William Blake is important for our pedagogy, says poet Anne Waldman
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, the poet on her influences and working with her heroes
Anne Waldman may not be popular in the literary conversation in India, but the 72 year old poet is an important figure in the post-Beat poetry movement. Having grown up with jazz by the likes of Thelonius Monk and literature by Beat legend Allen Ginsberg, she today carries with her the extraordinary story of having gone on to work with Ginsberg later in her life, opening a poetry school in Colorado with him. At the Jaipur Literature Festival which started on 19 January, Waldman gave the inaugural keynote with Indian lyricist Gulzar. This was a special pairing up, especially because Waldman is most influenced by lyrical traditions and forms from the East. Red-flagging the larger context of current times, she said that there seems to be “a war on imagination" and it is literature that can “help the world wake up to itself."
In an interview with Mint, she spoke of her intimate and long-standing relationship with the Beat poets, on British poet William Blake, the rising popularity of slam poetry, and more. Edited excerpts.
You grew up listening to lots of jazz and reading the Beat poets. And then you went on to interact and work with a lot of them, which is phenomenal.
Yes, I grew up in Greenwich village, and my father had met Ginsberg. In high school in the 1950s we read some of (Lawrence) Ferlenghetti —a key poet in establishing the Beat movement; his bookstore City Lights had a publishing wing whose Pocket Poets series gave a platform for the now-famous Beats like Allen (Ginsberg) and other contemporary poets. And then before Allen Ginsberg and I ever met officially, I think I spoke to him on the phone at some point in the 1960s. I wasn’t yet out of college, I had another year.
The Beats each have very individual, independent (experiences)…I honoured Kerouac’s incredible sense of suffering. He was an immigrant, French Québécois, quintessential male figure for that time— vulnerable yet tough, and macho in ways and yet you know, a mama’s baby. The complexity of those relationships, and the intimacy, homosexuality, and the tenderness among men was all interesting to me.
Also, I never felt excluded because I came later. Allen (Ginsberg) was very attentive to me and supportive. I could also have friendships with William Burroughs and others, which would be, if I were their generation, more intimidating. But I felt I was curious and I could ask them questions.
And then Allen and I went to on found The Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and all that’s history.
But with the Beats you have jazz and then influence of Black culture, and Allen actually felt that the only spiritual hope for America was the recognition of the Black experience.
Your work is very different from what one has come to expect of poetry. Even the way you perform much of it sounds like incantations. What influences this?
When I attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, I was very inspired. The collaboration of many poets from these alternative traditions— though there were not enough women— who were very much more influenced by say Asian forms, or by Mantra, or by thinking politically through their work in deeper ways, really stuck with me. They were less bound to the ‘left hand side margin,’ which comes from the tradition of British poetry, that you’re taught in American schools. It is fantastic stuff, but then you realise that forms like the sonnet, the pantoum, and so on actually come out of the oral traditions. I started investigating that, which took me to so many other cultures: For example the Ghazal, Persian poetry…I love the Alaap form, wherein you introduce your themes and then you improvise as you go on. This particularly stayed with me, as I was interested in more circular structures— less the narrative form which follows a structure of ‘this happens, then you have an epiphany, and then a conclusion’. That was not for me.
You speak of the ‘spiritual’ and of really studying British Poetry. When these two things are spoken of together, the first thing that comes to mind is the poetry of William Blake. Does your work, or the larger post-Beat movement as it is now, derive from Blake at all?
Yes of course. My recent book is called Voice’s Daughter of a Heart Yet to be Born. It came out just last year. It starts with Blake’s Book of Thel, a very important, small prophetic book. It’s a book of desire, the unborn, the consciousness that doesn’t want to come into this world; is shown her own death plot and runs screaming back to the veils of innocence. This is a very important image for me.
I think Blake was also an ‘alternative’ writer in his time. He was a visionary, he was constructing these allegories, and his constructs are so relevant even now. Anybody that is writing a larger work of poetry is drawn to Blake because its so different from this neat little sonnet and so on. And then the sense of innocence versus experience, the dichotomies of darkness and light, and being not a ‘typical Christian’…all of these I think clearly drew Allen to him.
Allen too had a vision, a Blake-like vision. I think Allen’s vision of hearing Blake’s voice is always mentioned in his biographies. There’ve been many classes at The Kerouac School that teach Blake, for he’s very important to our pedagogy. So within my world of thinking, he is important. And for the rock (music) world too— I mean Patti Smith references Blake too. He’s good for all times!
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What do you mean by ‘Disembodied Poetics’? Why’s it a part of the name of your school?
Well at the time (we started) we had nothing. We didn’t have a building, we didn’t have an office, we didn’t have money, we didn’t have a desk, we didn’t have a department as such, we weren’t accredited. It was kind of joke actually because ‘The Jack Kerouac’ school was kind of too heavy, and to me sounded a little too male. And so I threw this in. Allen was okay with it; he was amused. We were in a way also honouring many poets…I mean, we weren’t an English department, nor did we arrive, as most creative writing departments do, from one. They usually get their funding and their support from English departments and that’s how they also get academized.
But we at The Kerouac School were just poets, starting our own program. The idea was that we could teach whatever we wanted. We didn’t teach in a methodical way. Allen did an English Literature course and I would do a course on women and modernism, but none it was organised. That was part of the joke, that we were teaching not just ourselves (own poetry), or contemporary poetry, but also people who were no longer with us. William Burroughs even taught Troilus and Cressida!
Spoken word poetry, that really finds its roots in the Beat movement, is now popular everywhere in schools and colleges. I know that it is big in the US and that there are national collegiate tournaments. In the same style, it is lately also catching up in India as well. Do you keep track of this, given that a large part of your work focusses on performance poetry?
I call what I do ‘modal structures’. Sometimes they’re songs, sometimes they’re longer, sometimes they’re this mantra— I’ve never called myself a spoken word poet. Sometimes the label is there. But I’ve been very supportive of the slam scene and younger people who are very excited and (find that) it is their way to poetry. I have friends who work at the slam poetry venues, especially New York City’s popular Bowery Poetry Club. But it’s important for me that you read as well. The book is also a sacred object and I think it can do both. People often say, “is it stage, or page?" But no, it is both.
In slam, a trademark sort of style of phrasing and cadence is emerging with most poets. Do you ever see an overlapping of styles, or a cross influence between what you do and what is happening with the younger slam crowd?
I would say that it is very different. I’m following a cadence in my head which doesn’t have to do with the rhyming or the pentameter or the neat tada-tada-tada-tada. But I give honour to the lyric form. Though it is the same lyric form that I tried to break away from as a child, I find that when you get back into it more deeply, it can be extraordinary. But when it’s being thrust on you….and it was not interesting to me to have the poem be about a particular subject. I want the poem to be an experience, for both the listener and for myself.