Issue #144 a voice in my brain rolled up on skeins in cells

a voice in my brain rolled up on skeins in cells

Alice Notley in conversation with Daniel Muzyczuk

Douglas Oliver, diagram of stresses in Black Mountain Blues by Bessie Smith, from Douglas Oliver, Poetry and Narrative in Performance (Macmillan Press, 1989).

Issue #144
April 2024

Alice Notley is an American poet and essayist living in Paris whose work primarily consists of long-form epic poems. She seeks ways in which a female author can use this form removed from its ancient source—tales of men fighting against men. There is another important aspect of Notley’s method: she channels the voices of the dead. For her 1995 work Close to Me and Closer … (The Language of Heaven), for example, she wrote down a conversation with her deceased father. Reflecting on this experience, she noted the importance of tone, measure, and rhythm in the utterances she received:

I remember feeling very happy writing it, waking up in the mornings with my dead father’s voice in my head. In order to write his speeches properly I had to have faith that that was his literal voice I heard. I let the voice dictate to me exactly what to write with very little interference from my “rationalizing” self … In life he had a tenor voice and often spoke intensely and opinionatedly, reaching after words and making a lot of stresses, occasionally strange ones.1

Notley’s works usually engage different tools that help the reader in reproducing measure connected with speech patterns. Last year she published Telling the Truth as It Comes Up: Selected Talks & Essays 1991–2018, and one of her longest poems to date, The Speak Angel Series. Both feature many references to music and sound as well as thoughts on their relationship to poetry. I met Notley in Paris to discuss her views on these matters. Our interview concludes with a brief excerpt from her forthcoming book, Being Reflected Upon.



Daniel Muzyczuk: Reading your work has an almost musical sensation. You use methods that allow you to influence the pace and rhythm of reading. In The Descent of Alette, for example, you use quotation marks to introduce measure. They thus become a score or structure that wants to become another structure, to quote Pier Paolo Pasolini. The poem wants the performer to submit to a very specific kind of rhythm. But you also assign another role to quotation marks, writing that they “may remind the reader that each phrase is a thing said by a voice: it is not a thought, or a record of thought, this is a story, told.”2

Alice Notley: I made a measure. That’s a very traditional thing for a poet to do which enables somebody to learn the poem easily and to keep it organized. It’s an organizational principle, and it also gives pleasure.

DM: A section of The Speak Angel Series entitled “Opera” follows that method and additionally introduces a chanting quality through capital letters, which indicate stresses.

AN: It was accidental. I wrote the whole first section, which is very narrative and has a plot. That section was done, and I realized I was still inside the world where the people that had been led by me to this place could remake the cosmos. I wrote a new section and started hearing this music, which in fact was the stresses. They were counter to normal stresses. I put them in capital letters. I started reading them aloud and they hurt my throat. But I kept doing it. I wasn’t reading from it in readings because I didn’t know what to do about the fact that it hurt my throat. And I also didn’t really understand what I was doing. And then one day I was reading them, and I automatically sang it, and it stopped hurting my throat. It made me find a place in my throat to make it work. That is the place that you sing from or chant from.


DM: You had early training for such intoning with the Native American chants you learned in childhood.

AN: My parents each taught me one. They told me the correct melodies and I know that I changed them. Later in life I heard my mother sing the one she’d taught me. She sang it to me before she died, and it sounded completely different from the way I remembered it. They were from Arizona. I grew up in the Southwest in a town where there was a tribe. My father grew up in Prescott where they had an organization of businessmen who would put on Native American dances. In the beginning, these non-Indigenous businessmen had tried to get the tribes to come and do the dances, and the tribes said no. But they offered to teach them the dances. My father was involved in the Hopi Snake Dance, which involves a live snake in your mouth. And he did this for several years. He also did something called the Apache Dog Dance. When my mother was pregnant with me, she danced the Hopi Corn Maidens Dance, and it had a full chant. When I was five, she passed it on to me.

DM: In your latest book of essays, Telling the Truth as It Comes Up: Selected Talks & Essays 1991–2018, there’s a piece about musical influences on poetry. It starts with a statement that in the twentieth century, music and poetry parted ways. Would you like to elaborate on that?

AN: Well, mainstream poetry decided to be prose with line breaks. And it decided to tell little boring stories. The novel became important in the nineteenth century, but there was still a lot of very musical poetry. This form became a kind of prison. American poets couldn’t use the nineteenth century and traditional British structures because they were meant for a different language. The Americans needed a different sound structure.

DM: It’s sufficient to hear Allen Ginsberg, for example, to understand how much of this musical tradition remained in twentieth-century poetry.

AN: He was part of the avant-garde and not the mainstream. Allen took all of his cues from Walt Whitman, so there’s a tradition that goes: Walt Whitman, Allen, and then other people who write long oratorical and singing poetry—a tradition where you use all the tricks that you can find in the poetry of the past. He was also very fond of William Blake. He liked the idea of Sapphics and of certain meters. I learned a lot from him.

DM: There’s another essay in that collection where you claim that it’s wrong to see William Carlos Williams as a prose poet.

AN: Oh, no, he’s not. He did every possible thing you can do. He wrote little poems, he wrote long poems, he wrote poems that were prose and poetry mixed together. He wrote novels, he wrote short stories. He wrote plays. He tried every possible genre. He had a very particular music and he changed it when he got old. There are two parts of his work that have really influenced me, and one part is where he mixes prose and poetry. The other part is in the variable foot. It’s a musical concept.

Alice Notley, Air Code Music, collage (left); Memory (right), both 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

DM: Many of your poems channel words from the dead. There is a strong tradition of dictation from elsewhere, starting with Blake through H.D. and William Butler Yeats to Jack Spicer. How do you see yourself in relation to that tradition?

AN: No, no, it’s not coming from a tradition in that way. The part where it’s dictated is not coming from a tradition. It’s not aesthetic. I never really expected to be dictated to, but it started happening to me when I was twenty-seven. I was living in England, and I woke up one day with this whole poem in my head. It was just there, and I could see the whole thing. I knew what every word of it was. And I spent the day writing it down. I would take care of my son Anselm and I would do things with my husband Ted and our visitors, and then I would go and write some more of it down. And I had it written down by the end of the day. It was six pages long. It’s one of my best poems. It was given to me. I wrote it down and it looked a little bit different from what I first saw. And then when I typed it, it was different again.

DM: That makes me think about one more aspect of your work. What’s the role of memory in relation to this type of dictation?

AN: I was writing poems in the seventies and into the eighties, they were conversational. I trained myself to remember conversations verbatim. Now I don’t have the same kind of memory. I stopped using verbatim conversation because I moved to a country where I didn’t know the language. So, it’s been difficult to keep that part of my practice going. When I’m in contact with whatever dictates to me, it seems to happen while I’m writing. The fact of writing itself makes me sensitive to voices. It’s become a way of contact. It’s like a crystal ball.

DM: Your essay on the influences of music ends with an explanation of the distinction between music and poetry: “But the voice of it is more than the vocal voice: a voice in my brain rolled up on skeins in cells, which can be taken out and read through. I possess the voice/poem in both the rolled-up and extended form. A poem is about knowing something both all at once and in its unrolling in time. A song is more about being in time.”3 I think this resonates with a wonderful book by Douglas Oliver entitled Poetry in Narrative and Performance. He stresses this tension between eternity and instance.

AN: That was his idea of poetic stress. The entire mystery of the universe was contained in the poetics and the fact that you can’t ever find the stress. You can’t locate it exactly because it’s this blank place. I think that when you write a poem, you actually enter a blank space. And when you’re writing, you are actually feeling nothing. What the poetry is about is not taking place. Some blank thing is happening. And then you define it by before and after. There’s some kind of bleeding between before and after your entry into the blank space.

If you take a short poem and you read it, then once you’ve read it, you have it. You always have it and it’s always there inside you. You don’t have to go through the time of it because you have it. You own it even if you can’t remember it. It’s there and you can keep thinking about it and you can keep finding more things in it. But it exists all at once at that point inside you. Whereas I don’t think you could do that with music or with the novel. The minute you’re finished with the poem you’re invited to go back into it.

DM: There might be comparable phenomena in music. For example, in some minimal music or even in more traditional music forms you have an exposition of motive and then the variations that always revolve around it. There’s progress and stillness at the same time—stability and movement.

AN: Music is about is being in the moment. I always have it in my head, and I absorbed a lot of music when I was young. I never have anything to play music with. I still have music in my head, and I know it the same way as I know poems, actually. I’m realizing that as I talk to you.

DM: Both Douglas Oliver and you bring up this fascinating example of “Black Mountain Blues” by Bessie Smith. She repeats the same line in that song but stresses different meanings. This is not something you can do in written poetry.


AN: She was his idol.

DM: Oliver included a diagram of these lines that shows how in music you can create meaning in different places using stress.

AN: In poetry you don’t do it as markedly. You can distort words if you take musical examples and imitate them.

DM: What you just said connects with your notion of instability in poetry. Would the act of inscribing a strong stress limit that basic quality?

AN: In contemporary poetry stress tends to be unstable. I’m never totally sure where it is. I don’t think about it. When I invented the form of Descent of Alette I wasn’t thinking about stress. I was thinking about what The Iliad sounded like. I’d written most of Alette at one point, but I hadn’t written the beginning yet, and then I got a tape of Oh Mercy, the album by Bob Dylan. I listened to the song “The Man in the Long Black Coat” and then I wrote the first two pages of that book. They are influenced by his singing.


DM: The British writer Patrick Langley recently published a novel entitled Variations. It’s about a group of people who have the ability to hear the dead. The protagonist is a composer who uses this gift as a compositional tool. There is one particular moment I think you might like. The character claims that minimal music works through variations because this is how the dead experience time. They’re constantly suspended outside of time, so they relive the same moments.

AN: That’s not how it is. That idea is really rooted in our basic idea of time. It’s almost impossible to conceive of what time is for the dead. It’s a completely other thing. All minimal music is about time, and other kinds of music are perhaps less about time than minimal music. I’m thinking particularly of Anton Weber’s Symphony. Because that’s something I used to know. It’s “Opus 21,” a very short piece around ten minutes long. And you can have it once you’ve heard it. I wrote a paper on it once when I was in college. I went through and traced out all the tone rows. I didn’t know I was a poet yet and I couldn’t understand how people could write music. I got an A minus on the paper because the teacher couldn’t figure out why I was doing it. You’re supposed to come to a conclusion about something or other. Instead, I was just analyzing the structure. I was very pleased to be able to find out where the tone rows were. I can still remember what the beginning of it sounds like. I haven’t listened to it in many, many years.

DM: I also wanted to ask you about a recent development: your visual poems and the drawings you started making.

AN: I did them for three years. I’ve always made drawings and I’ve made collages for a long time. It was something that a lot of the poets in New York did. It gradually became part of my writing practice. I noticed that I would have to do some collages whenever I started a new book—I would have to do some artwork. The artwork would help me think about the work I was writing, and it was a way of engaging with form without having to be articulate about it. In 2019 I got a new mini iPad, and the salespeople were encouraging me to buy an Apple Pencil. And then I just discovered I could do these little things: I could make a little drawing and I could write a little poem or some words. They were great to do during Covid. I’ve never read them. I think I would have to make a different work if they had to be for reading aloud.

Back in 1974 I was in Chicago. I was taking an antidepressant and it made me want to do collages. And it was the only thing I wanted to do. I thought, “But I still have to write poems.” So, I put words on the collages. And then at a certain point I typed up all the words on the collages and made them into a poem. It’s kind of a book-length poem, but it’s not very traditional. It’s never been published.

DM: In one of your recent volumes of poetry, entitled For the Ride, you’re doing drawings with words in a manner that feels close to concrete poetry.

AN: For the Ride goes into this dimension that I hadn’t really seen in physical form. And I was afraid that it would be boring because there was nothing visual to hold on to. Visual aspects have always been very important to me in my poetry. So, I decided to make illustrations. It gives additional narrative flow to the whole poem. In the nineteenth century books had illustrations of the characters.

DM: You have a new book coming out in April, right?

AN: Being Reflected Upon—it’s a memoir of the last seventeen years counting back from when I wrote it, which was in 2017. I had done the treatment for breast cancer in 2016–17. I was trying to figure out if this was important. The book is also about what had happened since 2000, which was the year Doug died. It’s in the first person, and it’s a person talking about things that have happened. It presents a kind of worldview that’s based on vibratory particles. There are a lot of musical references in it, including to a composer named Sofia Gubaidulina, who was working with microtones:

To Remake It w/Microtones

I’m sending youse a big bouquet of Roses
not being this person think of another
am I or am I not
with you in Rockland

will then go to Edinburgh
because I’m reading an Inspector Rebus
there is a tiny coffin the wind sings Marie
I’m wearing it as a talisman
Several times the Russian microtonalist Gubaidulina ex-
plains that she had to look UP
I first met Carl Salomon at the Gotham Book Mart

Or is this 12-tone a dozen the city is
breathtaking but only human
my plan is to stifle my humanity
no one knows what I mean do you Allen
I was not reborn he says your system is
correct and I am here and anywhere

Edinburgh the city of humiliation
what would be good for confessionalist
to say so I could be reviewed in the
New Yorker the city of what’s that word for what I
free association they said I am not hu-
man I freely associate raising and lowering
the tone What are you trying to remember

big black castle paste in on the new collage
“Are these just notes for a poem?” Maria asked of
“A California Girlhood” I could
say I am not eschewment
I am remaking even you with the pieces or
are they the firsts the new ones re-
combinatory of their smallest bits
“Are you of your times or one time?”
I will always be with you

Anything I would remember might be
you even a false one of the Museum of Hearts and
Corpses I’m taking létrozole for breast cancer
so I’m plugged into the culture nevertheless
I say “I” so you can understand me
but only I know what I am
at this microprint in the wind that I am also


Alice Notley, Close to Me and Closer … (The Language of Heaven) and Desamere (O Books, 1995), 5.


The Descent of Alette (Penguin, 1992), 5.


Telling the Truth as It Comes Up: Selected Talks & Essays 1991–2018 (Song Cave, 2023), 131.

Literature, Music
Poetry, Minimalism & Post-Minimalism
Return to Issue #144

Alice Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona in 1945 and grew up in Needles, California in the Mojave Desert. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, and of essays and talks on poetry, and has edited and coedited books by Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver. 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. Notley is also a collagist, cover artist, and maker of hybrid art objects. An art book, Runes and Chords, was published in 2023.

Daniel Muzyczuk is the chief curator at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. He has curated numerous projects, including “Through the Soundproof Curtain: The Polish Radio Experimental Studio” (with Michał Mendyk), ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2019; “Tobias Zielony: Dark Data” (with Kathleen Rahn), Marta Herford, 2022; and “Citizens of the Cosmos: Anton Vidokle with Veronika Hapchenko, Fedir Tetyanych and the Collection of the International Cosmist Institute,” Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2022. Muzyczuk also served as cocurator of a Konrad Smoleński exhibition for the Polish Pavillion at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013 (with Agnieszka Pindera). His upcoming book is entitled Twilight of the Magicians (Spector Books).


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