Inside Culture of One: A Conversation with Alice Notley and Michelle Naka Pierce
Interview by Michelle Naka Pierce
PIERCE: I wanted to talk to you about Culture of One (Penguin, 2011). In the book, you write: “I have traveled very far and spoken in many idioms.” And I wonder if you might speak to how living in France for the last twenty years and speaking French has influenced your writing of poems in English. How does living in another language affect the texture of your words, syntax, and your writing?
NOTLEY: That’s very mysterious to me actually because it takes a lot of time for you to realize that it has happened, and my French is not terribly good, but on the other hand, I can do everything that I need to there. I’ve written a little about it though because it turns out that you don’t need to speak any language very well in order to communicate with people, you just put a lot of words into the air. When I first went to France, I’d just put as many words as possible into the air, and then everything would happen. So I wrote a very long-winded book called Reason and Other Women, and I think it’s really influenced by French because there were a lot of reasons for me to write it, but partly I was just putting as many words out there and seeing if I could convey whatever meaning it was that I wanted. Or some part of me wanted because I wasn’t sure what I meant.
I had one year of French at college. And then very mysteriously in about 1978, I dreamed in French all night. I was speaking French. It was a premonitory dream. I woke up and said to Ted, “I spoke French all night, and I don’t know French.” It was a very strange dream.
PIERCE: And so, do you feel like sometimes only a French word will do in your poems written in English?
NOTLEY: Yes, I just did that actually. What was the word? It was the only one that would work. And so I put it in a poem. I can’t remember what it was now. It might come to me in about ten minutes…
Oh it was cernes! It’s the French word for the circles under your eyes, but it’s a very tight little word. Rather than saying circles under your eyes, you say you have cernes. I was born with cernes. I’ve always had them since I was a little girl. These [points to her eyes].
PIERCE: Yes, I have them too. I’m curious about this because I didn’t grow up speaking Japanese, but I studied it in college and then lived in Japan for a while, so I too have had the dream where I spoke only Japanese. Sometimes when I’m writing, it seems like there’s a word in Japanese that seems to be the right word, even though I know very little Japanese.
NOTLEY: I get it too with Spanish because I grew up fairly close to the border, to the Mexican border, and everybody speaks pigeon Spanish. My mother does it all the time. So, sometimes the only word that will do is a Spanish word. She swears in Spanish. She thinks it’s OK. She says the most awful, awful things.
PIERCE: Well it’s not in English so…
NOTLEY: No. It sounds very pretty.
PIERCE: As I was reading Culture of One, I was struck by the tension surrounding these two phrases in the book: “culture of one” and “monoculture.” Monoculture could point to one culture, but for me, it also points to an individualized cultural experience. How one navigates one or more cultures creates a distinct perspective, if you will. This distinct experience becomes a culture of one. Could you discuss the layered meanings in these phrases and perhaps what you were thinking as you wrote the text, as it might relate these ideas and the main character Marie?
NOTLEY: I think it’s a word I use in a poem that has to do with gambling at the casinos. That’s a monoculture. I don’t know how else to explain it. The culture of one is what Marie is. I’m a culture of one, and at the end of the book, I make a speech saying I am a culture, I am a culture, I maintain a culture. I think a lot of poets maintain a culture of one.
PIERCE: Does that mean alone then, for you—the notion of culture of one?
NOTLEY: Well, the way I live in France I’m a culture of one, and I have to be. I’m quite isolated. I know poets right now tend to think of themselves as being members of groups, but I’ve only been tangentially that. I’ve never really thought of myself as a member of a group. I’ve learned from groups, but I haven’t been a member. My culture is myself. It’s something I picked up from growing up in the desert. There were all these weird people that really were cultures of one. The Mojave is full of eccentric people, and I’m one of them.
PIERCE: I liked the notion of monoculture because it made me think of something larger, like Japan is a monoculture. But the culture of one for me created a kind of layering to the meaning. That one could live in Japan or France or anywhere and have similar experiences as those around, but just by the very fact that one sees things differently, one might take a path differently. Within this monoculture, one has a singular experience. It felt very isolated.
NOTLEY: That’s what it’s like to live there [France]. I’m not a member of that culture, but I’m not really a member of this culture anymore because I’ve lived away from it for too long [US]. So, I am a culture of one. I’m not inside anything in that way. But you know, I’m essentially American, but on the other hand, I’m not part of the United States the way it is now. It changed so much after I left, and I registered the change after I left faster than other people did who lived here. It was so clear to me. That the whole, what is that word? That the whole multi-nationalism in the 90s after I left was so overpowering. It was very big in France too. You could only buy a few kinds of things. That happened very quickly. You’d go to the store or out to buy clothes, and there would be only five or six brands, five or six stores, giant stores. It’s horrifying. All small business was erased. That’s one of the themes of Culture of One. Leroy is representative of small business. He’s been erased by Walmart. This is the case in Needles [California]. Actually, the whole culture of the town was erased by Walmart and the casinos.
PIERCE: How interesting. Do you feel that when you come back you have culture shock?
NOTLEY: Sometimes. Not always. I always feel comfortable when I go back to France. It’s more comfortable, but when I come here it’s me, in some way that it isn’t there. But France kind of takes me in its arms. United States doesn’t have any arms.
PIERCE: In the book, you write: “this codex is about identity.” Marie seems to become a kind of bricolage of the diverse objects, emotions, people, ideas in her surroundings in the dump. She becomes “too large for [her] identity, larger than the room [she] sleep[s] and awaken[s] in.” Part of her appeal is that her identity is not fixed; there’s movement in her sense of self.
NOTLEY: That’s really me speaking. I had that experience. I woke up one morning and was too large for my room. And I also didn’t know where I was.
PIERCE: What does that mean, to be too large for your room?
NOTLEY: I don’t know how to explain it. I was too large for my room. I was larger than everything I was looking at. You know, I had expanded so widely and my apartment’s really tiny, and I just didn’t fit in it anymore, and I wrote that into the book. But, Marie is very large.
PIERCE: She has a kind of multiplicity about her. She doesn’t have singleness about her, and I was wondering if you could talk about that.
NOTLEY: Well, I keep trying to make her have it, but she keeps being me. I keep saying things for her, but then I say, she wouldn’t talk like that. She’s based on a real person. She’s based on a person from Needles who lived out of the dump, had a lot of dogs, would go into town and get water for the dogs, and talk to this guy named Leroy. He was a pathological liar. And after she left, he would tell a lot of lies about her. And I totally invented their affair. And I keep hoping that no one from Needles ever reads the book because then I’m saying he had an affair with a bag lady essentially. But she’s always been one of my heroes because she managed to live that way. But I don’t know anything about her. I never found out anything about her. I don’t know her last name. In town, they started calling her “Gravel Gertie” after a while. Do you know Gravel Gertie? She was a character in Dick Tracy. She was a really wonderful character, and everybody read Dick Tracy every day, including me. But I was offended when they changed her name to Gravel Gertie. Then they forgot her name was Marie.
PIERCE: When did she pass on?
NOTLEY: I think it was in the late sixties.
PIERCE: And have you been carrying this idea since then?
NOTLEY: I started writing about it before she died. I wrote a story about her when I was at Iowa. I wrote a story in which she walked along the railroad tracks and counted the ties. She was walking to Africa. And she would say “one thousand and Africa one, one thousand and Africa two.” But I have no idea why I made her do that.
PIERCE: Were you trying to purposefully create a plurality about her identity?
NOTLEY: No, no. All of these characters came out of me, and I think what you’re catching more than she is plural is that the book is plural. All of these characters blend together. All of the people sort of blend and then pull apart from each other. They all use the first person at one time or another.
PIERCE: I definitely got that sense. It was permeable between characters.
NOTLEY: Yeah, yeah.
PIERCE: “The mask is what you use; it isn’t a fake, it’s a mask. Your senses love you; they evolved to be your mask—or you made them, didn’t you?” Can you talk a little about the role of the mask in identity?
NOTLEY: I have masks in my work a lot, and I make them. I make collage masks. I’m not sure if I know how to talk about them anymore. They’re rigid, and then the person behind them isn’t rigid. It’s like some kind of rigidity so you can live in your body. What I’m saying is your body is a mask and your senses are a mask and your real face is a mask, but if you didn’t have it, you wouldn’t be able to be a human being. The whole thing, the whole apparatus is a mask.
PIERCE: Right, right. And then do objects or things that we carry become part of that?
NOTLEY: They can. I was looking in the mirror a lot before I came over here, and I was kind of horrified.
NOTLEY: Yes. You know, I’m not that. I’m not that. That’s my mask. But it’s this thing I’ve been given that ages. It’s an aging mask. And that’s what you have. But you can get out of it. You can leave it, sometimes.
PIERCE: How can you leave it?
NOTLEY: Just by having a big mind, by being too big for your room.
PIERCE: Was that a somatic feeling? When you feel too big for your room?
NOTLEY: Yeah, yeah. It was.
PIERCE: Like everything was shrinking around you?
NOTLEY: I was huge. I was huge, and it was small. It was a good feeling, actually. It was really nice, but then I had to come back.
PIERCE: We always have to come back…
There’s also a theme around monsters. “I’m the beautiful monster I’ve made. Anyone but me gets to be human.” It reminded me of Donna Haraway and the “Cyborg Manifesto.” I don’t know if that’s what you were thinking about.
NOTLEY: No. It seems to me I have read that, but I have no memory of it now. Well, Marie doesn’t get to be human because she’s a bag lady. Bag ladies never get to be the human. The girls are always telling her she isn’t human. There’s a point where I say it’s because she doesn’t have any money.
PIERCE: Do you think that there’s some beauty in the monster?
NOTLEY: Oh yeah. She’s the best person in the book. She just invents herself all the time, but she was created by her suffering. Which I totally invented because I have no idea what her story was. But a lady from my hometown, as it says in one of my poems, used to give her rides, my mother’s friend, Bernice. And she once asked her if she was OK, and she said she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. And she was very lucid about it.
PIERCE: That’s really wonderful. To me, it seems like she’s embracing what others are putting on her, but she is able to break free of that and exist. Take off that mask that others are putting on her and see herself for herself.
NOTLEY: Yes. Well, she’s making another one. I went to this show, this exhibit at the beginning of writing the book, and it was of art from New Ireland and New Caledonia. And it was all masks and bricolage and boats and statues and things. I think I got the idea for her being an artist from that because she wasn’t an artist either. I have no idea what she was. She was a woman who lived with dogs, and she made her own house out of palm fronds. And she did live in the dump, and she got Leroy to give her stuff, and she always wore brown.
PIERCE: She always wore brown?
NOTLEY: It was dirty.
PIERCE: At one point, you write: “I live in Paris, France, but I spend some time each year in the Mojave Desert in the U.S. This is the only true thing I have to tell you. The only really true thing. There are no more borders.” I’m not sure whether or not to trust the speaker at this point, as the declaration draws a lot of attention to itself. And what kind of borders have dissolved in this narrative for Marie or for others? We talked a little bit before about the identities…
NOTLEY: Well, it’s completely absurd that a person who grew up in the Mojave Desert is living in Paris, France. But this is who I am. I grew up in the Mojave Desert, and then I went to New York. That seemed absurd when I did that. Then I went to Paris, France, later. I mean, I feel as if I can’t even tell anyone that that’s what I did. On the other hand, it’s what I did. There aren’t any borders between the Mojave Desert and Paris, France.
PIERCE: Why does it feel absurd?
NOTLEY: Well, you would have to go to the Mojave Desert. You would have to go to my town and meet some of the people I know. I recently went to Needles. I had to spend a night in a hotel in Las Vegas and call this guy and catch a shuttle. The shuttle comes from Lake Havasu City [Arizona]. Lake Havasu City is a town, and there used to be no town there, but this town grew up. It’s all retirees. What they did was, they bought London Bridge. Somebody bought London Bridge and brought the whole thing over to the Mojave Desert and spanned it across this lake. Now it’s got fifty thousand people, and Needles only has five thousand people. And so the shuttle comes from this metropolis, you know, Lake Havasu City. I called up, and I was explaining that I had arrived from Paris. I think it had to do with whether or not he could call me up and confirm that I needed to be picked up by this shuttle in Las Vegas. And he thought I was at the Paris Hotel. There’s now a Paris Hotel in Vegas. A gigantic reproduction of Paris.
PIERCE: Yes, the Eiffel Tower.
NOTLEY: And I said, no. That I was calling him from Paris, France. Then he was so awestruck; it was like he couldn’t talk to me. So, that’s what it’s like. It’s absurd, but there are no borders. There are no more borders. But nobody from Paris, France, would have been in Needles, California, when I was a kid.
PIERCE: I feel like there are quite a few invisible borders. As someone who is half Japanese, I’m constantly crossing these invisible lines.
NOTLEY: But you cross them.
PIERCE: I cross them without realizing it, but when I’ve crossed them, I can feel it. I can feel it somatically.
NOTLEY: Yeah, yeah.
PIERCE: Does that happen to you?
NOTLEY: No, no. I feel like I’m outside a lot, rather than able to cross, because I grew up in the desert. But you’d have to grow up in the desert to know what that meant.
PIERCE: I grew up in a kind of desert, too [Albuquerque].
NOTLEY: It’s a different desert. You grew up in a city.
PIERCE: Yes, but on the edge of a city. The very, very edge.
NOTLEY: The edge of Albuquerque?
PIERCE: Where there’s nothing but tumbleweeds and a lot of dirt.
NOTLEY: Actually Needles is all like that.
PIERCE: Although now there’s a Walmart and a McDonalds.
NOTLEY: There’s always a Walmart.
PIERCE: “I want the edges of this poem to be hazy on all four sides without literally being that. Torn and blurred or burnt.” Can you talk more about that? For me, it related to the idea of no borders.
NOTLEY: It’s a visual thing. It’s a vision of a poem I’ve had for a long time, and I can never make it. It’s like it is torn out of reality. And sometimes it’s a fragment, and sometimes it’s a whole poem, but it’s a visual thing. I used to try to make these fragments by setting fire to bad poems.
NOTLEY: And then seeing if I could burn away the edges and get to the poem in the middle, but it was never there. It was never there.
PIERCE: You have to burn from the inside, too.
NOTLEY: But I wanted it to be like the art from New Caledonia, I think. I wanted it to be visible, but instead I made something that had edges. There’s a very nice form that evolves, actually, after about the first fifteen pages, and it’s a little bit like a sonnet, but it’s very long-lined and has corners. It’s not burnt. It’s not any of the things I say in that poem.
PIERCE: I read the Kindle version of your book, so I didn’t have that visual experience of it with the long lines. It gets reformatted.
NOTLEY: It does?
PIERCE: Sort of.
NOTLEY: Are the lines all broken?
PIERCE: Yeah, kind of.
PIERCE: I could show it to you.
NOTLEY: Oh no, I don’t want to know. I’ll have a nervous breakdown. Can you tell where the line breaks are supposed to be?
PIERCE: I can surmise where I think they should be. I’ll look at a hard copy and compare them.
NOTLEY: My sense is that no one is doing a very good job of making e-books. I read a lot of trashy detective novels, and there are all these mistakes. Nobody proofreads anything.
PIERCE: They just load it up…
In the book, you say something about how you can watch T.V. on the computer and something like “Fuck that.” I can’t quite remember.
NOTLEY: Yeah, I said, “Fuck that.” I did say that.
PIERCE: Are you resisting this moving towards…
NOTLEY: I have pulled away from television, actually. I had a television in France, and I used it for making my French better. And it got worse and worse and worse. It had this quality I really liked, where everything I watched was blurry. And there were all these little red and blue fibrous things moving all over it, so you had to fight in order to watch it. It was very avant-garde. I watched all of, for example, the X-Files. And every time I watched the X-Files, it was like that and dubbed in French, and it was like watching this amazing thing. Then finally they digitalized everything, and last March, they said, your television won’t work anymore. My television stopped working, and I was supposed to buy a newfangled television and plug it into all those things that don’t work. As I said before, you plug it into your live box, and it becomes part of that system where everything breaks down. And I just didn’t do it, and I now have no television.
PIERCE: The screen you’re describing reminds me of the torn and blurry sides of the poem.
NOTLEY: Yeah, yeah. That’s how I watched T.V. when I was a little kid. Well, we didn’t get T.V. until I was ten. That was when it came to Needles. It was very blurry, and it always came from either Las Vegas or Phoenix. And sometimes it would just disappear right in the middle of your favorite show. You’d freak out. You’d almost see Perry Como, but it would just disappear.
PIERCE: Do you want your writing to have that blurry quality? Or do you want the meaning to have…
NOTLEY: No, no. It’s the only way I like to experience things on screen. I don’t like for everything to be clear cut, the way movies and T.V. are. I think you should fight it a little, the way you do with books. I’m fascinated by the way you go into the written book and how something that looks like that becomes all of reality to you. It’s the same if the screen is all blurry: you still enter that world. You know, you go in and you’re part of the story and part of the conversation, and it’s very hard to leave. The imagination is so strong. It’s the strongest thing. It’s the strongest thing there is.
PIERCE: I can see how between characters it feels…“blurry” is not the word I would use, but something’s there, a connective tissue and also a kind of gap at the same time.
NOTLEY: Yeah. Well that’s what life is like.
NOTLEY: So we have to be a little distinct from each other. We’re all very connected.
PIERCE: But there’s still space. There’s still space for the movement and the navigation.
NOTLEY: Yeah, yeah.
PIERCE: Near the beginning of the book, you write, “It’s possible that one begins in healing in mercy in self-kindness.” And there is a layer of mourning and trauma throughout the text for me as a reader. I’m wondering how you negotiate mourning and trauma, how you traverse that ground? That’s a subject that has been very difficult for me to even approach. When my father died, I didn’t write for almost a year. It was very difficult to inhabit that space of mourning with language.
NOTLEY: I was suffering a lot when I wrote this book, but I wasn’t suffering in any distinct way or from any distinct cause. It wasn’t that someone had died, but maybe it was that a lot of people had died. But it wasn’t close to any of their deaths. But I was suffering because I lived alone in Paris that way. I’d come over there with Doug [Douglas Oliver], and then he had died. And then I’d gotten sick, and then I had to do the Hepatitis C treatment, which was pure hell. I did it for eleven months all on my own. And then I got out of that, and I wrote this a few years later when I was getting well. It’s kind of about getting well, but there’s a lot of pain in it. But it’s generalized. It’s not coming from detail. It’s not coming from specifics, it’s coming from everything.
PIERCE: The pain felt specific when I was reading the language. It didn’t feel removed.
NOTLEY: I’m a specific person, and I have a specific history, but the book isn’t caused by anything specific.
PIERCE: Right. I was just saying you translated the pain well. You made it feel quite specific.
You reference letters in the text a few times: talking to the letters, the initial R, or talking to the letter R. I liked that duality there. “Nothing has ever been of use, except the sounds between letters, where all the vibrations of being alive are kept.” There’s a clear sense of attention to words, phonemes, sounds. How do you come to the language to fulfill the poem?
NOTLEY: I don’t know. I’ve been writing too long to know. I just do it. Don’t you?
PIERCE: I think it feels different for each project. But when I finish something I think: OK, that’s it. I’m done.
NOTLEY: I don’t remember where the language for this book came from. It just came from somewhere. It’s a very particular language. I think the language in my books is different from book to book as well.
PIERCE: I don’t know if they are poems or sections or chapter titles, but in the last poem, “Marie Alone and Meaning”…
NOTLEY: They’re poems, they’re poems. But they are sort of like chapters, aren’t they?
PIERCE: Yes, they had that duality about them. One sentence in “Marie Alone and Meaning”: “It means that I make perfect sense.” Can meaning be delivered beyond the narrative itself? In the rhythms you create, in the images? What is perfect sense in a poem? Or in this poem?
NOTLEY: I think Marie is saying that she makes perfect sense, everything about her. And also I’m saying it. That inside, I make perfect sense, and that inside, she makes perfect sense. She’s perfect.
PIERCE: Regardless of the masks and the dump and everything else that’s going on?
NOTLEY: Yeah, and her history and everything. She’s perfect. There’s a place in her that makes perfect sense.
PIERCE: I want to thank you for the interview and also for Culture of One, which was a complex and shattering narrative, in a good way.
NOTLEY: Thank you.
Transcribed by Brenna Lee