Corey Zeller: First of all, you are one of the most important poets living today, so it is a real honor to be asking you these questions. Thank you so much! Anyway, I want to start by saying that I was reading your poem “January” today and I think it is a masterpiece. It made me want to ask you about living with Ted Berrigan and your kids in New York City. Was it an idyllic time? Was it a struggle? How do you think raising kids informed your writing? Also: both your sons are poets. Did you encourage them to write at a young age or were they just drawn to it on their own?
Alice Notley: I actually wrote “January” in Chicago, right before we moved to New York in 1976, but there’s really no way for you to know that. Ted is sick in “January” – and he was sick after we moved to New York, first intensively and then intermittently until his death. He had what we now know was Hepatitis C. And in New York neither of us worked steady jobs, though he had had a full-time teaching job in Chicago. So life was difficult, in the sense that we very often didn’t know where a day’s money would come from and he was often unwell. On the other hand, the stimulation from being around other poets and being concentrated in the poetry world again made us happy.
As for how raising kids informed my writing, I had been from my time in Chicago the only poet I knew of who used the details of pregnancy and motherhood as a direct, pervading subject in poems, on a daily basis, as if it were true that half the people in the world gave birth to others and everyone had been born. As far as I’m concerned, I’m the first person who ever wrote such poems, and feel as if I could probably document the fact. I was a freak and a pioneer. In New York the kids were a little older and more articulate; they became part of the poems which included my friends and the city. I never encouraged them to do or be anything in particular, I didn’t know how to think like that; but first Edmund then Anselm found out he was a poet. These things are mysterious, aren’t they? They both have that talent.
CZ: Your work really started to change after “Homer’s Art” and “The Descent of Alette” in the late eighties/early nineties. What happened? I sort of imagine you hanging around in subways madly scribbling down things people were saying under the earth in dark and steam and screeching machines and graffiti. What was that period like for you?
AN: I was grieving for my brother and was feeling the weight of a call to write an epic poem about what had happened to him and what the Vietnam War meant for Americans. I discovered I felt deeply communal with the people riding the subway whenever I had to take it, and so I began to ride it not to get places but to receive impressions and stimulate a formal process. I didn’t write things down until I got home. I observed. I used very little that people actually said. Almost everything came from my own imagination after the first several poems. I felt very very bad but on the other hand there was an exhilaration in writing this new, for me, kind of poem.
CZ: 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?
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.
CZ: Marie from Culture of One was a real person in your hometown. What was your interaction with her? When was the first time you saw her or talked to her? I wonder too if that book was a kind of homecoming for you. Did it take you back to your childhood in a way that Mysteries of Small Houses did not?
AN: I never interacted with her, just observed her when I was a little girl and later. She seems to have arrived in Needles – as I recall her – by the time I was in junior high, and she was still there when I was in college, though she died of exposure probably soon after I left Iowa. I couldn’t get very particular information about her when I was writing the book. The only person remaining whom she had ever talked to, my mother’s friend Bernice, was 95 and had had a stroke and a heart attack by the time I started pressing for information. I did find out, though, the crucial information that she liked the way she lived, that she didn’t consider herself a victim and wouldn’t have called herself homeless.
I think both of the books you mention took me back to my childhood. Culture of One is different in being solely about that town, except for the occasional references to my life in Paris. It was like an immersion in the Mojave desert and the town of Needles, and the writing came so easily I sometimes wondered if it were any good. My mother died recently and my childhood home was sold; I can’t easily go back and am so sad about that. I’m glad I have Culture of One.
CZ: What are you working on now? What has kept you writing all these years? What advice would you have for Alice at Iowa in 1969?
AN: I can’t tell you what I’m working on; it’s too hard to characterize. I have TONS of it and don’t know the shape of the whole yet.
Writing poetry is what I am. I wouldn’t know what else to be.
I have no advice for her; she did exactly as she should and couldn’t have learned the hard parts of living in any other way than she did. Living tells us what it is as we do it. The temporal facts of it, say how something happens suddenly that you always – you realize – knew would happen, are bizarrely unlike what you’re taught. One is constantly predicting the future, though not its details and colors, and also re-shaping the past. I’m probably telling her things right now, and she’s listening but still has to go through it all. And I still can’t tell her what will happen, because what happens is never adequately understood. I just don’t know what’s going on. I have no idea why we live.