Nov 13, 2009

Going to Tulsa for Alice

In all my years in New York City attending, drinking in, absorbing public poetry, I have chronically missed hearing one of my favorite writers read -- Alice Notley. There’s always been a logical reason for any “missed” events. One time, Notley was appearing at the Wednesday night Poetry Project, but I was teaching a class in Harlem. Another time, Notley was giving a poetry workshop and reading out in New Jersey. I would have signed up for that workshop and reading, but, alas, it was OUT in New Jersey – as in way “out.” While I don’t have anything against New Jersey I somehow find it to be another planet. I ignored the ad. And yet another time -- this was perhaps a year ago -- I found a notice on Poetics List mentioning that Notley was reading at “Columbia.” I e-mailed a poet-friend who was just back in Manhattan and I invited her to go with me. I had to cancel our date later when I reread the notice and found that Notley was appearing at Columbia College. In Chicago.

I live but 15 or 20 blocks from the East Village, where Notley made her poetry career in the ’hood of St. Marks. OK, I missed that generational scene by a couple of decades, and Notley lives in Paris now, and I’m sure that’s why I have found it hard to bump into her on my New York street.

But I had finally come to think it impossible -- Impossible! (en francais) – to ever hear such lines as these out loud, from the voice of a beloved woman-bard, who could write of the Mysteries of Small Houses and enter my mysteries of small houses, too:

I’ll give you what I know if you’ll
give too
of course I’ll go as far towards
world as supposed to I’m
a good girl
though I won’t lose my darkness what
else do I have ….

-- “1965”

Through I won’t lose my darkness… “ Seemingly throw-away lines, but who else could write them? Who else could imbue such simple-sounding prose-like speech-like syntax with this volcanic feminist fervor that is not rage but emotional sense? Who else could make that all make sense, in the profound knowledge of being “a good girl” in the flesh of “darkness”?

In the back of my brain, I’ve been looking for “Alice” for a long time: not maybe Alice Notley herself, but the "Alice" in my own mind who could play with all these oppositions, and mock conventional imagery in sexual jokes:

Allen comes in and says, this smells of speed that cum on your pants?
No, Elmer’s glue of course

-- “The Year of the Premonitory Dream That Ted and Steve Left Me”

And all those fabulous poetry “fucks” from her great work Disobedience that gave me if not the pen and paper but the female balls to write of my own gender angst. As Notley remarks in a recent interview about this work:

“My conclusion at the end is that to be a woman is to have the world against you, basically, and that you have to be very very wary. It's that you shouldn't go along with anyone or any group—either of men or women—you have to start at the point that is yourself, or you'll wind up being involved in a lot of lies.”

Who could say it better, but Alice?

Mais, oui . . . you can’t go “along with … any group," and thus I must give up “logic” to get it back. There I was -- scanning Poetics List again. And I saw that Alice Notley was to be both reader and keynote speaker at a conference called the Tulsa School of Poetics. Tulsa school of poetics? I cackled. I thought the organizers must have had a great sense of humor. But this was Alice Notley's gig and didn’t that make such great poetic (non)sense for me: to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to hear Alice Notley read poetry when I could never find her in New York?


Although I grew up with parents who ritualistically would pile us all in the car and go and so I coursed most of the 48 contiguous states -- especially Western and Midwestern -- during my childhood, I never made it to Oklahoma in that dingy Ford station wagon or the gold Buick or in the lime-green Mustang my mother would fly off in by herself when she was sick of us kids.

And while I had lived 7 years as a child in the unforgiven land of South Dakota, I polished up my adolescence in a move at 13 to the Arizona desert. I’ve lived in New York more or less for the past 18 years. But I recalled that Notley, while one of the bohemian poetess-leaders of the St. Marks School of Poetics, was herself raised in a little Western desert town called Needles, one of those border towns along the California-Arizona divide known as the Colorado watershed basin. I’ve often wondered if I didn’t viscerally respond to her poetry because she is a Downtown NYC poet from the West. How well I know those lived images of desert rat holes, beautiful and stark under pale purple shadows:

There’s a big moon
Over the Desert Inn Motel
The wall across the alley

I’m now who I’ll be, as I say…

From “House of Self”

Those of us who grow up in the Western wilderness of so many Desert Inn motels living with the men who still wear cowboy boots whether cow-boy or not and with the independent women who decide to be whomever they seem fit to be but do not ever use the word “feminist” – what some New Yorkers might call the “backwater” towns -- might read a poem like “House of Self” and imagine it to be our own fractured, cracked-soiled inner map:

Still empty morning house

Stand in here a minute
The sky’s really plain, as usual….

Tulsa, Oklahoma, like me, perhaps, if not perhaps like Alice Notley, is poised somewhere between the Great Plains flatlands and the expansive Western deserts and nothingness -- sheer nothingness -- itself.

The kid kicking me in the back of my American Airlines seat all the way on the New York to Chicago flight is pulling my hair and screaming and he may be viral. “He’s a happy child,” says the flight attendant, who gives me a gooey chocolate chip cookie instead of kicking the kid in the pants. I am arriving in Tulsa with a big headache.
The sweet scent of ragweed filtering the Plains winds. Somewhere in my South Dakota childhood, I am thinking: I need some poetry.

I need a drink.

I’m in Downtown Tulsa. Or at least that’s what the airport shuttle driver says. But -- Where’s the “downtown”? All I see are empty-looking brick boxes. Is this the site where Alice Notley is going to read, I wonder? As a Desert Rat and Plains Wanderer, I feel strangely at home in this Absence.

I find the cash bar set up for the conference, but stick to Selzer water. The headache from the kicking kid and now these winds is pounding. I introduce myself to the woman who looks like she might be Alice Notley. She is a calm, centered being; she has the lines of life in her face. I tell her I’m her groupie. She doesn’t look amused. Then, she grins and points across the room to the men she calls “my three sons.” (They are Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, and her step-son David Berrigan, the elder of Ted Berrigan’s “boys" and the only one who isn't a poet.) They all grin back. They look proud of “Mom.” She looks serenely in love with them.

The poetry reading is about to start. Alice disappears behind a podium labeled with a fake-gold plaque shouting with the logo: DOUBLETREE INN. I look longingly at the plastic cups of red wine that are emptying fast. Forget the Selzer! Following the example of one of the young Berrigans, I slip a plastic cup under my arm and into the Doubletree Inn conference suite to hear Alice.

One of the pieces she first reads comes with a bombshell title: “The Suicide of Another Year.” Notley introduces her next piece, from a manuscript, entitled, Reason and Other Women. I gasp. Here was that “mysterious” Notley “book” I could never find. Years ago I had fallen in love with a short poem from this series, published in the journal 6ix, “The Icon Am I Burning.” It’s powerful play on “icons” and “mosaics” formed a tangential feed into my own personal vision of what a fractured sense of language and line could do and how it could un-say anything said through such visual-verbal motifs. The lines read like a graphic song:

power be song you or is it i I am used some are never and one becomes painted in
order to be food with a lot of painted paint on the frayed or blurred face i am used i
used to be user . . . .

from “The Icon Am I Burning”

This work fractures not only syntax through parataxis but kind of “crushes” the words and phrasing as if a “mosaic,” turning away from the “reason” of traditional logic and searching for “another” logic, perhaps a “woman” logic -- coming as it does from unheralded cultural "visual-verbal" spaces. At the reading, Notley explained that this “10-year-old manuscript” would soon be seeing the light of publication thanks to the efforts of Charles Alexander (also in this audience), of Chax Press.

Notley concludes the reading with dialogue from her “fiction” manuscript, which she has been writing in Paris but whose “real” characters seem to jump comic-book-like right out of a funky, untidy Arizona bar (surrounded by sprawling condo developments). The persona have names (Alice seems to get a thrill making up names) like “Sue Love.” And they say the funniest things. I wrote down some of the dialogue:

What are you a woman --what’s that?

My horoscope says give everyone air kisses this week.

I want not to have been on the margin pretending to be good.

You dumb blur.

Most of what happens is a lie.

Do I have a future? I think it’s called discontentment.

Observe your thoughts. Are they poetry? No.

Notley, along with her first husband, Ted Berrigan (who died in 1983), and other “Second Generation” New York Poets like Bernadette Mayer and Ann Waldman and Ron Padgett and Dick Gallup have always been asking us to “observe” our “thoughts.” They also have been asking us in that same context: What is poetry? Is it the “poem”? Or is it “thought” posed in some un-categorized form? In the early years of the St. Marks School, I see the continuation of this conceptual mode of poetics centered upon "thought," as well as the multi-media or hybrid poetries that work with both music and the visual arts – brought forward earlier by the “First Generation,” including John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. And it turns out that some of those “Second Generation” poets had infinitely complex, “wandering” kinds of lives – that they were not at all rooted in the East Village, at least not originally.

Some of them came from Tulsa, it turns out. This I learned at the Tulsa School of Poetics in spite of myself. Ted Berrigan was a young man just out of the military and getting a master’s degree on the G.I. bill at the University of Tulsa in the late 1950’s when, long before meeting Alice, he met three Tulsa high-school boys who liked to write strange verse: Gallup, Padgett, and Joe Brainard. Brainard died in the 1990’s, but Gallup and Padgett are alive and kicking and they also were participants at the conference -- like Alice and her sons. At a Berrigan-sons reading, Anselm generously channeled Brainard, reading Brainard’s tour de force piece, “I Remember.” Edmund read us a sampler of his own enigmatic “short poem” series inspired by “one of Ted’s [his father’s] last books," A Certain Slant of Sunlight. These tiny pieces are inscribed in a small notebook from the Met:

Of course I love you baby
If it weren’t for these damn electrons
I’d pass right through you

(Edmund Berrigan)

By the time Notley gave her keynote talk on the relationships between Brainard, Gallup, husband Ted, and Padgett, my headache has blossomed into a full-fledged flu. I show up late and avoid the lunch party. When I finally poke into the room, I find a conference audience sitting over half-empty red-jello-like dessert bowels sitting in stunned silence. Based in now-archival letters between the men, and in Berrigan’s poetry (she and her sons are the co-editors of Ted Berrigan’s collected works), Alice is reading a fragmented, seductive essay, in this hushed atmosphere -- which at one moment elicits tears from Notley herself. It was those lines from Berrigan’s poetry that she found “so beautiful” and then she apologizes for that moment of emotion – as if we are no longer “allowed” to respond publicly to poetry's beauty and personal memory, in such a blindly authentic way.

Kicking kids and stale hotel air, Great Plains ragweed and a headache that turns by the middle of this glorious weekend into a terrible flu, I am nevertheless not sorry I went to see and hear Alice. Although I am now in bed with pneumonia. I went to Tulsa for Alice. Not even aching lungs can make for regrets. -- LH

PHOTO of Alice Notley and Edmund Berrigan by Laura Hinton

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