(l-r.) Anne Waldman in an unidentified Greenwich Village backyard, 1971, Gerard Malanga photo, and Alystyre Julian, Outrider film.
Interview by Nathaniel Siegel
At the invitation of poet, friend, and Boog City Editor David Kirschenbaum, I was entrusted to interview poet and teacher Anne Waldman. Here are my questions. Here are Anne’s answers. On behalf of David and myself, I invite you kind reader, to read on.
“Cherish spiritual teachers
Even more than your own body –
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas”
(Togmay Sangpo The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas)
Anne, who have been, who are your most cherished spiritual teachers?
I have had some generous spiritual teachers, primarily in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition if that is what you are referring too. And many poets and other kinds of mentors and kalyanamitras, or spiritual friends. Books are trembling radiant teachers as well. Songs of Milarepa, The Therigatha and Theragatha, and the Heart Sutra and Ecclesiastes, The I Ching, and Rig Veda, Kalvala, Mahabrharta, other epics, and poems of great Chinese and Japanese sages. Pound’s Cathay was a poetic eye and ear opener, the scent of China: Li Po. The Transcendentalists. Ragas, shakuhachi, gamelan. Of course, the Modernists: Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and H.D. Contemporary elders: Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde. And in contemporary poetry the books of Alice Notley including Descent of Alette and Bernadette Mayer’s Studying Hunger and Joanne Kyger’s Big Moon, and Diane di Prima’s Loba. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new book, A Treatise on Stars. And the performances of Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. Visual art of Pat Steir and Kiki Smith. I enjoy following these women cohorts of my generation. Often in relationships your compañeras are teachers, sharing their worlds. What a generation. It became Our Time.
My first encounter with a Lama, however, was with the Mongolian Geshe Wangyal whose mind was a crystal clear mirror and who threw some notion of theism back at me. He reflected back my doubts and aspirations. What is existence? I know nothing! What about the atom bomb? Why so much suffering? It had to be about one’s own mind and experience, and study and gnosis, not some salvation and remedy outside my own consciousness. We met in the early 1960s, I was still in my teens and working at an arts project in Philadelphia with Percy Heath, a great jazz artist, and his brother and the poet/editor Harvey Brown who had studied with Charles Olson. It was the summer of the so-called Philadelphia riots, 1964, which was a distressing time. Conflict on the streets, the cops were terrible.
Rinpoche was living in a pink suburban house in nearby New Jersey and a retinue of young monks—when we sat for tea—were gnawing on chicken bones. The mantel was adorned with vibrant thangkas of various peaceful and wrathful deities, including a red skinned Vajra Yogini hanging over the mantelpiece. The renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, 20 years old at the time, and his cohorts from Harvard had started translating sutras, and suggested I not wear lipstick when I went for my darshan (a Zen term meaning an occasion of seeing a holy person) with the lama. They probably had a point, as the lama was a monk, but I found their male uptight conservatism irritating.
The lama was unusually still and quiet. I was curious about the vivid imagery in his shrine room (yoginis with animal heads). Something he said made it clear that they were energies/aspects of one’s mind and might be allies. They weren’t external saviours or gods, but psychological states of mind. Wrathful, peaceful, pacifying, destroying. I am probably projecting too much here. Geshe Wangyal was like a rock. Gary Snyder thought tantric Buddhism must be more appealing to female practitioners than Zen with its cool interiors, but it’s ultimately the same view of impermanence, letting go of attachments, mindfulness practice, concentrating on the breath, Basic Buddhism. I wrote a later poem “Makeup On Empty Space” with that in mind. But there is something magnetizing about the starkness and clarity of the Zendo with your own mind. Staring at a white wall, staring into the void. The power of aloneness. The Tibetan atmosphere but also the performative aspects of practice seemed less restrained but also just as strict.
Other teachers included the great Kalu Rinpoche whom I first visited in India, His Holiness Karmapa and my root teacher Chatral or Jadtral Rinpoche (not a tulku but a yogin who had a weathered craggy face like Anthony Quinn’s) and of course Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa, whom I first met in 1970.
I went with Michael Brownstein to pick Trungpa up at the airport in Montpelier, Vt. Trungpa had started the Tail of the Tiger meditation center with students, close by in Barnet, Vt.
He got off the plane a bit inebriated and was talking about the holograms at Disney he had just been “visiting with,” especially the one of Casper the friendly ghost. Casper was like sambhogakaya (“body of light”) realm, an emanation. That was quite charming. I thought to go live in the country for a while, but he recommended I stick it out in NYC which was, as he said, “a holy city.” Certain elder poets were kalyanamitras. You watched the way they spoke and taught. Edwin Denby, Allen Ginsberg, even Burroughs in a strange way. What they pointed to and pointed out in the phenomenal world, what they illuminated for you, as when Edwin at the ballet once pointed out the muscles of Suzanne Farrell’s long neck. Its taut tremor, and I felt the animalia of ballet: a pagan trancelike twitching rite.
Burroughs gave me my one and only artillery lesson at a shooting range in the Rockies. I was nervous. He had accidentally shot his own wife, Joan Vollmer. He spoke in The Job about eliminating women! How could he dare hold a gun? It was these kinds of odd almost risky combinations of energy. Edgy. Trungpa once said Burroughs was a candidate for a tantric adept role. Padmasambhava had blood on his hands. But I was more interested in prajna, feminine energy. Womb-like energy, nourishing energy, as I mused on all this path, practice, and possibility.
Anne, you are the grandmother of a newborn Kora Bye Anaya, congratulations to you, Ed, Ambrose, Natalia, Jesus, and Ana! In your essay Sikelianos’ Delphic Idea: Site & Poetic Legacy In Memoriam, Mark Sikelianos, 1930-2000, you state:
“I am a great-step-granddaughter of Anghelos and Eva Sikelianos, and the imaginative Utopian attempt.
(Vow to Poetry Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos 2001 Coffee House Press)
Anne, what words, stories, myths, and songs will you be most eager to share with and convey to Kora?
And I am also the daughter of Frances LeFevre Sikelianos Waldman, translator of Cesar Moro, Anghelos Sikelianos, and author of Dearest Annie, You wanted a report on Berkson’s class: Letters from Frances LeFevre to Anne Waldman (Hanging Loose Press).
Ambrose has just asked me to start reading poetry to little Kora on FaceTime. Beautiful Kora Bye Anaya, beloved Bebe just a few months old. I think he’s getting tired of listening to me cooing and singing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain,” “The Green Grass Grows all Around,” and “If I Had A Hammer.” They are living and sequestered in Mexico City (her wonderful mother, Natalia, is Mexican). It’s been so hard not meeting Kora as yet, I ache to hold her. This pandemic is like war, too many separations.
I’m reading her all that you would expect, the great kid books, Mother Goose, folk tales from all over the world, fairy tales, fables, poetry, Peter Rabbit, Oz. And first off the myth of Demeter and Kora (Persephone), princess of darkness who goes to the underworld and returns to bring light and knowledge of what’s down under. Kora was born at the vernal equinox.
Anne, in Allen Ginsberg’s book Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997, he begins with the poem New Democracy Wish List for President Clinton White House. What is on your new democracy wish list?
We are talking about fighting a white supremacist fascist takeover here in the US of A. The antithesis of this fetid psychopathic racist plan. Now they are abolishing the Voice of America? Trying to kill the post office to muck with voting?
Start the chant: Systemic racism end! Total reform of all syndicates of samsara! Bring back poetry and arts to the schools! Poverty, war, all harm, nukes be banned! Everything be undone that this last vile admin has sanctioned, all crimes of robber barons and criminals, land grabs, sexism, homophobia. Trump has the stink of covid death on his hands. He has to be, puppet that he is, one of the most hideous abominations to humanity. A perfect gang of Rudras, his shadowmasters. And please spare us robocops and AI running the show. Total surveillance, can the plugs be pulled on that? The military inverted the internet. We need to hold our imaginations, original mind. Get out of the media traps. Work on telepathy.
Anne, do you remember Joe Brainard making you laugh?
He always made me laugh with his generosity, tenderness, shyness, his smile, his work, his spelling, the three volumes of I Remember, the Nancy series. So much more. There’s a book of letters in the works. I can’t wait.
Anne, where is your sanctuary, your home, your respite?
Several homes. Perhaps most central to my psyche, Macdougal Street where I’ve lived the longest in my dreamlife. That neighborhood—now transformed—growing up in the 1950s was a playground for the senses. What I was born into. Lots of sacred ghosts on the premises: father John, mother Frances waiting for me to come home from nights out so we could talk all night, older brother Mark Sikelianos. All the creative collaboration and poetry and music and celebration in that space, like an alchemical laboratory.
Boulder has also been a sanctuary and haven and scriptorium and a library and where I’ve been in retreat much of the pandemic. This is where my son Ambrose was born and close to where my stepdaughter Althea was raised and now lives close by. And Ambrose’s father Reed Bye and his wife Jill who are family. All the years at Naropa like a happy ghost realm with the conversation that goes on continuously in poet heaven. Ted Berrigan egging me on to be more like Mayakovsky.
And gratitude to long time partner Ed Bowes and his sanctuary on West 27th Street.
Anne, what would you like to see more of and less of in poetry communities? Where do you see the most need for change, for assistance, for improvements to the places and publications we have now?
With the pandemic and uprising for social justice and climate change we have to stay on the case more than ever. Be alert, informed. We are in the middle of an extraordinary time of both pandemic and uprising. Racism has been the wound at the heart of this nation, and the battle is with the systemic white supremacy that poisons everywhere. The suffering that black people have to endure daily with the legion of micro-aggressions, all the inequities, lethal abuse is so horrifying. And the karma of years of genocide of indigenous peoples and the cruelty and bestiality of slavery is almost too much to hold.
Anne, what ideas, what practices best foster expansion of thought and expansion of imagination?
Meditation, study, constant reading in all directions of time and space.
“How you living?” (channeling from Akilah Oliver)
Here in my sequester in Boulder having escaped New York at the end of March, I think a lot about friendships. And a lot about poetry and then, impetuously, I want to send messages to the world.
Everyone: stay friends! We’re living in the Great Reckoning. We need to wake up and struggle for a better planet and do all those things we do for love and sanity and radically shift the social fabric of humanity with our empathy for the suffering of others. We need to defang and eradicate the evils of Capital (which is literally killing us!) and racism (murdering too), or we will succumb to a totally fascist state in the U.S.A. And go dumb. We have to keep on with climate awareness, get back the environmental measures eviscerated by Trump. Get land back, animal rights, endless: pick your battles, pick your animal. Keep guard against nuclear annihilation. Treaties! A massive amount of work to do, and we’re on borrowed time. Don’t forget to vote wisely. Some young poets going into law, into politics, health fields. and back to ancient gnosis, ur-wisdoms. And continuing to teach in whatever form. And keep poetry in hearts. Friends, do this all with friends, or in your hut, with your mind, make friends with your mind, dedicate the merit, and keep close with your intergenerational friends.
I adore and am obsessed with collaboration kinetics. We have to stay with that, take care of our bodies, these precious vehicles of spirit and poetry and work together in communities of trust and mutual support. Don’t disappear, go remote. Honor ancestors, honor elders, honor the dead. Count blessings as we can. Think about children, their needs, how wrecked their education has been, so much child poverty in the U.S. it’s shocking. Be wary of surveillance and AI takeover. Don’t buy into all the tech loops and versions of reality and don’t go down every rabbit hole. Be skillful, spiritual about the plot to save humanity. Stay engaged and living and contemplative as well. Times of stillness, we like those. I’m preaching. And keep poetry close.
Arts of magic and love and having new insight with words, imagination’s other tongue.
Sun Ra. Break down and cry. There’s little outside work right now in any case to be so careerist. But to help others. Layli Long Soldier spoke in her Naropa class of co-founding an arts school at Dakota Ridge, hands on for future beings. Start little schools O poets! Teaching useful knowledge. Maybe not teach poetry so much but how to read. Study.
I need to get to Mexico City while alive!, while I can—as soon as things get safer and are open—(a difficult President López Obrador there who thinks his country will be saved by an amulet he wears) to meet grandchild Kora and continue projects in collaboration. A growing group of international musicians, artists, poets forming called Rhizoma. Cross the border, swap knowledge.
So how living? Living in the uncertainty, the pain of separation and mourning friends who have died, of covid, such as Hal Willner who passed in April. Worked with filmmaker/poet No Land on a short film “Evening of the Day,” an homage for Hal. Michael McClure’s passing, Susan Rothenberg, Michael Friedman all give fuel and pulse to the work. Mourning. So many doing harm. Celebrating comradeship on the streets.
Missing autonomous zones like Abolition Park. Left for Boulder in late March and have been working on a number of fronts. Have been able to feel grounded here with Naropa close by (and the negative ions that clear the head).
Recently I have been part of a translation seminar and working with some native tongued Persian and Arabic writers/translators to work with Persian Talisman traditions. Astrology, geomancy, charms, curses. Nice syncretics: Hinduism, Kabbala, Koran. Wonderfully generative in these times. A whole passage about locusts. Have been appreciating the work I’ve done with the Buddhist Therigatha, Buddhist female mendicants going back to the time of Buddha, some of the earliest poems by women anywhere. And the expanded book is just out: Songs of the Sons & Daughters of Buddha (Shambhala). Finding ways to make poetry sing through centuries, as here in the Therigatha. So much hardship getting to the notion of impermanence and liberation.
Also got through our June “Carrier Waves” Zoom Summer Writing Program at Naropa, designed with Jeffrey Pethybridge, for our core students. Alice Notley, Cecilia Vicuna, Lisa Jarnot, CA Conrad, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Asiya Wadud, Jos Charles, others beamed in to help us. Transmissions with all our emanations still possible. A koan about space, time, bodies, carrier waves, boxes within boxes. Along with the development of Center for Activist Study and Writing as a Social Practice at Naropa. Surveillance, lock down, nun’s cell.
Students are doing projects out of the extensive Kerouac School Archive which is exciting. Texts of Akilah Oliver, Amiri Baraka. Also a Naropa essay anthology in the works—New Weathers—for Nightboat Books with co-editor Emma Gomis. Out in two years, worth waiting for. CA doing an additional benefit soon for our Kevin Killian summer scholarship. We had a fire in our Harry Smith Print Shop two weeks ago and the response has been wonderful and supportive. Adelante. (The printing presses and type survived.)
Other book projects in works and recordings and collaboration with Janice Lowe, possibly another Sciamachy (Part 2) with Fast Speaking Music and helping my partner Ed Bowes with a hypnogogic movie. My nephew Devin Brahja Waldman just finished production of Cait O’Kane’s album, Notable Deaths.
Ambrose produced another CD of Clark Coolidge and Thurston Moore.: Among The Poetry Stricken. (https://fastspeakingmusic.bandcamp.com/album/among-the-poetry-stricken)
And Lewis Warsh and I are planning a book of letters around our magazine and press Angel Hair, which ran from 1968-74, back when poets wrote in more voluminous epistolary modes. Ted Berrigan, Lorenzo Thomas, Joanne Kyger, Jim Brodey, Tom Clark, Bill Berkson, Barbara Guest, Diane di Prima, and more.
“dear anne, I was really happy to get your letter at the fireplace rebuilding a very hot old fire in the middle of a snowstorm car buried stream running & it’s still warm out but I can’t see what I’m typing, your letter with coffee at the stream, in the garage and with Ed who sings.”
How you living? is Akilah’s question. Culling, grasping, waiting, inventing, remembering too late to drink the water of forgetfulness. We’re all in the oracular chamber. What is the future? It’s an encounter, a trance, a struggle perhaps. And we are touching it, a world turned upside down, end of an empire. Breakdown of a social order that is necessary. Uprising for a better life. Things going out of this world. Glowing embers. Could you be the lyre of another? How is a poet a caretaker? That is the question, the protection. “Earthshine” is the glow on the part of the moon that is not fully lit. Let’s not fracture our music in this existence of urgency.
Nathaniel A. Siegel is a GAY POET, curator, photographer, and artist who loves the in-person conversational interview as a form of immediate historical exchange of ideas, ideals, memories, and dreams!
His chapbook Tony is published by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs (http://yoyolabs.com/siegel.html). His Gay Manifesto is published in The Brooklyn Rail (https://brooklynrail.org/2011/03/poetry/man-to-manifesto-with-quote-change-everything-except-your-loves-voltaire) and his art installation 2,117 Days of Silence (https://www.leslielohman.org/exhibitions/2-117-days-of-silence) created to mark the 20th anniversary of A.C.T.-U.P. is documented at Leslie-Lohman Gay Museum of Art.
Nathaniel is a board member of Howl! Arts, Inc. (https://www.howlarts.org/). He is an active participant in the Poetry Project, Naropa, Bowery Poetry Club and New York City artist/poet collectives.
•Anne Waldman website Publications: https://www.annewaldman.org/publications/
•Anne Waldman Archive University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Research Center) https://quod.lib.umich.edu/s/sclead/umich-scl-waldman?byte=23446266;focusrgn=C01;subview=standard;view=reslist
•Naropa University Audio Archive https://cdm16621.contentdm.oclc.org/
Relevant, recent, and upcoming publications
•(On Buddhism Poetics) Structure Of The World Compared To A Bubble Penguin Poets 2004.
•Jaguar Harmonics: Person Woven of Tesserae Post-Apollo Press, 2014.
•Sanctuary (Addenda) with collages by t thilleman. Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2020
•Songs of the Sons & Daughters of Buddha (Shambhala). Enlightenment Poems from the Theragatha and Therigatha Translated by Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman. Shambahla Publications, 2020.
•Extinction Aria. Pied Oxen Printers, 2017.
•Invitation to the Species: Anne Waldman
Interviewers Alystyre Julian, Kyle Dacuyan, and Sarah Riggs, March 2020.
•Anne Waldman: The New Social Environment Lunchtime Conversation #41
•Evening of the Day, A Film by No Land. Marianne Faithfull reads Anne Waldman (“Hopes and Fears”)
A film collaboration by No Land & Anne Waldman for Marianne Faithful In Memory of Hal Willner April, 2020.
•Single “Extinction Aria”
Song with Ambrose Bye, Devin Brahja Waldman, Debbie Googe, Guro Moe, Håvard Skaset. Extinction Aria pt II from Sciamachy album. Fast Speaking Music, 2020.