I met Anne Waldman at Chichen Itza in January 2010, when I’d traveled over 5,000 miles to study with her at a writing workshop in Merida, Mexico. It was one of the smartest things I ever did.
Waldman is a unique force in the literary landscape; she has helped shape culture through her tireless work as a poet, editor, educator, community builder, and activist. An enormously generous artist who has devoted her life to mentoring and creating opportunities for others, she has published over 40 books in as many years. In her tenure as artistic director of The Poetry Project at St. Marks and by founding the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute with Allen Ginsberg in Boulder, Colorado, Waldman provided working models of creative resistance. What struck me most when I met her was her expansive energy and how open and kind she was with everyone, including poets who worked out of more conservative traditions. She was a compassionate, nonjudgmental, and inspiring teacher.
Waldman made time to answer these questions via email. She will be performing with her son in Montreal as part of the Festival Voix d’Ameriques at La Sala Rossa on March 15.
DR: Since you will be performing with your son, the musician Ambrose Bye, at the Festival Voix d’Ameriques, I wanted to ask you a little bit about his influence on your work. Your son has appeared as a muse in your poetry from your 1982 collection First Baby Poems through to The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment, due out this summer. Could you speak a little about the role of motherhood in your work? When did you first begin to perform collaboratively with your son?
AW: I found I could access another art of my psyche for my writing after the birth of Ambrose. My vocal tones got deeper. I was drawing on dream and intuition more. And while I felt fierce and was already active around various political and social issues and feminist issues, those seemed even more urgent — especially those related to environment, nuclear proliferation. The MANATEE/HUMANITY project (Penguin Poets, 2009) is a case in point where I take a vow “to include manatee and other endangered creatures” in my work and in my consciousness. And I also wanted — originally — to write the extensive long hybrid documentary epic poem IOVIS as not only a “history lesson for my son” but as a cultural intervention to show the responsibility of the Mother, as a female born at a time of major wars and dysfunction in the body politic. I would manifest active — rather than passive — female rage. I wanted to inspire him. And I included him as a muse that moved the whole project forward, even carrying Iovis into the new century where the boy is an adult. I still find FIRST BABY POEMS (reprinted recently by BLAZE [VOX] in Buffalo, NY with collages by the artist George Schneeman) to capture the wonder of that Experience. And the nourishing spirit of the female principle has been important in the long building of community around The Kerouac School at Naropa, the ongoing collaborations with other artists, editing and curation of projects that include a lot of younger people.
I started performing with Ambrose about four years ago. It seems natural, and we are comfortable in the work and on stage together. There’s a live process and then there’s the process in the “studio” where he often selects the texts to create soundscapes around, and suggest how I read them. That’s been the process with the new CD in the works: The Milk of Universal Kindness. He doesn’t want me to ever get too histrionic, although he appreciates the lower tones. There’s one track on which I sound ghostly with sounds like an owl…
DR: You have written of Don Allen’s influential The New American Poetry 1945-1960 that “Out of a total of forty authors in the Allen anthology, only four were women. I took this as a personal challenge.” This reminds me of the recent discussion around VIDA’s The Count 2010. What advice do you have for women writers who are also fighting to bridge this gap in representation?
AW: I think you stay on the case, as it were. And consider how you are immediately affected by the disparity in your own environment, as a writer or artist. Also start your own venues and publications, online magazines and the life. Keep the discourse going. Keep counting the pinks and the blues and attend to those whose genders fall between — there’s a huge spectrum beyond the dominant (usually white male) paradigm. I also like to acknowledge the support of some of my male elders — Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Ted Berrigan, William Burroughs… One needs to also not be shy and seek out sympathetic elders and hold one’s ground.
DR: You worked on The Iovis Trilogy, your thousand-page epic investigation of masculinity, for 25 years. What was your process for sustaining a project of this scope while you continued to write and publish other collections?
AW: I can somehow manage and be inspired by a number of projects going on simultaneously. I’ve been editing books as well from the Naropa archive, working on recordings with Ambrose, movie projects with my husband Ed Bowes. The Living Theatre did a production of my play “Red Noir” in New York (which ran three months) where I worked very closely with the legendary director Judith Malina. Sometimes the projects feed each other. But IOVIS engaged a particular panoramic awareness, or something like that — “planet news” attention — and the urgency to keep this kind of investigation going to clarify my own thinking and consciousness and be more aware of the time I’m living in, its beauties and disasters was a real commitment. The world and the events in my own life and in the time we are living necessitated the continuation of this project, no matter what. And it needed to cover the time span and the ground of 25 years...be a kind of testimonial of a life lived in a lot of parallel directions simultaneously. I took breaks from it — the writing — but I was always taking notes.
Other projects also seemed to have their own life force and demand. When I traveled to the Buddhist stupa of Borobudur in Java, I knew I had to write a poem that was a peregrination and a philosophical investigation of the Mahayana Boddhisattva path and that resulted in The Structure of the World Compared to A Bubble.
DR: Your most recent collection, Manatee/Humanity, explores various states of non-human consciousness and stretches its imaginative focus millions of years back into our planet’s history. Could you talk a little about the experience of writing “outside the I”?
AW: I found myself in a magical place, coming to levels of concentration I hadn’t experienced quite this way before. I wanted the language of the poem to convey the rhythms and cadences of the life pulse of non-human elementals. It was a very private project. Except for a few excerpts that Ambrose recorded, in particular the Manatee chant where he includes the recording of the actual manatee song, I wasn’t reading or publishing it before the book appeared. It was a hermetic process.
DR: You are an inspiring model of the poet as active community member — you have served your mentors and students alike through constant efforts to build and maintain networks of support for an ongoing circulation of ideas. How has this labor fed your writing?
AW: I think poets in particular have to build their own cultures. And the culture is built on the work — the value we attach to the poems we are making in the world. No one asks you or begs you to do this work. There’s no career description (no matter how careerist poets want to become). But there’s a wonderful energy that accumulates and I am finding myself next to people I have worked with for 40 years and then there are also new ones constantly coming into the mix. And we are exchanging not only ideas, but the work itself. When there’s a loss in the community — as with the recent untimely death of poet Akilah Oliver — people rally and feel the importance of what we are doing as an alternative and cultural opposition to the dominant culture. And I know the importance and preciousness of the literary and audio and video Archive of places such as The Poetry Project and The Jack Kerouac School and the labor also has to do with preserving those legacies.
DR: Your life appears to have always been so full of people and movement, industriousness, prolific poetic activity, and adventure, but there must have also been times of stillness and withdrawal. Did different work come out of these different modes of being in the world?
AW: As I said the Manatee work was more private and when I can I try to take little retreats or “mental health days”, as I call them. And have inner resources to cope with the noise and chaos of the phenomenal world. So that there can be some ongoing sanity at my core. I rarely take a vacation.
DR: You have such a distinctive voice, I find, more than with any other poet, I can always hear you speaking very clearly in my mind when I read your work on the page — you infuse the lines so completely with your unique rhythm. It is as if you stamp your breath into the air. How did you initially develop your own performance style, and how much has it evolved over the years? Do you read out loud as you write?
AW: I don’t know as I really “developed it.” I felt it developed me. It is always an attention to the language and its energy, not always the meaning, or message. I tell students to let their work guide them, not to go with preconceived ideas first. It varies with the different pieces. Some seem particularly wired for performance or sounding, becoming “modal structures.” And the ideas for them are aural, or come to me aurally. I enjoy Sprechstimme — speak-singing as I do with an Homage to John Cage, which very much began as an aural piece, meant to be read over an hour with improvisations based on his music. Sometimes I do sound out something. One takes pieces through various permutations as well.
DR: In addition to the work you’ve recorded with your son, you have often performed with musicians: you were a poet in residence on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, you created a video for “Uh-Oh Plutonium” in the early MTV era, and you nurtured a scene that helped interdisciplinary artists like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll develop their own style at The Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. How do you see the relationship between poetry and music in underground culture?
AW: The great Underground Culture, yes, thank god for that, all the hybrids and experiments, and passionate originality. That’s not so caught up in the difficult economics of the materialist fame-money-machine. The work of someone like Arthur Russell comes to mind. The relationship has always been there back many centuries. Shaking a gourd. And there’s always this more interesting work going on at the margins, in the interstices. And its always there, all these great indie bands caught up with poetry…building on what Jim and Patti and Ed Sanders were able to accomplish.
There’s the urge to vocalize up against the culture you are in, tinged with your own eros and with opposition against the gray and aged and terrifying doldrums of the war machine. For me it’s inherent in a kind of protest where you can cry out your ethos of radical difference and of envisioning a better world where creatures are not dying in oil spills and humans are not caged and humiliated. And war has ceased. And race and gender issues are at peace.
When? How long? You have to wonder, but you keep at it. And with music and with sounding your text, as I try to do, you have a longer reach and the poet-shaman’s song can extend into parts of your body and psyche where you can wake up your own heart center and you help wake up the world. Ambrose and I have a piece on the new CD “Remember Qana” where I hope that comes a bit closer to what I am talking about. There’s the Qana of the “loaves and fishes” and the Qana of bombings in Beirut.
I see myself as a trobaritz out of another century — of music and poetry — and it’s a subterranean although often audible lineage that continues to travel as I travel…
DR: What is inspiring you most right now?
AW: The fight for freedoms in the Middle East. The warriors and artists of Tahrir Square in Egypt, the experience in the 21st century of those willing to die for their cause in Libya, and so on. Very inspiring. And a new piece with Steven Taylor — a kind of “Poudatorio” — a mini-opera using some of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos and my own text. It’s entitled “Cyborg on the Zattere.” It references a chorus of Goldman Sachs demons in a casino, Pound in his cage at Pisa, his death in Venice, and so on. Steven is working with Renaissance and early Greek music. Four singers, dancers. We have a performance April 29 & 30 in NYC.
The work with Ambrose is always sustaining and my husband Ed Bowe’s next movie The Value of Small Skeletons is something I helped write the script for, which I am enjoying watch unfold. I am reading Robert Duncan’s The HD Book, edited in part by Toronto poet Victor Coleman. A masterpiece and a great labor of love. Yesterday I was involved with nine women in a reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, a very beautiful occasion honoring an artist and writer who died over 25 years ago. I guess what inspires me the most is the sense of continuity of the work many of us are doing as cultural activists and archivists and guardians and visionaries.
Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye will perform on March 15 at La Sala Rossa as part of Voix D'Amerique with Penny Arcade and Bob Holman. $10. Doors 7pm. Anne Waldman and Bob Holman will give a Master Class at Concordia on Monday, March 14th with limited attendance.