ALICE NOTLEY has been hailed as one of the United States’s greatest living poets. She is the author of more than 25 books of poetry and the recipient of numerous awards, including, most recently, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Certain Magical Acts is her latest book.
Notley’s work, which consistently pushes up against the limitations of language, seems to issue from an alternate reality. Among her most notable works is The Descent of Alette, an epic poem about the narrator’s katabasis into the subterranean bowels of the subway. The narrator’s mission: The elimination of the tyrant who is responsible for the suffering of all those he has banished to the dark, dank underground. Earlier this month, Notley, who lives in Paris, read the book-length (148-page) poem in its entirety, over two nights, at The Lab in San Francisco. I met up with the poet at her hotel in San Francisco on the morning between those two readings.
SHOSHANA OLIDORT: Your reading of The Descent of Alette last night was really beautiful but also painful and pained. I felt as if I were descending with Alette, with you, into the cavernous underground. Can you tell me a bit about how performance informs your writing?
ALICE NOTLEY: I always think of poems as something to be performed. And I always think of how they’re going to sound. There wouldn’t be poetry without that. It’s utterly important. And people should read poetry aloud. Reading aloud is key. I read each poem aloud in my room after I’ve written it, and I often picture myself in a room performing it.
Who is your intended audience?
It changes. When I lived in New York, it was the audience that met at The Poetry Project every Wednesday. It was a really wonderful audience, very intelligent, receptive to poetry. I pictured that room, the Parish Hall of St. Mark’s Church, and I had a sense of all the bodies in the room. But I don’t picture that audience anymore. I don’t quite know what I picture. Sometimes it’s like a room full of souls, sometimes it’s the whole universe, and I’m just sort of talking to everything there is.
You’ve referred to The Descent of Alette as a feminine epic. Why was it important to you to write a feminine epic?
I wanted to write an epic in which the hero was a woman. The epic was held as the epitome of writing — a hero, a man who changes everything there is by entering into combat with something. The entire history of the epic is that, in every culture. But then I found one that wasn’t like that, the Sumerian Descent of Inanna, in which the hero, Inanna, is purely interested in finding out what death is. It’s an inquisition through experience. I was interested in how there was no action, and how she didn’t really kill. The way it was set up was very dreamlike. She was the hero, and what she wanted was knowledge.
So who is the tyrant of the story?
In The Descent of Alette, the tyrant is us. The tyrant is what enslaves us to our forms. The tyrant is the form of our life, the form of our politics, the form of our universities, the form of our knowledge, our thinking we know something. All of that is the tyrant. The tyrant is a liberal. The tyrant isn’t Trump. He can be part of it, but this tyrant is an extremely accomplished man who can do anything. Alette’s about the liberation of women, but it’s also about the liberation of everyone. If you keep half of humankind down, then everybody is oppressed.
In an essay on women and poetry, you talked about the need to find a new world where women’s voices, women’s poetry, can be made. Have you found that world, that space?
I’ve sort of found it for myself. I always posit that there was a world before this one that we fell from somehow. But I’m not sure that happened. I don’t know what happened. I look for things like the language they spoke. I’m still looking for something that’s like the beginning. It could be the beginning of the universe.
I like to do things like think about whether or not the black hole was an explosion. Maybe that’s just our definition of what it was. Obviously if we weren’t there it isn’t anything we can describe. I’ve been caught in a thought process about that for a number of years. But if that did happen, and it made all this noise, then poetry is still dealing with the kind of sounds and overtones it created.
You’ve talked about a split between the conscious and unconscious that resulted from the banishment of women from public and political life. Can you explain what you mean by this?
That’s what Alette’s about. I don’t know if it’s true or not, it’s a proposition: we were banished and so we became the psyche, we became sympathy, we became all of these qualities that are totally necessary for there to be life, but that are discounted by whoever’s in power. What we’re learning all the time is that power is terrible, so do we really want it? The best thing is, as Jack Kerouac said, to avoid the authorities and to devote your life to avoiding the authorities. It didn’t work that well for him, but on the other hand, he did write a lot of great books.
I was initially drawn to your work soon after I had my second child. My oldest was three years old. We were living in a suburb of Philadelphia. It was a brutal winter, and I was homebound with the baby. I discovered poems you wrote when your own children were little, and I felt inspired. Can you tell me a bit about what it was like to write poems while caring for small children?
A lot of the poems I wrote when they were little were about their voices and my voices — the kind of community we made as a family. It’s the same as everything I write now except now it’s not my children. It could be one’s family or one’s flesh that you write to and for, that you hear the voices of, or that you create the voices of. I always liked being with them. There was great pleasure connected to it. It was very difficult in a lot of ways, but there was such pleasure in having them around and watching them, and they were good and they talked well. Ted was sick a lot of the time, but the four of us made this beautiful little community, and it was a kind of moneyless utopia in some way. I think people should be that way — they shouldn’t have any money, and they should talk a lot. I wrote my first long poem called Songs for the Unborn Second Baby when I was pregnant with my second baby, Edmund, and Anselm was a little baby. I was totally aware that I had no predecessors.
How do you see the situation of women writing poetry as having changed over the course of your career?
When I started, there was just a handful of women writing. And there was no one who was writing about their children except for me. I had no predecessors. As far as I’m concerned, I am the first person on earth to have written that kind of poem. In the anthologies, it looks like there were these others doing it. But they weren’t doing what I was doing, which is making the poem come from that part of my life.
Are you in conversation with contemporary women poets?
When I was young, my primary poetry friends were Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman. There wasn’t a voice yet for women to write poetry in, and we were creating a voice for that. It didn’t have very much to do with men’s voices, but it was affected by second-generation New York–school poets and their voices. But I don’t think we saw ourselves as a group.
You talk about the voices that you create, or give voice to, in your poetry. Can you tell me what voice means for you in your work?
Voice is everything. I’ve been writing more and more pieces where there are voices, and, more and more, I don’t know who they are.
What does that mean? Can you tell me about the process? Where do you find these voices?
I sit down in the chair at kind of the same time of day in the morning. I open the book, and I see if there are any words that want to come to me. But now they seem to be coming to me from other people’s minds a lot. They’re all dead people. Living people you can talk to in the flesh. Dead people talk to me. They’re there. It’s just that I’m never 100 percent positive that it’s they who are talking to me.
I am sure that the dead are alive, but I don’t know what they are doing precisely. A lot of my recent work is trying to find out what they’re doing. Because there’s another society, there’s another group, there’s this place where there are all these people who can’t have power over each other because they can’t kill.
How and when did you first start speaking to the dead?
People in my life kept dying, and each time they died I stood at this chasm, and the wall between the living and the dead collapsed. Gradually I just had the ability to see into this other world because these traumatic things happened to me. Ted Berrigan, my first husband, died in our apartment. I was 37. A few years later my stepdaughter — his daughter — died, and the year after that my brother died (he’s the impetus for The Descent of Alette). The year after that, my good friend Steve Carey died. My father had died in 1975, when I was 30. After some time passed, I started to dream about him. He would give me quite good advice.
Did you follow his advice?
Yes, yes I did. I only stuck with things he told me to do since he died.
Is it poetry that allows you to be in contact with the dead?
Sometimes I think that there is no poetry written without the intervention of the dead. It’s their voices speaking to you that allow you to find words from nowhere; they are the muse. I’m from the Mojave Desert; there are a lot of cranks there. I don’t usually tell people, but every once in a while I feel like telling them. Because everything else that’s said about poetry is so boring and trivial. And if I say I represent the dead, your head has to kind of turn, and you have to think about something besides poetics. Poetics! As if how people say poetry should be written is of any consequence at all or any importance. Critics create value. We don’t need any value, we need poetry.
Do you represent the dead?
Sometimes, not always. The Descent of Alette is that poem, the poem of my present thought. All the people in Alette — they could be living people or they could be the dead. Or they could be godlike entities of some sort that are in an afterlife or another life or a parallel life. This life’s boring!
As a poet you can talk to anyone you want to, and you can write down anything you want to. You don’t make any money, so it doesn’t matter what you say. You can give yourself great pleasure just speaking to whoever or whatever might exist. But also, you do rip yourself open if you go through the experiences I have, and you do stand on the chasm between life and death. There is communication, I am certain of this. I’ve also been ill and in my illness I’ve reached out further. The more defective you become the more you learn, the more you know, the more shamanic you’ll be.
Can you tell me about your not wanting to belong to any one school of poetry, to any particular movement. You’ve said that you see belonging as, and I quote, “not only an infringement on my liberty but a veil over clear thinking.” Can you explain?
People do this all around me all the time. They pick up their opinions from each other, and they feel very bad if they don’t hold the same opinions. This election is the clearest example of that that I’ve seen in a long time. Every election everyone turns into idiots, partisan idiots. All these very intelligent people I know become total partisans in the way they think. They lose a sense that there are all these other kinds of people in the United States who haven’t been represented at all in a while and may have some thoughts that are just as important as theirs. This election was about that.
You’ve talked of your ambivalence about words, but you haven’t abandoned words. Why?
I think words are what we have. I think there might be some other kind of language made up of something else, that we used to speak or that we’ll speak when we’re dead. I’m always working on what that might be.
I don’t know what it is. I keep trying to ask them to tell me.
How do they communicate with you?
They translate. I’ve always been in contact with whoever speaks poems to you. When a poem is spoken to you, you think you’re writing it, but actually it comes from a very mysterious place. It’s conceited to think that you’re on top of it in some very normal way. It’s not a normal experience, to write a poem.
One day, it was 2009, I was walking up to my door. I was perfectly empty, and then I saw this conversation. I sort of saw it like in the front of my brain. I saw and heard it between myself and my father. Suddenly, I was unlocking the door and I said, “You,” and he said, “Yes!” and I said the name of my niece, and he said, “Yes, it’s for Albert,” who’s my dead brother, and I said, “Okay, I’ll write to her,” and then I went inside and I wrote her a letter. She needed me to write her. She was in a bad place. That was totally tangible. It was really interesting because I was watching myself talk to him rather than talk to him. It was as if he had to translate, or remember how to speak, in order to get to me. I seem to have turned all of this into some kind of linguistic experience where I’m trying to figure out what he spoke if he had to remember how to speak to me, like what there is instead, what the communication is like.
Have you seen the dead speaking among themselves? Can you listen in on their conversations?
You can’t see them, no. I hear them speaking to me. I think it wouldn’t be possible to hear them speak to each other, but it’s an idea. There’s another world, its composition is different, its elements are different. Scientists say it’s all just dark matter. Most of the universe hasn’t been discovered. What do you think is in it?
Do you think it’s filled with the voices of the dead?
They might be there. If you think you’re writing a poem and the words come and they are these words that you recognize and use all the time, then who cares? Who cares? That’s what American poet laureates do, they write these really square poems, and they use the words they use all the time and they want to communicate to you as they think you are, and then you say yes! I’m like that! Everybody says that’s the belonging part, we all belong together and we all write in this certain way. But you can be using words any number of ways, you can be saying anything, you can be describing a completely different world from this one. You can be describing a world that you see on LSD. These poets are fools, the ones that get all the honors, they’re just fools and the people who like their poems are also fools. I think their poems are shit.
Which contemporary poets do you read?
I read John Ashbery. I think he’s a gas, the older he gets, the better. I read Ron Padgett, he’s always funny. I tend to read Roman orators at the moment.
What do you think of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize?
Well, Dylan is someone who’s had an effect on me. But I was really annoyed, because I wanted it and I think someone like me should get it. I mean, why should he? He doesn’t need it, he’s been rich since he was 25, and he’s been adulated since he was 25. What’s the point? There’s no point in giving him the Nobel Prize! I think he was embarrassed, and that’s why it took him a long time to accept it. He’s a very good lyricist. I’ve learned things from his lines, from the way he uses his singing line. It’s very long and intricate. I’ve gotten technical things from him like the way he bends words and things. He does it as a singer, and I adapt it to poetry.
But the things they were saying about him being like Homer and Sappho — they don’t know anything about how Homer and Sappho performed their poems. It was so stupid; that conversation was just about nothing, nothing that anyone knows about. Homer and Sappho used these very particular meters. The meters make your voice vibrate in a certain way, and you don’t have to sing, but they probably strummed something or chanted. It’s not like what he does. I can’t believe anyone is allowed to be so stupid.
Are they less stupid in Paris?
No, oh no, everybody’s stupid everywhere.
What are you working on now?
I’m sort of in between things, and so I’m trying things out. I have stacks of unpublished works. I have a series of books, about six books of different lengths, called “The Speak Angel Series,” that I started writing in 2012–2015, but they have to be tampered with.
Where did you get that name from, “The Speak Angel Series”?
Someone told me that phrase in a dream. Maybe it was in the course of writing a poem that the phrase just sort of came in and I wrote it down. That’s why you want to say that the dead tell you what to say because you don’t know where the phrases come from. You can make the writing be sort of like dreaming. Phrases can come to you from nowhere.
LARB will never let you publish this.
I hope they will.
I hope they will, too.