Alice Notley has been a prominent member of the American poetry community for many years, with some 22 books of poetry to her name. When she was wife to the poet Ted Berrigan, who passed away in 1983, Notley's cramped railroad apartment in New York's East Village provided sanctuary and salon to the thriving poetry scene and to the growth of her own family (Notley is mother to the poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan). Out of this vibrant New York School, she has evolved work of her own that is visionary and original.
Douglas Oliver has produced some 10 books of poetry, two novels, and a technical treatise on prosody called Poetry and Narrative in Performance. He grew up in Boscombe, a Bournemouth suburb on England's south coast whose clifftop property was formerly owned by the son of Percy Bysshe Shelley. His life has been imbued with poetry ever since, tempered by an early career in journalism.
Notley and Oliver were married in February of 1988 and moved to Paris in 1992, when Oliver was offered his former position as lecturer with London University's British Institute. I contacted Douglas and Alice via e-mail. I wondered first whether to approach them as a pair, a union of literary endeavor, or as two completely separate writers. It became apparent during the interview that although they share similar impulses, they each have a singular voice, as well as their own computer.
JOHN: Alice, in your autobiography, you said something fairly startling, which is, "I hate meaning... I'm interested in being right here, no veils." I find this intriguing because it contradicts Ezra Pound's oft-quoted axiom, "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree."
ALICE: As I state in the sentences which lead up to this quotation, I'm thinking of the kinds of poetry which are more about making meanings than about the pursuit of essence. I don't want to proliferate meanings through the production of novel phrases, the making of novel language. More meaning means nothing, just more words. The only other person who has commented on this passage is a visual artist, visual artists being more interested in how things look than what they stand for, a sort of absolute thing involving colors and textures, right? He loved the passage; he hates meaning. I just want to be right here and know that; it seems to me that "meaning" gets in the way.
JOHN: Douglas, your narrative poem "Penniless Politics" burlesques a profound state of apathy in American politics, "the vast army of non-voters, whose numbers are double those of either the Republicans or Democrats," which prompts me to inquire about Shelley's famous remark, that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
DOUGLAS: Shelley's remark strikes me as one of the more dangerous things for a poet to believe--who would let the average poet decide how governments should run when they have such trouble running poetry conferences without squabbles? But I'm intensely concerned about how poetry should now be seeking a more public space, not in replacement for sophisticated postmodernism, but in addition to it.
JOHN: Speaking of postmodernism, in your autobiography you remarked that "postmodern philosophies do not speak well to me about certain metaphysical aspects of our speculations." Do you think postmodernist writing is so preoccupied with text that it is blind to the energies and visions and experiences outside the text?
DOUGLAS: I spoke of postmodern philosophies in the plural rather than targeting precise doctrines or practices, for I'm just trying to see what's missing. I don't object to poets X or Y being preoccupied with text, providing, as you well put it, they don't outlaw "the energies and visions and experiences outside the text." I am against only one thing really: the attempt to narrow the field of poetry to any one philosophy, especially a faddish one. I don't see how any philosophy can be finally cogent if we fail to understand how the mind and brain are associated on micro-levels. If we can't explain mind (and there are some very reductive scientistic models now being offered us) or know what part space-time plays in mental experience, we can't confidently accept any such postmodern formulae as "the unconscious is structured like a language," "the self as a text," "truth as a competition of discourses," etc. All our experience remains as mysterious as it ever was.