Tuesday, August 28, 2007



FOUR BOOKS by Alice Notley:

(Penguin, 2001)

Margaret and Dusty
(Coffee House Press, 1985)

Mysteries of Small Houses
(Penguin, 1998)

Selected Poems
(Talisman Press, 1973)

[First published in Interim, 2004. Editor Claudia Keelan]


Alice Notley: Good morning. It’s disgusting this morning.

Catherine Wagner: It’s very bracing, that attitude of yours, Alice. I imagine when you were a girl a lot of older people told you to work on improving it. You bring me straight to my first question. You said in your talk “Poetics of Disobedience” that “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against…everything.” Disobedience might be a fruitful way to interact with the world, but it’s also pessimistic. It seems to imply that the world and everyone in it are attempting to force you to obey. That might often seem true—but what do you do when you come across someone you agree with?

AN: I can’t go along, with the government or governments, with radicals and certainly not with conservatives or centrists, with radical poetics and certainly not with other poetics, with other women’s feminisms, with any fucking thing at all; belonging to any of it is not only an infringement on my liberty but a veil over clear thinking.

CW: Clear thinking means aligning yourself with no one? It sounds like you’re saying that you can only agree with something if it’s yours alone.

AN: Any one of us is the one ground of life, the only true point-of-view. Can you be how you want despite others? I hope to (still).

CW: I wonder if you see otherness as dangerous because your individuality is vulnerable to being influenced or taken over. I suppose otherness does tend to be dangerous for oppressed groups, such as colonized people, victims of racism, etc.—they need to be on the defensive to protect their identities. Would you say you’re on the defensive?

AN: My middle finger is sore from so much up-pointing.

CW: Right. I’m a little nervous to get poststructuralist on you, but here goes: I don’t know what I am without others. I mean, because language is what it is, it’s impossible to describe difference except via sameness: words that are our shared currency. Does that drive you nuts? To have to use the words that the assholes use?

AN: You don’t have to be all stupid & everything like that.

CW: Thanks very much. Do you mean that when one uses the same words the assholes use one doesn’t have to be as stupid as they are? I sometimes feel I’m drowning in a common language that they dominate.

AN: Well, I don’t in the least feel that everything is language. Like many writers I feel ambivalent about words, I know they don’t work, I know they aren’t it. Turn the corner and find some fin-de-siecle non-referentiality: but what the about the planet itself? The rifts in the world cannot be healed with language. Tho poetry modifies the divisiveness of words with light and fluidity—true self, light and fluidity, burning through language’s flaws.

CW: As a younger poet who’s been influenced by your work I’m in a bind when I read your “Poetics of Disobedience” talk, because, to be very simplistic, if I disobey the world I’m obeying you, and if I obey the world I’m disobeying you. I want to go along with you by disobeying the world because gosh how exciting, but that means finding a way to rebel against you as well. My little rebellion against you ends up sounding sort of milquetoast. I don’t want to disobey everything. I want to only disobey the horrible things and horrible people. I don’t mind obeying if I understand the reason for obedience. I’ll obey the firefighter who’s shouting to me about how to get out of the burning building. I agree with you, though, that obeying is bad if it means you’re not thinking.

AN: I accuse you of money.

CW: Well that latter is an outright and fucking untruth. Except for my being richer than 80% of the world because I’m from the USA. Well outright and fucking truth then. Here’s my theory about disobedience: it’s an excellent and useful poetic and political stance. You can’t disobey everything because you aren’t under the control of everything; there’s no need to disobey, sometimes, except to draw a line around yourself so that you can identify yourself by your difference from the rest of the world. So it’s like you’re creating a pissed-off negative impression of the world, exhibiting the world to itself in a reverse bas-relief.

AN: Alice Notley is the shape of the ways I’ve been fucked by prevailing thought and practice. I want to shriek at any identity this culture gives me, claw it to pieces; has nothing to do with me or my baby and never will, has never perceived a human being.

CW: Look, sorry I’m talking more than you are; it’s because you keep being primary-Alice and not explaining anything. Would you define your style?

AN: Look at my beautiful transparent black blouse. I don’t have to care how I write, in what manner—up-to-date are you kidding? You’re dead!

CW: When you accuse, Alice, it forces me either to sit up and take offence or to be complicit with you as you bash out at someone else. It’s an uncomfortable version of what you do when you’re as you often put it, “naked,” when you let me in on something very personal. Both versions get to me—I have to respond somehow in my head, because I’m by turns fellow victim and enemy. I think I can interview you without meeting you because your poems make me think that.

AN: You think you can peal my sober world apart from my drunken word. All my words are one word, my lives one. My body my pain my death are only the perfect word as I. So start, myself, start, where. Before anyone invented me. This very minute…no time to complain or forgive.

CW: I think that’s your dad talking in the poem you just quoted, but what he says does apply to your poetics. With “before anyone invented me,” aren’t we back to disobedience, turning against civilization? First there’s Alice, and then there’s the Alice the world built. And Alice number one needs to be retrieved by turning against the world. I don’t know if I think I can get at any difference between primary Cathy and cultural Cathy, but in order to criticize our culture it’s helpful to try to pick them apart. Odd that you’re in France where Descartes attempted a similar rebellion against the outer self and its irrelevances.

AN: You’re too boring, you, pedant and you, politically righteous and you, alive. Tired of trying to seem as smart as the ones who say We’re the smart people? They say they are so get to be. They’ve been to see the Wizard. So get yourself a certificate of intelligence! I’ll give you one. It’s part of the meal. Why not?

This certifies that Cathy Wagner is Wise enough to be in the General “Burning Conversation.
Just as she is.
(Signed) Alice Notley.

CW: Thank you. I was exhausted. I’m also worn out by trying to be punchier-than-thou, which is hopeless. As an expatriate, do you have any thoughts for Americans at home right now while we’re still at war in Iraq?

AN: You kill in your country’s wars with your possessions, your clothes and cars kill, your food kills, you back you have always backed your economy.

CW: Sure do, dammit.

AN: And the only thing American worth bringing to you is the sense that you must accept me, exactly. I hate how you make me this doll—sitting propped up at dinner party or poetry panel. You don’t know my attributes. I hate you.

CW: You’re such a hostile doll. Speaking of you, isn’t that bio of yours self-mythologizing, even if it’s accurate?

AN: This? “During the late sixties and early seventies she lived a peripatetic, rather outlawish poet’s life…before settling on New York’s Lower East Side. For sixteen years there, she was an important force in the eclectic second generation of the so-called New York School of poetry. She has never tried to be anything but a poet, and all her ancillary activities have been directed to that end.”

CW: That last bit of your bio…it’s a marvelous piece of showwomanship and it hits the US poetry game hard. It sounds as if you were saying, “unlike you bunch of compromisers, I never tried to be anything but a poet.” The poetry world in the US is all about compromise for money. You’re also implicitly saying that when you raised your kids, that too was in service to the writing. A lot of people would find that shocking—the idea that anything could be as important as raising kids. It’s a scary and daring stance.

AN: There are few poems about pregnancy and childbirth. I find this curious.

CW: There are probably more since you’ve been publishing. But not enough. Anyway, I think your bio is an aggressive stance, asserting to those who might dismiss you that you and your work have enormous value and must be taken seriously. You announce your commitment to your work and thus assert that your work has value, and you’re taken seriously then, as you take yourself seriously.

AN: I’m a trade name and I’m chaos.

CW: It’s easy to conflate the Alice Notley the bio describes with the “I” in your poems. You blur the distinction between author and poetic “I” all the time. It makes your work feel more immediate and maybe you do it because you don’t want your poetry to be fiction…I mean “fiction” in the sense of the work’s truth-value.

AN: I want real and dreamed to be fused into the real—rip off this shroud of division of my poem from my life. I am unified exactly—the human world is unified in a different way…accidentally, by technology and aggression.

CW: I used to think you were negative but you’re actually optimistic. You’re trying to get at a self or soul or “I” that isn’t part of the bullshit exploitative “we” of civilization. And in order to get at it you’re trying to disobey civilization in general—the worldly world. Is that right?

AN: I can’t tell you. Though my rule is honesty, my other rule is Fuck You.

CW: Are you disobedient to yourself?

AN: I refuse to be overintentional. GET RID OF ALL CONTROLS.

CW: Any advice for younger poets?

AN: The problem of my subsequent generations: poets, i.e. people, change their poems radically but not their lives. STOP BELIEVING. The shirts in power, poetry power, still want a decorous poetry. The Illuminati of every discipline are careful to say You must do as I do to be yourself; people must imitate others so they can go on. Even when they’re old enough to be original quote unquote. Perhaps someone might discover the original mind inside herself right now, in these times. Anyone might.

CW: What’s next, Alice?

AN: We vanished and I alone resumed, playing me for you.

All of Alice Notley’s answers are borrowed from the books Disobedience (Penguin, 2001), Margaret and Dusty (Coffee House Press, 1985), Mysteries of Small Houses (Penguin, 1998), and Selected Poems (Talisman Press, 1973). We also quote the talk “Poetics of Disobedience” available online at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/notley/disob.html. I collage Alice Notley’s answers freely, ignore her line breaks, add punctuation rarely, and ventriloquize her twice.


Catherine Wagner's books are Macular Hole (2004) and Miss America (2001), both from Fence. Her latest chapbook is Everyone in the Room is a Representative of the World at Large (2007), from Bonfire Press. She teaches at Miami University in Ohio.


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