back toJacket2

Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Brian Kim Stefans interviews

Alice Notley

July 15 and 16, 2001

This piece was first published in a shorter form in Publisher’s Weekly.
It is 1,500 words or about three printed pages long.

Brian Kim Stefans: The Descent of Alette, your first book for Penguin, was originally published in 1992 in the joint volume The Scarlet Cabinet, which included several long works by you and Douglas Oliver. How did you come about publishing it with Penguin, and how did it feel to see the poem reappear as a single volume by a commercial publisher?

Photo of Alice Notley

Alice Notley: The spur for publishing The Scarlet Cabinet was the fact that Doug and I had a number of manuscripts lying around that we couldn’t get published. But we also wondered if it weren’t possible to make a new kind of book, or rather a very old one, like a medieval compendium. So far no one else has copied us, but I think publishing a number of different kinds of books by more than one person in one volume is both economical and interesting. However I was extremely pleased when Penguin accepted the manuscript of The Descent of Alette. I had written it to be published on its own, of course, and it’s a bit heady anyway and needed its own volume for the world at large to be able to take it in.
      Incidentally David Stanford, my editor at Penguin then, hadn’t been able to read it in The Scarlet Cabinet because I hadn’t yet included my brief explanation for the use of the quotation marks as a measuring device: the explanation opened the poem to him.

While Descent of Alette seems to be a subterranean volume — concerned with poetic essences and elements of fantasy rather than the details of life — Mysteries of Small Houses seems to go the other way, being largely autobiographical and directed toward social commentary. Your recent book, Disobedience, combines the two. How do you view these books in relation to each other?

When I began Disobedience, I wanted to see if I could combine all of the elements of my previous work into one work, that is, autobiography as daily commentary and daily involvement in politics (by virtue of one’s being oneself), fictional narrative, with characters, and fantasy and dream. So I see Disobedience as an outgrowth of Mysteries of Small Houses, The Descent of Alette, and my earlier work too.
      But I wrote Mysteries, and I guess also Alette, reactively: Mysteries reacts to the prohibition against the use of ‘I’ that was so prevalent in the 80s and early 90s, Alette reacts against the prohibition against the use of continuous narrative in poetry.
      Disobedience reacts against everything, and is concerned with breaking down barriers, for example the barriers that separate waking consciousness and dream consciousness, the barriers that separate narratives of real life, fictional narratives, and dream accounts as genres.

In the poem ‘Owls’ from Mysteries of Small Houses, you write of waiting for a dream that would inspire a long poem — I assume that poem was Disobedience. The idea of the ‘long poem’ has been a central concern to American poets from Pound to Olson, but recently it seems, to me, to be a larger concern to women writers — Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, to name a few, publish or have published many very long poems. How do you feel about the long poem, and is your interest in it fueled by a redressing of a sort of hegemony of the form by male writers?

No; the poem in question is The Descent of Alette, and dreaming of owls helped me to place the owl character in the poem. I love to write long poems, to be utterly involved in a particular poem as a way of living a life. My initial interest in the long poem stems from the fact that I like to read long poems, but prefer as simple reading matter the works of Chaucer, Dante, Homer etc, not the works of the Modernists. Though I’ve learned a lot from Olson and Williams for example, I’ve never sat around just reading their long poems.
      So The Descent of Alette is a poem that seeks to return the story to the long poem: and Disobedience goes for a slightly different kind of entertainment. The story isn’t ‘hard’ — by which I mean it isn’t in hard outline — but there are fast-talking characters and a rapid witty movement to the poem that pushes it forward in a way similar to that of a hard narrative line.
      But yes, too, my interest in the long poem has to do with taking it away from men, though two of my favorite long works are Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld — a Sumerian epic peopled mostly by goddesses — and Christine de Pisan’s The City of Women, La Citè des Dames, so I also feel the pressure of a feminized tradition.

There are several characters and symbols that reappear throughout Disobedience, most prominently the figure ‘Hardwood,’ whose name is subjected to all sorts of suggestive punning, and the letter ‘E’, which one first encounters in ‘the fantasy world... of caves.’ Could you describe how these figures operate in the poem?

Hardwood is a detective and looks like Robert Mitchum on a bad day. He stands for The Will. As the Will as Detective, he first detects the Soul, who is often, but not always, the ‘I’ of the poem. Hardwood and ‘I’ are then able to begin their dialogue and the investigation of the matter of the poem. Hardwood is engagement with life; it is through her relationship with him that the Soul has fun, and also reacts to outer events, contemplates the evil of the world.
      The letter ‘E’ is a little more difficult to describe. I once read somewhere that the letter e is the most commonly used letter in the language — this may not be true but it’s pretty prevalent and pervades my own name, Alice Elizabeth Notley. ‘E’ thus stands for commonality, common being, that which binds us all, but because it’s such an odd-looking letter, especially in the lower case, it also stands for the fact of language and writing and for the antiquity of language and writing: a letter as an old, artificial thing.

One aspect of Disobedience (which the form itself, a linking of shorter lyrical passages with recurring motifs, suggests) is that the human subject is drowning in a welter of information, social pressures, bad politics, and perhaps a lack of communication with an inner self — a spiritual continuity, of sorts, not just with the past but present. The title suggests that a rejection for the terms of living handed to one is a path toward liberation. How would you describe this issue of ‘disobedience’ — what are you disobeying? — and how does the form of the poem relate to this issue?

One is told constantly by anyone and everyone what is true and how to behave. Every transaction you have is founded on assumptions: what to say, how to dress, what a city is, a sex is, a human, the superiority of the human world over the animal and vegetal world, the rightness of whatever religion or atheism or philosophy or psychology is handy, the existence and superiority of American democracy etc — you know. One gets up and goes to work etc etc. Also, one rebels etc etc, in ways approved of by the university, or as my sons call it, the Crackademy.
      The articulation of what isn’t true becomes an orthodoxy too. Any other person represents pressure to be a certain way: one is left with oneself then, there is no one else thinking. One thinks, two together don’t think. That is my disobedience, and the religious or spiritual solution I offer at the end is a religion of one, one in one’s closet meditating in one’s own way.
      As for the form of Disobedience, it just happened, if you mean the shape of it; if you mean the tone of it, I think the tone becomes more and more Dis as the poem progresses and the open form allows this. When I began, a voice bubbled up inside me and then I knew I could do this.

How has moving from New York, a city with a very social poetry scene of which you were one of the centers, to what must be a relatively isolated existence in Paris effected your writing? Has it allowed you to be more direct in your address (to your audience, your peers, etc.)?

As much as I love New York, I felt a huge removal of pressure when I moved here, though I am very lonely. I think I feel less that I am allowed to address my audience more directly than that the audience as I perceive it (who reads poetry?) has enlarged. It feels larger than a city or a country, sometimes larger than a planet. It seems to fluctuate between being specific people, a nation, more than one nation, and an intimate void. I have used several other forms since Disobedience, none of them as accessible as it is, but the address to the audience nonetheless feels direct. Always trying to get to you.

Jacket 15 — December 2001  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Brian Kim Stefans and Alice Notley and Jacket magazine 2001
The URL address of this page is