Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers, my fortnightly newsletter on wriggling through a creative life. If today’s issue resonates with you, please consider becoming a paying subscriber for $5/month or $30/year. This newsletter wouldn’t be possible without reader support.
Alice Notley (b. 1945)
Last issue, I wrote about the late American poet Bernadette Mayer’s “famous” writing prompts, but there was an additional bit of Mayer material I wasn’t able to squeeze into the newsletter that I’m still thinking about. It’s from a 2020 interview with Mayer, and it’s on a subject dear to my heart: how to make writing not feel torturous, if such a thing is even possible. Here’s what Mayer said:
If you practice writing constantly, you can start to speak in poetry form and so whenever you feel like writing something, all you have to do is immediately write what you’re thinking. John Ashbery says that poetry is like a stream that’s always running and whenever he wants to, he can dip into it and take a little ladleful and have a poem. If I hadn’t devoted my life to poetry, then I’d have to sit down and struggle with the page. That seems torturous to me.
I think I know what she means. At least, I know that when I’m in the right headspace for a writing project, it’s not such a struggle. And part of getting into that headspace is being in practice, as Mayer suggests, or being in a rhythm with the project. I think that’s why I’ve always been so fixated on daily routines, because they’re a way of getting that “stream” running.
At the same time, I’ve never really gotten to the point where I can, like John Ashbery, “dip into” the stream of writing and “take a little ladleful.” That sounds lovely, but it also seems almost too good to be true?
As I was thinking about this, I happened to listen to a 2017 podcast interview with the poet Alice Notley. Mayer and Notley are often mentioned together: They were born in the same year (1945), they were both fixtures of the 1970s poetry scene in New York’s East Village, and they both chafed at the sexism of that world and did a lot to change it through their work, in which they had the audacity to put motherhood and domestic life at the center of their art.
Mayer was a prolific writer, but Notley has been really prolific: Since releasing her first book of poetry in 1971, she has published more than 40 additional volumes. So I was not surprised when, in the aforementioned podcast interview, the host asked Notley about the same idea Mayer explores above—how to get to the point where the “stream” is always flowing, and things are coming easily.
And Notley’s answer—well, here’s the exchange: