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.