The Boulder Tattoo Project puts poetry in motion
Anne Waldman's love letter to Boulder is drenched in water references. They seem fitting, since the city just suffered through the worst flood in its century-and-a-half existence. But the poem, which was commissioned by the Boulder Tattoo Project, is copyrighted Memorial Day 2013, and the first public reading of "Boulder Zodiac" was held weeks before unprecedented amounts of rain started falling on Boulder.
"I have felt prescient about some of this," says Waldman. "It is the poet's job to investigate and be a kind of prophet and witness. I have had scary water dreams."
Waldman, a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, author of more than forty collections of poetry, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and director of the Naropa summer writing program, was at Innisfree Poetry Bookshop on August 18 to read "Boulder Zodiac" to a heavily inked crowd. But first, Chelsea Pohl, founder of the Boulder Tattoo Project, explained why she'd commissioned Waldman to write a "400- to 500-word love poem to the city of Boulder." Back in her home town of Lexington, Kentucky, artists Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde had posted a Facebook request for residents willing to have words from a poem by Bianca Spriggs tattooed onto their bodies — and ended up getting 253 participants. Pohl, who'd moved from Lexington to Boulder fourteen years ago to attend Naropa University, was one of them.
Today she manages and co-owns Boulder's Claw and Talon Tattoo with her husband, tattoo artist Vinny Bachert, and she thought Boulder would be a perfect place to do a similar project. The Knight Foundation agreed, and provided $20,000 for the Boulder Tattoo Project through the Boulder Community Foundation and Pohl's company, Lochart Arts. Five hundred dollars of that went to Waldman for her sixty-line, twelve-stanza poem, which Pohl parsed into 200 segments. Next week, Bachert will permanently ink the bodies of 200 Boulderites with those words from "Boulder Zodiac," surrounded by stars.
The design was created by the same artists who did the Lexington project, but there they used circles. After Waldman finished her poem, Todorova and Gohde visited Boulder last June, looking for a way to maintain the minimalism of Lexington's look while creating a design that was unique to Boulder — and Boulder's starry night sky, dense with constellations, along with Waldman's title, provided the inspiration for the background.
The reading was part of Pohl's recruitment drive; she also pushed the project on Facebook. While donations and grants cover the cost of the tattoos themselves, participants who paid a $250 sponsorship fee got first dibs on words and phrases they wanted; the deadline for assignments was September 15.
Then, on September 9, a slow-moving cold front stalled over Colorado and clashed with warm air moving in from the monsoon season down south.
A Boulder Tattoo Project Facebook update that day announced: "And just like that we are at capacity! BOOM! 200 participants and counting. We [will] have a wait list."
The rains continued through September 15, and Boulder County was designated a federal disaster area. The Boulder Tattoo Project's next Facebook update, posted that day, read:
"Can't stop thinking about the lines in the poem:
'at canyon mouth,
crises at the gate!
Pohl wasn't sure whether this was the right time to continue with the project. Would people who had lost homes, friends or even family members be ready to deal with such highly personal content? She says she "debated and debated, and then I decided it might be a nice reprieve for people who are dealing with the flood," so she dove right in.
After all 200 participants were assigned their words, Pohl announced that the tattoos would be done the first week in November, during an event called "Run the Marathon" — a name taken from line 55 of the poem (an actual marathoner laid claim to those words for his tattoo). It will start with an October 31 kickoff party at the Laughing Goat, 1709 Pearl Street in Boulder, that is also a fundraiser for Colorado flood victims, and then Bachert will get to work.
"I know what a hectic day is like when you do ten or twelve," he says. "This is going to be more like fifteen or twenty." To help with the work, he's brought on two more tattoo artists. "Time will be of the essence," Bachert adds. "I'm expecting it to be a lot of work, but I'm ready for it."
The participants can choose where to be tattooed, but "I think we'll pass on the face tattoos — steer people toward legs and arms," Bachert says. "Chelsea tells them you have to be comfortable with us doing it and taking a picture of it."
As part of the project, the tattooing process will be photographed and filmed for a future documentary. At the kickoff, a video of Waldman's August reading will be shown. While in Boulder, the poet got a chance to meet a few of the Tattoo Project participants, and says she was "impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment to this project and how personal it becomes."
Waldman doesn't have a tattoo herself, but told the Innisfree audience that she has "respect for (the) tradition and lineage." That respect grew when she was working recently in Morocco and fell in love with the henna tattoos that women there were wearing. "Adornment and scarification are rich and noble traditions, with deep multicultural underpinnings the world over," she notes. "I have always been interested in the complex relationship between language and the body. Adorning the body with words and images is like reading the body as a poem or painting. The tattoos are like maps one wears to claim and reclaim poetic spaces — as well as desires and deeper identities."
Waldman's roots go deep in Boulder. She first came to the city in 1974, when she and Allen Ginsberg co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. It was a visionary "conglomeration of tendencies," she says, "a wild experiment in contemplative education that has grown into a fully accredited university."
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan meditation teacher and founder of the school, "proposed a 'hundred-year project,' at least!" she remembers. "I was drawn to the mountains and vistas. I first lived at the Boulderado Hotel, which was inexpensive in those days, and later settled in. I have a home there, my son...was raised there, graduating from Boulder High. I vote there. I was arrested at Rocky Flats protesting nuclear weaponry with Allen Ginsberg and Daniel Ellsberg in the 1970s. I live part of the year in Boulder, where I am still the artistic director of Naropa's celebrated Summer Writing Program. I travel the world as a poet, performer and teacher."
In fact, Waldman had just left Boulder for New York, where she lives much of the year when not traveling, and a quick trip to Big Sur to do a benefit for the Henry Miller Library with her son, musician Ambrose Bye, when news about the flood started pouring in. She was "nervous, heartbroken, worried about the safety of friends and of the Naropa audio and paper archives," she remembers. But the event also affected her on a deeper level: "I pondered the fragility of the coast in Big Sur, wondered if it will some day be 'under water,' as some predictions have it. I also reflected on the Sandy flood and the ravage on the East Coast. I was without electricity for five days during that disaster last October in New York.
"My own home in Boulder has water in the crawlspace and has needed a sump pump and fans to avoid mold," she continues. "A close colleague, the writer and teacher Junior Burke, lost his entire home in Lyons. I hope there will be a compilation of the flood stories. I recently wrote a poem about the Sandy flood. I followed the videos and stories of the Colorado flood and was in touch with many friends. My home became a refuge for the great African spiritual teacher Malidoma Some, who had just arrived to give ceremonies and divinations."
Waldman says she is still musing over the meaning of the flood, and the fact that water played such a prominent part in "Boulder Zodiac." "The earth moves, the topology changes, but we still have the ancient maps embedded in our psychic memory," she says. Her recent book, an allegory titled Gossamurmur, refers to the "new weathers," she notes. "There have been signs and warnings all along."
And now some of those signs will be tattooed on 200 people who love Boulder. "These are trying times, my friends," Waldman concludes. "The job of all of us — as artists and thinkers and activists as well — is to wake up the world to itself."
By Anne Waldman
nuanced light, coyote yips
full Sagittarian moon's clear shadow
you might spook yourself, seething centaur
drawing up the Boulder dawn into your chest
your lungs, take aim, it's your own heart
city of choice, of modernity, of ancient creeks
a few miles from Continents' Divide
and Arapahoe mystic native lore,
great-horned Capricious ones party here,
where Rockies crash Great Plains
where granite meets bone and Aquarius sheds
his water semi-arid land thirsts for
let it come down, sweet, dramatic, sudden
let it gather and snow melt lift the Great Platte
river is your life, your guardian
largemouth bass got lucky, and then not so
stocked out by Walden Pond, silvery,
the Piscean transmigratory life,
the way we see through water miles from it
land-locked, but look up at primordial Flatirons,
feel irony of topological wrench, of negative ions'
clarity, your mind stays high and clear
leads the pack, you are Aries
the "agrarian worker" and you settled here
to see the future ride the terrifying Dark Age
here in humility where poetry
thrives, where a warm chinook carries
gentle tread of the inscrutable bull down from Heaven,
a Buddha, who stops and sits, Taurus mind
of "negative capability,"
comfortable in doubt, in curiosity, study of
place, flora, fauna, every columbine flower,
Indian Paintbrush, cottonwood tree, Stellar's Jay
mind doubles, being Gemini sees "both both" mirrored
in struggle, flames licking at canyon mouth, flood warning
crises at the gate! move to higher ground, rescue
meteorological archive of topological shift, note coming
hard times, scarcity of water on diffident Crab whose job is to scuttle
over surface, dig in, soul mate to the prairie dog perhaps who
surveys the environs with keen eye, raise a ruckus!
for mountain lion also, be sure to go asymmetrical
not turn your body, make loud noise, back away
honor his kinghood in these parts, roaming
Bald Mountain, O hungry Leo, lokapala of this berg
citizens, guard your house pets, do not be careless
honor the great open space, honor semblance of wilderness
Virgin wildflower, first bud of spring, close to tundra
once ocean and you feel pull of tide
another equinoctial moon over the downtown Mall,
Tibet's magic shop, bookstore to browse, diverse eateries
share the wealth, education, sporting life, don't mess with
balance of tolerance, keep Scales aligning, remember habitat is
your ecos— your house, your hearth, your ecology — your health
tip the scales and you go down, Libra, stay
wise, proactive, run the marathon, save the planet
from itself, do no harm, transcendent friend!
spiritual Boulder! aspirational Boulder! inspiring
with new age awareness slow growth ethos, reinventing
herself as the Scorpion does, grows back her tail in intricate
iteration, will not sting but seductively beckon....
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Bars Will Lose a Ton on Drink Sales If They Let People Smoke Weed
- Thirty Mind-Blowing Murals at the Heart of Project Colfax
- The Mexican Says Adiós to Denver