In conversation with Anne Waldman on protest and poetry, non-competitive education and the relationship between written and the performed word.
Anne Waldman, born in Millville, New Jersey in 1945, is the author of more than 40 collections of poetry and poetics and an active member of the Outrider experimental poetry movement. Her work as a cultural activist has included supporting alternative poetry communities, starting the small press Angel Hair and, with Allen Ginsberg, founding the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
She grew up in Manhattan on Beat poetry and jazz, influences that have strongly persisted in her work, along with the second generation of the New York School. Her practice of Tibetan Buddhism has also deeply influenced her work.
Waldman has performed internationally and collaborated with visual artists, musicians and dancers. At the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival, Waldman spoke to The Wire about emotion and expression in poetry, the importance of pilgrimage and the need for non-competitive education.
Your work is fascinating for the way it crosses genre and form, especially incorporating song and chant. How does this process evolve in the writing of a poem? Once the poem is written, what is the relationship between the written word and the performed, the purely cerebral and the physical?
It depends on the project. I primarily work on long texts that start with some kind of encounter. ‘Iovis’ came out of a line from Virgil – ‘iovis omnia plena’, which means ‘all is full of Jove’ – a line that had a kind of resonance. This led to a fabric, a kind of a montage that drew on many elements like overheard conversation, embedded forms, tropes. It’s about the best form that can ‘hold’ a certain kind of expression. Then there are points that manifest an emotion or state of mind. Those become the songs or outbursts or asides.
I’ve always been interested in a bigger form, one that doesn’t just rest quietly on the page. The performative quality is there because there needs to be an extra emphasis. Rather than reading quietly, I feel the physical need to do something bigger. I don’t walk around as an angry person all the time, but there are different states of minds. Like in Hinduism, the gods and goddesses embody different states of being and experience. That’s the idea. Then, some things are written for protest. They have the need to arise.
You’re a poet who takes from the whole world and whose work addresses the world. Does such work become complicated, in creation or consequence? To what degree are you a pilgrim? To what degree a spokesperson?
Yes, it can become dangerous. I’ve never lived in Iraq or Syria but I write about them. Maybe some part of me wanted to be a reporter, some kind of witness or documenter. [Allen] Ginsberg had that quality. He was so curious and wanted to get to the bottom of things. I should probably be more of a pilgrim than a spokesperson. When you become my age [72 years] you’re supposed to shed everything! There is also a balance to strike sometimes between being a public figure and a private person. I don’t want to go around being Anne Waldman all the time! I want to shed my identity. At the same time I have so many projects that need even more attention now, under [Donald] Trump.
Yesterday, you joked about wanting to move now that Trump has been inaugurated as president of the US. But what can poets and artists do through their work, as protest or activism?
They can do their work and take a stand for art. Art is a kind of spiritual practice. It makes you wake up to what you see and touch. We are very endangered and we aren’t urgent enough. Everyone is so invested in the money and certain ways of doing things. It’s foxes in the henhouse. It’s like some macabre joke, like a dystopian nightmare. It’s good we can see it and dissect it and problematise, but we also have to be not naïve and have a cool eye and be careful with our projections.
The word is so important – we have to stand by our words. It’s not that poets are always telling the truth. They’re not dangerous in that way, they question, they play. They can also be propagandist. Ezra Pound’s poetry was great but his politics… But it isn’t either-or, it isn’t dualistic. The point is that artists have to make their art. I want to get back to this book I’m working on and all these things that are on my mind will come into it. I have a piece, written during the Iraq War, in which I demonise Dick Cheney and I strangle him and scream!
Art can be a way to express things that can’t be said any other way. Somehow the condensed quality of poetry can cut through without a whole 20-page paper. I still feel moved by Emily Dickinson’s poems, certain poets of the New American Poetry, the Beat Poets.
As one of the founders of Naropa University, you’re as much of an educator as a poet. In fact, for you, the two seem to go hand-in-hand. What is your idea of ‘teaching poetry’, especially in context of the burgeoning of the ‘MFA industry’ in the US?
I can’t do those workshops in which you sit and say to each other, I like this, I like this. They’ve turned ‘workshop’ into a verb. I have a problem with that level of things. The good thing about those creative writing courses is that you are in a community and you don’t have to worry about space or time. In the 1960s or ’70s you could say, okay, I’ll go to San Francisco, I’ll go to New York. You can’t just go to a city anymore, they’re so expensive.
At Naropa, it’s non-competitive, inter-generational, diverse. It’s a good mix of people. It’s a world in itself. You have the very radical, occupy-type people. You have the people who just want to focus on their work and write their poems. But I recommend the more experimental form because I think it’s more liberating. There’s an activist component to the curriculum. Reading is very important. Also studying the poetics of other cultures. I know very little about Indian poetics, but I’ve worked in Indonesia and Thailand.
I’m designing a programme this summer at Naropa. The theme is the ‘new weathers,’ as in the literal weather, with climate change, but also the new weathers of our minds and psyches. My question for people now is, what is your hundred-year project? The idea of a five-year plan seems huge to people. But when Ginsberg and I were in a meeting and this idea came up of the school, we thought it would be a 100-year project. To create something beyond your own lifetime from which others can benefit.