"It's not the way you're taught": from an Interview with Alice Notley

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My interview with Alice Notley, published on the occasion of the release of the vinyl LP Live in Seattle (Fonograf Editions), was recently published by the Poetry Society of America and can be read here. The interview is an edited selection from an hour and a half phone conversation between Atlanta and Paris that took place on September 16, 2017. Below are a few portions of our conversation that didn't make into the final piece. These excerpts are unedited and show more of the range of our conversation, including Notley's lifelong visual art practice, links to Chicago (where her and Berrigan lived in the early 1970s), relationship with artist George Schneeman, and what her collected poems might look like. Though not included in the published interview, these pieces are equally irreducible.

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Nick Sturm: I spend a lot of time with your early work because the things that it does are so various from the things that your work has done since The Descent of Alette. And spending time with that work has changed the way I think about these different processes of writing. Whether it’s “Endless Day,” “September’s Book,” “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice” – they’re so funny. Your work has always been funny. Like I think of the “Postcard” poem in Waltzing Matilda that begins “Dear Fuckface” and ends “Love Bubbles” that’s so blasphemous and fun and pleasurable. What I'm asking is: I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like this--creating effects in your poems--where it doesn’t feel as if you’re writing but more like you’re arranging?

Alice Notley: I’m not that kind of writer. Other people are, but no, I write. I write and it comes out of me. I don’t arrange things. I don’t take things from different places and stitch them together or anything like that. Ted sometimes spoke as if he did that. But I’ve never done it. I have a voice coming into me and then out of me. A lot of time it’s somebody else’s voice. Like in the “Postcard” poem they’re all my voices but in each one I’m saying well I’m this person writing to this, although it’s all the same person. Then at the end the last one is “Dear Francis” and its signed Alice and at that point I have arrived at my voice. I was asked to discuss this in a class taught by Tom Devaney last November and then he asked me if Francis was Francis Waldman, Anne’s mother, and I said, “No, it’s Frank O’Hara!” and he started crying. [laughs] I said, “You’re crying!” and he didn’t know what to say.

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Nick: These are little tangential things, but asking you about some important things that you’ve done that haven’t often been talked about. For example, your writing’s relationship to painting, your self-education in painting, going to museums, the incredible amount of visual work that you’ve made – collages, watercolors, and fans – and I was really excited to find out that you did a show at MoMA PS1 in 1980. It seemed as if you wrote the description of the show itself. You said something like, “It’s said there’s a relationship between her visual work and her poems. There is.” [Alice laughs] Which made me think it was absolutely written by you. I wonder about all of the work you’ve done making these objects.

Alice: I’m making them right now. I’m actually sitting talking to you at a table surrounded by the ones I’m in process with right now. I never stop making them but sometimes there are lapses because I haven’t finished one. But I’m always doing it. But I’ve interrupted your question.

Nick: I’m not sure there’s a question other than to let you talk about it.

Alice: My relationship to art. I’ve been very close friends with some artists, that started at the beginning as soon as I met Ted, then I met his friends. I got tremendously interested in the works that Joe Brainard and George Schneeman were doing. All of that whole art world opened up to me. But I had been interested in painting when I was in high school in Needles. I didn’t paint but I studied art history in a way. My mother ordered from the outside world a monthly book, like a set of lectures by John Canaday, that would come with these illustrations and prints and then I would look at them and read the description and try to figure out what he was talking and why he was talking about ti this way and I got very interested. When I met Ted everybody cut and pasted so I instantly started doing it and I never stopped. He and I would do it together. He would do it his way off in his corner and I would do it over in my corner. The way he did it was different from the way anyone else did it, and George Schneeman was totally fascinated by the way Ted worked with him when they collaborated. But I didn’t want to collaborate. I only wanted to collaborate with myself and that was my evil secret and it’s always been my evil secret that I that don’t want to do anything with anybody else. But I was so interested in George’s process and everybody said that he wouldn’t talk about his art. So I determined to make him talk about his art and went to see him all the time for that interview that’s also in Brilliant Corners.

Nick: And in Waltzing Matilda.

Alice: I went to ask him questions day after day and he became addicted to having me ask him questions, that was why he was willing to talk to me finally, I mean he just loved it. Then I wrote the essay kind of off-hand. Edwin [Denby] had really, really liked all of that, too. They really loved it that I had made George talk. You know, I was interested in all the people I refer to in the Art Institute essay, all of that, all those works. I was really torn up by postpartum depression and all that really healed and strengthened me, going out to the Art Institute and looking at the paintings then writing off them. All of the essays from that time are written out of a slight hysteria. They’re all written out of this desperation I felt at being depressed in that particular way. And I was always trying to declare myself well through the process of looking at this art and reading these books and writing these things, and I don’t know if that makes sense, but at a certain point I was healed. I was healed. I didn’t write those anymore and I didn’t have that tone anymore. I lost that particular tone but I was glad to because I felt better.

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Alice: Poets have their own way of being critical and scholarly but it’s not the way you’re taught. And it can’t be systematized. For poets, it comes largely out of talking to each other, I think, and a lot of it happens when you’re young. You figure things out with your peers in late night drunken conversations and those are really important.

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Nick: I wonder what it would look like to collect all of your works together. It would be this 2000-page collected poems. It’d be a suitcase-size book.

Alice: It’d be like a nineteenth century person, like Hugo or Charles Dickens or somebody.

When you see me on the street you yell "Jesus Christ!": Ted Berrigan and The Fugs

Daniel Kane's new book, "Do You Have a Band?": Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City (Columbia University Press, 2017), investigates a lineage of punk icons like Richard Hell and Patti Smith who inherited, appropriated, and furiously (dis)assembled their aesthetics out of and in unison with the poets and poetic lineages associated with New York City's Lower East Side. At the same time, Kane suggests, writers like Eileen Myles and Dennis Cooper were modeling their divergent styles, personas, and little magazines on their punk peers and predecessors. Kane's portrait of the reciprocity and defiance between innovative poetries and genre-bending musicians comes out of a deep, generous archival dive that includes the author's own interviews with many of the artists that populate the book's narratives. For example, I was totally delighted to get this story from Bill Berkson about going to shows at the Filmore, the iconic short-lived venue on Second Avenue (see Ada Calhoun's St. Marks is Dead for more Fillmore tales), which arranges surprising trinities like Ted Berrigan, Miles Davis, and Neil Young in one irreducible space:

I went to many shows at the Fillmore with Ted Berrigan, Michael Brownstein, Jim Carroll and others. The most amazing was a double bill featuring Neil Young and Miles Davis -- more properly, Miles Davis with his Bitches Brew contingent opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse! [Rock 'n' roll music...] was in the room, the turntable, everywhere all the time. Lines from songs got into the poems, and the poems, like our conversations, learned to ride on this stream of continuous music.

In the play and energy of all this "continuous music," I love seeing Kane point to connections between specific bands and poets, noting how lines from the Velvet Underground's "I'm Beginning to See the Light" made their way into Berrigan's and Anne Waldman's poem "Memorial Day," "a text that owed as much to Charles Olson's characterization of the manuscript page as a field on which words could dance wildly as it did to Lou Reed and his friends." Rather than discuss a poetics of sociability in terms of "coterie" poetics, Kane describes the patterns of devotion between New York School poets and their various sources as wayward, flexible, and inclusive. The book questions our romanticized associations betweens poetry and music, and between musicians and poets, while recognizing how a sound or a lyric can float into a poem as a way to explode what language (or noise) is available. I appreciate Kane's thinking about "bad" writing and "minor art," too. Kane's description of work that is easily dismissed, and his explanation of why he's drawn to supposedly easily reducible work, resonates with the relationship I have with some of Berrigan's poems. Here's Kane in an interview with Andy Fitch about "Do You Have a Band?":

 from  The Fugs  album cover, with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg that reference a lineage of counterculture figures for the author of "Howl": Burroughs, Whitman, Dylan, and others.

from The Fugs album cover, with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg that reference a lineage of counterculture figures for the author of "Howl": Burroughs, Whitman, Dylan, and others.

I’m really drawn to work that many people would understandably dismiss as fairly inconsequential. A text that always comes up for me when thinking about my love for “fun” poetry is a little Ted Berrigan one-liner titled “Kinks.” The entire poem is as follows: “I am kinks.” I also think back to work like Aram Saroyan’s one-word blasts, or even maybe his relatively epic works, such as an untitled poem which reads in its entirety “Ron Padgett / would approve / this idea.” These texts seem to me to represent an attitude towards poetry in which loose conversation or even a simple happy grunt is an idealized primary response. I’m not saying here that reading such works through a rigorous intellectual framework is somehow “bad,” by the way. I’m all for both/and.

One of the bands that appears throughout Kane's book is The Fugs, the notoriously noisy, unevenly "bad" proto-punk band led by poet Ed Sanders, the editor of the infamous mimeo magazine Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Kane's narratives on Sanders's band reminded me that last year I bought a vinyl reprint of the second Fugs album, The Fugs, released in 1966, which includes the B-side track "Doin' All Right" written by Ted Berrigan with Lee Crabtree and Vinny Leary. I went looking for the album because of the song by Berrigan and, miraculously, a local record store had a copy for sale. The live version of the song, which you can listen to in the video below, begins with Sanders announcing "Ladies and gentleman, it gives The Fugs great pleasure, when the author himself is in the audience, to present tonight for almost its world premiere, the new Fug hit at the [inaudible], by the honorable Ted Berrigan..."Doin' All Right"!" At the end of the song Sanders yells "Author, author, author!" cajoling the audience into recognizing Berrigan who, surrounded by a clapping, hooting crowd announces, "That's the greatest song I've ever heard." Laughter fills the room. It's an incredible moment to have on tape.

The Fugs sound like a Captain Beefheart-Rolling Stones-DEVO mash-up, or Tom Waits giving an SDS speech to The Muppets, or Donovan yelling through wet noodles. The sonic dissonance between tracks, like the sound effects heavy, circus-y anti-war anthem "Kill for Peace" followed by the warm lullaby-like "Morning Morning," is smoothed over by both songs' parodic lyrics and raucous performative buffoonery. "Morning Morning" might sound like a sunny, introspective love song but Tuli Kupferberg's lyrics carry all the Fuck You-style sarcasm and absurdity of Sanders's "Total Assault on the Culture"-approach to music: "Moon shine moon shine / Moon shine drugs the hills with grace / And the secret of the shining / Seeks to break my simple face." It's like a cartoon Cat Stevens. 

Berrigan picks up the Total Assault in "Doin' All Right," an upbeat bearded-hipster-about-town narrative where "I'm not ever gonna go to Vietnam / I'd prefer to stay right here and screw your mom." Rather than the heavy existential-political crisis in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Almost Cut My Hair," released six years later in 1970, where the narrator feels "like letting my freak flag fly / And I feel like I owe it, to someone," the narrator's beard in "Doin' All Right" is a sign of silly apathy and masculine sexual freedom, just "the hairs grownin' around my nose and throat" that make everyone else cry out in anger and disgust: "When you see me on the street you yell "Jesus Christ!" / But I'm getting mine / I'm doin' all right." The joke continues with a reference to a well-known but oddly worded Gillette razor slogan, "How are you fixed for blades?" which was traditionally sung by a cartoon parrot in Gillette commercials throughout the 1950s:

When I walk down the street
The people that I meet
Hold their noses and say
"How are you fixed for blades?"
But I just walk on by
I don't even hear 'em
Because I'm high

Even though these songs are thoroughly parodic and tongue-in-cheek, lyrics like "The only gook an / American can trust / Is a gook that's got / His yellow head bust" in "Kill for Peace" and "And I'm getting almost as much pussy as the spades" in "Doin' All Right" can and should be read as examples of the willingness of mid-1960s white counterculture to perpetuate racist stereotypes and employ racist language. Even if these satirical lyrics are being used to critique traditional American mores and the racist otherings that prop up those values, The Fugs are tossing out these derogatory terms to a mostly white youth audience that sees itself in opposition to a mostly white conventional audience. While Kane's book expertly explores how protest, literature, an expanding feminist ethos, and the intergenerational, interdisciplinary aesthetics of poets and musicians fostered the birth of punk culture on the Lower East Side, the book does not chart how race or racism influenced or underlined the discourses and aesthetic transformations that defined punk.

David Berrigan, Ted's son with Sandy Berrigan, once wrote a short, memorable piece called "Ted's Music" that mentions "Doin' All Right" and gives an amazing portrait of Berrigan's relationship with the music of his generation. I'll close this post by quoting the last half of David Berrigan's piece, from 2012:

This year I was in Stockholm, which has a lot of vintage vinyl shops, I had a mission to find a copy of the Fugs eponymous album because it includes the track “Doin Allright” [sic] that Ted wrote [...]. I already had a copy, but I wanted two so both my sons could have one. Maybe they will have record players someday. Jim Carroll also based a song “People who Died” on one of dad’s poem of the same name. You can find both versions online. I remember, briefly, wishing he could write a few popular songs and make a lot of money.
In 1977 I played him “Hey There Little Insect" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. I don’t think he was impressed, but it presaged my entomological career. I think dad loved Dylan the most, our penultimate visit was at my graduation from Reed College in Portland OR in 1983, I lived with friends in a big old house. They had a good stereo and a lot of records. I remember dad lying on the floor in front of the records singing along to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and scoping out the collection.
He used to say that poets had to lift their voices up in song.