Anne Waldman, as told to Ellen Pearlman
Anne Waldman just had a major retrospective work, In the Room of Never Grieve, published by Coffee House Press. She co-founded the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, as well as co-founded the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University with Allen Ginsberg. She has recently returned to New York, where she lives next door to her old friend and poet-in-arms, Patti Smith.
This past fall, Waldman discussed her past and present work with the Rail’s Ellen Pearlman.
On The St Marks Poetry Project
St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side already had a longstanding relationship to artists, opening its door earlier in the bohemian century to Isadora Duncan, Harry Houdini, Frank Lloyd Wright, jazz musicians, and many political groups. But the poets had been gathering regularly at the Cafe Metro on Second Avenue in the early '60s until there was a falling out with the owners who were politically somewhat conservative.
So there was a move to the Church parish hall and the weekly open readings began, spearheaded by poet and very fine translator of the Provencal troubadours, Paul Blackburn. The group included Carol Bergé, Diane Wakoski, Joel Oppenheimer, and many others. The Project started officially in 1966. I was around previously in ’63 and ’64 and involved with Theater Genesis in a production written by Ralph Cook who ran the theater project. Sam Shepard’s first marvelous plays were done there. I was still in college, on a work semester from Bennington at that point. I had a number of odd jobs but already was on the amazing left-hand magical path of poetry, and had started Angel Hair magazine and books (with Lewis Warsh) the year before the Project began. I had been to the historical Berkeley Poetry Conference and had taken a vow to work with the Outrider Lineages of the New American Poetry—The Beats, Black Mountain, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance. This was the most exciting writing going on and it flourished in the small presses and in cafes and bars outside the academic mainstream. There was a lot of potential at the St Mark’s "site." It was a seminal zone for a range of artists. I remember I first saw Empire at St. Marks in the church parish hall and some other Warhol films.
An enterprising sociologist at the New School for Social Research named Harry Silverstein got a grant from the office of economic opportunity under Lyndon Johnson to fund an official arts project that would benefit alienated youth. He would track the curriculum, do research, and interview a lot of the participants. So he set this tripartite situation up around the poets who were already there, the filmmakers, and Theatre Genesis. (Danspace came later.) This was when Joel Oppenheimer was hired. I was one of two assistants, and Ken Jacobs, a wonderful filmmaker, ran the Millennium Film Project with Stanton Kaye. We got money to start a modest library. I remember going with Joel to the 8th Street bookstores and buying a ton of poetry books that were dutifully stamped "Property of the Poetry Project" which subsequently disappeared within a few months. I think my salary was about six grand a year, and when I became Director it was increased to eight grand. The poets were only paid $50 to read. Ted Berrigan got $5 to put up the chairs. The Office of Economic Opportunity grant lasted two years, but it really launched this now major literary arts center which struggles and continues unabated into this new millennium and has had an impressive roster of directors, assistant directors, teachers, editors and performers over the years: Ron Padgett, Bernadette Mayer, Eileen Myles, Ed Friedman and now Anselm Berrigan—the next generation. Maureen Owen and Bob Holman also worked there, among many others.
But we had back then money to do a couple of magazines, so we started The World magazine and many other editors jumped on board using the mimeo and facilities for many years before the move to "desk top" publishing. The Granary Press book A Secret Location on the Lower East Side traces some of that lively history. I was primarily engaged with writers of my own generation—these hybrids of the New American poetry—we were doing magazines, publications, and readings, empowering ourselves, not waiting around to be "discovered." Up all night writing. We had a salon (and crash pad) at the apartment on 33 St. Mark’s Place. After the Project money ended we had to seek funding from a lot of smaller sources. It was a vibrant time, not only psychedelic, but extremely political. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights—many struggles that continue to this day. The Vietnam War was raging. One knew people getting drafted or escaping to Canada.
My long range view was to include more women, have more diversity, and get more political. I was also starting to "perform" more myself—a lot of invitations into the larger community. The Church was already a hot bed of activity with the Young Lords and the Panthers, the Motherfuckers, and the Trotskyites on the premises.
The Genesis of the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics
Then in 1974, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and I went out for the first raucous summer of Naropa University—it was then called Naropa Institute. Naropa was named for a famous yogin/pandit who had been the abbot of India’s Nalanda University and also quit to live the life of a mendicant adept. At one of the first meetings Allen and I referenced the radical Black Mountain College in North Carolina because it was one of the first places anywhere that had been created by artists and writers, and visionary educator John Rice. John Cage said everything at Black Mountain "happened at lunch!" Trungpa Rinpoche, (the Tibetan Buddhist lama and founder of Naropa), turned to me and said, Naropa is a 100 year project, at least. I think this was the "hook" for both me and Allen—to start something that would be of benefit beyond our own lifetimes. Naropa was a cross section between east and west, situated between both coasts, that was symbolically and literally on the Continental Divide, a power spot. The land had been home to the Native American Arapaho and Ute tribes. But I was always such a New Yorker—even in Boulder—and could represent that energy that for so many years cooked through the activities of St. Marks Poetry Project, in the sense of creating and guarding a site, a safe zone of control in the midst of spiritual, political, psychological chaos.
Trungpa Rinpoche said it was not an accident that we were going to be working in tandem and miraculously the energy pulled together. The arrival at that time of the Naropa project in terms of everything leading up to it—you know Black Mountain, Fluxus, the Beat Generation, The Poetry Project, the Hippie movement, the Black Arts movement, Vietnam, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm—was very galvanizing. I mean it was a little late say, for Kerouac, and of course Allen would have loved to have gotten Jack there, but it was not too late for William (Burroughs) from Allen’s perspective, or Gregory Corso or Harry Smith or to develop an Outrider poetics school with more emphasis on translation, performance, cultural activism, diversity. It is not about converting or proselytizing anybody to Buddhism. Naropa is secular, although the backdrop is one of compassion and, non-competition. The inspiration is non-theistic. You work with your own mind and imagination in concert with others.
Think of what was going on at that time in terms of literature, the confessionalism of the privileged white male poets coming to the fore, such as Robert Lowell (who is a fine poet within certain parameters). Or the suffering of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. The sense that you had to be nuts to be a poet rather than a boddhisattva or cultural warrior or some other model that is, of course, much more ancient, primordial, engaging. And of course the new American poetry went into those areas with the "projective verse" of Charles Olson, O’Hara’s "personism," Allen’s long breath lines, Creeley’s syllables, Levertov’s exploratory poetics, the mytho-poetics of Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima’s revolutionary poetics.
Allen was a mentor in myriad ways, especially in his aspect as a citizen of the world. He encouraged my vocalization and improvisatory performance work. We traveled to Prague, other parts of Europe reading together. We were both "multi-tasked" activity demons. He called me his "spiritual wife." I also appreciated his consummate generosity. I think often of his death bed conversation where he said, "Will you take care of this person, will you see to this, will you always maintain your dharmic perspective?" He wanted Naropa to stay free of— =there is a phrase from the Ted Berrigan poem—"mess and message," free from that kind of dysfunctionality that can happen in any organization with people vying for power and position, and also free from "canned" and buzzword language. He wanted Naropa to work more like a rhizome, that it would grow and blossom horizontally. And that we would preserve the legacy—the "composed on the tongue" and "investigative poetics" dynamism that went on all those years at the Jack Kerouac School (and still does). All the breakthrough that moves the century forward a few inches, in William Carlos Williams’s sense of things. Allen didn’t want to see language poetry rule the scene or the straights or the politicos—he didn’t want to see a domination of an art that excluded the human. He wanted people to work together to ease the suffering of others.
Talking ’Bout My Generation
For me and members (old and young) of my generation (if I may be bold to speak for some of them) the "real work" means reclaiming poetry as a present art and act, as "news that stays news" (in Ezra Pound’s sense), and as proclamation and transmission, with a sense of speech and the word being sacred, not just a euphemism from the thugs in the White House. It is the word moving on and off the page and out of an empathetic imagination. That relates to the inter-connectedness of the larger world community. Literally putting your words and bodies on the line in a struggle for greater sanity and justice in the world. And to create a world that has a place for its myriad artists and poets—and we are not talking about careerism. We are talking about a grittier kind of survival. I need art and poetry to survive. I need the insight, the wisdom, the beauty, the deeper gnosis, and pleasure there. And knowing the work of other cultures and traditions and of your close friends and family is so important. I see my own activism being close to my dharmic sense and practice. I haven’t formally studied Shamanism but you have to think about the efficacies of a practice that is really ancient and transformative in that way. That is connected with perception. That moves the energy around. What is the breakthrough for you as an artist, what is the breakthrough in your personal life, what leads to breakthrough? Why do you need the Eleusian mysteries, psychotropics, periods of retreat and meditation, periods of communing with plants and stars, and the need to spend time in some vaporous cave and go through some ritual process, or make the descent to a symbolic Hell realm to get to actually see your own mind and the "other" in this luminous, strange, and threatened world?
There are many traditions that mirror this kind of experience. I am not one of these folks who say we are all "one" and we all speak the same language. But there are patternings in the human system that are available and created and coded toward breakthrough or enlightenment. I believe this stuff is in us, the potential for awakened consciousness, which you cannot see, and it doesn’t necessarily register in your DNA.
Speaking as a woman born in a century of unmitigated war and violence, I have been attracted to themes of energy, passion, intensity, gender, and wars, kinds of "koans" or puzzling meditations. My father was in Germany fighting the Nazis when I was born, and there is this constant sense of being informed by war as an artist and as a woman. My long epic poem "Iovis" (of Jove, of the patriarch) is an endless cultural investigation, now over 800 pages. In the Room of Never Grieve, which is both new and selected work, is riddled with these themes and with the shifting aspects that conjure performative strategies and larger modal structures.