by Sierra Nelson | Contributing Writer
These are the facts: on April 5th, 2017, the often-elusive poet Alice Notley came to Seattle from Paris to read for Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Poetry Series. Notley read poems from her recent collection Certain Magical Acts, followed by a Q&A session with John Marshall and Christine Deavel, fellow poets and founders of Seattle’s beloved poetry-only bookstore Open Books. The whole evening was recorded and later made into a vinyl record by Portland’s Fonograf Editions, an extension of Octopus Books.
These are the feelings: I love that Fonograf Editions exists, distributing in particular the soundwave brilliance of badass women poets—iconoclast visionaries like Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, Rae Armantrout, and Harmony Holiday—and using only the reverent and physically warm analog form of vinyl. And I was thrilled to learn that a recording of this particular reading by Alice Notley existed, because having heard her read in person that night I was reminded of Emily Dickinson’s description from her letters: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
At the same time, I will admit, I was a little afraid. Live, the experience of Notley’s reading had felt both intimate and out-of-body (though with humorous moments too), becoming increasingly trance-like through the crescendo of her final poem “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me.” But what does it mean to record a séance? Would the ghost come through in the picture, the knock sound in the groove? Would I need it to, to hold onto that first experience I’d felt in the room?
But, I did listen to the record, entitled Live in Seattle, eventually, and the live experience does come through. (As well as offering new details and delights from the reading and Q&A that I hadn’t noticed before.) I was also given the remarkable opportunity through Fonograf Editions to interview Alice Notley, to ask her some questions about that reading, her poems, and process. We corresponded over email between November 27th, 2017 to January 4th, 2018. Here is our exchange (often slow on my side, with her responses coming back fast like a blast of invigorating arctic wind); edited and condensed a little for clarity (though Alice’s answers are preserved almost entire).
My first question—I’m curious if you’ve listened to the Fonograf record capturing your reading in Seattle? If so, what are your impressions of the reading via the recording, compared to your impressions of the reading from the inside as you performed it? (I’m not sure if perform is even the right word.) If you haven’t listened to the record, I’m curious why or why not (if it’s a deliberate decision).
Public performance remains incredibly important to my work, and every reading is crucial to me.
I haven’t listened to the Fonograf record—I haven’t received it, but understand that there is an online link to the recording. I can’t listen to recordings of myself. I have trouble with the voice other people hear versus the one I hear when I speak, and I find hearing what I perceive to be my mistakes painful. But I don’t really mind making the mistakes at the reading itself! I don’t mind anything I do during the performance, and it’s fine with me if the performance is repeated in a recording. I liked the Seattle event a lot. But I had jet lag and also was operating in the aftermath of a sinus attack on the airplane—my voice seemed nasal and congested, though after a while I forgot that. I read a couple of the works for the first time in public—”We Thought We Were Our Own” and “FOUND WORK (lost lace)”—and was curious as to how they would sound. Meanwhile I was working up to having the stamina for “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me,” which requires both concentration on the form and the ability to be both of the speakers. I don’t get to read in public that much, because I don’t write in the language of the country I live in; but public performance remains incredibly important to my work, and every reading is crucial to me. I thought the Seattle audience was terrific, and the Q and A was a pleasure.
I can understand that feeling of strangeness, hearing one’s own voice played back. (I often feel that same way. I think many people do.) And if this is reassuring—from an outside perspective, your voice didn’t come across as congested or anything, either in person at the reading or listening to the recording.
I’d love to hear a little more about this idea—“public performance remains incredibly important to my work, and every reading is crucial to me.” What feels crucial about it for you? How are the poems different on the page compared to a public performance of them?
From an audience perspective, hearing you read your poems out loud I became even more aware of the multiple voices at work, voices in dialogue, snippets overheard, sometimes in contradiction. In your poems I sometimes picture a cosmic radio dial moving rapidly, allowing us to listen in to messages caught from external and internal sources. Is that part of the importance for you of publicly performing—to help bring that quality of your work, those different voices, to the forefront of our experience of them?
Though I suspect it’s something more than that too. In the Seattle reading, you described the last poem you read, “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me,” as a “healing ceremony.” What is needed to make a poem a ceremony?
(I hope that’s not too many questions at once!)
A poem comes to exist somewhere between the mind and the vocal equipment, also with the hand or hands involved (sometimes I feel that my writing hand is speaking). Also between the poet and the poet’s audience (reader). But a poem is spoken, it has always been spoken since ancient times. It would be too easy to say that the words on the page stand in for what it is—that isn’t quite correct, but it doesn’t just exist on the page. It has to be said, and prose doesn’t, most bad poetry is acting like prose with linebreaks (or not). A poem is composed of vibrations jostling each other, auditory but also visual—those letters tremble too! And I certainly do. The point is probably that a poem isn’t verified until it’s read aloud, live. I can’t tell anything about it till this happens.
I try to be wide open and to allow those who haven’t spoken to speak.
As far as all the voices and the way they come, that’s where the fun is, and it’s a lot more fun aloud. But also, there are real “other” voices involved, and I can make this more clear aloud, I suppose. My poems allow all sorts of people and sounds into their writing, I try to be wide open and to allow those who haven’t spoken to speak. The page doesn’t quite speak. And readers have become impatient, to the point of thick-headedness. It’s a character flaw to be too impatient to read poetry . . . On the other hand when people tell me, they couldn’t possibly have gotten the sound of the poem until they heard me read it live, I don’t believe them. They’re not working hard enough. They aren’t reading the poem aloud to themselves, for example.
I think to make a poem a “ceremony” you simply need to call it that.
I’m wondering from your last statement if any poem can be a ceremony, if it declares its intention to do or be that—draws the circle and we are willing to step inside? (As long as it isn’t just prose pretending to be a poem by throwing on some line breaks.)
But even if every poem could be a ceremony, not every poem is a “healing ceremony,” right? (Or is it?) How would you describe what makes “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me” a ceremony of healing?
The experience of the poem is so intense—it felt very true to the experience of serious illness, or deep grief, how you can become cut off from ordinary time, from your own body, the former ways of knowing the self or the world around you, the destructive force of that experience. Any healing happening in this poem is not gentle or easy. (Though there is that white horse.)
And when you read the poem aloud in Seattle, it felt like we witnessed something extraordinary happen toward the end. I don’t want to say too much about my own perception of it before hearing what your experience was of that moment—but from the outside, it seemed like you were channeling the poem to us, the poem’s two voices were coming through you, and then at some point the poem also turned to you, Alice Notley, while still being spoken through. Do you remember that moment? How would you describe what happened? Has that happened to you before?
Of course, you have to know what a ceremony is. And I don’t want most of my poems to be ceremonious, in fact. I’m just saying, there, that if a poet calls something a ceremony, it probably is one.
This poem is a moment outside of time . . .
“Blinding, The White Horse in Front of Me” was written, intentionally, to be a healing ceremony. It is meant to heal well-meaning people of their grief over the state of the planet, by reminding them that the planet, and they, are very tiny, inside a universe that is also rather tiny. That they may be totally responsible for what has happened to their planet on all levels, but that they are presumptuous to think that this matters to the cosmos or that they matter, particularly as worriers and people who would make things right. Every time you try to make things right you mess up further. You have no idea what’s right, or if there is that. You don’t even know if the planet is strictly material in such a way that you, little you, can mess it up. On the other hand, once you understand such things, you do have to return from the healing space and re-enter the situation, re-enter time, which is itself messed up. This poem is a moment outside of time, in which the terrible events are not happening and so in which healing can take place. In your head you can be in this poem whenever you want.
I, as I have said elsewhere, felt as if this poem was being dictated to me. I wrote it quite quickly over a period of a week or two and made no changes that I remember. The two voices, the healer/deity and the patient/human can be performed theatrically by me, but at the end, when the patient is healed, he (I think of him as a he, though he is ideally genderless) speaks differently, with more dignity and beauty and in the way of one who is whole. This is shown by the change in my own voice when I read it. That’s how I know the poem works, that my voice changes so easily between that of the healer and that of the patient, but most especially changes into that of the healed. At that point I also speak both to and for the reader or audience. I’ve read it a number of times in the last year, and the change in my voice, at the end, always occurs. One reason I’m so happy this vinyl record exists is that this transformation is recorded.
I’m so glad it exists too! Because of that transformation we had witnessed. Like magic preserved in amber. Though I was a little nervous to play the record at first. Would the power still come through, separated from the live moment? But I think it does. That part as the poem takes on a new voice—“changes into that of the healed” and “in the way of one who is whole” as you describe it above—it almost felt like there was a moment of breaking, or breaking down, in your voice, and that you were crying. It was stunning.
Are we hearing in that moment in your voice our collective grief at the deeply messed up state of the planet (and ourselves) now changed to cosmic frequencies? The image of light, or the possibility of light becoming? (From the poem: “Blinding the white horse in front of me. I will ride / light back. I have healed myself in light and will / return, in light, to light….. riding the white rayed / horse through greenish white air toward home…”—and then that negation or revision at the very end: “…there is no light. Riding toward you as light, / emitting it, I am the being that creates the sun.”)
And how do we try to hold onto that blasted and healed larger cosmic perspective that the poem grants us once we return to the limits of the human form? How does this (spiritual/cosmological) information help us in the here and now space-time as we try to deal with climate change and dismantle systemic injustice? Is it that the worry and grief over what we’ve done and are doing, and what has been done to us, can be debilitating, and won’t in itself change or heal anything — but by stepping outside of time, we’re reset in some way that makes us stronger or wiser, or maybe just ready to begin again?
This also reminds me of something you said in your conversation with Claudia Kellan, as you talked about the image of dismemberment that recurs in your poems: “Later some one reminded me that that was a traditional shaman initiation: the body is taken apart and put back together with some new parts.” This feels like it applies to this poem too (and I love that moment at the end of “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me” where the body itself seems to gain new possibilities: “You are light and your / fingertips are petals, mirrors silver and gold.”). Why is it important to access new physical forms of understanding through poems and dreams?
And I hear what you are saying about the ceremony. If a poem (or poet) tells you it’s a ceremony, believe her.
I did cry, when the voice changed. It is a moment of beauty, and so far, when I read it, that quality of the change is unexpected. It is, in fact, beautiful to go back into the fray. It is beautiful to be healed.
It is, in fact, beautiful to go back into the fray. It is beautiful to be healed.
If you are changed—healed, when you go back, you don’t want the same things as you did before. With regard to climate change, for example, it has largely been caused by cars, owned by individuals who blame governments and corporations for the problem they have one by one caused and still are causing. Maybe you wouldn’t cling on to your car. And maybe you wouldn’t be envious of the one per cent, as they are called, whose trappings come to seem empty and who are not at all spiritually adept. Maybe you would pity them or ignore them and not buy their stuff, and maybe everyone would ignore the call to do right and be right and just go off and do not much of anything at all.
As for your last question, it’s not that you access new physical forms, it’s that you see that what you’ve taken for the forms of things are not really what they are—what you’ve seen being more like scribblings or shallow images. You have been taught not to see what might be there, because if we didn’t agree on what the forms were, we couldn’t control them—but do we have to? Do we have to control what everyone thinks everything is? If someone is agreeing with me at this point, chances are they think they have been victimized by someone’s else’s point of view, without giving any thought to how much they want to interfere with the minds of others—it’s that kind of time. And I understand that if we hadn’t become scientists we wouldn’t be able to perform life-saving operations and so on, but the material body as analyzed so far is just not all that’s there.
What I mean about ceremony, is that it’s only a word. You can call anything anything. We set up enormous structures of naming, and poets tend either to adhere to the prevalent names or to try to tear the structures down. Either way, if a poet’s any good, that poet will be doing something specific in saying “ceremony.” Because poets are specialists in names.
So much to enjoy and unpack from your last message. “It is, in fact, beautiful to go back into the fray. It is beautiful to be healed.” It reminds me of the return of the knight to the community after the harrowing quest (like the contemplative knight of cups in traditional tarot decks), or Inanna returning from her death in the underworld (and I know she played a big part in your inspiration for The Descent of Alette), or Persephone leaving the darkness of the underworld, the pain but also the power she gained there, to return to Earth. The return of spring, re-entering engagement with the material world, after a long underworld of illness or loss or traumatic experience. It brings tears to my eyes to hear you say that, the hope of it: “It is, in fact, beautiful to go back into the fray.”
This reminds me too of the images of spring and green and flowers that crop up throughout the “Voices” section in Certain Magical Acts. It doesn’t seem to be an easy spring, not a simple resolution. It’s spring that is still becoming, reinventing and questioning itself (across multiple perspectives and voices), rejecting given forms and values (especially patriarchal structures of war and money and governance), re-mything. Was the idea of spring or myths of rebirth something you thought about consciously when writing this section?
I especially love this section from “Voices”:
I’d like to be asked what I want here.
What is it you want. I want to know things and to love.
I want this economic structure and political structure to collapse soon.
That will be so painful for us. As painful as mourning is?
I want to know why my loves had to die…
I want to wear a hibiscus. I don’t want to be a decent
person of the middle classes…
I want sunlight, clear air, and silence. I want brains and a thought.
As we’re moving toward solstice and the new year, this poem seems especially helpful for reconsidering our wishes, what we really want and need.
I was endorsing a form of anarchy in the sequence, but not the usual one . . .
“Voices” . . . I wasn’t thinking about spring or rebirth at all. It just happened to get written during a late-winter through spring period. I wrote it in 2009—though I worked on it a lot later—after the 2008 American election and the onset of the worldwide economic crisis, with the Occupy movement happening off to the side. There was originally a fictional prose diary interspersed among the poems that offered a framework for the existence of the voices; but prose couldn’t go as far as the voices themselves could—that is, the voices carry the whole thing by simply existing at all and being able to be single, dual, multiple, in soliloquy or in dialogue, glued together as identity or separate. They tell the story, but they need to be in poetry in order to get there. Anyway, I took out the diary at some point. But the sequence begins in the winter of the crisis, and one of the early poems is actually meant to be in the voice of Bernie Madoff, the pyramid-scheme swindler (“It’s me, isn’t that right? I’m what I knew . . .”) One of my favorite poems is said by a floor sweeper (“I’d rain on you if I were rain”), which offers the lines “someone gave me a theory / of economic recovery. / I didn’t want one, I wanted a bird call whistle.” The sequence doesn’t end that hopefully in fact, the point being that everything collapses and the so-called people take over, because there is an environmental apocalypse and so there’s nothing left for the higher-ups to want. I thought this would be okay, as I wrote it—the collapse, and I was endorsing a form of anarchy in the sequence, but not the usual one, a real one with no leaders at all, no power figures, and the possibility of one’s being alone as necessary. I agonized though about how to keep the infrastructure going, since I felt so squeamish about not having electricity. Even though humans for much of their existence haven’t had it! I just don’t want to be cold, though I remember my grandparents’ wooden stove that they also cooked on.
That’s funny—I thought the anarchy element at the end of “Voices” was the hopeful part! Abandoning the old power systems, “left all their wars” (which reminded me of Rebecca Solnit in Field Guide to Getting Lost writing about the etymology of “lost,” from Old Norse “los,” meaning armies disbanding). Though of course you’re right, it also ends with environmental apocalypse (dust, flood, “the climate gone”)—you paint a quiet kind of Ragnarök, where rather than a final battle with evil (gods, people, money), those evil powers collapse or flee the destruction and make space for something else to occur. (And I suppose like any plant or animal, I’m always looking for signs of spring—and I did find some here, despite everything.)
And I hear what you’re saying about the heat. The more ways we can get off the corporate grid and figure out how to DIY it ourselves, now, the better (independently generated solar power, internet not brokered by giant telecommunications monopolies, community gardens). Are there other ways we should be getting ready?
The last lines of Voices are “. . . We should have broken up with them eons / ago; it’s deserts, it’s flooded-out cities no one leads — they’re muted / the former top men — always so much to do — in this future you / see now with your voices; try to help us; you the past led us here . . .” The ending is a plea from the future for help. It’s one of those science-fiction situations involving one of the possible futures, a plea to change something now so that future won’t take place.
I remember . . . trying to figure out if I could survive alone on the land without anything but what was there.
We’re in a situation where there are too many people, with diminishing resources, in a rather rapidly changing climate. Really, people are supposed to figure out what they need, and get rid of the rest—and they don’t need much. Though they do need art. But I remember, when I was about five, trying to figure out if I could survive alone on the land without anything but what was there. This was in Needles, California, in the Mojave Desert. It seemed to me that everything we had made was supposed to be there except for the cars—they bothered me from a very early age. I wasn’t thinking about electricity yet! But . . . this was what we (my family and friends) didn’t have that we have now: air conditioning (and it would get up to 120 degrees there), television, computers, internet (who the hell needs that?) . . . I mean my town seemed to me to be “natural” —small dwellings, not much action, I wasn’t that much different from everything else in the landscape, and I knew this, at the age of five. I thought I could probably get along by myself if I had to. Obviously, I couldn’t, I was too young. But . . . we don’t need all this shit!
What you said earlier about the body—“the material body as analyzed so far is just not all that’s there”—reminds me too about what I’ve heard you say about dreams. I would love to hear you talk a bit more about how you work with dreams and visioning in your writing process. And I’m sure you’ve encountered people too who are dismissive of dreams, or accuse poetry in general of a “dreaminess” that seems to imply it lacks tangibility or practical use. I disagree with this view, yet I have also struggled with trying to write about dreams in a way that is interesting (to anyone besides the dreamer). Somehow when trying to carry the information from the dream back to waking life, retelling it in words, it often seems to go flat or become boring. The dream image or action that was so charged in the dream dissolves like fairy magic. Yet in your poems you seem able to bring the dream charge over to this side — you’re able to keep the images potent, and we feel it as strongly as if we are dreaming it ourselves. How do you do that?
The key to using dreams (and visions) in your work is really to admit that the experience of them is equal to your waking experience. If you do that, stop pointing to them as dreams but accept them as experience, too, then you can intermix them with the other parts of living you refer to. I don’t say which parts of poems are dreamed and which aren’t, unless there’s some reason to — it’s all in the mix for me. And I don’t always know, when I re-read my poems, whether dreams are being used or not. My dreams, when I manage to have them, are as important to me as my daily experience. And that is an example of something you’re really not supposed to say.
Thank you for your advice about dream writing. And for your rigorous insouciance! I appreciate your stance.
You mentioned earlier “the possibility of one’s being alone as necessary” when talking about the anarchic state in the “Voices” poem—but I also wanted to ask you about the role of loneliness, or of being alone (which can be the same but aren’t necessarily) in the process of your writing and in being an artist. Is there a certain amount of loneliness one needs in order to write? And if so, how do you find/enter it/cultivate it? What role has it played at different times in your life? For example, how were able to find it in the midst of being a mother of small children especially (which is where I am now)? And how is living and writing in Paris for you currently? (You’ve spoken a bit about that already—it sounds like there is a kind of solitude, a quietness, surrounding you there, living as an ex-pat.) Is too much aloneness a danger as well?
As for aloneness, hmm. I think a poet has an alone place in their head, always, though it probably has to be maintained—if it’s lost, you probably stop writing. When you’re crowded, you mostly stay aware that it’s there and try to get to it as soon as you can. It’s the place, partly, from which you observe and listen, so you’ll have something to write later. But I was so crowded in the 70s in New York that I took to writing while people were there, writing down what they said, writing what my sons said. Also I wrote in accretive or agglomerative forms, that could be added to as I went along from day to day or during the day. A poem is a list of lines; it can be also a list of sections or items. If it’s hard to write in the pure lyric burst, you can always use one of those accretive forms.
I prefer loneliness to alternatives I can envision.
In Paris I’m extremely alone. I don’t see very many people, and I’m not particularly in touch with other poets, either English or French speakers. However, I have to be here at this point, because I don’t have much money and I’ve been seriously ill, most recently with breast cancer last year, and need the health care system. I’m amazed though that I’m alive and have what I have—we were so poor in New York in the 70s! And I could tell by the way I was behaving from day to day that I just wasn’t going to be a college professor or anything like that, I noticed I was taking no steps to raise my income or even my profile. But back to your question, “is too much aloneness a danger as well?” No, I don’t think so. I’m very lonely in the evenings, but I prefer loneliness to alternatives I can envision. I’m not impressed by how people are running in packs right now and getting all their opinions as packs. I’d rather read a book, or better bits and pieces of about ten books.
I’m glad the French health care system is taking care of you, and I hope your health continues to hold steady. Your description of preferring the good company of books reminds me of a part in Mary Ruefle’s essay “Remarks on Letters” where she says: “I didn’t begin writing because I wanted to sit in a room and talk about the construction of subjectivity in Wordsworth and Ashbery; I began writing because I had made friends with the dead; they had written to me, in their books, about life on earth and I wanted to write back…” Maybe this gets back to the idea of the alone place in the poet’s head, too—a place from which you observe and listen, but maybe those deeper conversations we have with the books and the dead, those longer wavelengths, occur there too?
I’m also wondering if your interest in Greek and Latin meters keeps you company in a way too? In one interview you said, “As everyone knows, you can’t utilize them well in English, but you can do dances around them.” I’d love to hear more about those dances and how you employ form (especially ancient forms and/or languages) in your process. (I also noticed that you dedicated Certain Magical Acts to “Al Di Pippo, who taught me Latin.“)
And thank you for the reminder of the value of “accretive forms”—that it doesn’t have to be just Lyric Burst or Bust. You have a remarkable ear in your poems for catching overheard language, and as a new parent I have been appreciating in a new way those earlier poems with your sons’ young voices threading through. That shouldn’t be radical, to include kids talking in poems, but it still is—to recognize that of course having kids and being around kids and even that we all were once children is also part of our shared linguistic fabric and experience.
It’s the automatic, cold place you go to write a poem. That’s the place you have to cultivate . . .
I don’t think the Mary Ruefle quotation relates to anything I’m talking about. She’s talking about assuming a place in the history of literature and is, in fact, talking about reading. When I talk about talking to the dead, I’m being literal, and the dead I talk to aren’t usually other writers. I don’t have deep conversations with books, I just read them. The poet place I’m talking about—the mental space—is quite detached, and detachment is probably its most salient characteristic. It’s a deeper place than the reading place, and a different one from the one in which I talk with the dead. It’s the automatic, cold place you go to to write a poem. That’s the place you have to cultivate to keep writing.
Nothing keeps me company! I don’t think, though, I want to talk about Latin and Greek meters. I don’t want to give it away, I don’t want it to lose its intimacy, for me, by my talking about it. There is a long, long controversy, in the history of English literature, about whether or not you can achieve any of the effects of classical meters in English. Latin and Greek poetry involve stress according to vowel length, English poetry involves accentual stress.
The French language has no regular stresses, and its traditional poetry involves counting syllables. Since how you write your poetry is so bound up with the language as you speak it, that you take for granted and often think of as adhering to universal principles, there’s a lot to think about as you become aware of other languages.
I wanted to ask you, too, about tarot. You have some tarot-specific poems in Certain Magical Acts—the poem “Two of Swords,” and the following poem “Nine and Ten” that references the nine and ten of swords (two of the top bummer cards of the deck, traditionally) from the minor arcana, as well the devil card. (Though in a way the speaker in “Nine and Ten” seems to be stepping beyond old forms and tarot symbols—it seems the cards have lost their old meanings to the speaker, or maybe the old memories and desires that were once associated with those cards is what has become distant). I’d love to hear you talk a bit more about those poems, and your use of tarot in general as a generative tool. I read in your conversation with CA Conrad where you describe “the traditional tarot deck as a set of symbols which are, in effect, heavy words.” I love that image. Could you speak a bit more about what you mean by “heavy words“?
On a side note, are you using a tarot deck currently—and if so, is it a traditional one, or one of your own invention? You also describe in that CA Conrad conversation a workshop you lead where people invented their own set of tarot, playing with but also diverging from traditional imagery—the Eye, Mutation, etc.—and then everyone read and wrote from the new collective set. Are there also invented/ newly invoked tarot images in these two poems or elsewhere in Certain Magical Acts?)
About tarot, too, I don’t have a lot to say. I’m not involved with it at the moment. Sometimes I feel highly connected to the symbols, but right now I don’t seem to. I still like them, though. I don’t think of them as magic, but I do think of them as deep. Each one is like a “word,” if a word could also have many layers of wordness (and most words do) plus a comparable existence as an image. I’m not interested in words as signs flat on the page, I’m not interested in any possible apartness they themselves, or spoken language, have from our other experience. But I must tell you that I just got a telemarketing call, this minute, from a “cabinet d’astrologie”! I slammed the phone down and am now amused and distracted. I get these telemarketing calls in Paris, out of the blue, from mediums and astrologers! . . . I don’t think language can be separated from anything else that exists, and I like the tarot cards because they’re so compressed, so dense with experience and history. The two poems in Certain Magical Acts were written immediately after the American presidential election of 2008. I may have written some others that referred to the tarot, but those two are the ones I kept. Basically, I have used the Two of Swords to finally assert that “I am my president“; and the Nine and Ten (of swords) to state that “It isn’t a good price, that you pay for writing a poem.” Those two statements of mine are like single, dense or heavy Words.
I want to add one thing, I guess, about the classical meters. I use them, in a very non-strict way, to manage long lines. I have done this for a long, long time, since at least The Descent of Alette. My interest in classical meters relates to my interest in Williams’ variable foot—how to go on at length, how to have tone-of-voice at the same time, how to have variety within the line as well.
And I can add one more thing about classical meters: they can be quite complex inside their regularity, and I really like that. And a long line can be really long, 16, 18 syllables.
Wishing you a happy western world new year and a full supermoon tonight too. What is your relationship to the moon? (If that’s not too broad or odd a question to ask.)
Even without knowing your generative process with the classical meters, reading The Descent of Alette, it felt like the punctuation was teaching me how to read/hear the personal meter of this world/poem. Which of course you tell us in the book’s foreword, that the punctuation is meant to slow us down, and each quotation mark phrase works as a poetic foot. I’m curious now to go back through Certain Magical Acts, paying more attention to other potential meters taking place, with or without visual cues.
Do you ever try writing in other languages too, or working with translation (into or out of the English language, using your own work or of others)? Living in Paris, does the French language permeate your thinking or writing or dreaming in some ways? Other than busting into your consciousness via telemarketing Parisian psychics. (Which is incredible, by the way. Somehow I suspect that only happens to you!)
The moon: I have no relationship with the moon. I like it.
I occasionally write a poem in French, but I just don’t have the language internalized well enough to do it that often. From my living, as an outsider, inside a French-speaking culture, I’ve learned about the infinite layers of language pervading oneself and poetry, how poetry uses all those layers way down into the depths, in ways that prose can never approach. But I sometimes forget the word for an object in both languages, English and French, simply because I’m in touch with both but the thing itself . . . maybe it doesn’t have to be named? I meditate a lot on whether language really is words, or whether language exists in an apartness from everything else, or what all our connectedness might really be.
Going back to what you said about the tarot poems, I love that image of arriving at a certain line in a poem as an almost audible flip of a culminating tarot card.
Do you find that your poems are often presentient? If so, is that look into the future something you realize as you are writing it, or something you realize later, looking back at the poem, connecting the narrative threads? How does a poem know more than you know?
Perhaps related to that, I also wanted to ask you about trance states and your own approach to writing. I’ve been taking a class long-distance with the poet Hoa Nguyen and we’re reading your book The Descent of Alette as part of it. (It’s been wonderful to re-read it, and this time I have been reading it aloud with two friends, which has made me hear it a new ways too, both when I am reading and when hearing it spoken.) At any rate, some of Hoa’s writing assignments include instructions for entering a “hypnogogic state” before writing, which was a new idea for me. (At least the idea of setting out to enter such a state through a deliberate method, rather than happening into one, if lucky.)
Is entering a trance-like or hypnogogic state something you consciously or intuitively do in your writing process? And if so, are there certain rituals or methods you have found useful? Or perhaps methods you used to use? My sense is that you may be moving more fluidly between dream and waking, trance and non-trance, in your life these days.
I think this should be the last exchange, because I’m suddenly very busy and also I’ve lost track of the conversation, which I think has by now become pretty long.
My poems sometimes know the future . . .
My poems sometimes know the future—sometimes it’s not that hard to see it. Sometimes I write a fictional future which is a sort of “poetic projection” about what might come to be. I wrote a long poem called Désamère, in 1993, published in 1995, which projects a world desertified by global warming. I was partly talking about time and the past and how political and popular decisions had created cars, wars, and global warming all together over decades. No one talks about this poem much, and no one has ever recognized that it is about global warming. I think that poem knew the future even if the details aren’t precisely what you’d recognize. On the personal level, I published a book called Margaret & Dusty, after Ted died, which contains poems written before his death that know he’s about to die—though on the ordinary level of our lives this was not known. Poetic language exposes what’s happening, if you’re true to it, the language, and the process through which you get it. But you don’t always understand a poem when you write it, not entirely.
Trance states were something I bumped into when writing Mysteries of Small Houses. I come to this kind of thing because it’s there. I think trance is something all poets use to write poems, and each person’s way of writing a poem is the ritual or rite necessary.
I’d like to emphasize that the title Certain Magical Acts doesn’t have to do with the occult, though I’m playing the phrase for whatever you can get out of it. I called the book that because so many of the poems in it came to me whole or as themselves—hard to define—demanding to be realized. And whenever I thought I had an initial plan, as with “Voices,” it was destroyed. The poems told me what to do, what needed to be said, what their subjects were. I never got to make charts or plans or decide how to proceed. They announced what they were and what their forms were. The most magical were probably “I Went Down There” and “Blinding, the White Horse in Front of Me.” I just didn’t get a chance to do anything about them. They weren’t projects, they came out from under the bed.
Things happen to me, and then I have to figure out what happened . . . Someone dies in the room I’m in, and I experience the power of death and am changed forever. Am I not supposed to say that? A dead person speaks to me: am I supposed to keep it to myself? I find I’m going into hypnotic trances in order to write about the past: is that an “occult experience,” or is it something that’s happening to me that I need to understand? I’d be foolish not to write about these things, as it would have been foolish for me not to write poetry about being pregnant and having children a long time ago, even though no one had done that. But my approach to my life is that my experience has never been named and I really don’t know what’s going to happen.
Thank you so much for your time and all of your thoughtful responses. I have really enjoyed having this opportunity to exchange words with you. You’re right, our correspondence has grown quite lengthy, and your last email feels like a good place to close.
Take good care, Alice. Thank you for your frankness, your poetry, and your visionary approach to both writing and life.
All the best,
Thank you, Sierra. I think I’ve managed to say a few things I haven’t said before, even surprising myself. So it’s been a good conversation for me.
Let me know what happens next etc.
Alice Notley is a poet whose twenty previous titles include The Descent of Alette, Beginning with a Stain, Homer’s Art, and Selected Poems. She wrote the introduction for her late first husband Ted Berrigan’s Selected Poems. She lives in Paris.
Sierra Nelson is the author of The Lachrymose Report, recently released by Poetry Northwest Editions.