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Howling in the Nation's Capital

Waldman.jpgTo witness Anne Waldman in performance reading Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a seminal poem of protest and despair, as well as her own brand of politically driven poems is to ride an emotional rollercoaster of incantatory voices--rabbi, sadhu, American Indian shaman, Gertrude Stein just to name those spiritual leaders who come to mind immediately. After Waldman's July 23, 2010, performance at the 5th & K Street Busboys and Poets, a Washington, DC restaurant chain supporting poetry in a big way, the Dresser asked this performer who Allen Ginsberg called his "spiritual wife," to talk about her incantatory style. Waldman said she studied Indian singing with American composer La Monte Young.

What she didn't say in that brief interaction after a riveting performance that caused sweat to run down her face under the hot lights during a record-breaking day of Washington summer weather was that she practices writing in the style of the Indian raga that builds through repetition and recombination moving in and out of possible climaxes. Also she has played in a gamelan orchestra for some years. There the music is circular, not linear, and the music ebbs and flows and never seems to conclude in the way western music is expected to end.

The format of the 8 pm program (there was also a 10 pm performance and a final performance on July 24) called "Howl in the City," was an hour and a half of introductory talking heads who surprisingly had exciting bits of information (more on that later), a warm-up act August.jpgby Chris August who is a ranking slam performance artist, Waldman's performance of "Howl" with an effective improvised score by a classical music string quartet led by violinist Matthew Hemerlein (originally the music was suppose to be Lee Hyla's score for "Howl" composed for the Kronos quartet), and Waldman reading of several of her own poems. Judging from the program brochure, which included other performance poets Kenny Carroll, and Venus Thrash, the Dresser suspects that each of the other programs had a different warm-up act. The program co-sponsored by Andy Shallal--owner of Busboys and Poets and Split This Rock under the leadership of Sarah Browning in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art where currently an exhibition of Allen Ginsberg's photographs hangs was funded in part by grants from Poets & Writers and the Alice Shaver Foundation and Passenger Bar. SB-Violinist.jpgQuartet.jpg


What the Dresser knows about Anne Waldman is that she is a surprising combination of opposing ideas and actions. In the early 1980s, the Dresser went on business to Boulder, Colorado, where Waldman lives. To balance the trip (the Dresser had a day job but her night job was poetry), the Dresser called Waldman and asked if they could meet. Generously Waldman invited the unknown poet to her home where she was introduced to Waldman's first husband and baby son. Then the two poets went off to find a yogi guru who was supposed to give a lecture that night. When the guru could not be found, the two went to the Boulderado Hotel for drinks, switching gears from spirituality to hard spirits.

After the experience of Waldman's Busboys "Howl" reading, the Dresser could imagine this slender woman pulling off a scene like the one Stieg Larsson depicts where his character Lisbeth Salander downs two hard-core motorcycle thugs and rides off on one of their Harleys. For "Howl in the City," Waldman wore big jewelry--shoulder-length American Indian designer pieces the Dresser guesses, a large stone ring, and wide bracelet with some kind of large white stone shaped in a bar. Look out, dude, for that heavy jewelry! In the style of New Yorkers (and yes, she grew up in Manhattan), she wore black pants and black-on-black striped top with a long raw silk scarf in black with some white decoration (should the Dresser call that her tallis?). On her naked feet with painted toenails, she wore silver sandals with heels. Dude, the Dresser doesn't know if she kickboxes, but don't mess with her even if she is wearing stylish shoes that barely protect her feet. AWFull.jpg

The Dresser found Waldman's recitation of the Moloch rant of "Howl" scary. Moloch refers to (1) the Biblical idol in Leviticus to whom the Canaanites sacrificed children and (2) an industrial figure in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a film that Ginsberg said influenced "Howl." There was something about the way Ginsberg's spiritual wife could slide from spoken voice to song, about how she was comfortable pausing to drink some unknown liquid from a white coffee cup between the sections of "Howl" and to stand back to hear the string players work their own mystical set of sounds that said this performer is a powerful being and clearly not a woman riding the coattail of the legendary Allen Ginsberg.


In 1980, the Dresser spent a weekend at the COSMEP Conference in California, Pennsylvania with Allen Ginsberg. Allen was into his Blake routine, twanging a little untuned banjo, playing his hurdy-gurdy, and doing his Buddhist chanting on the banks of the Monongahela. Although Anne Waldman was not at this conference, the Dresser could easily see how she fit in with Ginsberg's MO. In the early 1970s, the Dresser heard Allen and his father Louis at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It was a charming exchange between the conservative father and radical son. Allen was a scary figure that night. He entered the auditorium wearing a heavy motorcycle chain over his chest. He was in DC to protest the war in Vietnam. In the audience was CIA Director Richard Helms. How did the Dresser know this? Her seatmate, a childhood schoolmate, began sinking down in her chair, saying, "Oh, no, my boss is here." So the Dresser's personal experience of Allen Ginsberg was that he was consummate performer, a man who cared about his family but also someone who knew how to wield power and to be powerful. Yes, Ginsberg and Waldman, a formidable pair in the world of poetry who created together the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.


Waldman read from three of her long poems, poems she typically has presented in recent years at various public forums. The first contained this introduction, "Neurolinguistically, this is the writing dance." In this poem, she talks about "back door deals" with China, the need to depose tyrants and how the "barker/noisemaker" has to speak up. She talks about how the elephant, snake and hyena move. She blasts politicians. She comically inserts that movie star Ida Lupino who she claims approved this neurolinguistic writing dance. In her second piece drawn from Marriage: a Sentence (published in 2000), she springs from the work of Gertrude Stein's patriarchal poetry. The third piece came from her 2009 book Manatee/Humanity, which deals with endangered species and draws from Tibetan Buddhism and pre-Vedic shamanistic ritual.


Shallal.jpgAndy Shallal said that on July 31 Busboys initiates a youth poetry series. On October 2, Alice Walker is reading from her book Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and there will be a dance with this event. Shallal expects a huge crowd and so is erecting a tent so that the entire event can accommodate 600 people.

Split This Rock will feature Alice Walker as a keynote.

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at the National Gallery of Art in exhibition until September 16, 2010.

Even if you, Dear Reader, are not a fan of performance poetry, this was a rare performance in Washington and as things went, there were no extra tickets to be purchased. All three shows were sold out by the first show. BusboysCrowd.jpg

Still photos: Rowenna Thorson
Video: Karren Alenier


Comments (4)

Melissa Tuckey:

Thanks for this great review!  I was so sad to miss this and enjoyed every detail.

Susan Brennan:

thnx for the play by play! looks like it was a great event & am glad for your review to be able to catch some of it, and for you insights!


Great review, Karren! I was so enthralled reading this. I was so sorry to be out of town when this happened. I regret even more terribly that I missed the reading!

Thanks for the gorgeous lively write-up.


Sarah Browning:

The write-up looks great. Venus read Friday night at 10. Kenny read
Saturday night at 8 pm - both as the warm-ups.

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