Everything Communicates: Alice Notley Interviewed by Jeff Alessandrelli

A new book of poem-drawings.

Runes And Chords4

Alice Notley’s first collection of poems,165 Meeting House Lane, was published fifty years ago. Since then, she’s become one of the most accomplished and celebrated of all contemporary poets. A Notley poem or book exists for every kaleidoscopic human thought or emotion—including the ones that are nearly impossible to place but nevertheless deeply felt. After more than forty published collections of poetry, Notley’s latest, Runes and Chords (Archway Editions), is her first art book. Although it consists of her calligraphic drawings and sketches, Notley sees Runes and Chords as a continuation of her poetic work. 

—Jeff Alessandrelli

Jeff Alessandrelli To start at the beginning: you’ve been making and occasionally showing visual artwork for decades, but Runes and Chords is your first art book. Perhaps surprisingly, it also entirely consists of recent work made on your iPad and shared on your Twitter and Instagram feeds; the book is composed of sketches (in the loosest definition of the word) that according to the jacket copy “defy containment and category.” Prior to the publication of Runes and Chords you were known, at least in terms of visual art, for your collages—tangible things, using fans and found objects. Was this book a happenstance thing or more due to the fact that, because of its digitality, all the material could be easily collated, arranged, and collected?

Alice Notley I think it was a coincidence of everything… I started doing the so-called works and Nick Nicoludis found them while he was in the process of starting a new imprint—Archway Editions—connected to Powerhouse, which publishes art books. The works were fresh, his publishing venture was fresh; perhaps neither of us knew what we were doing, precisely. I think my works have caught something about this moment (what a cliché) and that they are friendly. I partly started doing them because I didn’t need a lot of physical space for them. My apartment is small, full of books and archives, and I don’t always feel free enough in my body to work on my collages. With these, I could just sit down with this little thing, this mini-iPad, and play. I was playing and then showing it off. I didn’t know anything about the digital aspects of what I was doing, and how to make a file, how to share a file was a pretty obscure process to me. That is, this wasn’t easy!         

Photo of Alice Notley, an older white woman in a red velvet blazer with long wavy grey hair on a stage looking to the side.

Photo of Alice Notley courtesy of Archway Editions.

JA You’ve previously referred to the internet as a kind of “garble”—not a negative thing, necessarily, but certainly a maelstrom of forever constant information. In your introduction to Runes and Chords you write how in the fall of 2019 you got a “new iPad mini and an Apple pencil [and]…started doodling.” But on both Instagram and Twitter people liked the doodling and that interest thus begat a more pronounced attention from you—the “photos,” as you later call them, “became denser in texture, more verbal and more imagistic; you “used colors for verbal layers and differentiation of speaker, dimension.” When I look at the work in the book I see a solitary hand, one decidedly non-crowdsourced. But that might just be my own take. If you hadn’t joined Instagram and Twitter would the work in Runes and Chords—or some variation on it—still be in the world, or is this your own social media artwork for our current social media era?

ANThese works resemble all my works. Yes I use the term “the Garble” in Negativity’s Kiss, as a term for something like the web, and something like community telepathy; that book is a narrative poem with characters and voices. The Garble is—but maybe everything is opaque, and narratives only emerge if you want them to. Runes and Chords isn’t a narrative poem (only a little, the way a diary might be), but it bubbles with voices. Of course they are me, even if sometimes I’m quoting someone else in the room (my son Edmund, for instance). I didn’t intend to make anything until Nick asked about a book. Then I realized I had to make a book by me, and I didn’t have enough pages yet. I needed to work things out a little, but I didn’t have a lot of time. That was exciting.

I’m always slightly frightened about presenting myself as a visual artist, having no skills particularly. So that was really new. I mean that my circle of friends includes Joe Brainard, George Schneeman, Donna Dennis, Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz. An early book of mine, a mimeo stapled book, has a cover by Philip Guston. My nephew is the artist Will Yackulic. Who am I to have an art book? So, I’m really enjoying this. But maybe that doesn’t answer your question. There’s a part of my visual-artist self that likes to make quick drawings and watercolors, and I hadn’t gotten to do that for a long time. I think I’ve been feeling the happiness and freedom I previously got from those. And from not precisely making sense being in a hurry because I don’t know what I’m doing.  

A drawing made with crayons/colored pencils with purple and green abstract swirls, lots of cursive writing including a line that reads, "you are opaque" and "yes I am."​

Illustration by Alice Notley from Runes and Chords, 2021.

JA Well, as you’ve said previously, art is just a constant thing, one that doesn’t need to be endlessly examined. It simply is and it’s up to other folks to interpret (or not) what you created—that’s not your job. Still, you mention how Runes and Chords “bubbles with voices” and in this way it’s like a lot of your work. I do see more of a twenty-first century isolation and loneliness here, though. The pandemic plays its part, with lines in one of the works reading “WE NEED TO BE IN EACH OTHER’S PHYSICAL LIFE… screens are un-natural, cramped, stiff & dull.” Another work has lines stating, “in the land of masks… You are opaque Yes I am.” Am I reading too much into it, or do those lines speak to the Coronavirus moment that we’re all still in the midst of it? The voices are often talking past one another it seems…

ANYou are correct. These two are from May, around the time when Zoom took over the world and no one seemed to mind enough. The people who run things figured out that this was the way they could do it now—administrate and teach and have art. It feels as if it could last forever, doesn’t it? And I’m sure there’s a lot to gain by not using office- and desk space, classrooms, I mean monetarily. Some people working from home really liked it. Usually, though, they didn’t live alone. I live alone and I was appalled at what was taking place. 

I remember running into two poets I knew on the street and being unable to leave their company because of the electricity their bodies and brains were giving off! I don’t ever want to go through this again, if it ever ends. But I do truly believe that the cosmos, universe, whatever is there, is composed of communication—that is its basis. Everything communicates. Screens exist in order to obfuscate that fact and to try to make it easier to be nothing except part of a great machine with medieval aristocrats in charge. No one has any skills anymore, they don’t dare sing their own music, they have to listen to whatever they’re told the music is, sung by an expert. Among this last year’s media buzzwords “expert” probably ranks at the top, along with “empathy.”

A drawing made with crayons/colored pencils with a circle and trees emerging from it, lots of cursive writing including a line that reads, "we are all part of a vast electrical field."

Illustration by Alice Notley from Runes and Chords, 2021.

JACommunication, definitely. But it’s how one communicates that people occasionally take umbrage with. Almost every review and interview you’ve conducted in the past, say, twenty-five years has noted how visionary your work is. You’ve created your own forms and those forms—sometimes gradually—have become celebrated. But being first in line can be alienating and by necessity an originator is forced to communicate in a different way. In giving others permission to go further, to not just be or create in one readily identifiable or sanctioned way, have you yourself ever felt disenchanted?

AN I’m not sure what “visionary” means. I do write poems that are a little like traditional dream visions—sometimes called apocalypses, in fact. But as you note, I make up my own forms rather than using a form from the past or as dictated by some part of the present. Do I have waking visions like Blake? Probably not, but maybe sometimes. Do I see the future? To a certain extent, but I don’t ask to and it’s always hard to know when the future starts. I’ve been writing in reference to global warming since 1993 and hardly anyone has noticed, though my work doesn’t go unnoticed. One of the reasons people write those icky clear rectangular mainstream poems is so that everyone will know exactly what is being said, but then it isn’t really poetry, it’s just some prose with line breaks. Sometimes it has a lot of rhythm. Oh wow. I wouldn’t write if I didn’t surprise myself constantly, nor would I live, even—why bother? But there’s something very important that I’m doing for everyone by being who and what I am, I’m sure of that. 

JA Well, it might be subconscious, but people often want to pigeonhole folks, particularly if they can easily grab onto one solidified thing and then forget about the rest. Thus, you become the “visionary” Descent of Alette poet to MFA students and the “quintessential” second-generation New York School poet to people who have offhand checked out one of your Selected Poems volumes from the library. Due to that type of inattention, then, you’re not also a trenchant, global warming-focused poet, the author of Désamère.

In refusing to choose a lane and a personal brand, your breadth of communication expands, as well as your own personal artistry, but all the other “stuff” beyond that potentially suffers. In your latest poetry collection, For the Ride, you write that “everyone lives inside poetry, / blind to the words of it.” It’s been said before but so many people want the exclamation of poetry but they simultaneously don’t want to have to attend to the actual language of it. On your bleakest days do you ever wish you had written more rectangular mainstream poems and/or led some version of the unmessy, tenure-track life?

AN No. I could end the answer there, but I’d better go on. I have written a number of short, clear poems, and people anthologize them. I respect that, I used to read those Oxford anthologies (of English Verse or American Verse) with pleasure, when they looked the same each time one came out, dark blue binding, engraved letters. W. H. Auden edited one and it was great, though my favorite was probably the Arthur Quiller-Couch. I’m talking strict canon here, babe! I think people (who fancy themselves so non-binary) think that you can divide poetry into “for the page” and “spoken word,” and somehow “for the page” is never spoken. 

I never intend for my poetry to be looked at like some prose, just lying there so your eyes can hurry it along. You are meant to read it aloud or as if aloud (I’ve said this before) so that you’ll know what I’m saying. You won’t know what I’m saying if you don’t do that, truly. You also won’t know what poetry is if you don’t do that. But these new works, the poem-drawings, defy that process! And that’s what I’m coming to grips with and enjoying. The images are there, so I can’t just let the score take over. Or all my jazz habits, or my habits from reading a lot of ancient and medieval poetry. This is the mind presenting itself. As for tenure-track etc., I just don’t see what teaching has to do with poetry. I wouldn’t mind having a little more money though. 

JAI’m curious if you have a favorite work from Runes and Chords and if so why you like it as much you do?

ANThere’s a run of works towards the end that I’m really fond of. I was diagnosed with cancer in September of 2020, and the operation got scheduled for November 2nd. So I decided the cut-off date for the works would be November 1st, and with this deadline, and the deadline being connected with my breast cancer, I felt a certain pressure to make the work more beautiful and, just, more. I’ll pick the one on page ninety-five, but it could be any of the ones after page ninety-one. I’d become obsessed with red flowers, sometimes imaginary, but usually as desert flowers in certain books I have that are handbooks to Mojave Desert vegetation, wildlife, etc. 

When I was growing up in Needles, California, I never saw any red wildflowers, except for on ocotillos, but I knew they existed. In this drawing, I’ve superimposed a red mariposa lily upon a scorpion and made the flower as red as I could. It felt so great! The message is love, as Phil Whalen would say. It is about the point at which a lot of your personal loves are gone from life, deceased (but that’s deceptive), so what’s left is to love everyone. My operation was going to take place under the sign of Scorpio—I don’t believe astrology but I can definitely be sidetracked by any kind of symbolism; and my seventy-fifth birthday was the same week. And scorpions are desert dwellers. I have a paperweight from Lake Havasu City that has a large, real, dead scorpion inside it on a dark background. It is creepy but gorgeous. I drew the scorpion from that paperweight, which I bought twenty-five years ago maybe, on a trip “home.” I drew the lily from a book of photographs my mother gave me a long time ago when she was volunteering at the Needles Museum. 

A drawing made with crayons/colored pencils with red desert flower, lots of cursive writing including a line that reads, "Nobody dies."​

Illustration by Alice Notley from Runes and Chords, 2021.

I wanted to circle back to some of the questions that Robert Dewhurst posed to you in your 2015 BOMB interview. In it, Dewhurst asks you about a line from your 2013 chapbook Secret ID that reads “I write for those who don’t read my poems,” with you responding:

I like that line, “I write for those who don’t read my poems.” That’s my sense of what I do, that I write for those who don’t read my poems. I’m trying to change their lives, I’m trying to change their minds, I’m trying to change them. I’m trying to give them something that they might not have, or speak for them even. I’m writing for them in that way—to and for. I think they’re with me.    

This is somewhat counterbalanced by Dewhurst’s opening inquiry, one that touches on the fact that so many of your reviewers and interviewers over the years have talked around your poetry—its concepts, its themes, its various gestations from book to book—but they never actually talk about your poetry. Do you still write for those who don’t read your poems? Has anything changed since 2015 or, for that matter, since you published your first book in 1971?

AN When I published my first book, I gave no thought to who I was writing for, and that may or may not be the same as writing for those who don’t read my poems. I was intent on learning to write poems, period. I did that for many many years with no expectation of return except the merest kinds of publication — mimeo etc., so who was I writing for? I thought perhaps the future. But I also knew I was writing for Ted: I truly wanted him to like my poems. [Notley’s first husband was the poet Ted Berrigan.] After he died in 1983 I was afraid for a few months that my poems didn’t exist anymore. Then I began to write and to read in public again, and I realized my poems still existed.

The public reading experience has always been very important to me, and it is as if I’m reading to everyone and everything; that has remained consistent through the years. I don’t give intimate readings, though there may be only a handful of people there. After my brother died and I wrote The Descent of Alette, I saw that I was writing public poetry, that I was telling the world at large its story. I haven’t lost that sense since then, but I seem to absorb everything new that I learn into my ongoing poetry. Yes, I still think I’m writing for people who don’t read my poems. I mean most people don’t read anything at all!

I had some work done on my apartment a couple of years ago, and the two people most involved were Jimmy—Nadjim—and Farid. We were trying to decide what to do about my books in the small space I inhabit. I got into some sort of discussion with Jimmy about books, and at one point he suddenly called to Farid, who was tiling the bathroom, “Farid, come here a minute!” Then Farid came in, and Jimmy said, “Farid, how many books have you read in your life?” And Farid said, “One, but it was the Quran.” Then Jimmy gave me a look. That’s all. 

No one reads books, all over the world no one is reading books. People are, however, saturated with poetry. All their religious texts are poetry, and they learn them from childhood. Businessmen who belong to the Masons meet once a week to recite their ritual, which is pretty much poetry. Nursery rhymes are poetry, folk songs are poetry. And people often know a few lines of literary poetry and also phrases from authors that they don’t know are phrases from authors. I am, to the extent I can, saturating everyone with my poetry. I do this gladly. I am happy to be friends with people who don’t read books, though I also like people who read them. I am persuaded that I am changing the world.

Runes and Chords is available for purchase here.

Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the full-length poetry collections This Last Time Will Be The First (2014) and Fur Not Light (2019). He’s also the author of a short poetic biography of the French avant-garde composer Erik Satie and a short essay collection focusing on skateboarding, poetry, and The Notorious B.I.G., as well as several chapbooks. Recent work by him appears in The American Poetry Review and The Hong Kong Review of Books. In addition to his own writing, Alessandrelli also runs the literary record label/press Fonograf Editions. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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