ALICE NOTLEY: really you can do whatever you want to if you’re talented enough

Reading Alice Notley‘s poetry is like reading a new language for the first time and immediately understanding it. She’ll be giving rare U.S. readings in Sonoma on Thursday and in San Francisco on Saturday, and you should definitely try to make it to at least one of them.

Notley’s lived in Paris since 1992 and has supported herself through her writing and corollary activities her entire life. She’s “often identified with the so-called second generation New York School poets, though her work also shows the influence of Modernist writers like William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Taking on themes ranging from cultural politics to gender, Notley’s later style has evolved into a formally ambitious attempt to transcribe thought itself. According to Joel Brouwer in the New York Times, the “radical freshness” of Notley’s poems “stems not from what they talk about, but how they talk, in a stream-of-consciousness style that both describes and dramatizes the movement of the poet’s restless mind, leaping associatively from one idea or sound to the next without any irritable reaching after reason or plot.”

Anyone who’s seen or heard any parts of the thing I’m working on knows I have a restless mind (you probably don’t need to know about the thing I’m working on to know this), but you might imagine how delighted I was just last month to discover some of Notley’s work.

My first experience was a real gift: while reading the poem I realized it would change my life. Provide me with a little bit of what my friend calls permission: not encouragement: ‘go on, you can do it’, but permission: ‘come on, it’s wonderful here.’

I haven’t managed to read much of Notley’s work yet, which spans some 30 books, but the sense I get is kinship; often, I think I want nothing more from a book than this feeling. Yes, just that there’s someone out there like me. But, in this case, that the me can be as profound, as unheard of as it wants to be.

I have read and watched quite a lot thanks to this Internet, though, which I trust you are enjoying responsibly (check your tabs); after doing so, I emailed Alice a few questions and I’m happy to say she not only answered but did not disappoint me:

Litseen: In “The Poetics of Disobedience” you say “it seems as if one must disobey everyone else in order to see at all,” a sentiment I hold very dear; I also read the NYT piece in which the author says your overall aim has been “the celebration of the singular thought sung at a particular instant in a unique voice” — an approach that, to me, seems like the only valid way to corroborate that kind of disobedience. I’m wondering if you can talk to me a little about your attempts to disobey the many voices of the world, in their varying subtleties, and if the process is much different between poems than it is between books.

ALICE NOTLEY: One is always being told by everyone what kind of poetry one should be writing right now, what good poetry is, what the problem is. Fortunately, there are never any rules. I often deliberately do the opposite of what I hear everyone saying to do. ‘Write the quotidian’, ‘Write what you know’: so I write a mythic epic culminating in combat and death (The Descent of Alette). ‘Everything’s about language and theory’: so I write a snippy, jokey long poem about my new life in France (Disobedience). ‘You can’t say ‘I’ anymore’: so I write a book of autobiographical, first-person poems (Mysteries of Small Houses). Really you can do whatever you want to if you’re talented enough.

You speak very clearly in the same essay about your intentions in writing Mysteries of Small Houses and Disobedience. I’m wondering if you’ve done the same about Culture of One, which I understand is something of a novel in poems, and if you’d be kind enough to talk a little bit about how your writing has evolved since the time of that essay and, specifically, how this book came to be and its intentions.

Culture of One largely got written without my having intentions. I felt bad and had dreams about the figure of Mercy. Then, as the book says, I seemed to become the figure of Mercy myself. (Later I thought Mercy was probably sick of devoting her existence to being merciful: why should she?) I also began to write about Marie, a real person from my hometown of Needles CA, who did indeed live at the municipal dump, though she wasn’t an artist like my character. Various other characters were generated, most of whom were in some sense me. I realized I was writing a novel with these poems, but I didn’t have a theory about anything. “It” took over in a very thorough manner.

Perhaps this is question #2 re-phrased, but it might prove helpful: Speaking about the book you were writing post-Disobedience (which I imagine was either From the Beginning or Coming After), you say you were finding the act of reading puzzling and were “not really entertaining the reader or being clear in any of the traditional ways.” I’m wondering how Culture of One might fit within the context of that statement. It seems from reading reviews that the book is one of your most accessible, for instance; was this intentional? if so, does that indicate a shift in your thoughts on reading? or does it reflect an increase in self-clarity? I ask the latter because I find it interesting that a work with the title Culture of One would successfully express the inner life while at the same time moving outward to be more digestible by the public; I also have in mind your comment about “leaving in as much mind fuzz as possible.”

Any time I write about Needles, there comes to be a visual and syntactical clarity and edge that has to do with desert light and air. But I always try for formal clarity and consider it a necessity for great poetry. Formal clarity doesn’t mean a sonnet sequence or something like that, it means that the reader can discern and inhabit the form, perhaps subliminally, even if she or he doesn’t understand right away what’s going on. There’s a place to be. That is the clarity I often miss in contemporary poetry. The quotation about “mind fuzz” has to do with a book called Reason and Other Women, which is difficult to read, though people do get into it rather fanatically. I left a lot of typos and mispellings in the text, and also employed a lot of repetition, as a sort of representation of the mind in process — that is the fuzz.

What are you working on currently?

My mother died this year, and I’m writing about that. But I’m also writing to and from and about all the dead. My most recent book is actually Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, from Wesleyan, which aims to give power to the dead and genocided, to those who were mistreated and abused in life. They are still alive somewhere and have things to say, as are and do all the dead.

What would you most like people to take from your work? Does that depend on the reader?

I don’t expect people to take anything away from my poetry, precisely. I want them to enjoy reading and interacting with my mind and language, as I try to be in the reader’s mind too. Poetry is a rather telepathic art form involving the meeting of two mentalities — the poet’s and the reader’s — rather than the escape into others of the novel, or the overwhelming of one’s senses by music or visual art. Poetry anticipates the reader’s mind and tries to find it.

You can get all the info on both events right here, and RSVP to Saturday’s reading—and an informal pre-event gathering with Notley—here. Hope to see you!

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