Poet, professor, performer, and cultural activist Anne Waldman reads at the Zendo, as part of the Village Zendo Benefit Reading Series, Wednesday, December 9, at 7:15 p.m.
Waldman has published more than forty books; she is well known to an international audience for her brave poetry and distinctive performance style. In 1974 she founded, with Allen Ginsberg, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Colorado. "Red Noir," a performance based on Waldman's writings and adapted and directed by Judith Malina, is at the Living Theater in New York from December 7, 2009 through January 30, 2010.
The following interview was conducted by Steve Clay, whose press, Granary Books, has published several projects with the poet.
Village Zendo: To begin with some preliminaries: Please describe how you first encountered meditation in general and Buddhism in particular.
Anne Waldman: I went to a Quaker high school in Manhattan, Friends Seminary, where we had moments of silence every morning and a full hour—weekly—of silence. We were invited to speak if we were so moved. There was the irony of the peace activist tradition with Quakers outside the school and meeting house protesting nuclear weapons, while the students inside were required to take shelter under their desks during air-raid drills. My comparative religion teacher there, Dr. Earle Leslie Hunter, taught Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. We read and studied selections of texts from these Asian traditions and had fascinating discussions about theism and atman. I remember thinking it would be good to get the worlds of pacifism and spiritual "view" together. Then in 1962, the summer after my first year of college, when I was working in Philadelphia with a Quaker community arts project, I had the good fortune to meet Geshe Wangyal, a Mongolian lama in the Tibetan/Mongolian vajrayana tradition, and was introduced to a more formal sense of meditation, although I didn't take formal vows until the early 1970s with Chatral Rinpoche in India and later Trungpa Rinpoche in Vermont. Geshe Wangyal had settled with his monks in Freehold Acres, New Jersey. Robert Thurman was visiting him then as well, and other fellows from Harvard who had experimented with LSD during the Tim Leary days. My first real "hit" of tantra was that summer of 1962: I was interested in my own creative imagination/identity as an artist, tracking dreams and "altered states," and began to understand that the graphic Tibetan Buddhist imagery—wrathful, sexual—was a way into one's own states of mind and a way into understanding both the samsaric consciousness and the potentially enlightened one.
VZ: By the late fifties and early sixties, the influence of Buddhist philosophy was showing up in the literary context, most visibly perhaps among the Beat writers. Were the writings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Snyder, for example, significant influences in your early exposure to Buddhism?
Photo: Greg Fuchs
AW: I wouldn't say "significant influences" but rather "consociational." And personal. And the mutual sympathies were important a little later on. I told Allen about Chogyam Trungpa's meditation center in Vermont after I visited in 1970. He wanted to know about the style of meditation. Certainly Allen's trips (and Gary [Snyder]'s and Joanne [Kyger]'s) to India in the sixties were inspiring. I first went in 1973, with the poets John Giorno and Michael Brownstein, and it was a pilgrimage. I had spoken with Allen about India first; he had given me some contacts. Probably some of the books in my parents' library and growing up in the Village were more key. Alan Watts was in the air in a definitive way. I think I had The Spirit of Zen and The Way of Zen in high school. Gary Snyder knew Watts. Hints and murmurs were coming from all corners. My mother had been part of the utopian community around her former father-in-law, the Greek poet Anghelos Sikelianos, and had gone to Greece in 1929, living there over a decade, and was aware and cognizant of the Theosophist movement, and other leanings toward Asia and Eastern philosophy. I believe Krishnamurti went to Greece in the thirties and encountered the community she was a part of. Certainly the poems I was reading in The New American Poetry and elsewhere were peppered with Buddhist references. Allen references the Bardo and Devis and the like. And "Wichita Vortex Sutra" is perhaps his greatest Buddhist-inspired poem. Gary's Han Shan. Kerouac's very poignant "satoris" throughout On the Road, his Scripture of the Golden Eternity. The link back to D. T. Suzuki. So the interest, study, and, later, the practice, was out there in a growing, integrated way. And it was sustaining to have a sense of sangha with—in particular—the so-called Beat poets. We all make our own way to the path, but the fact of Buddhism being so much in the consciousness of many of these writers who I was to become close with was important. A non-God-centered universe, what a relief! And there was a little correspondence with Philip Whalen when he was in Japan in the late sixties. I think I was born with an interest in the ironies and presentiments of impermanence. This experience of the fleeting, floating world is very powerful. We are here to disappear. And so on. There's so much more to say on this and the gives and takes through poetry and friendship.
VZ: Was it on this trip to India in 1973 that you took vows with Chatral Rinpoche?
AW: Yes. Chatral Rinpoche is very rugged, down to earth, with a sense of humor. I remember he liked teasing the magpies around his gompa in Ghoom. I felt drawn to this ordinariness in him. He wasn't a "royal" lama, so to speak, had more humble origins, and more in the self-realized tradition than the tulku tradition, and his own root teacher was a woman. When I went to ask for refuge he was off in the town of Siliguri buying up all the fish in the market there, to throw them back into the water. It was the day of the full moon and this was a monthly practice for him. I had walked some miles to ask for teaching and then had to repeat that trek—not a big deal, but it meant some kind of initial commitment. He didn't send me to tend cows for three years as he had with a nun from Belgium, and he gave me some freedom. I had some instructions on ngöndro. My biggest issue was around "surrendering my imagination," and I crossed my fingers behind my back as I took my vows. Weird. This has always been an issue for me. Creative imagination. So much poetry is like spiritual text and has sustained me throughout my life. I think in the traditional view, you stick with the dharma texts. But of course this has opened out. And Trungpa Rinpoche was a poet and artist, the wonderful Zen teacher Daido Loori as well, many others. But I learned most from Chatral observing him in his environments in Ghoom and also in Parphing in Nepal. He seemed sensitive to the workers, to those "under" him. He was modest himself. Dharma seemed natural in him. He was strict about vegetarianism, took a strong stand on that, which is unusual for a Tibetan. He was grooming his daughter to be his lineage holder and that was unusual as well. He seemed close to the land, to the animal realm, to the mountains, rocks, trees. A rock himself, weathered and strong. But not at all macho.
Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis
VZ: The year after taking your vows, 1974, you co-founded, with Allen Ginsberg, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder. This seems like an incredibly rich period for you, and you were still under 30! Can you tell a bit about your deepening practice as Buddhist, as poet, as cultural worker, as activist, all within the context of the newly formed Buddhist college in the Rocky Mountains?
AW: Well, getting involved with the founding and maintaining of Naropa and the Kerouac School all these years has been in itself a practice and a vow. I often think of it as Trungpa's command, or "guru's command." It was to be a hundred-year project at least, and we are now thirty-six years in. He once asked me to start—in addition—a school for children! I said, "What do you think we're doing" at Naropa? There was also talk of a "Classics Department"—more projects for the future. The early years of daily infrastructure were powerful, one needed to be "on" all the time and also appreciate improvisation. My prior years at the St. Mark's Poetry Project helped. There has always been a strong Poetics sangha, which is all over the map. So there was already a network to draw on for our experimental Kerouac School. Although we were inventing the wheel, so to speak, for our "academy of the future." I didn't want it to be just a writing program. The Buddhist backdrop was important, the sense of community, an activism component, which turned into Project Outreach. There was a constant urgency to keep the school open. One time our then president, dancer Barbara Dilley, was asking us to work a few months without pay. I was studying in the Buddhist Studies department, hoping to get my MA, but it was just too much with my own poetics program and being a mother, and increasing demands to travel and perform and teach and my own writing projects. But I did the Ngedon School program, and went through Shambhala Training and became an instructor in that practice, and went to several Buddhist seminaries. The work was growing, my discipline as a writer was strong. I enjoyed editing, which I had been doing since 1966 with Angel Hair Books and magazine. And in terms of local activism there was the primary focus on Rocky Flats that brought in plutonium to manufacture the triggers for warheads. We needed to close it down. We're still now in the process of fighting the park on the site that is now under the auspices of the Fish and Wildlife Department. It's extremely toxic.
But, Steve, I am curious about your own first impressions of Naropa, and your sense of Buddhism and poetics.
Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis
VZ: My first impression of Naropa was specific to the Kerouac School (probably from an ad placed in the Bay Area newsletter Poetry Flash), and it looked like a dream come true. I was beginning graduate school at the University of Iowa, studying primarily with Sherman Paul (who wrote important books on Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, and others). So many of the writers I was interested in were not at Iowa, but they were all showing up at Naropa, especially during the Summer Writing Program. Merce Dostale and I stopped by for a couple of days in the summer of 1978 on a road trip to California. It was very intense being in those rooms on Pearl Street full of poets, hearing for the first time readings by Clark Coolidge, John Giorno, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, you, and so many many others. It was a veritable parade of the Beat and New York School remnant. After a taste of Naropa, graduate school seemed senseless, so Merce and I moved to Boulder in early summer 1979 and stayed for two summers and the year in between before moving to Minneapolis in the fall of 1980 to start a poetry bookstore called Origin Books—later to merge with and morph into Granary Books. Frankly, I was frightened of the Buddhist aspect of Naropa; this was soon after one of the early Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche controversies was breaking and it all seemed more than I'd bargained for; besides, I had my Transcendental Meditation practice and was primarily interested in the poetry and the poets. I later rediscovered Trungpa via his writings, specifically The Myth of Freedom, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and one of my all-time favorite books in any genre, Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness. He was a most amazing teacher. I learned the Shambhala sitting practice in 1989.
My sense of Buddhism and poetics is a little harder to put into words because they seem completely intertwined for me at this time. I got into meditation by accident in late 1971 at the age of 20 and through it I was opened up to a more complicated version of the world than I had previously perceived out in the Midwest. It brought me to an encounter with (among less tangible things) a life of books, writing, poetry, music, and art. Strangely, the older I get, the more enthusiasm I have in turning back (or forward) toward practice. We sit a lot of zazen at the Village Zendo. It seems to be the one extraordinarily relevant thing I can do every day.
AW: Yes, I have that same sense of the intertwined aspects of the two practices. The Shambhala and Vajrayana practices also work with mantra, visualization, and a view of pratitya-samutpada—the interconnectedness of everything. I have a poem that has as a refrain:
My view as poet is thoroughly "shinjanged" (processed) through dharma. And then sitting is the most radical thing we can be doing these days or any days. It's ageless. It is the ultimate revolution. It can cut through the kleshas of passion, aggression, and ignorance on the spot.
VZ: Now, all of a sudden, it's thirty-six years later and I want to ask an impossible question, so you won't be held accountable to your response. I'm thinking of a line from Allen Ginsberg: "Well, while I'm here I'll do the work—and what's the Work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow." What's the work as we approach 2010? What are the poetry projects that you'd like to see accomplished?
AW: I think the idea of the archive is very important, as a way of teaching and passing on creative and and spiritual lineages. as well as institutional: My own archive, which I keep adding to, resides at the Hatcher Graduate Library in Ann Arbor, and then there's Naropa's. That kind of preservation work, even if the sun will be going out down the road, is crucial. The archive as time capsule, as a conglomeration of the consciousnesses of a particular slice of literary or Buddhist historical time. To show the future denizens of the world that we weren't all just slaughtering one another. I am so blessed to have lived in this time, with the dharma coming so fully and generously to the West. To have spent time with great teachers such as Chatral and Trungpa, and Geshe Wangyal and Dudjom Rinpoche, Kaul Rinpoche, and the Karmapa. And Zen teachers such as Roshi Kapleau and Maezumi Roshi, and Daido. The pulses of our energy in these times toward betterment, toward social justice, toward a saner way to live. Away from violence, war, harm, and so on. And the literary lights as well―Charles Olson. Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, Allen...it's amazing. And to have worked with such powerfully connected communities such as St. Mark's and Naropa. So the testimony of the existence of our activity as poets and thinkers and activists and dharma practitioners as some kind of paradigm for others would be useful. The sense of lineage, passing on the wisdom and conversation and delights...
Photo: Kai Sibley
After Beats at Naropa came out this summer I already had a proposal for the next anthology, focusing on other cultures, "crossing borders" as a theme. The work continues at Naropa to ensure our historical memory is guarded and preserved. I think alter-natives to the credentialed literary careerist tracks are needed. More outreach to less privileged communities. I think there should be a group of meditators who work with the United Nations to mediate in conflicts of war and strife. There should be a Peace Czar in the US President's cabinet. We have to continue to struggle for a nuclear-free world. And the disasters of global warming are upon us and how do we ease and improve and help this terrifying condition? We have to keep the lines open. "Dharma gates are endless I vow to open/enter every one of them."
On a personal note: I'm finally finishing the poem I've been working on for over twenty-five years, the epic Iovis project which examines patriarchy and war within this particular span of time. The narrative poem Manatee/Humanity that came out in 2009 uses the Kalachakra initiation as a form in which the endangered manatee becomes a kind of deity. Now I am meditating on the next ritual, because every poem for me is such a one, as it is also an archive and a conglomeration of seed syllables. As in Om Manatee Humanity Hum. Thus the notion of archive as tracking our inscriptions and our own psycho-physical rhythms interests me. And the ongoing collaborations as well. Working with others seems critical at this time. I am currently collaborating with the legendary Judith Malina and the Living Theatre, who are a marvelous band of energetic Buddhist-anarchist actors! So many young people are still magnetized by the Living Theatre ethos. So the cast comes from Slovenia, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, the UK, Italy, and many places in the U S of A. They are taking my text "RED NOIR" and supplementing it with a twenty-two-person chorus that sings of taking "a Bodhisattva vow to liberate all sentient beings."
Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis