I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Alice Notley is my favorite living poet. To consider her work, in toto, is to court cerebral and sensory overload. She has published over thirty-five collections of poetry and prose in a career spanning four decades, which together display a bedazzling variety of forms, musics, voices, measures, ideas. A central figure of the New York School’s precocious “second generation,” Notley has lived since 1992 in Paris, France, where she has cultivated an iconoclastic autonomy from any one poetic school or set of associations. The biographical note in the back of her most recent book, Negativity’s Kiss (Presses Universitaires de Rouen, 2014), states plainly: “At this point I consider myself to be an internationalist and certainly of my own poetry school … As far as I’m concerned my books are the embodiment of everything I am and think, they are my accomplishment and identity. I am a poet and little else.”
I spoke with Notley ten days after she was awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime accomplishment. This award follows a significant symposium on her work, “Alette in Oakland,” convened by poets in the San Francisco Bay Area last October. While Notley thinks little of pat formulas and theories—“I don’t have a poetics,” she has said, “I think that’s bullshit … poetics is an industry”—she is a great talker and extempore intellect. What follows is barely edited from our phone call, verbatim.
Robert Dewhurst When we were e-mailing before this conversation, you remarked that people rarely ask you questions, really, about your poetry. What did you mean?
AN I was thinking that they never ask me about what they personally care about in regard to it. They usually have an idea about what questions should be asked and what topics should be covered, but they never say to me, like, “How do you get such-and-such an effect?” Or “How did you stay alive all those years?” Those are two different kinds of questions, and no one ever asks me either kind. So you are permitted to if you would like to.
RD Well, in the essays in Coming After [University of Michigan Press, 2005], you’ve written so clearly about things like prosody and voice—about “poetics,” a term I know you consider suspect—and I’ve also noticed that you’re sometimes asked to repeat yourself. So I’ll try not to do that. As for real poetry questions, I find something like prosody almost embarrassing to address, because it’s so hard to talk about.
AN It’s impossible, unless you use set forms. I tend to set my own forms. And they usually don’t have to do with how the line is measured, but have more to do with sectioning poems, and things like that. Sometimes they’ll have to do with a general length of line. The last few years I’ve actually been working with classical meters, but I’m trying not to signal it. I don’t want anyone to know.
Prosody is really about your own voice, your own physiology, your own vibrations. Prosody’s about how objects and voices vibrate, and how they’re packaged, made compact, but not compact, at the same time—how they spread and become small and then dense. My second husband, Douglas Oliver, did these experiments where he put electrodes on people’s throats and got them to read poems, and then he compared graphs he got of what it was like for them to read a certain poem—say, by Alexander Pope. The graphs showed the shape of the poem, because they would always be similar. I was never very interested in the comparisons, but in the idea of the raw shape of the voice. That was his idea, that prosody is what you see on these voice graphs. The rise and fall of the voice. A great poet is somehow in control of that and makes it orderly, and when it’s disordered is actually in control of the disorder as well. And that’s impossible to talk about.
RD But in your essay “Voice,” while you consider the relationship between a poet’s “poem voice” and “person voice,” you don’t reveal how you discovered your own reading voice. It’s very swift.
AN It’s always been the same.
RD I know! Even though the books are so different….
AN It’s always been the same, no matter what my style has been like, no matter how old I am. I remember my first reading: I was invited by Ted [Berrigan] to read at Yale, and I read in a kind of chapel. There were hardly any people there. A few people who later became Language poets. Ted was teaching them. In a class that Bill Berkson had done the previous semester. There was a reading series, and I read with Tom Veitch. It was my very first reading and I didn’t have that many poems. I remember rehearsing for the reading; I was twenty-five, perhaps. I rehearsed and rehearsed, and I knew exactly how the poems were supposed to sound, I knew what my voice was supposed to be like. And I was somewhat dramatic—I read like a person standing on a stage projecting voice and feeling, but shaping it all at the same time. I’ve never changed from being that kind of reader.
The speed was part of my own voice, but it’s part of what I do in the line, and it’s part of where I come from, which is California, where you are. It’s something Doug told me was an American thing. I can keep my throat open for a very long period of time in a line. You use letters unconsciously, automatically, to keep your throat open, and you keep going, you keep talking, and you’re not caught by the letters that make, I think it’s called, a glottal stop. You don’t use those letters, you use all the other ones—and you can get faster and faster as you do this.
I had also had musical training, so I could do the sound of the keyboard and I knew what it was like—and I knew what it was like to match your voice to Bach or to some nineteenth-century composer. I understood exactly what Frank O’Hara was doing when I encountered his work, and how it was that sort of thing as well. Although when he read aloud, he didn’t read as fast as I did, because he was from the East and I was from the West.
RD That’s interesting. I’ve done a lot of work on John Wieners, from Boston, and in his best readings he has a lovely, slow lilt.
AN He was very Elizabethan—he made that sound. I was teaching a workshop about seven years ago, at Poets House, and no one in the class knew who he was, which was amazing; he disappeared from the radar. But he’s one of my continuing influences, and it’s nice to have him to myself.
RD You studied piano. Here’s one of my favorite images of yours, from the early poem “Desert for All of Music to Take Place” : “Inside me a person is playing the piano perfectly / While I play notes.” Even though your poetry is so musical, I sometimes hear another layer that’s unmusical; an undercurrent, maybe, that tries to twist or upturn the music. Is that just the variable foot? Does that sound right to you?
AN No. Can you say a little more about it?
RD I’m thinking of how in Reason and Other Women [Chax Press, 2010], for instance, the poems become denser and more “difficult” as the book goes on—isn’t the music altered?
AN Well, it becomes more orderly, and I was fighting it all the time. I was fighting the order. I’m not sure I’m always doing that, but I was definitely doing it in Reason and Other Women, because I was trying to find out what my mind was like. But what my mind was doing was reaching out for cadences that it already knew, and that was the only way that it could make sense. Music is the only way you can make a poem make sense. But you fight the music sometimes, because if you give into it, you tend to be giving into somebody else’s sound. I was slightly giving into the Gertrude Stein sound, and it was really bothering me, because I knew that wasn’t the structure of my mind. But in her work she had made a really wonderful structure … She’d presented a structure for her mind, and a very plausible structure that stood in for how the mind works. It’s very seductive, and it’s also the sound of California—California and France together, you know, which is me. I had a lot of trouble with that. Then I just kind of gave in finally and let it do it, and the poems became more and more structured. Then I found out more things, which is what happens when you give in to form—things that you would never think to say come out of you, and then you have them, they’ve been brought to light.
RD Does that come out of form or music? Or are they really the same thing?
AN It comes out of the struggle with form. So I always have a struggle with it. The first really formal poems I wrote were 165 Meeting House Lane [“C” Press, 1971]. I wrote them under the influence of Edwin Denby’s sonnets. His sound was utterly unlike mine, and I knew this. He wrote in short lines and he had a very clipped way of speaking—I knew what he sounded like, and there were these poems. His poems present to you a method for perceiving the material world as you are moving around inside of it. I was quite caught by that, and also by their brevity. I could get the form that way—I could look at things and sort of translate them into something like what Edwin did. And the more I did that, the more I surprised myself by what I was saying. Partly you write for that surprise.
RD Yes, and there’s also a playful, self-propelling effect in your poems, that comes out of sound—how often a new word will be one that was nesting or hiding inside an earlier word, and this will then permute into further words, and so on. The language always sort of leapfrogs over itself. Your poems are filled with that kind of surprise too.
AN Well, that’s what poetry’s like! That’s the most basic description of how it works, I think. You hear yourself say things, and they keep coming up. That was one of the things that Doug’s graphs showed. The rise and fall of the voice, its intonation patterns, repeated. You catch something, you catch a vocal shape, and the way to make form is to repeat it, but maybe a little bit differently: so there’ll be an arch, but then in the next line an arch and then a dip and then a little arch, and then in the next line maybe the first arch will be a little lower and the second one a little higher. So it won’t be too boring … and so you can keep yourself amused while you’re writing!
RD Well, put that way, it sounds exactly like piano.
AN Yes, it is.
It to take; or was it to be unpacked?
Packed it might signify death. The wind
Death the wind calculating your lesson—
hast thou learned a thing? The name of
a thing. I am still defiant, of the pre-
sumption, as articulated. I passed him
in his velveteen jacket worn elbows. The
enculturated elbows of Death need patches.
Do you want my job? he said, for you are brave.
And you are the one different one… How do
you know? In your sleep I approach you
and you breathe on me, as if I were an object,
observable malice. I mean, he said, when you
die, that’s when you can be me. Spy then thief
always the one left; but then there’s more.
I’m too wild, I say; I’m an American. May-
be I’m leaving—for where? bankrupt in
June, lost identity, lost shortcomings.
RD Going back to classical forms, one thing I love about Negativity’s Kiss [Presses Universitaires de Rouen, 2014] is its tone of malediction. Can you speak about that—that Alice Notley tone of negation, contradiction, invective? It feels very classical to me. It reminds me of Archilochus or Catullus.
AN That book is influenced by Wieners. I don’t know how to talk about it exactly, but I’m in touch with his vocabulary. Something about how his vocabulary is polysyllabic got into the poem. That kind of pushes it along, and that helps me with malediction. It’s that kind of diction that helps you do that—it’s elegance that helps you curse well.
RD What you call “garble” in the book, the surfeit of information we’re now bombarded with…
AN Garble is the web. It’s everything, but somehow when I invented that word for all of media and gossip and telepathy, I thought it applied especially well to the Internet. I wrote the book in 2005–2006, and the Internet wasn’t quite what it is now. But I still knew what it was—the garble.
RD Was your turn toward longer and denser forms in the early to mid-’90s—somewhat synchronous with the advent of the Internet—a response, on some level, to this new condition of information overload?
AN No, it had to do with two things. One is that I’ve always preferred reading long poems to shorter poems—I really like to read Chaucer, Dante, Milton. In the ’70s I had piles of books of long poems on my desk and I really enjoyed reading them. I really enjoyed Troilus and Cressida. I keep wanting to create the effect of that pleasure, to make it exist again in poetry. I also think long poems do plot and story better than prose does.
The other reason had to do with the fact of the computer, but I got rid of that slightly. When I first started writing at the computer, it seemed as if I could write endlessly—so fast, and so many words would come out of me! Reason and Other Women, and this forthcoming book called Benediction, and Alma, or the Dead Women [Granary Books, 2006], these were all written at the computer, with no notebook. Since then I’ve been writing in notebooks again, but I still seem to write very much at length. But I’m lonely! I write.
I wrote The Descent of Alette [Penguin, 1996] in notebooks and typed it on the typewriter. But it was written with the typewriter in mind; I always knew what it was going to look like, and my notebook and the typewriter were hand-in-hand. Then I wrote Mysteries of Small Houses[Penguin, 1998] by hand, and when I wrote Disobedience [Penguin, 2001] I would write in a notebook, when I woke up, in bed. After about five days I would have one of those poems and I would type it up. I had a computer then, but I knew what it was going to look like at the point when I got it onto the computer page. The computer at that point was still like a typewriter. And then in Reason and Other Women it became the computer—it became the keyboard, the piano keyboard is what it became.
RD How do you write presently?
AN I write in the morning and it doesn’t take very long, and then I spend the rest of the day fretting and reading and going for walks. I jog. I’m sort of immersed in the world that appears as what I’ve written each morning. Sometimes it’s not very many lines at all, but I’m always working on it. Then sometimes in the afternoon I do something very obsessive about it. I’m never quite sure how it’s going to turn out, but I have to have the moment in the morning when I’m with it, or I just feel terrible for the rest of the day. I don’t have a life! This is my life. But that’s probably not true, since if I had to describe my life, I would be the one person who probably has “the life,” but it doesn’t seem to me like I have it—it just seems to me like I have this writing experience, and that’s all I’ve ever had.
RD You’ve made poetry synonymous with life.
AN Something like that, yes!
RD You wrote Negativity’s Kiss in 2005–2006, and it came out last year. It seems like you’re always sitting on a lot of manuscripts, from all eras: Benediction is coming out this year, and that’s fifteen years old, and last year you published Manhattan Luck [Hearts Desire Press], which collects four previously uncollected texts from the ’70s, and there’s another book forthcoming next year, Certain Magical Acts. How do you make decisions about what to publish and when, or is it all contingency and chance?
AN It’s mostly contingency and chance. It has a lot to do with who asks me for a book and what they want. I just did a set of proofs of Benediction and it’s 274 pages. Penguin would simply not do anything that length. But Joshua Marie Wilkinson, who edits Letter Machine, asked me specifically for a book like that—he told me he wanted a book like Alma or something like that. And I said I had one. So I sent it to him and he liked it.
It’s a very complex book. And it’s also a very emotional thing for me, because my husband became sick in the middle of it, and the whole second part of it goes with his illness. He died right as I finished. It’s been difficult for me to face the book, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s been sitting there for fifteen years. It’s very experimental, on the other hand, so there’s a lot of weight—it’s very heavy for me.
Certain Magical Acts, however, is a book that I didn’t expect to make. Most of my books now are each a separate project, but this one is composed of these pieces I wrote between 2005 and 2011, these sort of middle-sized works that didn’t seem to be turning out to be longer books, but on the other hand were really good. There’s something in it that’s like a novella, like a spy novel, and there are these two works that sort of told me to write them in the summer of 2010—they’re each about twelve pages long—and there’s a series I wrote in 2009 called “Voices” that’s actually quite long. Oh, you published some of those in Animal Shelter. There are two or three sonnet-y works, and there are several two-page works—and they all fit together. They’re all magical acts.
RD In your earlier poetry there’s a great sense of wonder—“every experience is a mystical / one,” you once wrote. Are the poems in Certain Magical Acts a return to some of that sense of wonder?
AN I don’t know if they have that sense of wonder, but it seemed miraculous to me that I wrote them. Each of them came from nowhere. I didn’t try for them, exactly. “Voices” went through some changes. It was once interwoven with a kind of fictional prose diary, which I took out because I thought the sequence was better without it. So I’m not sure that those poems … no, they are; they’re magical acts too. I can never tell, if I write something fast, if it works. These ten-to-twelve-page poems, they came out of nowhere, it was like voices came up from under the ground and said to me: “Write these words.” I wrote each of those poems quite quickly. One of them is called “I Went Down There,” and I read it a lot now at readings. It’s full of all these voices saying different things. When I’m writing a poem like that, or like “Voices,” it’s never clear to me where my voice and the voices that are being dictated to me overlap and separate. I get very queasy in there, like I don’t know if I’m being myself or somebody else. And I’m wanting to be totally the other person.
RD In the introduction to Close to me & Closer [O Books, 1995], you say something to the effect that your father’s voice upstaged yours; that “his” poems in the book were better than the poems written in your voice.
AN In that sequence they probably were. His voice in that work is more interesting and quirky than mine. But, that was quite magical, to hear his voice like that.
RD Besides music and voice, there’s a lot of color in your poems. There’s especially a lot of light and lightness—it makes perfect sense to me that your selected is titled Grave of Light[Wesleyan University Press, 2006]. Would you talk a little about color in your poetry, or that sense of lightness? The word “light” reappears in so many poems.
AN Well, it comes from the desert, but it comes from the New York School first. Then I went back to the desert to get it and realized things about light from both of those places. Paris has no light at all; Paris is a terrible place for light.
The color part is something I picked up from Ted, when I first connected with him. He would go into his class and tell people to write poems, and he would say things like “Put some colors in your poems!” Or “Let your poems have a color scheme!” And I thought that was a really great idea, so when I wrote 165 Meeting House Lane I put so many colors in—I just put in every color I saw! I’m very color sensitive, but I was also looking at a lot of art at the time and I was educating myself about art and poetry.
New York has just the most wonderful light, that’s why all the painters live there, because you can paint in that light. There’s no light like that anywhere else on earth. But in the desert there’s this vast, sort of killing light—this amazing light, and that’s the light I grew up in. I write one kind of poem when I write out of the city, and I write another kind of poem when I write out of the desert. When I write out of the desert everything is very clear. When I write out of the city, it would be clear, but everything is going so fast that you’re not sure if it’s clear or not—you know, it’s clear like a Duchamp or something, like the Nude Descending a Staircase. When I write out of Paris there’s just no light and I have to manufacture it all the time. But I still say what color things are.
RD The city poems are much noisier than the desert poems too, of course, in terms of sound. That poem I mentioned earlier, “Desert for All of Music to Take Place,” has a beautiful serenity or stillness.
AN The desert poems are more contemplative. Although I started Alma in the desert, because I had the basic dream for it when I was in Needles. “Alma’s Forehead,” probably the longest piece in the book, that was what I wrote first, and it came out of the desert.
I remember writing “Desert for All of Music to Take Place” and it felt really good. I wrote it in New York, but I would always go back to Needles in the summer, and I was sort of going outward toward the desert in order to write it—I was thinking about Needles. Have you ever been to Needles? It’s right where you cross the river from Arizona into California. It’s the first town in California on Route 66.
RD I haven’t, but I always think of you when I drive by the signs out there for Needles. I like how in Tell Me Again [Immediate Editions, 1981] you write about your dad answering the telephone at the auto supply store, saying “Needles Auto”—how this nonsense phrase was one of your first poetic delights.
AN Needles Auto. My mother did it too. She worked there for a long time after he died, and my brother did too. They always said “Needles Auto.”
RD The poet character in Negativity’s Kiss is named Ines for “inessential.” According to the dystopic logic of the book, “poetry is inessential.” But in Désamère [O Books, 1995] you wrote “Poetry is the species” …
AN That’s how culture views poetry, as inessential. But “poetry is inessential” is only meant to be ironic. This woman’s name is Ines Geronimo. She’s the last one of her kind, she’s the only one who doesn’t surrender. Geronimo wasn’t the last one of his kind, but he was, in the sense that he didn’t surrender. Like me. But the name makes her also be possibly Latina. Everyone in the book has a slippery identity, and there’s a lot of slippery racial identity in the book, because that’s what it’s like now.
RD I thought about that reading Secret I D [The Catenary Press, 2013]. When you wrote Mysteries of Small Houses you were very interested in essential identity, what you called “basic I,” sort of going completely against the grain of the fussing over first-person lyric in the ’90s. But the sense of identity in your work has since become much more scrambled, or slippery, as you say.
AN Well, outer identity is very slippery—no one can keep hold of it right now. Inner identity, I think, is quite graspable, but it’s indescribable because it’s a mystical entity. It’s what the Hindus call self, when they talk about whatever they call their mystical experience—I can’t remember right now—it’s an experience of self. Oh yes, the self is the atman. It is said to be about the size of your thumb, or you should concentrate on it with that image in mind—I think it’s in the chest.
RD Right. It’s a mystical experience, but not necessarily an ecstatic one.
AN Well, it can be, but it’s this other way of looking at self. The word has mostly been used over the last twenty, thirty years as a superficial thing, as the superficial cultural entity. So when people are always trying to prove that there is no self, they’re trying to prove that entity is superficial—well, it is, but that’s not the self! That’s just that self, this other self. The word can be used in a lot of different ways.
I found the whole dialogue about self in the ’90s to be really boring. When people were talking about how there was no self they didn’t mean self, they wanted to say “soul,” but they were too prissy to say it. You know, you can’t say “soul,” so you say “self,” but the minute you say “self” you’re in trouble, because self has a lot of different meanings, and you get confused as to what you’re talking about. Then you just have this really stupid conversation going on.
RD An even uglier word is subjectivity!
AN Yeah! What the hell does that mean? What do any of these words mean? Well, you have to sound smart, and then you can get your degree, and then you can get your job.
RD In Alice Ordered Me to Be Made [The Yellow Press, 1976] there’s a great proclamation: “I hate saviors I love heroes / the older artists of the / messy lives.” Can you say something about how the lives that poets lead now are more boring than in the past?
AN Everybody wants me to say that! It’s true, they’re very boring, everyone’s lives. Everyone’s too much inside of these institutions. They should get out of them, and they should lead messy, sorrowful lives. And find out what everybody really feels like, and find out how to cope with everything. You have to really be broken in order to be a poet. It’s a very bad thing to tell a young person, but it’s true. Poetry comes out of all the places where you break.
RD Fanny Howe has a small piece of writing about this, how some poetry comes from devastating personal experiences. She remarks that such poetry “has given rise to the myth of the poet and writer as victim, lonely voice, fool and prophet.” And she just writes, “This myth has some foundation.”
AN There’s a lot of truth to it. It isn’t romantic to suffer, but you won’t know anything if you don’t.
RD Were drugs ever an influence on your writing?
AN I used to write quite a bit on small amounts of speed, because it kept me going, actually. You know, I was raising my children, making dinner, trying to hold everything together on very small amounts of money. There was speed around, it was just cheap pills. I took cheap pills for a number of years, but I also did dangerous things. It says on the first page of In the Pines [Penguin, 2007] that I got Hepatitis C from shooting speed in 1970. That’s true. I did do that for about a year and it was kind of horrible. Then I stopped and I forgot about it. It was something that seemed to go with what it was like to be alive at the end of the ’60s, during the Vietnam War. It’s part of how I think of that period. Everything that was going on socially and politically was very unpleasant, and I was doing something unpleasant to get through it.
I tried a lot of different drugs, but I was never as interested in any of them as I was in poetry. I didn’t need anything in order to write, and the person that I’m probably the most like in relation to drugs is Allen Ginsberg, who tried everything but was never addicted to anything. Because he was always on some other mission, you know? Although he talked about drugs all the time and was always talking about legalizing pot and things like that, he was on the mission of writing his poetry and leading his life and being himself. Drugs fed into it, but he wasn’t very interested in them really.
RD Did you find that taking speed, for instance, modulated your music?
AN It made my memory really good. They give it to kids now and then they’re good students, right? If you don’t use it in large quantities it’s quite good for you, actually. Joanne Kyger has a line about how often these stimulants just “graze the surface.” I found that that was true—that stimulants just graze the surface. When Ted died I stopped taking it, I never took it again. Except once with Doug. Doug decided when he was like sixty-two that he needed to take speed in order to start a book. He wrote the first chapter of Whisper Louise on speed. We got some from someone and we were both just too old to take it. It was horrifying! But I stopped using anything after Ted died, except I was given tranquilizers. I didn’t drink for a number of years, and then I drank again, and then I stopped drinking. I haven’t had anything to drink for … twelve years? I sometimes get addicted to things in very tiny quantities, the way women sometimes do—like they’ll take a quarter of something every day.
RD It’s almost homeopathic.
AN I do things like that. But mostly I’m not interested. On LSD you see certain things, but you only need to take it a couple times to have the experience. On LSD I saw that everything was in motion and that we have in our perceptual equipment something that makes us keep it still. We’ve decided we don’t want to see that it’s in motion, but if you take LSD you see that it’s all moving. And that’s been very important to me to have actually seen it with my own eyes. I can think about that forever if I want to. But I would never take LSD again!
One time, Allen and I think it was Gregory [Corso] and Harry Smith all took ecstasy together, when they were in their sixties. Allen’s heart started going pitty-pat, pitty-pat, pitty-pat—it had speed in it and he didn’t know. You get too old for drugs, unless you’re Herbert Huncke.
RD In an old interview by Judith Goldman in the Poetry Project Newsletter, you said: “I always want to write poems that anyone can understand.” There’s a line in Secret I D that goes “I write for those who don’t read my poems.” My last question is, what is your sense of audience currently, either living or dead?
AN 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. It’s a huge job to be a poet. It’s the most essential thing there is. In terms of essence, it’s very essential. Poetry is the species. I would probably emphasize the “is.” All of our perceptual equipment is geared toward seeing us as forms, as compact forms operating on many levels—that’s like a poem. That’s who we are, that’s how we see. That’s what there is, really: there’s poetry. Prose is very, very flat. But we’re not flat. We’re dense and layered.
Robert Dewhurst, a poet and scholar, holds a doctorate from the Poetics Program at the University of Buffalo (SUNY), and lives in Los Angeles. He is coeditor (with Joshua Beckman and CAConrad) of Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners, out this fall from Wave Books.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee