Interview with Alice Notley: Part Two

legba[Continued from Part One, which I posted last month.]

What’s it been like to be in Paris. Do you miss New York?

I haven’t been in New York for 14 years. I don’t really miss New York. I haven’t really missed New York since I left. I needed to leave; I had been really hurt there. I think I said that yesterday. I couldn’t see it. It was traumatic for all of us. I needed… I experienced it as not being able to see that city anymore. I couldn’t get visual stimulation from it. It was bothering me a lot.

And I think of Alette as my last New York poem. I wrote it interacting in the city in the way I always had, but you can’t see the city in it, it’s all in my imagination. And then when I left, I didn’t miss it. It was traumatic for me to leave it. When I came back I couldn’t find anything, I couldn’t remember where anything was. A sure sign of trauma. I got lost somewhere on East Broadway, and I remember standing on a corner and not knowing which way to walk and feeling very strange.

When did you move to New York?

I moved to NY to live in ’76. But I had gone to college there, I had lived there for four years and there was a period where I had been in and out of the city for a year and a half, so altogether I lived there about 21, 22 years. It was my primary city before I moved to Paris.

Your sons stayed there.

They were in college.

They both live in New York now?

Yes, they both spent time in San Francisco and now they both live in New York.

You all worked on Ted’s Collected Poems, that huge book together.

It was wonderful. [Silence.] Sorry, I was thinking something else about them. I was feeling guilty for having left. [Laughs.] I do sometimes feel guilty for having left. Sometimes you have to do things like that.

I don’t have children, but I feel guilty about leaving my mother.

My mother is still alive. Every time I say goodbye to her it’s horrible. When I moved to France, it became so hard every time I said goodbye to her in Needles.

What is Needles like?

It’s on the border of California, Arizona, and Nevada basically. It’s right on the California and Arizona border, and a little bit south of the Nevada border.

You mentioned yesterday about one of the contributions — other than lots of great poems — that your generation made to contemporary poetry was the breaking down of class boundaries. Was that what the academic stood for at that time, the upper class?

It wasn’t necessarily an academic quality. The history of American culture tends to be pulled out of the middle and upper classes. Someone who broke the tradition is Whitman. Emily Dickinson didn’t — she was from that class, but she wasn’t accepted, she wrote in obscurity. And she was a woman, and that was another kind of thing. And there’s this history of slave songs, which become the blues. That becomes our poetry. We have to have a poetry that breaks down all of this class stuff.

Allen [Ginsberg] was a middle class boy. Poetry is a middle class art in a lot of ways. In the way we’ve been given it. There’s always been this other tradition, of anonymous folk ballads. I wouldn’t want to choose one tradition over another. But for the first time people were writing a very literary poetry.

The GI Bill had this effect on your generation?

Ted went to school on the GI Bill. Kenneth [Koch?] went to school on the GI Bill but I don’t think he had to. Frank [O’Hara] went to school on the GI Bill. They all served in World War II. They were all in the army. It’s amazing. They didn’t take John [Ashbery?]. He explains why somewhere. They just didn’t get around to it.

So Ted was in WWII?

He was in Korea.

Did he see combat?

No, it was almost over. People still go on the GI bill, it still exists.

I’m not in favor of conscription, but now it’s just been replaced with the “poverty draft.”

There should be people telling them not to go. And they shouldn’t join the National Guard. Not if it’s just [inaudible] to get out of debt.

I went into debt and I skipped on my debts. And then I paid them 20 years later. My kids are paying their debts now. They would never have dreamed of going into the National Guard. Nobody should do it.

Do we have to participate….

In the economy?

From my perspective, I don’t know what to hope for.

It’s very different from when I was young. I think. I don’t know how I was able to do what I did. It was very hard and there weren’t very many of us who did it. And god knows how I’m still alive. My kids participate in the economy and they can’t think of anything else to do about it.

We all struggle with what we’re willing to compromise on, decisions about what you do with your life, whether to sacrifice certain comforts…

It’s not very difficult. It has to do with how you think about yourself. You are a cultural worker and you are working very hard. And your work isn’t measured in money, that’s all, because no one will give you any. You have to keep telling yourself that you’re right and you’re probably working harder than everyone else. Because if you’re a poet, then you never stop working.

Did you ever have trouble picturing yourself as a poet?

I went for it blindly for a very long time, without picturing myself.

But you were publishing.

Yes, but in very small ways. There wasn’t any special time when I said to myself [“I am a poet”]… I guess from time to time I would say, “I am a better poet than I was.” That was the most important thing, to see that I was getting better.

There were these key times where it happened. The first time was this sequence called 165 Meeting House Lane. I was about 25 or 26 when I wrote that, and it was influenced by Edwin Denby, who wrote in a very particular style, and I copied it in my own way and I never did so again. I learned that you can dredge the words up from yourself and you didn’t know what you were going to say next. That’s what I learned from writing that sequence.

And then I wrote Songs for the Unborn Second Baby, I proved to myself that I had stamina. It was my first long poem. And then something else happened, though it would be hard to say what it was. A style I started to put together. There were other markers like that. Techniques I developed that involved other people’s voices and it was just fun to invent these techniques and to see them take shape and then each time I had become a little better or I had walked through a door. And then there was a time that I realized that I wasn’t imitating anyone, though I hadn’t noticed it. I stopped imitating other people’s notions of what a work should be like.

Did that happen before or after you left New York?

No, I think it happened sometime in the ’70s.

I’ve been thinking about your poem that you read in this documentary I’m working on, “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice.” Did you know Jack Kerouac?

No, but Ted had interviewed him, so he talked to him. And the interview was quite a profound experience for him. And I had read all the Kerouac that was available at that point. I was highly influenced by Kerouac, actually, even though he was a prose writer. And the biographies started coming out in the ’70s, around the time I wrote that poem, and they weren’t about his writing. [Laughs.] And it was very irritating that they weren’t about his writing. They were about his life. There weren’t any books that really were about his writing. I suspect that no one still knows how to talk about his writing.

What was it about his writing that influenced you so much?

Oh, the rhythms, the vocabulary, the sympathy. What I really liked about the Beats was their sympathy. A poem was sympathetic to anyone who came inside its orbit. It’s a poetry of sympathy. That really turned me on.

Jack did this writing that’s in love with and interested in all the people that it deals with. [It combines] this total interest in all the characters with this fantastic language that comes out of Shakespeare and jazz, floating on these amazing rhythms, blowing out of the mouth that way.

Kerouac and many of his contemporaries have been accused of sexism. How do you feel about that?

I don’t know how I feel about it. I mean, it’s sort of true. I suppose there’s some sexism in Kerouac. I’m sort of not interested in whether there is or not. [Laughs.] I’m an expert on sexism. I’ve experienced it a lot.

Can you talk about that?

There’s a tremendous amount of it in the literary world. I see it in three different cultures that I’m engaged with. It’s different in the United States than it is in France and from the way it is in England. The different cultures, you can see how each culture is blind to how it is in their own culture when they look at the other culture. It’s really funny. They all accuse each other of different kinds of sexisms and they can’t see where they have it; they have no idea where it is.

Do you think there are inherent differences between men and women that make it impossible for…?

No. There’s hormonal stuff that makes you want to mate. And so you do a little mating dance. As you get older, the way I am, you lose your sex. You see that it’s all a façade, it’s all an illusion. It’s really hard not to do the mating dance. [Laughs.]

It can be a hard dance to sit out.

The institutionalization of the subjugation of women is a tremendous tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that’s 50,000 years old.

[I mention Van Gogh for some reason; inaudible.]

His paintings are so scary. I saw some of his paintings in Amsterdam about two years ago. They frightened me. He was so tragic.

Because of the mania?

The sense… there were these terrible black birds in the fields. I don’t know how to explain it. I went with my sister. And we were both really freaked out. There was something going on in our family that made us very sensitive to the paintings and we both were just shattered.

Did you grow up with a lot of art around you?

No. I had two sisters and a brother who died. My mother has a really nice art collection now. Ted developed the habit of giving her artworks, because she liked art, and she has this great art collection. If you’re going to the house in Needles, you’ll see works by Alex Katz and Joe Brainard, there’s a [inaudible] etching of Allen around this one corner. There’s a work by me, there’s an Yvonne Jacquette. [My mother] has a really nice collection.

What kind of artwork do you do?

I do collage. I did the cover of Grave of Light.

How long have you been doing collage?

Probably since about 1970.

Have you had shows?

I have had shows, but not for a long time. I haven’t been doing it very much for the last ten years. When I moved to Paris I couldn’t get stuff anymore. There’s no garbage. And I’ve had less and less room to do everything. I live in a very tiny apartment and there’s just no room for it.

Do you think you’ll stay in Paris?

Probably, because I need the health care. It’s very lonely. I really miss my kids. But I have to have access to the health care. [Ideally, I’d like] to wander back and forth. I would do something like that if I ever got the chance. I’d have to get a ton of money first.

You’d have to maintain a residence in France right?

Yeah. See, I live on very little money. I own the apartment, and I get 500 euros a month and that’s what I have and then I make money giving readings and publishing and so forth. My basic income is this kind of retirement money from Doug’s death that’s 500 euros a month. I’m 61 years old, it’s not a lot. I have to be careful.

What was it like winning the Griffin Poetry Prize for Disobedience in 2002?

It was good because I got diagnosed with Hepatitis C right after that and I virtually lived on the Griffin while I had the treatment. These things always happen fortuitously in that way. I just slide through.

You won the same year that Christian Bök won for Eunoia. Did you get to know him at all?

Oh, yeah, I’ve read with Christian a couple times. I missed him last night. [Bök had performed in Atlanta the night before.]

He’s now learned how to make two sounds at the same time. It’s similar to what the Buddhist monks do, I think. They make two notes at once, two sounds at once. Do you follow me?

I do follow you. He was performing this morning, I’m trying to remember if … he does it so quickly that I can’t always tell…

I can’t remember what it sounded like now. I heard him do it in Washington last year when we read together. He had just learned it and I caught a little bit.

Do you feel an affinity with sound poetry?

Not really. I think it’s a different thing. I enjoy what they do, but I don’t think it’s related to what I do.

How would you describe your work?

It’s probably very traditional. It’s about the meanings of words and the sounds of words taken together with as many layers and overtones as possible. The meaning and sound working absolutely at the same time. And in between the words there is something like a sound or a light that’s something very hard to describe.

Poetry is something that you recognize immediately when you hear it. And when I used to hear Bob Creeley read, what I really enjoyed was when he stopped talking and started reading. He would always sort of blur the two and there would be this moment and you weren’t sure when he was going to do the poem and then he’d start to do the poem and then you’d hear something else. Everything would change.

That moment between when the poet sets up the poem and when the poet starts reading the poem, everything changes, and that’s what poetry is. Poetry is the difference between the poem and the set up. It’s the difference between speaking and poetry. It’s a huge difference.

Are there any poets that you have friendships with in Paris?

I don’t have any friendships with French poets.

People you see?

Yeah, but they tend to change all the time. People come through. I make friends. But usually the people I make friends with go away.

What is your take on mentorship? Did you see yourself as being mentored and have you ever had the instinct to mentor someone?

Ted mentored me. I have probably to some extent mentored my sons, but I don’t know if they’d let me say that [laughs], so maybe it’s not true.

And there are other people who have told me that I mentored them. Sometimes I’ve mentored people for very short periods of time. I probably mentored Eleni Sikelianos for a little while in Paris. But I’m not sure.

You have taken an interest in younger poets work.

Yeah. And people come see me and talk to me about poetry and I give them permission to do this or that. And that seems to be very important.

I’ve mentored a lot of people in ways that had to do with them being in my house, particularly when I was at [inaudible]. Say, I probably mentored Eileen Myles — or Ted and I together did.

Just to be around other poets…

The deal at St. Marks was if you would give us, like, $5, we would mentor you for a while. But Eileen never had $5, so she became one of the people who needed to get $5.

Is that deal still on? Is it $20 now with inflation?

It doesn’t work very well anymore. We were always on a day-by-day basis then. We’d wake up and think, do we have enough money for today, do we have money for dinner? It was very wearing actually. It was very hard. But we always came up with money for dinner. The first part of the day, it was money for Ted’s cigarettes and Pepsi’s so we could think of how to get the money for dinner. [Laughs.]

Did you smoke then?

No I didn’t.

Gradually we acquired enough money to get through the day. I guess I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. You have to have a particular talent for mentoring in order to do this.

I think it’s something that happens chemically. And I know people who’ve never met you who feel you’ve mentored them through your work. And for thousands of years that’s how poets have talked to each other, by reading [and responding to] the work. Like you and Faulkner. I mean, assuming he wasn’t writing you letters and didn’t send any marked up pages…

Assuming he approves!

I have this romantic notion about this light that we find in art. We try to reach out and touch it. We do it in different ways. Some of us try to show people we are grateful for it and try to learn how to do it ourselves.

I used to think really hard about the fact that Shakespeare died. I’d think, Shakespeare died. I was writing poems and I knew I could die, because Shakespeare had died. [Laughs.] And now I realize that was a completely ridiculous thought.

It’s a really interesting thought. It’s funny, I just read Gilgamesh again and that terror of death, it seems so silly to me that for 5,000 years — longer, actually — but for 5,000 years of literature we have been completely terrorized by our mortality. How we wrestle with this notion that we’re going to die and that we don’t know what it means… there’s something so simple about it. [Alice laughs.] It seems like we should be over that now. Or we should know what it means…

It’s very primary.

We have to keep learning the lesson over and over again.

It’s why people are so dictatorial about their religions. They lose their theory of death if you don’t join their religion. You have to join or their theory of death is gone. They can’t accept an alternative theory of death.

I understand evangelicalism, I don’t subscribe to it, but I understand that feeling that there is power in belief and even if it’s just belief in the imagination there’s something electric that happens if you get a few people in a room listening to a poet read, and really listening, or to music at a rock show, that shared belief in something tangible that’s not physically, concretely present… but that is clearly… it’s a shared madness that gets you as close to the real world as you’re going to get. I understand, I understand why they go knocking on doors. They think they’re going to give you this thing.

[Laughs.] No, they think they’re going to go to heaven by knocking you over the head with a stick.

I want to believe that people are being motivated by the desire to heal the whole world, but that it’s misguided. They think this is what the world needs.

No. They want to go to heaven.

I can’t thank you enough for taking all this time to sit down with me.

I think I’m done in now!


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