Cross Species Poetics: Anne Waldman with Leonard Schwartz

Anne Waldman

In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” archives.

Interview with Anne Waldman. Episode #213: Beneath the Surface, March 4, 2010. Transcribed by Samantha Siciliano.

Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, I’m very happy to say, is Anne Waldman. She’s the author of over 40 books of poetry, as well the founder, artistic director and chair, and faculty member of Naropa University’s celebrated Summer Writing Program. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She’s active on the New York scene in multiple media including, currently, theatre. Her most recent book, Manatee/Humanity is published by Penguin. Welcome, Anne Waldman.

Anne Waldman: Thank you so much, Leonard.

LS: Great to have you on the phone! I’ve been trying to get you to come back as a guest for what seems like many years now. So, I’m glad we found a moment…that you found a moment that we could talk. Your new book, Manatee/Humanity is quite extraordinary. In your “undercurrent,” meaning your introduction, you write: [Reads:]

The day a few years ago in Miami when I spent several hours in the presence of a wounded manatee in a local “sea park” was key to this project. I vowed to “include manatee.” I believe it was “she” who had weathered human harm and neglect. She seemed an ancient soul, and contemplative in her demeanor—huge, Buddha-like—and I fancied that I received transmission from her example, which was as a witness to cruel captivity.

Can you say a little bit about that experience? About the form, figure and trope of Manatee in your book, and the way it begins to reference a whole view about animal life forms?

AW: Certainly. I was actually in Florida for a book fair with many people, authors of all kinds, cycling through. These events are about selling and production, promotion and careerism and so on. I took a break and went to the aquarium—more of a sea park—close to the water, and I encountered a lone, female manatee who was being kept in an isolated tank, away from other water creatures. I’m sure that there were reasons for that; I didn’t query anyone because there was no one around. I was myself trying to get away from the maddening crowd.

It was a momentous meeting for me, however. I have had other animal encounters over the years, and I had been interested in exploration of what I call non-human elemental energy and consciousness. There was an idea, then, after staring into the manatee’s eyes and feeling a profound and familiar connection—which has been described by others in their own encounters with manatee (and with dolphins to some extent)—of “including manatee” in a next investigative project. And I remembered, this was in the Sixties, reading the book about John Lilly’s experiments with dolphins in St. Thomas (other places as well), where he and others had constructed a 3-tiered habitat where humans could live with the dolphins , and where the middle level was a common pool. They were giving the dolphins LSD, which was exceedingly risky. The whole experiment fell apart because under the drug the animals became depressed and suicidal in some instances. I had written to Lilly, wanting to volunteer, to be a part of the habitation project, and of course got the letter back that the project was being disbanded and that it had ended badly. But he wrote about dolphin consciousness, and particularly their sense of empathy with humans, so some of that reference came back at this time in Florida, and as I write in the introduction to the book, entitled “Undercurrent,” my vow strengthened to explore this unusual mammal.

I had also been working with notes from the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra initiation, which is a three-day ritual event that has auspiciousness for the times we live in, referred to as a Dark Age. I write in the introduction about this as well, how you are instructed to visualize a deity which becomes the central figure in the energy construct of the “wang” or “sadhana” or “initiation,” and you become that consciousness and an exchange goes back and forth from there. There’s a ritualistic way that the days evolve and you track your dreams and so on. So I had tracked my dreams during a particular initiation and they related, as I could see, to the manatee investigation.

I had been thinking of using this particular initiation, the Kalachakra, which literally means “The Wheel of Time” as a form for a text, and somehow the two came together; and the manatee, as I perceived her in this experience of the aquarium, became the deity, and she entered into that relational mandala. Some of the dreams are based on conversations with a friend who morphs in various ways—who morphs, as I wrote the text into some sort of representation of the creature itself. There are about five different narrative strands going on, and the project led into a investigation into evolution of Homo sapiens, sapiens, as well, and into the origin of the manatee 40 million years ago, whose closest relative is the elephant. The manatee in the text is perceived as a mermaid, a siren, and a Buddha. That all comes in place into the poem, but it really began with the initial encounter.

LS:. You spoke of the mandala, the manatee mandala, at least the manatee mantra. Indeed, you kept your promise to get the manatee in. There’s a section in the middle of the poem involving a certain kind of chant of the manatee. Could you read that for us?

AW: Sure, I’d be happy to. This part comes a little over midway in the book, and it’s after some of the dream sections. It lists some very simple facts: [Reads:]

& passing before her captivity

                                    reiterating a chant of manatee

            I began

the manatee is found in shallow slow-moving rivers

the manatee moves in estuaries moves in saltwater bays

the manatee in moving moves gently

the manatee is to be found in canals & coastal areas

the manatee is a migratory animal

the manatee is gentle & slow-moving

the manatee moves in slow-moving rivers slowly

the manatee is a migratory animal

And so on. At one point, there’s a line about the “manatee are our sirenians…” I play with the anaphoric structure in performance and read it backwards, forwards, and around. The idea is to come up with some sort of rhythm. My son Ambrose Bye created a musical score that accompanies the text, which includes the actual sound of the manatee’s haunting sound. It’s on our Matching Half CD.

LS: That struck me. You have the line later on in the chant that “the manatee have large ear bones,” but then “chirps, whistles, squeaks of the manatee.” I’ve encountered wild manatee in Florida and Belize and it never occurred to me once, because I’m obtuse, that they would make a sound.

AW: They do. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the whale singing. A recording of that came out some years ago, Songs of the Humpback Whale. A neuroscientist friend actually has a manatee brain in an alembic on his desk. They study the manatee brain, the neuroscientists, because it has more gray matter than the human brain. The songs are sophisticated, like those of the whale.

LS: Really interesting. Also in this section, and dwelling on the manatee for a moment, you mention that there is a thread that runs through the poem of manatee as siren, manatee as mermaid, or manatee mistaken by various sailors over time as a mermaid. Could you say a little about what that accretion does when the manatee all by itself is transformed by human vision into mermaid? The longing that goes with that, what you make of that, this imaginative move on a part of our species?

AW: Well, I think it goes very deep. We’re wired, I think, to connect in some of these inter-species ways. In fact I think the manatee are trying to tell us something. We’re built for this, with mirror neurons that are presumably activated by empathy. When you meet such creatures that also seem to be trying to reach you, you can’t help but respond. Eyes are the synaptic link, and there’s an animal-mammal consciousness familiarity. If it were a three-eyed monster, this encounter might be a little more difficult. In any case, I’ve felt a yearning for cross-species connection, a passion to connect. The manatee is strange looking and was possibly a water animal first, then a land animal, then went back into the water, which is interesting in and of itself.

Something’s generated in this yearning to explore the “other,” and it’s not something alien in our species. Records indicate—in lore and legend of shape-shifting and shamanic inter-species practices—a symbiosis that has gone on for centuries in cultures that live closer to, and with, animals. So again, I think we’re wired to have these connections. Because our world—and our particular western culture—is much more compartmentalized, we’re actually destroying and killing off many of these creatures that don’t have any use to us. And how are we “of use” to the manatee? These relationships are reciprocal. Many manatee died in the BP oil spill disaster. The manatee is not of use – its oil or its skin, or its big brain. So what is it to us? It’s a kind of oddity and a misfit in our world that we ignore. What are we missing in psyche, in legend, in dream, in imagination here?

LS: Really interesting, what you say about the animal as well as the cultural forms that both colonize and honor that animal. A later section in the poem, the “please haunt me” section, is how I think of it: involving an aquarium and indeed the animal form as well, I wondered if I could ask you to read that?

AW:   [Reads:]

the aquarium deserted now,

this is the song at dusk I write in the notebook:

strange skin

not quite seal

not quite dolphin


texture like

something you forget

something you didn’t even see

the first time

old shoe

LS: Thank you so much for your reading and performance of that section in the poem. A couple things I want to speak to you about: can you say a little bit about ritual, and the way in which the poem’s gestures move into a field of ritual? You end with a line “the center of reference becomes movement in this ritual.”

AW: Well there are three poeias that Ezra Pound speaks of: logopoeia, the dance of the intellect; melopoeia, the sound, the melody, the music to the ear; and phanopoeia, the image cast on the mind’s eye. Shamanic traditions I’ve encountered, particularly in the case of Tibetan Buddhist ritual, invoke and work with all three of those poeias. That always struck me, in terms of how one is also working in the poem with dance and threading, braiding language, if you will. Also there are many more poeias. Ed Sanders talks about retentia, the muse of retention. There are other kinds of mnemonics that can go on, but I’ve always been attracted to how you create the visualization, create these interesting mandalas, of sound, color, and intention.

The traditional Buddhist Thangka painting might have central red-skinned deities with various implements held in multiple hands. You invoke a particular kind of energy and you’re saying mantras as well, and focusing on your aspiration to benefit other beings. That synchronization of body, speech and mind, which I think goes on in the practice of writing in varying degrees, is sometimes much more about the sound or the dance of the intellect. In any case, the Buddhist sadhana resembles poetry and has always attracted me for this reason.

So, in this particular ritual, you have what’s called the outer, inner, and secret parts, and different ways in which you invoke this tri-partite structure. Of course, the dreams relate to the more inner category and the secret are things you almost can’t describe in words, and thus you have mantra, or magical sound. And it’s not that they are nonsense syllables, but they’re actually invoking energy and efficacy through sound. The syllables don’t necessarily have a literal meaning. That’s always attracted me, as well. Some images stick, or some odd twist or turn or torque of language sticks, especially when you have dreams that include sound. So this seemed to work, the synchronization of “including manatee,” and the manatee standing as a deity for other endangered species. The wolf and the lemur have walk-ons in this poem as well, and there are mentions of polar bears and other endangered creatures. The grey wolf is endangered in Colorado, and I’ve been involved with some actions on its behalf. One year a fellow who works with a wolf refuge center brought wolves to a classroom at the University of Colorado, and one was able to go and sit in the classroom with wolves.

Ritual is a way to invoke and bring purpose and action into the so-called mandala, which you know is the arena, or the place set up by the augur to make these things happen. I see the poem as a meditation, an event, an invocation, and study.

LS: Recently Cole Swensen came on as a guest to talk about her recent work on poetic investigations and research into the figure of ghosts in the Western tradition. She made the convincing claim that it’s only in the 19th century that ghosts turn into scary things. You have the line, “please haunt me” calling for that kind of haunting to occur—as opposed to pulling away from it or dreading it.

AW: Exactly. I want more of this encounter and haunting in my reality. I’m sitting here in Manhattan looking out on a forest of concrete, very little green out the window, and very few animals on the streets.

LS: Well, there are some squirrels…

AW: Absolutely. One needs to remember them as well…

LS: Don’t forget the squirrels. You know, I’ve seen red-tailed hawks that eat the squirrels.

AW: You have rats on the other side of every wall and pavement in New York City, certainly. Their presence is not so obvious but these are always there, by the millions.

LS: I did see a raccoon once in Central Park. There were 100 people under the tree gawking at it. But, Anne, can I ask you to read one more section, maybe the concluding coda or a section of your choice? The “glim-glow at mirror splits a permeable skin,” that’s page 120.

AW:  [Reads:]


beginning 210 million years ago, mammals came into their own

scurrying & prowling with a mind of light under the light of the moon…

the true oldest mammals are thought to have been small creatures awake & active during

the night…mammals do not become sluggish but active in chilly surroundings…

muscle movement generates heat…continuous activity in the cold has

always been a mammalian trait

LS: You’ve been listening to Anne Waldman reading from the coda to Manatee/Humanity, published by Penguin Press. “Concluded The Year of the Earth Mouse,” you write there. What’s the Earth Mouse?

AW: It’s the designation in the Chinese New Year. I think the quality of the Earth Mouse is more burrowing than the Fire Mouse and the Water Mouse; underground, more secret. We’re now in The Year of the Metal Tiger, which promises, as someone told me, you’ll either combust or get through it. What do you know about it, Leonard?

LS: Let me see, what did Zhang Er tell me the year of the tiger was going to bring…we just hope that there will be some tigers left at the end of The Year of the Tiger. That would be endangered animal #1.

AW: I was recently in India, and there are signs all over on the roads, even in cities, about the 1,200 remaining Bengal tigers in the whole of the country. And of course there’s the endangered jaguar in Arizona and over the border in Mexico. I was just talking to Peter Warshall, an ecologist-activist friend, and he’s been doing a lot of work on the jaguar corridor in Arizona, raising awareness. There have been sightings. Pick your animal….

LS: Yes, that makes sense. I did once see a jaguar print in the sand in Costa Rica. It was just so stunning just to see the print, it was a paw print and it was clearly a jaguar. It was too big to be a panther or anything like that.

AW: That’s exciting. It’s like seeing an archeological ruin or a fossil skeleton that then links you to the archaic, and you feel the whole heat of the animal.

LS: Absolutely. Anne, I wanted to ask you what other things are you working with, what you’re maybe looking for post-Manatee/Humanity.

AW: Well I have been working with The Living Theatre. A play of mine, entitled Red Noir, was recently directed by Judith Malina. That just closed after a 2-and-½-month run. It was extraordinary to work with actors and a chorus-ensemble of actor-performer-anarchists, and to work with the legendary Judith Malina, now in her 80s. Actually, the entire Iovis Trilogy is now published by Coffee House. The subtitle for the tome is “Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment,” so it would be the entire Iovis project, which is over 1,000 pages. I can’t seem to write any short poems these days; they all turn into investigations. I’ve begun something called Gossamurmur which will be published by Penguin Poets in 2013.

LS: Fantastic, and you are, of course, one of the founders of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. I know you’re their artistic director and chair in the Summer Writing Program. You’ll be teaching this summer as well?

AW: Yes, I’ll be heading out to Boulder soon. Our catalog is out and the schedule is up online, and it promises to be an exciting summer. You’ve been there, you know how the dynamics go. There’s quite a bit of discourse.

LS: It was quite extraordinary in terms of the number of writers and poets in one place at one time.

AW: And they don’t all necessarily agree.

LS: That’s true too. Won’t name names, but there was quite a bit of heated bi-play in poetics, and you have some wonderful people coming this summer and during the year. Lyn Hejinian is a really terrific writer, and many, many others. Anne, thank you so much for taking some time out.


Anne Waldman is a poet, performer, professor, editor, curator and co-founder with Allen Ginsberg of The Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, where she has worked for 37 years. Author of more than 40 publications of poetry, her most recent books include Manatee/Humanity (Penguin Poets 2009), The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment (Coffee House Press 2011), Soldatesque/Soldiering (BlazeVOX 2012), the forthcoming Gossamurmur (Penguin Poets 2013), and CRY STALL GAZE, a collaboration with artist Pat Steir. She has worked extensively with musician Ambrose Bye and their most recent CD is The Milk of Universal Kindness (Fast Speaking Music 2011). She is a recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry and has been deemed a “counter-cultural giant” by Publisher’s Weekly. Her feminist epic, The Iovis Trilogy, was recently awarded the USA 2012 PEN Literary Award for Poetry. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>