When American poet Alice Notley was very young, she used to sit in front of the radio and just listen. When she got older, she began to hear words and songs in her head everywhere she went — songs she loved, like “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, and her own words that sometimes tumbled out into poems. Now one of America’s most prolific, genre-bending and revered poets, Notley said that when she performs live, she sometimes reads her poems like incantations.
“I get in front of the audiences and make mistakes and ride the energy of the room,” she said. “I get involved and forget where I am and go to paradise and then come back.”
And so it makes sense that Notley’s latest release is not a written collection but a recorded album of her work, “Live in Seattle,” the latest in a series of albums from a new record label, Fonograf, that is only releasing poetry.
Notley said she’d been asked to record her poetry before, but had found the studio experience “really trying.”
“The sound experts hear when you blow a vowel, and get you to re-record lines. To me it’s about the live experience, it’s like making music,” she said. “Live in Seattle” was the chance to put that poetry-like-music sound to vinyl.
Jeff Alesandrelli, Fonograf’s founder, agrees that it’s those particularities that make a poetry record authentic. “People mess up reading poetry. They hiccup, they pause, they stammer. It’s what an actual reading is like. And so when you listen to the work, it puts you in the place of being at an Alice Notley reading.”
Fonograf, which was founded last year as an offshoot of independent book publisher Octopus Books, has also released albums from poets Rae Armantrout and Eileen Myles, and has a forthcoming album from Harmony Holiday. Alesandrelli said the label is looking to bring the same independent sensibility as Octopus to its releases, and plans to release two to three records per year.
“We live in an interesting world now where so much of our lives are digital in nature, I think there’s a desire for something more tangible,” he said. “Vinyl forces me to focus and be in the present.”
There was a time when poetry often made its way to vinyl; take a deep dive, for example, into the beat poets’ countercultural albums of the 1950s to ’80s. And today, as vinyl has made a comeback and YouTube videos of poetry readings can go viral, Fonograf isn’t the only label releasing poetry. But the handful of others who are – Ugly Duckling Presse, Third Man Books, S.D.Y.P. – often add soundscapes or music or focus on slam poetry, something Alesandrelli said Fonograf doesn’t do.
Instead, its records are like old-school poetry recordings — just the poet’s words, his or her pauses and sighs, the rustling of the crowd.
“Live in Seattle” comes entirely from a reading of Notley’s 2016 poetry collection “Certain Magical Acts,” which explores contemporary issues such as climate change, the economic crisis, and the perils and disappointments of political systems.
Notley said she wrote one of the poems, “Two of Swords,” after the election in 2008, feeling frustrated at how polarized the country had become. Those political divisions brought to mind for her the image of the traditional tarot card called “Two of Swords,” which depicts a blindfolded woman, arms crossed, holding two swords in front of her body. The card can indicate a stalemate or avoidance of truth.
“I’m blind with my arms crossed over my breasts, sword in each hand,” Notley writes. “I seek justice in countervailing sharpnesses … I want this noise within me to die down.”
Notley, who is sometimes called a poet of “disobedience,” said she hasn’t voted since the 1980s because she can’t stand to support any candidate.
“Two of Swords” is just three stanzas — much shorter than much of Notley’s work, who has become best known as a writer of long epic poetry. Epic poems were historically chanted, but Notley said many poems, when read aloud, “will fall into musical patterns … and when you’re repeating things, your voice will start to tremble and sing.”
Listen to Notley read “Two of Swords” from “Live in Seattle,” or read the text of the poem below.
“Two of Swords”
By Alice Notley
I’m blind with my arms crossed over my breasts, sword in each hand.
I seek justice in countervailing sharpnesses: you are in force
and you are in force. I can’t help but be both of you. I wanted
to be able to take a side and will never again. These blades could slice
my skin, standing as they do for our fierceness, or should I say,
stupidity? If I drop both swords and rip off the blindfold, I still can’t
leave, for I can’t leave this world except internally. Who wants to
see us anyway? Two parties, or two sexes, two countries — armies — or
two religions, two debaters, two gladiators, two contenders for one
space. Is there such a thing as one space? Don’t you want
to go with the winners? you ask. I want this noise within me to die down.
Democracy isn’t efficient, and the only politics I recognize lies
between us, undefined, requiring no casting of votes. It asks that we
admit we’re both present, all present, in the same multiform space —
within me or you. I would never ask that you follow me; I will never
acknowledge a leader. I am my president. But also, I am
everyone, trying to be with you, because I exist, and always have.
Alice Notley was born in 1945 in Bisbee, Arizona, and grew up in Needles, California, in the Mojave Desert. She was educated in the Needles public schools, Barnard College and The Writers Workshop, University of Iowa. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, and of essays and talks on poetry, and has edited and co-edited books by Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver. She edited the magazine “Chicago” in the 1970s and co-edited with Oliver the magazines “Scarlet” and “Gare du Nord” in the ’90s. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Griffin Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize, and the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize. Her latest book is “Certain Magical Acts,” from Penguin.