Evident Being: A Conversation with Alice Notley by KR poetry editor David Baker
Alice Notley has been one of the most prolific and adventurous of American poets for the past forty years. Born in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1945, and raised in Needles, California, she received her BA from Barnard College in 1967 and her MFA in 1969 from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. In the 1970s and ‘80s, she was a vibrant member of the Chicago and New York poetry scenes, and since 1992 has lived and worked in Paris.
Alice Notley is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry, beginning in 1971 with 165 Meeting House Lane (“C” Press) and including, most recently, her award-winning collection Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005 (Wesleyan University Press) and, in 2007, In the Pines (Penguin). A gathering of her essays and articles on poetry and poets, Coming After, was published in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press. Her work has been honored with a number of prizes, including the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2007 received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Grave of Light.
Notley’s poetry takes many shapes and forms, from intensely personal poems to political narratives, from an experimental vigor to traditional lyricism. Like others of the New York School, Notley often crafts her poems as visual evocations, sifting her words across the page, sorting and decentering her phrases, and treating language as artistic material as much as a vehicle for the transfer of cognitive meaning. “It’s necessary,” she has said, “to maintain a state of disobedience against . . . everything.”
David Baker: Alice, it’s a real pleasure for this chance to talk with you about your five new poems in the latest issue of The Kenyon Review. They are splendid poems, individually and as a gathering, and we are glad for the opportunity to print them and, in fact, for the chance to publish you for the first time in the magazine. I’d also like to use this occasion to talk more widely about your work, newer and older, and to range further into other subjects. I’m eager to find out about your view of American poetry from afar these days, hear about works in progress, and maybe ask about your sense of the future of poetry and the arts.
But let’s start with “We Have to Know How to Make the New One.” This is one of my favorite new poems of yours. I have a few specific questions about it, but I wonder
if there’s anything you wish to say about it first—about its origin or impetus or whatever you might wish to say to begin.
Alice Notley: I wrote these poems in 2006; they’re part of a larger group, so it’s difficult for me to remember their individual geneses. I know that this one contains fragments of several dreams, but some aspects of it that sound like dreams aren’t. I dreamed about a baby, I dreamed about an oboist I used to know. I dreamed the gangster-and-moll prelude to a shootout but not the “assembly of golden filaments.” I think the poem is largely generated from previous poems in the manuscript, their themes and techniques. I had achieved a certain fluidity, an ability to travel across multiple subjects and scenes in a compressed way, to make certain unexpected but reasonable-sounding transitions. Suddenly I seemed to be saying what I had always been leading up to. I was able to assert things about our species inter-identification, about “I and we,” and about my own sense that I had changed.
DB: “Species inter-identification” is a tantalizing term. I take this to mean something about a person’s sense of connection with others, all the others. I’d like to come back to this in a minute, in fact. It seems to be related to the transfer of a singular to plural voice in this poem.
I’m also drawn to the end of this poem. The “weight” of those interrogatives at
the end is very powerful. Over and over your poems are intended to provoke a method of
“awakening.” It is a long wait—to enjoy the pun—to arrive at a beginning.
In your essay “Women and Poetry” you ask that very question: “What is it like at the beginning of the world?” Yet the title of your book of essays is Coming After. Do you think of your poems as searching for that beginning, or is the beginning always a belated one, an aftereffect?
AN: 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, even if I wind up taking up the same themes. This is probably one reason that I change form and style so much, out of a desire to find a new beginning, which is always the true beginning. After a couple of people dear to me died in the ‘80s, I read a lot of books by Mircea Eliade that asserted that the response of indigenous peoples to any crisis was to recite their creation stories, to sing the world into being once more, but each time being always the first time. I seem to have incorporated this idea into my own procedures. But I’m always, also, trying to find out what really happened at the beginning. I don’t accept any of the stories I know, though I find some of them quite interesting: I’m looking for my own, true version. And I’m looking for the perfect singing of it, the exact and perfect rendering. Of course a beginning can be a later one too, an in medias res beginning: It’s something like, This is the beginning of my great change, my truest becoming, my deepest understanding of the world. This is what is really going on.
DB: I think you are referring to the death of Ted Berrigan, in 1983. So, in part, the crisis of this loss led you to creation stories?
That really is part of the sense I get in these five poems. They feel to me like a condensed saga, a kind of cultural history told with lyric compression. As a group, they begin with immigration and settlement, then sift through nightmare and war as well as smaller personalizing moments. And they lead, as we just observed, to questions. It’s especially telling to see that the poems also amass from a singular first-person speaker toward a plural one—the “I and we” you mentioned earlier.
AN: This is perversely the result of my living in such intense solitude in Paris. I am quite isolated here, though when I visit the States I am probably too social. Here I am mostly alone, in my apartment, a condition that at first implies an extreme condition of “I” but somehow winds up as a “we.” I cannot be French, but am I really American or anything at all except a member of the human species? Somehow my isolation reaches out toward the largest groupings. Partly because I have to bypass “clubs”—aesthetic groups and so on, people joined by similar opinions and habits.
As to your question about Ted, I think it was more the two later deaths that led me to creation myths and to epic, those of my stepdaughter, Kate Berrigan, and of my brother, Albert Notley Jr. It was particularly his death, bound up as it was with the Vietnam War, which pushed me into the world of The Descent of Alette, that subway full
of despair and the impetus to create from it that I happened upon.
It’s probably appropriate to say here that the “I” of Alette is explicitly a plural for the entire second book. Alette incorporates the personas of all the people in the subway into her own, becoming a blur of corporeal entities, which then leave her at the beginning of the third book. It is only as a one-person “I” that stands for “we” that she can take on the knowledge offered in the caves. I am still, twenty years later, trying to understand our given pronouns and my relation to them.
DB: So what are the difficulties or the vexations of speaking in the plural? What are the opportunities? I guess I’m thinking of the lyric’s tendency toward the “I” as the speaking or singing self. Here, in your selection for the Kenyon Review, the poems assume a collective experience. Is this then the tale of the tribe?
AN: Probably it is. I have, after seventeen years in Paris, come to the conclusion I live here. I am, as I say in one of the poems, an immigrant. That is one of my “we’s.” But, as I also say, there are millions, a billion of us. We are desperate and resourceful. We are cynical and hopeful. I am not willing to die to be here, as many immigrants are, but I can’t imagine going back. Who can ever imagine Going Back, like going back in time? One is too different, changed, ever to do that.
DB: You moved to Paris in 1992. Was this a reaction to American culture and politics? You have said in a past interview that “American politics are obviously upsetting and repellant. It’s more and more outrageous each day.” Are you in any way encouraged by recent developments, or do you continue with your dismay? Are you planning to stay in Paris?
AN: That I live here is mostly by chance—or by secret, magical design on the part of some force—as is everything in my life except maybe my poems. I came here with Doug Oliver, for personal reasons that had nothing to do with politics. Then he died of cancer, in 2000, and two years later, as I was beginning to feel more stable emotionally, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C. It was necessary for me to do a grueling eleven-month treatment. I remain here, where I have health care and an apartment. I have very little income, but maybe that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really seem feasible for me to return to the States.
As for politics, I am not in the least encouraged by recent developments. Between 2001 and 2003 I wrote a book, Alma or The Dead Women (published in 2006), that is motivated by grief for Doug’s death and for all the deaths on 9/11 and in the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan, anticipating further deaths in Iraq. I find, after eight years, that we are still in Afghanistan bombing civilians, as well as bombing in Pakistan. We are, in fact, stepping up our activities, naming this war the “good one” or “right one.” If I had
the same kind of personal, grief-compelled energy as in 2001, I would probably write
another 350-page book, denouncing the Obama administration rather than Bush and Cheney.
I am a pacifist, and I accuse my friends of being superficial pacifists trailing infatuated after a self-infatuated president. I refuse to allow my brother’s own despair and death to be for nothing.
However, I’m now ready for a change of tone of voice here!
DB: OK, let’s turn back to the tactic of these poems, the exchange of “I and we.”
AN: When I wrote these poems, I was reading John Ashbery’s last four or five books. He uses “we” in an interesting way that he acquired from Auden but made different. Auden always seemed to be referring to his group of acquaintances or to his generation, which he was chiding toward and part of. But Ashbery, at least in my conception of Ashbery, can use “we” as if he is too weird to offer up his “I” to anyone as a point of identification. He isn’t like anyone, but on the other hand, he is like everyone. I can go with that usage, or my conception of it. More often Ashbery uses “I” but slides to a social “we”—no cowardly “they’s”!
DB: Ashbery’s a good case, isn’t he? Vernon Shetley writes that Ashbery’s difficulty
grows out of his critique of the habits spawned by New Criticism—that is, his difficulty and his tactic of constant deferral as “a systematic negation” of the institutionalized methods of New Criticism. Ashbery simply refuses to hold still, in his scenes, his narratives, even his “voice.”
But to me, his voice is quite different from yours. He evades where you reveal. Each of these five poems shows that. The voice here, as in “When You Arrived,” may be made of pieces, memories, rediscovered phrases, but the sense of personhood is coherent and powerful.
AN: Well, as I say, I’m alone, and that seems to make my personhood more urgent.
Ashbery’s pronouns are usually fictitious—he did his graduate work on Henry Green and Raymond Roussel, after all. By becoming someone else, he can go to those shimmery, unforeseen places that he wants to get to. I myself first studied at Iowa in the Fiction Workshop and have a strong grounding, too, in making things up.
In “When You Arrived,” as an example, there is no content that is literally “true” or “real” that refers to me, except insofar as I am an immigrant, and some people would contest that and opt for something like “expat.” Though every ten years I must stand in line outside a building for hours and hours in order to have my papers renewed. I am, in this poem, identifying with Africans and Asians and Arabs, all the people I stood in line with in 2002. The Southern Hemisphere especially is in an active state of upheaval, with
people moving upward, escaping brutal governments, global warming scenarios, or pennilessness, as everyone in the southwestern United States knows well.
DB: The notion of voice is complex, isn’t it? Your own essay entitled “Voice” has helped me think through some things. I hear young poets talk about wanting to establish their voice. I know what they mean, I think, though they tend to confuse voice with authority or with—this is even worse—a kind of marketable entity, a trademark.
I tend to think that voice is something we achieve or can identify rather long after the fact.
AN: I never devoted much thought to voice until the late ‘80s and ‘90s, when the voice seemed to become suspect, as if selfish or old-fashioned, rather than the undeniable fact of poetry that I think it is. In fact, voice was the one thing I had identifiably from the beginning of my poethood. I can hear myself practicing for my first poetry reading in 1970, when I had very few poems, and realizing that I had something like “a voice”—without thinking that phrase. It was some sort of sound glue, it was electrical, and I truly possessed it, but not much else at that time.
For me the concept is bound up with poetry readings, reading aloud, listening to recordings of dead poets. Every poet, even those considered poor readers, reads her or his own poems better than actors do, who are invariably horrible readers (though they
don’t think they are.) Voice is bound up with that quality that makes the poet that better
DB: How is a poetic voice connected with the concept of self or personhood? You touched on this a minute ago in discussing the literally “true” content of a poet in relation both to the speaking self of that poem and to the autobiographic self.
This is all a vexation for me, I confess. Some people regard self as a trope only, a fiction that helps us, at least, perpetuate the species. Others see a self as a stable fixed entity, while others see self as entirely diffuse. You talk about voice as an achievement of “unity.” Can you say more?
AN: “Self” is a really clunky, meaningless word now. No one ever bothers to define it for fear of sliding in muck and having to say “soul” or something. I had first thought of it as Yeats does in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” but the newer usages of the word seemed to lump the two together in order snottily to erase both. A friend told me, after I prodded him mercilessly, that what is meant is really soul, but I think he meant with tinges of self.
At some point I decided I liked the use of “self” in the sense of Atman in the Hindu Upanishads—the most basic entity isolatable, stripped-awayable-to in meditation. In one of the Upanishads it’s said that you can envision it as a little thumb. So please now tell everyone that the self is a little thumb! I also like to think of it as poverty, as I
say in my poem “Lady Poverty” in Mysteries of Small Houses. But then I obviously
mean “soul” more than “self.” Self strips away to soul but then is it. The poetic voice knows this even if it’s a hugely socialized voice. I might add that the poet doesn’t always know what her voice or poem knows. The voice is comprised of what is most individual about the poet, the poet’s physiology, temperament, background, plus the poet’s understanding and talent. It’s what we work with, really. For we are talented in the way musicians and painters are, working with specifics that only we, the talented in poetry, know how to manipulate. We have an ear for very fine changes of sound and meaning between letters and words and lines.
DB: You have said all along that you have wanted to write an epic—as you have written—a female epic. And some of your poetry has the sweep and broken grandeur of epic. I’m thinking of The Descent of Alette, for instance, with its accumulating scraps of language-as-citation, or Beginning with a Stain, among others.
Do you see these five poems as a kind of mini-epic? Certainly there’s an impulse toward history-making here, or history-telling, and touches of other aspects of an epic narrative.
AN: These poems are part of a group of forty or more poems called My City. When I selected these five I noticed they did stick together rather epically, and I wondered if I
needed the rest of the poems. However, I seem to be able to group the other poems rather interestingly, too, in fours and fives. What I can’t seem to do is finish the manuscript. I have actually completed a 65-page poem taking off on the two characters in “Hotel Truth Room,” but I can’t quite complete this sequence. I’m almost there, though.
DB: Are you at work on any other poetry that has epic aspirations?
AN: I have a lot of manuscripts lying around, most of which are long narratives. The one I just referred to, involving the filmmaker and the poet, is called Eurynome’s Sandals. The poet is now Eurynome, who in the Pelasgian creation myth danced the world into being; the filmmaker becomes the cosmic serpent, whom I identify with Time. There’s an earlier poem called Negativity’s Kiss, which I have excerpted from in a lot of poetry journals, which is also a straight narrative. Well, not that straight. A rather hybrid work called Songs and Stories of the Ghouls—hybrid between poetry and prose and likewise pretty narrative—will be published by Wesleyan in the future. And yet another narrative work called Culture of One is to be published next by Penguin. The five poems Kenyon has published are different in that they point to narrative and epic but are part of a more “lyric” project. I can’t always tell the difference between narrative and lyric, epic and lyric, I just write the stuff; but I seem to have developed a strong storytelling instinct over the years.
DB: Well, that’s a lot of new work! I’m already looking forward to seeing these.
I can’t often tell the difference between narrative and lyric, either. With epic I expect some centralized sweep of history, a larger-than-one-person concern. I tend to look at lyric and narrative, however, as points on a continuum rather than either/or modes. All poetry ought to have lyric traits, don’t you think? And language itself—even that most basic handoff of subject and predicate—is narrative, tracing the passage of time or event or linguistic exchange.
Your poem “Hotel Truth Room,” for example, gives a wonderful and wild set of associations, the kinds of leaps of imagination I think of as lyric. Yet there is a central story, or a central pattern of narratives connected by this voice and this “room.” Part of the story is, again, that relation between the “private moment” of a lyric voice and the collective imagination or force of others, “Democratic or Republican.” “You are all me,” the “I” here says.
AN: The “You are all me” stanza seems very private and personal, as if the “I” in the poem has changed from being a character in a dialogue to the poet herself. But the two speakers in general are more fictionalized than that “I,” aren’t they? And stand for things beyond themselves, men and women, the subjugation of women to men. But also the subjugation of poetry to film, the relegation of it to a hotel-room-type space. The
filmmaker is there for sex, basically, if “for sex” means something more general than the
And now I’m recalling that one of the themes of The Descent of Alette is the need for the more worthy or moneyed classes—the tyrant and his—to get their art and their thrills in the more squalid places, among the people who are forced by circumstance to confront their emotions constantly—the artists by extension. Women, of course, are denigrated for their supposed emotionality; and I am sometimes charged with being “emotional.”
DB: That turns me back to the other important factor in your phrase the “female epic.” We have talked about epic, but what about the female part of that phrase? Will you say more about the distinguishing features of epic that you want to engender with female aspects?
AN: That was part of what I attempted in The Descent of Alette—I’m not consciously doing the same sort of thing now, though I’ve probably internalized it into my approach to the long poem. That is, I wanted to write a traditional epic and was baffled by the need in the form for masculine action, warriorly confrontation, the seizure of thrones and so on. I didn’t feel interested in creating a female hero with martial arts skills, as in the comics, a babe who can kill. I also have problems with a description of time as story, though I will adhere to it to write certain kinds of works. I had been researching my
dreams a lot, and it seemed that for me action was always stunted. The dream ended
before the culminating, disastrous or triumphant blow, in fact, tended to consist of single episodes that never went on. I later, in Disobedience, theorized time as consisting more of tableaux than of lengthy narrative.
Anyway, I found in the story of the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and her descent into the underworld, a prototype for Alette. Inanna shows up, she observes, she dies, in fact, is reborn, but never fights. She makes certain crucial decisions, the most profound one being the decision to confront death by appearing at the door of the underworld. Alette, on the other hand, does fight, but the fight is magical and not bloody. It was very difficult for me to stage her fight with the tyrant, since I am a pacifist. But he is a construct, a symbol; she isn’t.
DB: You hint at aspects of gender and prosody, too, in a question that comes up in “American Poetic Music at the Moment.” You were talking in that essay about some early influences of yours—O’Hara and Whalen and Denby, for example—when you began to wonder, “How could a girl have a line?”
That’s a delicious, loaded question. It suggests a manner of prosody, for one. Is there a kind of line that is female? It also suggests a line of work, a vocation. And perhaps even a subtle come-on. Care to expand on any of that?
AN: I know that certain people theorize a female way of writing, but I’m not really interested in that train of thought. What baffled me when I was young was the seeming assurance with which men took on a particular poetic line—long or Creeleyesque or Ashberyan or Objectivist—and stuck with it, as if something within them told them what their fated form was, or what the best way to write was. And the lines all seemed to belong to someone else already. As a woman I connected with no particular line, no way of writing.
I remember all the guys who were imitating Ashbery at the time. I kept asking everyone what the hell Ashbery was doing with his conjunctions, but no one ever answered me. Like true poets, they just did it without knowing what it was, by ear.
As I say in the essay, I finally arrived at a scheme for ending my line at the edge of the notebook page—I usually wrote by hand in rather wide, unlined notebooks. This way I threw the question back to its origins: What is a line? What was I doing using the line?
DB: Yes, I know that comment in the essay. As you say, you determined your length of line by the width of your notebook at the time. That reminds me of Dickinson filling each scrap of available paper, even writing down the side of a page, making use of what’s there.
You mentioned earlier that you change form and style a lot. Your lines are
sometimes huge, sometimes very slender, sometimes fragmented. In these five poems, the line is spacious but clearly not prose-like. Sometimes here you use punctuation at line’s end, as the first two lines in “What You Arrived.” And sometimes the line-end itself serves as sufficient punctuation, as in the third, which produces a kind of hastened syntax or even a jump-cut to another voice or scene.
I’m interested in how you perceive of line. As you have written, “Poetry is primarily the line.” Could you say more?
AN: The line is an utterly malleable organizing principle influenced by all sorts of things but symbiotic with the language one speaks. French prosody, for example, is traditionally syllabic because there are no fixed accents in the spoken language. Latin and Greek prosodies are stressed based on vowel quantity, but the Romans were imitating the Greeks rather than their own language necessarily, which had originally provoked a stress-accented verse that nobody seems to know much about. English is stress-accented, but there are a lot of Englishes now; the traditional English lines won’t do for a lot of Americans or modern Brits. So many languages are in flux, much more than they used to be, and it makes sense for poetry’s most basic elements to be unfixed at the moment.
I have recently worked a lot in prose—which entails a very fluid, undercurrented sense of line—but am also doing things with Latin and Greek meters. As everyone knows, you can’t utilize them well in English, but you can do dances around them. I
wouldn’t dream of ever telling anyone exactly what I’m doing; it would sound too dopey,
and I don’t want anyone to know.
DB: Well, I’m completely curious about what you are doing with classical meters. I can’t imagine what it might be, unless you are working in quantitative metrics, something with vowel duration or perhaps pitch. This is all nearly impossible in English, and most of the few examples I can call to mind are pretty awful. But I won’t ask . . . unless you could be coerced into revealing.
AN: A few years ago I tried reading Horace out loud, keeping to the meter as it was presented in the abstract at the front of the Loeb Classics edition. I heard something I’d never heard before, a different possibility for cadence. It was the complexity of the line that was getting to me, something far removed from just going along boppity-bop or walky-walk, the way one often does, in free or unfree verse. The foot is more like one of my quotation-marked phrases in The Descent of Alette or like Williams’s variable foot, but it’s denser. Partly because of the quantitative aspect, but also because of how inflected the Latin is. I’ve been somewhat entranced ever since, but shyly, since I don’t have a real classics education. Coincidentally, I’d just been contacted by my old high school Latin teacher; we corresponded and he sent me some lovely old books about prosody. All of this is what I think about at the moment when I want to have some
official poetry thoughts.
DB: You speak so fully of sound, of the auditory aspects of poetry. Is a poetic line primarily auditory for you, or visual, or a breath-unit, or some other form of measurement and structure?
AN: It is primarily auditory, and even when I’m working in the territory of set meters, it becomes intuitive. However, I’m interested in page layout, too. On that level I’m trying to score for the page, so the reader will know how to say the poem silently. I suppose I’m also trying to make the poem visually attractive; it’s hard not to go there, and I have a lot of visual training from my interactions with painters and from my own collage-making.
DB: I wonder about your vantage of current American poetry as seen from abroad. What are you reading that excites you? Which younger poets seem interesting to you?
AN: I’m afraid I’m mostly reading the ancients right now, plus my usual crime novels and history books. I of course read my sons’ new books and manuscripts and keep track of what their friends are doing. I don’t want to name people for fear of exclusion of someone—I don’t want any of these ones mad at me, they’re still too dear. But young poets come to Paris, look me up and drink coffee with me and pick my brains. I adopt
them on some level, and we keep in touch. It feels like I know hundreds of younger poets
at this point. Though they’re all getting older—but then more and even younger ones show up.
DB: What do you look for when you read new poetry? Are there particular qualities of innovation that you seek or find yourself most receptive to?
AN: Most innovation has as much to do with a change in tone of voice or of subject as it does with a change in style or diction. The appearance of schools like the Beats or New York School required a change of tone, didn’t it? The appearance of so many women poets was a definite changing of the subject. When you change these aspects, you end up changing your style, your approach to the language, if you’re any good. Most of the purely linguistic innovation possible must have been done by now. But I like a new kind of wordplay when it shows up, why not?
I guess I’m attracted a lot by tone of voice and by sheer athletic ability—vocabulary, pace, how line and syntax are being manipulated. I also look for information—what does this person know, in the sense of depth and observation? A quality of knowing can be conveyed in what might seem like very obscure poetry to some. Some writers give sheer sensuous pleasure using words a certain way, and I
respond to that. There’s also an esthetic honesty I like that’s hard to describe, a sense that
this is the only possible poem, formally, the poet could be writing at this moment.
DB: I read a lot of poetry by younger poets, too. I stay on the lookout for innovative poets. I also pay attention to the relationship between current poetry and critical theory. Much of the poetry of the past thirty or forty years, especially Language and post-Language poetry, seems intimately tied to post-structural theory. But you seem to have resisted the theorizing of poetry.
AN: My coming-of-age as a poet predates the Language movement, and I haven’t been influenced by the Language poets or by theory. Language poetry is derived from second-generation New York School poetry, with which I am often associated, fused with European theoretical sources and other sources. They got a lot of their techniques and methods from us. The Language poets and I do not claim each other, but we are friends. I’m just not interested in theory and never have been. And I certainly don’t believe anyone ought to be writing in any particular way at a given time.
DB: I think I ask the question about young poets and theory, since these two forms of practice or discourse are the two biggest expressions of growth in American universities. Young poets are weaned on theory. Does this trouble you or encourage you? How
comfortable should poetry be in the academy? How dependent on theory should poetry
AN: Theory has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry. The only thing that matters is how much talent someone has and how far they’re willing to go with it—the rest of it’s largely bullshit, though it’s possible one needs some bullshit in life. But poetry should feel hugely uncomfortable in the academy. I say this realizing that poets need to make money, and I can’t really advise anyone to live the way I do. I went to Iowa because I was trying to figure out how to be a writer; going there was the best thing I could possibly have done for myself at the time because I finally met other writers. But I didn’t understand that the MFA was a teaching degree—and there were only a couple of programs then. Where was one supposed to teach creative writing? I was shocked that I was expected to teach a class or two at Iowa and refused to, so they gave me some other work to do—they were admirably flexible. But so many people are attached to the programs now, a circumstance that creates an inbred conversation; everyone reflects each other like mirrors.
DB: It’s been a great pleasure to trade these questions and answers with you, Alice. And a great pleasure to feature you and your work in The Kenyon Review.
One last question, for those young poets we were just discussing. What do you
see as the work to be done now in poetry? What opportunities, or directions, do you see?
I guess I’m asking: what next?
AN: It’s all about the planet. Everyone’s going to be trying to save the future. If we revert to stone-age conditions, there will still be poetry going on around the fires, but first we have to go through the motions of saving ourselves. I don’t feel positive about any of this. I wrote a long poem “about” global warming in 1993 called Désamère, and when it was published no one even mentioned that that was what it was about, even though I was explicit, and explicit in the introduction to the book (which also contains the long work Close to me & Closer . . . (The Language of Heaven)).
No one’s really facing up to this reality as the massive danger it is to us, but the poets could. It should be incorporated into the totality of what one says. I’m not talking about being didactic, I’m talking about knowing what’s going on and showing that as part of one’s evident being, one’s work.