Rachel Zucker on Alice Notley, Alice Notley on Alice Notley
I thought, ‘a poet is not a writer.’ I would not be a writer. I would be a poet, which was entirely different.
At [James] Schuyler’s San Diego archives I called up boxes and boxes of correspondence. I read many of Schuyler’s letters to Ashbery, which I found fascinating and boring. I requested Schuyler’s correspondence with David Trinidad, a poet I’d read in Wayne Koestenbaum’s class. It was there, in a letter from Trinidad to Schuyler, that I first saw Alice Notley’s name. Trinidad was praising Notley’s work, asking if Schuyler had read it, and, as I recall, recommending it for an anthology. I remember writing “Alice Notley??” in my notebook.
It is December 31, 2009, 5:07 PM. The sky is mauve-black. I should get up and make dinner. I don’t want to. Of course writing and mothering are in conflict. Always.
I wanted to write an essay about how, from beyond the grave, James Schuyler led me to Alice Notley. How I found and stole Notley’s book How Spring Comes and read the poem “The Prophet” and loved it but didn’t even know that this was the poet who would sustain me in my dark hours because I hadn’t yet come to live the life she was describing, hadn’t had children, not yet, but would. I wanted to write about how Jorie Graham was another mother, a glorious queen-witch who frightened me just as my own mother frightened me, whereas Alice Notley wasn’t my mother but a future possible self, which is a kind of mother. I too would be the mother of sons.
On the heels, an interview with Notley, just up at Ampersand Review. Notley says things like, "Writing poetry is what I am. I wouldn’t know what else to be." And Cory Zeller asks questions like, "You speak for and as the dead in your poetry. Do you believe in ghosts? Actually, this actually reminds me of one of my favorite early poems by you called 'Jack Would Speak through the Imperfect Medium of Alice.' How did that poem come about? And while we’re on it, you sort of witnessed the end of the Beat era? What was that like? Did you come in contact with some of those guys in New York?" Woah! Here's what Notley says to that:
AN: I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in an afterlife, though not in a god. I have had the dead get in touch with me. I have no doubts about that, but there’s often a blurry overlap between their truly talking to me and my imagination creating their voices, so I’m not always sure what’s happening. I’m certain that on at least a few occasions I’ve been directly contacted.
“Jack Would Speak” was written after the first biographies of Kerouac began to come out in the mid-70s. I found them very irritating because none of the authors seemed interested in how good Kerouac’s writing is, only in certain facts or suppositions about his life. I didn’t care about his life as a life. I’m not sure I care about anyone’s life that way, as if it were a story told according to contemporary conventions in thinking and judging another’s (or one’s) personal existence. So I wrote the poem in defense of his writing as if spoken by him – who knows? maybe he told me what to say.
I knew Allen Ginsberg quite well. Also Philip Whalen, who lived in San Francisco – he was a close friend. I met Gregory Corso, Burroughs, et al more in passing. I actually worked for Allen for awhile, in 1984, 1985 and saw him on a somewhat daily basis. I don’t think of the Beat Era as having ended. It hasn’t ended in my mind and hasn’t in the minds of a lot of people who never knew the Beats, or else why these endless new movies starring the youngest people in the world? The Beats were replete with talent, had large, interesting souls, and lived lives that are almost incomprehensible alongside the tiny ones current writers seem to lead.
And don't forget Zucker's poem “Please Alice Notley Tell Me How to Be Old,” which opens with these lines:
but don’t read this poem whose title implies I think you’re old but you are at least older than me time passing makes everyone old unless death and I don’t want that which is not to say I’m terrified but don’t not read this poem because you’ve died! I’d rather insult you what I mean is—oh look! I think the rookie cops are graduating today Times Square is a sea of blues there’s a secret staircase at the other end of the shuttle platform that takes me right to my therapist’s office but you don’t live here anymore anyway Alice I haven’t got much time or maybe I have no one knows and I want to tell you that all the people who say they love me are siphoning me, feeding off me not like they did when they were babies but eating away at me and for a while my soul seemed to fly out of my body but I didn’t know that’s what had happened