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Diary: Anne Waldman, (2) Bard Kinetic
Cherry Lane Theatre, New York, 1963
Read Part One of this post here!
The tiny apartment was cramped. We were always “strapped” (my mother’s term that became a mantra) for cash. I loved listening to the Saturday morning radio shows. And afternoon opera, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera House. We ate out once or twice a year in Chinatown. John and Frances both prioritized education and culture.
PS 8 was directly around the corner from MacDougal on King Street. A modest public school, later a Six Hundred School for wayward girls, years later a condominium, at the edge of SoHo. The school had a working-class atmosphere as well as an ethnic, racial, artistic mix: James Agee’s children attended school there for a time, and we became friends. Their mother was from Austria. Another close friend was Portuguese. Many Italian immigrants had settled in this neighborhood called Little Italy going back to the 1880s and attended either PS 8 or parochial school close by. Irish, Black, Hungarian families, one Puerto Rican student. Black friend Howie and I kissed once. Several close Jewish friends with Holocaust-survivor families. The teachers were a diverse group. Inspired by an infectious neighborhood religiosity, a few of us decided we had seen the devil in the girls’ bathroom. “I swear, Mrs. Mulherne, I did, I did see the devil, and he had little red horns and a barbed tail.” My best girlfriend was Randa Haines (later grown up to become one of a handful of gifted female movie directors working in Hollywood starting in the 1980s), intelligent and inquisitive. I saw my first TV programs in the small apartment on Bleecker she shared with her mother Edith, a single mom. I remember now how compelling the television was.
I grew up into the neighborhood, most definitely a parallel universe. Little Italy had the pageantry of the Catholicism—the language to consort in, Italian, Latin—and working class street life, the corner Mafia “club,” annual street festas, on the whole a distinctive flavor and rich cultural identity. Other layers to the Village included bohemian bars, music gatherings at Washington Square Park, jazz clubs, off-off Broadway arenas. Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” Beckett at the Cherry Lane (where I worked briefly as a hatcheck girl/usher), Al Carmines (Judson’s Poets Theater Off Off Broadway pioneer), productions of Gertrude Stein at the Judson Church, LeRoi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka’s) “The Dutchman,” Edward Albee, Ionesco, Diane di Prima’s Poets Theatre, The Living Theatre’s “The Connection.” All this radical work going on within the larger cosmopolitan environment of the city. My mother was eager to have me experience it all. She scrimped to pay for art classes at the Museum of Modern Art. We also went on special occasions to the NYC ballet, classical music concerts, modern dance.
I was drawn to theater. Was it that characters in prose came alive, and you could actually, in many instances, become them, get lost in them, in story of them? Conflicted plot to follow, denouement, surprise, reconciliation at the end? I adored that: Jane Eyre, Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights, Little Dorrit, What Maisie Knew. Later I came to see that poetry too needed character. Your persona, your energy, your consciousness, your imagination, was the heroine of the song; all the poets I was paying attention to were such unique interesting individuals. Characters. Songs. There was the nagging notion too, then, of Sontag’s revelation “against interpretation”— poetry could be freer of “mess and message.”
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At my first poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church, I sat head bowed to page, I felt that the voice coming out of me was only partial, and that I had a bigger sound to exhibit and explore. A sound that I would literally have to grow into. But I was nervous. Next time, I stood positioned to honor the poem, to let it guide me. I saw how the text demanded a particular rendering, and it was often close to how I heard it, how words sounded in my ear. Because of my early experience with theater, I appreciated the way voice could carry, inflect, conjure up various psychological and emotional states. How the words carried very particular and expressive energy pulses in its minutest forms, phones, phonemes. A particular kind of resonance increased after chanting mantra, I noticed later. Although I couldn’t pinpoint the effects of such experience of poetry, I knew I felt something “awakening” in my body, even when I was to read other poets in books. It was a kind of performance, a ritualized event in time.
I wanted to break free of a lugubrious “poetical” tone, start all over again, need to forget the boring rules of prosody, metaphor, simile, wanted the fluid person I thought I was (liberated, curious) to shine through, to find an unbound line. And I wanted my passion, a kind of natural exuberance, to be in back of it. I learned you can find your form, your stride, for particular kinds of writing, one that feels true to the rhythms of your own consciousness and metabolism in the world, and allows a kind of freedom and expansion of associative language. You might feel your head on fire. Your voice sonorously activated. You want to stay out under the night sky singing to the moon. You find language in the flames and stars. Epic, allegory, investigative hybrid in chapters, libretto. Writing long poems—and reading and performing them—became what I do in my writing life, have been doing now for fifty years.
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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