A raw foreshadowing of the Sept.
11th attacks in New York and Washington. As has been said: "Poetry
is an arm loaded with the future." Alice Notley agrees, saying
"Poetry has always had a line into the future, sometimes
five, sometimes fifty or a hundred years." Yet she fears,
as she says in the following interview, that that future may be
short-lived. Perhaps, the "truth," as Notley calls it,
found in Disobedience and her other works, could,
she says, save us from what she fears might be a very short future.
Could we be saved, paradoxically, by saying, as one of the poem
titles does, "Please don't save my life"?
This interview was conducted in
Looking at the past few books, The Descent of Alette
was one poem with a character at its center, whereas Mysteries
of Small Houses, a series of separate poems, was more personal,
about your life. I was wondering if you could talk about where
personnage/character comes into play in your poetry and
about how you have developed, matured and changed as a poet.
Alice Notley: With
this book, Disobedience, I was actually trying to break
down those distinctions, because I had maintained them very much
in those two previous books. The Descent of Alette is
a fiction, it's all a fiction. Mysteries of Small Houses
is autobiographical but the intention was not to write an autobiography,
the intention was to explore the concept of the self, and explore
the concept of the I pronoun, and the only way I could do that,
it seemed to me, was to explore my life. At the beginning it wasn't
going to be chronological, but then that turned out to be the
most logical way to present the material—it made it easiest
for the reader. But it's not an autobiography.
But at the point where I came to
write the next thing, I realized I just didn't want the barriers
between these genres anymore. So Disobedience exists
on a daily level, it records what's going on in Paris, and, to
a certain extent, my life in 1995 and 1996. There are two fictional
characters, three perhaps, who talk to each other. One of them
is me, because "I" is always slightly fictionalized—that's
one of the things that I know about poetry, that you fictionalize
yourself when you write about yourself. I was trying not to do
that in Mysteries of Small Houses—I was trying
to break that down, but I felt it happening anyway, you do do
But there's a character in Disobedience
who's based on a seedy detective and he looks like Robert Mitchum.
His name is Mitch-ham. But sometimes his name is other things.
There's a lot of dialogue between him and "I." There's
a third character who's called Soul. Sometimes she's called Soul
Dark, Dark Doll—she's called a whole lot of other things,
too. But she gradually becomes me and Mitch-ham, actually gradually
becomes me, too. I kind of take over the poem at the end—I
become the whole consciousness of it.
What's going on in this poem are
the events of 1995-96 which, as you'll remember, was a rather
hot year in Paris for current events—there was the grève—that
big strike, that November-December where no one could go anywhere
without walking. There were also a lot of terrorist bombings.
Those are in my poem—all of that is in my poem. I am also
keeping track of the fact—I was finally getting to feel
as if I lived in Paris, and it is my first poem that deals with
the fact that I'm here.
J.D.: Do your characters
"I," "Soul" and "Mitch-ham" all
relate differently or in a similar way to the kinds of events
that happened in 1995-96?
A.N.: It works
on different levels. There is one level that is literally me recording
the events, and it's pretty literal. But there is another level
where "I" talks to Mitch-ham, and that's fictionalized,
and then the events are turned into what I do myself in relation
to them. Because it's a soul journey.
J.D.: A spiritual
A.N.: A spiritual
journey, yes, the whole book is a spiritual journey. It's a spiritual
journey that refuses to let go of the outside world, because what's
going on in the outside world is too important. But on the other
hand, it also refuses to ally itself with any kind of organization—organized
religion, organized politics, organized feminism, anything like
J.D.: Do you find
this text's publication timing uncanny—I mean, how strange
A.N.: Oh, yes,
(laughs) it leads right to this September.
J.D.: Does the
question of how Americans or people in the whole world deal with
these kinds of events come into play?
A.N.: Yes, it's
about globalization, it's about all of that—about who we
are now. It's very feminist. My conclusion at the end is that
to be a woman is to have the world against you, basically, and
that you have to be very very wary. It's that you shouldn't go
along with anyone or any group—either of men or women—you
have to start at the point that is yourself, or you'll wind up
being involved in a lot of lies.
J.D.: And that
conclusion—does that sound like a defensive space, like
a woman needs to put herself on the defensive—
A.N.: No, it's
a beautiful space. Because it's a space where you can say, "I
am the ultimate authority spiritually" and if I want to have
contact with spirit as a large entity, I will figure out how to
do it myself.
J.D.: Finding your
service does poetry serve now?" remains a big question for
young people living now. Or, “What's its purpose in a world
that seems to be forgetting how to read poetry?” A lot of
poets have gone over to writing novels or to making films, in
order to survive and thrive financially. I'd like to know what
you think your role is as a poet in this 21st century full of
violence, technology and economic functionalism.
A.N.: Well, nothing
can take the place of poetry. Poetry is poetry and I just don't
think you can do without it. It fulfills a very particular function
that has to do with philosophical and emotional truth as expressed
through a specific use of language.
Also, it's a much more selfless
mirror of the culture than a novel is—I don't know if selfless
is the right word—but it's certainly less commercialized.
You can't have a successful novel without writing for a mass audience,
but poetry can't necessarily be written for a mass audience—if
you’re going to serve truth.
Poetry serves the future. It's
always got a little line into the future—of five or ten
years, at least, and sometimes fifty and sometimes one hundred
years, and that's how it works. It's possible that there isn’t
that much time anymore, and that's the thing I worry about, that
there isn't enough time anymore for people to catch up with poetry's
truth. Because people aren't changing the world the way they should
be—I mean, this war is an example, and the biggest example
is what's happening with the environment—nobody's catching
up with that. It's not necessarily poetry's truth, but it's in
I have a long poem from 1994, it's
about global warming, it's a fiction, and it's partly poetry and
partly prose. It's called "Désamère."
I think there just isn't time and that worries me. I also don't
feel as if I'm writing necessarily for people who live a long
time from now anymore, because I'm not sure people will be living
a long time from now. I don't understand what's going to happen.
I'm a pessimist! I’m writing for the present and for the
pretty near future.
J.D.: Do you feel
that if you were heard, that if other poets were heard, that that
would change and create the possibility of a future … ?
A.N.: Yes, I do,
but poets are heard less and less because as you say people read
less and less. Some people would argue with me that this is the
case, but people do read poetry less. They tend to read a hell
of a lot of novels. There are a lot of sort of middling, middle-range
novels, sort-of-good novels—there are millions of them—and
they don't do shit. They don’t serve any function at all
except as reading matter, and—
J.D.: To remove
you from your life on the train.
A.N.: Or to make
you feel you're having a slightly deep thought, but not one that's
really going to shake you up. None of those books—none of
those Booker Prize books are going to change your life.
J.D.: Going back
to—or, linking those two—I've noticed that Disobedience
is all one book-length poem. I've also seen some other yet-unpublished
work which is long-lined, moving almost towards a prose in the
line-length, and again with the narrative. What do you see as
the difference between what you're doing in those pages and what
some novelists, some of the prose writers such as Carole Maso,
do in their work?
A.N.: In the very
long-lined work I am not writing fiction, for one thing. What
I'm actually doing—and I'm not really even telling a story,
except for possibly the story of my own progress through the book
which is the story of my own spiritual progress, which I hope
that other people can then share if they wish to.
What I'm doing is creating—trying
to create—a different consciousness. And I'm trying to make
it possible—I know when I read that particular book, Reason
and Other Women, my consciousness is different. And I think
this happens for some other people. It actually makes your head
different. I think that's different from what an experimental
fiction writer would be trying to do, but I could be wrong.
J.D.: Along that
line, your syntactical use is also very different. At least in
some of the poems in Mysteries of Small Houses there
is this skewed or slightly off-syntax, where it's not fragmented
across the page but is fragmented within the lines themselves.
me. That's me using all of the tricks I've accumulated over the
years. One of the things that I was doing in Mysteries of
Small Houses was trying to remember all of the different
styles I had written in. I'm constantly and consciously using
each of those all of the way through.
J.D.: In your early
work I noted a paucity of words—à la Williams, or
more likely H.D.—where there's a lot of space on the page,
a single image or thought or sensation. Whereas I noticed that
as your work has developed it has accumulated a sort of density—you
talk about the speed at which we live, and it seems like your
poetry contains that speed in the way the syntax rolls over itself,
the lines roll into a longer length and one idea, or one feeling
rolls into another and around and around.
A.N.: I've always
been doing both. I never wrote exclusively in short lines or in
short poems. I've always sort of moved back and forth between
the two ways, and sometimes used both ways in the same work.
J.D.: Do you think
there's a density in one and not the other, or vice versa?
A.N.: I'm thinking
of two books. One book is When I Was Alive and in that
book I was actually trying to emulate the poetry of the past and
see if I could do it. I was working with meter and rhyme and past
literary forms. I had a particular sense of the subject for that
book. I was trying to catch particular moments which might be
thought of as universal but on the other hand were composed of
particular colors, clothes, weathers, the fact of the city, things
But another book in which there
are a lot of short poems is At Night the States. When
I was writing that book, Ted [Berrigan, Notley’s first husband]
had just died and I was really only capable of writing those little
poems. I only had, was only having that kind of conscious thought
J.D.: I wanted
to return to the question of narrative and character. You talk
about the word "Soul" as the name of a character, and
I noticed in the piece we're seeing in Upstairs at Duroc
[Paris literary and arts review publishing new work by AN in June
2002] there is a lot of use of "the Real" or the "City
of the Real." I was thinking about how people talk when they
talk to youngsters when they start writing, always saying, "Don't
use beauty, don't use soul, don't use real" (laughs)—and
I don't think you're using them in the way that we see an 18,
17, 16-year old use them—but how do you feel that you're
bringing that back, the use of those words and those sorts of
abstractions, in a way that takes on a corporeality, a corporeal
reality or solidity?
A.N.: I feel that
the soul is a corporeal reality or solidity. I feel as if I've
earned the right to use the word because of my experience, and
I also don't think that there is another word—because I
have tried to find another, other words for this, and I can't.
I loathe the word "self." I find it to be a very artificial
A.N.: Yeah, but
I used it with great distaste in Mysteries of Small Houses
because I didn't even like to say the word, but it was so in the
air. Everyone was saying that you didn't have one or that you
couldn't say "I," and I had to adapt to their terminology.
I don't have another word for soul, I just can't do it any other
way. It’s a very tangible place for me, a mystical place,
a state—it's a state that enables you to rise above, for
example, this war. And to be involved.
J.D.: Do you feel
that you are reaching through language, through the poetry towards
making those things that float around and are considered ethereal
or difficult or unreachable, reaching through language and making
them solid so that you feel them?
A.N.: Yes. But
a lot of what I know comes from reading mystical writers like
Meister Eckhart and recognizing the truth there. Also reading
about and reading the works of tribal peoples who have a very
tangible sense of these things.
J.D.: Of all the
tribal peoples in the world, do you have a particular favorite?
A.N.: Well, I'm interested in Australian Aborigines,
but that's dilettantish of me because I can't possibly know anything
about them really, but I read as much as I can. And I read a lot
about Native Americans. I grew up around Native Americans, and
I have their feel for the relation between the people and the
landscape. I understand the relation between what they believe
and what that landscape is like—how things are tangible,
how spirituality is tangible if you’re in a landscape. But
if you're in a city, it isn't.
J.D.: Yes, you're
living in a city. You also lived in New York before this, and
in San Francisco—
A.N.: But I grew
up in the desert. I grew up in Needles, California, and it was
frighteningly lonely and empty, and I was dying to get away from
it—and now I'd love to go back. But I can't live there;
I mean I can never do my career there, but it's so beautiful.
There are certain kinds of things that I only understand there.
For example, that landscape is sacred, that the earth is sacred.
If we're bombing the shit out of Afghanistan, we're bombing the
sacred. The land. I mean, it's beautiful—I see what it looks
like on television, and I can't believe how beautiful it is. It's
very barren, but where I grew up is barren—why would anyone
want to drop bombs on that?
When they bombed Iraq in 1991, it
was like I just felt they were bombing Inanna. I'd just written
The Descent of Alette, which got some of its inspiration
from the poem "Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld"—she
was a Sumerian goddess. I just thought they're bombing her, they're
bombing the fertile crescent, they're bombing Mesopotamia, they're
bombing the cradle of civilization—how could people do this?
of city and country, how has moving to a different place and a
different language changed you? For example, Disobedience
is your first book that deals with Paris—how has that been
important? How long have you lived here now?
A.N.: Nine years.
I wrote this in '95-'96, when we had just moved to this apartment.
We had previously lived on Montmartre, and I didn't like it there
very much. When we moved down here I felt as if I was really in
Paris. It's horrible here, but it's great at the same time. I
mean, you can't breathe, it's so noisy, but it’s a real
working and working class neighborhood—mixed.
J.D.: The gritty
real Paris. Not the tourist part, and it's not above or around
where it just gets all suburban.
A.N.: Yeah, it's
Arab, it's Jewish. (Laughs as she adds) It's Japanese
now, too. It's just everything.
J.D.: North African,
too. But how do you feel that living here has changed your writing?
my writing may appear to be self-involved—I don't know if
it does or not—but I think that American writing has a way
of … the American turns in on her or itself, and I think
I've been able to escape that by coming here. That's one way it's
New York is an international city,
but New York poetry isn't necessarily an international poetry.
Paris is a more international city than New York is, even. And
it's older and—I don't know. I love New York, actually.
I don't really prefer Paris to New York. I just can't go back.
It's also very different to live
inside a foreign language, and that's one of the reasons my last
book looks like that [Reason and Other Women]. Because
it's my sense of language just spinning off, and the mind just
spinning off—people understanding each other through words,
but the words not necessarily being pinned down as to meaning,
because you don't understand each other that way. So the linguistic
part of poetry just gets knocked out the window, actually. The
meaning thing goes haywire. It's sort of total communication without
pinned-down meanings. But that's what the mind is like, too. The
mind goes very fast. It's not pinning down meaning. It's just
going too fast for that and working in another way.
J.D.: Do you think
there are writers here in Paris that influence you or that have
an effect on your work?
A.N.: No. No.
J.D.: Are there
writers in the States that do?
A.N.: At the moment,
I've noticed that I'm being influenced by the novels of Leslie
Marmon Silko. But I haven’t noticed an effect in a long
time from another writer. I've been mostly affected by my reading
in anthropology and mythology and things like that. I think that's
been the biggest influence on me in the last ten or fifteen years.
J.D.: I'm sure
there have been a lot of questions about The Descent of Alette
and its relationship with Dante?
A.N.: Oh, yes,
I get it all the time. I wasn't reading Dante when I wrote it.
I was trying to stand Dante on his head—I was trying to
reverse things so that the Paradiso was down instead
of up, and was dark instead of light. And it's my favorite book
of The Divine Comedy.
J.D.: The Inferno
was my favorite—I don't know what that says about me, but—anyway,
why don't you tell me more about this book before I move on and
ask you some more questions. I am interested in the title: Disobedience?
A.N.: There's a
poem towards the end that explains that. I was writing this without
a title for a very long time. Then I had a dream—and the
dream element is a very large part of this—I wanted to have
the waking consciousness, sub-waking consciousness that isn't
dream but is imagination and dream consciousness. I wanted to
have all three in this.
J.D.: And do they
parallel your three characters at all?
A.N.: No, they
don't. Except that the three characters are mostly in the second
level, the imaginary level. But sometimes Soul turns up in dreams,
and of course "I" turn up in the dreams. But Mitch-ham,
he never turns up in dreams. And sometimes I interpret the dreams
into being about him.
J.D.: As we read
this, do you think we'll know which space is which or do they
A.N.: I think you
know, but I don't think you'll be thinking about it.
And then when I had that dream I
realized that that was what was going to be the title for my
book, because what I was trying to do was create a state of pure
Disobedience in the book. That's what it does for me.
I decided to question everything—question reality, question
politics, question received feminisms, question what my friends
thought, question what everyone was telling me was the truth,
question what I was telling me was the truth, question everything
I thought so far, just question, question, question.
J.D.: Do you think
that came out because of the political events and the life here,
or just because it was the right time in your life for that?
A.N.: I actually
think it's something I've always done, really. But it was particularly
crystallized that year. Also, I turned 50—so there was a
lot I couldn't get away with anymore. There's a lot you get away
with when you're younger because of looks, personality, moving
fast, having fun and so on. After you tip over into 50, you don’t
get to do it anymore, so you might as well have the truth at that
Also, you start to realize how
little power you have because there are these jerks who are a
year younger than you or two years younger than you and get elected
president and vice president, and you suddenly realize that they
have power and you don't have any power and that they're stupid
and you're not.
J.D.: Yes, I feel,
personally, like I wish I could be in a position to just say,
"Sorry, you're fired, thank you for leaving your name tag
at the door" to a few of our political leaders, and there
is this hopelessness, this helplessness in relationship to not
being able to change the world. Do you feel like this poem addresses
that hopelessness personally for yourself?
A.N.: Yes, but
it's not enough. Because I feel I have to address it over and
over and over—and I'm having to address it again. I think
that the United States has lost its mind. I feel fairly helpless
with regard to what goes on in the world.
I am writing something now in which
there's a concept called "negative space," and there
are a lot of dead women in this book—this book is about
dead women, actually, though they're not all dead, the dead women,
because I'm one of them. But since we have no role in these events,
particularly now, we withdraw into negative space and take no
part in it.
J.D.: I think that's
true—people here say, "Why don't Americans protest
if they're not for the war?" And I think, that's obvious,
there's just no sense of being able to change anything.
A.N.: There's nothing
we can do. But one thing we can do is say that we don't want to
be protected. And you have to say it kind of inside yourself,
you have to become this other kind of person: "I don't want
those troops protecting me, and I don't want anyone protecting
me. I don't want to be that person who's protected by these ugly-faced
men anymore. I don't want the protection. I disown it."
J.D.: It goes with
away from me! (Laughs)
J.D.: Since we're
laughing, I wanted to ask about the role of humor. You deal with
really intense subjects: deaths, feelings about politics, wars,
environment—but you also have a lot of humor in your writing.
A.N.: Well, that's
me. It's not anything I work for. I don't even always know it's
there—I think it's just very much what I'm like. It just
is, and I don't think about it very much any more—it is
what the New York School of poetry is like, but I think I was
that way before I even became a New York School poet. My mother
laughs a lot.
J.D.: Having mentioned
the New York School, do you consider what you're doing now to
be still linked to the idea that people have of the second generation
of New York School poets?
A.N.: I am still
linked to them by friendships. I think that if someone wanted
to do a job on my poetry they would find a link in the concreteness
of my poetry. Even when it's just taking place inside the head,
there's always a lot of color around, a lot of detail. I associate
that with the New York School of poetry—the use of the eyes—you
get the eyes as well as the ears, the touch—the senses,
exploration of the senses and something about sympathies.
But humor. Because you can't be
in the New York School without being humorous. American mainstream
poetry is largely without humor, even the good parts of it. There
is the sense that you can't be a great poet if you're funny. But
people are funny all the time; they just are.
J.D.: Are there
things you would like to add in relationship to your own sense
of how you have developed as a writer or about where you think
you are going?
taken me a very long time. That was one of the reasons I did it
the way I did and why I didn't become a teacher or get involved
in something else. Because I found it very hard to become as good
as I wanted to be. It's just taken a lot of time, and I didn't
feel that I was as good as I wanted to be until I was into my
J.D.: Though your
first book came out when you were twenty-six—
A.N.: Yeah, but
poetry's really hard. You don't understand what you're doing for
twenty years, and you don't understand what your friends have
done for twenty years, either. It takes twenty years of seeing
it and twenty years of people being at it. As Eileen Myles says,
"Now I am just happy to see anyone still here." The
factions all fall away, and you just look around to see who's
still there, and you're so pleased to see them that you don't
care what they stand for in poetry. They're still writing. They
J.D.: Do you think
that being a woman and winning those prizes last year (the Poetry
Society of America and Academy Award) is representative of a greater
openness in America to considering women's poetry? After all,
a lot of prizes still go to the standard men, the standard white
A.N.: I actually
don't know. I think what it means is that I wrote Mysteries
of Small Houses, and it sort of begged for a prize, and I
had the right publisher. You can't win one of those prizes if
you are published with a small publisher—or at least it's
not likely. Perhaps it's happened once—it does happen with
the LA Times Prize—but I don't think it's ever happened
with the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award or the National
Book Critics Circle Award. You just don’t get those awards
if you are published in small places, and it's ridiculous.
J.D.: To end, I
want to go back to something we were talking about before we even
started this tape—do you feel that your writing represents
a women's writing or a men's writing, or is separate from both
of those senses of gender?
A.N.: I often say
in interviews that if I were to say what I feel most a part of,
it’s not the New York School, but it is the generation of
women poets who are my age, who cut across all of the ways that
American poetry is written. People like Anne Waldman, Bernadette
Mayer, but also Susan Howe and Fanny Howe, Carla Harryman, Lyn
Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino—also someone like Jorie Graham.
Women my age who are very strong.
J.D.: Maybe it's
time more than gender or movement—timing in the world.
A.N.: But it is
gender, it is, but it would be nice if it weren't. But it is,
that's a fact, and now is the time for women.