‘Wake the World Up to Itself’: Anne Waldman on Poetry and Painting

November 16, 2015

Acclaimed poet Anne Waldman will talk about her experiences as a member of the legendary New York School on November 19 at MFA Art Writing as part of the department’s Quijote Talks series. The New York School was a loosely affiliated group of artists and poets—John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Philip Guston, among others—who lived and worked in New York City in the mid-20th century. Waldman joined the New York School in the 1960s and went on to become a part of many other important trajectories of American Poetry such as Beat, Black Mountain and Outrider. Along with Allen Ginsberg, she co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and was one of the founders and directors of The Poetry Project at St. Marks’s Church in-the-Bowery. Waldman tells SVA Close Up about the role of the poet in society.

ginsberg700Your poetry is largely performative and seems to belong to an oral, and perhaps Homeric, tradition. Yet, you are part of the New York School where painters and poets came together. How do you think poetry and painting relate with each other?
Not sure if you are implying a contradiction, but my experience is that poetry needs to be in, and coming from, a host of places. And does in fact. I was about to write “ghost” and that feels right too. I hear so much of the ancient and the great lines of those not alive in literal voice. The silenced larynx. But they are still speaking. And artists I’ve worked with: Joe Brainard, Elizabeth Murray, George Schneeman, paints put away, are also vibrant in this mind’s loving eye. Because it’s about love too, the “company of friends” as Creeley put it. Helen Vendler has a line somewhere about poetry being a “performance in the mind of solitary speech,” which is elegant, and sounds true. But it is also not always so solitary in collaboration. Or in performance with music and other people’s voices. The frequency changes. It’s not that I disagree in fact I often experience that aloneness. And need to. But the mind is slippery, complex, entangled. Demonic even. Artaud wasn’t in “solitary speech”. New York School: Playfulness. Surface. Not content driven. Start anywhere and see where it goes. Cut-up. Collaboration. Montage. Syncretic layers. Puns. Scratching out words. Painters making words, poets scrawling in paint. Ron Padgett has called George Schneeman “the noisy painter.” Because his collaborative word-works would shout out at times. And he was busy, and the art works might be cluttered, and colors and images loud.

My roots go to many branches of the New American Poetry Tree or Rhizome, as well as Homer, and in all the hybrid possibilities. And I feel humility in this. I was young when I met Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby, Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Barbara Guest, Diane diPrima. I was so lucky. This is the New York of my heart that gave impetus to the Poetry Project. And kept expanding.

padgett700Later when Ginsberg and I were developing the pedagogy at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa he felt our task was to “Wake the world up to itself.” So what are the “upaya” (Sanskrit term for “skillful means”) to do that? The senses! In play. And we made lists of everyone to invite—all the schools of poetry. And artists and jazz guys, too.

You need all the senses to wake up surely. To wake anything up. Homer, epic, auditory, yes. That was a call. I wrote a 1,000 page epic with a lot of other voices in it that may be both heard and read. I sing parts of it. It was written as a history lesson for my son.

I am rambling because I am writing (distracted by your questions from another deadline) from Le Mans, France, which is deeply visual and evidently noisier when the car races happen nearby. It’s got some of the oldest stained glass in the world in the St Julian Cathedral. And stained glass is like a movie, often telling a story with light. And I’ve been enjoying the almost psychedelic patterns on some of the Roman towers.

Poetry and painting relate because they both want to wake the world up to itself. Friendship was always important in the New York School ethos. That’s what comes through in this vibrant book New York School Painters and Poets: Neon in Daylight. The mind moving between two artists and art forms and the third mind emerging.

(This term “third mind” has been applied to what comes through in the cutups of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin).

burroughs700About being disembodied: In an era when we are all being turned into images, there’s a greater urgency and need to protest with our bodies. In your practice your body is very much present. So what does “disembodied poetics” mean to you? Has that meaning changed over the years?
We started Naropa with a Vision. We had very little in the way of material support.

We didn’t have a desk, telephone or stationary. We had no building of our own at that point. We were also, specifically in the Kerouac School, asking poets to teach what they love, what they know, and thus poets would teach Dante or Shakespeare or William Blake or Gertrude Stein or Joyce or in the case of Gregory Corso, Gilgamesh. Jack Kerouac had died. We honored him for his realization of the first Buddhist Noble Truth of suffering and for his radical writing, and for seeing the satori of impermanence, which is also a kind of beauty. Ted Berrigan would talk about Frank O’Hara. There was an “Outrider” class that included old-timers. So we wanted to include those far and near: disembodied. There was a strong emphasis on the oral archive and recording everything (although we didn’t have much budget for that either and the tapes are fragile.) But we now have these thousands of hours of disembodied voices after 41 years.

What are the limits of the body? was our friend and poet Akilah Oliver’s question. And in the activist, political work there was the sense of putting your body on the line, as when we got arrested protesting at Rocky Flats, just 10 miles from our little school, our young and vulnerable school with its powerful spine. The last resistance I have is my body, says Foucault. Indeed. But that body has to inspire the next body down the line, and give breath to it through mind transmission. The secret oral teachings perhaps? Consciousness. Can that be measured in our DNA? I’m not sure the meaning has changed. It’s supposed to be a little bit of a conundrum. We are a body poetics as well. And we are founded on and inspired by the rock solid bed of tantric Buddhism, which honors the body as a vehicle for waking up.

cabin700You say in a lecture that being contemporary is to recognize the darkness of your age. What can we do with this recognition?
This fascinates me, always, how are we contemporary with our time, an urgent question that Agamben asks and others such as Stein and Ezra Pound have asked before. I ask it everywhere I go. There’s a way we see light in the darkness of our skulls. My friend, filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, talks about the ineffable quality of vision being expressed by projected light within a dark theatre. Something like that. And Agamben says the poet’s job is to look into the darkness of our own time and that is being contemporary with it. And when we see that light has already reached us and is still coming to reach us, we live in that troubling aporia of contradiction. The negative capability of space/time. So what to do?

We certainly seem to be in a sadly broken dark age, which can be very paralyzing. The overwhelming Anthropocene, everything intervened upon and often destroyed by the hand of man. But there are vision-cells that are activated when we look into darkness. And I think we don’t have to be stuck while we have our vibrating larynxes and artistic hands. We can move into a space of risk and action and poetry and painting and so many other forms and genres, with curiosity and be of benefit to others. And be with others, in the conversation, and keep earthing our charge while we still can. And tread lightly. And cut the ego-attachment to image and see our place in the scheme of heaven/earth/man. And try to do no harm as we continue the struggle for the environment, for social change, for other species, all the non-human elementals, and for (finally, please can we do this, people?) banning the bomb. And keep creating imaginative zones and holding them safe outside the machinations of power, unmitigated greed, psychopathic war. Looking into darkness is like seeing into the cosmic mirror. Free from conditioning. From bias. Vast open space. Get our minds there. Don’t tarry!

For more information about the November 19 Quijote Talk with Anne Waldman, click here.

Photos from top down: Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg, circa late 1980s; Waldman, Larry Fagin, Ron Padgett, photo by Linda O’Brien Schjeldahl, circa mid-1970s; Waldman and William S. Burroughs at Juanitas Restaurant. Boulder, CO, 1984; Allen Ginsberg, Waldman, Robert Bly, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, 1973, photo by Rachel Homer. Used by permission of Anne Waldman and the Anne Waldman website.

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