Anne Waldman





Anne Waldman took time to chat in April 2002, about her book Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews and Manifestos. In the opening segment, she spoke about her obsession with lineage, legacy, the importance of articulating her poetics and making it available, as well as some of the conditions out of which the poetry comes, such as political and performance poetry. She also read the short essay/poem Oppositional Poetics and discussed the Gulf War and the Pentagon’s control of the media to stifle dissent. Part 1 (7:42)

In the second segment she discussed the human condition for the need to project your “aggression, ignorance and passion” onto “the other” and exaggerating the situation into a vast “fantasy.” Despite this state, she discussed her belief that feminine energy is in the ascendent in this culture, evidenced by more women artists coming to prominence in this time, in her own experience as a witness in her lifetime viewing the cultural mores change for unwed mothers, women in interracial relationships and the notion of how feminine energy creates environments (atmosphere) in which community is created. She also discussed her mother’s role in helping shape that awareness. Part 2 (6:43)

In part three she talked about the Open Form approach to poetry as a manifestation of feminine, rhyzomic approaches to poetics. How Kerouac, specifically, was tracking the mind in a way that she says was “much more than interior monologue” but an alternating of the internal with the concrete outside world. She talked about the concept of open systems, dissipative structures and the kind of structures that seem to have those kinds of properties as well as luminous details. Part 3 (8:39)

Anne began part four of the interview by reading Dark o’ Night, a “two wives tale” from her book Marriage: A Sentence. She talked about the notion of making a vow to poetry. Vow comes from the Latin word for “vote” and discussed other etymologies, the notion that language’s energies sides with the full voice and how her approach to writing is an oral approach. She discussed the non-competitive nature of Buddhism and how the bodhisattva vow for one to be a bridge, to be a meal for the hungry, to create things that will benefit others. She mentioned her experience at the Berkeley poetry conference of 1965 and how, attending at age 20, was like “a transmission” and the appeal of that spontaneous and authentic approach to poetry. Part 4 (9:28)

In the final segment she discussed how with a poetry practice, like Buddhism, you are “synchronizing your body, speech and mind t refine your expression, your manifestation in the world. She discussed the importance of getting this notion across to young people in schools and how this trains one to be in the present moment and “go on one’s nerve” to quote Frank O’Hara. She discussed her notion of Kali Yuga poetics, that we are engaged in a war against the imagination and how it ought to be fought via non-violent means, as well as the concept of the state of “energy without ego.” At that moment, one transcends the sense of self, which is a state in which she feels a greater energy present. She also read her homage to dearly departed friend Allen Ginsberg, the Notes on Sitting Beside a Noble Corpse. Part 5 (12:55)

Interview with Anne Waldman

(First Aired May 11, 2002)

Paul Nelson: The Tenth Annual Women of Wisdom Conference at Seattle’s Unity Church had the usual New Age folks. One surprising presenter did catch my eye: Anne Waldman, the internationally known poet, teacher, editor, and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Then upon reading her latest book, Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews and Manifestos¸ I see that she says, quote: “I believe that feminine energy is in the ascendant in this culture.” 

Today we talk to her about that energy, its implications for the culture and other provocative statements from her new book, which helps illustrate the famous quotes of poets past, that:

  1. Artists are antenna of the race and
  2. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. 

Anne, welcome back to the program. I just have to tell you the new book is one of the best books on poetics I have read in many, many years, in fact, that I’ve ever read, and that includes Poetics of the New American Poetry, and a previous book of yours, The Naropa Disembodied Poetics Anthology. Congratulations, it’s very inspiring.  

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, it represents a real history in terms of my own life and work, and all the cultural activism and the founding of Naropa’s Jack Kerouac’s school and homages to some of these wonderful, wise elders, Ginsberg and William Burroughs, of course. And, I felt it was a good teaching book. I really see it as a book for my students, as I say in the introduction, dedicated to the past, the present and the students to come.

And I’m very obsessed right now with lineage and legacy and how important it is for writers of my generation to articulate their poetics to give some of the history as they’ve lived it, really, and make that available. And also, explicate some of the conditions out of which the poetry comes.  And in my case, of course, the political poetry and the performance poetry and so, it was an interesting task. It was very painful, what there wasn’t room for and, and then once I got it together I thought, there’s so much more to say, and there’s so much more to write. So I hope I’ll do more of this. There’s a little subsequent pamphlet that’s come out with several manifestos written since the events of September, when I was in residency in Italy, so I’m happy about that. And this is subtitled, ‘Manifestos – Essays and Interviews”, but the manifesto form seems really important right now. 

Paul Nelson:  How did you get involved in the Women of Wisdom Conference?  I saw you on the publicity, and I thought, ‘Wow! That Anne’s in, this is cool!” 

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, Sonya Lee, who’s one of the active teachers and has certainly helped develop that project over the years, suggested to the folk who organize it, that, after hearing me read here, through the SPLAB activities and Sonya was in my workshop when I was last in the area, thought that this would work for the Women of Wisdom, that there was something that, I had to offer there, that fit in with the dynamics and vision of that gathering.  So I’ll be teaching a two-day workshop, 9:00 to 4:30 tomorrow and Friday. 

Paul Nelson: That’s great that you’re teaching there. I think it’s outstanding, and  I could go into that, but I don’t wanna talk about the Women of Wisdom. I think it’s a wonderful conference, and I hope it continues for many years. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Yeah, it’s been ten years now. 

Paul Nelson: Yeah, that’s just amazing. Now, there is a short piece in the book called, “Oppositional Poetics” and let me see here. If my notes are correct, it’s on Page 51. So this is a nice short essay, and this’ll give anyone listening a sense of where you’re coming from – at least one view of where you’re coming from in the book. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Good, yeah, I agree. “Oppositional Poetics” opens with a few lines from Hölderlin’s poem, “Bread and Wine” (what is the use of poets in a bereft time?)

(She reads “Oppositional Poetics.”)

Paul Nelson:  Ha, ha. When I hear you read again, it’s like I’m back in that universe. Like some people experience a fine wine, you know? Or something like that. It’s amazing because I’m back at Splab. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, this is the voice that’s in my head all the time. 

Paul Nelson:  Wow!  

ANNE WALDMAN: [laughs]

Paul Nelson: Well, lucky you.  

ANNE WALDMAN: Oh, I don’t know about that. 

Paul Nelson:  What happened January 17, 1990? 

ANNE WALDMAN: That was the beginning of the Gulf War. Course we’re back there again, which is why this piece still feels very relevant. But this sense of a new kind of war, with the  surgical striking and demonization of  Saddam Hussein, I think we’re going to be back in there, again.  

Paul Nelson:  Yeah. 

ANNE WALDMAN: And the fact is very few American lives were lost, although the illnesses out of that conflict, the chemical…

Paul Nelson:  The Gulf War Syndrome. 

ANNE WALDMAN: …the syndrome.  Yeah, The Gulf War Syndrome. 

Paul Nelson:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you point out in  

ANNE WALDMAN: And the number of people who died, of course, in that country and died subsequently because of…

Paul Nelson:  Sanctions. 

ANNE WALDMAN: …sanctions and all that.  So it’s an intense reality that many of the American  most of the American citizens don’t really know what the facts were, and it was very hard to get information. It was not, as you remember, the Pentagon controlling things, just as they are now. 

Paul Nelson:  They learned in Viet Nam.


Paul Nelson: And you point out in the book, Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War Vet. The man that took out Oklahoma City. 

ANNE WALDMAN: That’s right. 

Paul Nelson:  So that’s interesting how this turns back on us. Another thing that’s interesting and I’m reminded of, is you mentioned that there always has to be an enemy.  

ANNE WALDMAN: I know. It’s a kind of human condition, I guess, to create something on which to project your aggression, your ignorance, your passion, and always blaming, blaming the other. And then, of course, exaggerating and building up a huge, huge fantasy that totally demonizes. But I talk about this in the piece on Rocky Flats, so what the Warring God Realm situation, which is an image from Buddhist psychology and philosophy, this sense of a realm, where that’s the juice, that’s the fuel that you need to keep this thing going and both sides, of course, are hallucinating each other and you become the same thing. In a way it’s like saying, well, the most aggressive forces in the terrible Palestinian and Israeli conflict, but when you think of the Holocaust and what the Nazis did, and then to see that that same kind of energy is reflected in the most extreme Israeli warmongers, and so the sense of that energy traveling, that it’s not about,  who you are, culturally. Yes, there are issues over land and property and religion and so on, but it’s the same, basic, human atavistic energy to create, to have to create this enemy. And then of course, we know that the war as we’re seeing in our situation here on the  …homeland     …homeland! [laughs]  

Paul Nelson:  It’s the same thing. War on drugs, war on this, war on that, yeah.  

ANNE WALDMAN: When we should be fighting the war on poverty, the war on AIDS, the  …etc., etc. 

Paul Nelson:  War on environmental degradation or what have you.

ANNE WALDMAN: Oh, exactly. No, I feel that we’re invoking a war on the planet at this point.  

Paul Nelson:  Right. 

ANNE WALDMAN: That’s what it’s about and until we see how we’re doing that, and of course, any wars will affect the environment.  

Paul Nelson:  Yeah. Jung said that Israel would perpetuate a holocaust and that it’s the shadow.  


Paul Nelson:  The whole shadow syndrome again. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, is it kind of karmic playing out there and these things travel. I believe that. 

Paul Nelson:  Through all of this, you say that feminine energy is in the ascendant in this country. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, I think, yes. And as you can see, more women in situations of manifestation and no, it’s not about control necessarily, but as artists, I’m specifically speaking there about women writers and women artists and filmmakers who are making reclamations.  Of course there have always been women working in these ways but we need to reclaim some of that history and sense of lineage. But I would say that in my experience and coming of age in the ‘60s, but going through the ‘50s, and watching the generations in front of me, the women who were around during the Beat generation, just one example, would locked up if they were different, if they were having an interracial relationship or a child out of wedlock or dropped out of college or high school even. Often, the mores then were, very, very hard on the women… [some were given] lobotomies. Putting people away for years, the [high] suicide rates among women in that nexus of alternative activity was a real struggle. So I would say, compared to those times, certainly the poetry scene has flourished with women, really at the controls in so many situations. So I think I’m speaking of that, but also the sense of feminine energy. Feminine energy creates spaces. I talk about putting makeup on empty space.  But the sense of allowing things to happen, creating environments for events and work, the actual creative work and community to take place. So there’s a kind of atmosphere that I think, feminine energy certainly creates. And I’ve been involved with those kinds of projects for years, of course.  

Paul Nelson:  And it doesn’t necessarily have to be represented by women.  I mean  

ANNE WALDMAN: Exactly. Exactly. 

Paul Nelson:  So, that’s what you’re saying. 


Paul Nelson:  I mean, if you talk about feminine energy, we don’t think Margaret Thatcher [laughs]. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Right. We definitely don’t. 

Paul Nelson:  [laughs] 

ANNE WALDMAN: [laughs] 

Paul Nelson:  And you talk about  

ANNE WALDMAN: The Iron Lady. 

Paul Nelson:  Yeah, right, right, right. You talk about that era that you grew up in, and what was expected, the cultural mores. But your mom wasn’t like that. In fact, you quote that in the book as saying, “If I see you with a baby and a baby stroller, I’ll come and shoot you.”  

ANNE WALDMAN: I know. She had another idea for me and she had been a dropout in the ‘20s, and gone off to live in Greece for a decade, and was very involved with, as I describe in one essay, the Utopian Ideal, this group of folks, spearheaded by the poet, Angelos Sikelianos, a wonderful Greek poet, and his wife, Ava, who was from America, to bring back the Greek plays to Delphi, and they wove their own clothing, they made their own sandals., they approximated what the gestures for the dance would have been like by looking at Greek vases. And their vision was that this could change the world, [and could] prevent the world from marching into World War II, and so on.  So this was very touching… and that was part of my background and I think, Francis Leferve Waldman had a lot of other ideas for me [laughs].  So, [a] tall order. 

Paul Nelson:  A lot of moxie  

ANNE WALDMAN: [laughs]

Paul Nelson:  …as they would say. When we talk about the feminine, we understand that we’re talking about an open system, a receptive system. And you are part of a movement in poetry. You talk about your lineage, that uses open form. In America can all the open form poets can trace themselves back to Walt Whitman? Do you see this open form as perhaps a sign of the ascendant feminine? 

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, yes, that’s why I was talking about atmosphere and ground and space, to let things come and go, and I certainly feel that in performance somewhat because, it’s an improvisation. I was speaking with someone recently about the feminine strategies of say, the writing of Kerouac and Burroughs, that yes, while the Beat Generation was somewhat macho, or they actually were not macho in the [usual] sense… there was a lot of sympathy and exchange and so on.  But I think that’s what attracted me, in part, to the writing, to the actually creative work was the, as I saw it, more feminine strategies, more of rhizomic approach, you could say, even cross-genre kinds of techniques and particularly in Burroughs, and then Kerouac, in a way, resonates for me with Gertrude Stein. Following the grammar of the mind and the the particularities and details of thinking. I mean, he has a much more vivid vocabulary and he’s writing out of real experience and people and characters and so on.  But this idea of tracking the mind in that way, it’s more than interior monologue.  It’s, constantly flipping around with the tangibles in the world. And so back, inside/outside all the time, microcosm, macrocosm. So that, to me was attractive, and then I felt I was coming to, longer form. Very much coming into longer form. It’s not enough to write these little poems on the page, that the page, the single page, the single sheet of 8 ½ X 11, white paper, that’s stark, [it’s] a very traditional form.  Although, if you go abroad to Europe, their paper size is a little different, which is fun. That kind of torques your  …your  

Paul Nelson:  System  

ANNE WALDMAN: …possibility  

Paul Nelson:  …process. 

ANNE WALDMAN: …and your system.  

Paul Nelson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

ANNE WALDMAN: And just the visual hit alone. But in any case, that sense of open field, and you get this with the post modernists, and certainly Pound is all over the place with the Cantos, and then bringing in other cultures, languages, histories, investigative poetics, documentary poetics, and is that feminine? I’m not sure. I guess it’s not absolutely feminine, but it has these tendencies to be more accommodating and I would say, when I took on the long epic poem, Iovis, that project, that was the only form in which I could, tell these stories I needed to tell, and track my consciousness through, what? 20 years, something like that, and, that, I was challenged by someone in a review, saying that was a male, that the epic was a male form. And I wrote this to disprove that [laughs] or composed, in part composed it. I don’t know if that answers the question, but this sense of  …again there are chance operations. The work I’ve done with the John Cage section of the Iovis: Dear John Cage, What? Time me. And then there are decisions within  that piece, to stretch it, to over an hour. I can be five minutes. I can play with it, or enter the text there at any point and go backwards, forwards. Make it more spiral-like or circuitous.  And the breakdown of the narrative structure, which of course, Burroughs was doing with work that was more like film than it was like writing, if you had to look at the underlying structure. 

Paul Nelson:  Yeah. Show a David Lynch film to people 30 years ago and  


Paul Nelson:  Well, it’s very disturbing today, I think what I’m getting at, maybe, is the open systems, like you discuss in the work of Ilya Prigogine. He calls them ‘dissipative structures.”  


Paul Nelson:  And you talk, in the essay, “All living things are dissipative structures’, and can you tell us about that aspect? 

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, again, the open system and this coffee cup or this rock, these are-, some things are more open systems. Of course, as we know from science and physics and biology, the incredible life that’s going on at this molecular level all the time. I mean, as we sit here, there are things growing on our eyelashes and all kinds of exchanges going on. So what is a closed system?  A closed system is a dead, stagnant, I mean, even the plastics and the stuff that we create artificially often has activity. But, I guess, a town is an open system. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics is an open system. So it’s a structure that allows for a give and take of energy, and I also think of this wonderful note in the Pound era, which touches on luminous details. And luminous details are the things that sort of take us, through a sort of cycle of existence. So when you pick up a piece of glass, you can go back to it’s being sand, it’s being on a beach, it’s being primordial and then it’s cycled towards becoming a bottle and a factory-made item. But that these things in our world and these little, luminous details are actually alive. So in and of themselves, they’re like open systems. A poem is an open system. The structure is not a neat little narrative box or subject matter item that then you can neatly  …sort of       

Paul Nelson:  Control?  

ANNE WALDMAN: …control.  

Paul Nelson:  Now, you talk about the poem being an open system, but what about a traditional sonnet?  Or iambic pentameter?  

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, it depends on the sonnet. I would say Shakespeare’s sonnets are very open systems, and of course, that’s an amazing series, and that’s a really a serial poem. And it’s moving around, linguistically in extraordinary ways, and there are resonances within the series, and so on.  And then the word play and the punning and the vibratory quality of the language.  I don’t think it’s that the form of the sonnet is what confines it. But then you take that and you,  you just keep doing it, or you imitate it.  

Paul Nelson: Or it becomes dogma. 

ANNE WALDMAN: Or it becomes dogma. Exactly. So it’s not that the system is at fault and there is a sense of taking old forms and giving them new life, or at least playing with forms, and then evolving your own. I’m working with a form right now of seen and unseen, which is a dual thing on the page, and it flips around. What’s seen? What’s unseen? In a literal sense, in a psychological sense, in a sense of what’s being held from us in the public domain here as citizens of this culture and under this particular government. So, it touches a lot of levels, and I guess that’s what I’m after and you can move that around so that the thing below moves up to the top and that can, and  this is basically a duality I’m playing with, much like marriage, or a sentence, where I’m varying the prose poem and the poem and it’s going back and forth as an argument between the sexes   

Paul Nelson:  Dialogue in the brain. 

ANNE WALDMAN: …one could say.  Yeah. 

Paul Nelson:  Well, before we go any further, you have not read anything.  So maybe something from “Marriage, a Sentence.”  You know I like “Dark Of Night.”  I don’t know if you have that one tagged, but  …that’s a beautiful, playful one…

ANNE WALDMAN: Sure, I’d love to read that. 

ANNE WALDMAN: [pause]   OK.  Dark of Night.  This is from Marriage:  A Sentence.

(She reads “Dark of Night.”)

Paul Nelson: What do they do?  

ANNE WALDMAN: [laughs] 

Paul Nelson:  That’s the question, absolutely. To make a vow of poetry  

ANNE WALDMAN: Just say no to family values. 

Paul Nelson:  [laughs]  Your bumper sticker. Tell us what it means to make a vow of poetry.  Besides an exciting life filled with few financial rewards, misery, and in some countries, death.  

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, I talk a little bit about that in the introduction, giving a kind of definition, a vow coming from the middle English, V-O-W-E, which is from vou, V-O-U from old French, from the Latin, Votum or Vote. So this, this was a real nugget here, this sense of voting – voting coming from the neuter past participle of to vow, also to be enjoyed. The playful association with vowel from middle English, vow-el from Old French, vowel, from Latin vocalist, sounding from Vox or vocus, voice.  

So by my own skewed associational mathematics, Vow equals Voice. And, and I say I will vote always for the transforming of a language’s energies, or [that] language’s energies’ sides with a full voice. So this sense of vocalizing the text, the actual, the creative text, which often come to me in this sort of oral way. I mean, I’ll hear them before I sometimes see them. And then a sense of being vocal with just what’s going on and what I see and what I witness, being a kind of witness. And I think that word plays in here, as well. So this sense of being empowered, of course. We feel disempowered if the votes aren’t counted properly. And we feel disempowered going to endless war without really knowing what that means and so on. So this also carries a spiritual sense that you have in the Buddhist tradition, particularly the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which is some of the underpinning of the whole Naropa project to create a school that was non-competitive and  …and really work with sangha, which is the Sanskrit word for community.  But the vow there, the Bodhisattva vow is that, you will be a bridge, you will be a cloak, you will be a meal for the hungry. You will benefit others before you benefit yourself. So you wanna create things that actually benefit others down the line. I’ve been on this more lately. Maybe I feel, time gets more precious, but we’re trying to save, for example, our tape archive at the Naropa University. We have nearly 30 years of incredible oral moments, things you are not going to get [via] text.  Spontaneous performances, collaborative work, with jazz musicians and others. We have Ginsberg, composing on the spot.  We have classes and lectures and colloquy, interactions between people, people thinking on their feet, and also vocalizing their minds. Often in a class you are reading a poem by William Blake or Whitman, but it’s done in a particular way, which is real transmission. So this sense of transmission, the vow to the voice, to the voting, to the vocalization of text to transmission, that you’re not going to get in the same way.  

So the Bodhisattva vow is really to, benefit and leave, support and create environments for others to continue and to follow the path of least suffering. That’s the idea, there’s always the conflict between making art and having it under your name, and owning it, and then what not to own?  What is it to let it go? Or to feel that you’re part of a continuum. I very much feel I’m a part of a continuum of people who work with words, and there’s a whole extraordinarily glorious history before me, and there’s incredible stuff coming, now and after, and it’s magnificent and strong and it’s an alternative to this media-speak and degraded language and the lies. The incredible, lies every day, these sort of opportunistic realities that are so detrimental to,  the language.  Not to mention all the languages in our world that are going extinct from other cultures. And animals, too. In the language and song of animals. 

Paul Nelson:  So that sense of lineage was illuminated for you, in part, by Charles Olson at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965. 

ANNE WALDMAN: I would say definitely because he was a figure then. Certainly Ginsburg, as well, and others who were participating in that convocation, which was major. It was one of the first gatherings outside of a more academic situation that brought together the lineages of The New American Poetry, and of course, the lineages of The New American Poetry were coming out of a lot of the work of the Modernists. Certainly, Pound and Williams, and Stein and H.D. and others. It was a kind of, statement, and going there at the age of 20, was again, like a transmission, and actually hearing poetry in this way and seeing it being presented by weird, exciting, lumbering people who were not out of a mold. I mean, outside the mold of the more academic poetries of the time. And the presentation, too. [Beyond] that kind of very narrative, subject oriented, neat, often tormented [poetry] but… There’s a lot that can blossom and bloom. I’m not fixed in one particular school by any means, and I loved hearing Robert Lowell read when I was in high school. I mean, there was an unusual event. And there’s something about that raw, voice, person, personage up there, without a lot of props and without a lot of lighting and makeup and preconceived, scripted performance because so much of our world is scripted. As you know and,  in terms of media, it’s just horribly scripted. I guess sports is the only thing that still has some suspense and surprise. But from the news to these kinds of shows and talking. So, there’s something very unscripted about the…

Paul Nelson:  The reading.  

Paul Nelson: And authentic. 


Paul Nelson:  In the 1994 Talisman Interview with Edward Foster, that’s reprinted in the book, you say, quote: “When you prostrate in Buddhism you’re bowing to your own enlightened mind and to the sanity possible in the world. Poetry practice is much the same. You’re synchronizing your body, speech and mind to refine your expression, your manifestation in the world.”  This is similar to what you were saying before the Olson question. Talking about that Bodhisattva vow.  


Paul Nelson:  But that notion of synchronizing your body, speech and mind refine your expression is what we’re trying to get across in the schools. That if you can get kids to do this  

ANNE WALDMAN: Of course.  Of course. 

Paul Nelson:  …and, you’d talk about the Auburn School District and you see what a difficult situation you have. But can you tell us about that? That refinement and what happens to the practitioner?  

ANNE WALDMAN: Well, I’d say especially working with younger writers, just to get them into the moment so that their eyes are open, their sense perceptions are alert. You can meet a wonderful experiment if you just step outside, get outside the classroom. And then, any one moment in your experience is… [important]. There’s so much going on, there is a figment of a song you love or heard. There is, something going on with relationship.  There are all these little voices in your head of other people. What you hear that’s coming through in these interesting fragmentary ways. There’s a fragment of a dream. So to get people at a early age to, just to be alert and awake, and also present, and we need our body to write. We need our hand to hold the pen or type on the computer. And then the vocalization or the speech, which doesn’t have to be always spoken because there’s sitting and reading poetry by yourself out of a book, there, you hear.  If it’s working, you hear that music in your mind. So, I think