An Interview with Alice Notley
Alice Notley is one of the great living poets, and needs little by way of introduction. Her work is witty, prosodically vivid, complexly (often multiply) voiced. At once mobile and highly formally attentive, Notley’s poems synthesize a wide range of poetic tradition(s) while sounding like no one else. Over the course of her career, comprising, at present, over 40 books, Notley has written work ranging from tiny New York School style occasional poems to epic work on the scale of Dante’s Inferno, as in her most recent book, The Speak Angel Series (Fonograf Editions, 2023). In December of 2022, I had the chance to sit down with Notley in her Paris apartment and talk about the dual publication of Early Works, a collection of out-of-print early books and poems, and The Speak Angel Series, both now newly out from Fonograf. What follows is an edited transcript of the part of our conversation focusing on Early Works. Notley describes her practice at that time, the inspiration for some of the work, the way friendships and relationships inflected her poetry, and how she thinks about writing love poems, among other things.
Kirsten (Kai) Ihns: Can you talk a little bit about how you think about this collection of early works?
Alice Notley: Well, those are born of trying to be a poet being a woman in a landscape where there were none. It was a huge struggle to become a poet in the way I wanted to be, and I was having children at the same time and I was the only person I knew who was doing that. Anne [Waldman] and Bernadette [Mayer] had their children slightly later, and they were living in New York and I didn't know them that well. It was very isolating with what I was doing, and it was very hard, it was extremely hard, to be taken seriously. That was the huge problem that had to do with being a woman. It was different from the problem of being a minority—if you were a minority you weren’t noticed but if you were a woman you weren’t taken seriously.
KI: How did you think about the books or small units that comprise the Early Works collections? Or in general, how to make a book? How do you know you have a thing?
AN: There are different ways to make a book. In Phoebe Light, I was kind of dependent on Ted telling me which were the best ones. But I also had a lot of feelings about which were the best ones of course. But you make a narrative when you make a book, and you have to understand what the story is. Usually, if the poems are in chronological order, you'll preserve the story but there will be places where you can't put two poems next to each other or something will go wrong. You'll figure out how to kind of braid the poems. The hardest place is the beginning. You never know how to begin. You need a sort of beginning poem.
KI: What makes a good beginning poem?
AN: Well, in Phoebe Light I had that poem “Conversation.” There’s this person who says what his name is, Wesley Jackson. It’s quite different from the rest of the poems, but it makes sense. I used to read it at the beginning of readings. Ted and I wrote it together, but then he said it was mine because I did all of that repetition, all the music of it, and it was completely individual to me. But then at a certain point, he had this book he wanted to publish and he was very depressed because he was sick and he didn't think he had enough poems and I said you can have that poem it's part yours and so he took it and put it in his book under his name. Then he read it, but it didn't sound right when he read it, it always sounded better when I read it. But it’s by both of us.
KI: How do you feel about collaboration?
AN: Oh, I hate collaboration. Mostly because I like to have control over everything. I don't really feel like doing something with somebody else—I don't get it. But Ted loved it. He and I never really collaborated in any of the senses that people talk about, but he used to give me a lot of feedback and I used to give him material. I gave him tons of material because I wrote all the time. I just always had these pages I couldn’t use or that I didn't know what to do with. I would give them to him and then he would pick out lines and then give the pages back to me.
Sometimes you'll find lines by me in his work, I know where they all are. But other people don't know, you know, that he actually got lines from me. One time he did a whole version of my poem “When I Was Alive,” and Vincent Katz thought that Ted wrote the first version and that I wrote the second version. I said actually no it's in this other book of mine and your father [Alex Katz] did the cover! [laughs] I actually have two Alex Katz black and white covers.
But with regard to composing books, Incidentals of the Day World was different. It was really hard to handle because it had a lot of pages in it. And then Ted suggested some poems go into it that I wouldn't have thought of putting in, and somehow that made it different. If you can, get someone to do that for you. To say, “what about these ones that you're leaving out that are really weird?”
KI: Do you remember what some of those were?
AN: Well there's one called “R.I.P.” which I would never have put in. And I still don't know if it's supposed to be there, but on the other hand, it changed something in the manuscript, so I left it there, I didn’t take it out after Ted suggested I put it in. I don't remember any others.
I was also at this point stepping into territory that Ted didn't know about. He had this thing where he was always trying to figure out whether I was going to be like John Ashbery or Philip Whalen and he didn't understand that I was going to be like both of them. He would talk to me about it, you know, because there would be this one line of work like the New York School, and then there would be this other line of work that came out of Philip. He related to both of those people too, but I was doing it in a different way because I was kind of doing it all the time, whereas he would make an aesthetic and put it in a book, and then it would be over with. He’d go on to another aesthetic…he would change aesthetics a lot. I do too, but it was just different for me.
KI: Can you say a little bit more about that? I think about the sonnets especially, they feel quite aesthetically specific, for example?
AN: 165 Meeting House Lane was spurred by my finding a still-unpublished manuscript by Edwin Denby, of his later sonnets. Ted found it and made a photocopy he gave to me and I started imitating it. But you don't really see the influence because I didn't know how to be like Edwin. Edwin was an old man. He was from New England, wait, not New England…the East Coast. And he was born in China in 1903. So I had this manuscript, and I was thinking of the sonnet. I was thinking of the way Edwin’s sonnets were presented. They tended to be in short, clipped lines. He had no punctuation, but he used commas, and so I kept the commas. It was a really great thing to do, actually, to write that way, to use the commas; essentially you were showing feet with the commas. The sonnets were always somewhat casually presenting what had happened. So that was what I did. They were narrative, and then at a certain point I couldn't get any more so I knew they were over. There were 24 of them, and I seemed to come up with a lot of things that were 24 pages long after that. It was like how far I could go and then it would be done. There are almost I think 24 of the “Great Wines, Interiors, and Spirits of the World” which I conceived as being long-lined sonnets. They’re very long-lined sonnets and so you can't even tell they’re sonnets. And then there are one or two that are very short-lined, but they're meant to be very awkward sonnets.
KI: In the intro to Early Works, Nick Sturm mentions that imitation has been an important part of your practice. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about imitations, and what you gain from them as a writer?
AN: Ah, he’s talking about when I was at Iowa. When I was at Iowa—I was in Iowa for a year and then I left, and then I decided to go back. When I went back Ted was there, and I decided to become a poet, and somewhere inside of all of that, I didn't keep track of my credits. I was supposed to graduate in the middle of the year, it was like ‘69, ‘70, and I didn't have enough credits. George Starbuck called me in and said, “You don't have enough credits!” So, you had to take this exam at the end of the year, and I took the poetry exam, I didn't take the fiction exam. There were questions, and the questions were based on each person in the poetry workshop submitting a list of…I don't know 20 or so, poets that they were interested in, and would like considered in the exam. It's like a list, an ultimate list of poets. So I had this list, and he said “I will give you the credit if you write an imitation of each of these people.” So, I did, and he loved it! He loved it, and Ted loved it [laughs], so I got the credit and I graduated. And some of the poems are in there, are in Early Works.
As for what it did for my poetry…you learn different ways of being in a poem, which you don't do…well, I mean everybody does imitations unconsciously.
KI: [laughs] I feel like I spent a couple years imitating John Ashbery and couldn’t stop!
AN: Oh, I could never imitate him, and I had a whole struggle with the fact that I couldn't! When I went to New York all the young men were imitating him, and then I would say to them “But what about the conjunctions? How do you…how do you know how to put such weird conjunctions in those places?!” And they would look at me as if I were nuts!
KI: I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but his conjunctions are weird.
AN: It’s the conjunctions! It’s always at the conjunctions and I didn't understand any conjunction in any of his poems, and if someone had explained to me what he was doing about the conjunctions I could probably have written the imitations, but I didn't, I couldn't! But the first book of his I read was The Tennis Court Oath. It has a lot of narration in it.
KI: So, but for the poets you did imitate, can you think of anything you learned from their work?
AN: Let’s see. Well, I think there are two of them in here right away that were from those imitations. One of them is called “Poem for Here” and one is called “Allen Ginsberg.”
KI: Would you read one or both of them?
AN: Sure. Ok, so, this is “Poem for Here”
So, this is an imitation of John Wieners, and I learned, by doing this, something about tone of voice, and I also learned something about where to put the sentiment. How to write sentiment, and how to get away with it.
KI: He’s so good at that! I love The Hotel Wentley Poems…he manages such sentimentality but it's balanced somehow. He gets to say things that are so extravagant, but it works!
AN: Yeah this is based on The Hotel Wentley Poems I think but it may be Ace of Pentacles, but it was The Hotel Wentley Poems I was most influenced by.
The Allen Ginsberg poem is also in dialogue with a specific poem, which is called “This Form of Life Needs Sex.” I think it's the poem Adrienne Rich was so offended by. Where she said something like, “I just hate it when he talks about vaginas.” But I think she didn’t understand what he was saying. I also don’t think she had any understanding of tone of voice except for her own. And she also had problems with the pronoun “we”…I’ve considered this [laughs].
He sounded like that when he read poems! The poem’s fabulous. He was having a midlife crisis, and it's a poem that’s addressed to women, and he's trying to accept…he wanted to have a child, he really wanted to have a child. He was going around with this woman called Maretta Greer. I had just met him when I wrote this poem. I met him in Ann Arbor when I was going to meet Ted, who was in Ann Arbor to teach. I was going back and forth between Iowa City and Ann Arbor…that was why I forgot how many credits I had [laughs]. I wasn't going to any of my classes. Anselm Hollo was my teacher, but he knew what I was doing, and he'd become friends with, he was someone that knew Ted, and so he knew what I was doing. Then one day I walked into his class and handed him 80 pages of poems…and he gave me an A. I went to one class! [laughs]
KI: What did you learn with the Allen Ginsberg poem?
AN: It’s another thing with tone of voice. I learned how to be gleeful! It’s one of Allen’s primary tones of voice. Glee. He takes glee in anything, from anything, from any situation. He enjoyed his poetry so much.
KI: Yes! And glee does feel like it's important in your work, and it’s an unusual tone. Another unusual tone I really love in your poems is, well, the little bursts of like rage or irritation. You don’t see that often, but it’s really great….
AN: Well, I got permission. You get permission from different poets for doing these things. I got permissions for having…well, there was this thing that you could get from Philip Whalen. Ted called it a “clean tantrum,” because he used to see Philip, and Philip would throw them in person, but also on the page.
KI: The “clean tantrum!”
AN: [laughs] The clean tantrum. So, I got from Philip the sense of the clean tantrum. And then there are all these love poems to Ted. And he loved them, because we had broken up. And we went to New York and he was living with Donna Dennis who was also learning from him how to be an artist, and she became this great artist, and I became this great poet. There's all of that in here [Early Works], but these are all previously unpublished in the first section. Nick [Sturm] found them all in small magazines.
The love poems….
KI: How did you make those work?
AN: Well, I don't know, they're just very concrete about it. Here's one:
“I'm here even now containing bits of logic weather prognostications humor poetry and odds and the discomforts of here argument clinchers reeling around and around the head means distant world sliding under foot.” That’s like setting it up so I can talk, so I can say “everything is under foot.”
KI: That one’s in the Paris Review archive!
AN: It’s good.
KI: Yeah, I love that one.
AN: I was really young. But I'm being…I could only have done this in a poem. I'm assessing the situation, and I'm figuring out how to be distant enough from it to go on. There are a lot of them about being pissed off!
KI: Okay, so maybe the secret to a kind of love poem is [laughs]…having it be concrete and letting it include a kind of irritated….
AN: I haven't found any of the…. Well I think the really good ones that got split up from it [Early Works] are in a different book.
KI: I’d love to hear you read one or some of those.
AN: I don't know where they are. Oh! No no, they're in Grave of Light. There were four that I selected to put in there. This selected poems, it’s really a kind of story of all the ways I was a poet, as it came out of my life. But I never said that! But it’s just how I put it together.
So, yeah this I have here from love poems. There are four of them.
It’s a total physical description…if you can grab onto whatever is around you, then you can write the poem.
KI: I love that.
AN: Then this was the second one.
KI: The love is…there’s just a little flash of it! At the end, because the “I” was expecting/hoping for him, and not the girl upstairs….
AN: Yeah. This poem is also dependent on a kind of run-together line. And then this one is called “Cold Poem,” and I really liked this one!
It comes out at the end! It’s at the end because there are all these particulars before, with names and delivery of pills, and all these things that you don't put in a love poem.
KI: Right! And it also reminds me a little bit of the way Frank O'Hara ends “The Day Lady Died,” you know—there are all of those details, he’s wandering around in the street, you’re just in the details of it, and then…
AN: Yeah! Well, I knew about that one! [laughs] And here’s one more love poem: “I Hope I’m Not Here Next Year.”
And that was a love poem. And then that leads into the rest of the book because I've set myself up to be this poet.
KI: Ok, so I loved that poem, but…well, the dumb version of this question is “How is it a love poem?” [laughs]
AN: Because I wrote it at the same time as I wrote all the other poems, and I'm writing out of the feeling of being completely alone. Of having been deserted by my boyfriend.
KI: So love also as a kind of absence or negativity, or a broken expectation: like the disappointing fact of it being the girl upstairs and not Ted, and there’s a feeling of aloneness, and it must be that love’s there for this feeling of aloneness to happen.
AN: You don’t think like that! You’re thinking like a critic when you say all that!
KI: Yes, you’re right. [laughs]
AN: But you know you can't write out of that way of thinking.
KI: No, I agree, they're totally separate.
AN: You can have the train of thought like a critic, but you have to put it away when you write!
When I was writing these I had no theory about anything, I just wrote them. I had read Frank O’Hara’s love poems. Ted was teaching at Iowa, and then he went away that summer, and we were seeing each other—beginning to see each other—around that time. He left me the key to this room in the EPB [English Department Building on Iowa’s campus], where he left all of his library. I read everything that summer, I read everything! I read all of the New York School, and I also started reading little mimeographed books by Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer and so on, because they were all in this room!
KI: Could you talk a little bit about Phoebe Light? It’s a really great collection and a really interesting title.
AN: It’s from a birthday poem I made for Phoebe MacAdams. We were living in Bolinas, and we were living in Phoebe and Lewis’s chicken house behind their house. It was like a studio attached to these chicken coops but there were no chickens there anymore because the raccoons had eaten them all. It was Phoebe’s birthday and so I wrote this anthology and assigned different authors to each of the poems and they were all called Phoebe This, Phoebe That, and one of them was “Phoebe Light.”
The first one was called…I can’t remember what I called it, and it was supposed to be by John Ashbery, and I took some lines from “Rivers and Mountains”…that’s the one that starts out with a map I think, and it says “the assassins were doing something,” and I changed the “assassins” to the “sassies.” So, I wrote this little six line poem, and it was called Phoebe Something-or-other. They were all like that. There was one that’s like an imitation of a Clark Coolidge, you know, it’s “word word word” signed “Clark Coolidge.” And there was one “by” Tom Clark…all called Phoebe things.
KI: How do you think about very short poems like “Phoebe Light”? What makes a good short poem?
AN: It’s a poem! Sometimes a poem is only two lines long!
I have a poem that just keeps coming round. It’s only a few lines long, and it’s just been used for this anthology edited by Eileen Myles called Pathetic Literature. This poem I wrote in 1982, and it goes:
KI: Definitely a kind of spiral.
AN: It’s a poem that's been very popular with people and I can read it anywhere or recite it anywhere and it works for anything. Eileen used it kind of as the epigram for this anthology, but it's a love poem, it's a love poem to Ted, and then it was printed in the Poetry Project Newsletter on a postcard with an illustration by George Schneeman. George was at the time making…his primary images came out of the second circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, which is the one with all the lovers. So there are a lot of nude people like sort of whirling around and around in space. I’ll find it for you [goes looking].