YKA Exclusive: Chat With Anne Waldman, The Poet Who Fights Against Wars, Men, Presidents

Posted by Abhishek Jha in Culture-Vulture, Interviews
January 20, 2017

“Outrider rides through the chaos, maintaining a stance of ‘negative capability,’ but also does not give up that projective drive, or its original identity that demands that it intervene on the culture. This is not about being an Outsider. The Outrider might be an outlaw, but not an outsider,” Anne Waldman writes in her essay ‘Premises of Consciousness: Notes on Howl’.

In many ways, Waldman herself is an Outrider, jibing, jabbing, prodding at culture. It’s hard to put labels on her. Poet, performer, activist- she dons many hats and draws from a multitude of voices and sounds. She is the ‘Fast Speaking Woman’:

“I learn by books
I learn by singing
I recite the chant of one hundred syllables
I write down my messages to the world
The wind carries them invisibly, staccato impulses to the world”

And she is the ‘Lady of Misrule’:

“I’m in a rogue state, Mr. President
Don’t tell me what to do
Your rules aren’t my rules
Cause I’m the Lady of Misrule”

Part music, part protest, part performance, Waldman’s poetry is also now one of the last testimonials of a generation of poets and protests that have shaped present day America and its poetry. Waldman herself though seems to have grown out of those days, creating a style of her own. She is in Jaipur to attend the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival which began on January 19. In an email interview with YKA, she spoke about her poetry, her politics, as well as the 2016 Nobel Prize awarded to Bob Dylan. Read on:

Abhishek Jha (AJ): Where did you grow up and what influence did that have on your poetry?

Anne Waldman (AW): I grew up in New York City in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village near Washington Square Park, a neighbourhood renowned for its Italian immigrants, progressive politics, artists and “bohemian” intellectuals. Poets, playwrights, jazz musicians, Anarchists. I sat on Lead Belly’s knee as an infant. During the sixties the folk music scene took hold. There were hootenannies at Peter Seeger’s house when I was a child. Bob Dylan came later. Beat poet Gregory Corso lived down the block. It still has some of the old flavour. It influenced my poetry to be inquisitive, experimental, political, performative, and aware of the “syncretic” nature of our lives and histories. The city is a maelstrom of energy and layers.

AJ: You lived during the Beat generation. This was also the time of a growing women’s movement in America. Can you tell us how feminist the Beat movement was and how women fared among the Beat poets and writers?

AW: I actually was almost a generation younger than Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and certainly William Burroughs. In my estimation the women did not fare particularly well. They did not get the same attention; they were not privy to all the conversations. It was a difficult time for women in the Fifties- if you were “different“, were engaged in bi-racial relationships, or a lesbian, or needed an abortion, there were serious restrictions with families and society. Women did not have the freedom men had. There were powerful women during the early Beat period that have been getting attention with more recent literary scholarship. An anthology entitled ‘Women of the Beat Generation’ is good. And many of the women were supportive of the male writers. Diane di Prima and Joanne Kyger who are still active are major American poets. Some of this erasure is being corrected. The men had unusually tender relationships- some homo-erotic and there is sweetness to the male non-competitive bonding. Times have moved the women forward.

AJ: The artists of the Beat generation almost created a way of life. How much weight do artists carry today in America as a socio-political force?

AW: I can’t speak to the enormity this question poses; America is a huge country with a lot of current strife and divisiveness. But there is certainly a public that pays attention to what artists are doing in cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago. The diversity of the field has expanded considerably with many black artists and intellectuals and cultural activists at the fore. There are “pockets” of activity around university campuses. Our lower education system is problematic in general. Literature and the arts need more prominence in these areas. The economic divide is killing us.

AJ: As I understand, you are not very fond of capitalism. You are also an activist. How do you feel about art projects, literature festivals, universities, etc being funded by big corporations? There were protests at JLF’s Southbank centre event earlier this year, for instance, because it was being funded by Vedanta- a company accused of crimes against  indigenous peoples (Adivasis).

AW: I am sorry to hear about the JLF Southbank Centre issues and I would try to seek support elsewhere. And it’s important to critique and ask questions, always. But it is so difficult to find sponsorship for big projects like this, or Phillip Glass operas. Or major art shows by Van Gogh etcetera. It’s important that there is no censorship of content or discourse in literary festivals, that there is freedom of speech. I think – in the USA- there has to be some accommodation but also exposure. The projects I have worked with all my life- The Poetry Project in NYC, and Naropa University are free of these kinds of compromises.

Although the Project gets government funding, it does not have a solid “institutional” base. Both this organisation and the university struggle are kept alive by the people who work there for moderate salaries.

AJ: Do you know of any alternatives today for artists who do not want to be appropriated by such corporations?

AW: Most artists I know are not appropriated by corporations, although a corporation might buy a painting, support an exhibit. Poets have a modest lifestyle; you can write without much money beyond basic survival. You’re lucky if you can get a grant. Most writers I know teach at small colleges often, or larger universities, or public high schools. As a poet you don’t have “a product” to sell.

AJ: You have also come to be associated with the New York School. You worked with Bob Dylan. Can you tell us a little about this interaction of poetry with other forms of art and how you approach it?

AW: Yes the NY School- the brilliant work of Frank O’Hara who gave permission for a kind of personal spontaneity and vivid moment to moment perception with wit and panache. And you have the dream logic of John Ashbery’s poetry.

AJ: How do you feel about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize?

AW: I felt it was a prize that might have- and should have- been awarded to Allen Ginsberg. Dylan was strongly influenced by the Beats. But it was a good substitute and became such a controversy that people could think about what they valued about Bob Dylan’ anthemic work at a particular historic time that swept the country and later the world. I honor the oral tradition of lyric and song. Some of Dylan’s lyrics and performance are powerful poetry. I often saw him as a kind of shaman during the Rolling Thunder Review with his painted face and feather in his cap.

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