Poetry News

The Tyrant Is Us: An Interview With Alice Notley

By Harriet Staff


Alice Notley is interviewed at Los Angeles Review of Books. The poet, who lives in Paris, spoke with Shoshana Olidort on the morning of the second night of Notley's reading of the entirety of the book-length poem, The Descent of Alette, at The Lab in San Francisco. "Can you tell me a bit about how performance informs your writing?" asks Olidort. Notley's answer, and more:

ALICE NOTLEY: I always think of poems as something to be performed. And I always think of how they’re going to sound. There wouldn’t be poetry without that. It’s utterly important. And people should read poetry aloud. Reading aloud is key. I read each poem aloud in my room after I’ve written it, and I often picture myself in a room performing it.

Who is your intended audience?

It changes. When I lived in New York, it was the audience that met at The Poetry Project every Wednesday. It was a really wonderful audience, very intelligent, receptive to poetry. I pictured that room, the Parish Hall of St. Mark’s Church, and I had a sense of all the bodies in the room. But I don’t picture that audience anymore. I don’t quite know what I picture. Sometimes it’s like a room full of souls, sometimes it’s the whole universe, and I’m just sort of talking to everything there is.

You’ve referred to The Descent of Alette as a feminine epic. Why was it important to you to write a feminine epic?

I wanted to write an epic in which the hero was a woman. The epic was held as the epitome of writing — a hero, a man who changes everything there is by entering into combat with something. The entire history of the epic is that, in every culture. But then I found one that wasn’t like that, the Sumerian Descent of Inanna, in which the hero, Inanna, is purely interested in finding out what death is. It’s an inquisition through experience. I was interested in how there was no action, and how she didn’t really kill. The way it was set up was very dreamlike. She was the hero, and what she wanted was knowledge.

So who is the tyrant of the story?

In The Descent of Alette, the tyrant is us. The tyrant is what enslaves us to our forms. The tyrant is the form of our life, the form of our politics, the form of our universities, the form of our knowledge, our thinking we know something. All of that is the tyrant. The tyrant is a liberal. The tyrant isn’t Trump. He can be part of it, but this tyrant is an extremely accomplished man who can do anything. Alette’s about the liberation of women, but it’s also about the liberation of everyone. If you keep half of humankind down, then everybody is oppressed.

Read the full interview at LARB.

Originally Published: December 30th, 2016