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Storytelling, Epics + Disobedience: Boston Review’s Lindsay Turner in Conversation with Alice Notley
Boston Review’s Lindsay Turner ventured out on Paris’s hottest day of the summer—ninety-four degrees!—to interview Alice Notley. The two spoke about epics, storytelling, and “poetry’s capacity to sing the histories other histories deny.”
LT: You’ve said you consider yourself an “epic” or a “narrative” poet—I’m thinking of the 1995 essay “The ‘Feminine’ Epic” in which you discuss the epic elements of The Descent of Alette and also Désamère. But you also say in that essay that epic is an ongoing task for you, that you want to write an epic of “a woman’s voice,” or “your voice.” What’s the current state of—well—your epic ambition?
AN: Oh, since I wrote that essay I’ve written a lot of books, and I suppose each one has been a kind of an epic, although Culture of One was more like a novel. Songs and Stories of the Ghouls is an epic. Since those, I have three or four other manuscripts that are recent, each of which is a long poem, not including the one that these poems are from. One of them is called Our Voice: A Bible. It’s the idea of an epic of voice, and of people talking, and of my talking for other people, which is kind of what the epic is about. In Songs and Stories of the Ghouls I have several poems where I speak for the genocided dead and that’s part of the endeavor—it’s to rescue the dead, who never have got from life what they deserved, far less than that. And dead women: a theme in all the books. I mean, what did they get? What does one get? So I’m trying to speak for everyone.
LT: To speak for everyone.
AN: Speak for everyone. Yes. I make myself available.
LT: In “The Poetics of Disobedience,” you say that “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against. . . everything.” I’ve just been reading Milton, and—
AN: “of man’s first disobedience”—
LT: Exactly! So I wondered if you had any thoughts about the relationship between the two, between disobedience and epic.
AN: Well, I’ve just started reading Samson Agonistes again, but I’ve only read about ten lines. I had a dream that seemed to indicate that I was Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple. Which was kind of horrifying, since that means that I am blind and going to die along with the Philistines! I don’t know if Milton is precisely an influence, but I am now embarking on that. I read it in the ’70s and Edwin Denby and Rudy Burckhardt discussed it with me; they were really interested in how visual it was, even though it was all from the point of view of a blind man. They were highly interested in the visual aspects of the poem, and I remember discussing it with them and having a sense of buildings and things—the poem has that. I’ll have to read it some more to find out. . . I’ve forgotten what the question was about.
LT: The question was about disobedience.
AN: I’m a hugely but quietly disobedient person, and I have not conducted my life the way any of the other poets have. […] I don’t teach, and that’s very disobedient right now.
LT: Epic, disobedience—and gender, being a woman, that’s a third theme of your work. What about disobedience and feminism?
AN: Everybody’s sexist. Most women are sexist. It’s a tremendous fight and it’s totally ongoing. Men have all the prestige and all the power in the poetry world, still. Women have space now, they have space but it’s not the same as prestige or power. It’s as if I’ve had to re-write all of the history of poetry so that I could be as great as I want to be. My “project” is to be a great poet. I’m not interested in poetry schools; I have absolutely no interest in any of that.
Read Lindsay Turner and Alice Notley’s conversation in its entirety at Boston Review.