“The Proclamation of Truth is Fearless: A Conversation with Anne Waldman” from the Spring 2006 issue.
Anne Waldman is a giant among men. The youngest Beat poet, she grew up on MacDougal Street, attended Bennington, and became one of the heavy hitters in the East Coast poetry scene. Running St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project from 1966-1978, she offered up high-energy, over-the-top physical readings, hob-knobbed with Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Joan Baez and was featured along with Allen Ginsberg in Bob Dylan’s “Renaldo & Clara.”
Lured to snowy, arid Colorado by Ginsberg and their Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, she and Allen co-founded the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics—one of the first, and still best, experimental writing schools in the U.S.
Thirty-two years later, Anne has collected nearly every honor out there, and shows no—no—loss of passion. Having published 42 books, including Fast Speaking Woman (below), the recent Kill or Cure (Penguin) and her book-length poem, Lovis (Coffee House Press), she’s now working on Book III of Lovis.
Anne Waldman’s poetry marks the confluence of Buddhist present moment-ness with a uniquely Western, physical feminism.They’re meant to be shared as experiences, not performance. She criss-crosses the world raising money for Naropa’s Archives project (called one of the three most valuable such archives in America by the N.Y. Times). And she leads Naropa’s well-known Summer Writing Program. Anne, at 60 years-old, is a gorgeous woman—and a terrible hag, as our editor discovered in the headlining interview at our second elephant:live, at the historic Boulder Theater. After the interview, she stood up and laid out some experimental, experiential poems with the assistance of Nate Kline on guitar. ~ed,
WAYLON H. LEWIS, for elephant: So, it’s my great pleasure to introduce our headlining interview. Anne Waldman made this event possible [ele’s editor had run into her at a benefit for burmalifeline.org. Anne generously agreed then and there to reschedule a flight—and our second ele:live achieved lift off, coming to life only 10 harried days later]. She, with the poet Allen Ginsberg, co-founded Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac Writing School, which I attended for a full semester [laughter]. She’s a strong and yet gentle voice for feminism, dare I say. And her brilliant poetry also happens to be genuine. Thank you so much.
ANNEWALDMAN: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
ele: Aside from being one of the few remaining famous poets, [laughter] it seems—
Waldman: I’m not dead yet!
ele: Far from it..! [Laughter] Do you feel like poetry, as a career, is dying or fading?
Waldman: On the contrary, poetry is seen as more of a profession—where you make this choice and there’s a certain path you can take in terms of credentials, and so on. Some perspective: in my day, there were so many places—New York, San Francisco—where you could live inexpensively and create your own art scene and your little Surrealist movement. That’s much harder now, so a lot of the avant garde and experimental writing has moved into the universities and academies. The vision of the Kerouac School was to create a zone that would carry those qualities from the old bohemian style where you sit, one-on-one, with writers and become a kind of apprentice. Like the Buddhist tradition where you take teaching and dathün [month-long meditation intensives]. We wanted to keep that atmosphere going. What’s hard is the economics, of course. To keep an alternative school going that’s fairly tuition driven can be hard on students…as you must know…did you drop out for economic reasons? [laughter]
Waldman:We’re doing student surveys on why people—
ele: [in monotone robotic voice] I-felt-like-the-Jack-Kerouac-Writing-School-was-probably-the-best-school-I’ve-ever-attended. I-would-recommend-that-anyone-attend-it. It-was-fantastic.
ele: I attended undergrad at Boston University, a great school for magazine journalism. At the time it was more expensive than Harvard—and I got out of there, after four years, with $4,000 in debt. But in one semester—and I understand Naropa’s a small school, so it doesn’t have the same fundraising ability to support their students—I had $8,000 in debt. It just wasn’t sustainable. But I would say that my teachers were amazing. Keith Abbot…
Waldman:The whole idea of being so enterprising yourself, I mean for a young person to be starting a magazine…that’s actually in the spirit of the older days. That’s the way you made your way, your path: you didn’t have to get credentials through going to school. Naropa was an early writing program. There was Iowa, of course, but when Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Naropa’s founder, who was himself a poet, arrived in [America] one of the first things he said was, “Take me to your poets.” In his culture they were bards, they were the representatives of a nation. When he first came to the States, he was seeking out what those kinds of magic word-workers were about.�
And that was a hook, for Allen, certainly, and for myself as well. We’re New Yorkers. To come to the Rocky Mountain spine with these wonderful negative ions, that stretches clear up to Canada down to Central America…we’re close to the Continental Divide, so there’s this nexus of East and West. It was an incredible idea to bring poets from other places. And, of course, there was a small indigenous scene here as well.
ele: And you’ve really fostered or nurtured that indigenous scene through the Summer Writing Program, which is probably Naropa’s best known—
Waldman:There’s a wonderful local scene. And people have come and stayed. There’s a lot of activity with publications and magazines. I suggest that everybody do this kind of “infrastructure poetics”: make things happen, build community. Because, you know, misery loves company. [laughter]
ele: I think tonight is a testament to that. [laughter] I knew Allen Ginsberg, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche—my parent’s teacher and your teacher. And he met Allen Ginsberg in a cab, coincidentally, in New York City where you were the director of the Saint Mark’s—
Waldman: The Saint Mark’s Poetry Project. And I had gone up to Tail of the Tiger. [Trungpa’s first retreat center, in Vermont: karmecholing.org] I’d met somebody in New York who said that this lama had arrived. I went up with a friend—we were on our way to Cuba, actually! It was a roundabout way—go to St. John’s in Canada, then get a boat. There were a lot of alternative folk organized by Jerry and Nancy Rubin. The yippies were organizing these trips. So it was a serendipitous journey. We ended up at Tail, sleeping in hay in the barn. Since we had one of the few functioning cars, we were invited to pick up the lama, who was just flying in from California. He had just been to Disneyland, and was going on about Casper the Friendly Ghost as some kind of sambhogakaya realm manifestation. [laughter]
ele:What does that mean, sambhogakaya?
Waldman: Sambhogakaya’s a Buddhist word, it refers to the realm of light. And then there’s the realm of form, nirmanakaya, and then the more formless realm, the dharmakaya. You must know that? [Laughter]
ele: [Waylon smugly shrugs] Oh, yeah.
Waldman: And then he had this interest in poetry and poetics of the mind. This was Allen’s view as well: you were working with your mind. As an artist you work with your mind all the time, with your imagination, with putting things together. Those thoughts that you are supposed to let go of in meditation, often you hold onto and construct something with them and so on. So there’s an interesting, wonderful dance. That was an exciting time to get some of the energy from the Lower East Side where I had been working for a number of years and bring it out here and then inspire other writers to come and settle and so on. Our slogan…it’s one of the most moving things: William Carlos Williams’ idea of unworldly love—this idea of a worldly love that has no hope and cannot change the world—which is the heartbroken quality that is talked about in meditation practice in Shambhala [Buddhism]. You get in touch with that tender, broken heart. So this love that has no hope and cannot change the world to its delight, that was key for Allen.
And John Keats’ negative capability, which is being able to live with the contradictions, hold disparate things in the mind without irritable reaching after reason. We’re living in such a troubled, dark, dark time, that will probably get worse before it gets better. So it’s important to have communities of artists—and of course this town is special in that way—staying together, living with these contradictions and creating. My slogan is now [proclaims] Poetry is the rival government! [Applause] We have to hold together and keep these alternative worlds going on. There’s a struggle for the imagination in the current climate. And these vicious cycles of war and suffering…we’re in a time when our leaders are making decisions that cause and perpetuate such incredible suffering.
ele: Are you referring to [Boulder’s Mayor] Mark Ruzzin and Sol [Halpern, a School Board candidate—both in the audience]?
Waldman: [Laughter] No! So there’s some hope there. I have to be out of town, but I’m going to send in my absentee ballet.
ele: You talked a bit about poetry as a practice, as with Ginsberg. I was talking [in ele:live’s interview] with Jim Logan [a green architect] about using his particular practice, rock climbing, as a means to wake up. You talk about your poetry as experiences, not performance pieces. I wanted to touch on Trungpa Rinpoche’s [poetic principle of] First Thought, Best Thought, or Contemplative Art or Dharma Art. How can poetry be a genuine expression of a moment instead of just trying to find the right word?
Waldman: It’s that experience before this other voice comes in to control or manipulate. I also like to craft things and arrange and I’ve been working for over 20 years on a long, long epic poem that has a lot of different kinds of writing, and sections—
Waldman: Lovis, of [the Bible’s] Job. It’s taking on patriarchy in all its forms. [Applause] It’s worse than ever! So you have to continue to take it on. But back to this idea of the First Thought, Ed Sanders often will say, First Thought, Worst Thought for him. It’s individual. Either way, the point is that you are not censoring—“you can’t tell your mother”—“you can’t use this word”—“you can’t say that”—“you can’t be honest”—“you have to be fashionable.” So it gets back to that original moment—before writing it down.
ele: So what would Dharma Poetics be, as opposed to conventional forms of poetry?
Waldman: It’s being aware of how your mind moves and travels—and trusting the moment, making friends with your spontaneous thoughts rather than feeling that nothing can enter in. Your poem is an open field. Although it manifests a lot of energy, it’s not something that you necessarily have to own or be identified with.�
Personally, I’m interested in the energies of different deities [such as Vajrayogini, a Tibetan goddess that represents enlightened anger] in the Tibetan system…and so you want to…take on the wrath! [screams and jumps up at Waylon] Of who? [Laughter] Some female hag.
ele: Um…[laughter] that reminds me…of a couple years ago when I…[Waylon looks stunned, then begins to applaud Anne. She returns the favor. Laughter, applause]…when I first moved back to Boulder (I had grown up here). I took part in a [poetry] reading. It was Kerouac’s birthday, and Tom Peters of the Beat Bookstore hosted it at Penny Lane [Isadore Million’s legendary café]. And, because I happened to be named after Philip Whalen, who was a Beat poet—
Waldman: I know, I’m delighted! That’s why I’m here. [Laughter] You spell it like Waylon Jennings, though.
ele: My mom and dad couldn’t agree on anything, and my dad was a country fan, and that’s how it happened. [Laughter] So, I was asked to read. I chose my favorite Kerouac poem, called “Hymn.” It’s heartbreaking. But what I didn’t know was that I was reading immediately after yourself. That was tough. So I totally failed.�
I would love to talk briefly about patriarchy. [Laughter] From a Buddhist or a nonaggressive point of view, how do you relate with such a thing as a feminism?
Waldman:Well, whether you have a male or female body, there’s this principle: we all have masculine and feminine energy. Masculine is associated with upaya or skillful means and then the female is more prajna or womb-like wisdom, female energy is involved with atmosphere. You need both. Within all of us we carry both—It’s exciting. One can be dominant, of course. When I look at war, at karma, looking at the way things are going in our culture, our society, it’s primarily run by men. You, you’re very nurturing. I think you have a lot of female energy, possibly [Laughter].
ele: I have my mom to thank for that. I would agree, personally—[laughter]
Waldman: No, it’s, I mean, it’s not out of—
ele: [embarrassed] But don’t, you know, don’t talk about it.
Waldman: Okay. [Laughter] Part of [Lovis] is the Matriot Acts—patriot, patriarchal, patriarch, padrone, matriot, matriot acts! [Laughing]
ele:This is the part where I’m supposed to be off-stage.
Waldman: No, no. It’s a test. A transmission.
ele:Well, thank you. [Laughter, applause]
Waldman: But back to Kerouac, we named the school the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Disembodied because we didn’t have a building, a printing press, a desk, stationary, a telephone, even stamps. When we started we didn’t have a lot of things that poetry programs might have.
But we had Kerouac’s understanding of [the Buddha’s] First Noble Truth of Suffering. So thatseemed like a great place to start, considering the broken-hearted quality in this culture and country, everywhere. That was our motivation. We can thank Kerouac for that, who had a tough time with his own mind and sanity.
ele: In my own growing up, Jack Kerouac was huge for me. I know Truman Capote has that famous line about him [when Capote heard, falsely, that Kerouac had written On The Road in two weeks] that Kerouac wasn’t writing, he was just typing—
ele: But from another point of view…Chögyam Rinpoche, after Allen read him…I think it was Mexico City Blues—
ele: Rinpoche said to Allen, This is a perfect exposition of mind—
Waldman: Exposition of mind. Right.
ele: And for me, as a young, mixed-up adolescent, there was a lot of soul coming from both his Catholic and Buddhist roots…he was feminine in a way: he had a lot of sadness and loneliness, and he put it out there. So. I think we should hear your poetry.
To read Anne Waldman, check out your local indie bookstore. To hear and study with her, check out Naropa’s writing program.