Interview with Alice Notley: Part One

I found this transcript of an interview I did with the poet Alice Notley in the spring of 2007 at the downtown Hilton in Altlanta, Georgia, during the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference. The transcript is insanely long, but Notley was so honest, so fascinating, and so patient with me (I was going through a kind of crisis of commitment to poetry at the time, which bleeds into the interview in somewhat embarrassing ways) that I wanted to post it in full. But to make it a bit easier to read, I’m going to break it into two (still long) sections.

Alice Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1945, and grew up in Needles, California. She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to study fiction, earning her MFA in 1969, but she switched to poetry early on and has reportedly never looked back. Widowed twice, she was married to the American poet Ted Berrigan (1934-1983) and the British poet Douglas Oliver (1997-2000). Her two sons with Berrigan, Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, are also both poets. Though closely associated with the “Second Generation New York School” movement due to her first marriage and her active role in Manhattan’s downtown literary scene from the seventies through the nineties, her work resists this kind of categorization and she has proven herself to be a fiercely independent artist with a distinct aesthetic vision. Notley has published over 20 books of poetry and has won various awards, including the Griffin International Poetry Prize for her collection Disobedience in 2002. Six months after this interview took place, the Academy of American Poets announced that Notley had won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for the revelatory Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005. She lives in France.

We laughed a lot during the interview. I’d followed her around for a day or so before we sat down and so we’d already gotten to know each other a little bit. She could be tough and intimidating, and yet she was also incredibly warm and, clearly, remarkably generous. I couldn’t find anything in the transcript that I was willing to cut out. [Ellipses here indicate a pause in speech rather than the removal of text.]

DR: It seems to me that the recognition you’ve been receiving in the last five to ten years — like winning major awards, receiving important nominations, the publication of a beautiful, thick, hardcover edition of your collected poems — was long overdue.

AN: I think … it just took a while. It took a really long time for people to see that I was good. I don’t know, it’s hard. I’m better than a lot of poets — most poets — but I shouldn’t say that on tape. People don’t want you to be…you know, they don’t want [to see you that way], they can’t believe you’re that person. It took me a long time to know that I was that person, myself.

DR: What do you mean? That kind of a poet?

AN: I think it took me a long time to gauge my own talent. I have a very big talent. And I didn’t think about it that way for a really long time. I just followed it. I’ve always followed it. I didn’t know that the name of that was something that sounds egotistical. [Laughs.] Which I don’t want to say!

DR: That’s what I find is so inspiring, that you kept working so consistently for such a long time…

AN: When I first saw that I was going to be a poet, from that moment on, that was all I cared about. You know, I had my kids and everything, and they’re the most important living creatures for me and I care about them amazingly. But there was never any competition between them and poetry — they’re the same thing.

DR: Well it makes sense that they’re both poets.

AN: Yes. We’re all a part of the same thing. I chose poetry, but I think it chose me. And I didn’t understand that that was what it was doing, it just sort of took me, it said, hello, you’re mine, and I said okay. I didn’t really understand that was going on, I didn’t think about it consciously. I never did anything but write poetry after I was 23 years old and I had no interest in doing anything else.

DR: Was it frustrating that it took so long for people to catch on to what you were doing? It doesn’t seem like it was… you had support early on from your community…

AN: I didn’t have support early on from my community, but I always had a lot of support from Ted, and he seemed to be smarter than anyone else in the community about who was good. That was good enough for me. I had support from Bob Creeley from the time I was about 24 or 25 years old. And Allen, Allen Ginsberg always liked me, and he gradually saw that I was good and I became very friendly with him. We were good friends.

DR: How much importance do you place on that kind of community? Do the divisions between kinds of poetry matter?

AN: I don’t know. Which ones are you thinking of?

DR: People parsing out different factions of poetry, like academic poetry and Beat poetry and New York School poetry and Second Generation New York School poetry….

AN: It’s chaos. The Beats and the New York School have always been kind of the same thing, and the Black Mountains too. And there were some other schools in that generation and they’re all really the same school. It’s probably fair enough to call them the Donald Allen poets, the Don Allen Anthology Poets. They mix and blend very well. There was some frictional stuff I would hear, you might hear Kenneth Koch bitch Robert Creeley or vice versa, although they were friendly, and you might get a little bit of “school” edge there, but it didn’t count for anything. The real edge was between those poets and the academic poets. The academic poets have always been a complete pain in the ass, because they have all the turf in a way, but it’s not a very big turf. [Laughs.] So it’s always complicated. And now everybody’s an academic poet because everybody’s in the universities, so it’s very hard to talk about. None of the categories exist anymore as far as I can tell, they just don’t exist. But there’s something there that still creates differences.

DR: What do you think that division used to be?

AN: They got all the awards, they got all the money. They still do. It’s really hard to get an award. If you’re not already… they won’t give you money if you don’t already have some money proving you’re worthy of having money. And no one is going to give you a so-called genius award unless you have an academic position. It’s a little weird wouldn’t you say?

DR: You taught at Naropa University

AN: Not really. This is fake [she laughs, referencing her participation at an academic conference]. I’m affiliated with Naropa, I’ve taught there for week-long periods in the summer a number of times and I’ve gone back a lot. But what this is about is that around 1986-87, I was trying to generate some more work and more money and I was doing a CV and Allen [Ginsberg, who founded Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in 1974 with Anne Waldman] was helping me and he said that I could put in my CV that I was a “permanent visiting faculty member of Naropa University.” [Laughs.] So I put it in my CV, it’s embedded in my CV. It’s what Wesleyan [who published Grave of Light] used to make it okay for me to be here [at AWP]. I don’t think Naropa knows about it, but Allen gave me the title. I don’t think Naropa would mind.

DR: Did you like teaching when you were doing it?

AN: I’ve done a lot of workshop teaching and I really liked it. I’ve taught two or three times in schools where you gave grades and I didn’t like that much. I taught a year at a university in Paris and I really disliked that. And I taught for a couple years at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I liked teaching the workshop, but I was asked to teach freshman comp and I didn’t like that.

I just don’t care whether anyone that age likes poetry or not. I know it was really good for you, but Ken’s a genius. [I had told her that I’d studied with Ken Mikolowski at the University of Michigan.] He’s a genius at that kind of thing. He’s one of a kind.

DR: The great thing about Ken is that he’s brilliant at sharing his own enthusiasm.

AN: I just don’t care if anyone learns in a classroom situation about poetry. I have no investment in it. It’s like having to teach in high schools. Every once in a while I go do one of those classes and I just don’t care about the students, I don’t care about their work. I’m always being asked to act like they’re such geniuses. [Laughs.]

DR: Is this in France?

AN: No, the United States, and it’s very fatiguing. I’ve never dealt with the little ones. I’d probably think they were little brats. I respect what Kenneth did. I respect his work with children, but I could never do it. [I believe she is referring to Kenneth Koch here.]

DR: Do you care if people continue to write poetry?

AN: Oh certainly, I do. But the way I learned to write poetry, well it had to do… I think the ways we’re educated in poetry are all wrong from the ground up.

DR: How would you redo it?

AN: From high school I would have kids read a lot of different kinds of poetry and not cleanse it all. What they get is so cleansed. They should have to memorize again. You have to be educated by sound. None of them know poetry is about this very specific use of language that is like music, but that does more than music does.

I was in an MFA program — I went to Iowa. But I went there to try to figure out how to be a writer, not to get a teaching degree. That’s wrong. It’s wrong that you’re supposed to go and get a teaching degree. You should be going to get in contact with other writers and get community experience and find out what the tricks of the trade are, find out some writing techniques. That’s what the emphasis should be on.

DR: Allen Ginsberg seemed to be a great publicist for poetry. I wonder if one can bring poetry into the mainstream, whether it’s possible now or not? Does it work at all and should one think about it at all?

AN: I want my poetry to speak out to people’s concerns and I’m interested in a public poetry. But I don’t think that necessarily means performing for massive numbers of people or dressing down poetry in any way, making it overly plain, overly explicit, emphasizing rhyme, all of that stuff. After Doug died, I had realized I was becoming more and more interested in performing. I got involved in listening to these CDs of flamenco singers, and I realized there was this tradition of this very old, very fine art, that was all handed down from generation to generation in spades, that probably wasn’t going on much anymore. These recordings were made in the twenties and thirties. It is, in fact, a very fine art, a very old art, but you’re not doing it for the masses, you’re doing it for people that you sing to in rather small rooms. It’s a tradition that’s, what, a thousand years old? Poetry can be like that too. I was turned on by this one woman who started performing at 55, and I thought I will make my life be like hers. [Laughs.]

DR: Were you in Spain when you got interested in Flamenco singing?

AN: No, I’ve never spent much time in Spain, but I’ve always been interested in Flamenco rhythms. I was using the cadences to break some of my rhythmic habits in the book Alma, or the Dead Women.

Bob Dylan could play a big stadium, but he doesn’t always. He plays in a smaller place, like the Beacon Theatre, and he does a better performance. I heard him at the Palais Omnisports in Paris and I couldn’t even hear him. I didn’t know why anyone was there. Why did anyone go? The band was super, but you couldn’t hear what he was doing. I don’t think art should take place like that.

DR: What you were talking about with your cadences, there’s such a specific rhythm in your work. What was behind your choice to change that?

AN: Your poetry gets boring from time to time. Usually when it’s boring, you’re stuck in a cadence and you need to change your cadence. So I look for places to get new ideas for cadence.

DR: Where did it first come from?

AN: I was very young.

DR: Not all poets have an ear to write with such rhythm.

AN: You tend to imitate the first poets who influence you. And you sound like them. Sometimes you sound like them forever and ever. Some poets will always sound like the first poet they were turned on by. But I have a very restless ear. From the beginning, I was turned on by about a hundred poets or more. I’ve never been able to choose one sound over another one consistently, because I’m in love with so many different sounds.

DR: Who were some of these first poets?

AN: Well, I started writing after I heard Bob Creeley read. I don’t have that [first] poem anymore, but I probably tried to sound like him. But I had no conception of what that might be. I was never able to imitate him until a couple years ago actually, I just couldn’t do it, I didn’t know what to do. [Laughing.] He was from New England and I was from Needles, California, and it didn’t work!

So that didn’t work and that was when I started to realize that I was a poet instead of a fiction writer — I had gone to Iowa to be a fiction writer. I was reading a lot of poets who I don’t like much anymore, like James Wright and Sylvia Plath. They were the poets then. Somewhere behind that, I had read a lot of Faulkner. I’ve had a tremendous amount of Faulkner in my work from day one until now. I had forgotten about it, but I decided to teach some Faulkner for a workshop in Paris a few years ago. So I went to the library and took a book out and opened it up and then I heard everything I was. [Laughs.] And I closed the book and I didn’t know if I had the nerve to teach it or not, because I’d incorporated so much of it into my practice.

And the younger you are… you’re much more impressionable when you’re young and you make these aesthetic choices without even realizing it. I was influenced by Ted, but I could never sound like him. Again, he was from New England. He just had a different way of approaching language.

I was very influenced by Frank O’Hara and I think part of the reason was I had some piano training and he had been a pianist or —

[room service interrupts]

It gets in your fingers [playing piano]. It’s not in my fingers anymore, but I think without realizing it, I heard that he was doing that, that he was constructing a line that sounded like the nineteenth century. And I had that in my consciousness, and so I was always trying on his line.

I was quite influenced by Williams’ variable foot. I was always trying to figure out what it was.

DR: Can you tell me?

AN: Well, it’s a foot and it’s variable. [Laughs.] It’s about the typewriter and how you can grid down on the typewriter. It’s no good for the computer.

DR: How much does using a computer affect how you write?

AN: A great deal.

DR: Do you write on the computer or do you write long hand?

AN: I go back and forth depending on what I think I need to do.

DR: I could see the long poems working well on the computer.

AN: Well, I wrote Alette on notebook and then transferred it to typewriter, not a computer. I wrote it out and I didn’t put the quotation marks in until I typed it up. The first work I wrote on the computer was… actually I didn’t write on the computer until I wrote Reason and Other Women, which I haven’t been able to get published. I think the poetry audience still expects something like typewriter or notebook poetry. It doesn’t really expect poetry written on the computer. And if [the poetry audience] were to think about it for one second [they] would realize that what you end up with is this book or the ones I can’t get published. Because the computer makes you write very fast and all across the page. And you … this thing you can do with the computer, you can follow your mind, you can type very fast and follow your mind, if you’re mind’s working very quickly.

DR: Do you think some of this resistance is a fear of the ways in which technology…

AN: No, I think that everyone thinks technology is for the bosses. We can type up our poems faster or we could put them in this file so that we could send it to them… and they don’t even have to retype anything. We’re not supposed to do anything with the technology. We’re supposed to stay the same and they’re supposed to get more power over us. [Laughs.] And everything needs to be in a Word file now, so Bill Gates sits on every editorial board and no one ever thinks about it. He owns poetry, because you can’t send poetry to any magazine without sending it in some kind of a Word file.

DR: You mean when sending as an email?

AN: Now you send everything as a Word file. You are required to send a Word file. No one wants it any other way. Nobody wants a hard copy and no one wants a different type of program. Bill Gates owns us.

DR: Who else do you think owns us?

AN: Oh, all the oil millionaires, the people who own Starbucks and Barnes and Nobles.

DR: It keeps getting smaller….

AN: The urge is to have one kind of thing. One brand for each kind of thing. Is this really what you want the interview to be about? [Laughs.]

DR: I’m interested in what you think and what poetry can do and what poetry should do. Why you stay with it, what it gave you that the outside world couldn’t. I’m wondering if there…

AN: Poetry is an in into the real world that exists at the same time as the apparent world. And that’s what it’s all about. The different arts do that in different ways, and I prefer the way that poetry does it. I think it works better. The other arts are to escape.

DR: They don’t live in the head in the same way? You participate in a different way?

AN: You can keep a poem in your head forever. You can learn a poem and have it.

DR: And it’s not diminished in any way.

AN: No. It lives in memory without it being diminished a bit, which is different from, say, painting. Painting can’t exist without your eyes and music can’t exist without your ears, but poetry can exist without the senses.

DR: Do you think poetry is something received or is it willed into being?

AN: Both. You can do an awful lot of willing with it. But there’s an awful lot of reception too. You have to do both. Willing is a pain in the ass, but it’s necessary. [Laughs.]

To be continued.

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