Finding the Female Voice: Alice Notley's Poems and Collages

Year

2005

Alice Notley is a prominent member of the second-generation New York School of poets, as well as a visual artist known particularly for her collages. Once married to poet Ted Berrigan, she noted in a 2001 interview that most of what she has in common with the New York School is an attention to the visual world:

Even when it's just taking place inside the head, there's always a lot of color around, a lot of detail. I associate that with the New York School of poetry—the use of the eyes—you get the eyes as well as the ears, the touch—the senses, exploration of the senses and something about sympathies.

In the autobiographical book of poetry The Mysteries of Small Houses, Notley writes:

What is a poem          this
What is a poem          it’s like a 
Collage   shapes in conjunction of world and bright color

She repeatedly explores the relationship between collage and poetry in The Mysteries of Small Houses, examining what happens when you put words down on a page. They become, she decides, distanced from the natural voice, and so there is a way in which borrowed material, such as collage, and self-generated material become one and the same. Exploring that thought further, Notley's book-length epic poem The Descent of Alette is presented inside quotation marks, as if the author is quoting somebody else. Critic Susan Rosenbaum noted that these marks "imply that the separation of self and text is inevitable, the act of writing marking the entrance of her language into the public (quotable) domain."

Notley herself has remarked that there is a way in which a female poet is always struggling to find a voice. Because epics, narrative poetry, and the voices that one grows up hearing were created by men, Notley says, female poets have suppressed what the female mind must have been like before the existence of the forms invented by men. In the prose poem "Homer’s Art," she writes, "there might be recovered some sense of what the mind was like before Homer, before the world went haywire & women were denied participation in the design & making of it. Perhaps someone might discover that original mind inside herself right now, in these times. Anyone might." In this light, the quoted, collage-like aspect of her epic poem is particularly interesting, as if she's saying the female epic voice can only be quoted, but not generated whole.

In addition to over twenty books of poetry, Notley has produced countless works of visual art, including watercolor paintings, drawings, and most notably, collages, which are held at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Connecticut. The collages include a subset of collaged paper fans, and often include everyday objects and magazine clippings, as well as keys, beads, lace, and stamps. Most notably related to her epic poetry are a series of collages that include pornographic images, presenting an interesting relationship between the original (likely male) photographer, and Notley as the female artist who must reconstruct something for the original image. She writes of one such piece:

Here is a collage called WATERMASTER
made from the cardboard packet for a toilet tank part
Here's a photo of a stripper I've named
Barney... surrounded by cutout words she
dances to poetry and Here's
DEFIES YOU THE RHYTHMIC FRAME, heaped with
black sequins and sticker nasturtiums
the one-line poem spelled out in stick-on gold letters

The disarming, slightly deceptive innocence of these lines calls attention to the visual aspect of what she has made, as if there were no relationship between the content and the process. In writing about her art, she maintains the mysteries of the process, and avoids drawing overt attention to the politics. She says coyly, later in the same poem, that she wants:

Sometimes just to make something
Pretty prettier than
What's around in the mind.