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Righteous Rage

[whitespace] Alix Olson Mouthing Off: National Slam champion Alix Olson takes the stage at Atelier Gallery on Sunday night.

Brooklyn slam poet Alix Olson joins the Santa Cruz slam team

By Mary Spicuzza

WHEN SPOKEN-WORD POET Alix Olson took the stage at the 1998 National Poetry Slam last summer in Austin, Texas, she had a daunting task ahead of her. The high-powered Dallas, Texas, team had just earned a perfect score on its group finale--the poetry slam equivalent of a grand slam in the ninth inning. The last poet to take the stage at the countrywide competition, Olson was also the last hope for her team from New York's Nuyorican Poet's Cafe.

Instead of cracking under the pressure, Olson stepped out in front of the 1,300-person crowd and proceeded to blast out an in-your-face refresher course about what poetry slams are all about. With her edgy balance of well-placed anger and wit, the Brooklyn-based poet's closing performance of "america's on sale" pushed her team to championship status.

Her score, only three-tenths shy of a perfect 30, confirmed what Olson's fans had been saying about her since she first took the stage at Nuyorican's Wednesday night open-mic in 1997. She's been praised for her passion and outspoken politics--and the ability to weave them into honest poems from her heart.

When I called her Brooklyn apartment, Olson's nonstage voice struck me as surprisingly sweet--sometimes even giggly. The 23-year-old poet, most often described by critics as angry and political, shows throughout our interview that although she may be controversial and inflammatory, she is also charming and endearing.

Some dismiss political poets and artists as too serious, too guided by ideological agendas to focus on creativity. But Olson balances politics and art, and manages to keep a sense of humor about it all.

"I failed as a folk singer," Olson laughs. "I realized I wasn't a very good guitarist and didn't have the best voice. So I took away the guitar and worked my lyrics into poems."

Olson's stop at Cedar Street's Atelier Gallery on Sunday is part of her West Coast tour de force. She'll be taking the stage at popular spoken-word venues like San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord and San Jose's Cafe Babylon. This Sunday's event, co-hosted by Atelier and Santa Cruz's Dragon's Breath Poetry, reunites Olson with this town's national slam foursome, Kelly McNally, Joya Winwood, Meliza Banales and julia ann delbridge. Their paths haven't crossed since this summer's ninth-annual slam, where more than 30 teams spent five days sweating and slamming deep in the heart of Texas.

Spoken-word poets have been called everything from nostalgic "wanna-beats" to rebels without a cause, but Olson proves that she was born at just the right time. While MTV and the GAP have moved on from exploiting angry spoken-word sound bites, Olson stands out for her art of channeling anger without slipping into self-absorbed ranting.

The Bethlehem, Pa., native majored in acting while studying at Connecticut's Wesleyan University. Unsatisfied with trying to fit the parts, she decided to start writing her own lines. "I acted for a long time, but it never felt right," Olson says. "I played so many awful roles and characters that I hated. There are so many horrible roles for women. When I wrote my first piece, I felt like I had written my own monologue, one where I could speak truthfully about my experiences."

Whether encouraging women to embrace their anger without guilt in "don't think i'm not a nice girl" or challenging national homophobia in "dear mr. president," Olson speaks honestly and from her soul. In the tradition of legendary poet Audre Lorde, who Olson says is "everything" to her, she works to transform silence into action with wit and grace.

Her talents haven't gone unnoticed. Prestigious venues including Harlem's Apollo Theatre and the NYC Gay and Lesbian Center have hosted her as a featured performer. She has been interviewed by CNN and numerous New York radio stations, and she recently released her own spoken-word recording. In the written medium, Olson is also a winner of the "In Her Own Write" Poetry Competition as well as other national awards. She has put out a chapbook--a collection of poets that she distributes after performances--and will be included in the upcoming Revolutionary Voices anthology.

Just goes to show where a little well-placed anger and loads of talent can take a girl.

Alix Olson performs on Friday (8:30pm) at Atelier Gallery, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. An open mic follows. A $2 donation is requested. For more info, call 831.429.9005.

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From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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