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

started then.


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

same reasons.


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-

syntactical form.


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

words "say."


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

profane crowd?"


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.]