Some questions for Alice Notley
Updated: Sep 20
Interview by Magnus Florin
(original English version)
Magnus Florin (MF): - I feel an intense presence of wonder, pleasure, invention and surprise in your poetry! Would you agree? What is this?
Alice Notley (AN): - For me ‘wonder, pleasure, invention and surprise’ is what poetry is. I don't seem to find out anything without writing poetry, and I'm always surprised by what I seem to find out or say. But it's more as if the words themselves tell me what I need to know, or as if there would be no knowledge without an approach to it in the language of poetry. I feel that everything we are is poetry, quite literally, and also how we see ourselves. We are measured, terse, tensile, beautiful, but flowing, words like that. But we are measurable, apparently, and we measure ourselves all the time. We already are poems. And we keep saying what we are.
MF: - Another feeling I get is the presence of struggle and fighting – the poetic word as resistance and conflict. Poetry can sometimes be a celebration of “what-there-is" – when I read your poetry, I sense it is founded on something very different from that. Do your poems start from moments of opposition to "what-there-is"?
AN: - I don't believe in the usual definition of "what there is" so I can't start there. I don't know what there is, or I do, but it isn't like what anyone else says it is – that is, if you're referring to matter and occurrence and social configurations and what life and death are supposed to be. Rather than in opposition to what there is, it's possible I start out with the question, what is there really? Is there any reason I should accept anything I've been told to accept about anything at all? I tend to think I shouldn't accept anything that is the approved thing at any moment . . . I believe that I should "tear this building down" like Samson, but I mean the whole building, including the radical wing, which is never very radical anyway.
MF: - Some more "formal"/"material" questions: what does "repetition" mean to you? What does "rhythm mean to you? What does "verse" mean to you? What does "form" mean to you?
AN: - Repetition is interesting, or can be, because it gives pleasure – little kids love it, because it sounds great, because poetry is based on it. Rhyme is repetition, measure is repetition, etc. I like it as a compositional device because while I'm repeating some words, I give myself time to think of the next thing to say. Rhythm, rhythm is always there, that's all. My poetry should be read aloud to be understood fully. Verse means what you can hear as being verse when it's read aloud – let me try to do better than that. Prose is too long and flat and full of descriptions of rooms and fields and things. Prose assumes you have to pass through every point on the map. Poetry works by leaving out most of the points on the map. Or uses a map that makes itself up as the journey unfolds. Form is what there is; the definition is something else. Poetic form is the deep part of the form, not the part on the surface with all the play and ornaments. I don't know how to explain that very well – it's like how you set it up so you can get to the place you want to go to, and then how in that place you make it happen. The telling of the amazing wondrous whatever. I'm using words that partly have to do with narration because I started out as a fiction writer and I tell stories in my poems.
MF: - California and Paris/France are – as I understand it – your two main geographical/mental spaces. How would you say they affect you, impose their character on you, in relation to who you are as a person, and your poetic work?
AN: - I was born in Arizona and grew up in California, in the desert. From the desert I get a certain kind of flat, clear, hot light, and a certain mysticism. But you've left out New York City, where I lived for something like 20 years altogether and is the source of a lot of my talkiness, the verbosity in my urban poems, the voices. Paris is urban in some of the same ways as New York, but with Paris I've had to confront the fact of the foreign language and the fact of my own foreignness -- to myself, to others. That's really huge.
MF: - I meet a lot of questions in Certain Magical Acts - a kind of continuous addressing, demanding reactions/answers. Would it be possible for you to share some thoughts about these questions?
AN: - I don't know how to do the questions question. Though I think I have a Socratic bent. Plato was one of the first great writers I ever read.
MF: - How is it possible you have survived as a poet? I don't think I mean financially, but more existentially? As I think poetry for you is a way of living, of existing.
AN: - I don't know how it has been possible for me to survive. I just got out of the hospital, so I'm thinking about survival again. I feel that the world needs me, and I have to go on. I think the world really does need my poetry, though poetry is always something shot into the future. I guess I must believe there will be a future.
I don't really believe in death.
MF: - What is happening between poetry and time? Between poetry and space?
AN: - Poetry tends to destroy time. At the end of the poem you have it -- the poem, you own it, it is now in perfect time inside you though you can keep re-entering it and you probably will. But it's timeless. And placeless except as people take it with them. Sometimes they bury poems in cuneiform tablets in the sand for a couple thousand years.
MF: - In Certain magical acts, I am met be a stream of voices - - other voices, the poetic voice, the "I", the "you", the "voice". Can you tell me about this field/dimension of ”voices”?
AN: - Voices. Voices is kind of everything I do. The voice is the soul, but it isn't necessarily audible, is it? It's also the voice of thinking. Each person's voice is distinctive, like their handwriting, a slightly quivering slim stream of matter vibrating -- voices are like, you know, being both light and particles at the same time. But when I'm writing, if I can find a voice that will talk to me, not one that I'm being exactly but one that will be talk to me, then I'm all set.
MF: - Musicality, in all senses, is present in your work Are you a music listener, music practitioner one for whom music is part of life?
AN: - I've had some musical training, though I don't always listen to a lot of music. But I have a lot of music in my head, like everything I listened to when I was young seems to be accessible inside somewhere. I played the piano when I was young. But I bought a ukulele in April for the confinement, and I practice for 15 or 20 minutes every day. I'm fascinated again, but I'm too old to learn an instrument.
MF: - What are you reading just now? And what readings keep being important for you?
AN: - One of my two sisters is a musicologist – Margaret Notley – and has recently published a book on Berg's Lulu. I read it this summer in a state of fascination – it's really about how Wedekind and then Berg organized the Lulu material given that it kept being subjected to censorship. I always have vast amounts of material to organize and welcome any ideas, even censorship, for getting it to work together. Censorship is sort of like conceptualism.
MF: - Finally: how are you managing these days in Paris during the pandemic?
AN: - The pandemic in Paris is horrible, we are locked down again, I just had surgery during lockdown! I think I have to send this off and sit down, because I'm still a little weak. But if you want to ask me anything else, we now have a basis for discussion.
Stockholm and Paris, November 5, 2020