Hold Back and Give: a profile of Alice Notley

Poets and Writers magazine, September 2006

The cramped Paris apartment where the poet Alice Notley has lived for over a decade, in a working-class neighborhood near the Gare du Nord, is the most visible sign of her fierce commitment to the life of writing. The tiny space overflows with books—and not just books of poetry. She is addicted, for example, to thrillers. (After spending the morning together, she generously loads my bag with several examples of the genre that she is desperate to be rid of.) The barely-furnished studio—bed, desk, chair, toppling bookcases, walls covered with her own sketches and collages—readily evokes the kind of cramped Parisian garret conjured in the romantic image of the Bohemian poet passionately scratching away at her work.

Notley herself is physically small and is at first almost self-effacingly shy. Her voice flutters in casual conversation, though when she is impassioned she can raise it to a shout. This may be a consequence of her admittedly “lonesome” life in Paris, or more simply that, as she tells me, she is nervous because she’s leaving for the U.S. in three days. Her visit to America coincides with this month’s publication of Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970–2005 by Wesleyan University Press. Included in the book are poems from twenty-two of Notley’s thirty previous collections, which have been released over the years by small independent publishers—such as ‘C’ Press, the small house in New York City that published her first book, 165 Meeting House Lane, in 1971—and major commercial publishers. Penguin has published three of her books since 1996, including Mysteries of Small Houses, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. She has also received the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award. For readers who have tried—and often failed—to find poems originally published in some of her limited-edition volumes that have fallen out of print, Grave of Light is, as stated in a Publishers Weekly starred review, “an essential book.”

Alice Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1945, and grew up in Needles, California (population: five thousand), where the idea of being a poet was altogether uncommon. “I grew up in this very small town in the Mojave Desert, and I thought people were only prose writers,” says Notley, who began writing fiction in her late teens. “When I was eighteen or nineteen, I began very painfully writing my first stories, and I thought I would be, in the words of a T-shirt that someone once gave Larry McMurtry, a ‘minor regional novelist.’” Instead, Notley first moved to New York and attended Barnard College, where she received her BA in 1967, and then went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received her MFA in poetry in 1969.

While in Iowa, Notley met the poet Ted Berrigan, a writer-in-residence at the Writers’ Workshop, whom she would eventually marry, in 1972, and with whom she would have two sons, Anselm and Edmund. “I was twenty-three and he was thirty-four, and he was formed, and I wasn’t formed, and he represented a sort of school, the New York School, but he was much bigger than any school,” she says. “He turned me on to a lot of poets that I wouldn’t have necessarily discovered.”

Notley’s conversation is peppered with references to the iconic poets of this period—Gregory Corso, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg among them—who not only became her friends but whose poetry she credits as having freed her up to find her voice as a poet. “In high school I was very affected by Emily Dickinson, and I had read a lot of female novelists, but I had a sense of this male voice inside me. I read a lot of homosexual poets when I was in my early twenties and I think I got a certain sense also of how to talk from them.” Under Berrigan’s influence, Notley was relieved to discover an aesthetic alternative to Sylvia Plath, whose work was popular at the time but whose range Notley found limiting and lacking in the humor that is such a distinguishing characteristic of the poetry that liberated her. Indeed, humor and irreverence are driving forces behind much of Notley’s verse, as illustrated in the first stanza of the poem “But He Says I Misunderstood,” written in 1973 and included in Notley’s fourth book, For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday, published by Street Editions in 1976:

He & I had a fight in the pub

5 scotch on the rocks 1 beer I remember

Only that he said “No women poets are any good, if you want it

Straight, because they don’t handle money” and

“Poe is greater than Dickinson”

Well that latter is an outright and fucking untruth

This is an early example of how Notley began tapping into the irreverent mocking of literary tradition that Berrigan and other poets in the second generation of the New York School—such as Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard, who gained prominence during the 1960s, after first-generation poets like John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and O’Hara—were playing with then, but at the same time she is turning their male hegemony upside down and against them.

Notley has always been concerned with the way in which poetry in general, and women’s poetry in particular, is marginalized in contemporary culture, both undervalued in its own right, and considered inferior to prose. It’s something that still makes her incandescent with anger. “In our culture you can’t make a living as a poet, and no one really cares if you’re a poet or not,” she says. “People really don’t want you to be a poet because you’re not a productive member of society. I have had that feeling for my entire career and it’s absolutely true. ‘You’re supposed to be in the university now; the poem is an academic thing.’ I’ve made my life stand against that kind of thing. It’s not made me popular amongst other poets….I hardly ever work, I just get by,” she says, with almost cheerful defiance.

Late last year the University of California Press published The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, edited by Notley with the help of her sons—both of whom are also poets. The massive tome (nearly 750 pages) includes a timeline of the poet’s career, leading up to his death from complications of cirrhosis of the liver, on July 4, 1983, eleven years after he and Notley were married. The entries for 1970 through the early ‘80s give an indication of the peripatetic lifestyle the poets shared. For example, the entry for 1970-71 reads, in part, “Transitional period of moving from place to place with Alice Notley.” In 1972, the year they were married, Notley and Berrigan were in Chicago, where Berrigan taught at Northeastern Illinois University; the following year they moved to England, where he taught at the University of Essex. Then it was back to Chicago; then to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado; then to New York City. All the while, Notley wrote and published her collections of poetry. “My publishing history is awkward and untidy, though colourful and even beautiful,” she writes in the author’s note to Grave of Light. “A number of smallish books and chapbooks came out in the early years, which didn’t find their way into subsequent, dignified ‘collections.’”

Though there are shifts in technique at various stages in her writing career, Notley has never let her voice be contained by a single aesthetic strategy. “I don’t have a poetics. I think that’s bullshit,” she says. “I change my style all the time. I change what forms I use. The whole thing is in flux. I think that poetics is an industry.” Some of Notley’s early poems have a bare, almost minimal formalism, while others feature language that is dense and layered, like dollops of color impacted on top of one another in a paintball charge. More recently she has written poetry with a highly narrative quality, epics influenced by her love of the works of Dante, Chaucer, and Homer.

Alma or The Dead Woman, forthcoming next month from Granary Press, is “quite novelistic” she says. “It has characters and plot and some of it’s in prose, though a lot of it is in poetry. You read it from start to finish and you follow the progression of the characters. But you can do whatever you want with it…I think this is a time where people want to be told stories, and my poetry is highly narrative, I’ve been quoted so many times, saying that I’m trying to steal stories from prose and give it back to poetry. But my poetry isn’t in the least bit prose-like and when it becomes prose-like I get nervous and ditch it.”

Notley’s apprehension of prose developed into the typographical innovation, the use of quotation marks to segment the phrases of the poetic line, with which she is often identified. Although she began experimenting with the form in the late 1980s, it was fully realized in the book-length poem The Descent of Alette (Penguin, 1996). The book begins with the lines: “‘One day, I awoke’ ‘& found myself on’ ‘a subway, endlessly’ / ‘I didn’t know’ ‘how I’d arrived there or’ ‘who I was’ ‘exactly’.”

The result is a hypnotic rhythm that lends itself to spoken-word performance. To the uninitiated reader, the quotation marks can be off-putting at first, but that is part of how they work—they force the reader to slow down, to mark the pace of each line instead of rushing through to the narrative elements of the poem. It is a very exact technique to distance the narrative poem from prose—the reader has to hear how it sounds, as opposed to only seeing it as a string of words on the page.

“I always imagine my poetry performed aloud, and I think that people aren’t educated properly about poetry anymore….People get it primarily off the page, they read too fast, impatiently, as if it were prose, and they try to get prose out of it. It just doesn’t work if that’s what you’re trying to do. Poetry doesn’t exist to give you prose. It’s this other thing. It is something that has to do with the sound of words, the sound of letters, the spaces between words, letters, how words connect to the mind and to the throat at the same time.” The measuring of phrases in all of her longer narrative poems—not just the quotation-marked lines of The Descent of Alette—has this precise effect of making the reader hear the language at the same time as taking in the story.

To prove this she reads to me “At Night the States,” a long, grammatically loose, allusive poem that manages to be simultaneously conversational and elegiac. It’s a poem that I’ve read several times and not managed to fully understand. And yet, as she reads it aloud in her light musical voice, I feel that I understand absolutely both the emotional core and the structural pattern of the poem. “This is an elegy for Ted, basically,” she says. “What I’m really doing [in the poem] is floating over the country and becoming larger than my situation. I had been doing some work for Allen Ginsberg—I went to work for him after Ted died in 1983. I wrote this in 1985. I just needed to get out of the house. I would clerk for him a little bit, type his manuscripts.”

The poem repeats the phrase “at night the states” fifteen times, and Notley says the repetition allows the “you” who is being addressed by the speaker of the poem to transcend the poet’s late husband. “The ‘you’ becomes very big, until I’m talking to the whole country,” she says. “It’s very American, it does something to the syntax. It’s quite influenced by Gertrude Stein. It’s very emotional and very precise. I tried to keep thinking—maybe I’m giving away too many professional secrets—at this point I understood something quite primary from Stein’s repetition, which was that you could pause inside a repetition, and without losing the momentum of the poem you could think of what to say next. You get a word from the past…and you pull it into the present in order to go to the future. It has something to do with thinking and not losing the music while you think. Nothing is lost or obscure.”

After the death of Ted Berrigan in 1983, Notley raised her two sons by herself in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan while continuing to write poetry. In 1988 she married the British poet Douglas Oliver, and four years later they moved to Paris, where Oliver taught at the British Institute and together they edited the literary magazine Gare du Nord. “Paris is an extremely international city,” Notley says. “New York is too, of course, but it’s possible to be stuck in your neighborhood. I can’t get stuck here because I’m a foreigner.”

On April 21, 2000, after a lengthy illness, Oliver died of cancer. Six years later, Notley remains in Paris, but she admits to loneliness and acknowledges that her primary tool, language, has undergone a pretty radical shakedown. “Linguistically it’s been very interesting. I’ve had various reactions to it. One has been to become more difficult, because the language around me is completely in flux all the time. I only half understand what people are saying to me, I only half know whether I’m saying it correctly; on the other hand all transactions are working, and the information is conveyed. And I got interested in that as a kind of linguistic thing that is connected to thinking, because when you think you don’t ‘think.’ You certainly don’t think in complete sentences. I’ve written a manuscript that I can’t get published called Reason and Other Women. The title poem of Grave of Light is taken from this manuscript. It’s based on my observing myself thinking, and this observation process is influenced by what it’s like to operate in French every day, and to have language, have sentences be endless, language be fluid, to repeat a lot, not be quite sure what you’re saying—and to have all that somehow be satisfactory anyway.”

In addition to her writing, Notley has experimented with that most emblematic of the modern art forms: the collage. Examples hang on the walls of her apartment, and one with rather lovely jewel-like Klimt colors adorns the front cover of Grave of Light. A strong visual sense accompanies her discussion of poetry too, a profound sense of the poem as a physical artifact. But as an individual, perhaps as a result of her position as an American living abroad, Notley is simultaneously generous and withholding about the details of her work and her life.

“Sometimes I try to hide things, because I would be too naked otherwise,” she says. “Sometimes you hide but you give anyway—you hold back and give at the same time. I don’t think you can do it in prose, it’s something you do in poetry.” Notley says she doesn’t regret moving to France, and declares that it would be impossible to move back to the U.S. “Once you’re outside your country you can’t go back, because you’ll be inside that head and you can’t do it any more. I feel a shrinking when I go both to Britain and the States.” At one point in our discussion, she yells, “We’re having an expatriate conversation!” then hurriedly excuses herself and asserts, “That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word.” But “expatriate” is a word and a subject that comes up again and again in interviews that she has given during the last fourteen years, mostly as a way of distancing herself from other Americans in Paris. Her use of the word—and her horror at her use of the word—suggests that she has yet to find her home in Paris, whether in the Parisian or the expatriate community, in spite of the many years she has lived there.

She herself acknowledges this. “The longer I’ve lived here the more I realise that I don’t have any definition of myself—except as a poet.” But for her readers, those who have waited for a book like Grave of Light to reacquaint them with the work of a writer who has never settled on a specific aesthetic, that’s the only definition that has ever really mattered.


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