The spontaneous interview with Alice Notley — Nina Zivancevic

Alice Notley, one of the best living American poets, has recently published “For the Ride”. As a longtime friend and a former student of hers, I found her in the Parisian park Tuileries, where I asked her a couple of questions while eating a refreshing ice-cream.

NZ: Here are a couple of questions that I’ve always meant to ask you, but they impose themselves on me especially in this book which has just come out… After some serious seminal and experimental writing of yours, which you had already started in “Negativity’s Kiss” (2014) and in “Manhattan Luck” and then in “Eurynome’s Sandals” more recently (2019), but this new one is more visual and disseminated, restructured if you will, than those that I’ve mentioned? I know you’re a visual artist as well, but you haven’t included your visuals in your previous books?

ALICE NOTLEY: Oh, actually, I don’t remember how I started “For the Ride”, but it deals with questions I’ve been always interested in: like what is the beginning of everything? What is the end of anything? I’m always interested to figure out how language started but I’ve been dealing for quite a while with the idea, with my knowledge of the environmental catastrophe…

NZ: You dedicated it to ANYONE; in the Preface you say that the book is going to be “about the journey to another dimension to save Words from their demise” – save words, language from a future Apocalypse?

AN:  I talked about the catastrophe in some other books as well, but I decided to think here about the idea of after-the-catastrophe – if everything is dead, so what is THAT? One is just there, inside this glyph, a piece of language which was already there …

NZ: In your book the survivors from catastrophe have an anthology of poetry with them – you say, only poems can deal with the inexplicable. The characters in it finally become poems. Are these the ones who can save whatever’s left of the world? I mean, can poetry save the world? I remember that in the film Alphaville by Godard – he said that “the only thing that could save the world – the post-apocalyptic world – was poetry”.

AN: I’ve never seen Alphaville, although I was very aware of it, but anywhere that I was at that time, I kept on missing the screenings of that one, although (laughter), I’ve seen all other films where Ana Karina was in!

NZ: That’s perhaps his most profound, philosophical and poetical film, as he has this old man in it who is the only one in this post-world who cries and speaks poetry, everyone else in Alphaville forgot how to cry so they have to visit the old man to teach them how to cry… Let us go to the beginning of your “For the Ride”: You dedicated it to “Anyone” and in the very first section “The Glyph of Chaos with Willows” you say that “One is not in time but in Chaos”. Are we living in an era which is englobed out of time, which you call “beautiful chaos”? How do you conceive that era of “beautiful chaos”?

AN: I think that our reality is chaos, but the chaos in old epics is not chaotic, it is unformed – and by describing our senses and out of the things that we see, we try to make something out of chaos, but the chaos is always there underneath us, we are chaos! And in that poem – we return to chaos; that’s what happens in a lot of my work, it’s a return to chaos!

NZ: Would you refer to  the deconstruction of language also as some form of chaos?

AN: Oh, WE ARE CHAOS! We have been taught to see order everywhere but..

NZ: Were you indicating in the book that there was some kind of ‘truth’ hidden in the old forgotten languages which we are no longer able to read; some old truth has been repeating itself through centuries but we haven’t figured it out?

AN: No, what I meant was my idea that we have to communicate, we have to learn how to communicate – communication is everything and even the molecules are communicating with one another, and atoms in nature as well… they are all talking to each other, like we do, and probably when we are dead – we are in the state of communicating too; that’s what it is. However, I am always trying to find something as ‘the original language’, one that is older than “the old languages” and now I’m working in that area again, I am trying to find something that I call “THE old language” contained in our cells or what our cells are…

NZ: I got it… in terms of that, you come close to the visuals, to the visual expression of what is essential to the glyph or a “sign”. It marked me when you said “One makes the truth”, like every man, everyone makes his/her own truth and you indicate that he/she is doing it through language. I’d say this is the most “Language” poetry book of yours, though I’ve never thought of you as a “Language poet”. I’ve considered you a “Language being” as you’re also dealing with different languages on a daily basis… you incorporate different languages in your writing as you’ve just done it here – I mean, you  incorporated French in your poetry…

AN: I know, I wouldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t lived in a different language; well, I‘ve had that experience (on dealing with different languages on a daily basis), many people have had it

we embody so many different cultures and languages in one body, and somehow it works, doesn’t it? (laughter) I am deliriously amused at… what’s going on all the time!

NZ: What I appreciated, what I loved about this book is that once you found the key for every chapter, then you could enter it; like everyone has to find his own key for it – in a way… You don’t give us the sort of key which is something like “go and find the key and you would enter it”!

AN: I did not know what the keys were here, I sort of had to find them myself in order to enter it and I was hoping that everyone else would do it too, as I did not know it, ever, what was going to happen in this book..

NZ: Here you said “One is composed of Words like one makes in the beginning, chaotically”. Do you see the words as our essential elements and the only creative elements that have power to propel our imagination?

AN: We are all, each of us very unique, we are individuals, yes, we have souls, but perhaps we should say… we have poems…

NZ: You said this “had painted a lovely clasp singing in the head”. Impossible mental structures! Are the words more powerful than other other tools, artistic or physical, more powerful than colors, visual images, etc? What can they express more or better than other human “tools”?

AS: Oh, I have a lot of lines like that one.. I don’t know if these ‘tools’ are better, but I think they are ‘truer’, I don’t know if they are more powerful – and I love the visual arts, and I try to have vision and music in my poems. I don’t have any visual training in arts, I have musical training… I’ve never had any training in visual arts… I’ve fell in the second generation of New York School, I’ve fell in with Ted and Joe (Brainard) and George Schneeman and they did collages and collaborations but I did it with myself, I felt that I should collaborate with myself, and what I’ve done in this book is a little bit like that… I collaborated with myself, but I have the whole body of artwork that’s connected to words. I’ve just started talking about it, because I’ve never thought of myself as being a good artist. (laughter) But, I’m going to have an Art book come out this Fall… I have an Instagram account, and I bought an Apple pen and started doing these cool drawings and you can take pictures  instantly and post them and there’s a guy who wants to print a book with them…

NZ: Waiiit a minute… I’ve always thought of you as a great visual artist… I saw something of yours a while ago… those stockings, like pop-art work?

AN: No, those were George Schneeman’s drawings and I supplied words; but yes, he’s a great artist… My drawings could be found in some poetry magazines, like a year ago, my collages are collected by the University of California in San Diego…

NZ: Let’s go back to your book “For the Ride” and to the notion of the Art of Writing: As you see, the words are the subliminal ‘tools’ here, you are expressing a certain hesitation here towards the so-called tenses, as denominators of time, or time-categories which were imposed on us by history, or the notion of historical periods which were further imposed on us by the conventional education system… Can you elaborate on that, like tenses vs time?

AN: You know, part of it happened on this block! Right here, down the Starbucks corner, there was a hairdresser where I used to go and where I started writing this book and there came a certain point where I had to decide about the tenses; well, a Cambodian woman was cutting my hair and we had this conversation about the Cambodian language and the Cambodian tenses, apparently, the Cambodian language has only present tense, I mean, you can get tense – by using ADVERBS – and that’s what I’ve done… Then I tried to get some information about the Cambodian language but there wasn’t much and luckily I did not need any additional information, I sort of figured it out how you can construct tenses in a totally new way by using these adverbs! The Cambodian hairdresser really explained it to me, she knew a lot about the languages, and then I went home and put it into my book.

NZ: So, is this system of education (of times, tenses, periods in history) robbing us of “personhood” as you put it?

AN: Oh yes, but you know, we are shaping the culture as much as the culture is making us; it is not to say that there are “other people” who are to be blamed and that there is us who are the victims, we’re all doing it in a way.

NZ: For many years, centuries, English-speaking authors would slip French words into their writing to appear stylish, well-educated, refined or pompous. I don’t find it in your “For the Ride”. You’ve been living in Paris for almost thirty years – has the French idiom finally penetrated your thinking, as it seems to grow organically, naturally in this book?

AN: Yes, the language is there. I think that being  in this language (French) has changed me a lot, changed my poetic line, changed my ear, changed my meter, that sort of thing… there are other languages in the poem, there’s Spanish which I learned as a child and studied in a high-school a little bit, but the French took its place so today I don’t know it as I used to. I grew up near the Mexican border so people around me always spoke Spanish, but also there is Latin in my poem, perhaps German somewhere as well – these are all the languages I have a little bit to do with, they’re in my head, you know… But since the Nineteenth century there has been this notion that you had to know French as a cultivated person, it has been a class thing.

NZ: However, in this particular book of yours, I don’t see that effort on your side to “appear cultivated”, as some journalists in The Guardian often make, you insert French words somewhat naturally, so my question here is – and I risk to appear quite redundant here – “is your new writing a kind of, say, Joycean deconstruction, dissemination of “la parole” which finds home in your book? You two have had a somewhat similar ‘expatriate’s path’ of existence..

AN: Oh, I never think of Joyce! Simply: never. Well, when I was young I read his “Ulysses”, and I read parts of his “Finnegan’s Wake” – I liked them a lot, but it was forty years ago! (laughter) Yeah, I don’t think much about Joyce – there are other people who do this type of work but their names don’t come to my mind right now..

NZ: Ok, tell us something else – could the real subtitle of your chapter “Save the Words” read like your line “one is not even French, One’s like dead”? I read this chapter as a severe critique of the French immigration and “acclimation” policies. How does it feel to be an immigrant-cum-writer, intellectual here? However, I see this book as an extension of Joyce’s, Stein’s or Beckett’s work accomplished here in Paris – any comment ?

AN: Actually, the book is “Eurynome’s Sandals”; it has to do more with the immigration than this one. I wrote it in 2006 or 2007 and it did not come out for a long time because there were… two chunks in it that I really couldn’t figure out how to put them together; but in that book there is a section of shorter poems which talk about my experience of being an immigrant. However, if I say “I’m an immigrant” it is not the same experience as of those people who come from all sorts of other countries – it’s very difficult to talk about this subject and in that book I refer all the time to the experiences of all other immigrants. There is a long poem in there called “Eurynome’s Sandals” which is about the goddess who created the world by dancing into existence, and there’s a cosmic snake which surrounds her as she’s dancing, and then they have some children… anyways, it’s the first myth in Robert Graves’ book on myths. They became these characters: there’s a woman, Eurynome, a creative goddess, then there is a film-maker – and he is Time, and she is divinity; they are all held to communication but there are lots of the immigrants around them and there’s this catastrophe and there’s an instant call for people and people are always wondering around telling stories about Eurynome and the film-maker – as they are these mythical beings… well, that book is difficult to describe, but – that book was published two years ago here (in France) in the French translation and by a University Press.

NZ: I don’t have a problem with your universal “I”, because when I was a student, in your workshop, it was a very liberating thing for me to hear you saying that “I is just a word”.. and it was not the “I, I and I , and me, me and me, Alice Notley,” but simply the fact that “I” is just a word!

AN: Which workshop was that? I mean, what year?

NZ: Well, it was either 1984, 1985 or 1986 at the St Mark’s Church Poetry Project… I’m forgetting all these years and periods… There’s someone thinking that I was crazy as I couldn’t remember what year I was with Allen [Ginsberg] in Amsterdam for that One Word Poetry festival!

AN: It was probably 1985… the year of the workshop… And why  would you remember all these years, indeed? I remember very clearly, well I don’t remember if it was the 1980s or 1990s, ha, but the use of “I” was sort of forbidden in the university milieu…

NZ: Here’s one last question “For the Ride” – how does one save Words, from themselves? Is it through a new language, through a sort of “bricolage”? Through a Dada experiment? Is it a technical, formal process, or is it more   an aesthetic, an anesthetized yearning for the meaning of the Wor(l)d?

AN: How to save Words? Hmm… You have to be absolutely true to yourself, without knowing what that is, of course, and you have to be absolutely true to what the world needs… and you don’t allow yourself to think anything that anyone has told you is true; you have to examine every single thing…but you also have to have fun.. and nowadays nobody has any f’ing fun…

NZ: Seems we are deep.. in the 21st century!

AN: No, but I’m totally serious- look, I mean : YOU can’t tell the TRUTH…. Unless you’re enjoying the words!

ALICE NOTLEY was with NINA ZIVANCEVIC

July 20, 2020

In Paris


Alice Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1945 and grew up in Needles, California in the Mojave Desert.  She was educated in the Needles public schools, Barnard College, and The Writers Workshop, University of Iowa. She has lived most extensively in Needles, in New York, and since 1992 in Paris, France. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, and of essays and talks on poetry, and has edited and co-edited books by Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver.  She edited the magazine CHICAGO in the 70s and co-edited with Oliver the magazines SCARLET and Gare du Nord in the 90s. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Griffin Prize, the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, and the  Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize, a lifetime achievement award.  Notley may be most widely known for her epic poem The Descent of Alette. Recent books include Eurynome’s Sandals, Certain Magical Acts, Benediction, and For the Ride.

Poet, essayist, fiction writer, playwright, art critic, translator and contributing editor to NY ARTS magazine from Paris, Serbian-born Nina Zivancevic published 15 books of poetry. She has also written three books of short stories, two novels and a book of essay on Milosh Crnjanski (her doctoral thesis) published in Paris, New York and Belgrade. The recipient of three literary awards, a former assistant and secretary to Allen Ginsberg, she has also edited and participated in numerous anthologies of contemporary world poetry.

As editor and correspondent she has contributed to New York Arts Magazine, Modern Painters, American Book Review, East Village Eye, Republique de lettres. She has lectured at Naropa University, New York University, the Harriman Institute and St.John’s University in the U.S., she has taught English language and literature at La Sorbonne ( Paris I and V) and the History of Avant-garde Theatre at Paris 8 University in France and at numerous universities and colleges in Europe.

She has actively worked for theatre and radio: 4 of her plays were performed and emitted in the U.S. and Great Britain.

In New York she had worked with the “Living Theatre” and the members of the “Wooster Group”.

She lives and works in Paris.