"IllUMINATI IN THE VOID" INTERVIEW BY JIM COHN
Jim Cohn: Is it true you’re related to Sappho via your mother’s marriage?
Anne Waldman: Why not!
JC: I think you must be. Did you know that?
AW: I don’t know it for a fact. I should probably go on an investigative poetics expedition. Have you checked it out?
JC: In a dream last night. I think you are related.
AW: Excellent, well, Sappho possibly founded a school. And Eva Sikelianos, my mother’s mother-in-law, founded with her husband—the poet Angelos—a whole Greek revival, bringing the festivals and plays back to Delphi. One version of Sappho’s life has her founding a Moisopholon—A House of the Muses—where young women, specifically, gathered and studied, worshipped deities, played the lyre and sang love songs to one another and their various lovers, cursed each other out, engaging a whole manner and range of poetics. I think of that often. There have been various schools through time. Secret schools—Andrew Marvel and others of the English silver-tongued poets had something called the School of Night. And then the Moisopholon of Sappho, if you accept that version of her life. This school (Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics), Black Mountain, there are various little “outrider” academies. I can feel the resonance, surely. H.D. felt it with her high classic tone and aspiration. Angelos Sikelianos, my mother’s father-in-law from her first marriage, was from another part of Greece, and he’s honored most in Delphi. He was a philistine, a romantic. Eva threw all her fancy tailor-made clothes from Paris out a train window on her way back to him in Greece. They wove their own fabric like the ancient Greeks.
JC: Years ago, you made a statement about getting chills with the repetition of the pronoun “she” in “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens. In your most recent book, Kill Or Cure, there is a poem entitled “Pulse” where you write “She loved words. She would name the world now./She would name it again. Again. Name it words again. . .” When you were younger, did you understand that kind of usage as mantra?
AW: Simply the word “she”? A lot of great poems encode mantra. I don’t know if I understood it in terms of mantra’s magical efficacy which is supposed to literally protect the mind. I knew that it worked on me when I heard it in poetry, and in terms of its melopoeia, the sense Pound uses it, it works on you psychophysically, whether you even like it or not. When I worked backstage at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, I think of that as a really important time because I was what—sixteen—very impressionable. Hearing soundings of King Lear night after night and Macbeth night after night I was infected with that particular cadence. Some of the actors were brilliant, some were weak, but it was the efficacy and power of the language that always carried. When you die you don’t want to lie there for three days. You want someone to read Blake or Gertrude Stein or the Tibetan Book of the Dead to you. This is what Lewis Warsh and I spoke of the other day. He said he was leaving his house to go to the hospital to visit Bernadette Mayer who is in a kind of twilight-state coma after a cerebral hemorrhage. I was saying read to her, read to her! He grabbed Shakespeare’s Sonnets off the shelf and went to the hospital and was reading. It was my old college edition of the Sonnets with all my notes in it. This was meaningful to me because it’s a book she loves. It’s a book we used to read together, she and I. We don’t know where she is, what state she’s in, what she might hear or not hear, but from the Buddhist perspective, hearing is one of the last faculties to dissolve. It’s interesting what you say about “she” because I have these early ‘she’ poems. I have a poem that’s about twenty-five years old called “She Chant”. The poem “Lady Tactics” begins with “she/not to be confused with she a dog. . .” That’s in Fast Speaking Woman. I “get” things hearing them. When you study Tibetan Buddhist Dharma you have the silent text, but you have to have the lama “unlock” it for you by sounding it aloud, orally. Otherwise, you don’t get the complete transmission.
JC: I wasn’t going to ask you this now, but as this year, 1994, is the twentieth anniversary of “Fast Speaking Woman”—
AW: I think it was written in ‘74, and probably published in l975.
JC: Will there be any revisitation or celebration of Fast Speaking Woman?
AW: Well, they are going to reprint an expanded version. I sent City Lights Press an essay about the poem which they’d asked me for, for a new edition, so that might be included, we’ll see. I talk somewhat about Maria Sabina and about the early text that’s so discussed in Grave’s The White Goddess. The texts of the alphabet of the trees, tree magic, and the “I is another” list.
JC: Was there some controversy about Maria Sabina?
AW: Only that I didn’t list her by name in my first edition. I said the “MazatecIndian Shamaness” and I presented a veil of mystification. I regret that now. It was a mistake. It was naive, something that poets do. I didn’t feel I had to hide her as a source. If anything, I was goddess-izing her. It was certainly coming in on top of a poem that was already happening. Comrade-poet Michael Brownstein came to me with the Maria Sabina record and said ‘You should look and listen to this because you’re doing this ”I’m a this woman, I’m a that woman” poem and then I incorporated some of her lines, but I also knew I was this American white urban person. I felt it was my own poem. Elliot Weinberger came down on me and I got very nervous about the whole “white shaman” accusation since I agreed with friends like Ishmael Reed and others who saw this appropriation going on. To have a book, you know, with your name on it, I have regrets about that. And I wanted to correct that. I don’t need to hide sources. I wasn’t ripping anybody off and making a lot of money from the poem or anything like that.
JC: What does it feel like to live with a poem for twenty years?
AW: It’s a mini-milestone, in a way. It was the first longish published piece—it looks puny now, compared to Iovis—and it was picked up on by City Lights which was a wonderful honor. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had heard me read it and came up afterwards and asked to see it. As a kid in high school the great fantasy was to have a City Lights book. It was the penultimate publishing experience, how could you beat that. So from that point of view—the occasion of the poem, reading it, reading it first with Allen Ginsberg on stage in l974, and having Lawrence’s response was a tremendous boost.
AW: I know I read it out here the first summer of Naropa at Mackey Auditorium, that was l974, and I believe I also read it at a benefit for the Karmapa, the great teacher of the Buddhist Kargyu lineage. There were several readings. I think the poems in Fast Speaking Woman are certainly not the most subtle work. But the essay’s about chant and efficacy, Maria Sabina as source, and the intention of writing the poem of every woman. I wrote it on top of a letter I’d written back in the Eighties to someone who had wanted some background on the piece.
JC: You talk about coming into this world that you aspired to and actually then entering it, like you say with Ferlinghetti, and City Lights, and then coming through that. As a girl, you saw Bob Dylan in the Village, and years later, your poem ”Shaman Hisses You Slide Back into the Night” would report on your presence as part of that l976 Rolling Thunder Review. Is that the idea of the “poets’ utopia,” that whole sense of community?
AW: Yes, I want to get across the idea to the students who come through the portals of Naropa that this arena, this situation, the work that others have done, is here to empower you rather than to put you in a poverty-minded sycophantic reality, or mode of resentment—the love-hate competitive edge. There’s always that danger of a certain bitterness in people, that they haven’t “made it” to whatever the center of the mandala might be. It’s hard work being a writer. It’s discipline and hard work to do your own practice and keep up the network and sense of community. That you are the community. It’s not something that’s just handed to you, or you have a magic password and you walk into it. In ‘74, I’d already spent all those years administrating and creating events at St. Mark’s—editing magazines, etc. I thought I was coming to some fruition of the work, but it wasn’t as if it was a magical moment where I just fell out of the sky into a poets’ utopia. You’ve got to make self the utopia yourself! I was doing a lot of the same things that folk before me had done. Anyway, my sense of the utopia was very much like that first Charles Olson reading in Berkeley when I saw a gathering of writers interacting together, saw the edge, the rawness of friendship and competition, and the inspiration of community. When Olson is reading he is also talking to Duncan and Ginsberg and Creeley who are in the audience. That actually, the sense of Intimacy—that we’re not just getting up there as rock stars to an anonymous bunch of fans—is what matters. There’s a personal intimacy, the love for the writing of the people you’re working with, and you’re doing this together and there’s a like-mindedness, a sense of keeping some flame alive. That we’re illuminati in the void fighting against the darkness of the very dark ages. That it’s our duty, our role as poets to keep things lucid and vibrant and going on all sorts of fronts—political fronts, relationships, raising children, the teaching front: ecology, dharma. The utopia’s great. You’re re-inventing the wheel. You’re this Outrider, whatever one may define that to be—taking a vow to poetry. It’s the best cult in town.
JC: Does the tribal shaman ideal still feel correct?
AW: You have to have a certain irony about it. On the one hand it can be genuine. In my travels to Asia and other places, seeing how the “art” is manifested, I would say yes, there is a tradition of healing, of sacred world that can be invoked by human beings anywhere. Doing this kind of work is necessary and what we do as poets in America can be resonant with that ideal. You know it’s not indulgence or some kind of leisure. It’s not even Art, really. Refining the mind through practices of all kinds is difficult, but it needs to be done to keep the world turning. In our culture, we have the commodification of art, the iconization of artists, the objectifying of these things, ownership—whether it’s actual art works or the tapes or the relics— Kerouac’s jacket or Allen Ginsberg’s sneakers—so in a sense it’s more difficult, yet material success is not the point. This fetishistic consumer age with ego involved in making a name for itself is a complete flip side, but within that realm of art galleries and performance places and opera you can also have moments of amazing purity, and that is encouraging to me. They creep in. I’m not only a product of my age. I also live in a cave somewhere in primordial time. I’m not literally running around wearing a jaguar skin around my waist, although that’s maybe a private image of myself, some interior dream image of myself, the hag with a skullcup of blood, and so on. It’s both. You have to keep the other side alive and see it, visualize where it exists, honor it. You go to India—all India is tantric, shamanistic, the whole cycle. Every moment you see life and death and life and death flickering and flipping continuously. It’s not hidden. You are never the same after traveling in India.
JC: Is all the language sacred in this way for you? Is it the transforming nature of the naming that’s holy for you, or as you wrote in “To A Young Poet,” in Makeup On Empty Space are these parts of the realities implicit in language?
AW: I would say both. Also part of the Modernist tradition where the poem, or whatever this universe is you have created through language and words, is the reality, is the event, is the energy cycle, is the modal structure, and that is the experience. It’s not something other than that. And so experience conjures words and the words are very real and powerful and evocative. The words are events themselves. They might have come out of a dream or come in some sort of trance, or come through induced visions or be contrived out of thin hypnogogic air, but they do arrive in these disparate ways, and you choose to catch them. It’s an act of discriminating awareness and passion. You select and arrange and you put together so that the choices, the naming, whether it’s a litany or some scattered fragmented cut-up, it’s incredibly vibrant and at the same time exploratory and is an act in and of itself. It’s not just a commentary on how I felt today, or how I feel when somebody died, or a little description on how this was like that. When I speak of Outrider experimentation or Exploratory Poetics that’s somewhat what I refer to—that the poem is the event itself. Is the imagination. Is the artifice. Of course the way we’re taught is you analyze. You never even read the crazy thing aloud. And you walk away with a synopsis of the experience. I mean, can you imagine a synopsis of a Beethoven symphony or a John Cage piece? For example, in the Balinese view, everybody is playing on a different cycle, on various instruments, which make up the gamelan orchestra. And you’re somewhere on your own time cycle. In the Balinese view, everything’s on its own cycle, but you intersect periodically. You’re consociates. You exist in the same reality for a time. I might die before you do but we’ve co-existed together for a time. And out of that juncture comes energy and karma. That tree might live longer than I do. Everything’s interconnected in this way yet separate too. The ideal is, when you’re working with words, that you’re right there. You stand behind your word, which means to me, you’re with it in every way. It’s there to wake you up as well. The poem is a complete universe, as Williams says. You dwell inside it, but outside linear time.
JC: In Kill Or Cure you have several manifestos. Would you talk about the piece “Oppositional Poetics” and the relationship between the Buddhist notion of Pratitya Samutpada and the idea of connectedness.
AW: Oppositional in the sense of counter poetics. Counter in the sense that poets are always interested in the Left Hand Path, the alternative path, or the shadow path—what’s on the other side of the pool you see your reflection in. That sense of the opposite, and the opposites being one. In Buddhism, you’re playing with that all the time. Samsara and Nirvana are basically the same thing. They become differentiated, but underneath is unconditional energy basically, and then what your ego does with it makes the energy either negative or positive. It’s very simplistic, but also tricky because at the same time you’re alive and vibrant and sexy you’re also very much aware that you’re also a corpse, all the time. So, oppositional in the sense that nothing is solid, in the current way things seem to be going. In a commodification culture that’s sentimental you are always reminded nothing is solid. Contemporary movies just drive me crazy. The violence and the sentimentality and the spiritual materialism and Theism and the incredible indulgence in ignorance is so claustrophobic. And it’s based on a culture that takes so much for granted. And it’s ironic because film as a medium is so ephemeral. So, oppositional, in a sense, to anything that would put you to sleep or stifle you. Wake up, wake up, alarm! alarm! Urgency. It combines that, comes out of a sense of karma, or cause and effect, or interconnectedness. One thing leads to another—you do that to that and that is going to do that to this, from this to that to this to that to this to that in an endless chain of cause and effect. So, Pratitya Samutpada refers to the inter-codependency, co-arising of phenomena, and phenomena’s effect on itself and all its manifestations. It’s somewhat like this Balinese paradigm I’ve described—working in concert, being consociates, and also getting your own trip together. You are born alone and you ultimately die alone. It’s out of this aloneness that you make “a gesture into the void” out of your sense of emptiness, nonexistence, groundlessness—realizing you’re not solid. You’re not going to live forever. You’re not eternal. You become compassionate out of that. At least that seems to be a natural progression. The dharmic teachings describe this organic progression: first you go to dharma out of your own despair and desperation and fear of death. Then you start to see that you don’t exist in a solid way and that somehow opens you up, somehow your tenderness hooks in because everybody’s in the same boat. So, I think they sound different, interconnectedness and opposition, but it’s out of the same thrust or gesture. How far can you go?
JC: You had several activism poems. In “Street Retreat” for example, you disguise yourself as a homeless panhandler, and in a very different context, the poem ”Cut-Up Amendment 2” in which you attempt to undermine what you call “the predatory nature” of the homophobic legalese that discriminates against gay rights here in Colorado. What is the teaching behind those actions?
AW: On the street retreat it was empathy. Get down and just put yourself, which is a basic teaching, in the other person’s place and see what it’s like.See how you’re treated. See what the reality is. See what sleeping on the cold stone street is like. See what getting cold and hungry is like. For Amendment 2, again, it’s the same kind of thrust. Get inside the language and transmute it. Taste it and subvert it. I feel it’s so integral, my view, which you can call Buddhist, to who I am, but it was there before I even knew what Buddhism was, frankly. All these years I’ve just been doing the same things I’ve always done. Drawn to the same kinds of activity.
JC: In the l970s you talked in Journals & Dreams about the idea of “female turf.” And then you describe as a powerful meditation on male energy your ongoing epic poem Iovis of the late 80s and 90s. Not being facetious, perhaps nobody has studied these issues as deeply as you in the history of the human race, particularly in a poetic way. Imagine yourself talking to someone ten years from now. What would these works be saying to us in terms of female and male energy?
AW: Iovis has histories in there, cosmologies. It’s got a lot of things I sense people could use as runes to unlock further study or to do more research or to get tuned into who and what Vishnu is, or as in my Bali section, get tuned into oral traditions and storytelling and different kinds of form and practice—the epistolary mode or the speaking mode or the child speaking mode or the father speaking or now my father-is-gone mode. He’s died, he’s not actively in the poem in the same way, but the section from India opens with a dream of him I had in India as he was dying, so that these amazing auspicious coincidences and junctures and intersections of dream, thinking, reality, events in my own life, events in the life of something that happened centuries ago all are co-existing, do you know what I’m saying? The language of all that. Within the poem, or in the act of the making of the poem, all times are contemporaneous. The magic is that it exists now. So, I would say that Iovis speaks to a person of many gnosis-minds, a person who likes to go in a lot of directions simultaneously because that’s certainly what I’ve been doing. And that it could give you solace, and could help you through grief—in the healing sense and also from the point of view of transformation and transmutation, that it’s working with alchemy and the different elements that conjoin. It’s also funny, I hope. There’s this one hilarious thing that my son Ambrose is saying in a recent section. I’m writing something down, and he’s saying ‘Oh, mom, you’re writing it down again. You think you can get rich on that,’ or something, ‘get a dollar bill out of this.’ Then he says, “Some idiot like Anne Waldman will think this is interesting.” It’s so funny.
JC: A poet named Todd Beers, from Rochester, mentioned to me that he was with you when you bought the urn for your father’s ashes on Monroe Avenue.
AW: Right, Todd was with me. I told him I needed a simple elemental box. It’s more of a treasure chest of brass—simple and elegant—you can fasten it. Itsits on my shrine now.
JC: In your remarkable prose piece, “Go-Between Between,” from Kill Or Cure, you talk not just about the oral tradition, but the phonetic tradition. You talk about “ti bot” as a cultural phonetic tradition that underlies the oral tradition from especially Thailand, but also India, Nepal and Bali. How as a performer, since the Dial-a-Poem days, has this informed you?
AW: I strike the text. The text for me is the musical score. I’m the instrument. My voice is the instrument. My voice is articulating the sounds which are coming through the imaginings and visitations in my head, and I’m making these sounds but I’ve selected them from an ocean of sound. I’m the go-between. “Gamelan” literally refers to the activity of the hammers which strike the gongs. It’s not the ego striking. The underpinnings everywhere are similar in taking from the different forms and sounds of different languages and possibilities. And also, there’s this pre-language sounding. The sound of making love or animal sound, which is signal, signaling lust or grief or Ah! which is just awake, and meant to soothe in a way, or dream sound. This sense of Vedic sound, mantra sound—mantra is not literal words. The point is not that it has to carry semantic value or information. It’s just pure sound. They do carry efficacy and meaning, but you haven’t even gotten to that insect mind yet. You can say would you rather look at a painting and respond to it verbally or in music or in song—these things have their different manifestations.
JC: Well, what is an American ti bot then?
AW: For me, it could be John Coltrane, John Cage, Jack Keroauc or Ella Fitzgerald, I could hear almost anything I respond to in that way and see how that is a striking of the text, or an awakening, and the player is the activator of the sound. He or she doesn’t own it. Something gets unlocked there in an almost psychophysical way and plays on all your tendencies. That’s why you want to go to your friend who’s in a coma and read Shakespeare.
[This interview was originally published in Heaven Bone, #12. Heaven Bone Press, 1996. 20-25.]