A day with Anne Waldman

May 14, 2006

Inkberry’s day with Anne Waldman was absolutely fantastic.

I picked her up at Porches on Saturday morning and took her to Inkberry, where eight other women joined us for a day-long workshop called “Wide Awake Writing.” Some of us teach poetry regularly; some of us had never written poetry before. Anne created a workshop that was comfortable for newcomers, and engaging for oldtimers. (Click the “read more” link to hear all about it — and about the reading, too…)

We did several generative exercises during the day. The first was a paired interview exercise, where we paired up, asked each other questions, transcribed as fast as we could, and then turned those verbal sketches and interviews into poems. We wrote little four-line sense-poems; we wrote haiku on the spur of the moment and talked about the heaven/earth/man triad in classical haiku; we did cut-up poems, scavenging in newspapers and magazines for texts to reuse and work around.

She handed out a bundle of postcards and photographs, and we wrote poems inspired by the ones we’d chosen. At the end, we wrote a series of collaborative poems, writing lines and passing the pages around, and then Anne read the little impromptu anthology aloud while one of the students played a steady rhythm on her painted sticks.

It was a great workshop — exciting for all, and I think really transformative for some of us.

Afterwards I drove Anne down to Great Barrington. We managed to snag a table at Bizen, my favorite Japanese restaurant, in one of the tatami rooms. There wasn’t time for sushi, alas (the place was packed, and the sushi chef is meticulous) but we had good fish and talked about travel and poetry and movies and Japan. And then, off to the Guthrie Center!

I’d forgotten what a great space it is. That night it was dim and churchly, the red stage lit and the rest of the room sparkling with tabletop candles. A good-sized crowd came to hear three really excellent poets.

Though first we learned that every Wednesday there’s free lunch at the Guthrie Center (“There is such a thing as a free lunch!”) and every Thursday there’s a hootenanny. Neat, eh?

Ellen Doré Watson read first. “She Forgets Aphasia” moved me deeply — about her mother, ten years into Alzheimer’s. “An unmarriage is not a sweater, unraveled,” began one poem I liked a lot. I also liked the title poem of her book “We Live in Bodies,” which ends, “Bodies are the doomed and wonderful cities where we live.”

And between the poems, the shrill song of peepers floated through the walls…

Ilya Kaminsky was the second reader. They brought the house lights up a little bit, and he explained that as we may have noticed, he speaks with a heavy Russian accent, so to help us understand him, he would be passing out copies of his book so we could follow along.

His reading was gorgeous, and not quite like any other reading I have ever heard. He reads with a lilting music, like singing or praying — I found myself wanting to sway as I do during davvening. Sometimes I closed his book just to lose myself in the music of his voice, hearing the syllables accented and inflected, clearly Russian and quite beautiful. Of course, then I always opened the book again, because I didn’t want to miss his words.

(Apparently he has been Deaf since he was four, which makes the extraordinary beauty of his spoken poetry all the more impressive…)

Anne read last, and was predictably superb. She doesn’t just read poems, she performs them — she declaims. She reads with her whole body, the whole range of her voice, which is pretty awesome to behold.

I loved her poem “Yea, though I am walking,” which takes a phrase from psalms and runs with it. It has lines like “Yea, that thy thyness be without gender,” and “Thy will keep you awake in any time zone,” and “Thy goes back to any older time you mention.” And “Thy is a book of thy thyness which is not owned.”

Inspired by Ilya’s song-like manner of reading, Anne opted to read a poem for John Cage. Well, I say “read,” but really I mean sang — like weird avant-garde opera, which seems eminently appropriate for John Cage. Between the singing, the melodic onomatopoeia, and the oscillations of pitch and sound, I think I can safely say we’ll never hear anything quite like it in the Inkberry reading series again. More’s the pity; it was all kinds of fun.

Ditto “Matriot Acts,” which began, “Invoke the hyena in petticoats.”

All in all, though, I think the excerpts from “Marriage: A Sentence,” a long prose poem in sections, were my favorite. The story about when Coyote almost took a wife, the piece about women marrying women, and the piece “Stereo” which repeated so many pivotal words — good stuff.

So thanks to everyone who took Anne’s workshop; thanks to the folks at Blue Flower Arts and the Guthrie Center for putting this co-presented event together; and special thanks to Ellen, Ilya, and Anne, who are tremendous!