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[Oral History]

A Conversation With Anne Waldman


“Perhaps we are finally facing our karma of genocide and slavery and oppression of women.”

From a conversation between Anne Waldman and Stephanie LaCava that took place last month in downtown Manhattan. Anne Waldman is a poet, performer, activist, and professor born in 1945 and raised in New York’s Greenwich Village. Since the Sixties, she has been a prominent figure in the East Coast experimental poetry scene. In 1974, alongside Allen Ginsberg, Waldman cofounded the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. The author of over forty books, her latest, Trickster Feminism, was released earlier this month by Penguin. 

Ambrose Bye, Anne Waldman, and Devin Brahja-Waldman for Ajoblanco magazine. Photo by Ignacio Izquierdo. June 1, 2018.

Ambrose Bye, Anne Waldman, and Devin Brahja-Waldman for Ajoblanco magazine. Photo by Ignacio Izquierdo. June 1, 2018.

My mother, Frances LeFevre, read a lot of modernist and contemporary poetry and philosophy; she was somewhat of an autodidact. She had grown up with a single mother, a devout Christian Scientist. She never went to the doctor as a child and as a result was deaf in one ear, which made her more attuned and curious in a way. She was incredibly smart, a good poet, and translator of Greek and French. She had lived in Greece for a decade with her first husband, son of the celebrated Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos. She was part of the community of the Delphic Idea there, bringing classic theater back outdoors, under the tutelage of her mother-in-law Eva Palmer, who was also part of Natalie Barney’s circle. My mother learned Greek and how to weave, and my brother Mark was born in Greece. I honor her because she had a fiercely uncompromising and adventuresome mind; she transmitted confidence in being an artist.

Her second marriage was to my father John Waldman, a musician at the time. They had met at an Isamu Noguchi party. After the war—my father had served in Germany and was going to NYU on the GI Bill—we were living on the top floor of a rooming house on MacDougal Street. A dog, cat, my older brother, my younger brother, and my parents living in cramped quarters. I learned about doing with less and the value of a library. But our downstairs neighbors knew Leadbelly [Huddie Ledbetter], and I sat on his lap as a child. This was a blessing. What a genius voice, a great poet, so, so deep “In The Pines.”

I  went to Friends Seminary on a partial scholarship during my high school years. My parents were interested in the contradictions and complexities of a liberal humanist education. The anti-nuke Quaker activists would be out on the streets protesting while students were taking shelter in the basement. I cite this and my early Public School 8 days, clutching a dog tag, as my baptism as an artist and activist. Too much cognitive dissonance. How would a dog tag identify your body in a nuclear holocaust? It made absolutely no sense. Better to be out in public space making noise than hiding in a bomb shelter.

We were a generation of bohemian teens. Novelist John Hersey’s son carried a copy of Naked Lunch around in his guitar case. Jonathan Cott turned me on to Rilke and The Dream of The Red Chamber. Pete Seeger was up the block. I had been in grade school with Randa Haines, an early female director in Hollywood. I was allowed to go to her house once a week to watch TV.

Friends’s religion teacher, Earle Leslie Hunter, was expansive in his exploration of Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. We had a comparative-religion tome rich in images of temples, shrines, meditative poses and gestures. I was drawn to Eastern imagery and aesthetics: chant, mantra, Indian music with its subtleties and alap improvisations. Sufi dancing and music.

Both my parents were atheists, although when Ambrose [Bye], my son, was born, there was some pressure on the Brit side—my husband Reed’s wonderful, elegant family—to have a baptism for the child. My mother said, “Get all the blessings you can.” We did. And later he took refuge in Buddhism, although he is more of a voting anarchist. Artist, of course.

In the early Sixties, I met my first Buddhist teacher: Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, a Mongolian lama. I was eighteen years old. Geshe Wangyal was living in a pink house in suburban New Jersey with a retinue of young monks, clad in brown and burgundy robes, gnawing on chicken bones. They had a number of colorful dough sculptures [gtor-ma] on the mantelpiece, incense burning—and wild female dakini figures in various ritual postures. The atmosphere was quite magnetizing. I had trust in him, his candor, his gentleness. It was summer and I was working in an arts program at a Quaker settlement house. It was the summer of the Philadelphia riots. I went back a few times.

Wangyal and his students, which included Robert Thurman, a brilliant Buddhist scholar and teacher, were also translating texts and chants. The chants were energetic, sometimes didactic, but enigmatic as poetry, nightmarish in places, beautiful in other moments.

The magazine Angel Hair came together at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, 1965. It was the year before the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s was founded, a crucial time in American poetics with the Vietnam War kicking in. I traveled to Berkeley with a school friend, stopping to see some Sikelianos relatives along the way. I met poet Lewis Warsh at a Robert Duncan poetry reading, and we bonded over poetry and an LSD trip that sealed a sense of cosmic friendship and cultural activism. Lewis was a Jack Spicer enthusiast, a collector of White Rabbit Press editions. I took a vow at Berkeley that I would work with this “outrider” poetry community my whole life. We hitchhiked from San Francisco to San Diego, where we stayed with friends of mine, then took a bus from Tijuana to Mexico City, where we stayed in a hotel for maybe ten days. When we left, we took a bus to Laredo, Texas. Then we hitchhiked back to New York City.

Things were changing at Bennington. I remember controversy about teaching Gertrude Stein and about the “seriousness” of Allen Ginsberg, because I was interested in bringing him to Vermont. They were saying that Stein was too silly. Very dismissive. And Ezra Pound was definitely a monster. But the magazine and press evolved. I knew a printer in Vermont who printed the school magazine I edited, SILO, and one of my teachers was the very unique Claude Fredericks, who had his own Banyan Press and championed what we were doing.  

I was about to drop out of school. My father was most supportive, but my mother was adamant about getting an undergraduate degree, an opportunity she had missed. But this school was also helping me to become more of an artist, so I stuck it out.

Then I was hired out of the gate as a secretary for the Poetry Project in New York in 1966. The next year I became an assistant, and by 1968 I was the project director. Many great poets came in and out the door. It was a community of poetry and other passions alongside it, an organizing literary life, the committed path of writing, editing magazines, books by others, anthologies, traveling to India, and performance. The whole second-generation New York School in the living room at 33 St. Marks Place. I was writing “The De Carlo Lots,” “Giant Night,” “Baby Breakdown.”

I have to pause and think about the men who really didn’t get it and the women who did. All of us art women were fending off a lot of advances and not getting credit for the work as we should have. But it pushed me forward: a mysterious, fated tenacity and my mother’s insight and insistence that I had to be a poet. And there were the examples of Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger and Audre Lorde, and the New York School’s Barbara Guest and its painters: ballsy Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, Nell Blaine, all heroes. Frank O’Hara suggested I come work as an intern at the Museum of Modern Art, but the Poetry Project job emerged: eight thousand dollars a year.

I’ve never really left the Poetry Project in spirit. A bedrock of early community that kept growing for three, four generations. Flourishes still. And has an ongoing Spartan environment. Puris.

Then there is the long Naropa saga, ongoing now forty-four years—an adventure that continues. We have a brilliant archive that inspired an epic allegory, Gossamurmur, about the rescue of poetry’s oral archive. Safe haven into the future. Where are the cultural moguls to help preserve this collection with the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cage, Ashbery, Bob Creeley, Diane di Prima, Kyger, Bernadette Mayer, Cecilia Vicuña, Leslie Scalapino, Alice Notley, hundreds more? It is the only poetry school that offers Sanskrit.

I was part of the historic Rolling Thunder Revue with Bob Dylan, a host of musicians, and Allen [Ginsberg] in 1976. He and I were poets-in-residence and consultants on the movie Renaldo & Clara and the documentary Hard Rain, where I get a credit for “headgear.” The musicians liked the long scarf wound around my head with a silken cord, Joseph of Arimathea–style.

It was an exciting setup where you announced that the caravan, the Rolling Thunder, was coming to town, just twenty-four hours in advance. We poets-in-residence would sit in the audience and be the eyes and ears of the gestalt, get the rasa of what going on in the audience. The whole rhizome was a kind of utopian caravansary, with love and heartbreak and great sound and clashing egos, and Dylan, our shaman, holding it together.

Sam Shepard, my friend and a brilliant writer and actor, was on that trip. Joni Mitchell gave me a dulcimer and my first and only dulcimer lesson. Joan was amazing: such a seasoned, stunning performer and extraordinary activist. I wrote a paean for Bob: “Shaman Hisses You Slide Back Into The Night.”

One night, the concert was stopped because of the rain, this hard rain, so I went back to Bob’s dressing room and said, “Please, this is a great time to let the poet read in the rain.” Bob had been promising Allen the moon! They were waiting to make sure that they could turn the amps back on. He said, “Okay, okay.” So Allen chose to read his shortest poem, “On Neal’s Ashes.” A beautiful Buddhist love poem: “all ashes, all ashes again.”

I recently heard that they were going to bring back these plutonium pits we protested in the Seventies, reactivate the Savannah site in South Carolina. Not long ago, I was pointing out to a student at Naropa: there are greedy people waiting in the wings, just waiting for their way to come back in. Don’t let them.

We were protesting through the Seventies and Eighties at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado. I can’t remember all the different things that went down. I think it was after we were arrested in the Seventies. Then there was a scandal around the plant itself. The contamination was just horrendous.

I  made the music video for “Uh-oh, Plutonium!” with a friend producing on her label Hyacinth Girls. Somebody got money to do maybe three videos and they did one with Allen singing “Father Death Blues” while wandering around Ellis Island.

I was going out to a protest and didn’t know what I going to do. I was being driven in the back of some sort of pickup truck and we had to pick up Allen, and I was saying, “I have to get some kind of protest poem together.” Allen had a big jar of megavitamins on his table and I thought, “Okay: Mega… death, Mega Mega Mega” as the chant. I still have that yellow jumpsuit in a dusty box somewhere. My students want to auction it off on eBay and get money for scholarships.

I was as at home with Ed Bowes when I heard Trump was elected, up pretty late, and I’d been talking to Eileen Myles after Comey’s weird move on Hillary. Eileen thought Trump could win after that, and she had been really putting it out on the line for Hillary and she had been taking a lot of heat. She had been saying, “There’s gotta be a cunt in the White House.” She thought a woman, no matter if she had a vagina or not, would be great in the White House. I’d supported Bernie in the caucus in Colorado—assuming Hillary would win everywhere—but after that we had to get the woman. And more than ever.

It wasn’t a surprise that Jill Stein showed up in that photo with Mike Flynn and Putin in Russia. There was something weird going on. And there were many young people “voting their conscience” and supporting Stein as the woman, knowing nothing really about her. What a crazy, dangerous, and manipulated time! Of course we’re in “deep state” mode—who even out here in the failing state even knows the backstories? Right before the election, I traveled to several colleges to support Hillary, and young people and even poets and intellectuals I knew well were spookily silent. And naïve. When progressive and even radical people and black leaders and Sanders too and so many were telling people to wake up to the horror of a Trump presidency, what was the paralysis? Some friends from the UK were visiting after Brexit and were apprehensive and said, “Don’t be so sure.” Not good omens.

We are living this disaster of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene. Perhaps we are finally facing our karma of genocide and slavery and oppression of women. So everything is really exposed now. And that’s the good news. Strong women are rising to the call and fighting for a world beyond binaries. My new book Trickster Feminism is a result of this social and cultural disaster and I am writing my way through the times—I hope—with perspicacity and a larger sense of the crimes of patriarchy. But we are seriously endangered as a planet of living species and cultures and languages. We are denizens of this mysterious cosmos with palpable consciousness and have to continue to fight against atrocity if we want to survive. Don’t tarry. You are just watching everything sinister unfold, and there’s no way out of it. The syndicates of samsara. And now we have these horrific Supreme Court decisions and Kennedy’s retirement and beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg hanging on.

On the other hand, women are rising. Maybe elections can turn it around. But I see years of racist fascism ahead. The new book weaves in and out of these meditations, but seizes the day for activism and holding one’s mind. And it summons all the powers of the deities past and future.

Urgency—I feel urgent about everything, right now. All the safety nets down. These criminal, cruel deportations and prisons and camps. We need revolution and repair. How much karmic trauma can this nation hold, rise up from, and atone for?

And my view on Internet, our cyborg lives? Get encrypted, but, I mean, how are you going to get in touch with other people working with the revolution?

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