Anne Waldman is a giant in contemporary American poetry. Cofounder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City, Waldman is the author of more than 40 books of poetry and collaborative texts. Her new book, Trickster Feminism, unites feminist history, Buddhist lore, contemporary politics, quantum physics, and more in a text of protest and upheaval. Her poems are layered, enchanting, and challenging, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, their movements will unsettle your thinking on gender, feminism, and the political powers at large in the United States today.
Tricycle spoke with Waldman about her book, mythological feminine figures, and political action.
Who is the “trickster” that appears in this book?
There are a number of pieces to the book, and the first one introduces the whole notion of the trickster. In various mythologies, the trickster is a kind of playful energy who can’t be trusted. He is a con artist. There is a wonderful book by Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, a compendium of lore about the trickster. In it, Hyde says that there are rarely female tricksters. I had trouble with that. It felt like something beyond gender for one thing. I wanted to claim the idea of the trickster for feminism.
In 2011, you published the Iovis Trilogy, a feminist epic. Does Trickster Feminism come out of that work, or does it stand on its own?
This book stands on its own, though there are two sections that do come out of the ongoing Iovis project, which I’m always engaged in. After Iovis was published, I thought it was over, but of course when it ended, other things kept coming up related to it. It’s taking on patriarchy, so there are some resonances between it and Trickster Feminism. But this recent work coalesced in the last two years—really, under two years—around the current political situation. This book came out of the women’s march and other protests, and it seemed to me it had to happen now. I’m not sure if it would have coalesced in the same way a few years back, or even ten or twenty years ago, when I began the Iovis project.
How exactly did this book come out of today’s political moment?
I had an invitation to address a gallery opening that the American artist Kiki Smith was organizing around the future of feminism. There are a lot of discussions and disagreements about where feminism stands today, where it’s headed, and so on. I don’t have answers or any kind of ideology because my perspective is very personal and visceral, but at the same time I’ve been involved with the movement from early on. In any case, it seemed that this book was the way to address what I was feeling—the best way to address the root cause and problems with our current political dynamic, the chaos leading up to today’s dystopia, the 2016 presidential elections, and now, the post-election period where we’re seeing a lot of the social order being unraveled, from the Paris climate agreements to the situation in Iran.
In the 1970s, I was involved in political protests against the Rocky Flats nuclear plant in Colorado, near Naropa University, with the poet Allen Ginsberg and activist Daniel Ellsberg. We protested the plutonium pits that sites like Rocky Flats and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina create. We helped shut down Rocky Flats, but as I watch this issue circling back today, it makes me think of the old Zen adage about how you have to keep sweeping the temple over and over again. You clean it, and it looks fine for a day, but then you have to go back in the morning and do it all again. There’s a Sisyphean effort in any kind of activism, and it seemed an urgent time for calling to address these things in a new and immediate way.
In writing this book, I also thought of Frank O’Hara’s great book titled Meditations in an Emergency. Being someone connected to a Buddhist practice, and involved with Naropa, I meditated on samsara, on the endless cycles of the realms, including the warring god realm where we have to constantly create enemies. But this book seemed to be a more direct way to revisit all the karma—the hideous karma—of our nation, from its origins in slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples and so on. In a way, it’s a very exciting time—people are talking about all of this.
The poems in this book work as a kind of an incantation to invoke the spirits of feminist foremothers and religious figures. You draw on the strength of female figures across cultures, and weave in aspects of documentary writing, as in the poem “Denouement,” where you’re circling Trump Tower, chanting, Om Man Be Gone Om Con Be Gone. . .
Yes, I was summoning all these deities across time and space and invoking the Poundian idea that “in the mind of the poet, all times are contemporaneous.” It’s very important to my poetics to draw on the past. You’re not alone. You’re part of a continuum. In terms of spiritual practices, you can visualize, practice mantra, recite poems, and sing praise songs to all kinds of female figures, both historical and mythological.
Speaking of myth, tell me about the rabbit-headed yogini who appears on the cover of the book, and at the end of each poem.
The image came from a friend’s book about the 64 dakini [female embodiment of wisdom] temples. I did a pilgrimage to certain sites in Nepal last winter. I’ve been to some of the dakini temples near Puri, and there’s often a rabbit-headed yogini.
I thought of this rabbit when I went to Borobudur temple in Indonesia. There are images carved into it showing the story of the Jataka Tales [about Shakyamuni Buddha’s past lives], the various stories of animalia. There’s a rabbit carved in stone, and another in the sutras depicted on the walls. Of course, the paint is gone, but they’re beautifully carved, and represent the idea of enlightenment coming in all forms and sizes. When you climb to the top of the temple there is a series of various buddhas and bodhisattvas. But at the very pinnacle there’s an empty cage, representing the idea that emptiness is your teacher. Even the rabbit can be your teacher.
This question comes directly from one of your poems: “What methods of political thought can poetry uniquely perform?”
I think an important part of that is question is “what can we uniquely perform?” We enter public space, which has always been important to me. When I was in Bali, working with the Naropa program, I spent a lot of time going to temple ceremonies that would go on all night. They are elaborate theater, dance, and music productions that are very much a part of the spiritual practice of the people. There are many different forms. In any case, there’s one where a figure emerges from the inner temple, where various deities and their shrines are kept. The figure then passes through a gate, a Candi bentar, which is open at the top. On the other side of the gate is the public space, the marketplace, where the audience is—but the figure stands there in the gateway, paused and trembling.
In Balinese dance, there is a movement of intense shaking in the fingers, and a waving of the eyes in an almost fearful state. It can be held for 20 minutes or 30 minutes at a time. You’re sitting there, wondering, when is this figure going to come through the gateway? Why are we still waiting here? Finally, a half hour goes by and the theater breaks through to our side. I remember being so knocked out by this at the time—the tension and the waiting and the paranoia and fear coming into the space. In my work, I try to invoke that, though I try to get through the gateway a little faster at times.
How can we be effective? The “coming through the gateway” is where artistry or invocation, music, sound, gestures, and dance, are important. How do you enter public space with something that’s not simply another political speech or something where you’re preaching to the converted? How do you create something elevating, a real intervention?