A n n e   W a l d m a n :   K e e p i n g   T h e   W o r l d   S a f e   F o r   P o e t r y

N a p a l m   H e a l t h   S p a :   R e p o r t   2 0 1 5 :   S p e c i a l   E d i t i o n






Interview with Anne Waldman


I interviewed Anne for The Poetry Project Newsletter in 2003. We worked

together to edit and shape––and there were plenty of edits and shapings––the

interview for publication, but I always thought the raw version just as interesting:

a record of Anne's first thoughts and reactions to often-difficult questions about

her visions for poetry, peace, politics, humanity. I remember vividly interviewing

Anne at her house on MacDougal Street: surprisingly, she seemed nervous,

leaning forward with her nerve endings just about visibly sparking. That day, I

loved Anne more than ever––her passion to giving all that she had for poetry and

poets, no matter than occasion. And if you're interested in the edited (and perhaps

more accurate) version of our interview, with gaps filled in, facts verified and

sentences reshaped to more completely convey original thoughts, it was

published in the December/January 2003-2004 issue of The Poetry Project

Newsletter. But for now, here is Anne in her beautiful and original rawness:



Marcella Durand: You’ve been a major figure at the Poetry Project and a mentor to many

poets at Naropa University, and now you’re back in New York City, making a new life.

How does it feel?


Anne Waldman: It feels comfortable in many ways. Certainly, I have been following the

work of younger writers and many from that generation have gone through Naropa

University. I feel very much in touch with the work—Alan Gilbert is a very close friend,

and Eleni [Sikelianos] and Kristin [Prevallet], of course. I’m interested in writers who are

a little bit outside the mainstream, who have also been active as editors or

infrastructure” poets—people who work for the community. Infrastructure is almost a

perjorative term, but I would use it to describe someone who doesn’t have to be a super

organized person particularly, but someone who believes in the need for structures and

zones, poetry zones, autonomous zones, where people have an opportunity. That was the

original vision for the Poetry Project and its space. [It was] space you could go into and

there was a lot of sharing of it with other artists and cultural activists. [There was] this

urgency about needing places to gather and meet. Nobody had any money to rent space.

So, that, and the fact that the readers are now in the Parish Hall with a glass of water. No

one had water before—everyone had a bottle of beer. I was thinking last night it would be

nice to have a little concession on the side, like at some of these off-Broadway theaters,

provide one or two bottles of wine. Get a little glass for a dollar at the break. A little

hospitality would be good. The readings in the Parish Hall are really about the work and

there’s not a lot of excess production. I remember Edwin Denby saying that St. Mark’s

cultivated such an ear for poetry and that was the great value of the place beyond the

individual work. Writers progress in their work through the occasion of reading or

teaching or being part of the community. Instructing people on hearing this poetry—its

origins. So that always strikes me and it feels very timeless. You still feel this “attention.”

I went to a reading at the Tribeca Grand Hotel and here you are in this very chi-chi place,

very modern, with this awful music, the wine is $14 a glass and not very good wine, and

it’s an insult in a way.


MD: I’m interested in your idea of “zones” for poetry. Is there a way for New York to

expand these zones?


AW: There are a lot of zones, it seems to me. I actually like the little modest bookstores

or bars, like that one lounge near the East River.


MD: The Parkside Lounge, where you read Iovis. Now, that was creating a very

interesting zone—you had musicians performing in different places around the room.


AW: In all areas, all around the room. There was a loose strategy, a very loose Cage-like

structure to what they were doing. They were listening to each other and we had one

walk-through first. We came into a very ambient sound to a certain extent, but then

distinct instruments would be programmed in, or certain decisions were made about

holding back during one section of the poem. So yes, I like spaces like that. The art

gallery scene should be totally liberated by poets. I can’t understand why these spaces,

especially in Chelsea, don’t have reading series. That disjunct between the art scene and

the poetry scene always amazes me. In the past, there was more of a connection, more of

a collaboration. It would have to come from the artists themselves, not the galleries, I

would think. That’s the way it would work. Also, in terms of cultural activism, the

galleries just don’t seem to be part of the world. I don’t know, I don’t understand it. Is it

just business?


MD: I would suspect that things used to be different…


AW: The Paula Cooper Gallery used to do readings, the Stein or Cage readings. And

Holly Solomon when she was down on Greene Street, Ted Greenwald curated a series

there at one point. I remember doing an early performance there with slides of South

America where I read journals. You could do installations—there was a sense of the

space. Oh, there’s a lot of history of using the galleries. I’m sure a lot of places on the

Lower East Side have events, do performances, maybe not so much in the poetry world.

I’m talking mainly about upscale galleries. It seems so dead when you walk in there. My

husband [Ed Bowes] teaches film at the School of Visual Arts, so I’ve been to several

shows by younger filmmakers—I’m very, very impressed by that realm, but where do

you see this? It’s not scheduled as part of a film festival somewhere. It’s very spare.

There should be more arenas where you can look at something and also have a reading

not that they necessarily have to be related. So, coming back to New York, literally, and

being an infrastucture poet for 30-odd years, and thinking about liberating space… When

Ammiel Alcalay and I organized the Poetry is News event in February before the war, we

would go to readings and often see each other there, and it was as if you were in a space

that was not acknowledging what was going on in other parts of the world and this illness

in the body politic. We’d go to these little safe zones. There was a real serious disjunct.

Somehow reclaiming the Parish Hall for that event felt very much to me like the times

during the Vietnam War when poets were doing major benefits and events. It was just in

the air—not to say that the work was necessarily about, or thematically about the war—it

was more the alertness, the concern, the urgency. You know, we used to have readings at

the Museum of Modern Art, or at the New York Public Library. I know the PEN club is

doing very interesting programming, but it’s for a different kind of public. I’m not

denigrating it—it’s more looking at the sites, the attentions, the need, the community. I’d

say something like the Tribeca Grand Hotel event, while it was great to have a

comfortable space for people, more upscale, with great writers reading and you want that

to continue, but you wonder how that’s going to work if it’s not grassroots. Is it the whim

of a particular connection there? Somebody connected to the publisher knows someone at

the bar? A lot of these places will view it as: what’s in it for them? Are they just trying to

sell $14 glasses of wine? If you’re a major publisher, you have to have a line of poetry

books as a tax write-off. How invested are you in the quality of that work? So there are a

lot of economic, political, social issues. You asked the question about spaces and where

things go. I think there’s so much potential in how it’s done. I enjoy formal events, but I

also enjoy spontaneous readings, the idea of hearing very new work, works in progress

readings, the idea of reading long works, like Elizabeth Reddin’s series at the Parkside

Lounge, translation series. There’s also the sense of New York’s economic issues, there’s

a rawness and vulnerability. New York has been very hard-hit. The fact that there could

be a blackout, that we survived and somewhat bonded. You feel that this place has been

tested and people have come through trials and tribulations. New York is always able to

transcend the catastrophic.


MD: I think of your work as creating a verbal space around you, a physical effort,

pushing the boundaries between poetry and other media. You collaborate with sound,

with projection. So it’s interesting to hear you talk about zones, spaces, the political

body, and I wonder how that relates to the individual poet. What have you discovered by

experimenting with the poet’s own space?


AW: Well, claiming the space is like an extension of your body. Because you’re inviting

the public into it, it’s participatory. It can be seen as transmission going both ways. The

ground where you take your stand, the ground that you’re on, I often invoke the charnel

ground, a Buddhist term, a small moment of life and death and choices and risk. When

you don’t necessarily have it all figured out and you’re dependent on where you are

psychically and psychologically and physiologically in the moment, counting a lot on

your body and your voice, your mind’s attention to the work and what the work is calling

out of you. How it demands to be presented or heard. And then you invite in some music

or dance. I just did a collaboration with a wonderful performer, a master of the Indian

flute, Steve Moore. We had worked together years ago in Bali. He’s studied the music of

Bali, Italy, spends a lot of time in India. We hadn’t really worked together extensively,

but we know each other’s work and have a whole range of instruments. Then Douglas

Dunn the dancer and choreographer—Reed Bye and I worked with him on a piece called

“Secrets of the Water Bowl”—but Douglas and I have also done things in a spontaneous

format. We did a concert at Naropa some years ago. Again, we’re familiar with each

other’s work, with the way we each work. I had pre-existing text, Dark Arcana, but I was

also intervening, expanding bits of things and putting them together. A lot of the

decisions we made in the moment of the performance. We discussed what we had but we

didn’t really rehearse. Douglas just had a piece of cardboard that he painted and made

this kind of mortarboard hat that you could turn over and it looked like this face. He

played with that and then he had a bandanna that he covered his eyes with so he was like

a hostage, or a victim, or a soldier. But then it was very playful as well. At one point I

was circling him. Steve and I were in a position almost like a dance in another moment. It

somehow miraculously worked. We looked at the video the other day and it seemed so

cohesive. I think it had to do with knowing the work, trusting the people. Douglas has

worked with Merce Cunningham, Steve has worked with the raga tradition, which is very

structured, but allows a space for permutations, improvisation. Douglas is an almost

literary dancer, very attuned to the work of Clark Coolidge, interested in indeterminancy.

While my writing has these voices and dynamics and situations of thematics, it can still

be constantly interrupted or intervened. There’s no one strategy dominating the

trajectory. Solo, I like to stretch my voice. It just happens organically. I don’t even know

where it’s going. I want to score my voice at this point.


MD: Have you scored your voice in the past?


AW: A couple of people have tried to score it, but there are variations. People have done

music for it, tried to follow something in the voice. I just think that all I need is a block of

time. I’d love to get a grant or something, to find a way to notate what it is. I don’t feel

like I need it for myself, but that it’s part of the poetics. Unless you hear it or see it—I

think there should be some documentation as text.


MD: I think you’re one of the few poets who reaches out to non-Western traditions.


AW: And it’s showing in this disjunct with the Muslim world. People forget that

Indonesia is 90 percent Muslim. People do not know the difference between Hinduism,

Islam, or Buddhism. We have ambassadors who go to places in other parts of the world,

who have no connection to the culture, who never even think of studying the language or

reading a book about where they are. How to dress, how to conduct yourself. I went to

Nepal and the ambassador’s house was the best house in the place, with these beggars

outside. A complete disjunct from the country he’s in, the town he’s in, the people, and

just living a fantasy of trekking. But the point is that there’s a strange, western canon

dominance over how we think about things. I think Marxism doesn’t even look at Asia.

I’m trying to understand why that would be, this sense of coming from Europe, even me

with my German ancestry—we all have our own narratives there. What I’m afraid of is

that the culture coming in gets subsumed.


MD: When I taught at Brooklyn College, I found that most of the students wanted to fit

in. They wanted to read American texts, to be American.


AW: I grew up in this neighborhood in [Greenwich] Village with Portugeuse and Italian

friends and they would be embarassed about their names. But to go back to your question

[about Asian culture], I’m preparing for the Lorine Niedecker conference [held in

Milwaukee & Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, 2003]. I really want to take it somewhere else

and talk about the orality of her work, and the silence—bringing in some of Cage’s ideas.

What is the link there? And there’s something about her being silenced and repressed,

Zukofsky and the fact that she had to destroy the whole correspondence from the ‘30s

because of their relationship, because of his control over their romance. Again, the

positioning of the woman versus the man. So looking at the gaps there, the manuscripts

that were lost, the letters that were destroyed, the editing, the censorship—no, that’s too

strong a word—the serious ellision in that relationship, which was the principal one, you

could say. And then her own shift to a more open form, a surrealist mode. She talks about

three of her favorite texts, Marcus Aurelius, a book of Japanese haiku and Thoreau. She

doesn’t have a lot of references to Thoreau in her work, but enough, and then bringing in

the Asian poetics, the haikus. From the Buddhist perspective, the notion of the “heaven/

earth/ man”  principle, out of Indonesian, Thai poetics and the sense of the ti bot, which is

something I invoke a lot. The poems are like these runes that have to be activated. Little

nuts you have to crack, little koans. They have to be unleashed, in a way, opened up, and

that’s what happens with your imagination, whether you’re reading it out loud or silently.

That’s what the experience of poetry is, that whole imaginative realm with language

triggering a response. Her work—there’s incredible sound in there. It’s almost as if she

was getting up and sounding it. But the way in is, for me, through Asian poetics and also

Cage’s work. Also, what is passivity? That’s important. In my experience, people who do

not know a lot about Oriental philosophy have this idea that it’s so passive, that it moves

away from the world. So it’s been sort of fun to play with her work this way, in a

respectful way.


MD: Tell me about your new project.


AW: It’s a poem entitled “The Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble,” which is

the title of a particular sutra. It started out of a specific site, the Borobudur stupa in

Indonesia, which I visited in ’96. You come as a pilgrim and walk some kilometers to get

there. It had been buried for hundreds of years. It was in the lore and legend, and you

could tell something was under this mound. It’s now claimed as a national treasure, but

it’s also a mandala and I read it as a kind of book because these texts are depicted in

carvings. As you mount the stupa, you walk around. You usually go four times because

there are texts on upper and lower panels. One is the Jakata Tales, which describes the

former lives of the Buddha when he was an animal. And there’s another sutra which is

the life story of the Buddha and then the structure-of-the-world story is about a pilgrim

going out into the phenomenal world and having all these encounters with mythical

creatures—with a rabbit, with a goddess of the night, with empty space—and everything

is a teacher. I love that idea, the everyman or everywoman voyager, and the view that

anything in your experience, wherever you are—here in 2003, New York City,

MacDougal Street—is vibrant. It is what it is and it’s there to wake you up and you have

a connection to it. It’s a walking meditation because you walk a few miles if you do it

properly. You move towards the top of the stupa and things become more abstract. You

move into this realm of the Boddhistava path and then everything becomes vibrant. In

Dante’s Paradiso, somehow he’s able to pull off through language an experience, a very

abstract experience of light and love. You don’t even know what’s there, really. It’s a

state of mind and that’s very, very hard to do. It’s attempted in movies and other forms of

art, but it’s very hard to describe. I don’t think this in any way does that, but at least

there’s the aspiration for some sort of parallel in language to the strong experience I had

in being there. Then, of course, the meditation is all over the map, so to speak, so the

references to the mundane, to my own reality. So we’ll see. It’s mostly in place, but it

still needs a lot of intervention. I keep playing with it. I print out a version, make more

changes. I work well with deadlines and almost need them to get me going—especially

with a book project. Nobody has seen it except Ed. He had a lot of questions about

terminology and I thought, well, I need to include a glossary. I’ve also written an

introduction about the place and its mystery—it’s still a mystery to some extent about

what its role is. I see it being similar to rites like the Elysian Fields, Orpheus, that kind of

psychological journey. I felt transformed by being there. How you’re raised in terms of

reality, art as a way of life, the life of the mind, books. An auto-didact, self-reliance,

investigative histories, Olson, finding the history but finding it out for yourself, working

with received knowledge—I’m very grateful for that thrust. I don’t want to get locked

into somebody else’s mindset. This is why Cage is so valuable to my thinking, resisting

the dominant forms, resisting the Western university model. I’m very grateful for the

opportunities that I’ve had to travel to Asia. Did you see the First Cities show [at the

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003]? There is one great text in the catalogue, it’s almost

like the discovery of writing, “Enmerkar and The Lord of Aratta.” This particular poem

describes the rivalry between cities Uruk and Aratta, which are both vying for the

attentions of the Goddess Inanna. The true focus of the text, however, is the cultural

superiority of Sumerian civilization over the lands that provided its luxury goods by

means of tribute and trade. The poem begins with a hymn to the city of Uruk, quickly

zeroing on on the main topic. And this is the translation: “Before that time the inscribing

of words onto tablets did not exist… The spoken words were but nails.” This is a great

story! If we could only fight our battles with wits and wills…!


MD: I was a little bit depressed after that show, seeing all the war-like images. All

humanity does is fight!


AW: I love the staring in a lump of clay. It’s a little bit like how we were made.


MD: Having language pressed into you. I wanted to ask you, speaking of language and

experience, you’ve been part of many different literary movements…


AW: I did want to say something first about how Dark Arcana was important to me. That

in a way was also like a pilgrimage, although that isn’t the word I really want to use. But

there is a sense of going in obeisance. A sense of homage, of bowing. I wanted to go

during the [Vietnam] war, go into people’s homes as a witness. It was so much part of my

experience, as well. I didn’t even think of it as writing at the time, then there were just so

many questions.


MD: There were some things in there that really struck me, like that [the Vietnam War]

was not called a “war.” Like that the “war” in Iraq has been declared over.


AW: Oh, the euphemisms… We’re not in a war, but we’re in the middle of a war. The

amount of destruction…


MD: And also when you write that we hadn’t protested “enough.” Today it seems like the

60s were the ultimate protest. And my generation maybe feels like, well, look how much

you did, and it still wasn’t enough…


AW: Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder about the young people now involved, spearheading

the environmental and also anti-war movement. There are still some veterans, but there’s

almost a disjunct between the middle there. It’s as if people were sleepwalking through a

generation. It’s interesting to go over [to Vietnam] to see young people then these

survivors who are very elderly—they didn’t fight because they were parents and

grandparents. So many people died. Millions of people died. You really notice that

because you see very, very old people and very, very young people. And then thinking,

you’re a survivor in a way. I think of our naiveté and that they were dirty tricksters. It’s

like what we see now, shameless. A shameless way of dealing with a situation. It’s just

that same sort of—it just seems so obvious now. I don’t know—am I just…?


MD: The Vietnam war was not the first time a war was protested, nor the last. It’s like,

oh, the protests stopped, but they didn’t. The protests stopped because there’s no longer a

war. But it doesn’t matter what they call it.


AW: There’s a lot going on, everywhere I go. Your question about what more could we

have done—it had to be with being less naïve at that time.


MD: To return to my question a while ago, you’ve had contact with the New York School,

the Beats…Reading In the Room of Never Grieve, I saw different influences coming

through different periods of your work. Are there any particular tools you’ve made your own?


AW: Well, there’s collage and cut-outs from various sources. The documentary poetics.

This current project is very site-specific and it’s investigative. It’s got a history. That I

would say comes a little out of Olsonian poetics. So what are the tools? Investigation,

traveling, going to other cultures, other languages. I was interested in the government,

being on the inside. I’m so interested in politics—it’s part of my daily practice to be

informed. I start the day with Amy [Goodman] on Democracy Now on WBAI at 9 am.

You shouldcheck it out if you’re up that early. It’s inspiring—you feel that knowledge is

power, as an individual person. She’s interviewed so many people on the “other side”

she talked to the Wilsons, to weapons inspectors in Baghdad, to families over there.

Anyway, that obsession. Experiments and paying attention to the smallest increments of

speech, breaking it down, but with a lot of attention and emotion. I’ve always been

interested in the relationship, in gender dynamics, the tensions there. I guess it was fairly

early that I got so close to Allen [Ginsberg], feeling like we shared that Buddhist

connection. I told him about Trungpa arriving—he had already been to India. There

wasn’t a real scene yet here in terms of that style. Then Naropa came shortly on the heels

of that. We had traveled together to the Chicago trials in the early ’70s. I remember him

around the premises of St. Mark's Church and in my apartment. We were activity

demons. The opportunityto start a school together was amazing. As I see it now, in

retrospect, something like that needed to happen. I don’t think it could have happened in

New York or the West coast. It needed to be in a different zone. It had to be something

people could   to. It wasn’t a grassroots thing. It had to have a certain level of

sophistication—that people had been to places. So Allen, the Beats, interest in Asia,

which I already had from a very early age—I had a wonderful religion teacher in high

school and we studied Taoism—and my mother started working at the Church of the

Ascension.Then the psychedelics and also traveling to these worlds, Asia, Mexico, Niger.

The jazz, my mother was so into Cecil Taylor. My former sister in law was married to

Steve Lacy. The challenge, the sense of outrider tradition, breaking these forms, being

restless around forms. This whole false promise, strange veneer. I’m still sort of

invested—my father fought the Nazis—it’s almost a genetic thing. The men were in this

warrior tradition—war was the most powerful experience you could have. My father

lived next door to John dos Passos, knew John Reed. He was so angry. He had a drinking

problem after the war, became a jazz musician, itinerant. He didn’t go back to school

until after the war. I remember all the accoutrements, weaponry. And he was a pacifist,

but later he was withdrawn. At home he was shut down. I wouldn’t say shellshocked. I

don’t know whether he actually killed someone. So that was part of the inspiration for



MD: Speaking of interviewing people on the “other side,” Iovis really delves into this

territory that is so forbidden to women…


AW: I wanted a challenge. I had to look at my own energy, which is very active and war

like. Karma energy is leadership, leading battalions, monitoring the troops. There is

something in my conglomeration of tendencies. I was insulted that the epic is seen as a

male form. There are female epics, H.D.’s The Trilogy. Ambrose made this comment

[about Iovis III], what, another book called Iovis? Can’t you think of another title? He’s

the secret Virgil of the poem and if he’s not going to be a part of it, I’m lost. I need to

have a young male. There’s so much of this dual-gender energy in it. The events of the

time are in there, organically.


MD: It’s so unexplored—why do we go to war? It’s such a norm.


AW: I have to look at it in my own blood. I couldn’t believe that Wesley Clark is in the

New York Review of Books with his assessment of why the war failed, with all this

strategic language and description. The whole premise should be questioned from the

start! The vitality of that realm has very much to do with paranoia and incredible

intelligence, an intelligence that needs somewhere else to go. It’s not gender—it has

support from women. What is going on? We’re under some blinding thing of destiny that

we just can not see our way out of. It’s just one fucking version of the world. It does not

have to be this version.