The first, and far too obvious, question desperate to fall from my lips when Anne Waldman answers my phone call is, "What was it like to hang out with Allen Ginsberg?" It's the unfulfilled dream of this poetry student to sit in the room with a creative force like Ginsberg, Kerouac or any of the other creatively unbridled minds from the Beat Generation. And, as if that's not enough, she also toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. Staring at Waldman's biography, I see my naive college-aged dreams staring back. But a few years behind these now-legendary artists in age, she didn't just plop down at their feet. Waldman was their peer. A creative force all her own, she's been stimulating intellects worldwide for decades with both her written words and her performative poetry. On Friday night, an audience at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary bears witness to the latter.
She's in town as a guest of the avant-garde literary group, Wordspace, known for programming rooted in language-driven art, whether it's a reading with an up-and-comer destined for great things (previous readers include Merritt Tierce and Ben Fountain) or performances by the like of Laurie Anderson, Amy Sedaris or Dan Savage. This is Waldman's first time to Dallas, and her work is likely to challenge local audiences. Her performative poetry tackles off-center issues, and comes from a lifelong interest in "making sense of this dystopia."
Growing up in New York City, Waldman was the child of a very liberal bohemian family interested in books and the arts. From a young age, she was nurtured in an alternative environment, and she says this, in combination with a post-World War II America, fused in such a way that she felt compelled to pursue life as an artist.
"It was some turn away from some kind of rational, normative institutionalized thinking," says Waldman. "That kind of query you have as a child, 'What is life all about? Who am I? What is reality? How do I express something that doesn't have a channel?' Those early existential questions drew me to poetry, which is always mysterious and full of surprsies. You can play out your hope and fear and you play with the language yourself."
It's clear from Waldman's poetry, much of which she will be reading and performing Friday night, that she hasn't just explored deeply those initial questions but she's also playfully mastered the English language. The performance will be a crash course in her anti-war, anti-patriarchal texts. She explains that she will be reading from texts inspired by experiences with Ayahuasca and texts about reducing poetry. The words will be woven together with music performed by her son, Ambrose Bye of Fast Speaking Music.
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"We need poetry to wake up ourselves," Waldman says. "To let people in the future know some of us were not just killing each other, that's a line from one of my poems."
When I ask Waldman my fan girl question, or some less greedy version of it, she pacifies me with kinds words about the Beat generation and adds that it's a sort of handy term to encapsulate a spectrum of styles. And she's much more interested in the work she and her colleagues are doing to keep that poetic spirit alive. She's a founding member of the Saint Mark's Poetry Project in NYC, and a founding member with Ginsberg of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. And the latter she describes as a summer camp for grown-up artists. Guests include the likes of Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who will talk about Ginsberg's influence on rock 'n' roll. Yeah, pretty damn cool.
"Doing all of these things and writing poetry has been important for me to stay alive because it's important not just to preserve our master narratives," says Waldman. "But to also have some kind of traces of the beauty we make while we're here."
See Waldman at 8 p.m. Friday at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (3120 McKinney Ave.). Tickets are $25. More at wordspace.us.