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Unique and Splendid, Compressed and Layered, Sonic and Cognitive: Alice Notley

Interview by Sophie Erskine.

3:AM: First things first, I’ve noticed that your output is very diverse. Your work includes not only poetry, for instance, but also visual art – collages, watercolours and sketches. What’s the relationship between these different art forms for you? Are they separate endeavours, or each part of one bigger project?

AN: My visual art is subsidiary to the poetry: my primary talent is for poetry. The visual art tends to be something I do when I need to think non-verbally, with color, texture, mass, composition. The process seems eventually to translate back into the writing. I’m aware, writing poetry, that I’m handling those same qualities. My collages are usually sumptuous, with lots of bright colors, foil, sequins, beads, gold ink, as well as trashier-looking materials – pieces of paper torn from magazines or found on the sidewalk, allowed to get further messed up in a drawer. I think my writing is often comparable in terms of vocabulary, syntax and formal qualities. Sometimes in the visual art I work with images and words that I’m currently using in the poetry. At the moment I’m working on watercolors tied to a book-length project called Culture of One that specifies a codex, that is, one of the characters in the book is at work on a sort of manuscript including visual art, and so I’m doing something analogous on the outside. But this artwork will never be seen, it’s really for me. My visual art doesn’t seem extraordinary to me, the way my poetry does. I’ve had a couple of shows, but that was a long time ago. Now I usually send things to my archive at the University of California at La Jolla. It’s all fragile and needs to be preserved. You might be interested to know that my primary shape for the last twenty years or more has been the fan. I make collage art works out of the cheap fans you see in Chinese bric-a-brac stores. The cover image for Grave of Light is an atypical example, with a broken fan placed against a flatter form, both having things pasted and painted on them.

3:AM: You’ve been an important presence in the legendary second generation of New York School poets. An idea attributed to these poets claims that “only the poems matter”, implying that theorizing and criticizing don’t matter. You’ve also said that your primary aim is to make a poem rather than social commentary. If you don’t mind me asking, why this emphasis on theoretically empty art-making? What’s wrong with commentary?

AN: As a matter of fact I’ve written critical essays, in conventional and unconventional forms, on and off for decades. My own conception of the poet is that of a broadly literary figure, and I aspire to be like Virginia Woolf or Marianne Moore or William Carlos Williams, a writer of elegant criticism as well as of a creative oeuvre. However, my recent collection of essays, Coming After, specifically covers poets of the second generation of the New York School and their allies, on the grounds that they wouldn’t be willing to write about or describe each other and so I must. The book also refers to my own work, particularly The Descent of Alette, which I felt compelled to talk about in print around the time I was writing it. I thought that poem would be hard for certain members of my usual audience, because of my use of quotation marks and especially because I was working with the traditional epic form, and so I tried to explain what I was up to. That said, I think the stance that “only the poems matter” has quite a lot to be said for it. It makes demands on the audience perhaps – of attention and concentration — but it demands much more of the poems themselves. I tend to distrust poetry that comes ready-made with commentary or that overtly allies itself with a school of criticism or philosophy. To me that indicates a possible lack of talent, a distrust of poetry itself, and perhaps a careerist desire simply to be heard and noticed. Poetry, finally, doesn’t need that much commentary. It’s good to know something of the background of the Iliad or The Divine Comedy or Shakespeare’s plays because so much time has gone by and imaginative projection into the world of those works has become a little harder. It usually isn’t hard to understand where a contemporary poem comes from, though it might be hard to understand the poem, but if it requires of the audience a background in French philosophy, then it might not be doing its work properly. Unless you’re French. What poetry does can’t be done by any other art form or discipline, it is worthwhile because it is unique and splendid – compressed and layered, sonic and cognitive, in a way none of the other written arts are.

3:AM: You’ve contributed to anthologies called Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road, DIAMONDS Are A Girl’s Best Friend: Women Writers on Baseball and Love Poems By Women. I’m seeing a running theme. Can you describe the influence of feminism and ‘the female’, if you like, on your work?

AN: You’ve picked the two most frivolous titles from the list of anthologies I’m in, but it’s true that I am a feminist. I have not been ‘influenced’ by feminism or ‘the female,’ rather I’m a woman and I’ve been a feminist since I was first conscious, having realized that I would have to fight in order to do what I wanted to in life, particularly serve my poetry talent. It might be more proper to ask what effect I myself might be having on feminism since so much of my poetry addresses the denial of power and status to women for millennia and has at its heart the establishment of a poetic tradition for women. When I was in my twenties, I gave birth to two children; noticing that there were hardly any poems with pregnancy and childbirth as their subject, I wrote some. I then noticed that in the Modernist tradition the women poets I respected hadn’t been mothers, so I proceeded to invent a Modernist poetry of motherhood, which was simultaneously being initiated and echoed by other women of my generation. I was then widowed: where was that poetry? I wrote it. In the 80s I wrote an epic poem, The Descent of Alette, with a heroine rather than a hero, not being the first woman to do so, but on the other hand probably being the first woman to do so without the heroine’s being a subsidiary mythological figure, e.g. like Helen, a figment of male consciousness. I have continued in this vein, since I see women routinely denied political and financial power and ridiculed when they seek it. And I see women ignorant of the fact that they are denied power since they’ve been without it at least since the beginning of written history. One has been routinely brainwashed.

3:AM: The review of your work in March’s Nation comments on the discontinuous, stream-of-consciousness aspect of your writing. I love that aspect of it, and I also love the stream-of-consciousness aspect of, say, Virginia Woolf’s writing. Were you inspired in this respect by writers such as Woolf, or am I barking up the wrong tree?

AN: I’ve never seen my work as stream-of-consciousness, but since several people have used the term in connection with my poetry in the last few years I’m not disinclined to think that way for a moment. I have several things to say in no particular order. One uses a technique because one likes it, likes its effects, likes the art one gets to make with it. You use it because it works and gives you pleasure or release or a sensation of grace that might extend to your audience. I am a poet not a novelist, so one must look for something correlative here. Poets appear to be self-revelatory sometimes, but in most good or great poetry that is an illusion, the poetry isn’t personal even when it’s called that. The poet is getting at something, but not her- or himself, perhaps something about “the human” or existence in general, using a form that can project the poet as a character. I’m willing to go with that, though I also write poems that contain fictional characters. Stream-of-consciousness in my work might be about my catching a flow, but it’s more like a flow of reasoning using techniques such as repetition and disjunction. I have been somewhat influenced by Gertrude Stein’s ideas about what a mind is like and how one might depict it, that it is repetitive to the point of a stasis which becomes musical, beautiful, and profound. I have a manuscript that I can’t get published, called Reason and Other Women, which tries to catch my mind in essence and probably uses something like stream-of-consciousness. The obvious problem is that you can only catch a mind with a mind, so you never get where you’re trying to be, again you wind up making art. Why shouldn’t you? I have probably been influenced by Woolf, having read most of her work, as well as most of Faulkner’s. I like big sentences full of light.

3:AM: A good number of your poems, like ‘Dear Dark Continent’ (‘But isn’t it only I in the real/whole long universe? Alone to be/in the whole long universe?’) and ‘I The People’ (‘I wear/your colors/I hear what we say & what/we say … (and I/the people am still parted in/two & would cry)’) seem to investigate the nature of the self: its limits, its contents, its status, if you like, in the world. That’s what they make me think about, anyway. Could you outline how your thinking in this regard has evolved over the years?

AN: I guess it could go something like this. When I was in my twenties and had my sons, I discovered that the self was alone “in the whole long universe” but also morally bound to certain others, if not all of them. As I grew older and especially while I was living in New York, I took up a very social life, mixing with other people and voices constantly. I saw the self as in a constant conversation with all these others. After my first husband, Ted Berrigan, died, a significant voice in my life was extinguished. In order to find my self again, I seemed to have to return to who I was before I married, as well as stay the one I had become. After five years I married Doug Oliver, a British poet, and so I took on the notion of the other culture, as I lived with him but also moved to France. Meanwhile my brother Albert died, after living a terrible aftermath to his time as a soldier in Vietnam: my self and his self were part of each other and what our country had done, to the Vietnamese but also to him and to me. Then after a time Doug died, and I was left a foreigner, alone in a still-foreign culture. I like the French a lot, but I can never be like them, perhaps I can’t belong to any culture. I have seen the self more recently, because of international politics and wars and because of how nations and societies are set up, as that which is open to attack and victimization by other selves. However the self can be limitlessly free – I am now using the word in the sense of soul. I am currently working on the problem of whether selves can be united in groups without damage to the individual self. I am hoping this is the case, but I’m not sure.

3:AM: Finally, an even more mammoth question – this time about your metaphysics. Some of your later work appears to evoke a real anti-religious sentiment: I’m thinking, for instance, of ‘Parable of Christian’ (‘so tell me again my friend to accept my murderess because shes a friend too/and you do you always do what ethic is this is it Christian, to stab another to bits so she/can forgive you and so and so/so nothing can be accomplished except forgiveness and compassion/stupid.’). In your earlier work, at least, you seem to suggest a sort of holistic, death-defying ontology. For example, in ‘The World, All That Live & All That Occur’ you say ‘The world, all that live & all that occur/within it, being the one organism/a monstrous-life-death living not-dying/caving-in upthrusting all over it-self like pits & mountains forever thing’. Given that you don’t think about things in religious terms, what sort of thing is the world? Could you elaborate on the suggestions made in Grave of Light?

AN: The world is what we’re always in the process of defining so we can organize it and each other. Religion – “organized” religion – keeps the poor and, particularly, women, subdued and unquestioning. We’re supposed to abide within a poorer or inferior majority, supposed to have a caste system, supposed to hide parts of our bodies in various ways and not assume authority: the male gods and their emissaries assure us of this. Contrarily, the world seems to me to be largely chaotic in a rather attractive way, in motion and with forms blurred and colors bleeding like on LSD, oneself interacting with all that but retaining nonetheless a sense of self. I am privy to mystical experience, what you might call grace, but it comes largely when I write – a version not described in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I don’t believe in god, except in some way where I am god or everything is god. I seem to believe in the afterlife, since I seem to communicate with the dead; but it’s important to say “seem,” although it doesn’t feel really important whether or not I can say with clear-cut certainty, Yes there is an afterlife, Yes I communicate with the dead. None of the ways we define things work in this area, except maybe poetry. Poetry looks at the world in order constantly to recreate it, not define it. My first husband, the poet Ted Berrigan, said somewhere that he was afraid that if he didn’t give praise everything would fall apart. His idea of praise wasn’t an ordinary one, and mine isn’t either. I’m always going back to the beginning, trying to change myself, change history backwards, change everyone’s perception, change The Story. I’m interested in the notion of simultaneous time, not linear time, what time would be like in the mind of god, if there were god.


Alice Notley, American poet, is the author of over thirty books, including In the Pines, Alma, or The Dead Women, and Grave of Light, Selected Poems 1970 – 2005.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 19th, 2009.