Stephanie Anderson with Alice Notley

Alice Notley
Alice Notley

This is a series of ongoing interviews with women actively engaged with small-press publishing between the 1950s and 1980s. It comes from a desire not only to preserve their accounts but also to draw wider attention to the vital role of women editors and publishers in the mimeograph revolution and beyond. In these decades “poems were bouncing off the sidewalk” (Maureen Owen), and this series traces some of those madcap trajectories.

This interview took place via email between February and March of 2010, and, at Alice Notley’s request, has not been edited. It focuses on Notley’s role as the editor and publisher of the mimeograph magazine CHICAGO, six issues of which were published in Chicago between 1972-3; three “European Editions” were published from England in 1973-74. 

Stephanie Anderson: How long had you been living in Chicago before you started the journal CHICAGO? Did you decide to publish it immediately?

Alice Notley: I started the magazine immediately, as soon as Ted and I moved to Chicago. I was 26 years old and pregnant. I hadn’t written very much poetry and was in danger—I saw it that way—of not becoming a poet. The magazine was a way of really joining the poetry community, of getting to read a lot of poems. You actually typed the poems in those days, so you studied the work you published quite closely.

SA: I’ve noticed that the first few issues contain quite a few New York poets. How much (if at all) were you thinking consciously of publishing as an activity spanning geographies?

AN: I wanted most to be in touch with the poets in New York. However I also had an idea about picking and publishing consistently a core group of poets, most (but not all) of whom lived in New York. I was particularly interested in Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer, Lorenzo Thomas, Ron Padgett, Tom Clark, Anselm Hollo, Ted and myself. In fact that’s four in New York, one in California, one in Iowa, and the two of us in Chicago, so I guess quite a bit of geography was covered.

SA: Did you actively solicit poems? I suspect that a kind of community of poets was exchanging work and collaborating—did you find material this way?

AN: I solicited work as well and asked for work from people who came through Chicago to give readings. There were several reading venues in Chicago at that point, and after a reading I particularly liked I would ask to see work.

SA: Do you have stronger memories of a particular issue or issues of the journal than others?

AN: I liked all the issues, and I was always excited about George Schneeman’s covers—he did all of them, and the first six, the ones from Chicago, are organically interconnected. The magazine changed—changed size and content and cover content—when we moved to England. A lot of English poets were then included…a different geography and a sense that the core group might be larger. I was pregnant again in England, I associate the whole process of the magazine with being pregnant. But, let’s see, particular issues. There was one issue that Ted edited in order to prove that he wasn’t the editor of the magazine in general! This was a very sexist time, and everyone thought he was doing it, not me. So he edited Issue 5 to show what the magazine would be like if he edited it. It is different, though I’m not sure our friends were smart enough to see that. Also, it is the issue that came out just as I gave birth—I really needed a different editor for that one. I very much remember the issue you don’t have—the first European one—because it contained the interview between Ted and George Oppen (I think that’s the one, it’s hard for me to find my set of the magazines this morning.) and a special selection of Oppen’s work that I made. He had come to England for a festival and I met him and Mary, which was lovely.

SA: Did you do all the mimeographing and stencil-cutting?

AN: I did all the stencil-cutting, Ted did the mimeographing in Chicago (it’s very poor, I’m afraid—we destroyed two church mimeos that shouldn’t have been printing that many copies.) I just couldn’t do everything, I was pregnant. I did all the collating, stapling, and mailing. I kept the mailing list etc. I did all the correspondence. Bob Rosenthal helped Ted with some of the mimeographing in Chicago. In England the people at the University of Essex did the mimeographing—there was a machine in the literature department—and the mimeographing got a lot better. I still did all the stencil-cutting, collating, stapling, mailing, and letter-writing.

SA: Did you work with writers to edit pieces?

AN: I did all the editing myself. Occasionally I took input from Ted, but not really very often. I very decidedly had my own taste, after I did the first issue and learned what the process was like (he initiated me, basically—I didn’t know anything.) I never worked with the poets themselves that I remember. Now that I think about it, I realize that my editing was quite aggressive. It was hard for me to know what it was like at the time, I was so young and there was so much sexism in the atmosphere. I’ve participated in—edited and co-edited—three magazines now (four if one counts the scurrilous and anarchic mag Caveman), but you are the first person to ask me questions, as if I had actually accomplished something in the field. There are other kinds of prejudices involved of course—esthetic, for example.

SA: Can you expand on now realizing that your editing was aggressive?

AN: I didn’t necessarily accept what I was supposed to accept, I picked and chose—for example I might accept one part of a poem in several parts. I’m not sure I would dare do that now. I didn’t necessarily take pieces of froth sent to me by famous people—Donald Hall once sent a set of variations a class of his had done on Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow, and I rejected it. I published things that had already been published in books because I liked them or because I wanted to make a point. That sort of thing. I wrote to people and asked them for particular works or particular kinds of work—I looked around a lot. I exercised the editing muscle. Once Ted put a lot of pressure on me to print something by someone, who will go unnamed, and I finally did it—it was the “nice” thing to do—but it made me want to vomit. I think he was nicer than I was. I was young and opinionated. I thought a magazine shouldn’t relax that much or be that inclusive. (This was, in fact, a way that we had different editing styles.)

SA: It seems ridiculous, but it’s a little hard for me to have a good sense of the sexism of the time. I feel a fair amount of it still in the air in academia these days, though I try to tell myself it must be so much less blatant than it used to be—that intentionality “makes up” for most of it. How blatant and/or insidious was it then?

AN: There were just so few women around, in fact. When I went to Iowa in ‘67—to the fiction workshop—I was the only woman admitted that year. A woman was also admitted into the poetry workshop, and the two of us were a really exceptional event. The previous year a woman had been admitted into fiction, and no women into poetry. The problem was, in New York, that the few women might be as bad as the men, I mean as sexist. Everyone was defending some abstract territory. I remember the whole thing as perpetual gauntlet, except when I was writing. The men never let the women talk, and Ted was bad himself about this, being a speed freak and never letting Anyone talk—he would make up for it later by admiring my poetry, which he did truly and whole-heartedly: his ability to appreciate poetry, without prejudice, was one of his great talents. But if you want to imagine it, imagine everyone being the way the Language Poet men still are (or some of these newer, mostly male “movements”)—totally territorial, but imagine them without their concomitantly acknowledging that some women poets are important. You must get a sense of it, that we have political correctness now. At that time women poets were considered to be girls pretending to be poets. However, the magazine was a place where you could get a little power, since men wanted to be in All the magazines. Anne Waldman, Maureen Owen, and I were all editing (legal-sized) magazines at around the same time, and there was a reason for that! But so much of it was and is about territoriality—I had the good fortune of hooking up with Ted at a time when he was expanding his sense of what the poetry world was like, how large and various it was, how big the territory actually was “So Going Around Cities”—and we managed to escape for some years the primary, fabulous territory of New York. I did my apprenticeship in Chicago and England, and I am different for that. But everyone was sexist—maybe not in Chicago per se because everyone was just so naive there. It was a nice trait.

SA: I love that the magazine was a way of staying connected to/joining the poetry community. This very much has been my experience in small press publishing as well. Do you remember any reactions of people not immediately involved in the community? I guess I’m wondering how seriously audiences took these publications, if you have a sense of that—and even how seriously the participants themselves took the publications.

AN: These magazines were taken very seriously. They were enormously entertaining to everyone, for one thing. They were esthetic statements as well—magazines now seem boring in comparison: that’s probably to do with computers, no one types up anything themselves, everything sprawls and seems unoverseen, one’s never sure that editors actually read your work, since they don’t have to type it. I had a lovely list of readers—I just sent CHICAGO (the magazine name must be in caps) to them without requiring payment, as I remember it—abstract expressionists and second-generation NY School artists for example, all the major NY poets etc., everyone in San Francisco and Bolinas.

SA: Do you remember how carefully you ordered the pieces in the journals? Were you thinking about the arc of the whole?

AN: I paid a lot of attention to the ordering of poets and poems in the magazine. One tried to put enough space around everything, like in an art gallery.

SA: Were there release/reading events for any of the issues?

AN: There were no release events. I wasn’t trying to make any money or, really, to get the magazine around all that much except to the people on my list. I think the release event for a magazine is relatively new.

SA: Did your sense of yourself as an editor/writer change as you continued?

AN: I think my sense of myself as editor and poet probably did change a lot. And when I did the subsequent magazines—SCARLET and Gare du Nord, co-edited with Doug Oliver—I was so much an other. We had “features” in our mags—something missing from everything I read now. It feels to me, at this moment though, as if CHICAGO had something metaphorically like “features”—a sense of continuity that was comment and commentary. As well as a dramatic sense of change—Chicago to England? But CHICAGO came out really often in its rather short lifespan—a few years, and that was important.

SA: Sometimes I think that one of the best ways to really examine a poem is to write or type it out. Did cutting the stencils further internalize the poems for you at all?

AN: Typing the stencils was very educational. I typed up other people’s poems a lot anyway—it was something Ted had suggested, but I took it further than he had (he had sort of invented the typing of poems as a way of studying them.) I typed up a lot of longer poems, particularly in England: I typed up all of Jimmy Schuyler’s “Hymn to Life,” a good portion of Williams’ “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower,” and O’Hara’s “Ode on Michael Goldberg’s Birthday (And Other Births)”. Also Milton’s “Lycidas”. This is probably how I learned to write long poems. But I really enjoyed cutting the stencils.

I finally got all the magazines out from under the bed. They are extraordinarily beautiful and wonderful, and I can’t believe what amazing poets I published. And why have I gotten no credit for this whatsoever? Why doesn’t anyone ever mention them? There were copies of the first six in that show at the New York Public Library—they didn’t even bother to find out there were nine! Is Europe that far away? Why wasn’t I invited to be in the Page Mothers conference, as if I had never edited anything? (I was in the middle of my third mag at the time)—etc etc. Pardon me. Obviously you have to publicize yourself, and I didn’t.

SA: I really appreciate the link between editing and power. It resonates with my own experience—that some want to be in all the magazines. Was the decision to go legal-sized a practical or an aesthetic one, or both?

AN: Ted had invented the legal-sized concept for C. It is practical—you get much more per page—but it is also a great size for longer poems and open-field poems, the kinds of forms we were all working in. It gives a feeling of lavishness and generosity, of openness.

SA: I have to admit that I’m envious of the seriousness with which these magazines were received. The magazines too are serious and also enormously entertaining (I think it’s Reva Wolf who talks a little bit about this in her book on gossip). It reminds me of Ted’s statements that poetry is 24 hours a day. Do you think the broader community had that attitude as well? Did the entertainment factor come from the humor in the poems? From a kind of collaborative milieu?

AN: I think more people were operating then on the principle that being a poet or artist was continuous and all-encompassing. Not as many people were teaching, for one thing, or if they were, the job wasn’t as time-consuming and brain-destroying as it is now. Rents were relatively cheaper, and there was perhaps more extra money around, though I think it was really about the rent. The entertainment factor comes from the humor and wit, but also a certain gossipiness about and in the poems themselves—you could always figure out who was sleeping with who from what you were reading, for example. This is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s probably a little bit better (in terms of readability) than the Look Ma How Innovative I Am mood of much of the now contemporary work. I myself didn’t like collaborations all that much, and didn’t do it often: they Didn’t entertain me except for when they were really funny or striking.

SA: I’ve thought a bit about the ephemerality of such publications, and their immediacy, but I’m not sure I had really yet conceived of the importance of frequency until you mentioned it. I must admit that I love that about CHICAGO—a kind of vibrancy resulting (perhaps?) from speed and immediacy. Do you think other contemporaneous publications shared that feeling? Would you be willing to expand on the idea that CHICAGO contained a kind of comment and commentary? Across the issues (via content), or within a larger publishing community, or both/neither?

AN: Coming out often was the whole thing. I think CHICAGO, though, came out more frequently than any other magazine. This was how the sense of comment and commentary was created: the same poets from issue to issue providing a sense of continuity—it’s like an esthetic diary. But also, there’s so much variety of form in these issues: not just poetry and kinds of poetry, but prose and a travel journal, an excerpt from a pornographic novel, art, an interview, translations, etc. The first issue contains Jimmy Schuyler’s latest poems written as a consequence of his most recent stay in a mental institute: he had wigged out again and written the works. That has very deep gossip value, aside from the fact that the poems are amazing.

SA: I would love to hear more about the dramatic sense of change from Chicago to England. Certainly the European editions feel much different, even based simply on size and production alone.

AN: The European CHICAGOs are in A4 size, which is the longest European size. So the magazine became more compact. But it also included British writers (including my second husband to be, Doug Oliver). I am able to get poems from different kinds of people coming through—I see that I published Allen Ginsberg here, and Oppen, for example. These are people coming over for international festivals, a different tone. Carl Rakosi. And I catch up some more with the younger Chicago people, it’s kind of all coming together. And George finally decides to put the word CHICAGO on the cover (now that I’m in England).

Do you have The End of the Far West, by Frank O’Hara? That was Ted’s contribution to the European editions, an edition of eleven poems of O’Hara’s that were intended to go together but were never published together in his lifetime. I published them—but Ted typed them, he really wanted to, and they were influencing his writing, then in process, of the sequence Easter Monday. You can see that it’s his typewriter, not mine. I did the covers.

SA: I love that the legal-sized paper is associated with the open-field technique. I had a sense, when reading around, that poets were moving in this direction (kind of post Ted’s Sonnets), but I wasn’t certain. Do you think this influence came directly from Olson or more circuitously? I also love that it links the typewriter/mimeograph with poetic technique.

AN: The open-field technique. Olson was partly in mind but nobody got it directly from him. For someone like Ron Padgett Mallarmé was involved, for Ted there were Paul Blackburn and Philip Whalen—but we were all heavily affected by WC Williams. Someone like Anne would be getting it from Ted a lot—and from Phil, and there were some people off to the side who liked Duncan. Also, of course, there were the open-field works of O’Hara, certain of the Odes and “Biotherm”: he was getting it from Williams, I think. Williams died in ‘63, and just prior to that Pictures from Breughel (with The Desert Music and the variable foot poems inside) came out, which totally influenced O’Hara. I myself wrote a paper on “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” when I was an undergraduate circa ‘66 and had never heard of any of my future friends, and I’ve never gotten over the influence of that particular poem, though I don’t write open-field poetry much. Oh and some people were influenced directly by Pound. I think it was all mixed up.

SA: How much was a kind of “professionalization” part of the more utopian (that’s not the right word, but it gets near what I want) idea of poetry 24/7?

AN: I don’t how to answer that one. Anyone had a sense that they were professional poets and were owed consideration as such. One insisted on oneself as a professional. Some people sent out a lot and some people waited to be asked…No one sent out to places like Poetry, at least after the very beginning before they found friends and friendly journals. I think I may have done so once.

SA: I am still thinking about frequency, and the idea that the poets created continuity across the issues. I get the definite impression that by issue 4.6 the geography spreads out further. The European editions seem kaleidoscopic in their inclusiveness—more authors, etc. Did the stay in England feel differently global than that in Chicago? By which I mean: was it easier to meet a variety of poets?

AN: I felt much more isolated in England, much less taken seriously as a poet. England was very very painful. It’s hard for me to be specific about this, I did meet a lot of poets, but I didn’t get to see them as much as part of the daily flow of things. I lived in a village in Essex, I had a bad post-partum depression, I had one small child and was expecting another. However, I managed to do a lot: I wrote my first long poem there, Songs for the Unborn Second Baby. I did three issues of the magazine. I read all the contemporary poetry books in the library of the University of Essex. I have very little memory of the festivals, though I do remember seeing W.H. Auden read his poems in his bedroom slippers (he always wore them), I remember when Ted genially insulted Robert Bly onstage, and I remember Oppen’s reading voice. These are two different festivals. In different circumstances I met Basil Bunting, who liked me, Anselm as baby, and my reading with Ted. One time Ted and I gave a reading together, when I was about seven months pregnant, and he told me afterwards, very solemnly, that I had won the reading. I of course hadn’t known, but I think it was true, I had an unfair advantage being pregnant, and there were a lot of young women in the audience (this was in Wales.)

SA: The overlay of genres does seem to me to be incredibly important; I feel like it didn’t happen as much in other small journals of the time (though that’s a generalization of which I’m uncertain; I’m thinking of my [limited] contact with C, 0 To 9, Angel Hair, etc.). Were you editing with the intention of including many genres? Or was it more about exciting work in general?

AN: I read every kind of book there was, I liked all kinds of genres and still do, and people wrote in a lot of different ways then. People tried out all sorts of things in case they could do it—usually they couldn’t, they were just poets.

SA: I’ve been thinking lately about how many of the poems in CHICAGO seem to fall into spaces of transition (not as much temporally, since they’re often quite specific in dating the poems, but spatially). How they sometimes present location as kaleidoscopic. Were the authors generally moving around quite a lot? Was there a lot of talk of travel?

AN: The authors were traveling around a lot, and it is perspicacious of you to see that. We were, mostly, young and in motion, trying out different cities. People’s relationships broke up often, no one was that sure of who they were or wanted to be. That wasn’t the same as traveling as in tourists—I don’t remember people voyaging to see different places so much as changing addresses. It was easier to be mobile then, too, rents were a lot cheaper, people stayed with each other more easily, residences were roomier etc. And a certain amount of discovery of Europe was going on, there was an English scene that Americans could connect with; a perhaps smaller French one.

SA: I’d like to bring up some particular pieces. With the Brownstein poems in 2.2/3, I adore how the small poems are arranged across pages, so that the page acquires its own rhythm/space. (I assume this is your layout and genius.) I was also thinking about how some of these longer sections (like Brownstein’s here) are chapbook-length. One gets such a feel for the poets’ projects.

AN: Michael Brownstein did not appreciate my layout, he had wanted a straight-down-the page presentation and was angry after the issue came out. I was, however, working with a different page-size than he was. He may still be mad at me.

SA: The Harris Schiff piece in 4.6—!!! Do you remember choosing to place it first?

AN: I don’t remember choosing to place Harris’ piece first, but it is an obvious read-me-right-now choice. Though I know one might also place it last. Readers have more energy at the beginning of a volume, don’t they? But I was very taken by the piece, it seemed like ‘the news’.

SA: Volume 6 seems to me to be a culmination of sorts. It’s called a “double issue” (though I haven’t counted pages and am uncertain how much larger it is than other issues), and I see that the cover utilizes images from the previous covers. Did you (and George Schneeman) know you were leaving Chicago when you put it together? Were you thinking about it as a final issue (of sorts)?

AN: Yes, it’s a double issue because I (and George) knew we were leaving for England and didn’t know if I’d be able to continue publishing the magazine. It probably contains everything I had on hand and needed absolutely to publish.

SA: I ran across more mysterious “for Alice” poems today in the European Edition #3. The Tom Clark sequence is for you, of course, but is the Berkson (“Camera Ready, Like A Dream”) as well?

AN: The Tom Clark sequence is dedicated to me for obvious reasons, but Tom is from Chicago and he’s writing about himself. The Bill Berkson poem has to do with the fact that he published my book Phoebe Light (Big Sky Books)—he’s talking about that. I think this book is very rare now, but they might have it in the collection you’re working with. This will tell you even more about the small-press publishing world of the time!

SA: “Great Balls of Fire,” in the European Edition #2, seems like an interesting shift for you, though I may be (totally) mistaken on this. And I am very much taken with “Your Dailiness” in #3—partly because of its form and partly because I’ve been thinking about ordinariness and everyday life (and various forms of domesticity) alongside editorial work and mobility/dis/relocations oh my, etc.

AN: I have absolutely no memory of writing “Great Balls of Fire,” which is obviously an allusion to Ron’s book by that title, which itself alludes to Jerry Lee Lewis’s song. “Your Dailiness” though is one of my best poems; it was next published in my book For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday and has appeared in both of my volumes of selected poems. I’ve never written better than that. It came to me rather miraculously: I saw the whole poem one morning, word for word, and then gradually wrote it down. I mean that literally—I saw all the words of it.

SA: Out of curiosity, Clark Coolidge’s “The Long, Long Skies”: is it all extracted from language in Visions of Cody? I like how, in the European edition, the longer works (with their own title pages) come even more to resemble chapbooks within the magazine.

AN: I would guess that the words in “The Long, Long Skies” were not all extracted from Kerouac’s book—Clark doesn’t write that way. His process is much more mysterious than appropriation. He would be talking to the book, having absorbed it.

SA: I’m starting to see some difference between the European dditions and the others. For example, there seems be a kind of multi-generationality in European Edition #3, and perhaps (?) a more determined overlay of different forms. Do you remember what made you decide to end with the reprint of the Kerouac piece? As with Volume 6, did you know that it was going to be the last issue in this edition?

AN: It’s so hard to remember anything. The Kerouac piece would have suddenly come into my possession; maybe Ted called my attention to it. Kerouac died in ’69—Ted was in Ann Arbor and I was visiting him from Iowa City. Anne Waldman called him while he was at work; he came back to the room where he lived, and I was staying, and collapsed, as they say, into my arms. This would be a newspaper clipping—I don’t know why it would have turned up in England, I just can’t remember. Yes, I knew it was going to be the last European Edition. I didn’t know for sure that it would be the last issue. This issue, again, should be seen in tandem with The End of the Far West by Frank O’Hara, the little booklet typed by Ted with covers by myself that accompanied it.

SA: I very much like your Art Institute essay in Brilliant Corners #1. Were there other Chicago places in which you spent a fair amount of time? Any music venues?

AN: I really only went to the Art Institute, at least consistently. Everything else I attended was tied to poetry.

SA: Regarding European Edition #1: it seems to me like the interview is such a keystone for the issue. It really inflects, I think, the issue’s curation—the discussion of groups (or the lack thereof) puts more emphasis on the single poets in the issue, perhaps. Of course, Oppen and Ginsberg together are an interesting overlay. Were you thinking of any of this as you were putting the issue together?

AN: I don’t think “curate,” or “curation” are at all the right words for editing CHICAGO. I edited it. I did soliciting of manuscripts, selecting of work, all correspondence, layout, typing, collating, mailing. “Curator” is a pukey word suggesting someone in an expensive suit with a chunky amber necklace; I think of myself in a state of late pregnancy in one of my two wearable garments nonetheless walking about the page-strewn room collating. Please PLEASE let me be the editor, you know like Harold Ross with The New Yorker. Look up “curator” in the dictionary: everything about it is awful.

I wasn’t very interested in the idea of groups. Ted’s idea of the New York School was that it was, essentially, a joke: you could join it if you gave him five dollars. “The Objectivists” was a kind of joke too, wasn’t it? What a group of friend poets called themselves, in order to get Williams interested in them, before WWII blew them all out of the water. I myself am only interested in single poets…It’s worth noting here that Allen Ginsberg was extremely interested in the poetry of Oppen’s friend, Reznikoff, a fellow New Yorker and noticer of concrete detail as the city displays it.

SA: A more general question: do you remember any sense of your editorial intentions shifting as the magazine progressed, and as you moved from Chicago to England?

AN: Simply I was in contact with different single poets when the magazine moved, largely poets who spoke a different kind of English. The differences between American and British English cannot be overemphasized—the two poetries always sound more different than the page allows for, and I was fascinated by this. But the editing principle was always to find the poets and publish them.

SA: Some people I’ve been talking to here seem very excited about the possibility of exploring Chicago-based poetry as a way of combating what they see as the undue emphasis on the East and West Coasts in accounts of later-20th century American poetry. Was any of this conversation happening at the time? It seems less likely, with so many people moving about. But was there an awareness of poetry “epicenters” or whatnot?

AN: Yes, there was a huge awareness of the poetry epicenter of New York, with the perhaps lesser one of the Bay Area. A lot of people hated New York for this reason. Ed Dorn was extremely hostile to NYC; Phil Whalen simply railed against The New Yorker magazine. Ted told young people who wanted to be poets that they had to go to New York. The advantage of New York lies partly in the way it’s laid out—Manhattan, that is, creates the possibility of “community centers” easily gotten to by subway, if not walked to. San Francisco and Chicago are by comparison much too spread out and divided up. Both cities are car-dependant even though there’s relatively decent public transportation. The idea of an alternative Chicago-based poetry seems fanciful to me but very Chicago-like.

 


Alice Notley has published over thirty books of poetry, including (most recently) Culture of One and Songs and Stories of the Ghouls. 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.

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