Anne Waldman has read her poetry in some unlikely places: On train tracks near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Production Plant near Denver, Colorado; on makeshift Occupy Wall Street stages. Her performance style lends itself well to such wide-open settings: She sings and shouts her work, often with musical accompaniment. These days that music is provided by her son, Ambrose Bye, who will accompany Waldman Wednesday during her 7:30 p.m. appearance at Butler's Robertson Hall.
Bye grew up with Waldman in the environs of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., which Waldman co-founded, along with the poet Allen Ginsberg, in 1974. (She currently directs the Summer Writing Program at Naropa.)
Ginsberg was an extraordinarily influential poet in Waldman’s life; her friend and colleague, he even referred to Waldman as his “spiritual wife.” Reading Waldman’s and Ginsberg’s work, it’s not hard to see why they shared such a close kinship. Both are expansive in thematic terms as well as in the line length of their free verse, and they can both be seen as part of a visionary current that stretches back to Walt Whitman and William Blake before him.
But the first poet Waldman studied with, Howard Nemerov, was a very different cat, a respected Blake scholar who wrote well-crafted formal verse that often crackles with dry irony. Nemerov was Waldman’s professor at Bennington College, where she received a B.A. in 1966.
“He was part of a generation of male poets who had come of age around the war so the war was very critical in their larger view,” says Waldman. “I identified him somewhat with my father’s generation. My father had served in World War II. On the other end you had the Beats who I was reading and discovering and who I had encountered in high school who were forging a kind of alternative poetics for a number of reasons, who were more political in ways and investigatory. I think as a younger woman, coming of age at a particular time — with the backdrop of the Vietnam War — my experience was going to be very different. So I was more drawn to experimental forms, forms that I could engage in and invent in a way and work with.”
Largely because of her association with Beat poets such as Ginsberg, Waldman is often referred to as a post-Beat poet, but her work can't be so easily categorized.
“It was never a problem to reconcile these influences, because of course one loves and admires so much the huge range of poetry of the past. It informs everything one does,” she says.
One of these influences is Ezra Pound, who inspired Waldman as she composed her three-volume, thousand-page epic Iovis. Recently published in its full form by Coffee House Press, Waldman describes Iovis “a feminist project taking on war and patriarchy.”
“It’s a traditional postmodern epic,” she says. “It’s a huge chaos. It’s something I had to do and I dedicated it to my son. And in a way it’s for his generation. This is where we were for the last twenty-five years. But it also links to other times.”
Recently, Waldman has been involved with work more directly related to Pound.
“I’ve been working with the composer Steven Taylor who worked a lot with Allen Ginsberg,” says Waldman. “We’ve developed this ‘Poundatorio.’ It’s called Cyborg on the Zattere. It takes on the knot of Ezra Pound, from his radio broadcasts, the fascist broadcasts. We also have him in a cage at Pisa which is similar to a cage at Guantanamo.”
Pound is fraught poetic territory, largely because of his radio broadcasts in ltaly against the Allies during World War II and the anti-Semitic tone evident in portions of his work, particularly in The Pisan Cantos. Because of such issues, Waldman does not fully embrace Pound’s work.
“But the poetry’s so insurmountably powerful and fantastic,” she says. And I’m especially drawn to the Pisans and it fits with the whole idea of this project. I think it’s a conundrum when people loved it and it just brings all these things up, from the Occupy movement to the antics of our financial realm.”
Waldman supported the Occupy movement by helping to organize protests calling attention to a certain irony. In December, two events occurred simultaneously in New York City: under the directives of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, police cleared out Occupy Wall Street home Zucotti Park while, not too many blocks away, Philip Glass's Gandhi-themed opera Satyagraha played at the Metropolitan Opera, with sponsorship by the Mayor's Bloomberg Family Foundation. To spell out the irony, Bloomberg's foundation subsidized an opera that implicitly praises Gandhi's non-violent challenge to economic inequality while Bloomberg also cracked down on activists in his own town.
Lest Waldman seem strident in her activism, take a look at her 1982 music video, “Uh, Oh, Plutonium,” in which Waldman, clad in a yellow jumpsuit, dances against a green screen on which you see, among other horrors, the Taj Majal being incinerated by a nuclear blast. Waldman wrote the poem for a protest near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.
“I performed it on the tracks where they were bringing the plutonium in on a train and then it morphed into something else,” Waldman says. Somebody in the last year asked me, ‘Where’s your yellow jump suit?’”