by Ammiel Alcalay
While we too often think that we can simply rely on the singular powers of a piece of writing or work of art to somehow speak to some “universal” values, translated texts present a particular set of difficult issues. While the emphasis has always been on what gets “lost” in translation, the harder part, it would seem, is everything left “untranslated” that is outside the text itself. In other words, the context, in all its political, historical, social, and personal intricacies. In presenting even this modest selection of Anne Waldman’s poems, we hope this brief introduction can provide at least a sense of the complexities involved in finding a context for her work, in helping new readers place her work in a much wider sphere, as they engage in the process of absorbing and responding to the clarity and power of her syntax, the clarity and power of her subjects, and her position in relation to them.
In one of his late poems, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” It is, perhaps, just as difficult to get a grip on the social and ideological functions of poetry in the United States, particularly in the Cold War and the aftermath we still live in, and even more so for a poet like Anne Waldman, so integrally part of a “counter-tradition.” The post World War II terms were set by the incarceration of Ezra Pound in 1945, his subsequent show trial, and the controversy around the Bollingen Prize, a major award given to him in 1949. The function of that controversy had less to do with Pound himself than with publicly establishing the absolute incompatibility, the actual contradiction, between politics and aesthetics, yet another arena in which the United States would display and enact its peculiar form of “exceptionalism,” differentiating its culture and behavior from almost any other one might refer to. This led, of course, to a protracted period of psychological warfare—a state of war we are still very much in the midst of—where the classic dichotomous elements of that mode were drummed into the North American mind through interminable forms of more and less obvious propaganda, in which the unique combination of creating fiction in order to destroy reality also strips away any relationship between revolution and art.
Ever since, there has been an over-ground and an underground, an “official” culture and many unofficial cultures. One can think of few other societies where the chasm between what is actually most vibrant and sure to last and what gets offered to the public is so vast, with the “public” remaining a statistic, spoon-fed, unable to find any way to weigh in on matters of any consequence. Whatever does get in has forced its way through, after attempts at trivialization or the other side of trivialization’s coin, the creation of celebrity. If either of those fail, there is always the celebration of pathology or the exertion of such terror and constraint that pathology may be the only viable response. None of these phenomena are easy to describe, particularly to people coming from cultures whose traditions are very different, for better or worse. In this context, it is more than worthwhile to remember the words of the 9/11 Commission, in Section 11.1, titled “IMAGINATION”: “Considering what was not done suggests possible ways to institutionalize imagination… It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”
At the same time, given that the United States produces less and less material and functional objects, one of its major industries has become the production of subjectivity. One of the foundations of the subjectivity industry can be found in the arts, and particularly in the ideology of writing as a means of self-expression. The industrial framework for this can be seen in the burgeoning of expensive, university-based “creative writing” programs, in the proliferation of more and more prizes, ladling out larger and larger sums, and in diversity management, with its finely-tuned presentation of the whole spectrum of individual representatives of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as a means of displaying, for both domestic and foreign consumption, seemingly humane facets of the United States.
But the other side of subjectivity’s coin, in its self-contained “innocence,” is, of course, the arms industry, the unprecedented disproportion of wealth extraction, and the exportation of chaos and misery. In a brilliant talk given at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, the late Amiri Baraka said: “But the point is, ladies and gentlemen, comrades, brothers and sisters, that until we create an American revolutionary art, we will not be respected by the people of the world. Because we might go through a particular tradition that upholds a Rexroth or a Ken Patchen or a Langston Hughes or a Henry Dumas, we might understand who a Zora Neale Hurston is or a Gertrude Stein, but that is not what America is being advertised as around the world. You’re being advertised as the good manners of vampires—so, you don’t kill, you write poems. You don’t bring democracy to Iraq by blowing it up, by killing the children and starving them. You’re the good manners of vampires. You will bite me in the neck, in a poem.”
Finding ways to expose and disrupt this particular dichotomy, to not become a representative of “the good manners of vampires,” has been a central concern in Anne Waldman’s life, with her work always finding itself right in the midst of such contradictions, seeking other facets of the prism to see through in order to rearrange the hierarchies. In what has become a highly professionalized class in the U.S., for Waldman this has meant working almost like a musician, touring the world to give readings and workshops rather than taking a highly paid and more permanent academic position. And, of course, it was Waldman, along with Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima, who founded the Kerouac School in 1974, as part of her ongoing and profound commitment to keeping alive the complexities of our own cultural and political history. In other words, rather than becoming a lonely voice within an existing institution, Waldman’s trajectory made it imperative to create her own institution. Having been forever moved by her encounters at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, Waldman is one of the few figures of her generation left to have had ongoing and lasting relationships to key elders such as Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and so many others. That many of these people were male and, in some instances, have come to be seen as “problematic” for one reason or another, is also important since, clearly, one of Waldman’s deeper impulses is to find ways to reconcile contradictory experiences of value in the universe we actually live in, itself a nexus of contradiction.
As a prime mover in finding new ways to come to her own fully embodied expression as a woman among human and non-human life forms, Waldman’s insistence on not throwing the baggage out along the journey is a service to all of us, a way of transmitting and enacting an acceptance and necessary exploration of the real. Her reach is large, and can be seen even in this limited selection. As the inheritor of so many rich examples and approaches to form and the worlds form enacts—from Pound, Williams, Reznikoff, and Olson, to Gertrude Stein, H.D., Robert Duncan, di Prima, Baraka, and so many others, Waldman’s work, no matter its length, retains a scope commensurate to its intent, the intent being to record, to leave a record, to declare the intensity of a life, and propose going out on a very far limb, so that others might come along, even part of the way.
This was the prologue to Anne Waldman’s Mundo Aparte/Offworld (Pinsapo Press, 2019).
Poet, novelist, translator, critic, and scholar Ammiel Alcalay teaches at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. His books include After Jews and Arabs, Memories of Our Future, Islanders, neither wit nor gold: from then, from the warring factions, and a little history. Translations include Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović. He was given a 2017 American Book Award from The Before Columbus Foundation for his work as founder and general editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative (lostandfoundbooks.org).