Anne Waldman Autobiography:
I grew into the neighborhood, most definitively a parallel universe. "Little Italy" had the pageantry and high ecclesiastical tone of the Catholic religion as well as peasant superstition, exotic cafes, and aromatic restaurants, another language to consort in, street life, the Mafia, annual street fairs or festas"—on the whole a highly distinctive flavor and rich cultural identity. Other layers to the Village included bohemian bars, folk music gatherings at Washington Square Park, jazz clubs, off-off Broadway arenas. It was also within the larger cosmopolitan environment of New York. My mother was eager to have me taste it all. She scrimped to send me to art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. We had tickets regularly to ballet, modern dance, and classical music concerts.
Could one be as great a writer as Henry James, Wallace Stevens, Yeats, Shakespeare, Sappho? I wondered, reading voraciously. Not likely, presumptuous in fact, but the connection, thrill of heart to their text was immediate, electric, so that you might vow to put yourself next to that work and be the constant reader, a votary in the service of. And scribble a bit on the side:
Tell me your secrets o success
It is said your fruits are desired by ambitious men
Tell me, if I were to taste the sweetness of these fruits
Would I be able to remain unhaunted by dreams of more?
I was an ambitious child, age eleven or so this poem, a fool, romantic, 'just a girl." Yet fighting the cultural conditioning of being "girl," aided by supportive parents who were sufficiently original. With a brother, Carl, two years my junior, who would also be a professional writer. Frances wanted the best, of course, for her attractive, precocious children. And by seventh grade she had saved enough (and I had partial scholarship as well) and both my brother and I started going to Grace Church School, which was, I later realized, directly across Fourth Avenue from where poet Frank O'Hara lived. Had our paths intersected? Grace had a solid academic reputation, was a "Village" school, Episcopalian backdrop. Neo-Gothic spires. I liked leading the short, ecumenical religious services in the chantry. Always had a religious "messianic" streak, wanted to guide others to . . . what? I was involved with the school's literary activities and some of us started meeting after school as well, at 54 Fifth Avenue in the large rambling apartment of the Hourwich twins, two brothers, whose parents had known the painter Norma Millay, Edna St. Vincent's sister, and had quite a few of her paintings on the walls. This was my first official "salon." We read plays by Shakespeare and Moliere (in translation) aloud, argued politics with Hourwich, Sr., who was, in spite of his bohemianism, an archconservative Wall Street broker. Gladys, the mother of my schoolmates, was from the West Indies, a beautiful dusky woman who smoked incessantly and wove gorgeous fabrics on several large looms.
From Grace Church I went to Friends Seminary, a Quaker school on Rutherford Place, and continued with literary activities, editing the school newspaper the Oblivion ("for what is a newspaper but a rag for oblivion?") and contributed to the Stove literary magazine. My best friend in high school was Jonathan Cott, the journalist, critic, and poet, who was loyal literary cohort, comrade-in-arms. We showed each other poetry, traded books. He turned me on to Rilke and The Dream of the Red Chamber. I was subscribing to the Evergreen Review by then, dutifully reading the Village Voice and even sending out my poetry for rejection by the New Yorker and other notable magazines. I remember the pleasure, thc private pleasure—kind of erotic activity?—of secretly writing romantic love poems, sending them off unbeknownst to parents, friends, and then the thrill of the return envelope, although it presaged no great success. Jon and I considered ourselves "existentialists," discussed Camus, Gide among others. He was two years ahead of me at school. He and my mother became close. And Frances was by now actively reading contemporary poetry, in particular the New American Poets. We three had an obsession with poetry. Another link to poetry at this time was Jon Beck Shank, provocative high school English teacher, erudite, Wallace Stevens scholar, who read Stevens aloud with gusto and passion. His "performance" of "An Idea of Order at Key West" sent tremors through my body and mind. I would never be the same.
And the spiritual side was nurtured at Friends by teacher Dr. Earle Hunter, a Quaker, who taught an excellent course in comparative religion, touching on fundamentals of Oriental traditions. The praxis and notions behind Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism were fire in my brain. And I appreciated, too, the regular Quaker "silent meetings" in which we'd spend an hour in meditation then speak out our secret observations, doubts, delight. These were surprisingly secular occasions. Awareness practice with simplicity and rigor. No hierarchy, no priests. Closer, as I was discovering, to the Asian traditions I was attracted to. And a political edge. As we took cover in the bomb shelters in the school basement, Quakers would be outside leafietting on behalf of "banning the bomb." This was 1961.
During these high school years I had a wide circle of friends, many of them artistically pitched. Close companion was Kathy Emmett, daughter of Kim Hunter, the actress. I lived with her family in Stratford, Connecticut, working backstage, age sixteen, while Kim acted in As You Like It and Macbeth. Jessica Tandy, Pat Hingle, Philip Bosco, Morris Carnovsky, also in residence, were impressive actors, articulate persons, and attentive to my youthful questions. I thought I would write a novel one day using Stratford as backdrop. The summer season ended on a tragic and dramatic suicide: one of the walk-on sword-bearers stabbed himself to death during a performance of Macbeth. On the train home alone to New York, I remember staring out the window, stunned by the empty horror of death, and the ironic mix of stage and life. Was one inspired to write out of these moments of irony, death, pain?
Years thirteen to seventeen were spent in the glorious labyrinthian playground of New York City. And the particular playground of the Village with its attendant glamour, anarchy, experimentation, derangement of the senses through drugs and alcohol, intensity of relationships. Toward the end of this high school period I was spending more time with neighborhood friends—creative types, musicians, artists, "dropouts." Kids from both the neighborhood-working class, bohemian—and sons and daughters of the affluent, liberal, and artistic literati. Martin Hersey, John Hersey's son, carried a well-thumbed copy of Naked Lunch around with him in an old, battered guitar case. John Hammond, Jr., was already becoming a serious musician. I called myself a "writer." We were weird. All the kids were getting weird. The times were weird, contradictory. If you didn't have a focus or path you could even get twisted. Reflecting on this period now I appreciate how rich and unique it was as an early ground for a developing sense of alternative community. Realities of racism, anti-abortion, economic social inequities, other poisons permeated the urban atmosphere.
Anne Waldman. "Anne Waldman: 1945-," in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Gale Research Series, Volume 17, 1993: 271-272.