Anne Waldman

Q&A: Anne Waldman

Richard Bailey talks to the famed poet, who performs with her son, Ambrose Bye, at Lit Hop presented by WordSpace.

published Thursday, April 25, 2019

Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye


DallasAnne Waldman is the author of more than 40 books. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and has been a Guggenheim Fellow. In 2015, she received the American Book Award, Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1968, she established the St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, which continues to be important venue for American poets. Along with Allen Ginsberg she founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado in 1974. The Jack Kerouac School continues to be one of the most important creative writing programs in the country today. Throughout her career, she has collaborated with artists and musicians including Bob Dylan, Thurston Moore, John Cage, and Meredith Monk. Waldman will perform with her son, the musician Ambrose Bye, on April 27 at Sandaga 813. The event is part of Lit Hop, a month-long poetry celebration put on every year by the Dallas literary arts group WordSpace.

TheaterJones spoke with Anne Waldman via email. 


TheaterJones: Your recent book of poems, Trickster Feminist (Penguin, 2018) reckons with society's conscious and unconscious attitudes toward women. It's an artful context for today's debates. It's also an extension of The Iovis Trilogy (Coffee House Press, 2011), an epic poem that presents a feminine cosmology. These books are so characteristic of your method, which is at once scholarly and playful, and provide such an index of your symbolism, I wonder if you consider the Iovis project your major work?

Anne Waldman: It’s certainly a central work. It took nearly 25 years, and I am still not done with it. I’ve been dallying with something I’m calling The Iovis Addendum. We’ll see. Its ethos and the way I’m constructing it still feel fresh. It involves both juxtaposition and montage. I live half the time in New York City, an amazing ground for the investigative poem. I like to think the epic can enter public space.

We’re evolving as a species (if we have time enough left on the planet) and are becoming more fluid. We’re moving beyond binaries, becoming more cyborgian, as well. And we’ve been faced with such cataclysmic shifts in frequencies. It’s an extraordinary time. Brink of extinction! A time where all the hideous karma of U.S. hegemony is revealed. It’s a time in which we’re unsealing the monstrous past. No hiding place down here. And maybe one feels rumblings of epic agon, of civil war. The issues of patriarchy continue to rankle. I hope the new Congresswomen have bodyguards.

Anne Waldman

That's why I can’t entirely drop Iovis, which needs to mirror our time. That was the impulse. And to allow it to sing its heart out and be efficacious in the struggle. To be a kind of a witness.

There were drag queens at the governor’s inaugural ball in Denver. I read a poem at the swearing-in ceremony on the capitol stage for Jared Polis, the first openly gay and Jewish Governor, calling it “The Beautiful Negative Ions of Governance.” At Naropa, we are planning our “Against Atrocity” themed Summer Writing Program (June 9-29).  And we’re planning protests against ICE at their detention site. All of this is stuff—the poetry and activism—it is for the epic time, our epic mode. The object is this: Tell the story of the tribe. The story of who loses, who wins, who’s in, and who’s out.  What is the nature of our polis? Our communities of resistance? What is the ancient feminist thinking that has seized the epic form for her tireless investigations into “the colors in the mechanisms of concealment?”

But to be frank, one thinks of one’s next work as being the most major. The next thing, what will it be? I plan to take on the Mesopotamian “cradle of civilization” and arcing a trajectory to the “cradle of the grave.” The work will also refer to the ancient poems of Sumer. I call it Mesopotopia.


Your book Gossamurmur (Penguin, 2013) is an expansive way of wondering about illusion and copy. There's a proposition that in each of our characters is the working majority of a dual personality, part of which is always there in a submerged state. Add to that the possibility one might meet one's double on the street. You could investigate your double and find out some things, just as your double could investigate you. Add to that the contemplation of "multi-universes" and you have a seemingly endless entanglement of reflections. Was there a particular image or philosophical problem that prompted you to write this book? 

Yes, a philosophical question. Who are the humans? Who can decide the fate of our consciousness, our imagination?  We can certainly time travel. And, decidedly, the doppelganger—the double in Gossamurmur—operates in an interesting divide between illusion and simulacrum, in a world of replication and deception.

I wrote this book as an allegory about the struggle for archive and as a plea for poetry’s continuum. The Deciders in the struggle are the villains who want to murder Poetry.  It came out of my own struggle for the preservation of our oral poetry archive at The Kerouac School at Naropa, the precious tapes we’ve been archiving since 1974, a record of wild-minded poetics. This long poem is a plea for originality, imagination, and sanctuary. And it’s funny, too.

I think it is my most cohesive book.  I like the notes section referencing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and the Jemaa el Fna medina in Marrakesh as examples of archive. The problem is this: how can we pass on to the intelligence of the future the threads of awakened consciousness that I, for one, deem poetry? It’s also a meditation on impermanence.


You're a collaborative artist. Let's talk for a moment about your work in film. You wrote verse for Ed Bowes' film Entanglements (Walsung, 2009, updated 2014). It's a film about desire, but the actors deliver their lines without emphasis, almost in monotone. Connections and distances between characters are revealed in the way Bowes has them framed.  Pictorially the film is beautiful; aurally it is flat. This presents a compelling tension between word and image. Did this approach require a change in your compositional style?

I think I had to slow down and pull back from weighing in with any kind of overstated meaning or message. Ed Bowes is interested in having non-actorly presences in his movies. He sometimes calls his actors “presenters.” So the composition is perhaps more measured, with gaps and non-sequiturs. He works with poets, dancers, and children.

It’s not as if the language I came up with couldn’t carry a more emotional performance, but there’s a need for language to balance with the visuals. The process demands an elegant reserve, and people speak sometimes as if in a dream.

He works with language as if it were more like poetry, non-narrative, like a soundtrack. And he’s a Gertrude Stein-like reader; interested in language that resists semantic interpretation.  His more recent movies involve figures arriving with some of their own texts, which he sculpts. He directed Steven Taylor doing excerpts from Judith Butler in his last movie, Seahorse Powder Room [see the film here].  In the one he’s working on now, I read a medley of my own that includes thoughts by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Bowes has another writer musing on Virginia Woolf.


You'll be performing April 27 at Sandaga 813 with your son Ambrose Bye as part of WordSpace's annual Lit Hop event. I was fortunate enough to see the two of your perform for a WordSpace event in 2015. You're excellent together. Was this collaboration between mother and son inevitable, or was there a time when you discussed keeping some artistic distance? 

Thank you for this question. I think it was pre-destined that we figure out some way to work together artistically, and the communication has had a special quality: sometimes contentious and often sublime. There was interest on both sides. And I’ve always enjoyed what Ambrose responds to in the poetry, although he’s often telling me to tamp it down when I go too politically out there.  “They are just toast, don’t dignify these creeps by putting them in your poetry!” he says of the villains I demonize (as in “Strangle Rumsfeld!”). So there’s a bit of a tussle around certain texts.

He likes my more abstract pieces, like “Offworld” from Voice’s Daughter of a Heart Yet to Be Born. I like his solo piano and improv, but also his soundscapes and the way he mixes and edits. He did some challenging soundscapes when I performed with Meredith Monk. We do separate projects as well. He records /mixes other poets and works in the studio at Naropa in the summers with faculty and students.

I especially enjoyed a recent project in Mexico, where we worked in the indigenous village of Tlahuitotepec at a music school with other musicians and poets, including Ambrose’s cousin Devin Brahja Waldman on sax. Our family band is called Fast Speaking Music, and we perform with the kids. Ambrose and I have taught workshops in Morocco and at The Poetry Project. We share a music and poetry community that goes way back. This means a lot to me. I had this with my own mother.


Which seems more natural to you, composition or performance?

Both seem natural. But I’m very engaged with some book projects right now. And it all started for me with language that moves into performance.


When you make a poem, do you compose aloud or silently?

Both. And I am mostly making these long-book hybrid poems which move around a lot and break into performative sections.


Your poems reward studious readers. But that shouldn't undercut the fact that you're very funny. Was your sense of humor shaped in the home growing up, or was your humor shaped by reading?

I’m so pleased to hear you say I’m funny! My mother was caustic at times and Ambrose can be extremely funny. My New York School pals, also. “Amusement” was important to Frank O’Hara. Kenneth Koch. Ted Berrigan had a playful wit. Ron Padgett. Bernadette Mayer. Ed Dorn and Amiri Baraka have a sharp, aphoristic intelligence. Lots of bite.


Who's the funniest poet you ever read?

That’s hard. I find prose funnier.


What's the poem you re-read most often?

Dante’s Commedia. The oral (scribed) chants of Maria Sabina.


» Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye will perform Saturday, April 27, 7:30pm at Sandaga 813, 813 Exposition Avenue, Dallas.  See the WordSpace event page for more details.

» Lit Hop begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 27 in Exposition Park. The complete schedule is:

  • 5–5:45 p.m. EIGHT BELLS ALEHOUSE, 831 Exposition Ave., featuring Mad Swirl Poets
  • 6–6:45 p.m. CRAFT AND GROWLER, 3601 Parry Ave., featuring Clancy Manuel and Annie Benjamin
  • 6:45-7:20 p.m. LAS ALMAS ROTAS, 3615 Parry Ave., featuring Tejana Cosmica
  • 7:30–8:45 p.m. SANDAGA 813, 813 Exposition Ave., featuring Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye
 Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Anne Waldman
Richard Bailey talks to the famed poet, who performs with her son, Ambrose Bye, at Lit Hop presented by WordSpace.
by Richard Bailey

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