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Anne Waldman Interview

 

Anne Waldman has been an active member of the “Outrider” experimental  poetry community for over 40 years as writer, sprechstimme performer, professor,  editor, magpie scholar, infra-structure and cultural/political activist. She grew up on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village where she still lives, and bi-furcated to Boulder, Colorado in 1974 when she co-founded The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University, the first Buddhist inspired school in the West, where she currently serves as Artistic Director of its celebrated Summer Writing program. Allen Ginsberg has called her his “spiritual wife”. She is the author of over 40 books of poetry including Kill or Cure, Marriage: A Sentence, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble and the poetic text: Outrider which includes an interview with Ernesto Cardenal, and essays on Lorine Niedecker and Charles Olson.  Manatee/Humanity  (Penguin Poets 2009) is Waldman’s most recent book. She is also the author of the legendary Fast Speaking Woman (City Lights), now translated into Italian, Czech and French, as well as the 800 page epic Iovis trilogy (Coffee House Press), forthcoming in 2011. She is editor of The Beat Book (Shambhala Publications) and co-editor of The Angel Hair Anthology (Granary Books), Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Coffee House) and a comprehensive Beats at Naropa  (Coffee House, 2009), with previously unpublished work by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and William Burroughs, among others.  A book translated into Chinese is forthcoming in 2010.

 

Waldman has worked actively for social change, and has been involved with the Rocky Flats Truth Force and was arrested in the 1970s with Daniel Ellsberg and Allen Ginsberg protesting the site of Rocky Flats which was bringing plutonium onto property 10 miles from Boulder for the manufacture of “triggers” for nuclear warheads.  She has been involved with clean-up issues and also with Poets Against the War, organizing protests in New York and Washington, D.C., and with the Poetry Is News events, co-curated with Ammiel Alcalay. She was active in the recent election cycle, along with countless young people and elders and artists. She took a vow at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 to devote her life to poetry and artistic “community”. She helped found and direct The Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery where she worked as first assistant director and then director a decade. She currently serves on the Board of the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. She has been an editor of several small press venues over the years, including Angel Hair Magazine and Books, Full Court Press, Rocky Ledge, Erudite Fangs and Thuggery & Grace.

 

She has been a student of Buddhism since 1962, a culturally active feminist, and an ambassador for the oral revival of poetry, appearing on stages from Berlin to Caracas, from Mumbai to Beijing. She has been instrumental in encouraging poetry projects worldwide and has helped organize programs in Vienna and Indonesia. She has also collaborated with artists Elizabeth Murray, Richard Tuttle, Donna Dennis and Pat Steir as well as dancer Douglas Dunn, filmmaker Ed Bowes, and her son, musician/composer Ambrose Bye. Her extensive historical literary, art and tape archive resides at the Hatcher Graduate Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

Some of her performances may be viewed on YouTube.

 

 

Pam Brown, since 1971, has published many books and chapbooks including Text thing (Little Esther Books, 2002), Dear Deliria and True Thoughts—both from Salt Publishing in 2003 and 2008 respectively. She has also written for film and theatre. She collaborated with Seattle-based Egyptian poet Maged Zaher on a collection of poems called farout library software  published by Tinfish Press in 2007. Her next book Authentic Local is forthcoming from Papertiger Media. For five years, from 1997 until 2002, she was the poetry editor of the Australian literary quarterly Overland and currently co-edits Jacket magazine. Born in Seymour Victoria, in a parallel life Pam Brown lives in La Reunion, in real life she is currently doing time in Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney. Her blog The Deletions can be found here.

 

 

 

 

PB: Although the poem/songs on the recent album, Matching Half (that you share with Akilah Oliver and Ambrose Bye) are uniquely yours, I am reminded of Laurie Anderson, Marianne Faithfull (even) and Patti Smith when I listen to it. Your content is more directly political and philosophical and definitely highly poetic. The music is distanced enough, never overpowering yet much more than illustrative. The poems work more subtly on the listener than reading them on a page. Can you tell me a little about how and why you came to make this CD?

 

AW: I certainly admire the work of Laurie, Marianne, Patti—very individual, one from another—and sisters in the craft and in these many decades a company of friends. I think this generation of women artists is extraordinary.

 

I am primarily interested in the trajectory of a difficult text to performance, and in the notion of sprechstimme (“spoke-sung” in German) and how I might encapsulate a “modal structure” that’s in my head of such a text—political poetic, philosophical—within a sound-scape.  So I think of myself as a word-worker who can also sing and “mouth” the words. And the sounds, images and ideas invoked are crucial to my work in the world.

 

And I’ve worked with a number of musicians over the years, of many ilk—including jazz giant Steve Lacy, sax player Roy Nathanson and Steven Taylor, long-time accompanist to Allen Ginsberg and the young very gifted Bethany Spiers. But I’ve been working most consistently and frequently with my son Ambrose Bye—a composer and musician—in the last several years.

 

Matching Half came together in a magical, serendipitous way, in that I would go spend time with Ambrose who has been living in San Francisco, and we would both listen to what each of us was up to and then we’d try things out in his living room—a very basic recording situation—and I felt strongly about the kind of texts and performance I wanted to do—and many of the pieces were coming from my ongoing Iovis epic (the 900 page poem will be published by Coffee House Press in 2011, which takes on War and Patriarchy). I was excited that we could incorporate the urgency I felt with some of the material, that I could work with my vocal range, that we could discuss nuance and cut-up and repetition.  ‘Ready to March’ (his title) is a bit of Iovis  that is a flash on Vietnam, Cambodia and right now—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It starts with the line ‘Across from me…’ as if someone is right there watching a man dress to go to war. The way Ambrose arranges the texts once I’ve recorded them is always interesting and instructive to me. He shapes them into a viable, unique and compelling form. In a way they are literary songs. “Distanced”, as you say; yet present and contributing to the logopoeia (the dance of ideas). I think he is one of the best composers ever to work with poetry, creating sound-scapes that lets the language breathe. He’s always telling me to “tone it down” —I don’t always have to be so passionate and enraged and histrionic!  So there’s a more consistent tone here compared to some of my performance of the texts in our last CD, The Eye of The Falcon.

 

Akilah Oliver—terrific African-American poet, long associated with the Naropa project and author most recently of A Toast In The House of Friends—also recorded for Ambrose. They have a connection from his childhood and youth. He knows and intuits her “voice”. Her two pieces on Matching Half also have a distinct flavor and nuance and they open out into a kind of flaneur point of view walking through all sorts of streets and environments and memory. The music carries the erratic and rich strides of her texts.

 

Ambrose grew up inside the community of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder hearing many decibels of poetry throughout his childhood with godfathers like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. So he’s got a sensitive ear. He was once on stage with Amiri Baraka reading his own first texts, age 11. He’s extremely modest about what he does—shy at times—yet confident in the studio and naturally attuned from years of hearing such a range of language—almost like he’s got a ‘”sub-ear” for poetry that hears additional ways to support text through his music ear.

 

He studied gamelan music as a child which is a collaborative process, working with metallaphone instruments and gongs in cycles of timed phrases. I can hear this influence in the work he does with me.

 

PB: The poem/song ‘Flame’ ends with the line ‘Or a desire to return one’s clumsy body to its original oceanic (amniotic) fluidity…’ connecting the listener to your interest in spirituality, which I assume, is in part, an interest in methods of transcending the limited bag of chemicals and bones in which we carry our minds and psyche. And your next track leads on from this in 'Manatee/Humanity’ (we have dugongs in Australia, I think a manatee is a similar sea creature to a manatee?) In your poem the manatee is threatened by man, by humanity.

 

AW: Yes, we are most certainly seductive complicated hairy bags of water and ‘Flame’ is a love poem and a Buddhist poem and perhaps an investigation into the weird split in our psyches. So yes, transcendent and deconstructing. I invoke Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium describing how we were originally two humans in one sphere who grew overly ambitious until Zeus sliced us in two! What is the matching half? What is other? Why are you my “flame”? In Buddhism, a neurosis is considered a problem with space, ‘Manatee/Humanity’ with the sense of “other”.  “Other” is problematic and mysterious and terrifying to habitually patterned ego. I love how Ambrose intervenes on the Zeus line. You feel the “cut” in a visceral way, like lightening. So we are perpetually searching for our other half.

 

Indeed the precious manatee is similar to the dugong and this litany comes from a much longer book-length narrative hybrid poem entitled Manatee/Humanity recently published by Penguin Poets (2009). A neuroscientist friend (who has a brain of a manatee sitting on his desk!) sent the recording of voice of the manatee that you hear in this song. I find it extremely haunting. I had an encounter with a manatee in Florida—an aged female creature who had been scarred by motorboat blades and monofilament line yet seemed a kind of ancient primordial wisdom figure—an extremely gentle soul—in her isolated tank. And at the same time the manatee was being taken off the Endangered Species list in the U.S., by George W. Bush’s brother Jeb, then governor of Florida. This was a three-year project involving some research and dreams and a particular Buddhist ritual—the Kalachakra, which explores the nature of time. I got very caught up with the notions of “mirror neurons” and empathy and what keeps us human. In the book the manatee stands in for all endangered species—the grey wolf, the polar bear, the lemur, and so on. So there was some urgency here as well. The piece also has a personal intensity—the connection of the mother manatee and her offspring, as I can’t forget that Ambrose and I—mother & child—were coming together in this. We’re working on a fuller Manatee/Humanity album. He’s already composed new pieces for other sections of the poem.

 

PB: Your track ‘Corset’ reminds us directly of the early twentieth century anarca-feminist Emma Goldman, and is yet relevant today. The piece reminds me a little of Patti Smith’s early ‘Piss Factory’ which, like ‘Corset’, accumulates an urgency as it drives along. Here the percussion gives it that urgency and, again, your poem is more directly political and historical and is from your collection Outrider. Are you as motivated by political urgency these days as in the past and can you give me a brief definition of an “outrider”?

 

AW: Yes, certainly motivated by the urgency, and I can’t imagine otherwise. An outrider—poet, artist, philosopher—is riding parallel to the mainstream, informed by it, maybe not so interested, doesn’t buy into the careerism, acts as a kind of gadfly, and as a corrective/intervention to/on a lazier status quo. Oppositional but not shut down. Not totally “outside”.  From some perspective—perhaps more global—the most interesting poetics and poetry of the last decades has been outside official academic sites of privilege and credentials. It could be anonymous, collective, collaborative. And yet one is grateful in the US of A for the official academic sites that provide places and houses of discourse. And I am grateful also for the archive that such places provide. I always think of Naropa University—which is only 35 years old—a mere institutional child—as a kind of exception. We started it from scratch ourselves; we weren’t building on the bones of dead white male slavers. We didn’t have the karma of financial investments in murkier realms … and we operate on a shoestring … people work for less because they believe in the vision of a non-competitive, more contemplative education. And there’s an activist bent to our curriculum. It’s hard to explain how some of our elder poets of the so-called new American post-modern period lived their lives in poetry. Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Frank O”Hara, Barbara Guest, Charles Olson. Very different from what we have now. So the idea is to keep the sense of the outrider spirit and lineage going.

 

PB: ‘Ceremonies of the Gong World’ has a kind of ominous feeling and addresses recent terrorist bombings, conflicts and problems (like the tsunami) in Asia, specifically Bali, Aceh, East Timor. You seem to know quite a bit about local religion there. Have you visited Bali and Indonesia?

 

AW: I worked in Bali, directing a Naropa study-abroad program, a program that began in the 1980s. And was able to travel to other parts of Indonesia. We studied culture, language, religion—particularly Hinduism as it manifests in Bali—dance, gamelan, and participated in many rituals. Unfortunately when the bombing the year after 9/11 occurred, we had to close the program. Very sad. It was deemed too dangerous for foreigners. We still own a gamelan orchestra there that I was able to purchase with support after Allen Ginsberg died. We call it the ‘Allen Ginsberg Shimmering Orchestra’ and a wonderful musician Made Lasmawan is in change, and it’s being used by his students which makes me extremely happy.  The instruments must be played—there’s a spirit in the orchestra—“taksu” is the word—that needs nurturing.

 

A pilgrimage to the Buddhist stupa of Borobudur in Java led to the long poem Structure of The World Compared to a Bubble (Penguin Poets) This poem is an investigation into the architecture of this site and the notion of the Bodhisattva path. A lot of my work navigates from more Asian structures and spiritual traditions and I’ve been a student of Vajrayana Buddhism for a number of years. I’ve also been to India many times. Short but powerful trips. There was a need to turn away from the master colonial narratives of Europe as a younger woman poet, coming of age in the 1960s. Explore more “fellaheen” worlds, what’s more subtly below the radar, more atmospherically feminine, actually.

 

PB: The anti-war poem/song ‘Ajanta’ which attempts a reconciliation of “the West” with “the East” and pleads for acceptance of difference and for religious freedom, has the line ‘modernity the conception of secular desire’. Religion, it seems to me, has been a divisive issue for centuries. Can you expand a little on why “modernity” conceives secular desire—- what’s different now? And can you tell me the meaning of the title, ‘Ajanta’?

 

AW:  Yes, divisiveness that continues. Especially with monotheism. Modernity is still the progressive intellectual hope in some way. And our desire—erotic—is more secular sometimes than spiritual. Of course we’re in the post-modern now. I’ve been contemplating—after some recent trips there—how China missed out on the cultural literary artistic modernity of the west while they were being so secular. And in the meantime the Dalai Lama and others were bringing Buddhism to the west, more as a philosophy than religion. But Confucianism has some power there still and in Vietnam. And probably the west will re-introduce Buddhism to China! All our desires seem secular unless you are fundamentalist Christian or Jew or jihadist. Yet there is great wisdom in these traditions. I am not positing one view. I live inside “negative capability”, inside the contradictions. But the dance of these syncretic forms is interesting and how they play out in modern times is an ongoing fascination for my thinking and my work.

 

The Ajanta Buddhist Caves—there are 29 of them—are near the village of Ajintha in the Indian state of Maharashtra. They are a rock-cut series of monuments set in a rugged horseshoe-shaped ravine dating from the 2nd century BCE. Some of them have stunning and quite well preserved wall paintings and sculpture inside. The history is complicated as the caves were built at different times and in some cases for religious purposes, but hardy used. They were also sponsored by Hindu kings, so there was a flow between cultures and spiritual practices. There was also a lot of internecine warfare going on, warring factions, and the like. I had been wanting to visit this site for decades and was invited to a festival in Mumbai just 2 years ago and then made my way there and was able to stay a few days. So “Ajanta” is based on notes while I visited the caves. I really like what Ambrose creates here—particularly with the “gasp”. I told him I wanted the “gasp” to be the seed syllable for the piece.

 

PB: Have you performed the poem/songs on Matching Half live?  If not, are you planning a performance?

 

AW: Yes I’ve performed them with Ambrose, and Akilah as well, and we have some shows on the east coast in October at the Poetry Project and Bowery Poetry Club in New York, and at a festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. We did a whole Manatee/Humanity show recently at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, which was a success. The manatee has legs.  

 

 

 

 

 copyright © Ann Waldman & Pam Brown