Carol Watts and Edmund Hardy

The idea for this constellation of responses to the work of Alice Notley came from an event held at Birkbeck Poetics Centre in May 2008. The original thought had been that while her work is circulating and celebrated in the US there had been few opportunities to hear her recently in Britain. The importance of hearing Alice – the central encounter with voice in her writing – meant that we had to find a form of event that might do justice to it. Not long academic papers, as is often the model, but something more interstitial and open. She agreed to be present and to read throughout the day, so I decided her voice and its relation to a community of friends (known and unknown, present and absent) would shape what we did, the ‘work’ of discussion on the day. Each of the original group of participants spoke for no more than ten minutes, taking one poem or section of poetry as their starting point, and freely moving from her work to their and her practice, from personal negotiations of what they found there, to debates about what was at stake in such a writing. From 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening she talked, read, exchanged. That work, and footage of her reading, is the kernel of this unravelling constellation, which has spread as it should in capillary form through a wider community of connections to the US, New Zealand, Switzerland, France. To explore and celebrate her writing.

Alice has said she always has a sense of audience when she writes, that her voice negotiates an audience whom she could imagine present as they might be in St Mark’s Poetry Project in New York. In a collection like Margaret & Dusty you can hear them all talking back, identifiable and immediate friends, lovers, children, merging with the more general being-there of people who ‘harass their mothers’ or ‘can surprise & whomp out a good’. It sometimes takes on the feel of a wry Whitman-like inclusiveness. ‘But what we are,/we’re all friends, sometime/ lovers, relatives, enemies./ We’re bigger than the/ cosmos, bigger than/ religion. That’s no/ help either.’ As many of these responses explore, her work is throughout marked by a play and indeterminacy of address, of self-positioning, which can often be exhilarated, full of pain, unremittingly open to its self-scrutiny, and which channels the social and political intensities of what life and language are even as it is at its most intimate and conversational.

Beyond the dynamics of her writing – which this constellation opens up in ways that should speak for themselves – there are two further thoughts which Alice’s continuous performance and the event generated for me. One is about the acoustic terrain of a reading, what takes place in a room – the duration of that experience for both poet and audience. Not just the encounter with the poem and its sounding, its calling out – an encounter which moves in and out of moments of recognition for both, in an affective experience which can also feel unworked and therefore involve shock, wonder, suffering, laughter, anger, fear. But also the space a reading opens up, even as you listen, a space for thought: aleatory, daydreaming, a time for the hearing of other voices including the thresholds for your own writing, personal material, kinds of permission. Moving in and out of proximity to the voice. Working alongside Alice on that day meant that some of this process was freed into discussion, and the pitch of the pieces included here, from those present and absent, reflects that – including poems written ‘for’ and alongside Alice’s work, and more personal modes of engagement, reflections on practice, integrated with critical investigation.

The second thought concerns what it might be to constitute a ‘community of friends’, in and beyond the room where poetry is performed and written. Increasingly the nature of poetic exchange online, in blogs, rapid uploadings, lists and interventions, produces kinds of intimate connection, the recognition of the presence of voices and diverse forms of poetic labour, which feel like a rhizomatic community even when none of us may meet. And in turn these connections produce events like the one in May, which has had an extended life in the ongoing connection between Birkbeck Poetics Centre, “Intercapillary Space” and Openned, and beyond. It’s a creative extension of community which has amazing generative promise, is transforming practice, but which knows at root the extraordinary value of a presence like Alice’s. An open community of friends not in any cosy or exclusive sense, but one which has its wide flows and affinities, and also, in Blake’s sense, sometimes, in its contesting, a political force: ‘Thy Friendship oft has made my heart to ake/ Do be my Enemy for Friendships Sake’. So that is where I begin to hear her voice, where I want to encounter her work, among other spaces, as well as in the room on that day in May.

Carol Watts

The invitation was to address one particular Notley poem, at the colloquium and for this extended gathering also. Contributors were free to choose the poem and the form their response or reading would take – essay or poem, note or review. The result is not a chronological trip through Notley’s work so much as a map of current preoccupations, books in the pocket, poems in the head. As such the pieces fell (more or less) into their own arrangement.

Beginning with the place where you slept last night, In the Pines, this book of curative and death-eyed lyric, already given the title of a dream-like, contested nocturnal space, proves here a work equally contested as arguments and poems cut back across each other. Lisa Samuels then invokes the poet of voices in Margaret and Dusty, writing of a permission to write first found, leading us back to a series of reflections on earlier Notley books, several contributors discussing both the carrying of voice and of body through and into text. An epigrammatic, two line poem by Elizabeth Treadwell, which I read as a kind of talisman, points onwards to the book of “I”, the Mysteries of Small Houses: creating a self, finding that self as poverty, the pieces here responding to poems from across the autobiographical arc of the book. The Descent of Alette then forms something of a centre-piece, from fragments to an epic whole, a poem of political thought, fabled structures, psyche transmuted, continuous narrative. Different contributors seem to face the question: What does this poem propose about the world?

The politics of Disobedience and then of Alma, or the Dead Women run through to the extended noir investigation of power and falsity in Notley’s new work, Negativity’s Kiss, while alongside these engagements are pieces on two booklet-length works, From the Beginning and the Paris poems of Above the Leaders. Notley once wrote in an essay, ‘The Poetics of Disobedience’, “I think I conceive of myself as disobeying my readership a lot.” In this collection, the various disobeyed bring individual encounters to light:– writing and experiencing very differently, while puzzling over lines and permissions, words and their shadows, and that key Notley imperative to find the world.

Edmund Hardy


Both curators would like to thank Steve Willey for filming on the day and to Steve and Alex Davies for the video constellation, Stephen Mooney for taping the talks and working on the Poetics Centre website, and Jon Clay for the initial conversation which sparked the thought. Thanks too to Susana Gardner, Lynne Hjelmgaard and John Hall for their help in bringing together the extended constellation. To all the participants for their rich contributions and willingness to be constellated. And to Alice Notley herself, for her generosity, and stamina.

Constellation: Alice Notley
[#] Birkbeck Centre for Poetics
[#] Openned Video Constellation of Readings
[#] Return to “Intercapillary Space” Notley Contents page

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