Jaipur, Jan 22: For American poet Anne Waldman, poetry is more than an art form — it is a means to wake up the world up to itself, and, in times of despair, is a beacon of hope that provides meaning to life. In Waldman’s trademark performing style, the form manifests itself, not simply as text on a page, but through fiery incantations that rise and fall in pitch, lending it a sense of urgency and immediacy.
The poetry, she says, is a form of protest, a call to stand against injustice and oppression and to help people find meaning and an emotional experience. “A lot of people will go to art in these times. Art is not expensive, unless you want to buy a painting. But if you want to hear music and poetry, it is accessible. In difficult times, poetry has a kind of life.
“People need to find meaning in what is going on. And you can go to poetry for an emotional experience, for some kind of understanding. Poetry can help wake the world up to itself. Something very true rings in it,” she told PTI. Though not strictly a part of it, Waldman has been associated with several artistes and poets of the Beat generation — a literary movement in post World War II America which sought to reject traditional narratives and materialism, and explored spirituality in art.
One of the most enduring works that came out of that generation is the poem ‘Howl’ by Alan Ginsberg. The oft-quoted poem, is a powerful and angry evocation of the political and social dilemmas of postwar America, those faced by the younger generation in particular.
“The poem is kind of a time capsule. If you go and study it, you will find specific instances what he is talking about, real people and political situations and then it resonates with current times. These things are still going on,” Waldman says.
Recalling her association with Ginsberg, who had once referred to Waldman as his ‘spiritual wife’, she spoke of his influences, particularly in connection to India.
“Ginsberg sought out poets wherever he went. He touched many people beaus he had this open spirit of curiosity and generosity. He was troubled when he came to India because he was looking for something, he was hungry for experience and he was 36. I think he came back from India, more sobered,” she said.
Sharing a little known anecdote from the time, Waldman says the ‘Hare Krishnas’ wanted him to be their leader and offered him the job. “It was too simple for him, but it was funny,” she says.
In a generation that was dominated by males, Waldman had to make her own way and find her own voice and techniques to carve out her space.
These techniques, she says, arise from the traditions of Indian classical singing, and improvisations with raagas and aalaaps, and other “circular kind of traditions”. “Performing poetry evolved somewhat organically out of my own curiosity about vocalisation, about how I could present the states of mind of my poetry in public space. I was always interested from a younger time in mantra, in the traditions of Indian singing and raga, the aalaap, the improvisations, the long breath lines,”
She does like European opera and American experimental opera, but it was the recordings of Subbulakshmi and the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum that drew her to the vocal traditions at an early stage in her life. She however disagrees with terms like ‘spoken word poet’ and ‘performing poet’ that are frequently attached to her. She prefers, instead, to be known as one who works with ‘modal structures’.
“I don’t consider myself a slam poet or I don’t use the term performance. It is almost like a recital sometimes. And spoken word is not quite right either. I can’t find any category, but I think I like modal structure. “I am like a poet who works with modalities, because it is not always the same, I do not have it scripted,” she says.
A motif of such a style is repetition of certain words in varying tones and volumes in an almost ‘mantra’-like manner, that “builds a wall of meaning as well as sound.” Her influences and inspirations are diverse — Bob Dylan, Jazz and Indian dance and music forms. “I was always interested in ritual forms involving text and song and dance, like the Koodiyattam from Kerala. So, many of the forms come from oral traditions. Even the sonnet means a little song. All these forms we consider are meant for the page, but their basis is in oral style,” she says.
One of the frequent charges levelled against the Beat generation is their dependence on drugs. Waldman was quick to brush off those criticisms. “That whole mythology about the drugs is extreme and exaggerated. I mean yes, Kerouac took benzadrine to write, he created many books. But it was not the most important thing.
“Although he was turned on by psychedelics because he thought that was a quicker way to a kind of a vision of the interconnectedness of the universe. He thought LSD could help people,” she says.
Asserting that LSD or marijuana are not as monstrous as they are made out to be, she says, “It was interesting because now LSD is used in therapy, in minute doses, but it is helping people cope with death and illness. “And we are seeing marijuana being used medically and it is helping people. It is not saving the world, or turning you into an aesthetic guru, but it is not as monstrous as it is made out to be,” she says. Waldman is participating at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival here.