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Interview
  Alice Notley
Alice Notley has published over thirty books of poetry, including (most recently) Grave of Light, New and Selected Poems 1970-2005; Alma, or The Dead Women; and In the Pines. With her sons, Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, Notley edited The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. She is also the author of a book of essays on poets and poetry, Coming After. Notley has received many prizes and awards including the Academy of American Poetís Lenore Marshall Prize, the Poetry Society of Americaís Shelley Award, the Griffin Prize, two NEA Grants, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry. Often considered an important figure in the New York School, Notley now lives and writes in Paris, France.
 

In The Descent of Alette, you write that ‘“The tyrant” “owns form”’, and your recent Selected provides evidence of the range of forms your poetry has taken over the years. Is an adherence to any one particular form Ė metre, verse structure etc Ė inherently tyrannical?

That statement about form isnít an opinion, itís spoken by a character in a narrative poem. Sheís a painter who lives in the subway world of the poem, and I donít exactly have control over what she says -- that is, I work somewhat like a novelist when I write narratively, and the characters have autonomy. The use of characters is an important part of my form, as much as meter, verse structure, etc.

At the time of the writing of Alette, I was meditating on the extent to which the physical forms weíre most familiar with -- rooms and buildings, tables and chairs in the West, and just about everything else -- are or were male-generated, thought up by and realized by men. Itís hard to imagine a woman somewhere in the distant past saying, Yes we need something like a chair and I will take some wood and my tools -- for I am a carpenter -- and construct one. And if one becomes a painter, one is immediately confronted with the rectangle, for example, which in our world was established by men and painted on almost uniquely by them until very recently. The woman in the subway canít find an artistic form that doesnít feel owned by men; thatís her dilemma.

I donít feel exactly the same way about poetic form, somewhat but not exactly. Iím aware of a lot of historical possibilities for women in connection with folk poetry and song and babble into the air. And I donít find form tyrannical. But I have written about how, when I was young, the young male poets seemed to know what a line was, what their (eachís) line might be, who they should be influenced by, etc., and I didnít. Their knowledge, as far as I could tell, came from within them; I didnít have it.

Personally I find an adherence to a particular form across time limiting. But that may have to do with the fact that Iíve had to create an entire female tradition within me -- since there has been so little of that in the past; that I have had to find all the past forms, as well as the more modern forms, within me first. As if I can only exist properly as poet after Iíve mastered the whole thing from the beginning as a woman. In a sense, no one came before me. In another sense, all of these men did, and they have said what poetry is, what the tradition is, what the forms are.

In your view, does this tyranny relate, prescriptively or proscriptively, to the use of the first person singular in poetry?

The use of the first person singular can be a very exact procedure, and I like it. Sometimes itís a character, sometimes itís something character-like in me -- I present myself as a certain kind of person. Ideally it feels like the one behind the big show, the true self. Iím working with some classical Latin meters at the moment, and am reminded that there is no first person singular (nominative) in that language in the way we know it in English. Itís most often contained in the verb. The conceptís there, but it isnít in a separate word, itís in a letter at the end of a word and is connected, I suppose, with process. I donít think a word like “process” glamorizes the sense of I, or frees it from the criticisms one might think of. I is there. The Roman poets were very egotistical.

In another interview you describe the quotation marks in Alette as a Ďmeasuring deviceí. Could you say something more about this? What are the benefits of emphasising metre in this way?

Aletteís lines are divided into feet, quite rigidly, but the feet arenít traditional or consistent. Thereís no way for the reader to know where the feet are unless I mark them; I chose quotation marks to indicate where they are. The poem canít be read properly without the quotation marks -- they tell the voice (including the mental voice of the reader) what to do, they shape it. There were probably other punctuational options, but the quotation marks were the most elegant. I repeat that I had no choice but to demarcate the feet in some way.

Your earliest work and much of your recent poetry is invested in the quotidian. How is metre affected by the incorporation of the everyday in your work?

In fact very little of my recent poetry is invested in the quotidian. I think I can only answer your question in relation to my earlier work. In that poetry I was keyed into the sound of conversation in the United States, both in New York (City) and in the Southwest. One hears a spoken metric and imitates it: but none of the traditional meters or forms work for this sound. The traditional English meters and forms are suited to British English; applied to American English, they produce a lame product -- ergo the emergence of Whitman and Dickinson, poets obliged to initiate a new tradition since the old one didnít allow them to write as they needed to. The regions of America each produce a different sound or metric. Poets from New England tend to write a clipped poetry: Dickinson, Creeley, Susan Howe, Ted (Berrigan) at times. Poets from New York are more garrulous and need a longer line: Whitman, OíHara, etc. But Whitmanís line is affected by the 19th century craze for the dactyl and anapest; OíHaraís line is speedy and influenced by the piano keyboard. The West, where I originally come from, has produced a kind of speech with a drawl, at least in the Southwest, and an endless suspended sentence. Iíve been influenced by Philip Whalen, who was from the Northwest and made very individual shapes on the page to suit his ear. He professed to be affected by the 18th-century basso ostinato, but he was also listening to the way people up there and around San Francisco said things. When I was influenced by conversation I went back and forth between a New York sound and a Western sound. I was also, however, very influenced by music, both keyboard music and vocal music with its distortions. For me poetry is about vocal distortion, thatís how it achieves its effects.

One of the reasons I donít include the quotidian much anymore is because I canít be directly influenced by conversations in French. I find it difficult to place my daily French experience in a poem in English, though I tried to somewhat in Above the Leaders. But those poems become visionary. And previously, in Disobedience, the quotidian is a deliberate, manipulated element, but itís always snipped off like in a film clip, it doesnít permeate the poem. I could argue that The Descent of Alette is just as influenced by quotidian reality as any of my more recent poetry, because itís influenced by the New York subway system, by my riding of the trains, and by the presence of the homeless people in the subway in the late 1980s when I wrote the poem. And also, it is influenced by the way people speak and -- as I indicate in the little preface -- by the fact that they speak and by the fact that traditionally a poem is a spoken entity. But the influence is very broad and doesnít include a specific sense of the New York idiom.

I should add that my most recently published full-length books, In the Pines and Alma, or The Dead Women are very very far from, at least, my notion of the quotidian.

In ĎThe Poetics of Disobedienceí you write that your Ďbiggest act of disobedience has consistently, since I was an adolescent, been against the idea that all truth comes from books, really other people's books.í Who are the writers you have learned from, positively or negatively?

Oh Iíve learned from everyone. The wide range of the forms I practice indicates a long list of influences. I couldnít possibly name them all, and they kind of donít interest me as such. My “official” influences -- people like Williams and OíHara, the Don Allen anthology poets etc, or Shakespeare, Homer, Dante -- are so obvious and so widespread as influences that it makes me blush or yawn to mention them. When I was in my twenties I was heavily influenced by my contemporaries Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman, and thatís possibly more interesting. Iíve written somewhere that we created a voice together, passing it around between us, almost unconsciously. It was a voice that a woman could speak with, something obviously lacking at the time. Recently I wanted to teach a little Faulkner in a workshop that included prose, and I got hold of As I Lay Dying and one of the other novels -- I think one of the Snopes trilogy. I opened them up and found all of my poetic techniques laid out in front of me. Horrifying! Or perhaps great. I had forgotten that in my late teens, early twenties I had read As I Lay Dying every summer when I went home to Needles, California. I had been admitted to the Writers Workshop (in Iowa) as a fiction writer, and I had first worked out in prose fiction. I suspect that itís oneís earliest influences that are the most ingrained, that the people we read as teenagers stay in place underneath our poems for the rest of our lives. Also Iím aware of the tremendous influence that song lyrics of all sorts have had on me: folksongs, blues, Broadway musicals, terrible music from the early 50s, country, not rock so much.

Has living in France given you any perspective on the various arguments of the mainstream and the avant-garde in the US?

Iím not sure anyoneís making those arguments any more. The differences between the two have been erased by the proliferation of MFA programs, and the fact that Everybody teaches. The old avant-gardeish people teach, and the young poets teach; everyoneís been swallowed by the academy, and no one can possibly maintain an avant-garde position in that kind of situation. A word like “innovative” is owned by the university. There is no avant-garde. But itís possible that thereís also no mainstream now either, even though those diehard mainstream guys -- the ones still alive -- seem to eat up all the major awards and best publishing. But Iím not sure anyoneís paying much attention. The young arenít interested in poetry movements; that was really a 20th century thing, and itís markedly a different century. The young are chaotically arranged, and that seems healthy, but I donít think the MFA thing is particularly healthy.

Have you observed any similar kind of divisions in French poetry?

Iíve never found the French mainstream, but the French arts donít seem particularly thriving to me, though there are a bunch of young poets. The favored art form here is film; and everyone kowtows to philosophy. If you say you are a poète everyone thinks youíre being whimsical, but in my working-class neighborhood there is a philosophe and everyone knows he is a philosophe. My impression is that poetry is even more marginalized here than it is in Britain or in the United States.

Much of your poetry oscillates between a visionary element and a political commitment. As you have suggested, the idea of the poet as a seer runs the risk of coming across as New Age mysticism; equally, the Ďpolitical poetí is a figure susceptible to cynical denigration. What do you see as the stakes involved in these risks?

I have visionary experience: am I supposed to leave that out? There is a healthy, important visionary tradition in our poetry. And I belong to the half of humankind that is routinely denied equality with the other half, that has been abused and disempowered across cultures and for all of human history. If my poetry doesnít reflect that fact, I am a liar, arenít I? I was just dispossessed of my last name again last week, on a bank card, and I gave in. The French, and to a certain extent the British, want me to accept “Oliver” as my last name due to my marriage to Doug Oliver, but I went through a legal process in New York to ensure that I retained the name “Notley.” Why canít I say what my name is? Iíve written over thirty books under the name Notley; I am in fact a great poet, and I am “treated like a woman.” I will never stop talking about such things, nor about the fact -- as I first wrote in my long poem Désamère in 1993 -- that our civilizations and the nature we know are crumbling around us: how can the end of history not be a fit subject for poetry?