Anne Waldman is a poetic powerhouse.
She was a prominent figure in the Beat Generation, directed the St. Mark’s Poetry Project for twelve years, published over forty books of poetry and co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University with Allen Ginsberg.
Publisher's Weekly named her a “countercultural giant," and the Academy of American Poets appointed her as chancellor in 2011. She has been awarded numerous times over the years with everything from an NEA Grant to the Guggenheim.
These days Waldman is a part-time Coloradan, dividing her time between here and Greenwich Village. She continues to write, teach and work to change the world for the better. On the occasion of her reading at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore on August 28, Waldman agreed to talk with Westword about her new book, Trickster Feminism, a work constructed from poetry, protest, myth and inspiration. Much like Waldman herself.
Westword: Your new book, Trickster Feminism, uses the mythic Trickster as its titular focus, but there are a lot of permutations of the Trickster throughout world culture. To what Trickster figures are you most drawn? What makes them more relatable to you and to this book?
Anne Waldman: I am drawn to Coyote, because of all the playful, often hilarious antics and tales and encounters in public space, albeit the “con” with which we are familiar in our political spectrum. He’s a wily masculine figure, but his wiliness feels feminine at times. I invoke the notion of the shape-shifter goddess Hecate and her three-way crossroads and burning torches, who is perhaps an interloper — a fringe deity from Anatolia. She’s got magic, sorcery, spells; in Athens you celebrated her with feasts at the new moon. She is also regarded as a kind of Soteira (Saviour). And then there’s biblical prophetess Miriam, who manipulates the Pharaoh’s daughter to let her find a wet nurse for her baby brother, Moses, bringing her own mother back into the drama, and thus rescues the Jewish boy-child from slaughter. And feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, major critical feminist theorists who work with the shape-shifting of gender, are here. I am drawn in Trickster Feminism to transmutation, to poetic wit, punning, verbal play, and a sense of being able to challenge patriarchy with language and ritual.
Trickster Feminisim begins with a number of quotes, covering French feminist writer Helene Cixous and classic country artist Hank Williams. I love the juxtaposition of those two perspectives. Can you talk about what brought you to bring those two personalities together, to let them creatively collide?
Cixious invokes the sensuous silky labyrinth of the feminine intelligence that can work with chaos as womb, as incubator. And throughout the writing of this book, I was calling on a rabbit-headed yogini (from a 64 Yogini Temple in India) as a kind of totem with the added power of a willful animal instinct. The brilliant artist (musician, performer) Laurie Anderson did the wonderful kinetic cover drawing of such a yogini that perfectly captures the spirit of the female trickster. And the Hank Williams lyric caught my mood exactly during the past few years of dystopia and chaos under the current U.S. president’s pathological, venomous regime. I’ve been “chasin’ rabbits” and decidedly “howling at the moon." I love that they collide. My poems want to bend to include disparate realities. And always manifest Keats’s “negatively capability”; being able to hold different worlds, “disparate thoughts” in the mind, “without any irritable reach after fact or reason.” That doesn't mean you can't rage against the machine!
Talk for a moment about poetic form; this is free-flowing stuff, and the chaos of the form certainly seems to go along with the Trickster motif. But how does one write without boundary? How do you, as a poet, know when a piece has colored itself sufficiently and stayed within its own lines?
I actually thought about forms for this book, the anaphoric list poem or litany, the prose poem, the calling-out accusation or insult poem, the collage or montage that includes recurring leitmotifs, and the “cut up” as a ritual of discovery (old Surrealist trick) and with an allegiance to Mythopoetics. But there is a boundary-less-ness, I agree, in terms of how things are allowed to intervene — as with the side notes on the suffragettes in the piece “Crepuscular,” where some of the lines were also written out on the street in protest mode, circling the Trump Tower in NYC. And there’s interjection of Jeff Sessions and the machinations of ICE and dogging of Black Lives Matter in the poem “Melpomene” (who is the muse of tragic poetry). I wanted to get the weird chaos of the times into this book and also keep the texts open-ended, fluid, incantory. And by all means urgent. And calling on other presences, as well, through time and history, as allies in the struggle for art, or ending patriarchy, for humanity, peace, justice. Making this book kept me sane.
You protested Rocky Flats with Allen Ginsberg back in the 1970s. How do you feel about environmentalism in Colorado since then? And how can poetry and prose effect positive change on a local basis?
Activists filed arguments just the other day in a case against the opening of the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. This is really important. Plutonium leaked into this soil; that’s a fact. This so-called refuge must not open; it’s not safe for humans, for animals.
I went to a Rocky Flats gathering three weeks ago to analyze and study the “Sampling and Analysis Plan of the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail Crossings." It was heartening to see a lot of civic-minded citizens, some from the die-hard old days and some recent arrivals to Boulder, expressing concern and nixing the refuge and also housing projects (such as Candelas) being developed on polluted land. Plutonium has a half-life of nearly a quarter of a million years. We need something like Joanna Macy’s Guardianship Project to monitor the toxicity, and the health of the land, water and air at all the trouble sites. And speaking of prose, Kristen Iverson’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats is essential reading.
In any case, we read our poems on the tracks at Rocky Flats in the ’70s. Allen Ginsberg read his “Plutonian Ode” which is both instructional and visionary. I chanted “Junk plutonium! Love it? Hate it” We’ll all be glowing for a quarter of a million years/teeth glowing, underwear glowing, pages of words glowing — Mega Mega Mega death-bomb Enlighten!”
I like to think poetry can bring attention and awareness to situations through heightened energy, spontaneity. It's good agit-prop for this kind of protest. I think we helped magnetize awareness of this monster with our art and dogged conviction, and this was happening with many others as well. Especially the folks from the Peace & Justice Center. And it was helpful to have Daniel Ellsberg there, heroic whistleblower (The Pentagon Papers) also putting his body on the line and getting arrested.
The bad news is that Trump plans to refurbish the Savannah Nuke plant in South Carolina and start manufacturing “plutonium pits” once again that go into the triggers for warheads. And VP Pence babbles on about the new Space Force he wants in place by 2020 to “bring new weapons of war into space itself.” This is pathologically insane. We don't even need to wait for climate change to destroy us. Let’s blow up outer space!
Speaking of protests, a book like Trickster Feminism is clearly relevant to the #MeToo movement and the general political and social environment of the United States. In "Denouement," for example, you ask the disturbingly relevant question "How ugly would it go?" How can poetry – or art in general – be a counterbalance to the ugliness? And can it be a cure?
Art is by nature, I believe, curative. Isn’t that your experience reading Shakespeare? Moby Dick? Reading poems by Lorca, or Maria Sabina (the great Mexican shaman.)? Listening to John Coltrane? Aretha Franklin? A Bach cantata? That’s my experience. Art which is imagination is curative, generative, kinetic. It breathes. Art doesn’t obfuscate ugliness; it explores ugliness, wants to understand it, and counters it by presenting alternatives. Heroes and villains. So my question “How ugly would it go?” is not really answered yet, as the political situation gets uglier, putting children in cages, canceling money to Syria’s desperate infrastructure.
You have to be tough in this life. The suffering of others is intense; one feels heartbreak all the time. There are beauties, too, mysteries of our universe, of the pluriverse, mysteries of consciousness. How little we know of it. Many of us yearn to understand symbiosis. Understand our relationship to non-human elementals. To the stars and planets, to the slime molds, the protists, to quantum entanglement. Beyond the binaries. Go to our civilization’s texts, all over the world ancient and modern, our songs, epics, curative lullabies. Poetry is the first religion. Perhaps it comes from birdsong. At the end of “Denouement”: “Shadowy nimble trickster comes mysteriously out of twilight, walking backwards, walking sideways and flying into air, too. Scrying the tracks and flight patterns you will come to when we’ve forgotten how to read: Rescue.” That would be my worst fear, one of the ugliest things, forgetting how to read.
The last word in Trickster Feminism is "jinxed," and after reading the book a few times, I'm thinking this was no accident. Do you think we're jinxed, as a nation? As a culture? And what does it mean to be "jinxed," in your context? This book makes me think that we need to redefine that word.
The word "jinx" is related to the Latin jynx, which comes from the Greek name for the wryneck bird associated with sorcery and casting of spells. There’s a mythological origin: A sorceress named Lynx was changed into a bird because she cast a spell on Zeus. So there’s trickery and witchery and shape-shifting here. Poetically it relates in my ear to the word "trick" as in "trickster," as well. The last lines in the book also invoke the homeless “shivering at the crossroads.” We are jinxing ourselves, fooling ourselves, destroying ourselves over climate change, over not taking care of the denizens on this planet — for what? The Capitalocene?
On the lighter side, when you want to give your brain a rest, what's your pleasure, guilty or not? Do you binge-watch anything? What's your preference in music these days? How do you refill your well?
Music, contemporary jazz. My son Ambrose Bye and nephew Devin are both musicians and are well connected to terrific experimental-music worlds. Opera; so called “ethnic” music from around the world. Africa, India, Morocco. I get lost in movies, indeed a binge-pleasure — nights of Ozu, Antonioni, Bergman, Hitchcock, documentaries etc. Classics I re-view like books. My husband, Ed Bowes, makes movies, so that’s fun; watching with him, I also see more behind the scenes, break the fourth wall, enjoy the flip from the gauzy illusion of “story." And experience the apparati of movie methodology. I find that relaxing, another art form I don’t have to fuss about. But I’ll occasionally go all night with something like The Queen, Orange Is the New Black, etc...
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Mostly I read: my guiltiest pleasure.
What influence has Boulder or Denver or the state as a whole had on your work and your writing, either directly or — maybe more important — indirectly? How does Colorado show up in your poetry over the years?
Tremendous influence in its subtle rhythms, its play of light and shadow, of being close to the Continental Divide, a great energy spot (rich in negative ions), and the seduction of the mysterious ever-changing weather. Boulder is a dream haven.
Anne Waldman will read and sign her book Trickster Feminism at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore, 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue, Boulder, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, August 28.