Anne Waldman feature:
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Occasions like this one — celebrations, toasts, roasts — have a tendency to “look back,” look back on what has been achieved, what happened when, what is retained in the old memory banks. While I have always enjoyed looking back on past events with Anne, I have always enjoyed looking forward even more: I believe that it is this ability to look forward, to look ahead in terms of what is coming at us here and now, and in terms of what seems most useful for the present and future young, that is the singular most precious quality of both Anne’s work as a writer and as the guiding spirit of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. Poet Ron Silliman once called Naropa a “homegrown institution” — but even those, which may well be the best kind, very easily become monuments to themselves if not guided by such a spirit, a spirit of openness and curiosity, a spirit free of dogma in whatever guise it may present itself.
Encountering Anne’s work in nineteen-sixties New York magazines and books, I definitely looked forward to meeting her. Neither of us can remember with any certainty the when and where of this first meeting, but both of us think that it had something to do with our dear friend, the late great Ted Berrigan — who, by the way, spent some time as a visiting poet (invited by Donald Hall) here in Ann Arbor in 1969. And I can’t resist, I have indeed been looking forward to reading his commemoration of that time — “Ann Arbor Song”:
I won’t be at this boring poetry reading
I’ll never have to hear
so many boring poems again!
& I am sure I’ll never read them again:
In fact, I haven’t read them yet!
Anne won’t call me here again,
To tell me that Jack is dead.
I’m glad you did, Anne, though
It made me be rude to friends.
I won’t cry for Jack here again.
& Larry & Joan won’t visit me here
Joan won’t cook us beautiful dinners,
orange & green & yellow & brown
& Thom Gunn & Carol & Don & I won’t get high
with Larry & Joan here again
Though we may do so somewhere else again.
Harris & John & Merrill won’t read
in my class, again.
Maybe there’ll never be such a class
I think there probably will, though
& I know Allen will follow me round the world
with his terrible singing voice:
But it will never make us laugh here again.
You Can’t Go Home Again is a terrific book.
I doubt if I’ll ever read that again.
(I read it first in Tulsa, in 1958).
& I’ll never go there again.
Where does one go from here? Because
I’ll go somewhere again. I’ll come somewhere again, too,
& You’ll be there, & together we can have a good time.
Meanwhile, you’ll find me right here, when you come through,
While “boring” is, obviously, a very subjective descriptor — one person’s boring may be another person’s sublime — its emphatic use in the poem’s first stanza indicates an aesthetic, philosophical, and cultural chasm that seems to have persisted to this day. Whoever was reading on the occasion to which Ted refers, they were not luminous carriers-on of the work and spirit of Frank O’Hara, University of Michigan alumnus and Hopwood Award winner. And while the question “Where does one go from here?” may refer to Ted’s own “So Going Around Cities” existence as a peripatetic visiting poet, it can also be taken as a perennial and salutary banner text for the continuing endeavor that is Anne’s work, both as a poet and as a founder and spiritual captain of the Kerouac School.
So, Anne and I did not meet in Ann Arbor, but most likely in New York City, probably a decade or so before my first visit to Boulder, Colorado, for a summer session of the fledgling school. During the seventies and eighties, I spent many summers (and a couple of semesters) visiting and watching the school grow into a full-fledged Department of Writing and Poetics.
And — to indulge for a moment in a little more “looking back” — some forty years ago, as I was walking down London’s Charing Cross Road on my way home from Bush House (my place of employment with the British Broadcasting Corporation) and browsing the windows of my favorite book shops, I had the good fortune to pick up copies of two small poetry volumes published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books: Gasoline by Gregory Corso and Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Not long after, I interviewed Allen for the BBC’s European Services, and Gregory became a neighbor for a while (and my daughter Kaarina’s godfather). After twenty-odd years as a “visiting dude” in various so-called “English” departments in the U.S., always championing the poetries first presented by Donald M. Allen in his groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-60, I was happy to join the year-round faculty of the Kerouac School in 1989.
It is a time-honored adage that no one can teach anyone else to become a great writer, but it is certainly possible to teach someone to become a better, possibly even a “great” reader. Students at the Kerouac School do not learn only one set of “Do’s and Don’ts”; they are given the opportunity to look at a multitude of such (often contradictory) sets, and then to choose those elements of advice that seem to hold out the most promise for their own endeavors.
Living, as we do, in an age of few readymade answers but many questions, the role of the writer of poetry or prose is also subject to interrogation — by her/ his audience, community, and not least, her/ himself. Allen Ginsberg, the Kerouac School’s co-founder with Anne, proposed a poetry political, oppositional, and visionary, written from a standpoint not too different from the one taken by predecessors Blake, Whitman, Pound — one still fairly close to Shelley’s view that poets are “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Quite apart from the fact that poets probably would not function very well as acknowledged legislators — not that the acknowledged ones we have today are any better than those of Shelley’s time! — the more recent view of the literary artist’s role as a cultural worker in a field far more complex and weblike, in an always collaborative arena of intertextuality, has toppled her/ him from such pedestals.
If there is any “acknowledging” going on in today’s literary art world, it is the general acknowledgment that “genius” in its Romantic and 19th-century sentimental sense is a dead duck, and that it is far more useful to see oneself as a collaborator, a grateful borrower and lender, in a living, non-linear continuum of the art. Instead of clinging to artificial ego (or “identity”) constructs, we can both construct and deconstruct a multitude of “egos” and “identities”: “Not voice but voices,” as the late lamented poet Darrell Gray once remarked in response to some nineteen-sixties Iowa Writers’ Workshop jargon about “finding one’s voice.”
Such a view returns an element of play to the art, and with it, other good things: humor, gentle irony directed both inside and out, and hopefully, the ability to deal with all that exists between the poles of the comic and the tragic. Serious but never earnest playfulness, improvisation, quotation, transformation are the qualities the most vital strains of U.S. American poetry share with jazz, the country’s great indigenous art form. And Anne’s own work shares all of those characteristics.
Aware of the need to provide young aspiring writers with an adequate grounding in literary achievements of the past, both Anglophone and international, the faculty Anne Waldman has gathered in Boulder is equally aware of the full spectrum of this century’s modernist (and postmodernist) production. We are not locked into nostalgic or sectarian positions in regard to that truly astounding spectrum. We hope to provide aspiring writers the means to become genuinely sophisticated readers — the prerequisite for the creation of significant new work in any literary genre.
As anyone familiar with Anne’s work knows, she is a wonderful reader and brilliant collaborator with writers past, present, and, yes, I’m sure of it, future. And her achievement as a creator of the most cutting-edge school of writing, and all the arts related to writing, will surely be recognized as one of the great wonders of U.S. American literature in the late twentieth and early twenty first century.
Anselm Hollo, poet and literary translator, is a Professor in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. His most recent book is Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Coffee House Press), which won the San Francisco Poetry Center’s Book Award for 2001.
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