Influential American poet Anne Waldman was one of the headliners at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Waldman’s work has been connected to the Beat poets, and the second-generation New York School. She’s a member of the Outrider experimental poetry movement, and she cofounded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado along with Allen Ginsberg. Excerpts from a conversation about politics and spirituality, the role of community and the role of the poet:
I wanted to ask about Angel Hair, the small press that you founded, because a lot of major publishing houses don’t champion poetry as much as they do fiction and nonfiction. What do you think of the role of small presses, and self-publishing and a community of poets publishing each other in this context?
It was very important to myself and my community in the 1960s and 1970s. I think it is a way of training as an editor and a curator (working with other people’s text), working with a visual artist, and getting to know other poets. With a magazine you have a lot of freedom, and it’s so much fun putting it together.
We started Angel Hair when I was still in college – I got to know a printer in Vermont, who painted mainly menus – and I got some beautiful paper. Of course the bookstores complained because it was too big for the bookcases! There are always these small irregularities, and the archive is very interesting, because there was no one way the books were done.
I think it was particularly important to more experimental poets who didn’t want to wait to be “discovered”. When you send your stuff out into the world, some places take months to even respond, and it becomes really frustrating. It’s better to seize the moment and start with one’s own friends and community, doing these inexpensive presses.
I think times have changed a little bit – there are more small presses, and medium-sized presses that do bound books that are more open to experimental poets and writers. For example, there’s Belladonna Press, started by my friend and former student Rachel Levitsky. A lot of people of my generation inspired younger writers to take things into their own hands.
At this stage in your poetic career, which are the books and writers you go back to again and again?
I go back to Blake; my recent book has a reference to his The Book of Thel. I go back to a lot of women writers, including Indian women poets of an earlier period, like Mirabai. I love anthologies. I go back to epic poems, because I wrote an epic – I like to dip in and out because it gives you a flavour of the history but can also be very similar to our times sometimes.
The epics are already in our psyches, like mythology is. I love fiction, and try to keep up with contemporary writers, like Elena Ferrante. I read a lot of South American novelists, like Roberto Bolaño. I also go back to Sebald.
At the moment, I’m reading a lot on the Trickster figure in literature and reading different myths, because I’m working on a prose and poetry project on Trickster feminism.
How has your spirituality enriched your artistic practice?
I think the view of pratityasamutpada, the interconnectedness of everything, is such an issue for our world. Everybody has their projections, their life stories, their hopes and fears – how do you live together? How do you have a sane community, an environment, a whole society, a whole country, a whole world? I know that view is true and it helps me, even if it’s not understood or accepted. I also find the tonglen practice very helpful when someone is sick or dying.
People are operating from ego, and the idea of “it’s me against the world”. They either have a very negative or nihilistic view, or an eternal view (“I’ll be saved on Judgement Day! I’m going to live forever!”) Buddhism is very hard that way – it says suffering exists, and there’s a way out of it with how you work with your mind. My spiritual studies have helped me with my own ignorance, my own aggression, my own rage.
A lot of my poems are states of mind, and it helps me with them. It helps to understand the wheel of life as well – at least in the human realm we have the potential to communicate.
I should be a better practitioner; I don’t meditate well alone.
You’ve been part of so many progressive movements as a poet and a cultural worker. I’ve heard you refer to the dark days of the Trump administration – can you respond to the presidency and the major tilts to the hateful and the regressive that we’re seeing today?
The villains and their pathologies are exposed. They should all be in therapy, they are not equipped to be leaders of a country, let alone work for a more peaceful and just society. There’s so much revenge, racism and misogyny – there are forces against all of the things we’ve moved forward on, including gay rights and women’s rights.
We’ve come far and I’ve seen real changes in my lifetime, and I’ve also seen the dangers. When something horrible happens, it’s exposed, and people can either ignore it or they can wake up, be aware, stay in touch, vote in a particular way. People do have power.
We need ambassadors of peace in every country, against this stupidity. I think we’re seeing the last gasp of white male hegemony…they are desperate, because the world is changing, and it’s going to be a lot more mixed. Look at their jowls, it’s like they drink oil for breakfast and eat children…I was watching the cabinet appointments and it’s just horrific.
They’re all foxes in the henhouse. What we need is the exact opposite of them being put in charge. It’s almost like a joke, or a surrealist play.
What is the role and the responsibility of the poet in these times? What can she do?
To be a Dakini, to be moving between worlds, to be a shapeshifter, to be alert, to not be locked into a particular view or ideology, to be a mother, a lover, a sister, all the iterations of family, to be a sorceress, a shaman, a witch – but not holding on to any one of these roles. To not be so reified and say, “This is who I am, this is my set identity.”
I love the gender-fluidity that’s going on in our world and culture. I have a lot of young friends, who are 12 and 13, who are just not buying these binaries, and that’s very exciting to me. And so even saying “female” opens for me other ways of seeing what identity is.