Poet Anne Waldman has been a thundering force in the world of American literature since first stepping onto the scene in the days of the Beat Generation. A prolific and experimental author, performer, editor, feminist and activist, Waldman published her latest book, Trickster Feminism, just last year. She is the founder, along with Allen Ginsberg (who called her his “spiritual wife”), of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.
Waldman is headlining and closing Wordspace Dallas’ Lit Hop, a monthlong event ending Saturday featuring readings, music and workshops, where she'll perform a reading at Sandaga 813 in Exposition Park. She spoke with the Observer from her native New York City and chatted about her new work and why she doesn’t have time for Kardashian debates. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
Let's talk about feminism and the momentum it's having ...
Yeah, and it’s ongoing, it’s continuous. I was caught up with it in the ‘60s, the ‘70s of course. It’s gone through different permutations. I feel like it’s extending to new communities across the world much more than it was in the early years and it’s opened up all kinds of diversity, including gender, fluidity, including women of color, really extending the boundaries of the original beginnings.
I’m finding it a rich field for discourse and also looking at other histories — looking at histories of the Black Feminist Movement — and it’s very exciting. More than half the world is female, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. And I’m heartened by that, and I loved in my own conception for this book combining the sense of we’re in strange times, when we have these con artists running the country, and then we have these backward oligarchies all over the world. We kind of have to be a trickster; keep your playfulness, keep your cunning, your wit, your spirit, and meet the challenges — not always with the sense of grimness.
I’m not optimistic about the ongoing human race. We have to really wake up, especially to the issues in the environment, the nuclear toxicity and endless war, migration. We’re all going to be migrants in 50 years. Everything is on the move. We’re adjusting.
What do you think it’s going to take to create a true cultural shift to end the abuse of women?
Well, I think we have some very good people in the new Congress, and that’s going to be slow, but I think very deliberate, very of heart and mind, awakened. I trust a lot of the new energy.
I think the whole confederacy of the white male dominance is dying out. Everywhere I go there’s more diversity, more connectedness, except these small racist pockets and likewise with women. You just have to stay on the case. I think protests in the streets, campaigns, and letters and all that; coming out to vote is so important, really valuing that. ... It might be too late, but people are being more attentive; they’re affected by it. I have a line in this performance piece “Don’t tarry, don’t tarry!” (from Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble), it’s no time to indulge all your own little hopes and fears, your smaller world. Be strong in that, but give an eye to what’s going on, and tie your time to things that will benefit other people. ... We’ve certainly stirred things up in the Middle East for the last decades. This horrible (thing in) Sri Lanka, the horrible amount of bloodshed around religious differences, power struggles, it seems to be endless and it’s very disheartening.
Reading some of the Beat Writers’ work now, women seemed at times ornamental and trophies of conquests, while some of the female writers aren’t recognized for their contributions. As a feminist, do you have any thoughts on how one should look at past work and appreciate it in the context of its time, or should we be critical of everything that fails to advance our cause?
I think you have to do both. I think you have to see the context it’s created in, look at the places where it soars, goes beyond the binaries, appreciate the kinetics of, say, Kerouac’s mind riffing, of Ginsberg’s Whitmanic extension of the long line and breath.
Because I worked with Allen closely at our Kerouac School, I really felt parity and equal with him. I was making as many decisions, and we agreed on a lot of stuff, I traveled with him, he gave me extensive room in our readings and performances together, deferred to me, so I had a personal relationship which was good. I can also critique him if he referred to women as “girls.” (Laughs) And I appreciated his work on behalf of gay rights, lesbian stuff and the war stuff. We were protesting in a lot of places together. I think it’s everywhere when you look back at the art, culture, the lyrics of rock and roll, etc. in the ‘60s, which is when I really came of age.
And yeah, critique it. Look at places where it’s completely outrageously xenophobic, in terms of territory, I think threatened by the female, not compassionate, not seeing the other side. I recently was asked to write about Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who passed away recently, and she was married to the poet Robert Creeley, and Creeley is a brilliant poet ... incredible experiment to break through certain things around the syllable specifically. And yet he had a hard time. He said, 'There can only be one writer in the house,' and that made her stronger, but she had to write surreptitiously, and that’s a horrible situation to be in, and things couldn’t last for them. But that’s the kind of situation that has changed, and I think has to change even more.
Who are the women artists who’ve had the strongest impact on your life?
Well, some of the Beat women ... Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, the black poet Audre Lorde, some of my contemporaries and people I came up with like Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith — who are friends — and also Meredith Monk, Carolee Schneemann, who just passed away, a very important feminist and visual artist. So I’m very blessed to be part of this generation. It’s been so strong in its women and their arts and passion and work in the world that continues. We’re all still out there, those of us who are still standing. I’m charged, I feel very blessed in the companionship.
Your body of work is enormous: 40-plus books and other pieces of work. Where should one start in approaching a writer like you?
Maybe start at the beginning with the book Fast Speaking Woman, that came out from City Lights a long time ago. I think those who have a sort of more intense bend might take on my thousand-page epic which is taking on the patriarchal, the Iovis Trilogy, which is kind of a collage, montage, in three parts; three books in separate chapters — a lot of travel, a lot of investigation, other people’s words and experiences, but its fabric takes the shape of almost an epic that can be performed in part orally, and that would be a place to really go in. And then Trickster Feminism and Manatee/Humanity, another book called Gossamurmur, I think are these long poem books; they turn into books that are one poem, essentially. And so Manatee/Humanity takes on the actual creature, the manatee, does investigative work. The name “manatee” comes from a Caribbean word meaning “breast.” I’ve traveled to visit manatees; I visited the skeleton museum in France, with a manatee skeleton right next to an elephant’s, who is one of the manatee’s closest relatives, so that was mind-blowing. So exploring consciousness through another life form, I think that’s a very interesting book, and Trickster is playful, is written during this intense period of ... under the Trumpire; parts of it are in the streets, trying to come to grips with it.
How do you feel about the modern language and how it’s been on, one could say, a decline since the internet and texting created such a widespread shorthand?
Sometimes I think it’s very problematic, but I actually talk to people deeply connected to language and languages all over; I was just in New Orleans and there were panels around translation and this sort of thing. No, I feel confident. We think because we’re in such a highly connected situation and it seems like everything has been reduced to these memes and phrases, and everybody’s saying the same thing and repeating the same thing, and we have the endless media, news, and chat and the short Twitter phrasing. I think that’s all new stuff, and it’s a new one that will morph, that will change. There are gonna be new forms, new technologies, new ways of communicating. It’s hard to think about what those might be, but most of the people I know aren’t giving up on the book, they’re going to the book, they love some of the long sentences in Henry James, they'll go back to Shakespeare, go back to recent poetries of people who have sort of passed on ... looking at the whole body of people’s work, not just their poetry but their thinking: their essays, their manifestos, where you get a fuller picture of a whole ethos.
And at the same time in New Orleans there were a lot of people performing. There’s something about the kinetics of language itself, language itself is so musical, you have built in the melopoeia, the sound, and you have the phanopoeia, which is the image. I don’t think you’re gonna just eliminate that, it’s not something that’s gonna go dead. That’s my feeling.
Do you remember your first attempt at writing?
I went to public school in New York City and we would write poems for special occasions, like Arbor Day. I don’t know if anybody celebrates Arbor Day anymore. I think it was in the spring, obviously, when things are growing, but it’s, you know, talking about trees, and we had to recite Joyce Kilmer’s “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree,” and then we would write, not imitative poems like that, but little odes. I think the ode was an early form, it was a way of praising and acknowledging, and out of that came poems to particular people — somebody on their birthday, a way of giving a gift, which was writing. So that was something that I connected with pretty early on. I didn’t think of it as a career, particularly, I mean I was starting to read poets of course, and poets were like deities or saints in a way, sort of otherworldly. It was never about the money. It wasn’t a career path. ... I mean, at what point do you declare yourself a poet? It just sounds nutty. ... It seemed like you were too full of yourself saying you were a poet. Maybe that’s changed.
You’ve said that you sat on Leadbelly’s knee as a toddler...
And he’s an important part of the history of Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood. Do you remember that moment?
Oh, that's right. Well, I was a baby so it was told to me. We lived on MacDougal Street, where I still live, in New York, and the friends below on the bottom floor, Abe Guinness — there were a lot of kind of radical bohemians, and that was sort of my parents’ lineage, they’d both been dropouts. So I think it was through Abe Guinness and some of his friends that Leadbelly came to the house. It was like a small party. I was a baby, it must've been ‘46.
Of course so many of friends were obsessed with him; the poet Ted Berrigan and Ginsberg, everybody, (Leadbelly’s) a major figure in the psyche — in its fierceness and beauty and suffering.... I feel like it’s a blessing. I don’t know what to do, I feel like I haven't lived up to this Leadbelly moment.
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When you look at women’s empowerment through the Kardashian or Instagram idea of showing off our bodies, is female nudity, in that context, empowering? Is it men’s idea of empowerment, or is the choice to do so in itself what matters?
I think it’s problematic in the ways you mentioned: men’s ideas, and also I have to look at everything through the gaze of negative capability; how can you hold the contradictions in mind? And it’s a dangerous time, men have to clean up their act, they have to get enlightened. So I think when I was coming of age, I had the problem of the male gaze. I had the problem of the entire world using in advertising this imagery, and we also had the insane schizophrenia of just American puritanical stuff and this really weird other side, but we also had to (say), yes, our bodies are beautiful and our own and we own them ourselves.
I feel like we’ve had to fight the whole abortion question, that we have power over our own bodies, that nobody can tell us what to do or how to present ourselves or how to be in the world. This whole business of “don’t wear this, you’re giving the wrong idea,” I had to grow up with some of that, to know what you were allowed to wear so you didn’t appear like you were trying to entice men, or (like) some kind of sex object.
I just don’t have time to follow all the trends and the responses and the arguments and what men are saying, “mansplaining.” I’m not into all that. I have urgent time on this planet. I have all this work to do. But I think if I were younger right now, I would probably be paying attention more to that mix, but I'd rather go back to certain kinds of mythologies or look at the female figures through time, through literature and the lives of various people in complicated and intricate ways. That shape-shifting has always interested me: How one moment you can be the child, you can be the alluring damsel, you can be the old mother, you can be the old hag and so you’re constantly embodying all these, I feel like I am.
Speaking of time and urgency — have you ever, as a writer, thought of what would be your last words?
I love Gertrude Stein. Supposedly at the end of her life she was asked “What is the answer?” And her response was “Well, what is the question?” and she died. Those were her last words. I like that. That’s the kind of response I hope I have. I haven’t really thought about it, I just hope that I’m conscious.