"At the Mercy of My Poetic Voice": An Interview with Alice Notley
Collaged fan. Image provided by Alice Notley.
Talking with Alice Notley, I was equally struck by her ferocious integrity—her insistence, for example, that we avoid discussing poetry in terms of a “project,” a term that had initially appeared in my first question for her, or her assertion of her poetry’s disobedience “against all [her] contemporaries, both avant-garde and mainstream”—and by her generosity. We met on what might have been Paris’s hottest summer day—ninety-four degrees and everywhere airless—and she patiently answered all my questions, and continued beyond them. What I hope comes through from this conversation is her commitment to telling stories in a way that goes far beyond narrative invention and has nothing to do with the creation of characters or of voices, but is instead deeply rooted in the genre of epic, in poetry’s capacity to sing the stories other histories deny. After the interview, as we walked past a nearby park, Alice stopped to point out a statue inside: five marble women, arms linked and smiling, bearing the inscription “À l’ouvrière Parisienne” (to the women workers of Paris). “It’s a good statue,” she said. Later, I read that the statue depicts a group heading off to the ball for St. Catherine’s Day, the celebration of single women over the age of twenty-five. At the moment, however, I mostly wondered what imagination was at work next to me, and what voice and what stories Alice Notley’s poetry might eventually be able to make for these anonymous, beautiful, silent women.
Lindsay Turner: We’re excited to have these new poems appear in Boston Review! Could you talk a little bit about this new work? Is it part of a larger series, or a book?
Alice Notley: It’s one that’s resting at the moment, and I’m trying not to remember much about it! I wrote these poems about this time last year. My mother died last year. I was spending a lot of time going back and forth between here and Needles, California, where she was ill—Needles in the Mojave Desert—and I had already started writing a long work that was very complex. The first part was inspired by the life of St. Radegonde, a sixth-century French saint. She was married to this guy, a king of northern France, who killed off all of her family, killed her brother, and beat her, but gave her a lot of jewels to make up for when he beat her. She was already shell-shocked when she married him and then she gradually became a saint, although a lot of people haven’t heard of her. But when I first came to France there was a mini-series about her. I was writing about her and my mother fell ill and I started writing about her and about what I was doing going back and forth. And then that part ended; I did some teaching at Naropa and I was reading Chrétien de Troyes, the part about Lancelot and the Sword-Bridge. I remember assigning everybody to write a poem that was a bridge between two parts of a work, and then I wrote this sword-bridge poem, and after that I wrote another set that was about me being a warrior with a sword—it’s all very complicated and I can’t come to terms with it yet—and then I wrote a set of these. They’re partly autobiographical and partly related to the rest of the work. They’re partly about my taking on the task of being a leader. Which is rather ironic, since I live like a hermit. I’m still trying to understand what that means.
LT: Some of your more recent work—I’m thinking of Reason and Other Women, especially—moves in much longer lines, or prose. Are you working again with shorter lines?
AN: Well, since Reason and Other Women I wrote Culture of One, and I published Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, although I had written that earlier, before Reason. I try to have a different line every time I write a book. Sometimes I go back to older lines, but in consecutive books I don’t use the same line. I don’t know where this line came from. It’s a more relaxed line than in other parts of the book.
In these poems I keep being myself as a little girl; I’m being in the geography of Needles. We had had to close up the house that I had grown up and that my mother had lived in since I was six or seven years old, and that was really like a death. It was very traumatic for everyone—and I was still there, and I was still inside of Needles, and still inside of her dying, and still inside my childhood and everything simultaneously, the way a life usually is—rather than linear. Which is why poetry is better for describing life than prose is!
LT: Yes, I was going to ask you about the “I” in these poems. Obviously there’s not the sense of a “character” or “characters” that often appears in your work—for example, in Culture of One, although there are moments that feel spoken by a real voice or places that sound real. But as well as the “I,” there’s a “you,” and a “we”— there are remembered voices and the narration of memories. That variety reminded me of something John Ashbery said in a 1972 interview about the pronouns in his work seeming to him like “variables in an equation” and about being able to move very easily from one to another, to use pronouns interchangeably, having to do with his not having a very strong sense of identity. Ashbery’s playing, of course, but the flexibility of “I” and other pronouns in your work seems to come from a very different place than from a weaker sense of self. How does “I” work in these poems?
AN: Well, you—“you”—use “I” as a point of departure, and John talks very easily when he says “I,” and I do too, actually. There’s something similar about the two “I”s: “I” opens the door for both of us. On the other hand, neither one of us is what you would call “confessional.” I talk about my life, but in these poems, I’m coming at everything from some odd angle. I had an idea of what I was doing as I was doing it: it wasn’t much of a theory, but I thought that if I let everything in I might eventually get to the point. It was a freedom of thought: I relaxed into whatever came into my mind and had confidence that it would take me somewhere.
LT: There are certain words in these poems that always seem to me like “Alice Notley” words: “gully,” for example, I find I come across often in your work. Could you talk a little about that space?
AN: Down at the end of our street, the street I grew up in, there was a gully. There were gullies all over town, but there was one particular gully that was my brother’s gully. He was six younger than I, and he sort of “owned” it, and he was always there. It was this horrible hot place and there were actually some rocks there with glyphs on them. It was also an ancient place. The gully is kind of sacred in our family. I would go there too, and you could take a shortcut across to get to other parts of the town.
LT: And the “athel,” which I knew was a type of tree only when I remembered coming across it elsewhere in your work—in Disobedience, I think.
AN: They’re incredibly ugly trees, and they’re the only trees that grow there. They’re very salty, and you can suck them. You can suck the salt off. They’re this dusty green color, and I was always sick of them, I remember looking at them and thinking they were disgusting.
LT: Do you miss them here?
AN: Oh, yes. I miss the desert a lot. It’s an incredible landscape with a lot of sacred sites, a lot of very unusual mountains. There are huge intaglio drawings on the ground, which you can only see from the air. There’s a maze called the Mystic Maze that’s enormous, which is about fifteen miles away, that I think the ancient Indians used to send their adolescent warriors through—they had to go around it without crossing the little hedgerows, that sort of thing. It’s an amazing place.
LT: You’ve said you consider yourself an “epic” or a “narrative” poet—I’m thinking of the 1995 essay “The ‘Feminine’ Epic” in which you discuss the epic elements of The Descent of Alette and also Désamère. But you also say in that essay that epic is an ongoing task for you, that you want to write an epic of “a woman’s voice,” or “your voice.” What’s the current state of—well—your epic ambition?
AN: Oh, since I wrote that essay I’ve written a lot of books, and I suppose each one has been a kind of an epic, although Culture of One was more like a novel. Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is an epic. Since those, I have three or four other manuscripts that are recent, each of which is a long poem, not including the one that these poems are from. One of them is called Our Voice: A Bible. It’s the idea of an epic of voice, and of people talking, and of my talking for other people, which is kind of what the epic is about. In Songs and Stories of the Ghouls I have several poems where I speak for the genocided dead and that’s part of the endeavor—it’s to rescue the dead, who never have got from life what they deserved, far less than that. And dead women: a theme in all the books. I mean, what did they get? What does one get? So I’m trying to speak for everyone.
LT: To speak for everyone.
AN: Speak for everyone. Yes. I make myself available.
LT: In “The Poetics of Disobedience,” you say that “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against. . . everything.” I’ve just been reading Milton, and—
AN: “of man’s first disobedience”—
LT: Exactly! So I wondered if you had any thoughts about the relationship between the two, between disobedience and epic.
AN: Well, I’ve just started reading Samson Agonistes again, but I’ve only read about ten lines. I had a dream that seemed to indicate that I was Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple. Which was kind of horrifying, since that means that I am blind and going to die along with the Philistines! I don’t know if Milton is precisely an influence, but I am now embarking on that. I read it in the ’70s and Edwin Denby and Rudy Burckhardt discussed it with me; they were really interested in how visual it was, even though it was all from the point of view of a blind man. They were highly interested in the visual aspects of the poem, and I remember discussing it with them and having a sense of buildings and things—the poem has that. I’ll have to read it some more to find out. . . I’ve forgotten what the question was about.
LT: The question was about disobedience.
AN: I’m a hugely but quietly disobedient person, and I have not conducted my life the way any of the other poets have. […] I don’t teach, and that’s very disobedient right now.
LT: Epic, disobedience—and gender, being a woman, that’s a third theme of your work. What about disobedience and feminism?
AN: Everybody’s sexist. Most women are sexist. It’s a tremendous fight and it’s totally ongoing. Men have all the prestige and all the power in the poetry world, still. Women have space now, they have space but it’s not the same as prestige or power. It’s as if I’ve had to re-write all of the history of poetry so that I could be as great as I want to be. My “project” is to be a great poet. I’m not interested in poetry schools; I have absolutely no interest in any of that.
LT: Speaking of narratives, and re-writing, could you talk a little about Grave of Light? In effect it’s a selected poems, but you’ve done more than pick out poems from each of your collections—the whole “narrative” of the collections gets re-arranged. What was it like to go back through your work and put that together?
AN: I took things out of collections, but everything’s in chronological order. I didn’t rearrange anything: I made a story. I made a sort of meta-story.
LT: Did you know what that was going to look like before you did it?
AN: No, but I always do it when I make a book. I knew I couldn’t do the sort of selected poems where there’s a space around every poem and each one is an artifact, a piece for wonder. I started out as a fiction writer and I think I’ve always been quite narrative, although there was a long time when I thought I didn’t know how to tell a story properly. But I’ve always been rearranging things into some sort of narrative and then trying to figure out what the story is. Whether a life has a story. It doesn’t seem to me that it does—but it has something.
LT: And what about your collages? I just realized the other day that the cover of Grave of Light is your work! And then the words “Lieu: L’hôtel des Grands Hommes” suddenly stood out as being really very funny—
AN: I had a huge struggle with the person who designed the book because he kept trying to push that phrase off the cover. I kept saying, “It has to show!”
LT: Are you still making collages?
AN: I don’t make them very often because I can’t find the right materials anymore. I try to do it—sometimes I only make like one a year. When I was in New York I made them all the time. There are lots and lots of them in my archive at UCSD. I keep them until they look like they might fall apart and then I send them to UCSD—they’re wonderful— they put them inside these little plastic envelopes and put them in a specially-temperatured room and then they don’t fall apart.
LT: What did you make them out of that you can’t find here?
AN: There’s a lot more garbage in New York! Actually I started in Chicago, with a book of colored paper partially bleached out. I would take a piece of that paper and then I would take another color and rip it diagonally and paste it on the first one and that would be the ground, and then I would find all sorts of things—I really liked very thin newspaper and I used to go through the newspaper and find stuff—and then I always painted on them as well. And I always realized I had to put words on them, since I wasn’t an artist, I was a poet. So I would find some words somewhere. And then after a while they all became fans. I was always making collage fans. And then it became that each one was some sort of meditation on what I was working on as a poet, without my knowing what I was thinking about.
LT: Would you ever exhibit them?
AN: I’ve had two exhibits, actually. There was one in New York in 1979 at PS1, and then there was one in Zurich that I didn’t attend. In the first one, all the collages got sold to people I knew, and they framed them, and I could go visit them. But at the second show, everything got sold to people in Switzerland and I have no idea where it is. I didn’t like how that felt. They were exhibited as ‘“East Village art”!
LT: What are you reading now?
AN: I’ve been reading Racine and I’ve been going to productions. They’re wonderful! I guess there aren’t good translations of him in English and so he’s never emphasized in the States, but to read him in French and to go to the plays is a fantastic experience. I can’t think of anyone greater. I’ve been reading the Aeneid a little bit in Latin, trying to figure out if I know any of the foreign languages I knew when I was young. My high-school Latin teacher got in touch with me and sent me some books on Latin prosody. Latin prosody has entered my work but in a secret way and I don’t ever want to discuss it with anybody. I’m always in the process of reading utter trash. I’ve been kind of depressed; my mother died and a lot of the people I know are sick. I’ve been re-reading all of these mystery novels. I’ve been re-reading all of Robert B. Parker again; it’s a very bad sign. I read Janet Evanovich novels but I’ve used it all up—the Stephanie Plum “bounty hunter” novels, which you probably don’t know. They’re not great works. I read some French people too that are like that: I read, Fred Vargas, she’s a lot better—pretty good actually. Dominique Sylvain, who writes about cops and private detectives. It’s interesting to live in Paris and read policiers about Paris. It’s very funny, actually.
LT: Does the storytelling you talk about doing in your poems have anything to do with this type of reading? Do elements of these novels show up in your poems—in their stories, in the forms the stories take?
AN: Not really, except in one poem called “Negativity’s Kiss” that’s about to be published in France. And Disobedience has a noir element. I’ve been reading this stuff since I was twelve, so it’s probably part of how I think.
LT: Do you know what you’ll write next?
AN: Oh, I’m working on something. It’s in very long lines and there’s no punctuation except that there’s a capital letter at the beginning of each line. It’s probably slightly influenced by the Aeneid but I’ve only re-read about ten pages of the Aeneid. But I read parts of it when I was very young. I can’t talk about it yet.
LT: One last question: we’ve been talking about stories and narratives, but of course it’s—your book is, poetry is—“songs and stories.” What about the “song” part? Is there something about poetry’s singing that makes it better able to “speak for” the ghouls? Or: how do you think about the sounds your poems make?
AN: That’s a whole other interview. Poetry is the sound of poetry, even when it’s telling a story. Its definition is the way the voice changes when you read a poem. The ghouls let me speak for them because only I will. But that’s because I’m a poet; I’m not in it for the money. I’m at the mercy of my poetic voice and of their voices. No choice in the matter.