ANNE WALDMAN: THE POET AS CURANDERA, AS NEW WOMAN
an appreciation from the heart of the dragon
“…the Buddhist sense of boddhicitta—awakened heart.”
“Poet, / Be like God,” wrote Jack Spicer in “Imaginary Elegies.” Spicer is telling the poet to be, like God, “creative.” The problem with this formulation—hardly original with Spicer—lies in the notions of “world” and “creativity.” How does God create? The traditional answer is that God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing: there is no “world” until God “creates” it. The poet’s “creativity” is not like that. The poet inhabits a world which is always impinging upon him/her. The poet “creates” from that world, not from nothing. Consequently, the poet’s “creativity” is significantly different from God’s; it is closer to that of the jazz musician who is always reacting to something given: a set of chords, a tune. But Spicer’s line expresses the desire to forget that fact, to imagine oneself as without precedent, without history. To call oneself “creative” is to pretend to be making things out of nothing—as if one had no past, no influences. But no one makes things out of nothing, no one is without a past, without influences: “world” is always with us. The notion of “creativity” originates in the Renaissance, in a period when people are trying to find connections between the activity of art and Christianity—a religion which is frequently suspicious of artistic productions. The Greek word “poet” means maker—though it can be the maker of anything, the maker of a table and chairs, for example. But if God is the “maker,” the poet can be a “maker” too—as the Greek name indicates. Christianity and the artist can touch each other here, but the conjunction easily leads to certain false assumptions.
The religion that animates Anne Waldman’s work is Buddhism—a very different sort of religion and one which does not postulate the problem of “creativity.” Waldman, “spiritual wife” of Allen Ginsberg and “writer, performer, collaborator, professor, editor, scholar, and cultural/political activist” (Wikipedia), has been a force of moral awareness, spiritual exploration, and wildly experimental poetry since the 1960s. The prototype of Waldman as “fast-speaking woman” was not Mary, Mother of God—does Mary ever actually say anything?—but the curandera Maria Sabina. This is Waldman bringing that tradition into Amer-English literature:
woman never under your thumb, says
skull that was a head, says
bloodshot eyes, says
I’m the Kali woman the killer woman
woman with salt on her tongue
fire that cleans
fire that catches
fire burns hotter as I go
None of the multiple women named in this poem would have been likely to have shown up on Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy or The Mary Tyler Moore Show:
my hair sparks desire
my mouth breathes holy fire
The fire she names in this early work—written before she turned 30—generates something new in what has come to be called “gender studies.” Waldman is consciously making up (not “creating,” making up) an alternative mode of personhood—something that would become a tremendous task for both men and women in the years that followed:
the saint is a woman scorned
wash your hair
scent your hands with myrrh
say you will never die of love
In 1974, along with the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Allen Ginsberg, and others, Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado (now Naropa University), where she continues to be a Distinguished Professor of Poetics and the Director of Naropa’s Summer Writing Program. In the fabrication of new identity, education is a key element, and for the past forty-plus years Naropa has been at the forefront of the attempt to awaken hearts, to create a condition of what Waldman’s friend Anselm Hollo calls “survival dancing.” Both of these terms are important: we must survive, of course, but we must also dance. “I wanted to change the dominant ‘master narratives’ and question the role of language as it plays with its own markers,” she writes, “I wanted a book that would speak to my community of family and friends as co-conspirators who struggle to keep the world safe for poetry” (In the Room of Never Grieve).
Waldman describes her monumental project, Iovis (literally “of Jove”), begun in the mid 1980s and continuing “with rhizomic adventure and roar into the present” as a “total assault on and transmutation of patriarchy—through imagination, compassion, and magic. It undermines and subsumes dominant patriarchal mindsets and fabrications. As reclaimed tantric female epic it challenges assumptions of form, intervenes and torques narrative, disgorges themes, and shunts war again and again. It names and calls out enemy, weaponry, swagger. The presenter is a hermaphroditic hierophant with vatic power. Her/His mind surveys topics of male dominance, beauty, war, crime, parentage, and explores ceremonial rites for respected elders. Voices dance here through the female cycle: child, virgin, lover, mother, hag. The poem is a collaboration with history—personal, dreamed, mythic—virtual as well as actual. It attempts to claim, magnetize, harness magical power, transmute war through language. It attempts to tell all the stories of place in all manner of genre. It shows off its erudition…Its weave is narrative yet circular” (In the Room of Never Grieve).
The stunning, amazing poem—a product of “Her/His mind” and a kind of emblem of the entire universe—is The Cantos, Paterson, Helen in Egypt, The Maximus Poems, Tender Buttons, and any number of other Modernist masterworks on steroids. It is pure Waldman, unalloyed, unafraid, uncensored, and fast talking. This poet asks over and over again, “May I speak thus?” But if the answer is No, she speaks anyway. One aspect of Anne Waldman’s work has been to bear witness, and she rightly understands bearing witness to be an important task of poetry. But she done something more than bear witness. She has been actively something to bear witness to. This is from Iovis:
I was effacing the authority of my own voice, Blake
I was hemming, Blake
I was serving, Blake
But I was fashioning a new kavya
I wanted to be adored
I was writing on palm leaves in my earliest center, my first dream-city
My “Alaka” where the beloved dwells
A high high abode
I became a yaksa
Moving thru space like a cloud
Then I asked him to take it
—all pretense!—the body suit!—off
Blake—off! Off! Ungarment here…
Blake as woman came and told me this in a vision….
Anne Waldman has been for these many years a co-conspirator and an inspiration, and it is important to note that both these words have the notion of breath at their root. “Song,” she writes, “is the body.” She is an outrider (“a mind ill at ease, restless, jumping from desk to orally standing-at-attention, examining itself”—Outrider). She is a live wire in an age when no one knows what electricity really is.