Biography
Catherine Fletcher is a poet, an editor for RATTAPALLAX magazine, and the coordinator of the Endangered Languages Initiative, a multi- year project of the New York-based People’s Poetry Gathering. She is the editor of the anthology A MINGLING OF WATERS (Supernova, 2008) and is currently collaborating on projects documenting an oral epic from Sierra Leone and translating verse from the Georgian language.

ANNE WALDMAN: BREATH OF FIRE

- by Catherine Fletcher

I got this power when I wasn’t looking
between two moments I fell out of
into what was like a noise, a hum
of colored-seed syllables that jump on wavelengths
and charge down the basement to the colored
rooms which exist only to think of feeding Nicaragua
I promise to light more fires until death…
—“Eyes in All Heads to Be Looked out Of”

In July 1965 literature student Anne Waldman attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference at the University of California where noted American poets and scholars such as Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, and other modernist poets gathered to read work and discuss their views on the state of poetry covering topics such as causal mythology and poetry and politics.  Among the seminars and readings that Waldman attended was Olson’s shaman-like performance.  The conference had such a profound effect on Waldman that it inspired her to make a vow to poetry and a commitment to develop and nurture alternative poetry communities and to found the small press, Angel Hair.  After graduation from Bennington College in 1966, she returned to her hometown of New York City and became involved with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a poet-run organization founded by Paul Blackburn.  As assistant director, and later director, of the Poetry Project, she found support for her own work and herself supported the work poets such as Ted Berrigan, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and Kenneth Koch, fostering a New York School scene that was often collaborative in spirit.  During this period Waldman wrote “Eyes in All Heads to Be Looked out Of” to honor her connection to Olson, the Berkeley conference and effect it had on her, to declare her psychic birth as a poet. [Waldman, “I Is Another”]

In 1974, inspired by her own study of Buddhism, Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with Allen Ginsberg and Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  Aiming to educate its students as knowledgeable practitioners of the literary arts, the school’s objectives  included encouraging not only a disciplined practice of writing and study of the literary arts but also framing creative writing as a contemplative practice with a place in everyday life.  Today she continues to serve as the Chair and Artistic Director of Naropa’s Summer Writing program and works to preserve the school’s audio archives which include historic readings, panels, lectures by numerous writers and performers, including many Beat Writers and practitioners of the experimental lineages of the New American Poetry. She has edited several anthologies based on this material.

Self-identified as an experimental Outrider poet, Anne Waldman is often associated critically and personally with the Beats, a movement whose artistic innovation and social activism planted seeds for the developments of America’s counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s.  Outlined by both Ginsberg and Waldman in the introduction to The Beat Book, a 1999 anthology, ideas and themes of this movement include but are not limited to:  inquisitiveness into the nature of consciousness, art as extension or manifestation of this exploration and resulting spiritual liberation, art as sacred practice, boisterous experimentation including the use of candid American speech rhythms, active engagement with the world (often in the spirit of Verlaine’s poètes maudits, having compassion for the suffering of others while remaining at the fringes of society).  Waldman’s work has qualities of the New York School’s cosmopolitan style as well as the language-driven inventiveness of Olson and the Black Mountain College modernists, but several notable aspects of the Beat aesthetic stand out in her poetry, particularly inquisitiveness, especially through meditation practice; poetry as a sacramental to others and a means of engaging in dialogue; and a tendency toward orality.

Coming of age in 1950s Cold War America, the disillusionment of the Beat Generation led them to seek a relaxation of social and sexual tensions, battle the literary establishment, and explore non-Western traditions.  The study of Buddhism figured into the work of Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, and meditation practice fuelled the writers’ curiosity, awakened their senses, and facilitated experimentation.  A long-time practitioner of Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, Anne Waldman’s work is permeated with inquisitiveness, investigation, and eclecticism.  Calling herself a “magpie scholar,” she draws from sources as varied as Sappho, William Blake, the Navajo myth of Spider Woman, Mayan cosmologies, and Gertrude Stein.  Her poems often include letters, quotations, whatever interests her.  She views poetry as an active process, an open system, “involved with a continual exchange of energy with the environment.” [Waldman, “I Is Another”].

Some of this work is directly inspired by her study of Buddhist concepts and tenets.  Troubairitz (1992), a love poem using the Tibetan notion of bardo (the state between death and rebirth) as a trope, was written over the course of forty-nine days, the time believed for the consciousness to be reborn after the body dies.  Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble (2004) is an investigation into Stupa of Borobudur, a pilgrimage site containing relics of the Buddha in Java, where Waldman studied and meditated.  The section entitled “Four Noble Truths,” its title taken from Buddhism’s fundamental doctrine, explores the human predicament of suffering and the philosophical readiness for its inevitability.  Early in the poem she urges:

           startle of
in-the-sun-ruin becomes
     luminous
just so the whole of real life you
have no fear…
   walk in pilgrimage…

Later adding:

that things fluid change meaning or range to what
meaning they are not and keep going in meaning
as meanings do      [Waldman, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble]

And the recent Nine Nights Meditation (2009) explores the mystical sense of the number nine through various guises: the Hindu festival Navratri, known as the festival of nine nights and dedicated to the feminine divine; William Blake and Edward Young’s 1795 “Night Thoughts,” a nocturnal meditation on the mysteries of death and immortality; and the mystical ritual sense of the number as being a period of transition.

From the lament for the “best minds of my generation” in Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) to the eco-poetics of Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder, another significant feature of the Beat ethos has been the use of poetic discourse to actively engage with the world at large.  Since her now famous vow to poetry, Waldman too has practiced a form of communal poetics.  During her time at the Poetry Project in New York, collaboration and dialogue occurred not just between poets in the scene but between poets and their wider audiences and community through commentary or interruptions at readings as well as making poetry a partner in political action.  Waldman intensified this outlook at Naropa initially articulating the practices of the Poetics School in an essay ("General Practices of the JKSDP"), developing its non-competitive environment and contemplative curriculum and later extending its reach cross-culturally by hosting foreign artists (like a group of Indian poets in 1985 shortly after the Union Carbide disaster) and creating a study abroad program in Indonesia.

Waldman’s communal poetics are in full force in “Billy Work Peyote” written during Billy Burroughs’, son of novelist William Burroughs, stay in the hospital with cirrhosis in December 1977 and in the early days of the Poetics School.  Working like a shamanic chant for both Billy's health and the health of the Naropa community, the piece documents and reenacts a peyote ceremony that involved Waldman, Steven Taylor, and Reed Bye.  [Weaver, “A Poem of Community”]

In “I; Myself” Of Jade Grow Cold” (2003) Waldman works further afield, her poetic self made of jade—the condition for prayer—contemplating the suffering and violence in Afghanistan, the empty space left by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001, the means we use to numb ourselves.  She notes:

leisure takes hold more like
cough syrup
                sensual delectation…

take this elixir when you can be resting &
prone, the label indicates. turn off the blizzard
white noise showers down on you.

She continues contrasting two points of view—left and right—exploring lack of enlightenment, asking, “The Buddhas as a state of mind, the Taliban as a state of mind: which survives?” [Waldman, In the Room of Never Grieve]

Finally, this year’s Manatee/Humanity works on us as a species.  Structured as a Tibetan Buddhist initiation called wang (“empowerment”), in which the enlightenment sought is empathy with other beings—here, the manatee—Waldman examines the interrelationship between animals and man, asking what is the mind of the manatee?  Does it resemble the radio mind of the poet?  What is consciousness? She calls into question our guardianship of the planet and our role in the survival of certain species, thus extending the scope of communal poetry to the planet.  [Waldman, Manatee/Humanity]
 
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.  [Brown, Anne Waldman Interview]

Inheriting Beat orality, which contributed increased use of the rhythms of the American language and jazz, improvisatory techniques, and surreal juxtapositions to the English language poetic mix, as well as Charles Olson’s idea of charged verse with greater attention to breath and energetic composition, Anne Waldman’s poetry is often highly oral in character.  Employing elements of more traditional oral poetry such as rhythm, structural repetitiveness, and musical accompaniment, the written versions of her poems often serve as scores or scripts for her live performances.  

In “Fast Speaking Woman,” Waldman’s thirty page incantatory poem inspired by the folk poetry

of Mazatec shaman and visionary María Sabina and the Irish “Song of Amerigen,” is a list of the guises of the narrator:
    I’m the Valkyrie
    I’m the vermillion woman
    the pivoting woman
    the Vesuvian woman
    the vexed woman
    I’m the woman put a hex on you

The repetition in this chant creates an energy and a rhythm.  Its simple structure leaves space which, in  performance, may be employed to play with sound associations, such as the consonant “v”, or to explore the relationships among its elements or to the Everywoman meta-I of the narrator. [Waldman, Fast Speaking Woman]  

Skin Meat Bones” is also characterized by repetition.  Waldman toys with the use of the titular words—differently rendered “skin,” “Meat,” “BONES—placing them in different configurations throughout the poem.  Intermeshed at the outset, she deconstructs the body of the work over the following three pages into sections of 1) skin 2) meat 3) bone until reaching death and the poem’s conclusion: “but after I die make of my BONES, flutes/and of my skin, drums…”  The textual rendering of “skin,” “Meat,” “BONES” as well as spacing , act as a score for performance in which she may sing “the words ‘skin,’ ‘Meat,’ ‘BONES’ as notes: ‘skin,’ high soprano register; ‘Meat,’ tenor; ‘BONES,’ basso profundo,” vocally deconstructing the body of the poem through its disjointed sound.  [Waldman, In the Room of Never Grieve]

The physical space on Waldman’s pages in longer poems like Iovis, her epic trilogy challenging patriarchy, war, male power and energy, suggests the potential for improvisation or accompaniment or additional information when performed—crossed out lines in “Hem of the Meteor” (words drowned out by other sound?), long dashes at the opening of “You Reduce Me to an Object of Desire” (extra long pregnant pauses?  breathing?), half-circles of lines in “Devil’s Working Overtime” (projection of the poet’s voice in different directions?).  Waldman has collaborated with musicians such as Steve Lacy, sax player Roy Nathanson and Steven Taylor, and more recently with her son, Ambrose Bye, creating alternative ways of experiencing them.  She says of Bye’s work on Iovis:

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... he is one of the best composers ever to work with poetry, creating sound-scapes that lets the language breathe.  [Brown, Anne Waldman Interview]

Soundscape, sacramental, meditation, exploration, or happening, Anne Waldman’ s poetry activates language, unlocks language, lets language breathe.    Though living on the page, her work is not confined to the page but moves through her consciousness, her body, her voice, her audience, her community, engaging with each.  

It has been four decades since Anne Waldman made her commitment to poetry and to nurturing alternative poetic communities.  During that time she has remained experimental and inquisitive in her writing and her communal poetics, exploring the boundaries of language, art, and politics at home and abroad, while at the same time safeguarding the artistic lineage of the Beat Generation as well as the writers of Black Mountain College and the New York School.  As co-founder of the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and Artistic Director of its Summer Writing Program, she continues to foster an educational environment where discourse is fundamental and young artists from the US and abroad have
opportunities “to create alternative ways to live, to survive, and to sing” during the curious times in which we live.  Bold, relentless, energetic, amidst colored-seed syllables and wavelengths Anne Waldman goes on starting fires.



REFERENCES

Brown, Pam, “Anne Waldman Interview,”  The Argotist Online
http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/Waldman%20interview.htm

Waldman, Anne and Allen Ginsberg, The Beat Book (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), pp. xiii-xviii.

Waldman, Anne, Fast Speaking Woman (San Francisco: City Lights, 1996), pp.22, 36.

Waldman, Anne, “I Is Another,” Vow To Poetry (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2001), pp. 193-205.

Waldman, Anne, In The Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985–2003 (Minneapolis:
Coffee House Press, 2003).

Waldman, Anne, Manatee/Humanity (New York: Penguin, 2009), pp.3-4.

Waldman, Anne, Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 1-2.

Weaver, Rebecca, “A Poem of Community: Anne Waldman's "Billy Work Peyote" and the Early Years of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics”  Mesh/ NPF Poetry of the 1970s Conference
http://vectors.usc.edu/thoughtmesh/publish/97.php