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Akilah Oliver

Hold the Space:
The Poetics of Anne Waldman

In many ways Anne Waldman’s work challenges both the categories of “the political” and feminism as I know them. The “political” has been usurped from the public and private community into a market economy of depreciated positions or strategic identities that have little to do with transformative discourses. When we talk about the category of woman as a springboard for feminist thought we are often addressing a commodity that rests upon a consumptive, recognizable position, an easy identity; and when it has been thrust into a discourse of transformative dialectics, it’s resisted, screaming for its easy replication in a binary imagination. Anne’s work challenges those kinds of stable identity spaces. It challenges that sense of “woman” as being a set signifier that has something to do with the biological imperative. I’d like to start from the space that Anne’s work is in fact a queer politic. The poem “Queer Heart” from Fast Speaking Woman teases the reader into a re-reading of the stable woman and, while distracting the political from its easy resting space of ideological contestation, back into the contested body:

Suck cock, Father Country
be gentle & tender, your mind out of the gutter
Kiss pussy, Mother Country, be tactile & subtle
satisfy the ladies with skillful embrace
Heart to heart:
heart on the sleeve of the person who waits —
heart at the door of a fitful night —
heart in the breast of the snappy cadet —
heart of a woman loving a woman —
heart moving cautiously through monitored cement —
heart stretching to livid extremes —
heart of Sleazy City — woan nobody help?
                                                     doan nobody care?

In reading that, I want to set a space to position Anne’s work in a space that I would call “queer” that does not fit necessarily into queer identity politics. I do not mean to reinscribe Anne’s work into a place of gay, lesbian, transgender political, identity space. What I mean by queer is that Anne’s work challenges the simple kind of binary setup that says a masculinist principle is this, a female, feminine principle is that, and that the two are somehow at war or that the two are somehow exclusive and do not include one another. That instead I’d like to position a space of queerness that is revolving, that passes in and out of many kinds of masculinities, many kinds of femininities and politics, that occupies these spaces sometimes with tension, sometimes in a harmonious way, but a queerness that challenges the sense of dichotomous divisions. Iovis I and Iovis II do that. Both books are epic works that lead through a challenging discourse on an ultimate quest of making peace with what I call “evil’s sorrow.” By evil’s sorrow, I mean the source of what causes grief, or what causes distress, or unease in the world, that has also been politically simplified as associated with war, with a masculinist principle. What I’m getting from Anne’s work is that that masculinist principle is not necessarily embodied in the biological male form, that instead I think there’s something greater happening in the work. In tracing the source of evil’s sorrow, one of the greater things that are happening is a kind of active compassion. A kind of way of looking for what operates beyond the surface, beyond the seen, beyond the material world. The work asks us to look at what operates beyond the simple dichotomies and how can we chant that up, how can we bring that into being, how can we call that force? I think the work does that in several ways. One way that it does that is in the form itself, in repetition, in the calling forth. Once I showed to an eighth-grade class I was teaching some years ago a video of Anne reading the poem “Plutonium Ode,” and the kids said, What was that? It was a three, four minute clip. And then they said, Show that again! So we did the rewinding, we showed it again. They said, She’s a witch! She’s a witch! Then they said, Show that again! So we rewound it, and showed it again! And that happened three, four, five times. The language they used was very interesting. She’s a witch, is what they said. Given their sense of what a witch is, they meant it in a very different way than, she’s a bad witch. That instead I think what they meant, and the reason they needed to see it over and over again, is that she is calling something forth, and it calls for the audience to bear witness. The audience becomes a participant in the discourse. So when they said she’s a witch, and show the witch again and again, and as I’m walking through the halls, hearing students chant the poem under their breaths at their lockers, saying to friends — you know what we did in fourth period, we saw a witch — there is something very liberating about that, something was called forth in them.

I was going to use the term “shaman” to talk about the space that Anne’s work occupies, but I don’t think that’s quite the right term. I think that the space Anne’s work occupies in challenging simple binaries, in challenging divisions between upper world, lower world, the mundane level world, while readily occupying a space in the mundane world in a transformative, politicized way, somehow differs with my cultural association with shaman. However, I do think that her work journeys. In that “journey” sense it’s a shamanistic practice nonetheless.

In this quest of finding or unearthing the source of evil’s sorrow, there are a few things that come to mind from Anne’s work. The sense of compassion, the occupation of multiple positions that disrupt the binary divisions, all this I name as a queer sensibility.

But I also thought about angels. In his magical novel The Valkyries, Paulo Coelho talks about the three conditions for conversing with one’s angels: “Break a pact. Accept forgiveness. And make a bet.” In negotiating forgiveness, there are many voices in Iovis that have to be negotiated. There’s family, there are those who have gone before, there are ancestral voices, the war mongers, the dead; and the task — to break the pact, to make a bet, to forgive as an act of making and unmaking — calls those spirits into play constantly. To converse with one’s angels has something to do with calling forth, with being able to converse through difficult relationships, with mentors & teachers, enemies, myths, etc. And to being able to speak a continual reconciliation in personal relationships, as well as with public/ political discourses. There is an acceptance of complicated, really extremely complicated relationships; and being in a state of forgiveness, of meeting one’s angels, is to also be in the state graciously declaring war, being able to occupy that space of warrior spirit as well.

So I also think of Anne’s work in terms of the artist as warrior, or as cultural worker. The artist as warrior or cultural worker. There is a certain graciousness, an ethics, of being a warrior, of occupying warrior space. How do you do that without desecrating, without destroying, without becoming the destructiveness that we associate with the militaristic sense of war?

What comes to mind with the idea of artist as warrior is that the artist shape-shifts, that the artist is able to occupy multiple sites, not necessarily simultaneously, but able to occupy multiple sites. That the artist as warrior can be the father, or be the hag, or be the child speaker, or the artist can shape shift into animal form, the artists can shape-shift into he or she who knows, or into receiver, someone waiting to be bestowed upon.... The artist can shape shift in many different ways, so that there’s a graciousness to warrior spirit, instead of an absolute space of power that only challenges or disrupts other spaces of power, that is only alive in conflict. That the space of artist-as-warrior is an open space of power. And in that space there’s community.

I met Anne about ten years ago when I walked onto the grass of Naropa where there was a huge tent set up outside on the grass which these days I miss because we could sit outside then, smoke cigarettes in between and during discussions lectures and talks. So I walked into the yard one summer day and there were all these people there. I had just driven up from L.A. with my son who was nine at the time and a friend. And L.A was extremely tense. We had just had the L.A. riots or insurrection, which was extremely politicized, complicated, empowering and frightening, and in some respects it was just damn fun as well. There was a lot of energy going on in L.A., but the tension was palpable, almost overwhelming. So I drove up to Boulder, to this quasi-peaceful town, which is quite a planned place. Actually all the trees are not indigenous to Boulder, they were all planted in the late 1800s. So there’s a planned serenity there. And Naropa, the physical site of the school is in what is called the Goss/ Grove Neighborhood, which from the 1880s to about the 1950s was also historically the site of a small African American, Jewish, and Italian community. So it’s interesting that Naropa itself is on Arapahoe St. named after the Native Americans who lived there before. Naropa occupies this really interesting power source, the land itself is this tremendous power source, and there’s this amazingly interesting school and community there. So I met Anne, who was extremely gracious, in this community, though I was wary. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel immediately welcomed into this community because I did, but I also felt like something was going to shift in my life, something irrevocable about what I wanted to know, and do about poetry, as a writer in the world. And it did. I had a feeling I was going to walk onto this grass and sit in this huge tent with these people who were talking about god knows what, I couldn’t figure out what the poetics was at that time, and something’s going to really change. A critical part of my own change, recommitment to language in a sense, I think is based in practice of a “vow to poetry” that Anne and much of the Naropa community have committed themselves to and is very much about tangible community connections. It’s very much about creating a space where other writers and other poets can, if not find their work, then come into their own work. There is a space for that discourse to happen between writers, thinkers, poets, a very powerful space. It’s a very powerful imperative to be able to do your work and yet open a community space for others to do theirs. So in reading Anne’s work, even if I had never met her in the context of that community space, but just from reading her work, it calls on something in me that a lot of good work does. It calls on me to be more than a passive, receptive sponge of the work, or to sit observing on a critical ledge, though of course I do that too. But it calls as well on this sense of bearing witness in a way that the reader participates in the work, in the discourse as well. I understand bearing witness, in the African American spiritualist tradition, to mean to hold a space, to be able to acknowledge and to hear, to be able to be an empath, to absorb and participate with what is presented, with what is being said. And also it means to look at what is not said, what is unseen in any given presentation. So the listener, the witness, the reader of the work can’t be passive. Bearing witness calls for a certain level of participation. My experience of Anne’s work is that it calls for me as a reader to participate in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable, that sometimes makes me argumentative, that is sometimes simply joyful, but it calls for me to become community to the work. Anne’s work challenges me to hold the space of witness, to dissect the easy binaries, to enter into a “queer” poetics in search of the angels.

Akilah Oliver

Akilah Oliver

Akilah Oliver is the author of the she said dialogues: flesh memory (Smokeproof/ Erudite Fangs, 1999), a book of experimental prose poetry that has been honored by the PEN American Center’s “Open Book” program (April, 2000). Her most recent chapbook/ CD is entitled An Arriving Guard of Angels, Thusly Coming to Greet (Farfalla Press, 2004).

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