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
Vow to Poetry (Conversation with Anne Waldman)
Randy Roark: Can you remember deciding to be a poet? Was it a decision?
Anne Waldman: I wrote from an early age. It was a human, natural circumstance. Later it
was necessary to assert the position. It was also a way of life––marginal, subterranean––
maybe there was a decision there––that I'd never "sell out." I took a vow at the famous
Olson reading-debacle at Berkeley in 1965 to never give up on poetry or on the
community––to serve as a votary to this high and rebellious art.
RR: I have a whole bunch of questions about how to begin. Like, what was your
scholastic preparation for becoming a poet? Did your parents encourage you? Did your
teachers, contemporaries? Anyone in particular as a mentor? Anyone discourage you?
Who were the first poets you met and what was their influence on you?
AW: My parents were extraordinarily encouraging from a tender age. They were both
readers and writers. I grew up among books, many of them poetry. I had some inspiring
English teachers––Jon Bech Shank in particular in Junior High––a poet himself who was
an aficionado of Wallace Stevens' work and used to read him to us out loud. With a
passion. Tremendous gratitude to my best friend in High School––Jonathan Cott––the
critic, poet, essayist––who shared my desire "to be a poet"––who read my early work––
who turned me onto Rilke and others. In college both Howard Nemerov and novelist
Bernard Malamud were acutely encouraging. They were professional role models in
some sense. But as a female I always felt I could only absorb some of their story. Ted
Berrigan, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, other contemporaries were important allies.
There's interesting history in those "mentor" friendships. But I always felt equal to their
RR: Can you remember much of your first readings?
AW: I remember an early (second reading?) at the St. Marks Church In-the-Bowery
parish hall circa 1966/1967. I was nervous. I was seated at a wooden table. I wore a
yellow and blue striped dress and my head was bent over my "works," hair probably in
my face. I remember hearing my young woman––more like a girl––voice and thinking
"This isn't the real voice." The real voice was deep inside in my hara––and it was a
deeper, more seasoned and musical voice––an ageless voice. I realized I would
eventually have to find the words to match it––the words would have to grow up to the
voice and the wisdom of that voice. This is maybe my life's work. It's not that I have to
"find my voice"––it's already there waiting for me.
RR: That reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's story about hearing what he thought was
Blake's voice and decades later realizing it was actually his own mature reading voice.
AW: I became confident as I continued to read and “perform” more and more. And I felt
in a way once I was speaking the words and making these sounds they no longer were
mine. My body was a receptacle. My voice was everywoman’s cri de coeur. I’ve always
been on the track of the wizened hag’s voice, the tough tongue of the crone free of vanity
and conditioning. She’s terrifying, liberating at the same instant. She’s exhausted her
hope and fear.
RR: I imagine that in 1967 there wasn't much of a context for the kind of poetry this voice
of yours needed in order to express itself.
AW: It was a smaller more sedate scene in the beginning, not that poets weren’t
outrageous in how they presented themselves at times, but there’s always been the
“boring” stigma attached to the poetry reading as event. The self-absorbed poet who dully
mumbles obscure musings way beyond the appropriate time frame ¼ much of that’s
changed for the better. I always like the monotony of a John Ashbery reading, but he’s a
brilliant poet, after all. He doesn’t need to strain. When I read at a festival in India––in
Bhopal, in fact, 1985––I was the only woman and one of two Americans––the Indian
poets all asked, Is this the fashion? Is this what poets are doing in America? Is this
acceptable? They had never seen a woman so “out there.” I summoned the Hindu tantric
deities as I sang the chant poem “Skin, Meat, Bones.” (“The jackals came/this was in
India/to collect the meat of my father’s forefingers.”) I sounded the hag. I felt on “home”
soil. India is a frequent ground for dreams, musings, the “other” landscape in my life and
work. An old scarecrow mumbling mantras over desiccated corpses is one past-life image
that comes ups. Very glamorous.
RR: Charles Bukowski said he was glad he began publishing late, that poets who receive
too much recognition early in their life are encouraged to become "writers" rather than
real people. How did early recognition affect your life?
AW: In a positive way. I was encouraged, inspired by an early response to my work. The
young work seems distant now, insubstantially naive, yet I learned a great deal publishing
early and I feel my poet's lifestream has moved consistently, gathering momentum, since
it was in my "blood" then and now. The making of it is always double-edged, painful.
But the interest of others is a great boon. I'm grateful. It was harder for women getting
RR: Who were the first poets you met and what was their influence on you?
AW: Howard Nemerov was a teacher of mine at Bennington College. I learned
something about discipline from him––a love of Blake and Yeats––and something about
crazy mind. He didn't have a lot of pretenses––he was very direct in fact. Sometimes
outrageous. Frank O'Hara had that directness as well and much more exuberance. His
work was most interesting to me for its personae. The consciousness was more alive or
something. When I first saw Olson at Berkeley in 1965 I was overwhelmed. He was
dancing and suffering at the same time. The general influence from these poets was "I'm
just as crazy as they are. I can do this too!" Allen, of course, gave me tremendous
encouragement by his example––his expansiveness and compassion. Meeting the poets
always plunged me deeper into their work. I first met Diane di Prima, I think, when I was
just out of high school––in the Albert Hotel in New York. I was impressed that she
managed a household––an exotic one at that––with babies. It was inspiring to see her
commitment as an artist.
RR: Can you list and discuss the history of your work with various artists and
contemporaries? Is there any idea of you co-creating in a community of artists? Is this
something new? Can you co-create as well with artists who are long dead? Do you feel
yourself as part of a long tradition of artists who are in a sense co-existent despite their
AW: There have been so many important collaborations in my life with other poets,
visual artists, dancers. Currently I've just completed a long poem with Susan Noel (an
early summer student of mine at Naropa) entitled "Speak Gently In Her Bardo," in
memoriam to a friend of ours who died in 1987. The friend, Judy Gallion, is very much a
part of the poem as well. I recently completed “Triptych: Madonnas and Poets” with
artist Red Grooms which includes portraits of Kerouac and his mother, W.C. Williams
and his mother, and Marianne Moore and hers in Italian Madonna and babe styles. I
wrote the "Legends" which appear in Gothic gold lettering. It's poignant, hilarious, really
beautiful––and exquisitely carved. I enjoy Red's work––the wit of it––it was certainly an
honor to work with him. "Her Story" a lavishly boxed item with poems and lithographs
by Elizabeth Murray was recently published by Universal Arts Edition Ltd. Over the
years I've worked with artists Joe Brainard and George Schneeman and Yvonne Jacquetti,
Susan Hall (the Kulchur book Invention), with writers Ted Berrigan, Reed Bye, Eileen
Myles, Denyse King, Bernadette Mayer. The work at St. Marks Poetry Project was
community-based and inspired. I've co-edited publications with Lewis Warsh, Reed Bye,
Ron Padgett and am now working on a new poetics anthology from Naropa with my
Assistant Director Andrew Schelling. This interview we're doing is a collaboration, no?
I've worked with dancers Douglas Dunn, Yoshiko Chuma, Lisa Kraus, Helen Pelton,
Marni Grant. I've worked with composer musician Steven Taylor, Elliot Greenspan. I feel
that Allen Ginsberg and I have an ongoing collaboration beyond our lifetimes. I am
inspired by Sappho's existence as a writer. Dante (I steal some of his lines), others.
Translation is a kind of collaboration. I'm working with nun's songs from the Pali Canon,
circa 80 B.C.
RR: In addition to that, I know that you direct the Poetics Department at Naropa
Institute. T.S. Eliot thought that having to work for a living––and I imagine a schedule
like yours––forced him to concentrate harder during the time he had to write. He found
that being otherwise occupied didn't stop his thinking about what he wanted to say and
that the increased ratio of thought to writing prevented him from writing too much or
thinking too much on paper.
AW: I believe W.C. Williams felt similarly. He spoke of the "tense state" in which the
best work occurs, and he said it might be when you're most "fatigued"––presumably after
a hard day's work––visiting sick folk and delivering babies. I know that tension––it's
really an altered state––very exciting. And it doesn't, it's true, have a lot to do with
"thinking." It's the direct connection to the poem.
RR: Yet Pound felt that an epic was no longer possible because distractions had
intensified, outside stimulation had intensified and our powers of concentration had
weakened from a kind of fatigue. Are our abilities to concentrate approaching the
vanishing point? Is this a negative thing?
AW: Perhaps we have to work harder to concentrate. I have been working on an "epic"
for five years which I am totally committed to. Therefore I disagree from a personal
standpoint. But, yes, there are too many distractions––particularly, I would say, those
manifesting the materialism of our world, which is distracting and disheartening, even
when you don't buy into it. T.V. is a good example. Charles Olson, another poet who
worked on epic most of his life, ranted against T.V. It's negative unless that mind power
is utilized in an enlightened manner. It seems to be getting darker in our world.
RR: Well, it seems that times of certainty, such as the European Middle Ages, seem to
produce great works of art, like cathedrals, symphonies and epics, because they believed
they'd had "Truth" revealed to them. In other times, the search and bickering over
"Truth" consumes a great deal of energy. If these times are truly getting darker, how does
this affect you as an artist?
AW: The Truth is always available even in an age of uncertainty. Truth is unconditional.
But we, as a culture, don't seem to be looking for it at the present time. There is an
inordinate amount of deception in our so-called "democracy," for example. It's a myth, in
fact. The root of so much suffering is "ego" which manifests as a lack of compassion. Our
government is cruel. Yet I find solace, joy, insight, great humor in the generosity of the
work by many contemporary writers. Maybe these are not great "monuments" like those
of the Middle Ages, but they are sustaining. I feel I write against the darkness, "straining
against particles of light against a great darkness," Keats wrote. Also I frequently return
to great texts of the recent and not so recent past––Sappho, Dante. They're still relevant.
Olson, Duncan, O'Hara, Schuyler.
RR: There's a speech in The Third Man where the character played by Orson Welles
recalls the turbulent history of Renaissance Italy––war, plague and the Borgia's––
producing Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo–– and compares it with Switzerland's
hundred years of peace, wealth and brotherhood which produced the cuckoo clock. What
about this implied correlation of strife with the creation of great works of art, and of
complacency with the reverse?
AW: It has some substance. I always felt like a rebel. There are dark times. I strive to
make sense of them in my work. It's not an easy time, fighting the lords of materialism. I
don't know many complacent poets––it seems a contradiction.
RR: I've spent an incredible amount of time trying to determine where words come from––
the words of our thoughts, the words that appear in our mouths during conversation. Do
you know what I'm looking for?
AW: You're looking for the point––synapse?––perhaps where the magic occurs and how
it gets translated. Even after analysis, speech remains a mystery. Words are sacred from
some point of view. They emerge––when they aren't purely discursive––out of
luminosity I believe. They are particles of light. They also come out of silence, if there is
such a thing. We are communicating through our whole body as well, like illusory angels.
Burroughs calls the word a "killer virus." It has that power as well. Look at the language
used in weaponry. "Mantra" means "mind protection."
RR: Do you think in words? Do you think in associations or in chains of concepts? Do
you think in musical phrases?
AW: Yes, I think in words, associations and musical phrases. All of the above. In "Fast
Speaking Woman" there are obvious sound and associational moves.
RR: So where do these words come from as you're writing––from the scene, from the
music (form) of the poem, from your mind, from looking at the outside world, outer
space, god, etc.?
AW: All of the above! Every experience is a rune waiting to be unearthed, unlocked,
revealed to its attendant music of language. Objects suggest words––quotidian reality
provides language all the time––along with the visions of hag-dieties wrapped in
RR: The Greeks believed that poetry came from the muses––in fact, that one must empty
their head before the muses could appear. Bob Dylan said that the songs he's written
were "in the air" and came through him, perhaps, but always existed and he just
happened to be the one who wrote them down. Do you write your poems?
AW: My "you" is just a conglomeration of tendencies. Some of those tendencies manifest
in an articulate and refined poetic language, if you will. But I also feel the distinct
meeting of my consciousness with a confirmation from the sun, the moon, stars who are
my allies all. Muse is an energy. It is the reciprocation of the phenomenal world, as well
as the body of light or enjoyment––the Sambhogakaya we say in Buddhism––that
responds to the energy we put forth. My poems invite participation of that larger energy
or connection. The Muse plugs you in. It’s that direct. Electricity. It’s always available,
batteries not needed, but you have, you see, magic keys or access to the illusory batteries
which are needed and available. When you are genuinely ready and alert. Who’s to say
how or when or why this occurs. It’s the reciprocity with “bigger mind.” And it can
involve other people. I get that hit––don’t you too? In the poetry one loves.
RR: Actually, I kind of distrust poetry as a medium for truth. When Allen Ginsberg writes
about politics or Buddhism, and his understanding changes as he does. I think everything
unconsciously becomes our mirror. I tend to sift poems for the person there. The
philosophy or otherworldliness I skip over. It was Catullus who thought that the poet was
responsible for the poem. And that everything which occurred to the poet––even the most
mundane facts of the poet's life––what he had for breakfast, his petty spites,
disagreements and quarrels, the weather––was transformed by the poet into art, the way
Midas turned common objects into gold. Ted Berrigan comes to mind as a modern
example. Are these two ideas––the inspired and the created––oppositional?
AW: No, these ideas are not opposing. Of course I'm responsible for what I put down. I'm
not simply a "channel." Those facts––the donuts, Pepsi colas, peeves––are deities, muses,
as well––they speak to me. Things are "symbols of themselves." "No ideas but in things,"
etc. Art belongs, needs to be part of ordinary, quotidian, daily common life. It's got to
reflect the truth of the relative reality as well as its vision, desire, aspiration. Art is ugly
from some point of view when it's shocking, uncompromising. It's also beautiful for these
RR: In the Walt Whitman program of the PBS series "Voices and Visions" they talked
about the difference between "blind" poets and "visionary" poets. Blind poets would be
those who, like Poe, create out of their imagination or their unconscious. Whitman would
be a "visionary" poet because he wrote poems of a particular time and a place that
depends so heavily on the eye. Do you see yourself as a "blind poet" or a "visionary"
AW: My work probably fits into the "visionary" category more readily, although much of
the writing arises out of an oral yearning and attraction. I hear words before I "see" them,
if you know what I mean. I "mouth" them before I see them. But imagination––the words
appearing out of dreams, out of fantasy and out of imagined hells––also plays a part. Cut
up and certain experimental methods are interesting in light of this question. You can get
a "phantasmic" construction butchering text, re-arranging phrases. Is this "blind" work?
RR: Well, John Ruskin, the great late 19th-century art critic, was disgusted by the state of
art in his age because paintings were done in the studio, not in real light, and used as
models––contemplative notions of "the beautiful"––as opposed to actual models. He
thought that gothic churches were the last great works of art because they were made by
hand, by a craftsman who was seeking to express, to personalize, his faith. Of course,
there were rules you couldn't break except when you were carving gargoyles and such.
You had to carve the Madonna within the tradition, for example. But Ruskin thought even
these radiated the personality of the artist and his or her contact with the vibrancy of the
real world. It was an individual vision. Pound, too, found it in San Zeno in Verona , with
the signed capital where the artist carved in pride "I made this." Even in prehistory, its
always the handprint, whether in the Neanderthal caves of France and the Canyon de
Chelly, where the artist seems to assert his or her own existence. Yet, in "Post-Modern
Art" the intention seems towards an effort at erasing all traces of the individual through
these cut-ups, chance operations, or the hunting down of the "folly of intention."
AW: When Reed Bye and I saw the cave paintings at Font de Gaum in Le Eyzies we both
felt the “hand” of the poet. And yet there was no meeting that individual who is eased,
muted in time. So only the product of his/her exquisite muscle and heart and eye
survives. It’s sublime, authentic, unquestionably so, and in the cleanest sense. This
“viewing” was a religious experience you might say. I felt something vibrating there––
hand in motion, scoring lines––which delineate the untamed beast in motion. We name it
Cro-Magnon. Great art is “nowness” for lack of a better way to say it. This experience
brought up an imagined reality of that past––hundreds of thousands of years ago. The
paintings carry high talk and text and image with them which exists in fact because we
have imagination. If we didn’t see them, what are they? They are secret teaching. They
wait for us. And we were ready, or are we? It depends. We don’t know what to do with
our inheritances sometimes. Which is why ongoing wisdom traditions understand how to
interpret and receive and preserve teaching. The images from the caves are like the
Tibetan Buddhist terma, or found treasures. They are hieroglyphs, seed-syllables that
unlock insight. Ruskin had a point of course, Pound too. You want the real thing, not the
artifice, although artifice is an interesting style when combined with intellect and humor.
Not by rote, endless stock similes. The real thing is a “luminous detail,” like the rune or
RR: What is the relationship of dreams and unconsciousness to your life and work?
AW: The relationship is active and useful, always. I pay attention to the messages,
images, to synchronicity, auspicious coincidence, to the conjuries emanating from the
unconscious––resonances, bizarre associations, etc. I had a dream recently entitled
"Uncle Vanya" in which Allen Ginsberg and I were leaders of a large touring company
that had settled into a western movie set. We were about to perform the play. I later re-
read the Chekhov and realized there were a lot of interesting male figures in the play that
shed light on my relationship to Allen, which is an intense and active one in my life. I'll
try to write about it. "Interstices of Waves" came into a recent dream––I used it in the
poem "Speak Gently In Her Bardo".
RR: Is there a difference in your work between common speech and poetic language?
AW: Often. I like to play with both. "Dialogue At Nine Thousand Feet" works in an
elevated language, inspired, in part, by the altitude I was living at the time. I'm working
common speech into the many sections of "IOVIS OMNIA PLENA"––overheard
conversations and the like. I have an ear for what people say––my 10-year-old
and his friends talking about video games and basketball is just one example. But
archness, artifice in speech, excites me as well. Poetic language, perhaps. I don't work so
much with the meaning or message but the tone and carriage of the words. Say it "slant"
advised Emily Dickinson.
RR: What is your primary method of composition––typewriter/ notepad
AW: All of the above––handwritten in notebooks of all sizes, on yellow lined pads, on
manual typewriters, now on computer.
RR: Do you find a difference in the finished work depending on its compositional
situation/form? Where does editing/rewriting fit into your compositions?
AW: Yes, there's a difference in shape with the different size notepads and notebooks.
Lately I'm training myself with the long poem ("IOVIS") to work on the computer. I edit
on a print-out.
RR: Do you vary when you write prose or poetry?
AW: Prose is more natural on the computer. I like the simple white page in the old
machine, however. That's where I'm still most comfortable. A hard but sweet habit to
RR: Will and Ariel Durant in their epic History of Civilization claim that poetry evolved
out of the religious need for chants and hymns and that prose arose from the needs of
merchants––i.e., that poetry derived from the imaginative faculties of the human psyche
and that prose from the need for a more or less factual representation. As someone who's
written in both prose and poetry, do you see any difference in the way each is used?
AW: Yes, I see this to some extent. Poetry operates frequently along a spiritual
trajectory––a need to join heaven and earth––to "connect." But prose is telling stories––
hagiographics––epics of creation and who begat whom begat who. Some native peoples
see stories in the flames of a "campfire"––phantastic images of birth and death. Factual
representation, of course, and the need for accounting come into this. This is also a
human endeavor and very necessary. Those wonderful chapters on whaling data in Moby
RR: The Durants follow the above line of thought to the point where they see poetry as
coming from the beginnings of civilization where the imaginative powers and needs
overcome (or arose from) an inability to understand the world cognitively (or factually).
For them it follows that prose is the mark of a fully developed culture whereas poetry
comes more from the beginnings of a civilization.
AW: One is always writing the "first poem." Each time for me personally is regenerative.
We are perhaps at the end of a civilization, and yet I'm always writing the first poem.
How do you explain this? A fully developed culture needs to record itself––it's an
intelligent survivalist move. I still don’t [look at] the world "factually" in spite of the
magnificent data, and so I'm stuck with poetry. They need to exist simultaneously. We
are now never more "fully developed," yet coming apart drastically and dramatically at
this very instant.
RR: Lew Welch described the New York poetry scene in the 50's and 60's as "fierce" and
the S.F. scene as "cool jazz." As you travel around the country do you get a geographical
sense of the various poetry scenes? Do you think that there's a geographical influence on
poets––for example, city versus rural, west coast versus east coast, etc.?
AW: Poets are more peripatetic these days, so many have lived on both coasts and in both
city and rural settings. And are more commonly found by magazines, correspondence,
tape cassettes. But friends in Bolinas and Kitkitdizze (Gary Snyder's area) are much ore
cognizant of basics––where their energy comes from, etc. They are more ecology-minded
than their city cousins who are often careless, negligent and not as frugal. This comes in
thematically into some of the writing. NYC is still "fierce" but for different reasons than
Welch intended back then. It's dangerous now. Depressing that our government is so
outrageously corrupt and greedy––the poor get poorer, more crack babies all the time, the
suffering amongst the homeless, the minorities––is endemic. It's quite a tangle when you
look at the urban scene. Where to place the blame. A lot of poets ignore these realities.
Some escape to safer waters. Every city and town I've traveled to has an interesting
subtext of some kind. An alternative.
RR: Are there any poems you've written that you won't read in public, which you'd rather
people would read in private, alone?
AW: "Both Other Self Neither." Parts of "Iovis."
RR: Do you ever utilize tone of voice to suggest ironies, etc. in your writings? How does
this translate on the written page?
AW: In a piece entitled "Coup de Grace" I seem to be working with a distinctly ironic
tone. It's an accusatory tone, and yet the language travels in myriad directions. I think this
piece is most successful on the page. It's steady and doesn't strain. With other pieces my
reading style may color or change the words. Perhaps the pieces are not as fixed.
RR: Some of your poems, "Battery," for example, read quite softer than how they're
performed. Do you think you may be trapped into a certain performing style that subverts
the poems themselves?
AW: Sometimes that's true. I'm pushing too hard, not letting the poem breathe. Perhaps it
comes from frequent readings to larger audiences where I wonder can they hear me in the
RR: Sometimes your poems don't seem to progress forward as much as circle an idea or
concept. But as you're writing do you feel the poem moves forward, do you discover
things as you write the poem that you didn't know before?
AW: I usually feel I'm propelling forward, and yet aspects of the poem spiral back in and
continue around. Discovery is the reward of the curiosity. I never know where I'm going,
but I'm not interested particularly that the poem climax to a revelation at the end. The
making of it, existing inside the poem as it occurs (and as it re-occurs) is the point.
RR: Aristotle, Robert Frost and Marianne Moore said that the ability to make
associations was the hallmark of a poet. Pound, George Grosz (the artist) and Marianne
Moore suggested endless curiosity. What do you think are the abilities that create a great
AW: Both a resonating mind plus vast curiosity I agree. Also quick and clear eyes, a
good ear. Imagination. I would not be a very good poet, I think, without passion.
RR: Yet sometimes it seems the energy in your poems moves from thought as opposed to
AW: Yes. "I Digress..." is a good example. Most of my so-called meditative poems work
that way, and yet it is an emotional thinking. There's passion in it.
RR: How much of your work is "first thought"?
AW: The root, the initial and sustaining "hit" is the first thought. The tinkering that
comes later never feels major.
RR: Nabokov said that "Writing is rewriting." The argument against "First thought, best
thought" could conceivably run like this: When the writing is initiated there is the
primary experience of the poem or language. The writer at a later date rereads the poem
from a fresh, more detached, distant perspective. This fresh mind is the mind of a new
person; essentially, NOT the person who wrote the original "work." And rewriting is, or
can be, Re-writing––as intuitive, inspired and fresh as the original writing. As Corso
reportedly told Kerouac, "I don't want to ignore any part of my mind––including the part
which cringes when I reread something I've written and knows how to improve it." I've
been reading the mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer lately who wrote a book in 1905 called
Life, Art and Mysticism. He talks about that limitlessness, that radiance as well. It's kind
of difficult to summarize but he said that we began in isolation amongst nature without
any concept of future. But when we began thinking the rational mind created a seemingly
continuous world different from our actual experience of it––which is more like discrete
moments interspersed with emptiness. One begins to dismantle this "world of causality
and then to remain free, only then obtaining a definite Direction which it will follow
freely, reversibly. The phenomena succeed each other in time, bound by causality
because your colored view wants this regularity, but right through the walls of causality
"miracles" glide and flow continually, visible only to the free, the enlightened.... Intellect
has made him forfeit the staggering independence and directness of each of his rambling
images by connecting them to each other.... For example [the statement] 'The structure of
nature is so infinitely subtle and complex that your intellect will never fully grasp it and
so you will never find there the stability you aim for.' For those who relinquish the
intellect, however, the world is anything but subtle or complex: it is immediately clear: it
appears subtle only to the intellect that struggles laboriously and sees no end to its
struggle.... Look at this world, full of wretched people, who imagine that they have
possessions, afraid they might lose them, always hopefully toiling in an effort to acquire
more.... Only he who recognizes that he has nothing, that he cannot possess anything,
that absolute certainty is unattainable, who completely resigns himself and sacrifices all,
who does not know anything, does not want anything and does not want to know
anything, who abandons and neglects everything, he will receive all; to him the world of
freedom opens, the world of painless contemplation and of––nothing."
AW: Brouwer sounds very Buddhist in what you just quoted. There is no goal. We are all
“gonna die.” The practices and “concepts” in Buddhism are just stepping stones toward
nothing. “Nothing” means that you don’t need to be grasping and territorial and self
perpetuating. There is no “self,” which is a very heretical notion. When you go to look
for a solid self, a soul, something made of DNA, recognizable, this big “me” that will
carry your identity for ever and ever, you can’t find it. And yet you are colorful,
individual, only you will write that particular poem, only you manifest a very wonderful
and particular vivid energy. Or you can be dark and wrathful, a terrorist. Only you suffer
what you suffer. But you are still going to die and you can’t take anything with you. Your
consciousness might return, some people experience that possibility, but you won’t ever
be Randy Roark again. And I won’t be Anne Waldman. I find this “view” a tremendous
relief. And it makes you feel more compassion towards other lifeforms as well. So
perhaps a bit of your art remains that might encourage someone else. Great. You want to
live to experience your own immortality? You want to imagine that? Is that the point of it
all? I doubt it.
RR: The Moslem philosopher Avicenna claimed that the highest understanding, say
spiritual love of God, is unavailable to all but the highest minds, so parables, such as
stories of a physical paradise and bodily immortality, are to be used for the masses while
the other purer knowledge is to be used with only the most advanced students. Do you
ever code in language what you are afraid may be misunderstood?
AW: I'm working around many aspects, the public poetry being an important one. I'm not
sure about the "coding." Poetry is always a kind of code. My Tantric studies come into
the work constantly. When it does, is it accessible? You tell me.
RR: Since I first heard of Keats idea of "negative capability" I've collected some notes on
it. For instance, a diagnostic symptom of mental illness is "all-or-nothing" thinking
where a person can't contain contradictory ideas about a person, incident, or object––"I
hate my mother and I love my mother"––instead it always has to be either "My mother is
the devil" or "My mother is an angel." This seems a corollary to Keats's idea––"the
ability to keep in mind contradictory ideas without an irritable searching after facts."
One also thinks of F. Scott Fitzgerald ("The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to
hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to
function"). Both Aristotle's and Einstein's definition of genius was "the ability to contain
contradiction." Whitman, of course: "Do I contradict myself? Very well! I am large, I
contain multitudes." But how precisely does this affect any concept of poetry or the poetic
AW: My friend and poet Andrew Schelling puts it well: "A poem is a mind that holds
RR: Is esoteric Buddhism a key in deciphering some of your more intellectually complex
poems? For example in the Vajradhatu Sun, a Buddhist publication, the reviewer writes
of "Romance" that "'She' is wisdom abandoned and therefore found." That seems
unnecessarily obscure to me.
AW: Yes, it's important to watch "buzzwords" or buzz-concepts. But, for example, to
appreciate a poem, such as "I Digress ..." it would be useful to know something about the
Abhidharma, the Abhidharma in Buddhist philosophy.
RR: Yet when I first heard you read "I Digress ..." I didn't have the slightest idea it had
anything to do with Abidharma. I still don't know what Abidharma means. But I think it's
one of the most rigorous, uncompromisingly intelligent poems I've ever heard. Are you
telling me any affection I have for the poem is mistaken?
AW: Not at all. But you might get interested in Abhidharma and that could further your
appreciation of the poem. Abhidharma notices how the mind moves through “heaps” of
experience which are at some point illusory. It’s a very precise description. It’s a footnote
to the poem. You are an ideal, attentive reader. You “get” as much as you need and more.
You love poetry, you love to crack the code. You are a serious student of Pound. How do
you read the Cantos? Do you want the notes? Do they enhance the poem for you?
RR: It’s funny but I think of them as totally different activities. Reading Kenner on Pound
makes me realize I don’t know what I don’t know. I assume I have all the information
needed to read a poem. If it’s in English and I don’t understand it I think it’s because it
doesn’t make sense rather than that I can’t make sense of it. But in the Cantos and in
some of your work I bump against Greek or Sanskrit or Chinese and I know I’m missing
something––there’s a big skip in the poem, I lose the continuity. Pound said that when
you come across something you don’t understand in the Cantos, something in a foreign
language for instance, don’t worry because it’ll be repeated in a form you do understand
nearby. I think he’s wrong about that, but it doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is if a
poem interests you enough you find out about it. With the Cantos or with Joyce or
Pynchon or Eliot there’s plenty of secondary texts to expose the underpinnings of the
work. Your situation is a little different in two ways: One is that you share your
vocabulary with a select group of Buddhist practitioners and, two, there isn’t any
significant secondary material. But what I like about poems I don’t totally understand is
that you don’t have to believe it or argue with it because you’re interested in how the
poet’s mind is working. You see the connections made in the poet’s head and you also
begin to see the movement of electricity through the poet’s mind, even though you might
arrange the energy in a different pattern. It’s Pound’s “rose in the steel dust.” And so I
find in my scholarship a freedom, a loosening of my sense of self into a concept of time
where I'm an insignificant speck totally circumscribed by my times. I know you as a
scholar as well and wonder if you find inspiration in your studies. What exactly do you
find yourself drawn to in your studies?
AW: I am drawn to the passion that manifests in other cultures' ritual and oral traditions,
to a study of how mind articulates its states of ecstasy and exploration. How art stretches
the boundaries of logic. I'm interested in ulatbamsi––the "upside down language" you
find in Kabir and in Tantric Buddhism. I am interested in how and where the synapse
occurs that transmits through juxtaposition of semantics and sound. I listen to a lot of
ethnic music which carries those messages. I am also a student of my own time and place
which is circumscribed by poetry, and I work to forge a poetics which is close to my
mind-grammar and body-mind vibration.
RR: The poet Basil Bunting, friend of Pound, wrote "Pens are too light/take a chisel to
write." Pound himself said that the most important tool for the writer was a very large
garbage can. There's the story of Allen Ginsberg's mid-60's reading in London with
Bunting in the audience. Allen wanted to read his best work for Bunting so he read
"Howl," "Kaddish," "Sunflower Sutra"––all his "greatest hits." Afterwards he and
Bunting were riding in a taxi and Allen was nervous because Bunting had said nothing
about the reading. Finally Allen couldn't take it any more and asked Bunting what he had
thought of the reading. And Bunting said, "Too many words." The traditions of
compression in writing and more expansive works seem at odds. Who do you sympathize
with––writers who chisel at words or those who open a vein?
AW: Both. Both. I appreciate "condensare." I return to Dickinson, Niedecker, Creeley
with awe and inspiration. I love the succinct angular tension of Chinese and Japanese
poetries. I myself tend to be more verbose, probably on the side of "too many words."
“Not A Male Pseudonyn” is somewhere between the two. I need the lyricism extra
syllables provide. I work with song, and need to manifest and explicate contradictory
psychological states. Olson "opens a vein," Robert Duncan, too. Does there have to be a
RR: How can you tell the difference between an acceptance of "both" which is a
weakness, an inability to choose or an inability to take a stand, and some real
understanding? Kerouac said "Until you assert yourself nothing ever happens to you." In
my own life it seems the real breakthroughs have happened when someone's pushed me
uncompromisingly until some raw primal energy came out screaming "I am!"
AW: I recognize that push too. But I’m talking about negative capability. I don’t feel
compromised by my personal range. Heaven forbid I ever “find my own voice.” I’m not
really searching, you know. Embarrassing. Creeley and Ginsberg can co-exist. I’ve
always been excessive. I assert myself all the time. There’s no particular problem with
RR: You know, one of the things I've learned about you through this interview is you
don't intimidate easily. When you're challenged you rise to the challenge. In fact, you
even seek out the challenge. I think that may be a contributing factor to explain why
you've been so successful.
AW: Thank you for the compliment. It’s enjoyable to talk about poetry. I’m always
amazed that people aren’t more inquisitive, aren’t asking specific questions about
particular poems. Poetry works out of ordinary mind as well as sacred speech and sound.
It can be discussed. As a reader of poetry one wants the company of other readers as well.
That’s one of the reasons we started a poetics school.
RR: Why have you chosen to incorporate non-verbal aspects such as video, music, dance,
etc. into the performance of your poetry?
AW: I am interested in the contrast the non-verbal aspects provide in relation to the
words––to the poetry. I enjoy collaboration. I learn a lot about color, body, non-
RR: Your poetry is very direct to the subject matter––whether it be a "take" on a political
subject or an interior experience. Is this a conscious choice away from subtlety? Is there
any sense of the personal, the private, in your work as opposed to "the public."
AW: Yes, certainly. I seem to be working in both directions, always, simultaneously. The
"takes" feel necessary on current issues. It's a way to understand where my mind is,
relative to outside challenge, insanity (the war in the Middle East), and how to empower
myself in the miasma where one could otherwise dissolve into total chaos and despair. I
can create a spell that says "I'll make your semen dry up/Your genitalia will wither in the
wind!" addressed to the "men of war," the arbiters of our industrial-military-mafialike
complex, and actually feel its potential efficacy. Other works such as "Science Times,"
"Both Self Either Neither" are subtler, for the page primarily. "Pseudonym" is more
RR: There seems to be no negative capability in your political stand. You seem to feel a
need for eternal vigilance because you see the government as a Machiavellian and
almost demonic force, especially the U.S. government, which is out to destroy you and
everything you believe in. But it seems to me your shrillness and inability to draw
political distinctions makes you, politically at least, marginal and ineffectual. What is
your feeling about political poems in general? For instance, I can't imagine an overtly
political Frank O'Hara poem.
AW: What, no capability in my political stand? How provocative of you! I disagree.
True, I find the government-and most governments, not just ours––demonic. They are so
rarely motivated, it would seem, by compassion, but rather by greed. The Scandinavian
governments are perhaps an exception, and more humane, more involved with the
welfare––the health-of their citizens. They seem wiser in matters concerning the
environment, for example. What are the distinctions? Keep a sense of humor, see the
inanity of some of our political figures, but don’t be naïve about how their decisions are
affecting our reality and survival. The war in the Middle East was cruel, misguided. In
spite of what a monster Saddam Hussein is, there’s a lot of blood on “our” hands. I can’t
help being shrill at times, although the song I wrote, “Tormento del Desierto,” about
Operation Desert Storm is slow, sedate, almost dirge-like. I often appreciate the
sentiments, the passion of a political poem, but it has to work on outside levels as well––
Amiri Baraka's political poems shine in their vocal power, in their complex and engaged
rhythms. You might not even agree with him on the semantic level. Frank O'Hara's
poems are humanly political. The consciousness of the persona he conjures is awake.
He's a good citizen.
RR: Many have said that an author's works are their autobiography. I'm familiar with
much of your work but very little of it is self-revealing, although this does not mean that
it's non-autobiographical. But am I wrong in thinking that there appears to be much
more of the artist creating a work in your poetry as opposed to the artist leading the
reader into an experience?
AW: Perhaps. Perhaps there is no "self" ultimately to be revealed. The "I" exists in so
much as "other" and vivid phenomena exist. I don't think you mean "confessional," do
RR: I don't know.
AW: I write to make up the world, it's true. I live inside that "world" or universe. You're
welcome to come in as well. But it's not all artifice either. I want you to get inside my
eyes and heart.
RR: Kerouac said in Visions of Cody that "I am writing this because we're all going to
die." Do you have a conscious, underlying reason that you write, a purpose to your
writing? Is it only to make up a world?
AW: I feel close to Kerouac's sentiment. "I'm here to disappear," I've said. The writing
confirms the fragility and unbearable beauty of our existence. Its purpose isn't
immortality. It's more complex and interesting than that. It's discovering life at the edge
of death, all the time.
RR: In ancient Greece the four arts (lyric poetry, song, instrumental music, and dance)
were one art. It wasn't until later that they became separate. It seems as if you're trying
to put the pieces back together.
AW: Yes, often I want to bring the pieces back into a comprehensive whole again so the
efficacy, or whatever "good" or insight or energy comes through the work, can travel
further into human psycho-physical streams so that the poetry has more of a "pulse." I
find music expands my own mental capacity. It triggers associations and imprints on me
in a visceral way. Dance gesture is necessary to any ingesting of any knowledge or
wisdom. And its rituals are exonerating. My inspiration comes out of a natural inclination
to push boundaries which I deem artificial in the first place. The directions continue to be
interesting. Sometimes in writing workshops I've encouraged a collaborative choral form,
where everyone is contributing words, music, song, gesture, movement. Many directions.
At the moment of performance, all arts are the same.
RR: Plato's Academy was more or less a religious fraternity dedicated to the muses. Is
there any feeling at Naropa of a religious or spiritual foundation, a concept of fraternity,
or a dedication to something "other"?
AW: Well the "other" is not an external "other." We honor our own innate wisdom and
poetry at Naropa. That's the purpose of bowing together to one another's best effort,
aspiration. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie based on the underlying
understanding of ego––that it ultimately "doesn't work." So there's a lot of chaos and
groundlessness, as we say, but there's also a great deal of an abundance, generosity,
commitment. Naropa definitely presents an alternative to most educational institutions.
The school really falls much more within the Shambhala tradition. Although it has the
accommodation of Buddhist background it is a secular school interested in other
traditions and points of view. It certainly acknowledges the outrageous "outrider"
tradition in American poetry and poetics.
RR: One of my primary experiences in meditation is a state of mind which is virtually
wordless. This experience must somewhat resemble a child's experience when s/he has
not yet begun to place names on objects, to literalize their experience and then
experience this literalization as their primary "experience." Does your experience of
meditation affect not only your relationship to your mind (as preword) and its reaction
with your "experience" but also your reentry in the land of words in your writing?
AW: I would say the experience you describe is sometimes accurate. But often when I
meditate I am not in that "wordless" state at all. My projecting mind is racing with all
kinds of thoughts that also are labeled "words." I've learned about "gap" through
meditation and also directly experienced "negative capability." Sometimes the oral work
develops as sound first, before word, concept, then the latter kicks in. But meditation
makes you stop what you are doing. This is an interesting contrast to the rest of my daily
life. "I" is not so reliable. Who is thinking, watching, etc? These are always interesting
RR: St. Francis of Assisi said, "Who we are looking for is who is looking."
AW: That’s the first step. Finding the “watcher.” But you can get beyond that. The
watcher isn’t always so interesting.
RR: Actually, I think it’s very interesting. I think if you begin to examine “the watcher,”
as you call him, there’s an interesting moment when you realize that if you’re observing
the watcher, then who’s doing that? And if you can observe yourself observing the
observer it begins to get very interesting. From that point it was clear that reality seemed
to change as my perception of it changed, and my perceptions were disturbed by these
weird filters. I keep trying to get out from behind these filters. So the question is, Who is
this “I” I’m trying to get out from behind these filters? I see similarities to Pound’s point
of the vortex or the point connecting Yeats’s two gyres where the maximum energy is. It’s
the point of pure energy without manifestation. And I think it’s the point where words
come through although I don’t know where they come from because that point has no
depth, it doesn’t contain anything as far as I can tell. I don’t know what it is, really,
because it’s not a thing. I can never really back it up against a wall. In fact, isn’t that
where you observe our thoughts in meditation? Isn’t there a total identification with
emptiness at that moment, the moment you, say, witness an attachment or observe your
thoughts from the point of view of the “who” who is looking?
AW: That’s the point in meditation, and the watcher dissolves. It’s just experience at that
point. No reference point back to the solid “I.” As a writer that can be exciting because
of the groundlessness. You are free to explore other states of mind, states of being. You
can get inside the language. Down with the narrative, the autobiography, the “self,” the
dull ownership of experience, tired emotion, semantics. Cut-up eliminates the “watcher”
to some extent or it gets fractured, multi-headed, a more curious beast. But the organizer
is still on the job.
RR: In many ways, words themselves continue to exist when the objects they refer to no
longer do. For example, William Carlos Williams' red wheelbarrow probably no longer
exists outside the poem itself. Plato suggests that words (ideas, abstractions) are the only
eternals––that all the wheelbarrows in the world will cease to exist whereas the word
"wheelbarrow" will continue to connote an idea even after all the wheelbarrows
eventually disappear. This seems in contrast to WCW's statement "No ideas but in
things." But it seems contradictory since there aren't any objects in that statement. How
do you see this very basic argument? Is it important in any way to you?
AW: Do you know Jack Spicer's letter to Garcia Lorca where he says, "I would like to
make poems out of real objects" and "the imagination pictures the real"? He speaks of
how the lemon he shellacs to the canvas will decay, develop a mold, become garbage.
"Yes, but the garbage of the real still reaches out into the current world making its
objects, in turn, visible––lemon calls to lemon, newspaper to newspaper, boy to boy. As
things decay they bring their equivalents into being." "Things do not connect: they
correspond" he says. "No ideas but in things" does not say "no ideas," so there's a
philosophical argument here. Words are things, however, as Gertrude Stein reminds us.
The dialogue is always shifting in my head. My poetics is open, expansive. Words are
very much things to me, personally, whatever they evoke semantically. But they carry
communication, if you will, on many levels. I am not interested in a fixed position vis-a-
vis words. Never.
RR: There seems to be a very definite line between poets who conceive of poetry as
primarily language––the sound, the juxtaposition of words, the visual impact of the
letters themselves where the meaning is secondary or contained in those qualities of
sound, etc. or even non-existent––and those who think of poetry as primarily
communication. Where do you fit in this dialogue?
AW: Probably with the former, in the sense of how I practice the art. Message poetry
can be most tedious. You might communicate better by telephone, by an embrace, by
sending your money to a worthy cause. But poetry will always communicate something
however it's "done." It might be more complex than some people are used to. My poetry
communicates my mind, my nervous system which rages with passion whatever the
RR: The idea of relativity of experience came into disfavor as early as mid-period
Greece. The position taken was that if all experience was relative, then a sleeper's, a
drunken person's or a maniac's vision of reality would be as true as anyone else's. They
came to believe there must be an objective truth and so the question became is there a
road or path to it?
AW: The relative and the absolute, sure. But the absolute, in a way, is beyond anyone's
version and description. In a way it is our own mind using the simile of the mirror, which
simply reflects things as they come up with no attitude.
RR: In their History of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant point out that the earliest
dated printed language was the Diamond Sutra. In Sumer, the oldest western civilization
which has left a record, archeologists have uncovered "shattered tablets (which) contain
dirges of no mean power, and of significant literary form. Here at the outset appears the
characteristic Near-Eastern trick of chanting repetition––many lines beginning in the
same way, many clauses reiterating or illustrating the meaning of the clause before.
Through these salvaged relics we see the religious origin of literature in the songs and
lamentations of the priests. The first poems were not madrigals, but prayers."
AW: This feels right. Prayers are a yearning for confirmation. Their efficacy makes the
world keep spinning, from some point of view.
RR: It has been said that during the Golden Age, arguably the height of Roman culture
(circa 30 A.D.), poets ceased to mingle with people and of even speaking their language.
(One thinks of a statement from Patricia Hempl's review of Makeup on Empty Space:
"The famous 'difficulty' of contemporary poetry is here, the surface angularity that
confines poetry to a skimpy audience.") Artificial (Greek) forms had become the model
for poetry. Horace's "profane crowd" preferred satires and "lower forms" of art, such as
bar songs. This atmosphere co-existed with (or perhaps created) a ribald underculture
which included, before his eventual banishment, Ovid. Ovid and his crowd (the poete
maudits) set themselves up explicitly in opposition to what they saw as the "piety" of
Virgil and his imitators. Petrified versus lively; polite versus profane. Is this a continual
flux? Do you find similar drives in your own "career?" Where do you fit in with "the
AW: I take Virgil's line "Iovis Omnia Plena" (All is full of Jove) as a title, and the joke is
that it's Jove's sperm it's full of. I tell the senators their semen will dry up, I write love
poems to women, I scream "Mega Mega Mega death bomb––enlighten" while
demonstrating at Rocky Flats. But some of the longer more meditative pieces sound more
"polite" and contained, perhaps, although there's a radical thinking going on inside them.
RR: What's the longest period of time you have gone without writing a poem? Do you get
a feeling of restlessness when you're not producing?
AW: I'm crazy when I'm not writing. I'm sick. I have no purpose in life. Something like
[“This interview was conducted over the winter of 1989/1990, and was printed in an expanded
form in Disembodied Poetics (1995) and [was] republished as the title piece of Anne Waldman’s
Vow To Poetry (2001).” –R.R. This original version, edited by Jim Cohn, courtesy of Randy
Roark. Reprinted by permission of Randy Roark.]