Thursday, February 9, 2012

Poet Anne Waldman

As the song goes, "Don't know much about poetry." It's not just me, is it? I hear "poetry" and I narrow my eyes and tighten my lips. I expect to be perplexed, to struggle to understand.

Waldman was one of the key figures in the Beat movement, and co-founded with Allen Ginsberg the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Despite my San Francisco upbringing, despite that my high school was a block away from the corner of Haight and Ashbury, I expected Waldman's reading to leave me dazed and confused.

I missed last night's reading, but was able to attend a reading/performance Waldman gave for a small group of Butler students this morning. Donned in a gold and scarlet fringed paisley scarf and skinny black slacks, Waldman brought her musician son, Ambrose Bye, to accompany her readings. She began with "Why Am I Daring To Show My Face," a piece Bye accompanied with keyboard and a recording of a repeating vocal taken from the poem. Say what you will about poetry, Waldman's not boring. She doesn't simply read. She sings. She chants. She clips and staccatoes some words while drawing out others. That Waldman's sensibility was born in the social revolution of the '60s gave her reading a strange duality, as if existing both in the present and back in the psychedelic flower power days. This sense of time-travel echoed in Waldman's appearance, her face now lined, but her hair still long, stick-straight and jet black.

(Speaking of art that feels out of time, check out Uh-Oh Plutonium, a strange punk-glam music video featuring a 1982 Anne Waldman: )

Her next poem, Doubt, a state of mind that's one of my more reliable companions, especially resonated.

Waldman read from her book, Manatee/Humanity. Over Bye's background track of synthesized aquatic sounds, Waldman explored her environmental concerns. She read, gestured and swayed, as if the words' energy pulsed through her body. In the Q&A that followed the performance Waldman explained that the manatee, a huge yet fragile beast, is the central deity of the piece, and the idea came from her encounter with a manatee at a theme park. Other elements woven through the piece are Buddhist tenets, and the loss several of her close friends.

Waldman also performed a poem she penned that was included in a literary magazine's Beatles tribute. Her poem riffs on the song "Tomorrow Never Knows." She noted that John Lennon wanted the song to sound as if it had been recorded from a mountaintop, so the Bye's soundtrack included the call of sea gulls.

In the Q&A I had the chance to ask Waldman to describe the starting point of her path to becoming a poet. It's an intriguing question, don't you think? What does a poet's childhood look like? Waldman answered that her artistic parents led her naturally to a creative path, that art was such an integral part of her upbringing, it became her identity. In essence, she had no other choice.

Still don't know much about poetry, but I'm now a Waldman fan.

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