|Jacket 40 — Late 2010||Jacket 40 Contents||Jacket Homepage||Search Jacket|
This piece is about 21 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Alice Notley and Yasmine Shamma and Jacket magazine 2010. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/40/iv-notley-ivb-shamma-2009.shtml
Alice Notley in conversation with
Paris: 18 March 2009
Alice Notley (born 8 November 1945) is an American poet. She was born in Bisbee, Arizona and grew up in Needles, California. She received a B.A from Barnard College in 1967 and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1969. She married poet Ted Berrigan in 1972, with whom she was active in the Chicago poetry scene and with whom she had two sons. In the early 70s she lived on New York’s Lower East Side, where she was an important force from 1976 through 1992. After Berrigan died in 1983, Notley raised their two sons in New York’s East Village by herself for several years while continuing to develop her poetry. In 1992 she moved to Paris with her second husband, the British poet Douglas Oliver (1937-2000). She lives in Paris currently, making several trips to the United States each year to give readings and teach writing classes. Notley has earned a reputation as one of the most challenging and engaging poets at work today. Fiercely independent, she has never tried to be anything other than a poet, and all of her ancillary activities have been directed to that end. She is the author of over twenty books of poetry, and also the author of a book of essays on poets and poetry, Coming After. (Wikipedia, 2010)
Yasmine Shamma: You’ve experimented with many different styles and many different movements, but today I want to focus on Mysteries of Small Houses. There’s a line from “101” which gives me the feeling that these poems were very deliberate: “I don’t want to be there in this poem, if anyone else is from the past”
Alice Notley: I don’t remember these poems. A very odd thing happened, which was that I put all of my memories into the book, and now, I don’t have them anymore. They’re actually totally inscribed into the book, so now I don’t have them. I never thought that would happen to me.
YS: Is it a relief?
AN: No. Well, kind of, because then I’m not saddled with a lot of anecdotes. But I don’t like to lose memories because it makes me feel mentally deficient… Oh [looking at “101”] I’m trying to make the apartment be empty for me to talk about it. It was really interesting that later, I asked one of my sons — it was Edmund — if I had “gotten” the apartment, and he said to me, “I have my own 101.” So, I was trying to get my own 101.
YS: When I read it, I get the sense that the poem offers a floorplan to trace.
AN: Well, it was one of those railroad apartments, and we lived there for a long time. It was a really famous apartment because we were there. And you came in through the kitchen, and there was a kitchen and this little toilet, and in the kitchen was the bathtub, and if you came in at the right time, you’d catch one of us in the bathtub. My friend George Schneeman — who recently died — came in once and saw Ted in the bathtub, and he couldn’t believe it, because there was this tiny bathtub and this bearded giant in the bathtub, and he didn’t want to leave the kitchen! There were these two tiny bedrooms which eventually became Anselm and Edmund’s bedrooms after Ted died. And Anselm and Edmund had bunkbeds in the first one and Ted and I had the second one, and there was this really nice kind of big living room space — big for New York, and it had good light. But it was a dump. It really really was a dump. But there were good things; there were good things about it. It was a great neighborhood. It’s not a great neighborhood anymore… But it was, it really was a great block, and our neighbors were terrific. They were just all characters. And they were the people I missed the most when I left. I missed the people in the building.
YS: Are they still there?
AN: No, they all left or died. There were these two guys on either side of the building. There was Leroy, and there was Dolphy. Leroy ran this place called Coif House — he did Black hair — and Dolphy was a carpenter and they stood outside and kind of monitored the block, they made everything go right! And we were entirely dependent on them. There were people like that. There were dope dealers, and people who loved rough lives, and people who would get stabbed, and it was all really interesting.
YS: It’s not like that anymore, is it?
AN: No. There are a few of those people who apparently still live on the block, and Anselm sees them from time to time. But I’m not answering any questions about the poem am I?
YS: No it’s ok — any talk of rooms is appreciated.
AN: Well, I never wanted to leave that place, and I knew I would leave that place. I always knew I would leave that place. But when we moved into it, Ted — Ted just took to it — but it was really — it was always too small. And then like a month or two before he died, he said to me, “I always knew I would die here, die in this apartment. The moment I saw it I knew I would die here… ”
YS: And you always knew you would leave it?
AN: Yeah. Well, yes.
YS: The feeling that you were always going to leave — did that somehow get inscribed into these poems?
AN: Well, no. I didn’t have the feeling always, but I did write a poem — a little poem that’s never been published, when I was doing the postcard project, where I placed myself into the future, and I tried to remember what it was like to be in the apartment — I wrote it while I was in the apartment, and that’s when I knew I was going to leave it. That was the first time I knew I was going to leave it. But I always knew I was going to leave it. But I live in an apartment now that’s even smaller, so I can’t figure out if I’m going to leave this apartment or not. But it has more solidity to it. The building is older.
YS: Is it less cluttered?
AN: Oh no, it’s much more cluttered. All I have are books and papers and I don’t know what to do with any of them. I have the residue of two husbands and myself. Two literary husbands and my literary self, and it’s impossible; there are mice, I’m terrible. But the building goes back to the French Revolution — there’s just such solidity in the building and in the neighborhood, that it seems to me that I’m not going to leave. But on the other hand I’d really like to leave, because it’s so tiny, because it’s so lonely. But I don’t know if I will or not. I don’t know.
YS: There’s an interview in which you mention imagining your house in Needles, which you describe as fragile… you say “it was like wearing light clothes… ” And I get the sense that you feel the smaller house is more like our state — that it’s more like our true state, that it’s more human?
AN: Yes, something like that. Probably more human. There’s also some class thing in there as well. I just identify with… I don’t know, my grandparents’ house and the house that I was four in are the essential houses. Those are the houses I identify with most. And I like the house I grew up in too. It was a little bit bigger — it was my daddy’s dream. You know, he had grown up really poor, and his mother was this widow, and she had lost three husbands, and she had had five kids . . . and she didn’t know what to do! They lived in tents during part of the depression, part of the time, and she sort of gradually got to have a house. I never met her. She died the week I was born. But my other grandparents had this really tiny house in Phoenix and they also had 5 kids! And I don’t know how they managed to bring up the kids, but these two people were my ideals. They lived into their 90s and they never had anything, and they were just very solid people. There was some solidity I got from them. And my parents lived in the alley house, and there were a couple of houses before that, but I don’t remember them very clearly. And then there was an architect, and I learned the word: “Architect”! And the architect came and built this house for my parents and it was actually too small, but it seemed fantastically large.
YS: Because it was built for them?
AN: Yes. And it had three bedrooms, and a living room and a bathroom and a kitchen. And there was a certain point when I moved out that my grandmother came to live there too. And all this space in the desert has yards, so that the space spills out into the yards. The kids spent a lot of time outside. Whereas in New York, my kids played in the street. LeRoy and Dolphy…
AN: They monitored, and they made that space habitable and playable in. But they had to play football up and down in between the crosstown buses, and I would be upstairs listening! I’d hear the busses come and go, and they’d be out there in the street, screaming terrible things. Calling each other Stupid queers and stuff, which is what boys do.
YS: How do you feel about apartments versus houses?
AN: Oh I wouldn’t mind having a house. I have a fantasy of owning a house. But I don’t have any money. I have less money than any poet I know, I think.
YS: Really? Was that a conscience decision?
AN: I sort of float in and out of decisions. And it just kind of happened. I didn’t want to have an academic career. I could have had some money…
YS: Do you teach now?
YS: But you did for awhile?
AN: Yes, but in tiny ways. I’ve always avoided having a position. I just can’t read papers and grade them. I like working with people, and I do good workshops. But the academic thing is a pain in the ass. They don’t — the students evaluate you — they don’t have the right to do that!
YS: I heard about your Tarot workshops, or the trance workshops?
AN: Those are two different ones. I did the trance workshops around the time I wrote that book [Mysteries… ]. Those were really interesting. I did one in Vancouver — it was really interesting. I was going around trying to get people to write poems the way I wrote those poems. You’ve probably read the description of how I did that. I discovered that there were people who didn’t want to go back to when they were four (because I went back to the time when I was four, in a trance state, when I wrote these poems). My stepdaughter was doing hypnotherapy at the time, and she told me this technique where you go into the future, although she would hypnotize other people so that they could do it. You fly up in the air and you find a river, and you follow this river into the future and you kind of alight into the house where you’ll be — more houses. And I did it myself, and it was great. I was in this house, it was actually quite foreseeing: I was in this house and there was a washing machine, and I don’t know how to explain that it was correct but it was correct, and there was a washing machine, the laundry was being done, and I was wearing orange, and I was sitting at a table, writing. So I explained in this workshop that if they didn’t want to go back, they could go forward. And this lady didn’t want to go back so she went forward. This older lady she didn’t want to go back but she went forward and got really upset. She was from South Africa, I think it had something to do with South African politics. I don’t know, there were some other things we did . . . There was one where this woman said, later, that when she was doing it she got this vision that there was something wrong with her car and when she went out to it during the break her alarm was going off!
YS: That’s completely bizarre…
AN: Yes, there were several events like that. It was really interesting. Yes, it all worked.
YS: About the Tarot Workshop, I read something about you buying a deck in French, and that being interesting to you…
AN: Well I always wanted to work with the images: I had read that Michael McClure had done something with the Tarot, and it had been written up in one of the anthologies for Naropa, he’d gotten a class to make up personal symbols, using them to write poems. I got these workshops to make a deck, and I would say that we wanted to make a new Major Arcana and think about cards that are applicable now. I wanted a card for Immigration — there probably is a card, but it isn’t clear. We needed one for worldwide immigration, and there wasn’t a card for the worldwide ecological crisis…
YS: You’ve immigrated from New York City. Does the relationship of your long poetic line have anything to do with the city?
AN: It’s just a long line, like in Latin poetry.
YS: So it isn’t responding to the street, or the city block?
AN: It responds to conversation. It’s very much a conversational line. But it’s different — the way it is in O’Hara is different from the way it is in Koch, and the way it is in Koch is different from the way it is in Schuyler. John Ashbery does an entirely different thing. It’s different according to what the different person is like. And I probably got more from O’Hara, but his line is really about conversation, I think.
YS: So poems that deal with New York City…
AN: They come out of, well the line comes out of Whitman, I guess.Well Whitman’s line was very different because it’s much statelier, and Kenneth’s line is a lot like Whitman’s, it’s always bowing to Whitman. Whereas Frank didn’t do that, and Jimmy did a different thing.
YS: I understand you wrote most of [Mysteries of Small Houses] in…
AN: I wrote it all here.
YS: Right. Did you think you were writing to an American audience, or to a New York sensibility?
AN: To an American audience. I think I said this in some interview, but I used to always imagine when I was writing my poems that they were being read to the audience at St. Marks in that room, I don’t know if you’ve been in that room?
YS: Yes, I have.
AN: That room is the most perfect place to read in the world. It has beautiful acoustics, and the size is perfect and the audience is attentive. And so I always imagined myself reading there. Then when I moved here, I kind of had to imagine a different space, and so I guess I don’t see a room anymore.
YS: You don’t? Do you think you did when you wrote this?
AN: No, I was writing for a larger audience than that one. It’s hard to explain it. I was writing for the entire poetry world of America. But I was trying to explain something. And I was writing to Britain, and I was trying to explain something. I was trying to explain something about style as well: I was trying to explain that you could change styles and that you could go back and use old styles, and it didn’t mean anything; that all the aesthetic wars were shit; they were stupid. And all aesthetic stances were just nonsense. That’s part of what the book means.
YS: And the sense then is, that if all the aesthetic styles are nonsense — I mean I’m with you and I caught that drift from the book and liked it, especially in “Flowers” where you write, “The American Poetry vacant lot’s small and overgrown.” This is the feeling you give in “Flowers” but it takes a turn…
AN: Yes, I’d forgotten about that poem and then you mentioned it — that poem had a dream in it. It had a dream in the middle of it.
YS: Is that where the purple flower comes in?
AN: Yes. The flower, I mean the tree with the cunt-shaped mouth. That was a dream. It was a dream I had at a very particular time. I wrote a play called “Anne’s White Glove.” I started writing it a year after Ted died. It was commissioned by Ada Katz, Alex Katz’s wife. She was doing a theater project and she commissioned poets to write plays. They were usually rather short, but I wrote a three-act play, basically about Ted dying. It was put on for a week at La Mama. I’d known things about the theater but I’d never been involved in it, and it kind of ripped all of my insides out, and I didn’t know how to attend the play; I didn’t know how to be the person who had written it. I was very upset all of the time it was going on. I think it’s a very beautiful play. But I had this dream: I was being told by the tree to accept my laurels. And I didn’t really get any for the play; but it was like an indication that I should, that that was what my future was; the laurel tree. Accepting it; it was internal as much as it was external.
YS: Is that where the last line comes in?
AN: [reading]: “It’s my neglect I’m entranced by / And my garland of the everlasting laurel leaves / evergreen darkgreen elliptical thick and bunched.” I don’t know why it’s elliptical but it’s great isn’t it?
YS: It is, and I think this poem is my favorite.
AN: I don’t know how I wrote that line. That was a dream too: “scatter marijuana on the waters to quieten them.” It was a dream that Atlantis was rising and I scattered marijuana on the waters. There are a lot of dreams in this book. But all the dreams in this book are really important dreams. They’re dreams I remembered for a long time but I didn’t necessarily write down. They were dreams that were important experiences.
YS: You write in one poem of a time when you couldn’t tell the difference between sleeping and waking…
AN: That’s in “101”. Yes, well that happened at the end of the year that Ted died. I was dreaming a lot and learning from my dreams. One day I walked out onto the street and I was in a dream. I was dreaming and everyone was out on the street, complicit with my state.
YS: Oh, and that’s why “everyone was benign”?
AN: No that wasn’t a dream, that was a vision. That’s a different time. I remember that vision, but I don’t remember the other one at the end, the part about being “popped out.” But I remember the previous one, where everything seemed to slow down. It was really weird. It was like I was in the light of a different species; like an insect or something; I was in a different time. If you stepped out of this dimension, because time is so relative. I just saw everyone being slow. And they walked slowly and I saw everyone’s face clearly. I could see everybody. I was walking on Third Avenue. It was very strange.
YS: Do you think it’s all in response to the too-muchness of those things mentioned in “101”? When you write of people who keep coming in… I get the sense…
AN: It was very much like a vision. [Reading]: “So I walk up the block trapped in time not even so much in those times / But the time of walking up the block and around it to the store and back” Oh this is so Kochian!
What do you do in life you go to the store and the next day and the next and
Trapped in the time of walking to the store
And back one day I popped free from time
I popped out of sequence out of walking that stretch for a second
everything felt light I wasn’t there
I remember this now. I remember what happened. I just left. It wasn’t as specific as the other experiences — it wasn’t as physically specific, so it’s hard for me to remember it. But I had the feeling, and also I’ve had the feeling a lot of other times since then, it’s like this feeling of not being where you are. But it’s ok. It’s an ok version of not being where you are. It’s an all Maya — it’s an all Maya kind of thing.
YS: What does that mean?
AN: “But / What if it is all ‘Maya, / illusion?’” That’s a line by Jimmy [James Schuyler]. You know, Maya is in the Eastern religions and philosophies, the idea that this world is all illusion. “Empathy and the New Year” is the poem the line is from. This was Kenneth’s favorite book of mine, he was quite influenced by it, and it helped him write New Addresses. I think it was because I was using him, and then I played it back, and so it was like it was all new again.
YS: He liked the way he sounded! So I have to ask one last question about “101.” There’s a line that’s troubled me for awhile — the second last line, where you write “There is no connection particularly / I left New York… ” Are there really no connections, or is the idea that because there’s no connection you can leave?
AN: There’s no connection. There is just no connection. I left New York for entirely other reasons. There aren’t a lot of connections. That’s what I consistently find out; the real connections are the ones that you don’t see. Sometimes your poetry shows you what the connections are, and you discover them after 20 years. Nothing ever connects for me. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to have a job; they’re asking you to be connected to everything.
YS: Is that one of the reasons you feel you can come in and out of apartments?
AN: Yes, because nothing makes sense. I don’t understand why people do anything that they do. And they always think that they understand what they’re doing, and it’s always mysterious to me.
YS: So the mysteries of small houses… The mysteries being the illusions?
AN: Well everybody’s mysterious. All those houses are mysterious. There’s a very interesting artist — she was a very great girlfriend of Ted’s, and she and I were rivals for Ted at one point: Donna Dennis. And some parts of her art are about small houses. But I wasn’t thinking about her. She’s also done subways. The first show of hers that I remember being like this was of Maine Cottages. She made these little white vacation cottages, or sometimes motels. She built these little cottages that are about 2/3 the size of a person. She built these installations of these houses, and then it was all dark around the houses when they were shown. It was beautiful; they were really beautiful. She did a Holland tunnel — she’s done some really amazing art.
YS: All New York based?
AN: Pretty much, although they were Maine cottages, Maine was where all the New York artists went over the summer.
YS: I’m going to switch poems now — “The Person that You Were Will be Replaced” — is any part of that a dream? Going into the icy water and all?
AN: No, that really happened. It was Thanksgiving, and my brother-in-law took me and the kids out on a hike. He was famous for this — he takes people on these horrible hikes! And he’s always saying “another quarter of a mile, another quarter of a mile… ”And you climb these mountains and you go through all these bushes and end up all scratched.
YS: In California?
AN: No, it was in upstate New York. Right now he’s in Texas. And there was one point where you couldn’t go any further unless you crossed a stream, and there were no rocks. So we all had to take our shoes and socks off and cross this stream. And I put my feet in the icy water, and I felt great. And I realized it was the first time that I had forgotten that Ted had died, since he had died. Just for that minute. I later read that Norman Cousins wrote a book about cancer. He survived cancer. The two prescriptions for surviving cancer to remember were, one of them was to watch the Marx brothers, and the other was to put your feet in icy water every day. It just jolts you out of your thoughts; out of your head. Oh [looking at the poem] and in this poem I dreamed of “The Ship of Death” — D.H. Lawrence’s poem — I’ve always been very affected by that poem. The first line is “Oh build your ship of death, for you will need it… ” It’s about dying, and it’s got this Egyptian thing in it about being on a boat with your things. My father had done that when he was dying, he had talked about getting on a boat and needing his jacket and some sandwiches. And Lawrence talks about it, he describes this very beautiful line at the end of the poem, a thin line on the horizon like dawn… It’s the last image you’re left with, this line; it’s a new life. You get on the ship and you die, but there’s another life. It’s completely ambiguous as to what it is, but it’s so beautiful. You should read the poem. There’s that poem and there’s another poem of his which I’ve been very impressed by, “Bavarian Gentians.” It’s the one about the blue flowers, and going down into hell with these blue flowers for a torch instead of fire.
YS: You seem to be very responsive to colors. There’s a lot of orange mentioned…
AN: Yes. I’m an artist. But not very good.
YS: Are you still collaging?
AN: Yes, but not very often, because I don’t have a lot of space. You just have to have some room to put your stuff. I had the most room in Chicago, and I made a lot of stuff there.
YS: How long were you in Chicago?
AN: Three years.
YS: Was it after Iowa?
AN: No. First there was Iowa, then there was New York. And then I hooked up with Ted, finally, and then we went to Buffalo, then we went to San Francisco and Bolinas. Then we went to Chicago, and then we went to England, and then we went back to Chicago.
YS: Where in England did you go?
AN: First we went to London, and then Ted got a job at Essex, and we lived in Essex for a year, and I had Eddie in Essex — at Colchester Hospital.
YS: How about all that moving?
AN: We moved a lot.
YS: It’s sort of dizzying.
AN: I sort of wore out with moving.
YS: Yes, it wears you out.
AN: You’re kind of supposed to do it when you’re young. Poets sometimes do it a lot, even when they’re older.
YS: I think a lot of this grief poem.
AN: Grief is a god. It’s almost better to be Greek than American to understand it. It’s a spirit that comes from the outside — it’s a spirit that gets into you. I’ve thought about grief and sorrow a lot because evolutionary theory obviously doesn’t take it into account very well — because it doesn’t help the species go on! It’s very mysterious, and it hasn’t been discussed properly. Scientists are always afraid of things like grief and dreams. They don’t do either of them very well.
YS: In your poem you call it a medium: “If the other who dies is partly me, / and that me dies and another grows, the medium it grows in / is grief.”
AN: Yes, like a scientific medium, like agar agar.
YS: All these tiny spaces that are described are also made elastic…
AN: Yes, they can be very large. They get very large. As you go down into yourself everything opens up. Whereas when you go up, you seem to come to a hierarchical point and then you have to fall. I have all of these dreams where there are these beautiful mountains but if I get to the top of the mountain, it’s dangerous. Whereas going down…
YS: You must be an earth sign!
AN: What, no! I’m a Scorpio.
YS: Well then, I guess that doesn’t answer anything.
AN: Well, it answers a lot if you do astrology, but I’m actually very doubtful about it. Scorpio’s the sign of death and regeneration
YS: Oh really?
AN: Yes, it’s sort of horrifying as a sun sign. It works quite well for what’s perceived as my sort of psychology. It’s all about sex and death.
YS: Is that why you’ve mentioned loving the High Priestess card from the Tarot deck?
AN: Well the high priestess is the wisdom card. It always goes back to this time… do you know who Harry Smith was?
YS: I don’t think so
AN: Harry Smith was this funny guy who — this anecdote won’t mean anything to you — but he was an avant-garde filmmaker, who also put out this incredible anthology of songs. He collected all these records from the twenties, of folk songs, and in the fifties the Harry Smith anthology came out, and it influenced all the folk singers, including Dylan. I never really knew him, but he was a close friend of Allen Ginsberg’s. If you go into the Harry Smith lore, Allen wrote this incredibly great introduction to this book of interviews with Harry, where he talks about how Harry would bring him over, make him smoke a lot of dope, watch his movies and then Harry would hit him up for money — and he would always give it to him! Harry was living with him at the end of his life, he went to live in Allen’s apartment, and became incontinent. So he started doing these shit paintings and driving everyone in the apartment crazy. Allen was seeing this younger woman psychiatrist who was really good with him, and Allen went to her and said, “What do I do about Harry?” and she said, “Send him to Boulder.” And so they sent him to Naropa and he lived his few remaining years at Naropa. And so if you go to Naropa, there’s this door and it still says: “Harry Smith, Resident Shaman” or “Shaman in Residence,” one or the other.
But the only time I ever had any contact with Harry, I was in the old St. Marks Bookstore, the second one… it used to be on St. Marks Place — and you used to have to walk down these stairs to go to the lower part of it. And I was in there, and I was wearing this very peculiar outer garment, which was a kind of sweater coat. Jim Carroll had given it to me. He had bought it in the airport at ; it was all blue-striped and had this peaked hood. It was beautiful. And Jim gave it to me because I saw it on him and I just told him it was so beautiful, and so he gave it to me. And so I walked out the door and there was this little wizard Harry carrying his cane, and he dropped his cane at the bottom of the stairs. And I stooped down and picked it up and handed it to him and he looked up at me and said, “The High Priestess!” And then we parted company… That was the only time I ever spoke to him, I didn’t even say anything! But he knew a lot about the Tarot.
YS: That’s fantastic — do you still have the coat?
AN: No, I wore it out. The pockets ripped finally and I had to throw it away.
YS: Well I can only wish that I would one day look like a Tarot card. … I guess I’d like to return to that earlier question about writing from Paris to New York — what about Paris, in that way?
AN: I’ve always tried to write about Paris. Disobedience is about Paris. And Alma isn’t about anywhere, really exactly, except it becomes about the desert, though I couldn’t have written it from anywhere else but here; I can’t explain why.
YS: I was reading this essay you wrote in Coming After on Frank O’Hara, and you write that his poetry came alive when you came here?
AN: Yes, it had gotten dead and it became alive again. After Ted and then Kate died — I think it was after Kate died, everything died. Everything seemed dead. And when I came here, it became alive again.
YS: Did New York sort of become saturated with that grief?
AN: Yes. It’s like you’re alive in certain eras, and then the era’s over. But some people just keep living in them. I couldn’t do it. It’s kind of one definition of “art going stale” –staying in the era you were happy in at some point. Your art dies if you do that. People stop reading younger poets; they just get frozen into their set.
YS: Any young poets that you’re reading these days?
AN: I read my sons and their friends, all the time.
YS: I saw your son read at St. Marks — do you find it the same as it used to be?
AN: At St. Marks? No, because there are all these younger people. Anselm essentially became the director because he could bring them in and also keep the older people. He was this bridge figure and he made it possible for that to happen. He did a very good job. And now Stacy’s there, and she’s really good.
YS: Do you ever write in response to older poetry?
AN: All the time.
YS: I guess, more specifically, were you ever an avid reader of T.S. Eliot’s?
AN: Only when I was made to. I like The Waste Land.
YS: Well you and he both write of vacant lots. When you write of vacant lots in “Flowers” are you making any connection?
AN: A vacant lot is where you play. There were always these significant vacant lots when I was young. There was one next to the house in Needles, and there was a really important one next to my cousin’s house in Prescott that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Prescott was in the pines in Arizona, and it just had this entirely different vegetation from the desert. So this vacant lot had all these grasses and vines and things. But there was another vacant lot which figures in a poem Adrienne Rich liked — “One of the Longest T imes.”
YS: How do you feel about her essays on womanhood?
AN: Well,I have opinions about her poems, but they’re just opinionated. I don’t like the way she uses the pronoun “We.” I think she emotionally blackmails you with it. And I never feel like I’m part of her “We”.
YS: She has this line about getting too far away from the earth, and I thought it linked up to this essay you wrote on Women and Poetry.
AN: Oh no — the two pager!
YS: Yes, and I thought it pointed to the same thing: women not being properly addressed.
AN: No, we’ve been written out of everything. We have no power, and we never ask for it. All we ask for are abortion rights. It’s so disgusting.
YS: You write about trying to imagine a beginning…
AN: I was very influenced by Mircea Eliade at that point. After Kate died I read all of Eliade. I didn’t know he was a Nazi. Everyone always turns out to have been a Nazi — he was a Romanian Nazi for a brief period of his life and probably spent the rest of his life trying to get over it. And one of the thingshe writes of in his books — I’m not sure if it’s true or not — but for indigenous peoples, the only response to tragedy is to try to create the world again. And I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s become something I live by. Whatever happens, I try to create everything again. And I do that over and over and write poetry that is like a creation rite.
YS: Do you consider the poem a construction?
AN: Sometimes, but not always. A lot of the time for me it’s vocalizing. It’s pure voice. But I’m also very much a craftsperson.
YS: So a poem could be a “talismanic object”?
AN: Oh sure. Like the “Ship of Death” is for me, or was. It probably still is. I presented it to a class and I burst into tears. There are poems that always do that to me. You know, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” –that always does that to me.
YS: Do you think of going back to America?
AN: Yes, but I don’t see it as a possibility. I have an apartment and healthcare here. I can’t — I’d have to take a “position” and I’m getting kind of old now; sort of too old to start a job.
YS: How about Iowa?
AN: I went to Iowa as a prose writer. I was accepted into the fiction workshop — I was the only woman that year accepted into the fiction workshop. And my friend Mary was the only woman that year accepted into the poetry workshop. There weren’t many women there at that point; now they take a lot of women. But I went there to try to figure out how to be a writer, and I didn’t understand that it was a teaching thing. Because at the time there weren’t a lot of programs, so how were you supposed to get a job? I think there were only Iowa and San Francisco State, and a couple of others were just starting up: Columbia, and one maybe at Wisconsin — and those were the only ones in the entire country. And they immediately wanted me to teach a class, and that’s what you go do — you teach composition. And everyone started teaching and I refused. I became the ditto girl. I dittographed (because you had to do something) all the handouts for all the workshops, instead of teaching a class. And I never taught a class there. Gradually I figured out that I wanted to be a poet. I started writing poems, kind of, right away… I heard Bob Creeley read, and I wrote my second poem, and I started writing poems.
YS: Is that second poem published?
AN: Oh no, I don’t have any of them. They were all terrible. I was trying to figure out who to read, and I read Plath, and James Wright. Then Anselm Hollo came that spring, and I left and went to Morocco and I thought I was never going to come back.
YS: So that Marrakesh house you mention in “Go in and Out the Window” is a real house?
AN: Yes that was a real house.. I went to Morocco and we were just smoking dope all the time and it was so boring! And one day I went to the café we went to every day in Marrakesh in the plaza, and there was this guy there and he was reading William Stafford. And he was a geek — you know this guy was a geek and I started talking to him about William Stafford, and I just thought, “I’ve got to go back.” I sent my parents a telegram asking them for some money to come home. And then I went home and then Mary called me, (I never had a clue about what was going on academically after I left Barnard) she suggested I could go back to Iowa. They were starting up in about two weeks, and I called them up and they said, “Sure you can come back.” And I went back, and then Ted was there. When I met him he had just broken up with his wife, it was all very rocky because he’d just broken up with Sandy and I was very young.
YS: So — it’s all true. Everything in the poems is true?
AN: Yes, everything’s true. Sometimes it’s a vision or a dream, but the account of my life is all true. I did have a life.
YS: Do you have a book coming out soon? Negativity’s Kiss?
AN: Quite a bit of it has been put out online, but it’s just a manuscript.
YS: Well I guess my last question is about womanhood. I wonder if you think the way some writers do about mothering a poem.
AN: No, I’ve never thought about mothering in connection with anything except for my kids. I have no interest in the notion of “nurture” or anything like that. As a matter of fact I detest it, I think it keeps me down.
YS: You mention the idea of utility in the poem you wrote when you first came here to Paris. In your poem that references Oxford, Cambridge and Penguin poets…
AN: All the space is used here because it’s so old. It’s dense. Everything gets used up right away — it’s just much denser than even New York is. And it’s difficult to live inside that density.
YS: It is. But you enjoy it?
AN: It’s a mixed experience. It’s not a totally positive experience; I don’t know if it should be, I don’t know if anything should be.
YS: Do you ever think of moving out of city life?
AN: Oh, I think of it sometimes in the evening. But I can’t see myself as a nature poet. I kind of see myself as a narrative poet or an epic poet. I suppose one could do that anywhere. I’m not sure I write out of place. I write out of something else. And I’ve stayed faithful — or I’ve come back around to — where I started out, which was as a fiction writer. I’ve incorporated it. I finally learned how to tell a story.
YS: But not necessarily in fictional stories?
AN: Alette’s fictional, and Negativity’s Kiss is totally fictional… and there’s one that I haven’t published yet called Culture of One about this woman who lived outside of Needles where I grew up. She lived in a dump. I’ve always been very fond of Stevens’ poem “The Man on the Dump.” And I knew a woman who actually lived in a dump, and it’s very different from Stevens’ conception of living in a dump. She’s always popping up in my writing. Her name was Marie, and my mother called her that for a long time, but then they started calling her Gravel Gertie because of the Dick Tracy comic strip. She’s in “Kiss of Fire.” Where it says “Eerie / eerie you might stay and / become Gravel Gertie, bag lady in a gully / out by the dump.” And then it occurred to me that I probably had become that woman. So I started writing about her several years ago, and so I have a book where she’s the main character — that’s Culture of One. She’s the main culture.
YS: If you don’t write out of place, what it is out of? Experience or occasion?
AN: Some combination of all of it. You can’t — I can’t pin it down. Everybody tries to pin everything down right now. It seems to be more important to pin things down than to write the poems. I can’t do that. I can’t get anything pinned down. I only have about two ideas, but then I have a lot of ideas, like too many, and I’m always between those two places.
Yasmine Shamma has lived in America, the Middle East and England. She has worked as an assistant editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review in New York, a writer in Beirut and Amman, and a coordinator of Lannan Poetry Readings at at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Currently, she teaches modern and contemporary poetry, and is working on a project on space and form in New York School Poetry. She is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University.