Alice Notley

A conversation with Alice Notley on the poet's novel

Laynie Browne: In your recent book, Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, you write:

“Poetry tells me I’m dead; prose pretends I’m not” [1]. 

Can you elaborate on this statement?  To put it in context, this line is embedded in a section where there is a momentary switch from prose to poetry: “I’m afraid prose won’t go deep enough.”  A few lines later “And yet I go on in prose.”  You suggest limitations of prose but a choice to continue in prose.  Or maybe what is necessary is the movement between the two forms within the work?

Alice Notley: “The Book of Dead” contrasts two states, that of Dead and that of Day.  Day is what we have generally agreed life is; Dead is a world where boundaries are erased.  It resembles dreams and is where the ghouls live.Poetry is more like Dead than like Day, but prose is more useful for describing what goes on in Dead — how it works.  Prose is more useful for flat and general statement.  Poetry tends to abolish time and present experience as dense and compressed.  Prose is society’s enabler, it collaborates with it in its linearity.  A poem sends you back into itself repeatedly, a story leads you on.

Browne: I am especially fascinated with your statement “A poem sends you back into itself repeatedly, a story leads you on.” 

Notley's "In the Pines" set to music, and performed

Andrew Whiteman (Broken Social Scene, Apostle of Hustle) and Ariel Engle (Land of Kush) have formed a new group, called AroarA.  Andrew has long been a PoemTalk listener and serious user of PennSound recordings. He visited Kelly Writers House a few years ago, while in Philadelphia on tour — came by to meet us and get a feel for the actual place. A few weeks ago, Andrew returned to KWH with Ariel and performed songs from In The Pines by Alice Notley. They use all fourteen poems from Alice’s book and convert them (back) into faux folk song forms. Each poem became its own song.

In a 2011 interview (given in Miami),Whiteman was asked about the book of poetry he's been writing (how far along was he?), and here was his answer:

Not far. Broken Social Scene is still working a lot. Plus, I have a new band (hopefully playing on the 30th) called AroarA with Ariel Engle — she sings in Montreal with a band called Land of Kush. We are singing the poetry of Alice Notley's In the Pines in a bizarrely concocted version of faux folk. But I do keep working away at it, so hopefully it'll be online by the end of the year. It's called Tourism and its about being on the road. I might read a couple of things.

Alice Notley

Alice Notley at the Kelly Writers House for a lunchtime reading on November 3, 2011.

'Back of'

Index, bibliography, catalog, list

Image by Noah Saterstrom
Image by Noah Saterstrom

This post explores the poem as index, bibliography, catalog, or otherwise arranged list. I want to consider the ways each piece overflows, suggesting threads that the listener might follow or complicating the idea of order under the guise of an ordering structure. I want to pay attention to the ways these recordings open up into the works of other writers and artists in addition to reflecting back upon the concerns of their respective authors.

Democracy at 10th & A (PoemTalk #25)

Alice Notley, 'I the People'

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Joe Milutis came in from Seattle for this session, and met up with Zack Pieper (wandering eastward from Milwaukee), drove down from northeastern Pennsylvania together and joined Al Filreis, our host, and Erica Kaufman (training southwest from New York) at the Writers House, where it was time to consider a poem that is either specifically about a postage-stamp-sized offbeat haven (the lower East Side of New York of a certain era) or generally about the whole America from which indeed our PoemTalkers gathered. Well, probably both.

Joe calls Alice Notley’s “I the People” a poem writing out the “agon in American culture.” Zack speculates on why Notley was embarrassed by the title (a remark she makes in introducing it): it’s “a gentle parody,” Zack offers, “of the way political language abstracts things,” but troubling is the general over-use (especially on the Left) of the term “the people” in particular. Al ponders the possibly unambiguous skeptical politics of the title (overt): the title, he contends, is red meat for those who want to see leftist politics here, but the body of the poem is less obviously in the liberal-left rhetorical tradition of talk about democratic rights.

For Zack this is a poem full of things people think when they are walking around during the day, but the result is not mundane. On the contrary, it has a mystical quality. Later, following from this, Erica offers her ideas on how this poem might be taught under the rubric of the New York School of poetry. But right away Erica says its  “walking around”-ness is an aspect of the poem she particularly likes: a glimpse at routine thoughts while at the same time a political commentary on the possessive and on the subject.

“I the People” is a poem that makes one wonder: Which comes first in American democracy, the “I” or the “we”? Joe notes that while these are “the two ends of the problem,” the vast middle ground between “I” and “we” is both intimate and fraught.

Syndicate content