Black and white photo of Alix Olson wearing a black sweatshirt

 

Why did so many feminist performers and artists of a certain generation transition into academic careers? How can scholars and activists mobilize beyond neoliberal forms of resilience? How might humor and solidarity provide the tools we need to build worlds beyond the here and now?

In episode 90 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews poet, performer, and professor Alix Olson about how and why Alix made the transition from internationally touring spoken word poet to gender studies professor and scholar, the limits of resilience as an organizing strategy and what we might mobilize around instead, how artists and performers can adapt their skills to the classroom to teach diverse students, and why centering humor, laughter, and expansive practices of family are key to how Alix imagines otherwise.

Guest: Alix Olson

Alix Olson is an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Emory University. She received her PhD in political science and a graduate certificate in advanced feminist studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2018.

Her scholarship can be found in New Political Science: A Journal of Politics and Culture, Wagadu: Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies, and Agitation with a Smile: Howard Zinn’s Legacies and the Future of Activism. She has received the Caucus for a New Political Science’s Christian Bay Award for work that “makes the study of politics relevant to the struggle for a better world.”

Alix’s book manuscript, The Promise(s) of Resilience: Governance and Resistance in Complex Times, critically examines the rise and circulation of the concept of “resilience” within twenty-first-century political life and how it is fundamentally re-ordering peoples’ understanding of themselves, the world, and possibilities of action.

For over a decade, Alix toured internationally as a spoken word artist. She published three volumes of poetry, produced three spoken word albums (Protagonist, Independence Meal, and Built Like That), and is featured in the award-winning documentary Left Lane: On the Road with Alix Olson. Alix is the editor of Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution (Seal Press) and co-author of Burning Down the House (Soft Skull Press). She has performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, CNN, Oxygen, and Air America’s Unfiltered with Rachel Maddow. She has been featured on the covers of Ms. and Curve Magazines and in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Alix has delivered keynote and commencement speeches, taught social justice, art, politics, and writing, and performed spoken word poetry at over 300 colleges and universities, political conferences, high schools, and prisons across the globe.

We chatted about

  • Alix’s journey into a spoken word poetry career (03:01)
  • Transitioning from poet to scholar (04:04)
  • The limits of resilience in noeliberal times (08:09)
  • Why art, activism, and academia are intertwined (13:02)
  • Queering kinship and co-authorship (15:47)
  • Imagining otherwise (17:31)

Black and white photo of Alix Olson wearing a black sweatshirt. Text reads: These are not easy times. As a feminist, I think that to speak about those struggles is key. What I try to do is be as forthright as I can about what's happening in my own life and ask my students to speak about their lives and to remind them that the personal as political.

Takeaways

Sometimes you just have to take the leap

I was sort of a nerdy undergraduate who discovered spoken word poetry my senior year of college and just completely fell in love with the genre. Then—rather than doing what most of the people around me were doing, which was to pursue graduate school or some other kind of lofty career goal—I moved to New York, waitressed, and worked in a lesbian bookstore. I decided to just try to do spoken word poetry, which at the time made no sense but was utterly and absolutely the best thing that I’ve ever done.

Questions often require quiet

I had begun to lose track of my questions because I was so focused on having answers to provide onstage. I wanted to get back into that 18-year-old self who had been so curious and hungry. So [getting a PhD] seemed like the best sort of way to fulfill and satiate that piece of me that, ironically, was squelched in all of that shouting. So I decided to get quiet for awhile.

Cultivating a new kind of authorial voice

For me, it was just plunging back into reading and thinking about what was going to spark my inquiry. I slowly began to write pieces that were more theoretically based. I also started to write pieces for the Huffington Post and to channel how I was writing to think about an audience in a different way—not as what is going to get them to scream and feel empowered, but to get them to critically think in a different way.

Alix’s book on the limits of resilience

I went down the rabbit hole of seeing how resilience was everywhere. I began with self-help texts and thinking about the building of the resilient neoliberal self who is going to grow and emotionally and spiritually profit from devastating events in one’s life, from divorce to bankruptcy to job loss. Then I started thinking about the level of the city: urban policies and urban planning. I looked at the World Bank and the IMF and the ways in which policies at the global policy level are building resilient populations. And then I looked at Mars and the plans coming out of NASA to build a more resilient human species in the face of ecological devastation. So I’m taking it from the individual to the intraplanetary and interrogating the ways in which we’re all being asked to be more resilient in the face of neoliberal policies that are destroying our spiritual selves and our planet.

Co-authorship and queer family

Our children came into being with the help of a friend as a sperm donor. He’s also a spoken word artist. He and I have been working since the first baby was born on a two-person play about that experience and about queer kinship. This play is something that I think will be poetic and also bring into play all kinds of ideas about queerness and alliance and transforming what family is and what it looks like.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world where people are not limited by quantities—from how many people they’re allowed to love intimately, romantically, sexually, sensually to how much money they have they have and the resources that are delimiting their possibilities for pursuing joy and passion and interconnectedness. I want a world where my kids feel like they are not just mine, that they belong to all kinds of things that are bigger than themselves. Where family is not defined by blood or by ancestry. I want a world without borders. I want a world without prisons. I think it’s unlimited. For me, to imagine a world is to imagine so many worlds.

More from Alix Olson

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 90 and my guest today is Alix Olson. Yes, that Alix Olson, whose unabashedly queer feminist slam poetry and performance career I and so many of my generation spent the 1990s and early 2000s absolutely fangirling over. Having the chance to do this interview was in many ways a dream come true for me.

These days, Alix is an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Emory University. She received her PhD in political science and a graduate certificate in advanced feminist studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2018.

Her scholarship can be found in New Political Science: A Journal of Politics and Culture, Wagadu: Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies, and Agitation with a Smile: Howard Zinn’s Legacies and the Future of Activism. She has received the Caucus for a New Political Science’s Christian Bay Award for work that “makes the study of politics relevant to the struggle for a better world.”

Alix’s book manuscript The Promise(s) of Resilience: Governance and Resistance in Complex Times critically examines the rise and circulation of the concept of “resilience” within twenty-first-century political life and how it is fundamentally re-ordering peoples’ understanding of themselves, the world, and possibilities of action.

[01:28] For over a decade, Alix toured internationally as a spoken word artist. She published three volumes of poetry, produced three spoken word albums (Protagonist, Independence Meal, and Built Like That), and is featured in the award-winning documentary Left Lane: On the Road with Alix Olson. Alix is the editor of Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution and co-author of Burning Down the House. She has performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, CNN, Oxygen, and Air America’s Unfiltered with Rachel Maddow and has been featured on the covers of Ms. and Curve Magazines and in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In our interview, Alix and I chat about how and why she made the transition from internationally touring slam poet to gender studies professor and scholar, the limits of resilience as an organizing strategy and what we might mobilize around instead, how artists and performers can adapt their skills to the classroom to teach diverse students, and why centering humor, laughter, and expansive practices of family are key to how Alix imagines otherwise.

[To Alix] Thank you so much for being with us today, Alix.

Alix Olson: Yeah, I’m thrilled.

Cathy: So many of our listeners know you from your prolific and amazing feminist and queer spoken word poetry and performance career with albums like Built Like That, Protagonist, and Independence Meal and documentaries like Left Lane. I know that’s how I came to know and admire your amazing work. What made you to the transition into academia? Was that always a goal of yours or did you decide that you wanted a different chapter in your career?

Alix [03:01]: Oh boy. It’s such a complex and wayward path. You know, I was sort of a nerdy undergraduate who discovered spoken word poetry my senior year of college and just completely fell in love with the genre. Then, rather than doing what most of the people around me were doing, which was to either go and pursue graduate school or do some kind of lofty career goal, I moved to New York, waitressed, and worked in a lesbian bookstore. I decided to just try to do spoken word poetry, which at the time made no sense but was utterly and absolutely the best thing that I’ve ever done.

So I just kind of followed that path organically for a really long time. And it was wonderful. It was life changing and heart changing and soul changing.

[04:04] But at some point, I realized that I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it anymore. I think I had sort of begun to lose track of my questions because I was so focused on having answers to provide on stage. I wanted to get back into that 18-year-old self who had been so curious and hungry. So it just seemed like the best sort of way to fulfill and satiate that piece of me that ironically was squelched in all of that shouting. So I decided to get quiet for awhile.

And when I was in graduate school, I ended up having two kids. So it took me eight years to complete my PhD. Yeah. So I would say, in short: quiet and questions.

Cathy [04:46]: That’s really fascinating. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of a performance career as something where people demand answers for you, but it makes total sense now what you’re describing.

Alix [04:55]. And sort of condensed answers, you know. Certainly the format of spoken word is such that you need to see…I mean, I was always reading theory and so theory informed my work and my poetry, but it was almost a way of translating the theory into something small and I wanted to try to see if I could still go the opposite way again.

Cathy [05:21]: Do you have any advice for other artists or performers who might want to take a similar path or at least start to explore some of the teaching or scholarly research or intellectual questions that you did but maybe don’t know where to start?

Alix [05:35]: In my generation of artists, many of us have gone back to grad school. Many of us have switched career trajectories. I think in part that’s because there also was the loss of a live audience and that has to do the neoliberalization of spaces.

I think there are many answers out there for many of us who switched paths. For me, it was just plunging back into reading and thinking about what was going to spark my inquiry. I slowly began to write pieces that were more theoretically based. I also started to write pieces for the Huffington Post and to channel how I was writing to think about an audience in a different way—not as what is going to get them to scream and feel empowered, but to get them to critically think in a different way.

Cathy [06:24]: Do your students now know that you have this former career?

Alix [06:28]: Um, sometimes. Occasionally. I mean, I think that they Google me the way that they Google everybody and see that there’s a different part of my subjectivity that I bring into the classroom.

I think it also reveals itself just in how I move in the space of the classroom and my pedagogy. But sometimes they’ll kind of giggle and say, “Hey, we looked you up last night.” I also reference that part of my life when it makes sense to do that.

Cathy [06:56]: So you mentioned the neoliberalization of space, and I think this makes a nice turn to your scholarship, which explores the implications of that in some really profound ways. So I know you’re working on a book called The Promise(s) of Resilience: Governance and Resistance in Complex Times. Can you give our listeners a little bit of a sense of what that book covers?

Alix [07:15]: Yeah. I just also want to say that the work you’re doing is so fantastic. Since you invited me to be a part of this project, I was able to listen to a bunch of your interviews. Your work really is doing in many ways what all of us are striving to do and the people that you’re interviewing. So I just want to say thank you and congratulations. I think your intervention here is performing the kinds of questions that you’re asking of your interviewees. So thank you.

I say that because I was listening to…I think it was Jenn M. Jackson. Right, right. She was talking about the concept of the threat. I think in a very similar way, I’m working with a concept. I’m imagining that a lot of folks who are transitioning into academic life are working with language, or those of us who worked with language in prior domains are now working with language in this particular domain.

[08:09] So I’m tangling with language in a similar way that I was before, but I’m interrogating it (I think) in a more complicated way. So I started writing about resilience when I was in New Orleans and I saw a sign at said “Stop Calling Me Resilient.” As a queer person, as a feminist, as an activist, resilience had been a concept that I had never really thought twice about. It was something that in our communities we take for granted as positive and it had—in my mind at least—gone uninterrogated.

[08:58] So I started thinking about this idea of why were people in New Orleans saying stop calling me resilient? I did some quick research and found out that the new plan for New Orleans was called “Resilient New Orleans.” That’s the plan to put into place. There are all these banking policies and insurance policies to build a more resilient population in the face of another [Hurricane] Katrina happening.

So I kind of went down the rabbit hole of seeing how omnipresently resilience was everywhere. I began building a sketch. It began with self-help texts and thinking about the building of the resilient neoliberal self who is going to grow and emotionally and spiritually profit from devastating events in one’s life, from divorce to bankruptcy to job loss.

Then I started thinking about it at the level of the city: urban policies and urban planning. I looked at the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] I’m looking at the ways in which policies at the global policy level are building resilient populations there.

And then I look at Mars and the plans coming out of NASA to build a more resilient human species in the face of ecological devastation. So I’m taking it from the individual to the intraplanetary and interrogating the ways in which we’re all being asked to be more resilient in the face of neoliberal policies that are destroying our spiritual selves and our planet.

Cathy [10:18]: One of the things that I talk a lot about on this show with various guests is the importance of finding creative ways to care for our communities, for each other, and for ourselves as a part of social justice work. So it’s not just the thing that we do to survive our social justice activism, but it’s actually a crucial part of it. I’m curious about how this kind of critique that you’re making in the book of resilience as this neoliberal ideology that harms us in all kinds of ways or demands that we harm ourselves and all kinds of ways, how does that show up in your own approach to communities and in your own life?

Alix [10:54]: I’ve had to think a lot about that, even as a teacher. There are ways in which campuses are instituting these ways of helping our students be more resilient in the face of all of the individual and collective problems that they’re facing. So I can’t tell my students don’t be resilient. And that’s certainly not the critique I’m making. I’m trying to tease out the ways that it’s being deployed now versus the ways that has historically been deployed by activist and social movements.

[11:47] I try to practice resilience as a social project and not as an individual project. Part of the argument I’m making in this book is that resilience is actually at work in building what I call a “resilient human infrastructure” for neoliberal capital to circulate. I’m trying to posit that there also a kind of resilience of resistance. So I’m not trying to juxtapose resilience and resistance, because I think that does us a real disservice, but rather think about the ways that we can build an infrastructure of resistance that is in itself resilient by looking both back and forward.

I’m still trying to figure out how it applies to my own life. These are not easy times. I think that we’re all struggling in many ways. So as a feminist, I think that to really speak about those struggles is key. What I try to do is be as forthright as I can about what’s happening in my own life and ask my students to speak about their lives and to really remind them about the personal as political.

Cathy [12:39]: This concept of the personal is political and integrating these different areas of your life we can see in your scholarship and across your various kinds of projects. I’d love to dive a little deeper into how you bring together your interest in academia with your interest in art or performance and social justice activism. What so exciting for you about that nexus?

Alix [13:02]: Yeah, I’ve just never seen them as separate. I’m so put off by the artificial boundaries drawn around those domains. Yet they’re very real. There’s a material reality to the fact that I couldn’t write an entire poem for my dissertation, you know? Although I will say that many people encouraged me to collapse the boundaries more than I felt like I could.

I think what’s so exciting is revealing that they’re not separate. It takes effort a certain amount of risk. When I went on the job market, I looked specifically for jobs that seemed to value public intellectual scholarship over just the sort of knowledge production that’s valued that’s typically valued in the academy because I’m not interested primarily in doing that kind of work. And it didn’t feel like that was how I was going to best direct my political feminist queer energies.

[13:54] For me, it’s also about teaching. I’m teaching a class next year called The Feminist Arts of Activism and it’s teaching the history of US social movements through its artists. So rather than holding up artistic examples as reflective of these movements, it’s actually teaching how movements happened through the perspective of artists. And I do that in all my classes.

I almost always bring in artists. I flew in Pamela Means to come in and do a performance as a way of teaching about the Black Lives Matter movement. So it wasn’t like I sat down and I thought, “Let’s bring together art, activism, and academics or intellectual concepts.” That’s just how I learned to be a thinker and an activist simultaneously in the world. So that’s what I offer to my students. When I write, I don’t think, “Let’s write like a political theorist.” I think, “Let’s write like somebody who is interested in participating in and transforming the world.”

Cathy [15:06]: Are there certain lessons that you learned or practices that you learned as a poet and a performer that you now use in the classroom?

Alix [15:13]: Yeah, I often have my students write poems and share them. They often seem a little surprised in the beginning. I give them lots of possible variations for writing their papers. Their final project was to write a manifesto after reading the Gay Manifesto, the SCUM Manifesto, and the Bitch Manifesto. A bunch of my students did a puppet show as their final performance. I try not to make that a big deal. Like this is your opportunity to do a creative project. I try not to separate those various domains of writing.

Cathy [15:44]: Do you have any plans to continue with recording and performance?

Alix [15:47]: Yeah, I do. It takes a different kind of engagement to sit down and write poetry. And so it’s really about carving out that brain space. I also have a very active five-year-old and one-year-old. So I feel like there are these other projects that are happening at the same time that are also so joyful, pleasurable, and creative that seem to me to also be about art, race, gender, and sexuality and watching how beings get shaped and shaped themselves with a little helping hand.

So yeah. I actually do imagine some kind of project. Our children came into being with the help of a friend as a sperm donor. That person, he’s also a spoken word artist. He and I have been working since the first baby was born. We’ve been working on a two-person play about that experience and about queer kinship.

I don’t imagine that I’ll make another spoken word CD. That’s kinda not where my language is right now. But this play is something that I think will be poetic and also bring into play all kinds of ideas about queerness and alliance and transforming what family is and what it looks like.

Cathy [17:03]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at the heart of this podcast and also the kind of work that you do in the world. That’s the world that you’re working towards and building when you create, when you step in front of a classroom, when you step onto a stage, when you write in a various genres that you do. So I’ll ask you what is a giant question but I think a good question and one we don’t get to ask or answer enough. What kind of world do you want?

Alix [17:31]: I want a world with a sense of humor. I want a world where people make each other laugh. I want a world that values, honors, enjoys, and relishes in the vast scope of human variation.

I want a world in which conflict is valued for what it can bring out in terms of novel possibilities—an agonistic world rather than an antagonistic world. I want a world where people are not limited by quantities—from how many people they’re allowed to love intimately, romantically, sexually, sensually to how much money they have they have and the resources that are delimiting their possibilities for pursuing joy and passion and interconnectedness.

I want a world where my kids feel like they are not just mine, that they belong to all kinds of things that are bigger than themselves. Where family is not defined by blood or by ancestry.

[18:32] I want a world without borders. I want a world without prisons. I think it’s unlimited. For me, to imagine a world is to imagine so many worlds. And I am driven by my own justice horizon and my own particular looking over my shoulder (à la Heather Love) and the ways in which I’m mobilized and motivated by the past.

I want a world in which people are not atomistic but have their arms around each other’s shoulders and are enjoying life. Where work is not the center. Work is sort of what we do to make everything else possible.

Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of the amazing ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Alix: Thank you so much.

Cathy [19:21]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]