Alice Notley Interviewed by Jennifer Dick

Disobedience, the 25th collection by Alice Notley—winner of the Griffin Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award, the LA Times Book Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, as well as a nominee for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize—is a demanding, book-length personal and fictionalized saga dealing with the terrorist attacks, the strike and other events in Paris during 1995-1996. It is a layered narrative of dream, imagination and waking time, a spiritual journey in which a cast of characters slowly emerge and converge to witness and question their surroundings.

Yet the timing of the book's appearance from Penguin USA on October 2, 2001 is uncanny—for in it she writes, referring to Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris over five years ago:

"So there was a bomb scare at métro Cadet
someone left a blank gray package on our train
we were ordered off panicking.
What does this have to do with a big fat America?

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 October 2001.

Jennifer Dick: 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 it.

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 journey?

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 that.

J.D.: Do you find this text's publication timing uncanny—I mean, how strange it seems—

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 own end.

A.N.: Yes.

J.D.: "What 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 my poetry.

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.

A.N.: Oh—that's 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 like that.

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 actually.

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 word—

J.D.: Psychoanalytic

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?

J.D.: Speaking 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?

A.N.: Although 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 changed.

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 blend?

A.N.: I think you know, but I don't think you'll be thinking about it.

This was the dream:
"A question in a large package,
a big cardboard envelope entitled Disobedience.
A member of a girl group asks me
where the comic poet's things are.
Disobedience belongs to the comic poet.
She's clear about this.
It isn't the comic poet's lectures on Thoreau,
but the comic poet's own book, Disobedience."

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 point.

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 the title.

A.N.: Yes—stay 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 wackiness.

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?

A.N.: It’s 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 forties.

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 made it.

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 male.

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.