comes from a poem of the same name, in which I recall meeting, as an adult, an elementary school bully in the supermarket.
Over the past twenty years, I have run into other members of the same gang at parties, reunions, and weddings. One, whom I encountered in a university coffee bar in 2003, died last year after a terrible illness. I can’t say I was happy about it. Life had dealt her a bad hand.
But before I talk about tormentors, I want to talk about books and how I came to make this one.
It was 2011, and I was midway through my MFA at Stonecoast. Biblioasis approached me after I showed my manuscript-in-progress to a friend who knew someone there. They have a terrific reputation in Canada, so it was with very little hesitation that I flung myself onto the bandwagon. When the contract came in the mail, I remember sitting in mild shock for several hours, before signing and FedExing it off.
After several months came the editing process, lobbing suggestions, fix-ups, and compromises back and forth over the net with the excellent and like-minded Zach Wells,. The P.R. engines started up a few weeks later, under the supervision of Tara Murphy. I was asked to provide some blurbs for the back cover. Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Charles Martin, and Timothy Steele have kindly obliged me here. Tentative tour dates have begun to materialize.
The cover was sprung on me, all of two weeks ago. It depicts an invasion of killer bees. Some might argue it looks more like a horror movie poster than a poetry book cover, but I love it. To me, killer bees evoke the very notion of torment: those who have doled it out in the past, as well as the bad memories and bugaboos that can chomp at our heels, the ones we can either flee from, squealing, or else put to good use.
The poems in Tormentors are not all about bees or bullies, but they do deal with the way in which life torments one in small ways, in the most mundane of environments. When I wrote these poems, I was living with my family in a bedroom community reputed to be the third best place to live in Canada.
If you’re the kind of person who longs for a split-level home with a two-car garage, who likes lining up for an hour at festivals to buy ribs and listen to Guess Who cover bands, who enjoys doing boot camp fitness, playing laser tag with co-workers, campaigning for the Conservative party, or getting plastic surgery, this would definitely be your kind of town.
It wasn’t my kind of town.
My five years there brought me into contact with psychotic building superintendants, xenophobic bluehairs, warring hot dog vendors, strung-out exercise addicts, and laconically cruel daycare ladies. I felt bewildered and lonely, but obviously I was there for a reason.
If there was a perfect time for me to go back to school, this was it. Numbed by two and a half years of being removed from the workplace and performance circuit and thrust into an environment which felt like an alarming amalgam of David Lynch and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, I was desperate and ready for some intellectual action. My three mentors, as well as my workshop leaders and fellow students, helped me not only to make poems, but to gear myself toward greater compassion and sensitivity to the beauty and oddness of everyday life.
I learned that making poems is not just about reading deeply and writing liberally and adventurously, but also about allowing oneself to become an obsessive noticer. Having come from a film background, I started thinking of myself as a roving camera. I’d fall across things, quite literally: a girl eating the pages of a book in the library, a bearded fellow taking his socks off in a waiting room, a dead opossum blocking the entryway to the corner 7-11, a man slapping a sobbing woman in the cab of a pickup. Everything was important and relevant. I wanted to make this importance and relevance concrete and comforting. In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, a teacher reassures a student with the following:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
I believe that the impulse to make a poem is also something that extends its hand in comfort and friendship to the poet, out of the most outlandish or insignificant places or moments. Trust, curiosity, and empathy all have their part in making us better poets, able to express our own solidarity with whomever chooses to read what we write. If anyone who reads Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway can come away feeling less tormented, I will have done my job.
Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, BC. She has received two Pushcart Prize nominations and a CBC Literary Award nomination. Her first book, Where the English Housewife Shines (Tin Press London) was released in 2007. Her second collection, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, is forthcoming from Biblioasis in September 2013.