Alette in Oakland: A Symposium on the Work of Alice Notley
The Bay Area Public School
Omni Commons, 4799 Shattuck Avenue, Oakland, CA
October 24-26, 2014
Most of the Omni Commons building in Oakland is a big auditorium painted black, with skylights and chandeliers and a stage. I try all weekend to think what it reminds me of. I learn that it used to be an Italian social club, a rock club, and a private home. To me it feels like a barn or a gymnasium or a church. I’m here for Alette in Oakland, the first conference devoted to the work of Alice Notley (organized by Brandon Brown, David Brazil, Frances Richard, Alana Siegel and Laura Woltag) who instantly became one of my favorite poets when I read Waltzing Matilda (1981) in David Trinidad’s New York School Poetry class at Columbia College Chicago in 2006. I loved Notley’s early work for its vernacular wit and quotidian detail, and soon loved her later work—The Descent of Alette (1992) is often thought of as the dividing line—for its fierce feminist dissidence. That one poet could be capable of all these modes in a lifetime, could dig so deep into the everyday and then later so far toward the elsewhere, manifesting new cityscapes and desertscapes and other realms, still strikes me as astonishing.
In Oakland, there’s a kind of reverence in the air all weekend, not only for Notley and her poetry, but also for the agreement to sit in a big room as if in one of the feminist alternative worlds that Notley has conjured in her books for the last couple of decades. When phrases like “a poem could be considered an idea-city” (Marcella Durand) fill the air continuously, you can trick yourself into thinking you live in that city. The title of the symposium is perfect, then. “Alette in Oakland.” It’s as if we’re agreeing to treat Oakland as the setting of Notley’s feminist epic The Descent of Alette. With its black walls and ceiling, maybe the Omni is a cave, like the ones in Alette but larger, where we can all gather…
This roundup gives some sense of the topics discussed at the symposium panels. (There’s also word of a plan for a published volume of all of the papers.) I’ll leave out notes on Notley’s reading on Friday night (it was powerful, the room was packed like a rock club, and it ended with a standing ovation), Eileen Myles’s keynote (because there’s video of the whole thing), and the performance of Notley’s play Anne’s White Glove, directed by Alana Siegel, on Saturday night (because I missed it like a fool).
Disclaimer: Many of the quotations below were scribbled very quickly and likely contain inaccuracies. If any presenters want to send me corrected versions, please feel free.
I miss the first speaker, Sara Larsen, but walk in while Norman Fischer talks about “the brutal stupidity of everyday life which is pretty much entirely the creation of males,” and think about how I’ll have to use that in the Notley chapter of my dissertation, which is about women poets and everyday life. Next, Laura Moriarty links up Notley’s Songs and Stories of the Ghouls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pointing to Notley lines that sound like they could be from Buffy, and drawing parallels between the deaths and rebirths of Buffy on TV and Dido in Songs. Maggie Nelson talks about rereading Alette, how it still feels like it was written yesterday and has “a beating heart,” but the yellowed pages of her copy remind her that it was written 22 years ago. She quotes Fred Moten on “refusing the academy of misery” and describes the feeling she gets from Notley’s tone: “humor, kaleidoscopic knowledge, agency, joy.”
Allison Cobb circulates little circular mirrors, an inch or so wide, with an image of Notley’s face glued to the back. She asks us to hold the mirrors close to our eyes and get a reflection of the ceiling, as if we’re walking on it.
Cobb talks about Desamere, how Notley was writing a book about global warming and disaster before the concept was widely known, before ecopoetics and “before the word ‘Anthropocene’ was on people’s lips.” Lauren Levin and Laura Woltag discuss crystals and gemstones in several of Notley’s books. (We are burrowing into the earth in this panel.) “Since the human has long been ruined by patriarchy, the nonhuman holds potential for women.” Through Notley, they imagine other modes of being: geosemantic cosmologies, intercrystalline spaces. (I take my mirror and look up again at the skylights.) Brenda Iijima and Marcella Durand are projected on a huge screen, via Vimeo and Google Hangout, respectively. Iijima does animal studies, talks about Alma the owl “as living dying energy entering nonhuman animal and animal alike,” while video clips of trees and roosters and extinct species and factory farms are superimposed onto her face.
Durand is with us live, face covered with googly eyes, and tells Alice she was just with her granddaughter in New York making pumpkin muffins. Notley tries to respond, but the sound won’t carry, then laughs about the conversation turning “domestic.” Duran talks about her anthology, The Invisible City, which Notley was included in, and how Notley’s poems remind us that a city can be built on a page with poetry. She discusses the “ecological crisis we all find ourselves in,” and this is already a repeated idea, that Notley brings us to the soul of the disaster and surveys the scene.
It strikes me that Notley is playing a very old poet’s role, a sort of living spirit guide, ethical guide, refocusing the community, reminding everyone what matters. The feeling of ritual and near-worship in the Omni must be related to that. Where are our guides? The poet might still be our guide.
After Panel 2, from her aisle seat in the second-to-last row where she sat looking cosmically bemused all weekend, Notley explains that the geometric shapes are called phosphenes and that they’re visible by looking at the insides of your eyelids. Drugs might get you there faster, but “it’s under the eyelids, and you can get it if you want to.” Notley talks about the geometric shapes she saw growing up, carved in rocks around Needles, CA. This talk of shapes leads to her thoughts on platonic forms: “I’m not sure where Plato got the forms and I’m not sure what they are, but I believe in them.”
Then: “We’re all in the crystal city right now … and the dead are here too.” Oh, so that’s where we are, I think, glancing up at the skylights and chandeliers and thinking of how I had been passing seemingly dozens of Day of the Dead shops—boutiques and new age stores and botanicas—since arriving in the Bay.
Regarding mirrors, Notley remarks: “You can’t see yourself … therefore what do you see? It’s like an agreement that at a certain location, you will appear … but you’re not that; you’re never that.”
Kaplan Harris talks about Notley’s editing of the magazines Chicago and Scarlet and Gare du Nord, quotes her saying mothering and poetry are unpaid labor, and describes how she worked a double shift of unpaid labor in the 70s. (I love this idea of the “double shift” and want to borrow it for my dissertation, but I’m also thinking that it’s more like the friends of mine in nonprofit jobs, or any job since 2008, who are expected to do the work of two or three people after layoffs and cutbacks. Simultaneous jobs, superimposed shifts. Except mothers and poetry community-mothers have been doing it for much longer.) Harris tells us that one of the magazines—I forget which, maybe Scarlet?—had a section called “dream gossip” that published poets’ dreams.
Steve Dickison talks about the Poetry Center Digital Archive at San Francisco State, and how they just digitized Notley’s readings going back to 1976, the first batch of what they hope will be a more extensive online video library. He describes each of the videos, which you can watch here.
Jeanine Webb talks about looking through Notley’s dream notebooks at the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD, where Webb is a grad student. She’s interested in “survival, dreaming, being in the world and time” and the ways the dreams interact with Notley’s daily life, and offers this great quote from a journal Notley kept in Paris: “Nothing French happened yesterday.”
Jennifer Karmin enlists Cassandra Gillig, who is standing in for both Bernadette Mayer and Anne Boyer at the symposium, for “The Alice and Bernadette Show,” a talk poem based on an early collaboration between Notley and Mayer and reconceptualized by Karmin and Mayer. They go through a series of concepts (e.g., “Concept 4: words and words and words”; the concepts, Karmin tells me later, were the ideas for the piece that she and Mayer had tossed around) and perform a sound poem in stereo. The piece is the process: Mayer’s stamp is on it. At the end, Jen and Cass do this:
During the Q&A for Panel 3, we learn that Notley’s 1973 book Incidentals in the Day World was written in hidden Spenserian stanzas, which is crazy. Then Kaplan wants to know about a magazine he couldn’t find much information on, Caveman, which Notley explains was a satire of The Poetry Project Newsletter that she, Ted Berrigan, Eileen Myles, Bob Rosenthal, and others worked on together. They published bad reviews of poets’ books and attributed them to other poets. At first Notley says, “It’s terrible. We said terrible things, really really mean.” Then, after talking about Caveman with impish glee for a couple minutes, she changes her tune: “It was good.”
The next panel is the one I’m on, and I go first, talking about Notley’s feminist tones as I read through her talk Doctor Williams’ Heiresses, the early poem “Three Strolls,” and the later essay “Voice.” I end by asking my co-panelists, Trisha Low, Cassandra Gillig, and Cathy Wagner to each read poems of theirs that I picked out in advance because I found them tonally fascinating in a Notleyesque way. You can see my handout, which includes the poems, here.
Trisha reads a talk called “Notes on Closet Fantasy” which ranges from personal anecdote to a discussion of a poster of a woman overlooking Lake Shore Drive to a reading of Alette’s epic journey as closet fantasy to a brief history of the use of quotation marks. “Alice Notley taught me disobedience on all fronts.”
Cassandra gets up, plugs her phone into some cords, grabs a microphone, and belts out a soaring rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” dedicated to her favorite poet, Alice Notley. I had the best seat in the house, but sadly my phone ran out of storage after only a few seconds of videoing her. You get the idea:
It was silly at first, but then suddenly it was gorgeous and sad. The most moving part was when the audience starting singing the “Ah-ah-ah-ah” parts of the song. I couldn’t see Notley’s face clearly, but I’d swear she had wet eyes by the end. Maybe she was crying from laughing?
Next, Cathy reads a paper that she is announces is “totally normal” called “A House We Made Together That’s Fragile and Strong” that discusses how Notley’s poems “leave the American dream behind by exploring imaginary architectures.” It’s that sense of the otherworldly Omni Crystal City again, that we’re all agreeing on the reality that is Alette in Oakland.
I won’t give a recap of Eileen Myles’s loving, brilliant, and funny keynote address, because you can watch it here:
And I can’t offer a play-by-play of the production of Anne’s White Glove because I was ghastly tired and ended up missing it. I heard over and over that it was fantastic.
Last Thoughts on Feminist Poet Guardians & Guides
I don’t know where this belongs in my recap because it was happening all the time: Throughout the weekend, seeing Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young standing together, looking out on the crowd, talking in low tones at the back of the auditorium, then over at the side, then on the other side, made me feel like they were the guardians of the Crystal City, benevolently plotting to make sure everything was running according to plan. This even though they had no official roles at the symposium. But they were always surveying, greeting, energy-supplying, with something that inexplicably felt like guardianship. Is this what anti-surveillance looks like?
I missed the final panel on Sunday morning, and arrived for the second half of the town hall. I’ll end by simply transcribing some quotes of Notley’s from the town hall, which seem to me to be the poet-guide urging, Go forth and make your own shapes and architectures and cities and visions:
It’s based on distortion. The kind of distortion musicians rely on all the time.
Nothing stands for anything. I mean that’s my philosophy.
I see the symbol of you, you see the symbol of me … that’s about as far as I’ll go.
I don’t like to think of language as marks on a page. I think of language as part of the body, as part of everything I am.
I have a vision of the entire universe changing. I’m writing for mountains, I’m writing for stars.
We’re all the same size. Our souls are all the same size.
I have the end of the world, but then it always goes on. Apocalypse is dream vision.
I’m not interested in utopia. There’s what we are, a unity of souls, and it’s already here. We don’t need to project it into the future.
I hate italics, actually. Italics are ethereal rather than stressing.
The physical memory of how I’m relating to form.
A lot of poets are plasticians.
I don’t believe time is linear. Time is circular. It’s all around your body all the time.