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Waldman Chants Power & Energy Print-ready version

by Louise Billotte
Berkeley Barb
September 17, 1976
Original article: PDF

She is quite simply one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. She is Anne Waldman. She is poet, administrator, teacher and star. She has that kind of energy - movie star energy. She's powerful and she knows how to use that power. She's also intelligent and knows how to use that intelligence. It's her intelligence that sets her apart.

She lives these days in a room on the top floor of the Boulderado Hotel in Boulder, Colorado. It's a tacky, funky room with a splendid view of the mountains. It is also a very elegant, very personal room. Waldman has a touch. Even her poems look pretty on the page. She says she wishes these days she could take that room with her wherever she goes.

At 11 o'clock one morning three journalists come to interview Anne. We are three feminists, three practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism come to interview a woman who is important to us not just professionally. We begin at 11 and it is after three by the time we leave. We are exhausted but exhilarated. The next day I hear that Waldman has had to cancel an appointment for still another interview. She is all talked out.

Only a few days earlier, at a reading I missed, Anne read a poem that was not too well received. The poem is about a" Shaman," meant to be Bob Dylan. The poem, she says, has been giving her problems. She can't work with it on the page, she needs to keep reading it aloud.

Much of the criticism of the work is directed at her use of the word Shaman with regards to Dylan. But. . ."shaman just covers a lot of ground," she explains. It covers all the performers, it covers anybody who's in the spotlight, anybody who's putting out energy." It's an ancient idea, she adds, and is probably a concept that will lead us into getting back more deeply into language.

I mention how a number of poets these days are working with the idea of poet as shaman, and how the idea goes counter to the Western notion of art as self-expression.

"I have a whole thing about that," says Anne, "that the poets are shamans and. . .especially if they can be spontaneous, they're feeding off the audience. Whoever's in the room is as important as who's on stage, the speaker has got to pick up on that energy, be an instrument, even if the audience is speaking things too, or shouting out things, like in a gospel situation. . .when you have one person who's in touch with the spirit in some sense but is also invisible, I mean not laying his or her particular trip on you." The poet has the gift of language, but it is essentially an impersonal or trans-personal gift.

The Shaman poem came out of the Rolling Thunder tour, with which Anne travelled and worked for a time, and which was, according to her, "a very tribal situation, with Dylan in charge and being like the king and the shaman and the person who was making it all happen."

Because Anne was part of Rolling Thunder, because her work is so musical, because she's such a great performer, it seems she might want to work someday with a band.

"I've worked with musicians," she says, "but I believe that I can do it all with my own voice, that the poets' instrument is built into their voice." Working with musicians she says ". . .was fun. Fun! But I can't see doing it now. If it comes up, fine, but I'm not just gonna go out and do it, I'm not hungry for it."

The musicians on the tour were always suggesting she work with a band, and Joni Mitchell gave her a dulcimer to use with her poetry. "I like doing it by myself in this room," she laughs.

Of Dylan, she says, "I'm really interested in his work, his performing, etc. mostly because of the words. I can always hear the words, whereas with so many other performers, singers, you can't. His words are very good. His music is very good too."

If Dylan is shaman, Waldman is shamaness and the long chant poems she has been reading for the past couple of years are nothing less than exorcism rites. "Fast Speaking Woman," the best known of them, grew out of an encounter with an Indian shamaness in Mexico.

The chant poems are power poems. They name, evoke, absolve. Language has power. Anne says she is working a lot with language and sound these days, less with meaning and message.

"Words, if you're working on the printed page, are almost illuminated. They can be like illuminated manuscripts and they have this power which just lifts up off the page. In sound it's like mantra, or just high sound which has an incredible life of its own. I was reading somewhere that mantras have been recorded through something called a tonoscope and that they appear, the visual patterns of the sounds, as Yantra (a visual pattern)! So you're getting this incredible thing both ways. It's so obvious that would be the case, that this mystical sound has this mystical pattern too. . .has this thing of waking you up. . .totally. I think often Dylan can do that when he is really on."

Much of the power of language, she thinks, comes from the power of naming. She talks about how members of certain tribes have secret names "which you don't want anybody to get because when they get that they get your soul." The power of naming and the power of sound together have a total liberating effect.

No matter what we are discussing, we are always talking about energy, about the energy of people, situations, experiences. Anne Waldman is a very high voltage lady who is in touch with her phenomenal energy and works constantly on directing it. For several years she has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Her so-called "root" teacher (her guru) is in India; in America she works with Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Naropa Institute, who she considers to be a living embodiment of the Dhamra. She is working at Naropa now, running the poetics school, because Trungpa feels that is the best place for her to be.

Her spiritual practice consists of sitting meditation and also prostrations (to the mental image of her Teacher). "It makes sense to prostrate to the guru," she feels, "because that guru is inspiring in terms of one's own mind. Maybe that's cheating. But my root teacher is an inspiration, an embodiment of a really great place to be. . .He's an embodiment of my total mind."

For Anne, Buddhism is a very applicable, generizeable way of relating to the world. "Buddhism is about refining life, as is art. Trungpa Rinpoche is like a doctor coming into this situation in this country that has gotten so out of hand, so sick, so neurotic. . .this incredible suffering people are not willing to face. I mean the first Noble Truth has yet to enter the American consciousness." The first Noble Truth, according to the teacher of the Buddha, is the inescapable, unavoidable fact of suffering. "No Way Out," Waldman says in one of her long chant poems. "But you don't necessarily need this Buddhism to show you that things are self evident. There are teachings everywhere in every situation. That's what Buddhism is all about."

The Buddhist tradition Waldman is a part of is a Tantric tradition. Tantra is about energy. It is also about devotion to a master. Tantric masters discourage the use of drugs. Waldman has in the past been heavily into drugs and has written a lot about them. Is she using drugs now? What are her feelings about them?

"Tantra practice emphasizes a steadier use of one's creative energies than drugs can give. But drugs are definitely an energy source." She is doing drugs less. "Drugs are such an individual trip. I'm not interested anymore in that kind of individual high where you're like a god then you become nothing but it's all your ego that's going through this."

Someone points out that meditation is also a very individual high, but Anne protests that it's more sustained, you don't cling to it. "I always used to cling to various drug experiences, you know, that's the high I've got to get back to."

Nevertheless, she thinks drugs are a fantastic way of learning about oneself. They are still useful to her, but no longer essential. She also distinguished between drugs. Peyote and mushrooms are an extension of food. "Acid's not food but it's really good. But there's a point when you have to have some other kind of practice going. And meditation and drugs are working with the same kinds of energies."

In addition to her writing, Anne still directs, long distance, the Poetry Project in New York. She is also teaching at Naropa. She is one of the few women at Naropa with an important administrative position, and she feels, as do other women at Naropa, that there is a strong anti-woman bias, particularly from the administration. Also, so many of the men, both in the poetry scene and in the administration, are gay men. Anne says she finds that less of a problem than being dominated by straight male energy. Besides, so many of the gay men at Naropa, like Allen Ginsberg and Williams Burroughs, are her friends. She doesn't feel uncomfortable to be the only woman among them. In fact, she says, she feels honored.

"I'm so much younger compared to those guys. Burroughs is in his sixties. Allen is fifty. . .I feel in that situation like a 'younger poet' rather than like a 'young woman'".

Nevertheless, Waldman says that in her teaching she is more interested in working with women. "I'm finding that the women in the writing classes are doing more interesting stuff, so from my point of view, as far as the whole poetry scene here goes, there's no problem. The students are as important in the situation as the faculty."

Still, she wishes more women would show up and demand responsibility, though she acknowledges how much more difficult it is for women. "The women have to work harder to present themselves. The guys are just kind of there. . .it's like they're a given. But there are an awful lot of powerful women around. There's an awful lot of potential. Women are just getting into their power." Anne Waldman knows about power.

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