Vol. 3 No. 4, Winter 1998/1999 (#12)
An Interview with Anne Waldman
Fast Speaking Woman. It's the name of Anne Waldman's 1975 book of chants and essays, but it's a fitting epithet for the poet herself. Waldman exudes energy, on and off the page. She has been a ceaseless proselytizer for poetry, first at the St. Mark's Poetry Project, and now at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, which she founded with Allen Ginsberg. A committed performer, she travels the globe giving readings of legendary intensity.
Waldman's numerous books include Blue Mosque, Kill or Cure, and Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan. In 1993, Coffee House Press published the first volume of her epic poem Iovis; subtitled "All is Full of Jove," the work tackles the male godhead head on. In Iovis Book II, published last year, she continues to employ verbal strategies that range from breezy colloquialism to hermetic sacred text. And the poem shows no signs of letting up. The following interview, is excerpted in Vol. 3, No. 4.
by Eric Lorberer
RT: It recently struck me that you're often described as a performance poet, as if this is an entirely different kind of poet--is it?
AW: No. Of course not. I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page. Orality goes with the description of poet in the primary sense when poetry was composed by people who didn't read or write. It was generated for ritual purposes and for cosmological and mythical and chronological purposes: telling the story of a particular tribe, a particular battle and defeat or victory that sort of thing. Epic and ballad are the narrative forms. Then there's incantation, love song, lament, dirge, curse, spells, mantra, songs for fertility, etcetera. As well as sonnet, sestina, pantoum, ode which also have oral roots. I've worked in all these forms (in some cases composing on the spot) and extended them and come to my own shapes. I also grew up on classical music, folk music, and jazz. Ideas arrive as oral ideas that evolve into modal structures-clear musical patterns. Vocal range interests me, sprechstimme interests me, timing interests me, collaboration with instruments and other voices interests me. I'm drawn to the magical efficacies of language as a political act. And to musics, rituals and poetries out of India, Tibet, Indonesia, Thailand. When Andrew Schelling and I worked with the Theri and Theragatha poems of the Pali canon (of India) we struggled to revive the oral moment of these renunciant monks and nuns. These poems were originally sung in a tradition passed down for centuries before written down in 80 B.C.E. Much of my praxis is a gaze toward the East, if you will, mingled with all these other tendencies.
RT: In performance you tend to make changes to the text, quite often involving the repetition or chant-like qualities, for example in "Paean: May I Speak Thus?" you string out several phrases. What dynamics go into arriving at these decisions in a performance? Do you ever actually change the written text based on performance versions?
AW: Musician Steven Taylor tells me I have "perfect pitch," which allows me to move around vocally and return to various held "bottom" notes. I've played with fluidity of the text, as they say, that is, shifting text as I perform, reading certain chant structures backwards being just one obvious example, or embellishment, or jump-cuts. Improvising off my own riffs or selecting and leaving out other phrases at random as in the John Cage section "Pieces of an Hour" from Iovis Book I, or in the AIDS chant piece you mention "Paean: May I Speak Thus?" which was "composed" rather urgently for the occasion of a benefit reading in Aspen. In the first place, with the ur-text I'll often have heard the words, imagined them through my ear before I see them or write them down. In this case, it was the repetition of the phrase "earth earth air air fire fire water water" I heard first, but heard in a particular way so that in the final refrain the "earth" turns to pure breath and sounds like "uh uh uh uh." And I wanted to catch the energy of sexual breathing in this particular litany to glorify the sex act rather than to shut it down out of dread fear of disease. There's also the intense mouthing of vowels which I sometimes shout out in performance. So, yes, "Paean" was a text that came alive from a few scribbled notes and was written down after performance, remembering most of the moves. The long vowel stretch downward of the word "endometrium" led me into "Crack (which is also sounded as a literal crack or rip) in the World." Sax player Mark Miller and I, through improvisation, developed a "suite" of poems that sounds like Alban Berg. It was also interesting to get the saxophone echoing more mantra-like structures in a piece called "Kalyanamitra." Mark has also accompanied me with shahuhachi. The long poem "Troubairitz" went through a lot of changes after I read the piece aloud to myself, although I've never read the poem publicly. The last canto in Iovis Book II, on the other hand, working out of the songs of The Countess of Dia which have an almost Arabic sound to my ear was an extension from the "Troubairitz" poem, and started coming together first orally (sprechstimme fashion) and was meant to echo the Cage piece in Book I. Some of my writing seems to be singing to its different selves. I don't really have preconceived ideas of how an actual live reading will go. That is, I don't rehearse, which is what the word "performance" suggests: rehearsal. I'm always led by a certain heightened energy into text, and from text which carries these patternings of my nervous system into the presentation or performance. And although I wanted the epic (by definition an oral spin) Iovis to be a book, in the biggest sense of the word--a holy dense tome--I also embedded many strategies for performance in there that arose out of actual performance, such as "Objects of Desire" (Iovis Book II), which is intended to be read, sung, chanted by others. But I'm also extremely fierce about the page and its power and there are many works I never read aloud, that just don't lend themselves to that kind of disclosure. The book I'm writing has more of a prose line and is a kind of meditative, abstract, piece on the dynamics and linguistic syntax of marriage ("Marriage A Sentence"). I also have a hard time listening to my own voice on tape later. It seems so different (limited) from the actual event.
RT: Oh you should, it's good.
AW: At some point I'll have to address some of those performative strategies with more clarification and exegesis. I'd love to do a book annotating the modal structured poems, discuss their process, and examine the variants and occasions they were created for. It's a fairly open system, the performing-hard to describe in that the way the piece will manifest is often so intuitive. It could be the ambiance of the room, whether I'm inside or outside, the overall situation, time constraints. Obviously, if I'm reading in Vienna or Venezuela or Italy, there's the issue of language, and I will make choices that are more sound oriented. Or I'll try to incorporate those languages and occasions somehow. There's a piece of music in Iovis Book II composed by Steven Taylor out of a Dirge ("There Was a Time an Eclipse) we performed-Steven on violin-really extempore at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, in homage to Joe Brainard after he died. The music is notated first, the text follows. I might have to wait until the right kind of text or form arises. I often see the poems as "scores." I love John Cage's scores of course, there's a lot of room in them. Robert Duncan was extremely fastidious and didn't publish for a number of years-and then after that period of silence the writing had to be copied from the original typescript, because having the work printed took it somewhere else that was not his intention. There are many "translations," so to speak, that go on, from the shape in your mind to the shape of your voice to the shape on the page, and then within that there are myriad possibilities. How to score it? Perhaps a series of CDs with full text annotations. In fact, Steven and I are starting to record some pieces. I remember once Allen's idea was to have the word "skin," when I first published the oral piece "Skin Meat Bones," somehow fractured so that it sounded like (AW shrieks the word "skin") but how do you, even in a musical score, get that vocal quality? It's difficult.
RT: In the essay "I Is Another: Dissipative Structures," you say that performance should "actualize" a state of mind, and that you conceive of certain poems for this express purpose. Isn't that possibility, that actualization of a state of mind, also contained in poems that are not necessarily for performance?
AW: Yes, certainly. My love of poetry comes from the "actualization" I experienced in the poetry of others. And I was reading it silently and there is deep pleasure in that intimacy, a mind-to-mind transfer going on. All the music is there, inherently. And mystery as well. The puzzle and conundrums of Emily Dickinson's poetry or The Cantos is infinitely pleasurable. Or Ronald Johnson's Ark. And the experience extends a whole lifetime. But the intensity of certain vocalized language affects our bodies in a particular way, and that further actualization propels me. This isn't some absolute approach, it's simply one aspect of the work I'm doing that excites me at this point. The Greeks explored this; there were very particular meters used in making war, different ones for a love chant. Reading work silently you're going to get that as well, but somehow in performance when you actually are synchronized with your state of mind there's a psychophysical response which strikes something in you that can wake you up beyond anxiety, fear, panic. But in a way you have to provoke the fear and panic first. And then pierce through it. There's a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide, just one example. How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion? So there's a kind of demand in me for a transformative quality. This happens on many levels in all kinds of poetry. It's a complex experience. Alchemical. And of course it's played out in other cultures through elaborate ritual and drama. In Bali you have particular arenas in the huge temple complexes with various separate activities happening simultaneously. In fact, they all need to happen to work the right balance for the cosmos. To keep the world sane. Priests chant various formulas with complex mudras, or bells sounds, elaborate offerings are made by hosts of participants, while ancestral spirits are invited into the numerous shrines. Then there's someone else chanting from the Mahabharata being interrupted by a comic voice of the Penasar. It's 2 a.m. and the witch drama Colan Arang is about to begin. It ends in a charnel ground at dawn with everyone who has lasted the night terrified out of their wits. But the sun comes up and the world is renewed and spared once again. The old game of purge, I suppose. But I love the imaginativeness and soundings of it all. This resonates with a lot of Buddhist practice as well. For example, you might visualize a red-skinned creature with skulls around her neck holding a skull cup of blood stomping on the corpse of ego. She's got a fresh tiger skin around her waist, three eyes in her head-there's something in that image that wakes you up. It scares you, and it also seduces you, and it's also designed as a practice tool. It's there to work with your mind, your heart, your sense perceptions, and so on. The color red is symbolic of passion and action, so this Vajrayogini, as she's called, comes with a mantra and she comes with these various weapons and accouterments that are all symbolic of the kind of activity that this principle, as it were, this psychological principle, does or activates in the world. And there's text and mantra as well. It's not an external deity that you worship or pay homage to or revere-it's you, it's a manifestation of your energy. She clues you into your own passion, and tames it because you meet her through visualization and sound and recognize yourself. And then you might see how this passion could actually be liberating and help others and how you might be able to cut through discursiveness of all kinds. Cut! What I'm after is that wakeful state through language that stays alive. I'm not sure in my case that it can entirely rest with the page. It requires a kind of journey akin to the shamanic journey, where you go to hell and back or you go to heaven and back, or you go and fight and survive. There's some kind of contest or war or agon or struggle. I think of how the piece "Eyes in All Heads" proceeds-there's a point where the structure that I was using, the image of a Balinese temple, has to be entered. There are three stages to the poem as there are three parts to the temple. So there are clear transition points. The line with the ROAR unlocks the inner courtyard where the secret energies dwell. The intention, literally-as a ritual is something re-done-is to open the imagined gate, the gate in myself, and the gate in the hearer of the poem. The gate is the ear. The secret is something about this cutting of discursiveness that could change perception. I would suggest that some of the oral (and gestural-"Eyes in All heads" requires bowing) pieces are complicated in that way; they're not religious and they're not ritualistic, in the sense of based on some preexistent formulas, but they're working with states I've actually experienced through my various studies. Balinese Hinduism is actually much more of an animistic religion-there's still ancestor worship-and that became very haunting for me the times I was living there. The question kept arising as I grieve all these sick and dying in my own surroundings "Are you doing the proper ceremonies?" so there's a lot of homage in Iovis to the ancestors, to working with the spirits of the ancestors, and the sense of these poetic lineages I know I must contain, maintain, and hold, as well as friends and family. And one former student in her mid-twenties who's been in coma now two years. In performance it's not just me working out some psychological dynamic that I'm asking you to join, I'm also invoking or honoring these other kinds of presences.
RT: I'm glad you brought up Iovis again because that's a good transition point. If we can place certain genres of poetry on a spectrum you seem to have done them all: poetry conceived for performance; lyric poetry perhaps conceived more for the page; and epic poetry. What are the differences?
AW: Well, the inclination is rhizomatic. I less and less separate these forms out from one another. A neat little sestina, a neat oral piece, a serial poem, a major epic. The strategies emanate out in a way so that you don't simply have an epic narrative that then gets cut up and reordered, but you also have operatic strains and strands that recur. So the genres you mention are blended. Sfumato blendings of tone. These things are more separate, obviously, in earlier work. But use the sense of "making" always in the formal sense, with any project, and projects come up as books more than as individual poems at this point. I've usually referred to four distinct ways of working, which is useful in presenting possibilities to my students. First, architecture. Building. Collage. A piece that extends over time. For example, another current project (that will take years) is a poem based on the Borobodur stupa in Java using its architectural structure. It's a very complex mandala structure and lays out the various yanas and stages in Buddhist practice. Mathematical way beyond a sestina or canzone. It's more like Dante's Commedia. Perhaps you know Francis Yates's book that refers to various memory systems. To conjure a particular knowledge you visualize an architectural structure and then you walk around and see the details that then bring back the words or the poetry or the lines of thought. Memory's going extinct because we rely on machines and copies and so on. The idea of working with structures that conjure dreams, personages, history, time, that can be contained in this way as you walk through your mind, is a challenge. You're unlocking these hidden runes. So that's one ambitious way of working. And there's research involved. Informations of all kinds. Then there are formal traditional structures that you play with and build on and develop in your own direction. The sonnet, the ghazel, the pantoum. There's a hidden sestina in Iovis somewhere. Embedded villanelles, sonnets, odes. Then there's "snapshot poetics," or using the Objectivist model of really catching the world as it flies with all its minute particulars. The final dimension is the performative, ritualistic mode I've been talking at length about. There are many possible strategies. The formal stuff feels old and windy. Not to say you shouldn't know prosody. But it's a wonderful time for exploratory poetics. Contemporary poets are inventing all kinds of wild, complex shapes for poetry, as we see. It's a wonderful time, less ego-centered. When students are first at the Kerouac School we harp on Stein's very basic poetic insistence that words are things . Not to invalidate your experience or all the great feelings you have, I tell them. Although poetry may be good for you, it's not therapy. You're making something with words which are visceral, muscular, active, not just markers of how you feel. And we have classes studying Blake, Pound, Olson, Duncan, Stein.
RT: Iovis incorporates all kinds of texts-letters, journals, drawings, etc. What gets left out of such a cauldron-poem, and how do you know it should be?
AW: Boxes and boxes of detritus fell by the way. And now there's more collected material that will go into Book III. It's that moment of trust, that moment of spontaneity or synchronicity where the texture just seems to work, or suddenly that's enough. Working with researched material it can't all be in there or it turns into another kind of book. There's constant interruption. Something has to interrupt all the time because it's not, after all, just a narrative poem. There's the restless mind, the restless psyche, the "restless desk," as the poet Pat Reed calls it. Not to mention the very real interruption of the child's voice. A restlessness that's not necessarily "me" but carries all my characteristics and predilections. Sometimes it's this impatience that edits, that cuts the flow. It comes down to what really holds my interest. There's also the arrangement that's important-the various sections that have lives of their own. I'd like to suggest that the poem builds more like a raga, in which many elements are presented then re-combine within each section as well. Eastern music-I studied Indian singing briefly years ago with Lamonte Young, and I've been playing in a gamelan orchestra for a number of years-is circular, not linear. It moves in and out of possible climax.
RT: Iovis pays homage and challenges the 20th-century masters of the epic-Pound, Williams, Olson, and Zukofsky. Can you talk about this doubleness?
AW: First there's the natural appreciation, the feeling of the grateful poetic daughter. Then there's working with what's called a male form, the epic. In some of the reviews of the book, that's been challenged, you know, there are other women poets of Waldman's generation, working with these other long forms that are not epic, and why is she working with a male form? But there was a real inspiration toward writing the epic-male or not (it's debatable). It was the form that could hold what I needed to be and do. In a way, it gave me tremendous freedom, as a woman artist. Perhaps it was to first acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments of these writers and then attempt to take on or steal some of that power. Little homages within the thefts all the time. And the sense of permission to "use" languages, histories, wars, mythologies out of my own contexts, which actually evolve as prophetic or political tactics.
RT: One reason I think it's a true epic rather than a long poem is its political dimension-the recurring character of "Anne-who-grasps-the broom-tightly," for example seeks, however frustrated her efforts may seem, to effect change in the world.
AW: "Grasping-the-broom-tightly" comes from the Shakers. They sang a wonderful song, and they would sweep as they sang: [AW sings] "Tis a gift to be simple tis a gift to be free tis a gift to come down where we want to be / Turning turning will be our delight til by turning turning we come down right." It's like the old Zen adage, sweep the room as long as it takes. So "grasping the broom" becomes a metaphor for cleaning up the world. A lot of activities enter the poem, whether it's writing letters for Amnesty International or living like a homeless person on the Bowery for a few days. At least there's an attempt to be a kind of "witness" and tell about it, to (ritually) help restore balance. But the tension is always there in the "tightly" held broom. Ted Berrigan has some lines-picture of Anne, 80 years old, lovely as always, a girl under an old fashioned duress-something like that-that sense of duress seems ever-present in my energy patterns. Both heartening and depressing, reading the excellent Spicer book Peter Gizzi edited (and wrote a monograph for),The House That Jack Built. The sense, once again, of the poet being the antenna of the race, like Pound says, and getting these messages all the time, dictation from Martians. You know there's something to it. But it makes you grasp the broom more tightly. You have a task quite apart from who you think you are.
RT: Here's a line from the poem: "She thinks: why America?" What answers have you come up with?
AW: Well the poem is supposed to address that question and unravel some of the complexity, I hope. There's that older poem of John Ashbery's-"America"-with the pun "I'm a wrecker," so wreckage and building out of the ashes of that. We're haunted by the genocide that is America, the decimation of so many native cultures. As a mix-blood European ancestry American, you're a nexus of all those violences, and yet there's a relative personal identity as well. So I examine the roots of the names and try to get back to Waldemann, woodsman, and these seafaring people and glassblowing Germans who came over in the 1830s. Then from the other side the LeFevre Huguenots fleeing persecution and coming to "the promised land." So all that goes into this question, how did I (poetic I-"eye") get here? But it's cannibalistic here, so amnesiac, which is why I love to go to these older cultures where you feel like you're in a biblical or pre-biblical city, and there's continuity from way back. Yet at the same time, America's the great conundrum and the great dream and the great fascination: the new land, the new world, the new temple, the new city, and the great mess. The most handguns, bombs, weaponry, violence, the cop of the world etcetera. All the contradictions. Mediocrity versus something like indigenous jazz, one of the most evolved sophisticated musical forms on the planet. Robert Kelly has a wonderful book called Cities, which is about the hidden cities pulsing beneath or on the other side of us, the mirror cities that are happening in very different planes. In a way, America's the shadow of everything I do, everywhere I go, everything I carry, no matter if I travel to the ends of the earth. And I live frequently on the spine of the continent, near the Great Divide. Then there's the side of it being the real energy center for a truly post-postmodernist poetry mind, which is also archaic, because we can still be close to the land.
RT: In a letter fragment in Iovis you're described as "a romantic, an idealist, a revolutionary." Do you agree?
AW: That line comes from a student's letter and many students come to Naropa drawn by that image of Kerouac, first of all as a kind of hero, troubled and sick as he was. And there definitely is a kind of socio-political-poetic vision to the whole plan. I don't know-romantic?-maybe less and less. I'm trying to be pragmatic and put some of these ideals to work. The community here and what we're trying to do at this school is as utopian as it can get, in some ways. Mutually supportive, non-competitive. What I propose for the "life of a poet" goes against the grain of the fossil fuel monoculture. Maybe the most revolutionary act these days is not to watch television and to read a book a day at least.. And to study another threatened species or culture or language not your own and to keep involved with a local issue. Stay on the case. And vote. Be a guardian.
RT: It seems too easy to say that Book II deals with the feminine principle the way book I dealt with the masculine. Yet a change is evident. How would you characterize this change?
AW: A conflation of Sappho and Dante, as if the antiphonies will be joined now, opens the first canto of Book II. I wanted a female ancestor to enter in right away, ambiguous with her position and sexuality. The Celtic Hag needs to sing about her old days in the mead hall with the other poets. Spider Woman as well, increasingly isolated, spirals toward independence through her visionary dream-mind with the sense, always, of task and spin. The Countess of Dia writing through, actually singing through her love-grief. Their presences are oblations. H.D.'s in there. Stein. There was the prayer canto written while Bernadette Mayer, sister-poet, was in coma. Grieving, keening, seems a feminine proclivity. Plethora of elegiac tone. My father died as Book I was in production, and he's so present in there and back again in Book II. I sat with the proofs of Iovis I on his hospital bed, wanting to clarify, verify certain details. We were like ancients over some old family scroll. I don't know whether it was a kind of motherly instinct or suddenly feeling the orphan, the emphasis on the male poet figures, the male weaponry, the attacks on these various emblematic males that suddenly shifted for me, although the "gun control" theme was a constant edge for this second tome. I had moved from "knife" to "gun." Book III opens in a strip joint in Bangkok, gazing upon these extraordinarily beautiful female bodies that are wracked with all kinds of invisible disease-exploited, ravaged in terrifying ways.
RT: Kristin Prevallet's questions in a letter in Iovis II are intriguing. How do you see Olson? How do you deal with being criticized for your strong persona? Did the "amazing people" you knew in New York guide this process?
AW: Olson continues to be a kind of "imago," as do Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, all for very different reasons. But that oral moment in Berkeley where Olson played the fool, the anti-hero poet at his shamanic worst, or most vulnerable on some level-that presence was like a strange attractor as I, as young person, witnessed it. And the event still ripples in my poetic consciousness. And there's the event of The Maximus Poems, rich with history and mythology and language and location as a salvation for the poet, his only anchor or link to reality, as we know from the biography and various accounts. He was really possessed with this poem, people would visit him and he would be surrounded with little scraps of paper and speaking the poem, living the poem. I can identify with that kind of possession and salvation. Poets of my generation and much younger have the conversation about whether it's possible to ever have these kinds of heroic poetic figures again. It's a dying patriarchal breed, perhaps. Whether it's Spicer or Olson or Duncan or Ginsberg. Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Gary Synder, Ashbery, Baraka, of course, are still active, alive, and are major poetic pioneers. But the imposing, egomaniacal, fierce ethical poetry hero whose presence is as startling as the work-where has he gone? And can't there be women heroes? Maybe all the contemporary careerism gets in the way. And maybe the power has shifted to women who have a different, though often as uncompromising, kind of command. We'll see. There are more and more poets coming out of the safe arenas of academic writing programs or who seem to be involved with a particular fashion or attitude of writing and are highly imitative. People are scared about money, health, security. Poets need to go out and LIVE, take risks. This question of having a strong persona seems moot. Are the guys criticized for strong personas? I've sought out other strong women-Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Barbara Guest--with gratitude. Certainly knowing some of the "amazing people" in New York in early days was heartening, encouraging. Not just poets, but painters, musicians. But I'd grown up in an artistic, bohemian environment on Macdougal Street. I'd already met Leadbelly as a kid, Pete Seeger, Thelonious Monk. Frank O'Hara told me to work at the Museum of Modern Art five minutes after we met. I was extremely lucky in those encounters. There is a strong persona, granted, in some of the writing, that is intentional, if that's the question, but I'm ultimately more interested in the mask than the mirror, in Yeats' sense. And perhaps the emphasis of Language poetry has shifted the interest away from the person. But it's how you do it that's the point-Creeley, Alice Notley are magnificently "self"-indulgent.
RT: Well, the implication was that public personas can overshadow the work.
AW: Certainly, that could be true. Part of my poetry activity-that of being an "infrastructure poet"-directing the Poetry Project, co-founding The Jack Kerouac School, being adjunct faculty for the Schule fr Dichtung in Vienna (I'll be guest directing that project in the next years), editing and publishing many other writers' work, etcetera, might not have been possible without a strong persona. I am a self-appointed ambassador for poetry. I took the phrase "Erudite Fangs" from Mina Loy as the name for my current erratic little publishing venture. Some kind of energy and confidence seems necessary to make these projects happen. Of course the writing has to stand on its own, while the performance work requires a presence or voice of some kind.
RT: You, perhaps more than anyone, have straddled several schools: the Beats, the New York School, Buddhism, even language poetry . . .
AW: Well there's a time frame here, different phases. And the term of schools, while handy, obfuscates the real individual essence of a person's work sometimes. But there is a sense of social groupings, identifications, certainly. I'm basically an active reader, in love with poetry, propelled by some of the directions I've already discussed. But historically speaking, the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 was inspiring in that so many of the folk in what we call at Naropa the "outrider" tradition were gathered together in one place. And there was emphasis on oral projection of poetry and poetic/political issues-this was of course during the Vietnam war, the context was very different. There was a kind of idealism there, and the energy was infectious. As an experimental younger poet, one was feeding off the various branches of the New American (as represented in the Grove anthology) poetry tree. But women were scarce. And that was a challenge. I was very committed to generating community back in New York City, and auspiciously I was hired on at the beginning of the Poetry Project which gave a push to this ambition. I loved Frank O'Hara's work, Ashbery, Jimmy Schuyler, Kenneth Koch. The second and second generation-and-a-half New York School was practically living in my apartment. I'd also read Kerouac, Allen, Burroughs in high school. I admired Allen's politics, his generosity, his long line breaths, his public persona, and reading style. In terms of the so-called Beat connection, there's a lot of resonance: I grew up in Greenwich Village, I grew up on jazz. I hitchhiked. I was a spiritual seeker. I traveled to India, Mexico, South America, the "fellaheen" worlds. I took mind-expanding drugs. And I'd already many a connection to Buddhism in the early '60s, and that continued, and I helped found the Buddhist-inspired Institute And so on. Many of the connections were personal, real friendships with Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima (whom I met when I was 17 years old). This feels so long ago. I worked and traveled and was in constant communication with comrade-activity-demon Allen Ginsberg from the early '70s until the day he died. I was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and we've become even closer in recent years. But if you want to look at the actual work, that would take some time. I could embrace "personism," "projective verse," "no ideas but in things," "form is no more than an extension of content," Levertov's exploratory poetics, Baraka's rage, Burroughs/Gysin's cut-up agendas, Oulipo methods, etcetera as a young person. But at some point you're on your own, forging your own poetics. I admire the Language poets, their critical intellectual push and edge, but I also see that as a fluid field of activity which is related, at least in the poetry to the early New York School praxes in many ways. The Iovis project probably inculcates-even parodies?--all these strands you mention. And of course Gertrude Stein was always a muse. We almost named the Kerouac School the Gertrude Stein School of Dissembling Poetics.
RT: These schools-the very notion of schools-seem all but defunct now. Is this for good or for ill?
AW: I'm not sure. Most interesting of the late "schools," the Language poets had, at least at an earlier point, a real agenda. They were able to critique and work off each other and actually come up with a poetics that was rebellious, even political (although that seems less evident now in terms of action, though the thinking is still radical), and irritating. They challenged the avant-garde status quo and various indulgent mediocre trends (e.g., tired Beat and New York School tropes, composition by field, etcetera.). And much of the writing is really exhilarating. They charmingly raised the stakes and the conversation and were perhaps the last effective "school." But some of the best writers associated with this movement or applauded by this movement, are way beyond any limitation of "school"-Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe surely don't identify themselves in this way. I've been using the term "new independents" as a way to acknowledge-just for want of a better phrase-a younger generation that is thinking for themselves and not so qualified by the trends and practices of the last decades, and yet smart and savvy and informed by them. There are so many terrific women writers on the horizon-Elizabeth Willis, Lisa Jarnot, Eleni Sikelianos, Kristen Prevallet, Pam Rehm, Brenda Coultas, Jennifer Moxley, Sianne Ngai, Mary Burger, Angie Mlinko, many others. And I wanted to say that the Kerouac School is an actual school, yet the idea here has less to do with poetic agendas than with how to cope and survive as an artist and create your own "temporary autonomous zones," in Hakim Bey's phrase, outside the mainstream which would ultimately sap and co-opt your energy. How to be in the world as a compassionate human being as well as a scholar and a poet. We give students a tool kit, as it were. Many of our graduates are starting their own literal schools, arts projects, publications, print shops, and the like. For good or for ill? I always recommend that people work together, join forces, strength in numbers.
RT: There are several references in Iovis to the use of psychotropic drugs while writing. This idea of altering mind and body to have or create vision would liken the poet to a shaman. What burden does this role have for a contemporary poet?
AW: I hope I'm not implying this role for myself, although there's a kind of resonant paradigm. It's traditionally a difficult role. One has to be cautious and respectful of the power of the "substance" guides. I don't advocate imbibing the "little saint children," as Maria Sabina calls the magic mushrooms, or anything else for everyone. I find that certain substances reconnect me to a primal cortext of purpose that goes beyond identity and ownership. The writing-when I've worked it this way-is the kind of information you take back from dreams. Or it's hypnogogic writing rather than getting off on some sort of pleasure trip or intellectual trip. So there's an intentionality there, and yet the nature of the drug is to empty you out while bringing you closer to the thrum and pulse of the universe, more of a spiritual mystical kind of experience where the act of writing is--by its nature of leaving a residue--questioned. It can get close to the psychophysical patternings of the nervous system I've talked about. And you see your body as a different kind of Vessel. And your voice as Vox, and your mind as Vast and expansive. I've always loved to travel. I'm always interested in that tension or gap then shift or slip between dissolution and reconfiguration. Also an allegiance to a way of understanding mind when it's unhinged from the usual reference points. And the act of writing and the look of ink on the page is very odd, like the tracks of some very archaic consciousness manufactured out of the void. But always a call, it seems, to more work or activity, in my case. There's a desire to make something, refine the language, create new structures out of states of mind that are in fact already there but need exposure. There is some part that wants to dissolve, yearns to dissolve. You know, from the Buddhist point of view, neurosis is the difficulty between I, this unsolid thing, and Other. That's the poet's job, investigating all the language and imaginations between the two. The last vision I had was of a beleaguered realm of beings, a diaspora motif-land taken from them, exhausted, needing more air and water. Sound familiar? And the poets were medics. In a way, all the visions are right here, there's no escape to some Shangri-La or god realm.
RT: In a key line in Book II your son Ambrose says "Mom, you're so random." Is this statement, besides being a postmodern nod to the poem's composition, some kind of generational opposition or gender criticism?
AW: Meaning the Mother?
AW: Probably both, but more generational opposition I think. His own randomness is too much like my own and he (unconsciously) recognizes that. But his seems by far the wisest voice, he's the secret Virgil of the poem--he's also got a terrific sense of humor--that enters the poem and has the best lines: "Stop writing down your stupid notes. What are you writing down, Mom? Anne Waldman's an idiot. She's going to write these things down and think: O I'm going to sell them for a dollar. Maybe I could sell it to a fool like me for a dollar. She's the goddess of all idiots!"
RT: In Kill or Cure, you call for "a body poetics and politics, right now." You also have a piece called "oppositional poetics," in which you posit that such a poetics might in fact be spiritual. And in Iovis you celebrate the idea of a community that pays "attention to language and poetry before language." How do you see such poetics at work today?
AW: Literal body poetics-real projects, places, arenas for poetry that are international, multi-lingual, spiritual, investigative. And the sense of the preciousness of the body as vehicle for poetry. I've mentioned the Schule fr Dichtung in Vienna which has those possibilities. Our own Kerouac School. Spiritual models for me are the communities of Tibetans living in exile in India, or the banjars of Bali, which exist in times of difficulty, oppression. Alternative spaces-perhaps this kind of communication can take place over the Net? Probably only up to a point as the Net's controlled by the military. But the idea is to live outside multi-national, monocultural, commodification prison, outside the grey areas of power-mad, monied collusion. And to live in a state of mind that sees poetry as a continuum, a golden thread, a tantric path. Tantra means "thread." And celebrates it, reads it to one another, to its children, studies it in all its myriad forms and also knows how to sit still be silent, and watch the play of mind.
RT: In a poem from your first book, Giant Night, you ask, "What is a poem? What is my audience?" I'm especially interested in the second question.
AW: I have a lot of people in mind as ideal audience. Myself? Edwin Denby is still in mind as audience or my mother, Frances LeFevre Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Allen, Bernadette Mayer, Clark Coolidge, Ron Padgett, Andrew Schelling, Eileen Myles, Anselm Hollo, Bobbie Hawkins, Rikki Ducornet, my son Ambrose Bye, my beloved community of friends and family around Naropa, students present and past. Because I'm traveling and reading/performing, not just in the States but abroad a good deal of the time, I'm encountering all kinds of interesting folk, of all ages, out of other cultures-Bosnia, Romania, Indonesia-in terms of literal audience. A cross-section, I'd say. Artists, professionals, students, scholars, other poets, just folks. But down deep it's an existential question.
RT: Iovis refers often to the poet undertaking assignments. Did you generate much of the work through predetermined patterns?
AW: One section ("Within a Budding") cannibalizes Proust and began as an assignment to work with language not one's own out of a different century. "Pieces of an Hour" was timed to an hour and was inspired by work I was doing with wonderful Cage performer, pianist, aficionado Claude Brown. The "Rooms" section came from taking meditative postures for an hour at a time over the period of a month in the colored Maitri Rooms in the basement of the Naropa Institute. Various random experiments, cut-ups, fold-ins, juxtapositions, timed writings of other kinds, the "objects assignment" which involves dream, adventure, ancestry. Writing outside, writing on moving vehicles. Looking at paintings in the grand museums of the world in a proscribed way. (What's foregrounded, who's in the center, what's hidden?) Sitting still 20 minutes at a time, seeing what comes up. Taking notes on a visit to William Burroughs, taking notes on the Zapatistas. Focus on color. Interview, travel, translation. There are 25 parts to Book I, 26 to Book II, 27 perhaps next. Something about the hours in a day and the few "lost" hours. Boundaries are satisfying, there's a sharp determined non-sentimental edge involved. Counting the eleventh word on the right in eleven pages of such and such because your name carries eleven letters or starting with a kind of dictionary game where you search randomly and find a word from The Bhagavad Gita straight out of from Krishna's mouth. Bhagah means good fortune. Gita is song. Little strategies to keep the lalita --play or dance--going. Sometimes it's lonely you know, just you and your own imagination. Don't you need a partner singing in the void?
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 3 No. 4, Winter 1998/1999 (#12) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998/1999