You may not have heard of Anne Waldman, though you've heard of her friends.
She was the co-founder with Allen Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado; she was the director of NYC's St. Mark's Poetry Project for more than a decade; and she and Ginsberg toured with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. But though her associations with these American icons may provide the initial motivation for seeking out her work, once you do you'll find that her talent stands firmly on its own -- she's a lot more than who she knows. That's what Waldman showed in her intimate performance to an engaged audience at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary Friday night.
The evening, hosted by literary non-profit WordSpace, was carried out in the theater space normally occupied by Kitchen Dog Theater. An oriental rug and piano dominated the stage, where, accompanied by her son Ambrose Bye -- first on piano, then with a computer for electronic "soundscapes" and finally on guitar -- Waldman worked her way through a number of her more than 40 published works. These included Manatee/Humanity, which explored ideas of interspecies communication, inspired by a trip to a Florida aquarium where Waldman bonded with a manatee; Problem-Not-Solving, written about Italian ghettos during her time living in the country; and an excerpt from her 1,000-page feminist epic poem, The Iovis Trilogy.
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Waldman's delivery was half sung, half spoken, and the musicality of the performance helped the individual works to cohere, investing each word with energy that filled the room. Despite the heavy themes in her work, such as how our culture will be remembered by future ones (Waldman thinks not very kindly), war and death, a sense of humor pervaded her performance. There was power but also lightness to Waldman's presence.
The selection she read from The Iovis Trilogy had her singing the names of various political leaders who did not serve in the military. It's hard to hear the names Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum trill from someone's lips without smiling -- these are not people often associated with beauty or poetry. Before reading another poem, entitled "G-Spot," she commented on the strangeness of performing it with help from her son, on Mother's Day weekend of all times, which also elicited laughter from the audience.
Overall, Waldman's performance gave the impression that she takes life seriously but herself not at all, an impression that perhaps reflects her interest in Buddhism, which also made itself known in other ways. The evening closed with a performance of Allen Ginsberg's song "Gospel Noble Truths." Bye played guitar and he and his mother both sang, creating a call and response with the audience, which echoed each phrase: "Born in this world/ You got to suffer/ Everything changes/ You got no soul/ Try to be gay/ Ignorant happy/ You get the blues/ You eat jellyroll."
It was an appropriate ending to the intimate evening, which had been personally meaningful to WordSpace director Karen Minzer, who studied under Allen Ginsberg at Naropa and appears to have a close relationship with Waldman and her son. Under Minzer's leadership, WordSpace has continued to bring writers of quality and historical gravity to Dallas, and Anne Waldman's captivating reading Friday served as further proof of the organization's value.