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April 2024 Issue [Readings]

The Person Who Performs

From an interview with the poet Alice Notley conducted by Janique Vigier that was scheduled to appear on the Artforum website in December. Vigier pulled the piece from publication in protest of that magazine’s dismissal of its editor, David Velasco, following the magazine’s publication of a pro-Palestinian open letter.

When I was a kid, TV came from Phoenix or Las Vegas, and it was always going in and out. I liked having a gritty screen you couldn’t see very well. I liked not being able to see the story. I can’t stand the big clear image.

Growing up in Needles, California, I knew I was the only person in town who had my own thought process. I had to take care of it, because it was probably precious. And I knew I had to leave. I was terrified I would be sucked into the town. There were really weird people who lived there. It’s a whole other story, these characters. I was afraid I would become one. And then I did. That’s what I am. But I had to leave town in order to become that.

I started off as a fiction writer. I didn’t understand you could write poetry. I’d always liked it. It was a different time, and people had a different attitude toward poetry. It really existed for everybody. It had an aura. But it never occurred to me that you could write it. I went to Barnard College, and I started writing short stories.

My early stories were sort of like films. I thought I had to picture every single thing that happened in them, so every sentence was something I saw a character doing or taking part in. The first story I wrote was about a guy I grew up with. It’s about whether a nice guy can do something violent. L’étranger was a big deal at that time. I was probably influenced by that without knowing it. A lot of the stories had to do with growing up in a small town in the desert.

I got into the fiction workshop at Iowa because I had these stories. I went there and I met some poets, and I started writing poems right away. I was balancing the two. I wasn’t sure who or what I was. I left, came back, and that’s when I met Ted Berrigan.

Ted was my initial supporter. He supported Anne Waldman, he supported Bernadette Mayer. He was the first person who saw we were good, totally cleanly. He was able to see. And I’ve never known anyone else like that. I used to wonder if I would have become a poet if I hadn’t known him. I think I would have, but there is no such thing as the past that didn’t happen.

I came back to New York in 1970. It was a very early St. Mark’s scene. I knew Bill Berkson and Jim Carroll and Michael Brownstein and Larry Fagin. I had already met Allen Ginsberg. I was the new girl on the block, and there weren’t very many girls. It was a difficult thing to be, to be the new woman on the block, in a small territory held by an aesthetic that wasn’t the dominant aesthetic and a member of the gender that wasn’t the dominant gender.

Public reading has always been important to me. My first reading I rehearsed for days. For me, to read was a dramatic thing to do. It was like being an actress. I had taken a lot of piano lessons, and I had studied music through college. I had this sense of pacing that came from classical music.

I assumed that that was what you did. I don’t know why. When I heard the first-generation New York School people read, they didn’t do that. They just read straight, like they were talking to you, kind of casually. I read like classical music but I wrote like casual conversation.

I was also a folkie. I liked all of the folk singers; I followed what everyone was doing. I would go to Bleecker Street when I was at Barnard. I saw Mississippi John Hurt there. I always knew what Dylan was doing. I was a big Baez fan. I had a sense of the person who performs and makes a sound.

Reading was part of my process. I needed to hear what it was like to read a certain kind of poem to a certain kind of audience. I didn’t think of it in precisely that way, but that was what was going on. We would all try out our poems and see how they went over.

Revisiting the poems in Early Works was very strange. I’m just this person who’s in love with Ted, broken up with by Ted, getting back together with Ted, having children, having postpartum depression, etc. The plotline is me learning how to live and how to write poetry, somehow in conjunction with each other. I never quite got the living part, and I still don’t have it. But I have the writing poetry. I was upset a lot at that time. So I had to be upset again, in the ways I was then. I had to see how really young I was. And how I was trying to find a position to write from. Not precisely a voice, but how to be a person writing, given that I was a woman and it’s so naked in the book that I don’t know who that person is who writes the poems. And I had no tradition, no tradition at all for being a woman writer. I admired a number of women writers, and I’m quite influenced by Stein and Dickinson, but I didn’t identify with them.

During the Seventies, I started reading long poems, and I realized that I really liked them—that it was actually my favorite kind of poem to read. I read The Canterbury Tales, all of Chaucer; I read Dante; I read Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. I always had one going. And then I thought: I want to be as great as a male writer. I want to have written one of these. I wanted to write an epic in which the hero is a woman. I was thinking about it, thinking about it, and meanwhile my brother was suffering a great deal, and then he died. I realized that this thing had happened where my life and what I was reading came together, like some horrible magic, and that I had to write something for him. And so I wrote The Descent of Alette . . .

Poetry outlasts everything. It’s a primeval spirit. It’s probably the first speech. It comes with speech. It’s what children do, when they play with their first words. And it comes from nowhere, and it always goes on. And there’s no way to lose it, but people don’t know how to find it. People think they don’t know how to read it, and that they don’t have any need for it. Maybe they don’t have any need for it. I don’t know. The world has poetry inside it anyway.

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April 2024

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