Anne Waldman, like her longtime compatriots Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, practices Buddhism. Her poetic, like theirs, is informed by Buddhist practice. She writes in her poem “Credo”:
I want to live the state of “co-emergent wisdom,” an old Tantric notion resembling “negative capability.” Yet out of that same eye comes research and conviction. I could sing & dance it, the ambiguity of “both, both.”…. I’m interested in the phones & phonemes of experience, the language moment to moment, not the concept of my experience. Or yours.
Ignited by a love of poetry and amazing personal energy, Waldman has become an internationally acclaimed poet/performer and a leader in introducing the poets of the American avant garde to the public at large. She is the author of over thirty books and pamphlets of poetry, including, most recently Iovus (Coffee House Press, 1993) and Kill or Cure (Penguin, 1994). With Andrew Schelling she translated Songs of the Sons and Daughters of the Buddha (Shambhala, 1996). Drawing on essays, speeches, manifestoes and interviews from faculty of the program of Writing and Poetics at Naropa Institute where she and Schelling both teach, they also coedited Disembodied Poetics: Annals of The Jack Kerouac School (University of New Mexico Press, 1994).
Over the years, my own life and enthusiasms have serendipitously intersected with Anne Waldman’s in the worlds of both poetry and Buddhism. In the mid sixties, she named me to succeed her as editor of Bennington College’s literary magazine, Silo. After graduation, she went to New York to direct the Poetry Project in Manhattan’s St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery Church. In the mid seventies, our lives again converged at Chogyam Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where Waldman, a Tibetan Buddhist, was teaching at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and where I was writing and studying vipassana meditation with Joseph Goldstein. She has continued as Director and as a Distinguished Professor of Poetics at the Writing and Poetics Program at Naropa. In this maverick school she has played a catalytic role in lighting up the “invisible poetic gossamers” among a sangha of writers ranging from William Burroughs, Amiri Baraka and Gregory Corso to Leslie Scalapino and Bobbie Louise Hawkins.
In the winter of 1995 I was delighted to cross paths once again with Anne Waldman, this time over the phone and joined by Wes Nisker, for a conversation juxtaposing dharma and poetics. The article which follows is based on that conversation as well as on subsequent correspondence.
Inquiring Mind: Do you see writing poetry and dharma practice as the same work? What’s the relationship between art and sitting on the cushion?
Anne Waldman: I was drawn to poetry as scripture, as sacred text, as flaming, illuminated letters that are seared in your brain and your genetic code. I try always to be present to the writing, like practice. When I was fourteen I made a vow to poetry. I wanted a deeper connection to the magic I experienced as I read and heard great poetics (Shakespeare’s, Dante’s, Blake’s, to name a few). I wanted to get inside the art as a humble practitioner myself.
I was also introduced to some Eastern texts in high school. I went to a Quaker high school that emphasized comparative religion as a field of study. I was struck by the mystery and beauty of some Taoist scripture, for example.
Many of the great Buddhist teachers were also poets. Speech was sacred activity. In both Zen and Tibetan literature, there’s the upside-down kinds of poetry—ulatbamsi— wonderful contradictory trickster mind-work. In the Indian and Tibetan doha style of poetry, you have songs of realization structured like sestinas, with recurring images. These come out of the Sanskrit poetic tradition, which is sensual, lush and tantric, with tremendous spontaneity and the freedom to express delight and contradiction. Andrew Schelling and I have recently translated some of the songs of the monks and nuns in the Pali canon. In Songs of the Sons and Daughters of Buddha, we work with the voices of wandering mendicants, who are living “on the road”—sleeping in fields, forests, city parks and caves. As translators our intention has been to restore the spark of the poetry beneath the canonical text. Our versions are energetic and almost funny:
“…No longer a slave among my dirty cooking pots
(My pot smelled like an old water snake)
And I’m through with my brutal husband
And his tiresome sunshades….”
Or another poem:
“I’m free. Ecstatically free
I’m free from three crooked things:
and my hunchbacked husband
All that drags me back is cut—cut!”
These women express their relief and their delight in the dharma in wonderful exalted poetry.
IM: The early Buddhist women thoroughly renounced the world and all sense pleasures. As a nonmonastic contemporary western Buddhist woman, how do you relate to that?
AW: The early Buddhist women frequently renounced lives of terrible hardship and turned to dharma after suffering tremendous pain or loss. They had already lived full lives and had tasted sensual and worldly experience—as wives, mothers, daughters-in-law (a particularly difficult role!), prostitutes and so on. So they were really ready for the contrast, embraced it, in fact. I relate to their songs as dohas—songs of experience and realization. They found, as we hear in the poems, real spiritual joy, albeit somewhat circumscribed. Living the life of a mendicant—remember, there were no institutional monasteries then—was an extreme and brave choice. Think of the homeless women you see today begging in the streets. That’s closer to the reality of these women than is the monastic situation available to women today (demanding as that may be).
I identify at times with the kind of relief they express—it has a kind of Ur-feminism feel—being free of the dominance of men and society, free of that enslaving domestic control, and seeing into their own minds’ clarity outside those reference points. I can feel their cri de coeur in my own psyche. The litany around the aging woman’s body in “Ambapali Speaks” is classic, accurate, witty. It’s certainly close to an aspect of my own poetics.
As westerners we live in a different version of reality than these early Buddhist women, although it’s important to remember that in so much of Asia and Africa and other parts of the globe, women are still under the same kind of terrible onus and oppressions. Imagine being subjected to genital mutilation. Wouldn’t you find the possibilities of dharma a relief? Wouldn’t you want to get free? Look at the subtle western deva loka realms, the seductions that take place there to enslave women. Which is why the drag queen Barbie dolls are such a relief. I have felt the “call” at times to a nun’s life out of revulsion toward samsara and consumerism and traffic and the intense heat of psychological suffering any thinking intellectus has, but as tempting as retreat sounds, my skillful means, my upaya, seem to direct me elsewhere for the time being. Besides, we can all become renunciants in other ways. Become ecologically aware, for example!
IM: One might expect that creative work and spiritual practice would sometimes contradict each other, that a poet would draw on personal history, experience, dreams—a personal self. When you write, do you find that you move beyond this narrow sense of self? In particular, when the muses are talking to you, do you identify them as part of you? Can you depersonalize your muses?
AW: When you first start sitting practice, you see that you are having simultaneous thoughts, you are traveling in the past, in the future. You see your aspirations, your despair, the reruns of the emotional dramas of your life, your fantasies. All these things are vibrating and nearly knock you off your cushion. You start to see how unsolid it all is. Out of this come different manifestations of “muse” energy.
Once you realize you are basically a conglomeration of tendencies, going in countless directions simultaneously, that’s very freeing. As an artist, you flip it around so that it all becomes amazing energy for the work, and there’s a delight in the sheer flexibility and diversity, and possibly some outrageous understanding. You’re very open to the messages coming in, whether it’s the fragment of a dream, an overheard conversation, something you read or an idea you follow to some interesting conclusion. When you start looking into your own mind, on the one hand, you can go insane, but on the other hand, as an artist, you can harness it and let it carry you in manifold intersecting directions.
I love the idea I’ve learned from the Balinese gamelan of these different instruments all on slightly different cycles yet all coming together. From the gamelan I seized on the notion of cyclical time, how different cycles intersect at various pitches, points of intensity and karmic fruition. So we are all, both of you, Wes and Barbara, and myself, all consociates in our world, in our time; we’re alive in our own little personal life cycles, but we also intersect with one another. Consociates comes from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz referring to the notion of being alive and working in a mutual, intersecting time frame. Thus you are a consociate with the policewoman down the block, the grocer, your students, your grandmother, and all are intersecting at various moments—intimate or not. Likewise, in the work I’m making there’s a sense of these individual energies, of the images or sounds or even words—or within the words the phones and phonemes that have their own little spin and intensity—coexisting and co-arising and interconnected through my particular mind.
It’s amazing the places writing originates from: voices in the head, all the sense perceptions in concert, my own sound, the gestures and sounds of the world. My work comes out of a passionate love affair with the phenomenal world. It comes to me through my senses, triggered by those experiences that can come out of a hypnogogic state, or all the states between sleeping and waking, through messages from dreams, visitations, my own child, my ancestors, visits to other cultures, as well as ancient cultures. I work with collage, cut-up, other people’s voices, letters, journal entries, chants, following in a number of directions, exploring simultaneous realities. The “I” is not necessarily autobiographical; it’s “other” as well as multiple personas. And then the language also has its own direction outside my control.
In Iovis, a long poem in two volumes, I am using a lot of so-called “channels” for the work. Many of the underpinnings of this poem come from a line of Virgil: “Iovis omnia plena.” All is full of Jove. The idea is that Jove as male force peoples the universe, that his sperm is “juiced out” over the millennia. Through this complexity of interconnectedness, the long chapters, or cantos, of the poem weave in and around and about the theme of male energy. The poem takes on Ares, the god of war, male energy in that guise. Yet it is not simply an attack on the patriarchy but a celebration of male energy (in myself as well) and the complex experience of its myriad forms. To write it I needed languages, voices, descriptions and words from the male. I draw on letters of my grandfather Waldman who lived in a time zone between two devastating wars; descriptions of my father’s from World War II Germany of severed limbs sticking out of the sand at the Maginot Line; a visit to the Vietnam Memorial; voices of my son, Ambrose, and his friends playing games they call World War III. This is the most extended piece I have ever written—over 650 pages at this point. It attempts to catch the patterned energy of one woman on this planet as she collides with apparent and nonapparent phenomena.
IM: As director of the Poetry Project in Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery and then as cofounder and director of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute, you have taken amazing leadership in supporting a community of poets. How did you come into this role?
AW: In the summer of 1965 during the Charles Olson marathon poetry reading at the Berkeley Poetry Conference (I was a student at the time), I extended my vow to poetry to include a sangha of poets. I made a commitment to develop and maintain this alternative community, a compassionate human cadre of like-minded illuminati and practitioners of the art who could really “hear” the new music in their nervous systems. I saw this peripatetic community as tribal, connected by invisible poetic gossamers, mind to mind, glints and vocal gleamings. I have a strong sense of being part of this web work of consociates mutually informing one another and creating a larger cultural context for action and art.
IM: What is the vision of this group of consociates, this sangha of poets?
AW: The mission of the work is to keep the world safe for humanity and for poetry. We’re all pushing against the darkness, and we’re singing these songs to wake up our chakras. I experience contemporary poetics as being awake and exploratory at the same time. So that sense of shape-shifting is really important, as is being able to move simultaneously in a lot of worlds and spheres: the work front, the political front, the dream front, the family front, the education front and so on. Working with these really small increments, almost like sound-bites, working with electronic media, working with cut-up the way Burroughs has, the way a filmmaker might, which is in a way like the grammar of the mind and thinking anyway. To be able to contain multitudes. A computer can never do it all for you!
And I really have a sense of our role as word workers, as cultural workers in the world. That’s a term Amiri Baraka uses a lot. Through our skillful means, we’re making changes. It’s somewhat like the monks mumbling in caves and spinning their mantra wheels. There’s something that we’re creating, whether it’s a sense of imprinting in some way genetically, or these runes that we’re spinning into space that can be unlocked at a later time, or keeping certain flames going as things get harder. Also, being able to create viable structures—not dependent on the industrial-military-media-financial structures—for the art.
IM: Before we end, let’s talk about The Jack Kerouac School. How did it get started?
AW: When the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa came over to this country, he asked to see the poets. Whoever comes to a town and wants to meet the poets? Not, I want to meet the President of the United States! [Laughs] But, Take me to your poets! And although I had worked for many years at St. Mark’s, which had a lot of the same qualities and vision, the starting of the Naropa Institute took the stakes higher and further. Here was a more encompassing view against the backdrop of contemplative practice. Allen [Ginsberg] and I (with some help from Diane di Prima) were asked to design a poetics department for the Naropa Institute in which poets could learn about meditation and meditators could learn about poetry.
We named the school of poetics The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics because Kerouac experienced the first noble truth of suffering and also because of his original praxis of nonstop spontaneity and tenderness of heart in his actual poetic language. Kerouac epitomized in his own search the yearning of the North American “soul,” for satori—a poetic realization of one’s basic tenderness and emptiness and of the interconnectedness of all beings on the planet. We added “disembodied” as a nod to tantric wildness and also to our lineage—Sappho, Blake, Pound, H.D., Gertrude Stein, poetic masters joining us in spirit, if not in body. Moreover, at the time we had no buildings, no desks, no blackboards, no filing cabinets, no computers, no grades, no money (sounds like the Prajnaparamita Sutra), only our mental commitment, our voices, our scholarship, our practice. So in the beginning, the school was truly disembodied!
IM: You often make reference to the cadre of poets as “outriders.” What is the origin and meaning of the term?
AW: I think the poet Dick Gallup used it originally in a course he was teaching at the Naropa Institute to refer to those experimental writers outside the academic mainstream. We consider our lineage at the Kerouac School to be “outrider”—outrageous, iconoclastic, exploratory, etcetera, and not self-conscious.
In Bali, there’s no word for art; they’re just doing it all the time. You see people in kiosks or out in the rice fields in the morning, and at night they’re dressing up like gods and goddesses and performing an incredibly beautiful dance and making music. So in this outrider tradition there’s a sense of doing the work to please the deities, to keep the energies dancing, not just to have a safe and tenured career.
IM: Brenda Knight has a wonderful new book out called Women of the Beat Generation (Conari Press, 1996). In your introduction to it you talk about the casualties legion among these Beat women, even more than among the men. All too many followed the lead of the men, let their own talents lag, ended up with drug dependencies, painful abortions, suicide. Some of the women poets who have flourished in their own right, such as you and Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger, have been involved in Buddhism, which provides a framework and supportive context for deep exploration. Is there any significance in this correlation?
AW: Let me say first that di Prima and Kyger are both comfortable with who they are. They are also exceedingly sophisticated, wise, and generous poets and teachers. Buddhism—which ideally transcends gender—allows women to explore the contours of their mental awareness as well as their innate prajna, taking into consideration the powerful aspects of female tantric energy. The primordial cervix is a great koan.
IM: Trungpa attracted the poets. Does that have something to do with the nature of tantra and the Vajrayana school of Buddhism? I’m thinking of tantra as a way of linking spirit with the particular things of the world.
AW: You know the Tibetan poet Milarepa’s great line: “I read the world as a book. The book is my world.” In the Vajrayana you find what I’ve described in my own poetry practice, this passionate love affair with the phenomenal world. Everything is interesting, even in its most negative, atrocious, plutonium-laden horrific aspect. You can understand it, you can get inside it, you can take it on, you can transmute it. There’s an obsession with energy, energy as an unconditional force that is neither good nor bad. It’s both. That constant flickering play—what’s called co-emergent wisdom—is the great teaching. As poets we sing and dance the ambiguity of “both, both,” samsara and nirvana at the same time, all the time.