Anne Waldman: the Poet vs. the Warring God

This is my vision…days on earth/Days when the weather changed course
When we lost our minds/When leaders failed us/ There was no wisdom.

From the opening strains of “Extinction Aria”, the lead selection on Anne Waldman’s latest album, Sciamachy (Fast Speaking Music), the urgency of the moment couldn’t be clearer.

Waldman’s career extends through decades, from the latter years of the Beats through New York’s New Poetry literary circles. She was a founding member of the celebrated Poetry Project and co-founder, with Allen Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University. As a performer, she’s fused verse into the spheres of free jazz, folk, world music, electronics and post-punk, commanding stages around the world, brandishing raw political activism within demanding, commanding works which spare no conservative ideology.

Sciamachy Ann Waldman

Born in 1945, just two weeks shy of V.J. Day, Waldman was raised on MacDougal Street in the aftermath of the second world war. Like the Beat poets, a generation her senior, she had a deep awareness of the societal and political changes in her midst and thrived in the progression of the arts. And also like the Beats, her literature too came to profoundly reflect such movements. Attending Bennington College, she returned home in 1966, just as the activism and outsider poetry began to boil all about downtown.

Waldman, who’d been active in downtown circles before leaving for Bennington, became vital within the second-generation New York School of poets, yet maintained the importance of their precursors. “Early on, I met Frank (O’Hara) and Larry (Rivers) and (John Ashberry). Ted Berrigan was around, and of course Diane (DiPrima) and Amiri (Baraka). We were all connected and very intergenerational,” she cites, clarifying that the stressors between the first generation and her own have been, over years, quite exaggerated. “I took an apartment on St. Mark’s Place then and was very active in the East Village. Allen Ginsberg lived nearby. He and I had met in a Berkley poetry conference facilitated by Charles Olsen, and we adored Frank. When he died in summer 1966, his death put a lot of energy into the downtown scene. We had a reading on 2nd Avenue which then moved to St. Mark’s Church for open readings.”

In partnership with Allen Ginsberg, already an icon, Waldman forged a life-long alliance which would carry them through a litany of projects and across much of the planet, not the least of which was the formal series which grew from those readings, the Poetry Project. Waldman was its first secretary before taking over directorship from 1967-78. And the venue chosen was anything but happenstance; St. Mark’s Church held an 80-year history of bridging the arts to political activism. Over generations, the church presented Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, Martha Graham, W. H. Auden, Archie Shepp, Nam June Paik, Carolee Schneeman, LaMonte Young, Warhol and near endless stream of others.

The relevance of the Poetry Project as a force cannot be overstated. With a mission reaching well beyond art for art’s sake and formal alliances with the New School and many community organizations. Its first event under the banner occurred in September 1966 and less than a month later, the Project stage featured Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of an SRO crowd with hundreds being turned away. Into the ’70s, with William Burroughs’ return to New York, he became a regular at the readings and was among those who ushered in Patti Smith’s performance poetry –that which would later be called punk, complete with Lenny Kaye’s electric guitar accompaniment. John Giorno, Jim Carroll and other notables were also regulars over the next few years, changing the shape of the already revolutionary New York school of poetry and begetting contemporary visions of spoken word and slam poetry.

Waldman was also central to the storied mimeographed journals of the East Village in the period predating xerox photocopies, and long, long before personal computers and printers. Of those years, Waldman stated “We were mimeographing day and night,” followed by compiling and stapling sessions and finally distributing these exciting new communiques to the region. Waldman and company produced such titles as the much celebrated The World, which debuted in 1967 and which she later edited. And there was also the zine Angel Hair, created by Waldman and Lewis Warsh as early as ’65. She later came to edit several of the Poetry Project’s anthologies, among others.

Ginsberg and Waldman, by 1974, had founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Boulder Colorado’s Naropa Institute, and two years later the pair traveled with Bob Dylan’s historic Rolling Thunder Review. And as the underground downtown developed along with the reign of poverty afflicting the Lower East Side, she was among those to welcome in the next generation with fervor and Waldman continues working with such artists as Thurston Moore. Into the 1990s through the present, Waldman has often performed with her son, keyboard player Ambrose Bye and nephew Devin Brajha Waldman, a noted improvisational saxophonist. “My heart is in this for these younger musicians all over,” she remarked. Through it all, Waldman has been a committed performance poet, touching the many aspects of spoken word and regularly using her platform toward fighting social injustice.

The irony of releasing “Extinction Aria” during an historic pandemic was not lost on Waldman. This breakout single from Sciamchy was actually recorded months prior to the global unveiling of coronavirus, but this fact only assures the piece’s prescience. “It draws on the Mayan and Tibetan extinction prophecies,” as a core of undiluted commentary on the Trump era. “I had been studying these past plagues. They’re devastating. The Medici period, the Roman empire. But it’s compounded this time due to the interconnection of all of us, the surveillance, the sheltering.” She is sure to clarify the prophecy’s extension into today’s politics. “The warring god realm needs to create an enemy,” she explained. Most certainly, Waldman is up for the fight. She always has been. The work’s core is an indictment of the greed, waste, division, manipulation and warmongering about us. Recorded live in a studio with the full ensemble—the poet plus synthesist Bye, saxophonist Waldman, mesmerizing guitarist Havard Skaset (of Norway where he leads experimental band MoE), My Bloody Valentine’s electronics artist/baritone bassist Deb Googe, and Norwegian upright bassist Guro Moe–the piece became more relevant than Waldman initially suspected:

Enemy is the creation of a waffling god realm/A becoming in fact
Becoming isolated/And a kind of ghostly corporeality.

Like so many of her epic works, Waldman writes here both in overt exclamation and mystical insinuation, threading ancient teachings to contemporary struggle. “We are being prepared for another kind of lockdown, but I’ve always worked in the underground. Sometimes artists working together are connected in a way, a horizontal way, as opposed to the verticality of growing upward from the roots. You cannot always start at the beginning, sometimes you can come in at the middle. Not thinking of things in a linear way, but exploratory. This relates to the new American poetry where things may not have a title but just bursts in its description. The Beats blew the top off of it all, right down to bringing in use of breath within a recitation.” Beyond “Extinction Aria”, Sciamchy offers gripping words and music on its every cut, often throbbing with a visceral energy. Though the band is only heard in full power on the first and fourth selections, Waldman assured that there are more quintet tracks awaiting release. “These were mainly first takes. I was leaping around my own texts making jump cuts, improvising with the band. I felt the power of what we were doing…I was 15 feet from them at most.”

Individual band members were also called in for other selections, all to excellent effect, tapping into a variety of emotions. And of special note are the pieces featuring Laurie Anderson, “Rune,” and William Parker, “Streets of the World.” On the former, the laureate electric violinist constructs a reverb-laced skeletal soundscape about Waldman’s voice. Poet as well as musician, Anderson’s connection to the words is near spiritual. And on “Streets of the World,” bassist and Arts for Art co-founder Parker plays the n’goni, a compellingly percussive African lute. Waldman explained that this session was completed in one take, an of-the-moment collective improvisation, but then the poetry was birthed in the midst of immediacy, too. “The piece was written in the heat of Trump, at various protests marching around Trump Tower, when I’d move to the side to scribble down words as the inspiration struck.” In the historic context of poetry as a weapon, Anne Waldman continues to brandish arms that are as healing as lethal, decidedly aesthetic and artful, and never concealed.

“This is the most extreme time we’ve ever lived in,” she stressed. “We’re talking about the potential destruction of everything. We’ve hurt so much of the planet, the other creatures we share the planet with. There are consequences to endless war, genocide, white supremacy. And now we are locked within and it’s extreme. All of that built up to this and it is exploding. And we are not learning the lessons. We are not hearing. We’ve been so dumbed down in an endless cycle of spectacle.” Releasing a long breath, Waldman continued. “Burroughs said that virus has to become parasitic. But it is an amazing time for meditation on this as we live in the uncertainty, taking a seat within it. Here is a test to our consciousness: we have to stay positive within our skillful means. And we must always have truth and integrity in our work.”

Sciamchy is available as download or L.P. via BandCamp.

–John Pietaro


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