The Argotist Online
has been an active member of the “Outrider” experimental poetry community for over 40 years as writer, sprechstimme
performer, professor, editor,
magpie scholar, infra-structure and cultural/political activist. She grew up on
MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village where she still lives, and bi-furcated to
Boulder, Colorado in 1974 when she co-founded The Jack Kerouac School of
Disembodied Poetics with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University, the first Buddhist
inspired school in the West, where she currently serves as Artistic Director of
its celebrated Summer Writing program. Allen Ginsberg has called her his
“spiritual wife”. She is the author of over 40 books of poetry including Kill
or Cure, Marriage: A Sentence, Structure
of the World Compared to a Bubble and the poetic text: Outrider
which includes an interview with Ernesto Cardenal, and essays on Lorine
Niedecker and Charles Olson. Manatee/Humanity (Penguin
Poets 2009) is Waldman’s most recent
book. She is also the author of the legendary Fast Speaking Woman (City Lights), now translated into Italian,
Czech and French, as well as the 800 page epic Iovis trilogy (Coffee House Press), forthcoming in 2011. She is
editor of The Beat Book (Shambhala
Publications) and co-editor of The
Angel Hair Anthology (Granary Books),
Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics
in Action (Coffee House) and a comprehensive Beats
at Naropa (Coffee House, 2009),
with previously unpublished work by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and William
Burroughs, among others. A book
translated into Chinese is forthcoming in 2010.
has worked actively for social change, and has been involved with the Rocky
Flats Truth Force and was arrested in the 1970s with Daniel Ellsberg and Allen
Ginsberg protesting the site of Rocky Flats which was bringing plutonium onto
property 10 miles from Boulder for the manufacture of “triggers” for nuclear
warheads. She has been involved with clean-up issues and also with
Poets Against the War, organizing protests in New York and Washington, D.C., and
with the Poetry Is News events, co-curated with Ammiel Alcalay. She was active
in the recent election cycle, along with countless young people and elders and
artists. She took a vow at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 to devote her
life to poetry and artistic “community”. She helped found and direct The
Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery where she worked as first
assistant director and then director a decade. She currently serves on the Board
of the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. She has been an editor of several
small press venues over the years, including Angel Hair Magazine and
Books, Full Court Press, Rocky Ledge, Erudite Fangs and Thuggery & Grace.
She has been a student of Buddhism since 1962, a culturally active feminist, and an ambassador for the oral revival of poetry, appearing on stages from Berlin to Caracas, from Mumbai to Beijing. She has been instrumental in encouraging poetry projects worldwide and has helped organize programs in Vienna and Indonesia. She has also collaborated with artists Elizabeth Murray, Richard Tuttle, Donna Dennis and Pat Steir as well as dancer Douglas Dunn, filmmaker Ed Bowes, and her son, musician/composer Ambrose Bye. Her extensive historical literary, art and tape archive resides at the Hatcher Graduate Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
of her performances may be viewed on YouTube.
since 1971, has published many books and chapbooks including Text thing
(Little Esther Books, 2002), Dear Deliria and True Thoughts—both
from Salt Publishing in 2003 and 2008 respectively. She has also written for
film and theatre. She collaborated with Seattle-based Egyptian poet Maged Zaher
on a collection of poems called farout library software
published by Tinfish Press in 2007. Her next book Authentic Local
is forthcoming from Papertiger Media. For five years, from 1997 until 2002, she
was the poetry editor of the Australian literary quarterly Overland and
currently co-edits Jacket magazine. Born in Seymour Victoria, in a
parallel life Pam Brown lives in La Reunion, in real life she is currently doing
time in Blackheath, in the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney.
Her blog The
Deletions can be found here.
Although the poem/songs on the recent album, Matching Half (that you
share with Akilah Oliver and Ambrose Bye) are uniquely yours, I am reminded of
Laurie Anderson, Marianne Faithfull (even) and Patti Smith when I listen to it.
Your content is more directly political and philosophical and definitely highly
poetic. The music is distanced enough, never overpowering yet much more than
illustrative. The poems work more subtly on the listener than reading them on a
page. Can you tell me a little about how and why you came to make this CD?
certainly admire the work of Laurie, Marianne, Patti—very individual, one from
another—and sisters in the craft and in these many decades a company of
friends. I think this generation of women artists is extraordinary.
am primarily interested in the trajectory of a difficult text to performance,
and in the notion of sprechstimme
(“spoke-sung” in German) and how I might encapsulate a “modal structure”
that’s in my head of such a text—political poetic, philosophical—within a
sound-scape. So I think of myself
as a word-worker who can also sing and “mouth” the words. And the sounds,
images and ideas invoked are crucial to my work in the world.
I’ve worked with a number of musicians over the years, of many ilk—including
jazz giant Steve Lacy, sax player Roy Nathanson and Steven Taylor, long-time
accompanist to Allen Ginsberg and the young very gifted Bethany Spiers. But
I’ve been working most consistently and frequently with my son Ambrose Bye—a
composer and musician—in the last several years.
came together in a magical, serendipitous way, in that I would go spend time
with Ambrose who has been living in San Francisco, and we would both listen to
what each of us was up to and then we’d try things out in his living room—a
very basic recording situation—and I felt strongly about the kind of texts and
performance I wanted to do—and many of the pieces were coming from my ongoing Iovis
epic (the 900 page poem will be published by Coffee House Press in 2011,
which takes on War and Patriarchy). I was excited that we could incorporate the
urgency I felt with some of the material, that I could work with my vocal range,
that we could discuss nuance and cut-up and repetition. ‘Ready to March’ (his title) is a bit of Iovis that is a flash
on Vietnam, Cambodia and right now—the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It starts with the line ‘Across from me…’ as
if someone is right there watching a man dress to go to war. The way Ambrose
arranges the texts once I’ve recorded them is always interesting and
instructive to me. He shapes them into a viable, unique and compelling form. In
a way they are literary songs. “Distanced”, as you say; yet present and
contributing to the logopoeia (the
dance of ideas). I think he is one of the best composers ever to work with
poetry, creating sound-scapes that lets the language breathe. He’s always
telling me to “tone it down” —I don’t always have to be so passionate
and enraged and histrionic! So
there’s a more consistent tone here compared to some of my performance of the
texts in our last CD, The Eye of The
Oliver—terrific African-American poet, long associated with the Naropa project
and author most recently of A Toast In The
House of Friends—also recorded for Ambrose. They have a connection from
his childhood and youth. He knows and intuits her “voice”. Her two pieces on
Matching Half also have a distinct
flavor and nuance and they open out into a kind of flaneur point of view walking through all sorts of streets and
environments and memory. The music carries the erratic and rich strides of her
grew up inside the community of the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in
Boulder hearing many decibels of poetry throughout his childhood with godfathers
like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. So he’s got a sensitive ear. He was
once on stage with Amiri Baraka reading his own first texts, age 11. He’s
extremely modest about what he does—shy at times—yet confident in the studio
and naturally attuned from years of hearing such a range of language—almost
like he’s got a ‘”sub-ear” for poetry that hears additional ways to
support text through his music ear.
He studied gamelan music as a child which is a collaborative process, working with metallaphone instruments and gongs in cycles of timed phrases. I can hear this influence in the work he does with me.
poem/song ‘Flame’ ends with the line ‘Or a desire to return one’s clumsy
body to its original oceanic (amniotic) fluidity…’ connecting the listener
to your interest in spirituality, which I assume, is in part, an interest in
methods of transcending the limited bag of chemicals and bones in which we carry
our minds and psyche. And your next track leads on from this in 'Manatee/Humanity’
(we have dugongs in Australia, I think a manatee is a similar sea creature to a
manatee?) In your poem the manatee is threatened by man, by humanity.
Yes, we are most certainly seductive complicated hairy bags of water and
‘Flame’ is a love poem and a Buddhist poem and perhaps an investigation into
the weird split in our psyches. So yes, transcendent and deconstructing. I
invoke Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium
describing how we were originally two humans in one sphere who grew overly
ambitious until Zeus sliced us in two! What is the matching half? What is other?
Why are you my “flame”? In Buddhism, a neurosis is considered a problem with
space, ‘Manatee/Humanity’ with the sense of “other”.
“Other” is problematic and mysterious and terrifying to habitually
patterned ego. I love how Ambrose intervenes on the Zeus line. You feel the
“cut” in a visceral way, like lightening. So we are perpetually searching
for our other half.
the precious manatee is similar to the dugong and this litany comes from a much
longer book-length narrative hybrid poem entitled Manatee/Humanity recently published by Penguin Poets (2009). A
neuroscientist friend (who has a brain of a manatee sitting on his desk!) sent
the recording of voice of the manatee that you hear in this song. I find it
extremely haunting. I had an encounter with a manatee in Florida—an aged
female creature who had been scarred by motorboat blades and monofilament line
yet seemed a kind of ancient primordial wisdom figure—an extremely gentle
soul—in her isolated tank. And at the same time the manatee was being taken
off the Endangered Species list in the U.S., by George W. Bush’s brother Jeb,
then governor of Florida. This was a three-year project involving some research
and dreams and a particular Buddhist ritual—the Kalachakra, which explores the
nature of time. I got very caught up with the notions of “mirror neurons”
and empathy and what keeps us human. In the book the manatee stands in for all
endangered species—the grey wolf, the polar bear, the lemur, and so on. So
there was some urgency here as well. The piece also has a personal
intensity—the connection of the mother manatee and her offspring, as I can’t
forget that Ambrose and I—mother & child—were coming together in this.
We’re working on a fuller Manatee/Humanity
album. He’s already composed new pieces for other sections of the poem.
track ‘Corset’ reminds us directly of the early twentieth century
anarca-feminist Emma Goldman, and is yet relevant today. The piece reminds me a
little of Patti Smith’s early ‘Piss Factory’ which, like ‘Corset’,
accumulates an urgency as it drives along. Here the percussion gives it that
urgency and, again, your poem is more directly political and historical and is
from your collection Outrider. Are you as
motivated by political urgency these days as in the past and can you give me
a brief definition of an “outrider”?
certainly motivated by the urgency, and I can’t imagine otherwise. An
outrider—poet, artist, philosopher—is riding parallel to the mainstream,
informed by it, maybe not so interested, doesn’t buy into the careerism, acts
as a kind of gadfly, and as a corrective/intervention to/on a lazier status quo.
Oppositional but not shut down. Not totally “outside”.
From some perspective—perhaps more global—the most interesting
poetics and poetry of the last decades has been outside official academic sites
of privilege and credentials. It could be anonymous, collective, collaborative.
And yet one is grateful in the US of A for the official academic sites that
provide places and houses of discourse. And I am grateful also for the archive
that such places provide. I always think of Naropa University—which is only 35
years old—a mere institutional child—as a kind of exception. We started it
from scratch ourselves; we weren’t building on the bones of dead white male
slavers. We didn’t have the karma of financial investments in murkier realms
… and we operate on a shoestring … people work for less because they believe
in the vision of a non-competitive, more contemplative education. And there’s
an activist bent to our curriculum. It’s hard to explain how some of our elder
poets of the so-called new American post-modern period lived their lives in poetry. Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer,
Frank O”Hara, Barbara Guest, Charles Olson.
Very different from what we have now. So the idea is to keep the sense of
the outrider spirit and lineage going.
of the Gong World’ has a kind of ominous feeling and addresses recent
terrorist bombings, conflicts and problems (like the tsunami) in Asia,
specifically Bali, Aceh, East Timor. You seem to know quite a bit about local
religion there. Have you visited Bali and Indonesia?
worked in Bali, directing a Naropa study-abroad program, a program that began in
the 1980s. And was able to travel to other parts of Indonesia. We studied
culture, language, religion—particularly Hinduism as it manifests in
Bali—dance, gamelan, and participated in many rituals. Unfortunately when the
bombing the year after 9/11 occurred, we had to close the program. Very sad. It
was deemed too dangerous for foreigners. We still own a gamelan orchestra there
that I was able to purchase with support after Allen Ginsberg died. We call it
the ‘Allen Ginsberg Shimmering Orchestra’ and a wonderful musician Made
Lasmawan is in change, and it’s being used by his students which makes me
extremely happy. The instruments
must be played—there’s a spirit in the orchestra—“taksu” is the
word—that needs nurturing.
pilgrimage to the Buddhist stupa of Borobudur in Java led to the long poem Structure
of The World Compared to a Bubble (Penguin Poets) This poem is an
investigation into the architecture of this site and the notion of the
Bodhisattva path. A lot of my work navigates from more Asian structures and
spiritual traditions and I’ve been a student of Vajrayana Buddhism for a
number of years. I’ve also been to India many times. Short but powerful trips.
There was a need to turn away from the master colonial narratives of Europe as a
younger woman poet, coming of age in the 1960s. Explore more “fellaheen”
worlds, what’s more subtly below the radar, more atmospherically feminine,
anti-war poem/song ‘Ajanta’ which attempts a reconciliation of “the
West” with “the East” and pleads for acceptance of difference and for
religious freedom, has the line ‘modernity the conception of secular
desire’. Religion, it seems to me, has been a divisive issue for centuries.
Can you expand a little on why “modernity” conceives secular desire—-
what’s different now? And can you tell me the meaning of the title, ‘Ajanta’?
Yes, divisiveness that continues. Especially with monotheism. Modernity
is still the progressive intellectual hope in some way. And our
desire—erotic—is more secular sometimes than spiritual. Of course we’re in
the post-modern now. I’ve been contemplating—after some recent trips
there—how China missed out on the cultural literary artistic modernity of the
west while they were being so secular. And in the meantime the Dalai Lama and
others were bringing Buddhism to the west, more as a philosophy than religion.
But Confucianism has some power there still and in Vietnam. And probably the
west will re-introduce Buddhism to China! All our desires seem secular unless
you are fundamentalist Christian or Jew or jihadist. Yet there is great wisdom
in these traditions. I am not positing one view. I live inside “negative
capability”, inside the contradictions. But the dance of these syncretic forms
is interesting and how they play out in modern times is an ongoing fascination
for my thinking and my work.
Ajanta Buddhist Caves—there are 29 of them—are near the village of Ajintha
in the Indian state of Maharashtra. They are a rock-cut series of monuments set
in a rugged horseshoe-shaped ravine dating from the 2nd century BCE. Some of
them have stunning and quite well preserved wall paintings and sculpture inside.
The history is complicated as the caves were built at different times and in
some cases for religious purposes, but hardy used. They were also sponsored by
Hindu kings, so there was a flow between cultures and spiritual practices. There
was also a lot of internecine warfare going on, warring factions, and the like.
I had been wanting to visit this site for decades and was invited to a festival
in Mumbai just 2 years ago and then made my way there and was able to stay a few
days. So “Ajanta” is based on notes while I visited the caves. I really like
what Ambrose creates here—particularly with the “gasp”. I told him I
wanted the “gasp” to be the seed syllable for the piece.
Have you performed the poem/songs on Matching Half live?
If not, are you planning a performance?
Yes I’ve performed them with Ambrose, and Akilah as well, and we have some
shows on the east coast in October at the Poetry Project and Bowery Poetry Club
in New York, and at a festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. We did a whole Manatee/Humanity show recently at the Meridian Gallery in San
Francisco, which was a success. The manatee has legs.
© Ann Waldman & Pam Brown