Alice Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1945 and grew up in Needles, California in the Mojave Desert. She was educated in the Needles public schools, Barnard College, and The Writers Workshop, University of Iowa. She has lived most extensively in Needles, in New York, and since 1992 in Paris, France. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, and of essays and talks on poetry, and has edited and co-edited books by Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver. She edited the magazine CHICAGO in the 70s and co-edited with Oliver the magazines SCARLET and Gare du Nord in the 90s. She is the recipient of various prizes and awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Award (for Mysteries of Small Houses, which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), the Griffin Prize (for Disobedience), the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize (for Grave of Light, Selected Poems 1970-2005), and the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize, a lifetime achievement award. She is also a collagiste and cover artist. Above all she is a full-time poet, at this point an internationalist and haunter of Paris, remaining an American, an ex-New-Yorker, and a desert denizen. Her most recent book is Certain Magical Acts, from Penguin. Her chapbook, UNDO, was just released by above/ground press.
[Alice Notley performs in Ottawa as part of the opening night of the 8th annual VERSeFest on Tuesday,March 20; she will also be delivering the 2017-18 Munro Beattie Lecture,“Remember Before You Were Born,” at Carleton University on Wednesday, March 21]
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, 165 Meeting House Lane, was published in 1971 by Ted Berrigan's "C" Press. It would now be called a chapbook, which was a sort of sissy word then — a book is a book. It consisted of 24 sonnets, that is 24 pages. It was mimeographed and stapled, I helped with the collating. The front and back covers were by Philip Whalen. It's still just great! The sonnets were influenced by Edwin Denby's sonnets — Ted had been staying at Rudy Burckhardt's loft at some point, found the entirety of Edwin's Later Sonnets, as yet unpublished, in Rudy's closet, photocopied them without asking, and gave them to me. I proceeded to imitate them, though I was incapable of that, but what happened was magical. I produced these poems from somewhere inside me I didn't know about, by very roughly imitating an old poetry form as re-vitalized by someone, Edwin, deeply influenced by Gertrude Stein. I love this book still. My most recent book, published by Penguin Random House, is called Certain Magical Acts, and in part involves classical meters and some things I picked up from reading Lucretius, Horace, Terence and others, so the process of writing it wasn't all that different. Maybe. And I was surprised by all the poems as I wrote them, I scarcely knew where they came from, they are strangers when I look at them now but also deeply beloved.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I began by writing fiction. I went to The Writers Workshop, University of Iowa as a fiction writer but got my MFA finally in fiction and poetry. My thesis involved both forms. It had never occurred to me that I might write poetry until I went to Iowa and met some poets. I immediately tried writing poems and found out I was a poet.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It takes anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few years to get started. Sometimes I don't know what I really mean by what I think I want to do. Really you have to hit on it, don't you? Oddly, I've never used the word "draft" in my entire life . . . I tend to write by hand and then type it up, so there is the fact of the two kinds of "writing" and how the look of it changes from handwriting to type — the handwritten version is hard to let go of because it's so beautiful. I used to make a lot of notes, sometimes, but I rarely do now because I only seem to be able to think in verse. I always hated my notes — so clunky, but they were of use, organizationally. When you think with your poems you can't always tell where the part is that's just the planning. I discard a lot of work.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
This is somehow the same question and the same answer: Who knows? For example, I wrote my way into The Descent of Alette — after thinking about doing something vaguely like it for two or three years — over the course of several months, discarding most of those first pages. Then I was in it and kept being in it. At a certain point I was about to begin Book IV, then I wrote badly for some reason for about six months and had to get rid of all of that, then I wrote the real Book IV, and then I finally wrote the opening two pages of Book I. That is, it began after the end. Essentially I don't know what I'm doing until I'm written a lot of it — and don't know that it's a book, often, for quite a while. Certain Magical Acts is composed of poems I wrote in between book-length things. I gradually discovered I had a number of pieces from these in-between places that urgently needed to be published and that fit together. They were a book writing itself in between the other books I was more consciously writing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are totally important to me, but I rarely get to give them anymore. My poems exist to be read aloud, or the way you read poetry silently as if you were reading it aloud. I hate not being able to read often. I don't understand how there can even be poetry without the conception of a public reading of it . . . I've known poets who were unable to give public readings for psychological reasons. Edwin Denby and James Schuyler wouldn't read aloud, though Jimmy did during the last few years of his life, after he finally outgrew his schizophrenia. But one year, I think maybe 1978, Jim Brodey organized two readings, of Edwin's and Jimmy's poems and we, their friends and admirers, read their poems aloud. It was obvious the poems were conceived as much to be sounded as to be reflected upon — I mean I already knew that, but it was so great to get up and read them in front of an audience, these other people's poems! to be possessed by them and to hear them.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don't think I know what theoretical concerns are. When I first began writing poetry, I was deeply concerned with how a woman might at all write poetry — that's not exactly theoretical, how do you write a poetry that's never been written before? I later wondered how I could write at all after my husband, Ted Berrigan, had died. (And even later, after my husband, Doug Oliver, had died. Though I was by then 'experienced.') Also, I had to deal with questions to do with the Vietnam War, after my brother died — he had been a sniper in that war, suffered severe PTSD and died of an accidental overdose in the 80s. This is not theoretical, nor is it precisely political, it is more like what is everything? I've written about global warming since the early 90s but less "about" than embedding it in its context or what it is the context of. I'm currently working on the question of how the dead might communicate with each other and whether there really are time and matter.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The poet should write poems. Poetry is an ancient art, and the talent is rare. People like poetry, in fact. They like for there to be poets and poems, and to know, even if they themselves don't read poems much, that the art is being taken care of. My parents, who were not allowed by their circumstances (the Great Depression) to become highly educated, both knew that it was good for me to be a poet. I really don't care if I have any other "role" than that of writing poems and trying to get other people to read them, either now or in the future.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like my editors. They don't tell me much, but I'm grateful to them. They tend to be my first readers these days.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Bill Berkson's mother's maid, Corinne, when I was 25 years old and staying at Bill's mother's apartment, met Ted and then confidentially told me to hold onto him. This was good advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Oh I really only like to write poetry. Sometimes I have to write in prose, as now. I usually do it because someone asks me to, though I have acquired a rather large body of critical essays at this point, published and unpublished. When I wrote the essays in Coming After, my intent was to draw attention to the work of people who themselves disliked and disdained most criticism, didn't want to write about poetry, and therefore weren't going to be discussed much. I mean that was part of the New York School esthetic, not to say things about how poetry should be written, just write it and see how that worked out. The criticism all happened on the ground, in life, people showing each other their works and really, truly criticizing it. Believe me, things got criticized! It occurred to me that my friends might be in danger of having their work forgotten or lost, since everything had become so creepily academic, so I proceeded to write some essays.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write in the morning. Coffee, newspaper, write poetry. Three mornings a week I jog first.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My writing doesn't get stalled.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Creosote after the once-a-year rain.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Hugely influenced by music and visual art, also nature or my memories of it, conversation and the interaction of bodies in daily life, the theater, etc.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh just anything. I read in a peculiar manner nowadays and rarely seem to finish books exactly, I live with them taking a bite out of this one and that one, sometimes the same ones for years. I've recently been in a period with Latin classics, so, you know, I'm sharing my imaginative space with these men in togas whom I see as short and somewhat brown, though who knows? I read a lot of ancient literature, thinking of the authors as people from another dimension.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
All that traveling, but in my younger body.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I was/am poet period.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Nothing. It seemed obvious.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Probably The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll. I put off reading it for several years because his death was still too close, then sat down and read it like a real book from beginning to end. I had this extraordinary experience, reading it, that each single sentence was written for me to understand and that perhaps I was the only person who could understand it. As for films, I rarely see them. So probably the last great film was, say, The Searchers. I mean I can always say that. It is an utterly amazing film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm trying to destroy the line, or make the words and thoughts in it as simultaneous as possible, or make all the parts of the poem be simultaneous, yet still be voiced.