Anne Waldman with poet Allen Ginsberg and poet/dance critic Edwin Denby at the Gotham Book Mart, 1970. Photographer unknown, Anne Waldman Archives. Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg would go on to found, with Diane DiPrima, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado.
I sat on Lead Belly’s lap as a baby. Patti Smith, my neighbor, insisted I start with this tantalizing detail. Wear it as an amulet.
I was conceived on the Fourth of July 1944 shortly before my father, John Marvin Waldman, was shipped overseas from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Europe. After “Tennessee Maneuvers,” his unit was conveyed secretly to Hoboken, where they joined the USS General Walter H. Gordon troopship headed for Marseilles. My mother, Frances, had been living in a rented room on MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village, in a house full of women—some single, others with husbands away at war. When her child was due, no relatives close by, she went to the town of Millville in southern New Jersey, where my father’s family lived. My grandfather John worked at Whitall Tatum as a principal glassblower. His father, Frederick, who had emigrated from Hesse, a state near Bremen, Germany, in the 1850s, had also been a glassblower. John was a taciturn man, sober, serious. Dona Hand, his wife, my grandmother, had a sharp tongue. She was of Black Irish-English extraction. Her father had been a sea captain, losing his life somewhere between Cape May and Liverpool, delivering the New Jersey oak and pine they craved abroad. There’s a trace on my grandmother’s side of another ancestor, with the last name of “Hand,” who came from Britain in 1600 as a teenager, alone, working on a ship, to the Hamptons, Long Island. I met my father nine months after my birth.
My father played piano with accomplishment. After high school he worked at various local movie theaters accompanying “silents.” He took up the peripatetic musician’s life for a number of years, playing swing jazz with various bands around the east coast and also accompanying modern dance artists such as the experimental Helen Tamiris, one of the first choreographers to use jazz and social protest themes in her work. John and Frances met in New York City at a party at the home of Isamu Noguchi in 1942. Possibly at the artist’s studio in MacDougal Alley.
My mother had been an early independent young woman, sailing off to Greece at the age of nineteen in 1929 upon marrying Glaukos Sikélianòs, the son of the celebrated Greek poet Anghelos Sikelianos; having one child, my brother Mark; and living abroad for a decade right before World War II. An extraordinary time. Frances had entered the rich utopian environment of the Delphic Idea, a community created and nourished by Anghelos and his wife, Eva Palmer Sikélianòs, a brilliant groundbreaking visionary artist of New England, later New York, who had been associated with the “women of the Left Bank,” a circle of lesbian artists, poets, dancers in the orbit of the magnetizing Natalie Barney in Paris. Barney and Eva had been childhood friends and lovers, summering in Bar Harbor, Maine, and had an extensive correspondence over many years. Eva, an American heiress and daughter of Courtlandt Palmer, a founder of the Nineteenth Century Club, was a director, a composer, and a weaver.
Frances was very much under the spell and tutelage of her mother-in-law, an inspiring presence and force. This surrogate mother, mentor, and friend taught Frances how to weave. Frances also studied and picked up modern Greek and was busy translating some of Anghelos’s poems, specifically The Border Guards, political poems about the Greek resistance. (I later published The Border Guards, translations by Frances Sikélianòs, with my press—one of many—Rocky Ledge Cottage Editions, in 1982.) She translated Sikélianòs’s “The Dithyramb of the Rose,” which was published by dancer Ted Shawn in 1939, as a Christmas card. She also helped with Eva’s second Delphic Festival, which included a production under Eva’s direction of Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound” and “The Suppliants,” a play that foregrounds a chorus of women as protagonist. As a young child I spent time with Eva in New York City after the war; she and my mother had stayed quite close. She wore her own handwoven Greek garb, her long once-auburn hair now gray and more often held up in a bun. She had an eccentric’s stubborn charisma. She died when I was six years old. I later understood her generative feminist and artistic influence on Frances. I wore garments of cloth she had woven, a pair of the sandals my mother had made, Greek style with one continuous thong of leather, the kind I was told Gertrude Stein also wore.
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My father had had an early marriage as well, to the wild and reckless “flapper” daughter—Mary Ellen Vorse—of labor journalist and activist Mary Heaton Vorse, who wrote about women’s suffrage, civil rights, and affordable housing, and was an important figure and legend in Provincetown. Vorse was close to the communist writer and labor activist John Reed. My father lived next to John Dos Passos in Provincetown. Both my parents and their original partners shared a circle of artistic friends based in and around Provincetown, New York City, and overseas. Some had connections to the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal.
Committed to a new marriage with Frances, having abandoned the uncertain vocation of musician and the unconventional lifestyle it implied, as well as sobered by the war, my father went back to school on the GI Bill, eventually receiving a doctorate from Columbia University. During this time, he took on many “hack” writing jobs, discoursing on the perils of smoking, for example, and later writing articles and accessible books on reading and education, including the popular Rapid Reading Made Simple. He began working at Pace University in downtown New York, directing the reading laboratory there.
I remember the musty scent and presence of my father’s writing accoutrements in the cramped apartment at the top of MacDougal Street: yellow foolscap, messy typewriter ribbons, wheel eraser with its pert green whisk-skirt. And the obligatory cup of coffee and cigarettes close by. I was anxious to replicate this exotic “scene,” which carried associations of solitude, daydreaming (one looked askance, preoccupied, when considering what to say), and daily work ritual. A clatter and peck of fingers at keys, making something out of nothing. And then you had a few typed pages, to peruse, edit, read out loud. Or discard. John would show his pieces to cohort Frances who was keen on getting into the project. She was by then the grammatical perfectionist, wrote her own “stuff” furtively in clandestine notebooks. I observed her writing letters and typing out poems she admired. The practice of writing and typing seemed valorous, important. I mostly liked the shape of the poems on yellow foolscap pages.
My mother was a self-appointed poet and translator (French of César Moro and Greek of Sikélianòs), but her practices, as said, were covert. She was hard on herself and others. Intellectual, an autodidact, never satisfied. Poetry was for her the highest art. These two persons with their particular bent and turns and passions certainly helped shape mine. There was a freedom to read widely, to write, think, talk about it, be inquisitive. Be critical. I was fortunate to have such parents.
Yet this was not an easy household and harbored certain contradictions—something almost Protestant in my upbringing which was weird considering my mother’s earlier years—an expectation on the one hand to succeed, to excel, to fit in, to have people’s respect. An upbringing which, for example, emphasized education and artistic brilliance (not just in the exclusive province of schools, or academies either). A smart person was never satisfied, always hungry for more knowledge, devoured books, asked questions, kept “at it.” Rarely idle. On the other hand, both parents carried much of their earlier bohemianism and tolerance and permissiveness into this new marriage. Frances was edgy with me. She once said she would gun me down if she found me pushing a baby carriage, the implication being I had abandoned art for a man and settled down. She also asked me once if I would guide my father through an LSD journey to “conquer his anxieties”!
Read Part Two of this post here!
Anne Waldman is the author of numerous books of poetry, including, recently, Trickster Feminism and Voice's Daughter of a Heart Yet to Be Born. She is also a founder of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, among other poetic community efforts, and a musician and multi-media artist. Her most recent album is Sciamachy. This post is compiled from several sections of her new memoir, Bard, Kinetic, to be published later this month by Coffee House Press.
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Interesting to see my last name mentioned in this wonderful story!
Amazing history, and well told.