Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week writer and editor Alina Stefanescu has joined us to discuss the poetry of Alice Notley, the complicated nature of being human, and questions evoked by the poetry we consume. We hope you enjoy as much as we did, and, as always, thank you for tuning in.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: I’m absolutely in love with Alice Notley’s work! What was your first experience with her writing?
Alina Stefanescu: I can’t recall my first experience with Alice Notley but I can say that she slam-dunked me this year, after reading Cedar Sigo’s Guard the Mysteries (Wave Books), a stunning book, a constellation of a book, built around tributes to his literary influences, including Joanne Kryger. It struck me that Sigo selected Alice Notley’s poem, “The Fortune-Teller,” as his favorite tribute to Kryger. Notley is often invoked as a New York school poet, but what Notley does in this elegiac poem for her friend is to evade those markings. Notley ends the poem by placing Kryger in the school of “b. 1934,” a birth-year which Sigo suspects was “the only marker Joanne could trust.”
The school of being born in 1934: the school of that year rather than the school of the movement of the moment. This radical re-visioning, this way in which Notley saw her friend apart from the crowds, and insisted on locating her within her own instance–it made me ravenous, it opened a room in my mind – the Room with Notley- a room without which I can’t imagine this pandemic. I felt as if Notley had given a template for how she wants to be remembered, which is something we often do when memorializing others, as Joseph Brodsky wrote in an essay whose title I can’t remember. How do I want to be remembered, and how do our poems hide these palimpsests? One encounters the urge to reckon with that…
AH: Alice Notley was writing in the 1960s, which adds such a deeper layer of interest to her writing—her work is provocative, the antithesis of what was expected of women at the time. For you, as a poet and writer active decades later, do you find yourself channeling similar kinds of energy when approaching particular topics?
AS: What does independence signify in an ecology of fellow humans? I think Alice Notley asks this. What’s the distance between reverence and worship?: another question Notley brings close. Any statue becomes a hot-spot for nostalgia. The hero’s looking back illuminates a reactionary golden age, a time when heroism was possible. I see that with Confederate statue demons in Birmingham, Alabama, where I live. What is my personal relationship to, and with, that? How am I implicated in these memorials? No lies, no obfuscations: just write.
Who am I in your mouth, and why does your mouth matter? What are you allowed to make me? These are questions that don’t disappear.
During this pandemic, I’ve struggled, like many, to balance the accelerated performance of motherhood with the discipline of writing life, and the social guilt that comes with expressing this. The appalled caesura on people’s faces if one dares to say: yes, it is hell to have to choose between my life and theirs, it is sick to live in a culture where motherhood is put on a pedestal so high that we are set in stone, afraid to say, “I have never wanted to be a monument to self-sacrifice.” That’s not how I want my kids to remember me. The mom who gives up her life for her kids is a terrible legacy, a perpetual guilt-machine for the kids we leave behind. Notley’s tangles and cord-bloods and shattering syntax encourage me to write despite the impossibilities, to write and to write and maybe to spite the grotesqueness of capitalist realism.
We’re all a little broken, despite the cultural impetus to selfie ourselves otherwise. “Poetry comes out of all the places where you break,” Notley has said, and it’s okay to study those spaces, to devise new forms to hold the fragments, to see oneself whole in the busted shards of a mirror. Our souls aren’t binaries, we don’t live in positive vs. negativity boxes (though sometimes we hide in them because the pressure to perform reductive emotional binaries is continuous). Look, there’s a billion-dollar industry devoted to making us happy, or making us look happy, or teaching us how to say happy so hard that it hurts. It’s okay to be dense, layered, complicated, atonal, atypical, banal, ungrateful and blessed in the same breath. It’s okay to write raw bones, to invoke the moon, to make love and weep in the hot ashes of the wreck.
AH: Why did you choose these two poems specifically? What drew you to them?
AS: “As Good As Anything” is a sort of soothesay, a balm over the mind worn raw by contests, by competition, by delusions of scarcity as they play out in publishing, by not wanting to give a damn and yet, measuring myself in precisely in those millimeters of hot damnation, only to convene in my complicities, which is a long way of saying that Notley reminds me, at the end: it is the poem that is rock-like. It is the poem that deserves my attention, my tenderness, my loyalty, all my damns laid at the foot of that rock.
As for “A Baby Is Born Out of An Owl’s Forehead,” I give Cedar Sigo all the credit for the gift of this poem in my life. While researching Sigo’s work for a review essay, I found his “Daydream of Darkness” , a piece which reconfigures the essay form as an image, a visual illustration, the doodle of bats, spiders, polar bears and flowers, a daydream enacted or seeking form. “I do not want to walk right into the making,” Sigo writes, “I want to wander around in the underworld if it has, in fact, been left open.” And then he mentions this poem by Alice Notley, who said the form of her poem, “A baby is born out of an owl’s forehead,” came from the effort to reinhabit her 1972 postpartum- depression body. Words and images not only evoke the world, but also, to quote Sigo, “provoke our agency to deal in past and future time.” To quote Notley, in this line that still takes my break away:
Of his birth and my painful un-birth
I choose both.
To know what I know of the world after the body is broken by this American capitalist enterprise known as “m/otherhood”, where pain is privatized and exhaustion is stigmatized and the pedestal keeps changing the model of performance, I choose both. And I choose to write about both. And I choose the discomfort it brings to the table where we might prefer not to discuss these worn, trodden, ever-gory things.
AH: What have you been up to lately? Do you have any exciting news you’d like to share (life, writing, anything!)?
AS: Thank you for asking this, even though I’m never sure how to answer it: whether to plug the forthcoming book or mention the fascinating thing that holds my mind at the moment, which is to say, the thing I am writing, the thing I can’t stop imagining and seeking in patches of time between events. Sometimes I talk about these things on twitter. Sometimes I blog about them. Mostly I marvel at the editors, publishers, readers, peers, and collaborators who have let me be part of this world, and whose generosity blows my mind.
Alice Notley is an American poet often associated with the New York School. Born in California but New York-bound as a student at Barnard, she then received her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in fiction. She is known for her use of hybridity and bending genres to evoke how breaking the traditional rules is a reflection of the inner and cultural self. The author of over forty poetry collections, her work has received global attention.
Find her work in Poetry.
Read her poem “Woman in Front of Poster of Herself.”
Discover her voice a recent interview.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020). Her poetry collection, dor, won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize and is forthcoming in July 2021. Alina’s writing can be found (or is forthcoming) in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Poetry Reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter.
Find Alina online at her website.
Preorder dor here.
Read Alina’s poem “Poem for the Black Bird” at Poetry.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Barren Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com