INTERVIEWS: Alice Notley on Ghouls

Songs and Stories of the Ghouls imageAbout the book: Left dead after our cultures were broken by triumphant enemies, our stories changed to suit others. We now change them again to suit ourselves. Songs and Stories of the Ghouls purports to give power to the dead—voices to the victims of genocide both ancient and contemporary—and presence to women. Medea did not kill her sons; Dido founds a city, over and over again, the city of the present author’s poetry. In these poems the poet asserts that though her art comes from a tradition as broken as Afghanistan’s statuary, there is always a culture to pass on to one’s children, and one is always involved in doing so. We are the ghouls, the drinkers of the blood-sacs, and we insist that we are Alive (from Wesleyan University Press)

 From Etel Adnan:

With her own natural, raw violence, Alice Notley reminds us that wars do not only kill people and bring down their houses, but destroy also their writings, their cultures, their civilization. Here she creates an intricate form of writing, balances song against story, to assert her belief in the creative powers of poetry, one of which is the power to bring about the seeds of a new culture. And the basic element of this new culture, she seems to say, ought to be a culture of love, love, the element most missing in the world we live in, and the literature we read.

Karin Schalm's Interview with Alice Notley on Songs and Stories of the Ghouls

KS: I see that you signed Ed Skoog’s book (the copy I’m reading), “from the Ghoul Alice.”  Can you tell me more about what the figure of the ghoul represents to you?

AN: A ghoul is an undead who eats people to survive. In my book the ghouls are victims of genocide and maltreatment, waiting for some sort of justification or revenge. Finally, with my help, they will found a city, a city in air, as the book or poem is in air. I the poet allow them to subsist on my blood—one drop at a time suffices, it says in “Millions of Us.”  I am in fact trying to create power for all the victims of genocide—this book would empower them—and I would also love them.

KS: Witches with their black cauldrons also make an appearance in Songs and Stories of the Ghouls. Medea has been described in Greek mythology as a witch with the power to kill through the invention of a poisonous dress. The Medea you have created uses a different kind of poison. She says, “There’s poison where you touch me, Dark Ray, the poison of my not accepting Your Version.” In “Testament: 2005,” the reader learns that “The WITCH is not a/failure” and ”The witch’s job. is to change/time.”  How is the poem a type of poison? How does it change time?

AN: This book might ruin the reader. It isn’t comforting, in the sense that it doesn’t  approve of a life of comfort—the middle-class ideal. There’s always a genocide somewhere behind one’s comfort. If you read my poem properly you are suddenly inside my mind, as the coroner is inside Medea’s body when he performs her autopsy—but neither I nor Medea am dead, ever. And I am telling the reader, the coroner, that he has no control over me even if I’m dead, that I’m the keeper of knowledge and magic, the one who will say the kinds of things there are really to know:  that society’s victims hate you and will ultimately get you, that money is shit, that power comes out of the individual body and mind not weapons and wealth, that one is a soul and never dies and if a wrong-doer never evades one’s victims for long, but that there is no god in death and thus no one of ultimate power to get in good with. There is no hierarchy, there is no intrinsic good except in being, either being alive or being dead—I understand both as being. If the reader takes the message that his life is a sham, certainly he is poisoned. And further, while he reads a poem, he is within the poet’s or witch’s time, not society’s. Time seems to come from the outside, but one may be almost totally interior, inside one’s own individual time. If you’re really reading a poem, you’re in it not time and you’re timeless.

KS: I'm very interested in your line, "Whatever you say is true in that moment." Can you talk about this idea and how it has informed Songs and Stories of the Ghouls?

AN: “Whatever you say is true in that moment . . .”  It’s important to remember that this book is a fiction and that “I”—who is speaking in the paragraph in question—am a character. “I” is quite close to me and “I” occasionally refers to events in my life, but usually the events “I” is immersed in are fictional. In the case of this part of a sentence, towards the beginning of the book’s middle section, we are entering a world called Dead as opposed to the more familiar Day. This partial sentence describes what it is like in Dead, and Dead is something like dreams. You say something in a dream and it is true unless you are overtly lying in the dream, but what you said may not make sense when you wake up. In Dead, though, everything you say creates more of the reality of Dead; it creates more of the truth of Dead even if in the world of Day it may be lies. This section of the book was terribly en-miring in that everything I said, though it wasn’t true to life, seemed to become real, realer than reality.  I did begin to wonder if I didn’t live in Dead.

KS: I'd like to look at the image on the first page: "trembling white   vertical lines/in black sky   above sea, they/spell what it   might be." I'm reminded of the white spaces between black words on a page, the holes in a text where a reader might fill in meaning. Reader-response theorists might call this a space of co-creation. What did you have in mind here at the opening of your work?

AN: The speaker of the poem can see what she needs—power (the files for this book were always called Power), because her eyes are crushed out. She is enabled by her suffering to “see,” to judge, to have power. She is scarred, she has scars instead of a conscience or a guide. She is going to cause a new culture. The lines above the sea indicate what the culture might be though not really legible, they’re like writing and hint at the book to come. This is the first poem in the book:  the book will be about the new culture—one’s old one in fact having been crushed out like one’s eyes. “The scars on my right side” will become a sort of writing too, though they most overtly to me refer to my scarred liver—I had just completed the treatment for Hepatitis C when I wrote this book. But what the poem means is that its speaker has emerged from a huge, traumatic event; her suffering is the justification for creating a new, less vicious universe.

KS: I see you have constructed white spaces between the "songs" and "stories." It's interesting that the first section, Introducing Carthage, has even more space than normal in the prose sections. Is that a 1.5 line spacing? What was your creative process in developing the form of alternating between poem and prose, ending with longer sections of poetry?

AN: I like the way the 1.5 space between lines, in the short prose parts, looks, for one thing, and it makes reading them easier for the reader. I’m not always sure what you mean by the white spaces. I’m not asking the reader to co-create anything with me, I’m simply asking the reader to enter the world of this book. I use white space in my work to create a score for the reading of the words, to create an attractive page, to make words easier to see, to make breaks between things. I suppose in this first section of the book, Introducing Carthage, I am partly suggesting broken things, pieces, by the look of the pages. I’m creating relics. Carthage was razed and the ground salted by the Romans, and then their very great writer Virgil wrote a long poem in which Dido, the ancient founder of the recently razed Carthage, committed suicide after being abandoned by Aeneas, the ancient founder of Rome triumphant. Dido’s suicide is a huge lie, but we are very much in the realm of the mythical here, and anything can be said to be true (like in Dead). Likewise, there are versions of the Medea myth in which Medea didn’t kill her sons, and for my Medea I refer to those versions. But in these initial pieces I also refer to modern wars and circumstances. I wrote this book in 2003 and 4 when the US was very active in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I alternated, though not rigorously, poetry and prose in the first part of the book, probably out a sort of old habit. Also I had just written In the Pines, which contains a lot of short poems towards the end, and I was writing off that energy somewhat in the beginning. But I also had a vision of rather broken prose pieces that didn’t make ordinary sense and weren’t ordinarily syntactical. The poems tend to be songlike, but there is one I’m rather proud of—“the commanders regret life’s brevity”—because it looks like Latin!  Then there is a story starting to emerge from these pieces, and I follow the trail.

I began writing the middle section without knowing what I was up to—I wasn’t even sure I was still working on the same book, though I was involved with the same characters. I was in Needles, which is contiguous with the Mohave Indian Reservation, another you might say broken culture, and I started to get an energy from that fact; then Medea and Dido were right there again, though I was writing something like a novella. I just followed the trail. In the third section, I thought to refer more to my own life rather in the style of my book Disobedience, but mostly I do something else I can’t quite characterize. I mostly still fictionalize. And there are the longer pieces mixed in so overtly about genocide. I think one problem with the reviews of the book has been that the reviewers only take on board the book’s feminism, not the theme of genocide—real genocide, with its concommitant cultural genocide as well (Etel Adnan’s blurb on the back is quite good), and the subjection of women as a sort of sexual genocide.

KS: Dark Ray, the coroner in the land of the Dead, reads the text written inside of bodies. In Medea’s body he “found a new word in her last transcript: genofest. A combo of genocide and festival.” A member in dead then claims, “We conquer people because they need it…So they can be read, broken into pieces, and distributed to the true appreciators of their forms. They can’t do this by themselves.” Can you talk about the link in Songs and Stories of the Ghouls between language, lies and genocide?

AN: The destruction of Carthage and the subsequent development of the Dido/Aeneas story or lie, as I indicated earlier, is central to my book, and there are references to it everywhere. The Punic Wars were a power struggle between Rome and Carthage for ownership of the Mediterranean. There were three of these wars, and at a certain point—I don’t want to look up dates—whenever the Roman senate met, the senator Cato would say  “Carthago delenda est.”  Carthage must be destroyed. This is one of the most famous known provocations to genocide —I refer to it in one of the shorter poems but I use “delenda est” to refer to Rome:  Rome must be destroyed. Cato’s piece of language is a sort of lie:  no city must be destroyed, but it is also considered to be a paradigm of patriotism, or used to be, when people knew ancient history. So finally the Romans defeated the Carthaginians, burned and razed Carthage—they went from house to house killing and enslaving, and reputedly plowed salt into its earth. Subsequently, Virgil destroyed what you might call the reputation of the mythic founder of Carthage, Dido, by writing a poem in which she commits suicide for love of Aeneas, whom Virgil presents as the founder of Rome. This story or lie is original with Virgil; there is no prior myth or story involving Dido and Aeneas, or Aeneas founding Rome. Aeneas leaves Troy after its fall, his ships blown about on the sea, and finds the new city of Carthage where he  meets, loves, and leaves Dido to her suicidal death on a fiery pyre. Total invention on a very grand scale. This is the final extirpation of a city and culture:  Aeneas conquers Dido. Also, of course, the man-founder is more irresistible than the woman-founder. The poem is very great, and a large gesture in the continuous demolition of women’s power. Virgil’s brilliant, beautiful language is used to justify genocide and cultural destruction. I’m rereading the Aeneid right now in Latin, it’s an incredible poem, the best thing I’ve read in years. But in my book I allude to other, more extensive and well-known genocides. If the language of genocide is lies, it is also true that, as I say in “Millions of Us,” “Only a book can love me now,” if I am a genocided ghoul. I allude to Jews, Native Americans, African-American slaves, the hundreds of Algerians shot on the streets of Paris in 1961. The badly treated dead should be loved NOW, and I think a book can love.

KS: Can you describe your process in creating the final section of Songs and Stories of the Ghouls? The voice seems to be more personal, that of the poet struggling with creation of words, notions of audience, even the detrimental effects of being recognized as a feminist. How have you, personally, been pigeon-holed as a poet, and how have you defied the story people tell about you and your work?

AN: It seems to me that I thought I’d recreate the form I used in Disobedience, but I was a different person. I was a widow again, I had survived hepatitis C, and my sympathies were further opened to anyone who suffered. Though I had access to the personal tone, I had little interest in talking about my life, except in terms of psychic events—and the third section is interrupted three times by longer pieces involving “characters,” people not myself, and twice by important poems that are spoken by many voices. The sound of the personal-voice poems is sparer than in Disobedience—and the words, as I remember, came to me quite automatically. I don’t really know how I wrote those poems.

Oh I’m pigeon-holed all the time, usually by people who have only read one part of my oeuvre. I am second-generation New York School or I am the poet who lives in Paris, I am feminist or I am the person defined by having loved Ted Berrigan or Douglas Oliver, I am personal, I am not personal, I am a poet of grief etc etc. Mostly I just keep writing in whatever way I want to next. I am, at this point, an epic poet—I am like Virgil, and everyone had better watch out because I am the one reshaping the myth and defining the world. I am international, interplanetary if you will. American poetry is really stupid right now, it thinks there are schools, groupings, lineages, ways of thinking and proceeding rather than individual poems simply to be read on their own terms. It thinks, basically, that there are critics and thinkers and users of poetry rather than poets. It’s all so tiny.


Alice Notley has published over thirty books of poetry, including (most recently) Culture of One and Songs and Stories of the Ghouls, and the chapbook Secret I D.  With her sons Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, she edited both The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan and The Selected Poems of Ted Berrigan.  Notley has received many awards including the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Award, the Griffin Prize, two NEA Grants, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry.  She lives and writes in Paris, France.

Karin Schalm has an MFA in Poetry and an MA in Literature from the University of Montana. Her work has been published in Camas, CutBank, Tea Cup and The Sun.