VERSeFest: At the root of things with Alice Notley

The American Alice Notley is considered one of the foremost poets of her generation. The 75 year old is the author of more than 35 books of poetry and prose. She has been a full-time poet since 1970. She will be reading on the opening night of VERSeFest but before her appearance she answered some questions from ARTSFILE. The following is an edited transcript.

Q. Why are you a poet? 

A. I became fascinated by the writing of poetry when I was about 21 years old and have remained that way. But I think I was probably always a poet, as a way of being. I just am.

Q. Did you begin as a child?  

A. It began to occur to me in my teens that I might be a writer. I wrote stories early on and attended The Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa as a fiction writer, though I ultimately got my degree in Fiction and Poetry. I do think of myself as a kind of fiction writer still, though in verse. But it was always natural to me to express myself in words and to try to explain my thoughts precisely.

Q. You once said:“I think I try with my poems to create a beginning space. I always seem to be erasing and starting over, rather than picking up where I left off…” Are you still searching for new ways to speak in your writing?

A. Yes. At the moment I’m trying to uncover something I call The Old Language, which would be a sort of first language spoken by everyone and everything unconsciously. I hate being trapped in any form for too long, even if I have invented it, but if I could discover The Real Form of Things, I might be satisfied to be or speak in it, if you follow. I’m looking for something. 

Q. Where does that come from for you do you think?

A. It comes from being alive and wanting to know why I am.

Q. In your essay The Poetics of Disobedience you wrote: “it seems as if one must disobey everyone else in order to see at all.” Is that still a guiding principle for you?

A. Anything a lot of people tell you is suspect. Everything you’re supposed to believe is a sham. Your best friends don’t know anything except for very specific things in very specific circumstances. Society is a scam, and everything you’re asked to do for it, except possibly heal the sick and feed the hungry, is ridiculous. Et cetera. I have to work everything out for myself.

Q. You are considered a feminist poet. Do you wear that label with pride?

A. Of course. 

Q. You have written about motherhood, about women who live alone in shacks in the desert or queens such as Dido, why?

A. Why not? But, I wrote about motherhood because I was a young mother, what else was I supposed to write about? Never mind that no one had done so before. … So I had to invent how to do it. I kept having to invent how to write about whatever situation I was in as a person — a personal person, or society’s person — because there were no ways to write concerning women yet. When I finally wrote about Marie, the bag-lady-like woman who lived at the dump, it was because I had turned into someone like her, a woman who kept inventing her life and circumstances. When I wrote about Dido, I was trying to liberate her from Virgil, who in the Aeneid virtually robbed her of her accomplishments — founder of a city, Carthage, a culture-maker — and turned her into a woman in love who killed herself for a stupid Roman. Really! 

Q. How do you feel about ’movements’ such as #TimesUp and #MeToo. Are these stories encouraging you or discouraging your poetry and why?

A. I think some good is coming from these movements, though they don’t have much relation to my poetry, in that it continues, as ever, like the weather.  

Q. Where do poems begin for you? In the real world of politics and social interaction or in the imagination. In nature? All of the above and more?

A. Politics is not the real world; I’m not sure anything is. Social interaction might be of interest, since it always knocks you off-balance to encounter a specific person in specific circumstances. I mean, you have a set of thoughts then suddenly you’re among people somewhere and something unforeseen happens. That’s of interest. I like the imagination, and nature, but a poem might begin anywhere. I guess for me poetry is about locating a “voice” that will tell me things I didn’t know before.

Q. Are you the same poet today as when you wrote (the book-length poem) The Descent of Alette say, which you cite in the essay mentioned above as a sort of starting point?

A. I was in my mid-40s when I wrote The Descent of Alette . . . I began writing poems when I was 21. I’m probably still the same poet as I was then in certain ways, but when I was young I needed to acquire skills and go through things in order to discover the extent of my powers. The Descent of Alette was a culmination and a break-through, I am somewhat the same as I was then. But I’ve written maybe 15 more books! I might have gotten better. 

Q. You are coming to a festival in Ottawa that is gathering together dozens of poets of all kinds. It seems that more people are engaged in verse-making today than perhaps might have been the case through poetry slams, rapping, spoken word events. Do you think poetry as a form is experiencing a rejuvenation? If so why so? If not why not?

A. I find this question very funny! I was interviewed in Boise last fall by a young man who asked me what I thought about the death of poetry! Poetry always seems to me to be somewhat the same in terms of energy put into it, events associated with it like readings, how many young poets there are, how many of them are going to last finally, and so on. Sometimes it feels like the forms are changing a lot, but that isn’t the case right now. The poetry-slam and spoken-word scene has been around for ages. The slam itself was invented by various people, some of whom I knew, around 1980, but before that there was an incredibly rich reading scene in New York, and I gave readings all the time.

Q. When you come to Ottawa what message are you bringing?

A. I have no message. I love poetry and love to give readings.  I have things to tell you, but they’re contained in the poems and exist as wisdom or knowledge in that form and no other.

Q. Do you have advice for young people who are seeking to become poets? What would it be?

A. You have to be willing to stick with it for years and years just to find out if you’re any good at all. You really have to love poetry and writing poetry to be a poet.

Q. Are you writing today? If so what are you writing about? Are you still trying to break new ground?

A. I answered this previously, but really, I have nothing else to do except “break new ground.”

VERSeFest presents Alice Notley
Where: Knox Presbyterian Church, 120 Lisgar St.
When: March 20 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.