Feb 06, 2024, 06:27AM

Edgar Oliver in Conversation

Checking in with the artist. Photo credit: Alice O'Malley.

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Photo by: Alice O’Malley

You may have seen Edgar Oliver during his 1980s heyday at poetry readings in NYC. Most notably the Pyramid Club, which was a popular venue on Ave. A in the East Village. It catered to drag queen performers and punk rock bands, but not exclusively in that order. I attended and read at some readings there. It was a mixed-bag scene that encompassed the Village circa the 1980s. Otto’s Shrunken Head, across the street from the original Pyramid Club, is still alive. Tompkins Square Park is the epicenter for the remnants of that historic era and a few other scenes, notably the Beat Generation and the psychedelic hippie music festivals. Oliver performed regularly at the Pyramid and most recently last year in October. He put on his one-man show, “Riptide,” a monologue about the very topic. He’s gone full circle, but so much more is happening now in his career. A documentary about his life is now being written and will be produced later this year.

I saw Oliver on the TV series Oddities and was immediately fascinated by his character and demeanor. My first reaction was, who is this strange, unusual man inquiring about a straitjacket on display at the oddity shop? He sounded like Peter Lorre meets Nosferatu on the road to Transylvania. He could’ve been a Warhol superstar like Taylor Mead, with a little Quentin Crisp for good measure. Oliver's inflection and tone are unforgettable once you hear him speak.

Tom DiVenti: Tell me how it all began for you.

Edgar Oliver: The Pyramid Club is where I started. It was a poem I’d written called “Riptide” about drowning, and the sea, but I couldn’t find the poem.

TD: You seem like an actor from the classic movie days. There’s an old movie called Riptide. I got that vibe from seeing you on that Oddities series. Are you familiar with Lydia Lunch?

EO: I love Lydia Lunch. I was a guest on her show. I don’t know how it was broadcast. I'm guessing it was on the web.

TD: I have to ask you about the Tom Brady commercial you just did. I thought it was very funny. It reminded me of a John Wick movie. Did you audition for that?

EO: I auditioned. I liked that commercial. I thought it was a really good piece of art.

TD: Is the East Village where your stomping grounds were?

EO: When I first found the East Village, I discovered Tompkins Square and fell in love with it all.

TD: I was wondering about your sister Helen. How is she doing?

EO: Well. Right now, Helen’s represented by Howl Gallery in NYC.

TD: You did a lot of traveling with Helen. Was that a life-changing experience for you in your youth?

EO: It was. Helen and I ran away together to Paris. I was 18 and had never drunk a glass of wine or smoked a cigarette. I began to drink red wine and smoke in Parisian cafés. I didn’t like Paris for the first six months or so that we were there. Then, one day, I fell in love with it.

TD: How did that happen? Were you just walking down the street and falling in love?

EO: That’s how it happened.

TD: You have a southern gothic mystique about you. Not like Gone with the Wind, more like Cormac McCarthy.

EO: I read Blood Meridian. I love that book, and also All the Pretty Horses.

TD: You grew up in Savannah, Georgia.

EO: Yes.

TD: Then you went to Washington, DC, to George Washington University?

EO: Well, I pretended to go there for a few months until Helen and I ran away to Paris. We’d go to Baltimore with my mother every summer. I was a child, but I loved Baltimore.

TD: What are your plans for this year?

EO: I don’t know. I’m starting work on my documentary. I’m in the mood to do something like that.

TD: You're basically a storyteller, relating the story of your life in such a way that’s intriguing to me, and I’m sure many others.

EO: Thank you for saying that. That’s encouraging.

TD: Keep those stories coming! I liked watching Donuts Luncheonette And Monologues from The Moth storyteller series.

EO: I will; that’s how I got into theater, reading my poems on stage, and then the poems became monologues.

TD: What do you think about NYC these days? Do you still find it magnetic and alluring?

EO: I love New York, but I’m sort of scared by what’s happening to it here now. All these high-rises are sprouting up everywhere. It especially dismays me that it’s happening in downtown Brooklyn, too.

TD: What are your thoughts about AI?

EO: We’ll be pleading with robots. But you don’t understand, you know. I’m a human being! I need light, and I need water! And the robots will be saying, No, you don’t! How terrifying! Gawd.

TD: Do you believe in life after death?

EO: I’ve always loved life, and hope I always will. I can see a time when I move on to leave this life. But not too soon. I don’t believe in life after death.

TD: Do you find the LGBTQ community confusing today as opposed to back when everyone was simply either straight or gay, no gray areas like gender-neutral?

EO: A bit, yes. You know what I find confusing: I don’t like this new policy where anybody can go into either gender’s bathroom. Growing up with my mother and sister, going to the men’s room was a sort of magic thing to do; in a way, it was a sort of solitude.


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