Anne Waldman is by far one of the most renowned poets to come through Pensacola in recent memory.
Associated with the Beat Generation and the New York School of poetry, Waldman’s reputation far precedes her. In the late 1960s, Waldman played a key role in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, serving later as its director for several years. In the mid-1970s, with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Waldman co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Through her work at Naropa and St. Marks Poetry Project, Waldman mentored and taught generations of poets throughout the world. Ginsberg, her mentor and colleague at Naropa, once described Waldman as his “spiritual wife.”
After writing and editing dozens of books, taking part in numerous projects and reading in countless cities, Waldman is making her way to Pensacola, after a major poetic project in Mexico City. Inweekly interviewed her as she was about ready to catch a flight to Mexico City, to meet Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore for that very project.
INWEEKLY: What was the greatest moment of your life?
WALDMAN: The greatest moment? There have been so many. The birth of my child, my collaborator Ambrose Bye. I’ve heard this said by so many women, with their first child especially, but the wonder of that and the instant synaptic connection with that and the synaptic connection with the universe. I think another epiphany was being at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965…I heard Charles Olson, and other poets, but Olson primarily, coming unhinged as he was reading. Not that I had been to that many readings, but [prior to Olson] I’d encountered more traditionally conservative poets coming through New York. There was something very shamanic [about Olson's reading], I guess that would be the word. He had some quality that seemed magnetizing… A poet in a public space that seemed unrehearsed and following his or her psychic rhythms through language. So that was a moment where I thought I am drawn to this. I’d already been writing and thinking about poetry, a lot of poetry, but [there] was a community of poets who were there in Berkeley. It was my first time out of New York. Although I’d been out of the country, but I hadn’t been in our country. Anyway, [there was] something about the possibilities for experimental American poetry.
INWEEKLY: Did you see this as the birth of your poetic moment?
WALDMAN: I don’t know. The epiphanies are so definitive. Or you might see them in retrospect that [they] might seem like momentous moments in your direction. I decided [then that] I wasn’t going to go to graduate school. I just wanted to get back to New York and be on the scene. So I guess I don’t know if this is a good question for me about the moment as there are so many. And of course travel. Every time I go to a new place my mind is blown.
INWEEKLY: I know that you’re going to be reading in Mexico City soon and New York City, too. Then the next logical stop, in Pensacola.
WALDMAN: Of course!
INWEEKLY: What are you expecting in Pensacola?
WALDMAN: Well, I know Jamey [Jones], and I have great admiration for him and what he seems to be doing there. There’s a sense that there’s a ground that he’s created through his teaching. I’m very much looking forward to seeing him, catching up and meeting some of his community. I’ll also be visiting some of the Buddhist community, teaching a workshop. I expect open hearts and minds. Also the climate—we’re still fighting the piles of snow here.
INWEEKLY: You won’t get that here, I promise you.
WALDMAN: I know. It’s also a nice stop with a lot of other things going on. Deadlines, travel and so on. It’s nice when you go to a place where you know the people hosting you. I’m curious about what people are thinking and reading. It’s a difficult time for the country, with the current political climate. We could say a lot about that. Where that’s all heading—with the cuts to the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and the Department of Education. I mean the new Supreme Court justice hearings. It’s just, everyday, there’s so much to keep track of. It seems very retrograde, dystopic and scary, frankly.
INWEEKLY: How do you think the impending budget cuts will affect the arts, and poetry in particular?
WALDMAN: Well, we’ve all been very active for a number of years with some help, as there should be, from [the government]. It’s nothing you come to expect, and it’s so minimal anyway, but we’ve become attuned to our practice, life in the art, the infrastructure of poetry for generations now so that you’re aware of what can make a difference. So that little bit of money, especially the way it’s going, has been spread out so that it’s not just the major cities. Things trickle down, so it can help a little reading series get going, or a publication, or help an individual working in collaboration with others. These can be necessary ways to keep things going. I was especially thinking of a student from the Kerouac School starting an after-school program in a small town near Seattle. That funding really made all the difference in terms of renting a space, getting poets from outside the area to come to town and teach workshops, doing publications. You can do a lot with a little in that kind of environment. I just hate to see that cut off at the root.
INWEEKLY: While the government is officially trying to downgrade the role of the arts in American society, what is the role of the poet?
WALDMAN: Well there are many roles for many, many different poets. You don’t want to assign one role for all poets. That’s what’s kept me so interested [in poetry]—the variety. The different strands, the different lineages. Some people are not able to comfortably get up and perform their poems. Some people are much more involved with the look on the page, documentary poetics projects. Then there’s the infrastructure business that some poets are really involved with, like creating community, rolling up their sleeves… it’s something when you’re able to hold a site over time. The [St. Mark's] Poetry Project is now in its 50th year. It’s gone through many, many different struggles and versions of itself. But there’s a sense of that continuity. People have worked hard to keep it going, by donating their time. So there are infrastructure poetics. There’s lots of stuff [involving] identity and gender and issues of the time. A lot [of poetry about] working out a trauma, working out of the sense of the migrant body. There are a number of migrant organizations spearheaded by the Academy of American Poets—taking migration as a theme of the work they’re all going to be doing in the next year. Migration is a theme for the curation of events, but also for writing projects and collaborative projects. You know it’s hard. The role [of the poet], I think, is to wake the world up to itself through your propensity toward adoration of language and all of its potential power.
INWEEKLY: That’s a beautiful way to put it—to think of poetry as a means to wake ourselves up and to put us into that frame of mind so that we can better understand ourselves and better hear ourselves.
WALDMAN: Yes. I think that’s the poet’s job, in a way. To reflect. And not everyone’s going to see it your way, and that’s not the idea, but to be able to register with a lot of different synchronicities and people’s different kinds of experiences. In such a rich and difficult time, there’s also so much suffering. So how do you have that be part of your spiritual path. As an artist, you try to alleviate suffering. You work through that. You try to understand your world. How to wake it up. How to alleviate the confusion.
INWEEKLY: If you don’t mind, I want to bring it back to the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. I know you’ve been with the Poetry Project from the beginning and they’re about ready to honor you. Do you have any specific moments that stand out to you and encapsulates this broad period?
WALDMAN: I remember when Ken Kesey [author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest"] came. We had people in the balcony. I think at one point he had people do some sort of breathing experiment, and we were really afraid the balcony was going to collapse. We were so overpopulated, probably more people than are legally allowed by the fire department. We were doing things like “Dial-a-Poem,” and we’d put up a [radio] station at the bell tower at the church. That was not done through the usual means. The FCC came, and they busted us as we were broadcasting outrageous, transgressive poems like Allen Ginsberg’s “Please, master. Please.” Or Jim Carrol’s “Basketball Diaries.” A whole number of things that were not supposed to be heard on the airwaves or on the telephone for that matter. The FCC had their big truck parked outside. We had something like a five-mile radius in that brief period putting poems out to the immediate neighborhood.
INWEEKLY: Can you tell me a little about your latest book “Voice’s Daughter of a Heart Yet to be Born” and what influenced it?
WALDMAN: I’ve always been enamored of the [William] Blake poem “Book of Thell,” which is a very simple book. It’s a six-page poem. In fact, not a prophetic book exactly, although I read it that way. You could say anything of Blake’s has that edge. The notion of being unborn, as Thell does [in the Blake poem]. Thell, which means the unborn coming to the mouth of the womb, and her conversation with these emblems of Blake’s various ideas. A worm, a clod of clay, a cloud, and a lily flower. [She's] then shown her own grave pod, as she’s looking out of the womb, and then saying “I don’t want to go there. Why would I want to go there? I live in this great ‘Vales of Har,’” or harmony, as Blake calls it. She’s with her virgin sisters, dancing in the Vales of Har. Why would you come into this world which has Aleppo and nuclear degradation and climate crises, etcetera, etcetera. The idea’s been with me a long time, being unborn. What does it mean to come into this world? Also from the Buddhist idea of unborn, nothing is really born [but] it’s continuous. There are these transitions, of course. In the human form, you’re born as a babe, sort of innocent, but not really because you’re bringing over some karma.
INWEEKLY: Do you see Thell as being connected to your own experience?
WALDMAN: I wanted to bring Thell into this weave, and have aspects of myself, aspects of others, aspects of this whole paradigm and drag [Thell] into the experience. So the book has two parts, but it’s basically this idea of the experience of innocence and then into the experience. So I’m able to drag her in, and I have her in the end, at the end of her life. The view is that without experience, you live in this state of dementia. You never do experience certain things. At the same time, in terms of the human life span, you can move into dementia. So there’s a kind of Thell figure in the end of the book, in the last part of the book, the section called “Solace” where she’s actually in a retirement home, moving Alpha Bits [the children's cereal] around very slowly. Actually, there’s a close friend of mine who’s in that state and does that, passes the time moving Alpha Bits around. So working off the stages of life and death, stages of possibility, and then ideas of what it is to be born and not born…where you’ve come from and where you could go. Not that it’s particularly resolved.
INWEEKLY: The title is intriguing. Where does that come from?
WALDMAN: The title’s actually from both [French poet Antonin] Artaud and the Bat Kol, which is the Hebrew idea of the voice of God and the female voice, thus that’s the idea of the heart yet to be born. Thell being female, the Bat Kol, the voice of God, and the descriptions of what that is. You hear that [voice] as an echo or something that’s very low key. It’s something in your mind that you’re not even sure you’re hearing a voice. Sometimes there’s one description coming out of a religious sanctuary and hearing the voice that’s outside the official patriarchal place where you might be hearing the voice of God. But out of the Artaud…there’s a late piece of fragments where he actually refers to the daughters of the heart yet to be born. There are some different versions of that. Even Anais Nin is in one of the lists [of Artaud fragments]. But I love this phrase because it’s the voice’s daughter yet to be born. It turns it around a bit, so in a way, I started with Thell and this title. I was compelled. I [also] went through my own experience with cancer, and I thought the poem was my way of recovering.
INWEEKLY: “Voice’s Daughter” feels very introspective, but also retrospective, too. More so than any other book I’ve read recently, the epigraphs at the beginning of the book are helpful in understanding where you’re about to take the reader, too. I’m thinking mostly of [poet] Will Alexander’s piece which works very well as a guidepost to read the poem.
WALDMAN: Will’s great because he takes you to these other cosmologies, places of mind but really traveling off world.
INWEEKLY: To me, it read like a poetic snapshot of the moments before the big bang. What existed before the Earth and what exists after.
WALDMAN: Yeah, I like that.
INWEEKLY: It helped so much in my own understanding of this work, especially the early parts. In fact, towards the beginning, early in “Voice’s Daughter,” you reference the work as a text of redemption. Would you say that there’s a redemptive quality to poetry in general? If so, what does it redeem?
WALDMAN: I guess I’ve found it to be such, and this is outside of a Christian version of [redemption]. Again, it’s awareness, as in waking the world up. Awareness. A Buddhist heart. A Buddhist praxis, or view of philosophies. To just wake up. The word Buddha, the root word is “awake.” The redemption is that you somehow come out of your sleep, your nightmare, your dream. You start to look at the six realms—from the hell realm to the animal realm, to the human realm, and then to the warring god realm—until you can wake up and see the tendencies, the propensities. For example, the warring god realm is like the Pentagon. You have to create more weapons so you can have a war. You have to be making war all the time. What is that cycle of meaning? Meaning to do that. So you create weapons to create an enemy in order to do that. Until you can wake up to that, these patterns that seem to arise out of ignorance, passion or aggression. You’re in it, you’re still in this cycle of samsara [suffering]. I think that’s part of it for me. Redemption is when you can wake up and see the patterns and see the cycles. For me, poetry is always redeeming because it’s like another language. You’re a poet, and it’s so awakening. Something’s catching your mind through the image, the sound, the construction of these words and how they’re put together through the muse. You feel really alive. I don’t know if you’re saved or anything like that, but maybe for a moment. For a moment.
ANNE WALDMAN WORKSHOP
What: Poetry workshop
When: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, April 21
Where: PSC Library, 1000 College Blvd., Bldg. 20, Room 2051
ANNE WALDMAN READING
What: Reading and performance with Ambrose Bye
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 22
Where: PSC’s Ashmore Fine Arts Center, 1000 College Blvd., Bldg. 8
Cost: $11 general public; free for PSC students