Cynthia Macadams
Cynthia Macadams

The New York Times has called Anne Waldman that “combination of oracle, siren and den mother . . . at once deadpan and ferocious.” An explorer of poetry, she has written forty books and pamphlets in almost as many years. Her recently released Vow to Poetry (Coffee House Press) is a mix of autobiography, manifesto, poetry, and essays on poetics, Buddhism, politics, and more. Cofounder, with Allen Ginsberg, of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Waldman divides her time between teaching, writing, performing and traveling. Writer Sonya Lea Ralph had a chance to speak with her last summer in Seattle.

You suggest your writing students take on the mantra “I exist to write,” to become attuned to the “delicate and fierce nuances of language.” How has this “writer’s mind” influenced your life?

I take the writing of poetry and the written articulation of a personal poetics—including its attendant vocalization or performance—to be a way of refining mind. As such it helps with “right view” in the dharmic sense. If one can be cognizant and sensitive to the “delicate and fierce nuances of language,” one may take on just about anything. Look at the trouble language gets us into! Observe its debasement, its doublespeak, its cruelty. Remember how the U.S. government didn’t understand or intuit how to apologize properly to the Chinese people when their pilot was downed? It’s about one’s attitude, perspective, one’s need for “negative capability,” balance, humor. The mind that concentrates on how language works, and how increments of sound and meaning and intellect may be made into something exciting and revelatory, may stay focused in other ways. It is a trained mind. Also, you might copyright a poem, but you don’t own it, you can’t monopolize language. You are just the vehicle. The practice of poetry is a form of “skillful means” or upaya in the Buddhist sense. But depending on one’s bent one might substitute a lot of things in the mantra: “I exist to make music,” “I exist to find a cure for AIDS,” and so on.

Manuscripts courtesy of Anne Waldman
Manuscripts courtesy of Anne Waldman

So what’s your sense of your role in a culture in which language is used as tactic, as in portraying oneself as a compassionate conservative without ever having to demonstrate one’s compassion?

My role is to be a language guardian. I uphold and query the use and abuse of the gorgeous, subtle, mellifluous, energetic and imaginative Mother Tongue! I think one of the downsides of the “New Age” has been its horrific debasement of language—and adjacently, its dangerous lack of intellectual discourse. The buzzwords around spirituality sound vapid and empty at this point. The Buddha would be horrified, I’m sure. It’s as if we all “know” what we’re saying so why bother to really be creative and articulate and express originality of mind? Gertrude Stein seems more Buddhist in her understanding of the “continuous present” and her use of participial phrasings to demonstrate the actual thinking, which in fact is veritable meditation in action. Wallace Stevens grasps Buddha-mind in his poem “The Snow Man”: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Buddhism is not just a clichéd haiku with a flower and a quaint frog in it. Of course it’s another thing to really give the sense of the life of a real flower—what kind, specifically? Or what manner of amphibian? Minute particulars. “Look to the little ones,” Blake says.

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