In collaboration with Essay Press, Anne Waldman and I have invited four guest faculty from this year’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodies Poetics’ Summer Writing Program (June 14-July 11, 2015) to discuss our theme, The Braided River: Activist Rhizome. We are starting the conversation off with an interview with Margaret Randall. The remaining three conversations, with Omar Berrada, Rachel Levitsky, and Fred Moten, will be published in an online chapbook by Essay Press in the fall of 2015. – Andrea Rexilius
The Braided River: Activist Rhizome
We take our imago “braided river” as an alternative to the traditional “tree of life.” Here, we have the image that symbiosis teaches, that life is a braided river. Things come apart—like algae or fungus—and then come back together again. We want to look at the complexities of our own lives, our gnosis, our natural environment, the urgent issues around—just one example—water scarcity and its opposite: flooding—the way we stop and start and are interrupted by the exigencies of unnatural weather, of illness, of death, of endless war, strife, genocide, apartheid, just as we stop and start in our artistic lives and work through creative crises. How many strands go on simultaneously in our documentary poetics, in our fictions, our librettos, in our collaborations? We want to invoke a contemplative awareness of how to tread on our increasingly endangered planet with grace and intelligence and mindfulness and keep the weave and ambulation going, inside and outside, as we make our work and incorporate ideas of radical investigatory form: third mind (Burroughs & Gysin), the long poem, the cine-poem, the appropriated conceptual poem, the shamanic trip to the other side, meta-fiction, memoir, and dharma and somatic poetics.
Artistic Director: Anne Waldman
SWP Faculty Director: Andrea Rexilius
Andrea Rexilius & Anne Waldman: How has a sense of an interconnected energy field that runs horizontally (the rhizome) affected your own writing projects? Do you work with translation, documentation, for example, others voices in the text? How does the work braid together?
Margaret Randall: Horizontal energy fields have long been central to my living and to my creativity. I have always sought groups of my peers. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, living among the Abstract Expressionist artists in New York City, I literally drank their camaraderie and energy. Their putting creative work first, passionate discipline and ability to find motivation and subject matter everywhere became central practices in my own creative work. Perhaps these artists were not really my peers, since almost all of them were ten to twenty years older than me. But we bonded around the work, and they were definitely my rhizome. Later, in Mexico City, the poets who came together around El Corno Emplumado became a rhizome that crossed borders, brought other cultures and languages into the mix, created expressive vehicles that were also cross-genre. By the time I went to Cuba (1970s) and Nicaragua (early ‘80s), revolution was what held my community together: a shared sense that we could change the world. But political organization was also much more vertical than horizontal, so there was a tension there. I was still trying to understand and work through this tension when the socialist world imploded in 1989-90. Since then, my creative energy is nourished by a variety of sources: nature, feminism, ancient ruins, and the unique and amazing group of “co-conspirators” one collects throughout a long life. For me, the group is geographically disperse but strongly united in terms of energy and brilliance. All my writing projects are fed by this deep sense of connection.
I do work a great deal with translation, from Spanish to English. I have translated the poetry of César Vallejo, Violeta Parra, Roque Dalton, and Carlos María Gutiérrez, among others. This past year I translated When Rains Become Floods, a memoir soon to appear from Duke University Press. It was written by an indigenous Peruvian peasant who joined a guerrilla terrorist organization at the age of 12, was captured three years later by the army and was in its ranks for the following seven, stopped being a soldier to join a Franciscan monastery where he lived for the next several years, and eventually left the religious order to attend university and become an anthropologist. As a child, he knew neither Spanish nor how to read or write. Now he is finishing his doctorate. So this is someone whose voice changed dramatically with his life experience; I had to follow those changes in my translation. My early oral history work (some 20 books, in all) brought me to documentation and the dilemmas inherent in working respectfully with the voices of others.
All of this—my own poetry and editing the poetry of others, translation of both poetry and prose, and working with oral history informants—braids quite naturally in my work. In some of my work, it would be difficult to say precisely where one of these genres ends and another begins. The challenge, for me, is to pay attention to it all and create something new.
AR & AW: As someone who is engaged with many aspects of your own culture, other cultures and “forms” other than poetry (e.g. jazz, feminism) both here and abroad (e.g. Cuba, Morocco), what is your sense of a common ground or purpose in the communities you have worked in and served?
MR: There are many common grounds. Time and place are important here. For example, early on, a common ground was prioritizing the work in a consumerist society weighted by the suffocating 1950s. In Mexico, a common ground was the incipient understanding of US domination so many poets shared, and our struggles to honor other cultures. The multifaceted indigenous cultures of Mexico certainly influenced me, as did the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions (I’ve never been to Morocco). Jazz was an influence from my time in New York, just as other types of music—Baroque chamber music, Mexican corridos, North Vietnam’s battle hymn, Cuban drums, and Nicaragua’s “Misa campesina”—vibrated later in my work. When feminism exploded in my life in 1969, it brought it all together, because feminism taught me about power and this has been bedrock to all my experience since. I have served many communities but they have also served me.
AR & AW: What do you see as the most urgent issue of our time, as poets, as citizens of the planet? How does this move your writing?
MR: As poets and as citizens of the planet, I see power (who holds it, how it is exercised and abused) as the number one issue. This is true in all our relationships, public as well as intimate. It is true in our work, and in every problem we are called upon to solve. As parents, we are also children. As teachers, we are always students. In these one-on-one situations as well as in larger groups, the horizontality of the rhizome is a constant reminder that mentorship is best served by the non-hierarchical structure. It’s a bit complicated for me to try to explain how the rhizome works in my writing, but then I have never believed in explaining my writing. It either works or doesn’t.
AR & AW: How would you define “contemplative activism”? How does your writing or your daily practice engage the contemplative? What is being sustained within your writing? What is being activated?
MR: Naropa was my first experience with contemplative activism. Prior to my first summer at SWP, I had never tried to meditate, nor had I had much useful connection with practices that involve contemplation. On the contrary, I had been involved in a number of struggles in which there seemed no time for contemplation; action always took precedence. Emotionally, I was immensely tired. Perhaps this made me curious about what a contemplative practice has to offer. I began taking advantage of the early meditations before each day’s workshops. I’m not sure I ever got very good at it, but even my poor attempts surprised me with enormous energy, spiritual as well as physical. This was a decade ago. Since then, I’ve found that quiet mindfulness can be very helpful in terms of bringing balance to one’s life and work. Perhaps age also naturally encourages contemplation; as one slows down, one tends to think and feel more. I hope this balance is being sustained within my writing. And that awareness and recognition are activated.
AR & AW: What conversations, movements, lineages have shaped how you come to the page (either as an artist, activist, or human, etc)? How do you see your work reverberating off or beyond the page? In other words, how do you enact the relationship between writing and community?
MR: I’ve already mentioned or alluded to some of the movements that have shaped how I come to the page: Abstract Expressionism, the Beats, Black Mountain, Deep Image, Mexico in 1968, the Cuban revolution, the courage and creativity of the Vietnamese people, the Sandinistas, and of course feminism. Being a mother has also shaped me, and being a grandmother and soon-to-be great grandmother continue to do so. The ancient lineages of our American Southwest are a powerful force in my work, as are lineages from other cultures throughout the world: Rapa Nui, the Nabataeans, the Maya, the Inca, and others. But I have been fortunate to have had some important individual mentors as well: Elaine de Kooning, Walter Lowenfels, Haydée Santamaría, José Benito Escobar, V. B. Price. For me, writing (even when a solitary practice) is community.
As a poet, the relationship between writing and community exists most powerfully when I give a public reading. I can feel the audience’s receptivity, and have been known to change a word or an entire line in response to this. Readings nurture my work enormously.
AR & AW: Could you speak a bit to your experience of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University, to the community here, our pedagogical practices, what is made possible, what is being manifested?
MR: Each time I have been invited to participate in the SWP, it has been among the highlights of my year. I’ve taught in a number of other writing programs, and find the energy at Naropa to be completely different. The importance of the Socratic method, experimental pedagogy, respect for a variety of writing styles and voices, serious scholarship, chance for individual attention, passion and intensity, combine to create a learning environment unequaled anywhere else. I deeply value the diversity among visiting faculty—poets and writers from different countries, cultures and traditions—and the attempt to achieve diversity among the students. Even in one brief week, communities of importance are created: among the visiting professors and between faculty and students. Each summer, I have learned as much from a couple of my students as I have learned from minds twice or three times their age. Whenever an aspiring writer asks me where I think he or she should study, I find myself talking about Naropa’s SWP. I’d wager that as vibrant new talents emerge in the world of contemporary literature, a sizeable number of them are alumni of SWP.
AR & AW: What are you reading that shapes your thinking about this current moment of the 21st century?
MR: At the moment, I am rereading Michael Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code, Anita Brenner’s diaries from the 1920s, and Alma Reed’s Peregrina. The two women were United States Americans who spent most of their lives in Mexico. Reed was engaged to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the socialist governor of the state of Yucatán who was executed days before their marriage. I recently returned from spending time in Yucatán, visiting some of the Maya ruins. My reading often parallels my travel, and studying the Maya is something I’ve been doing for many years. Strange as it may seem, this reading helps shape my thinking about this current moment of the 21st century. Or perhaps compliments is more accurate than shapes. The Maya glyphs are only recently being deciphered. Some glyphs hide within others. Those who drew them also had license to imbue them with their individual styles. This writing, which I cannot understand in the literal sense, nevertheless teaches me about the mystery implicit when symbols hide within symbols, and the importance of respect for individual creative voice.
Margaret Randall is fortunate to have accompanied great social change with her activism. From 1961 to 1984, she lived in Mexico, where she founded and edited an important bilingual literary magazine and was active in the 1968 Student Movement; in Cuba during its revolution’s second decade; and in Nicaragua following the Sandinista takeover. Upon her return to the United States, the government ordered her deported, based on opinions expressed in some of her books. She won her case in 1989. Among her recent books are poetry books, The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones and About Little Charlie Lindberg, and a book of essays, Che on My Mind.
Andrea Rexilius is the author of New Organism: Essais, Half of What They Carried Flew Away, and To Be Human Is To Be A Conversation. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing & Poetics at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where she is also the Summer Writing Program Faculty Director, and coordinator of the What/Where Reading Series.
Anne Waldman has been a prolific and active poet, performer, editor and teacher for many years, a founder of the Jack Kerouac School and Artistic Director of its celebrated Summer Writing Program. She is the author most recently of Gossamurmur, Jaguar Harmonics, and co-edited (with Laura Wright) the anthology, Cross Worlds: Transcultural Poetics. Publisher’s Weekly deemed Waldman a “counter-cultural giant.” She is a Guggenheim fellow and a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. Websites: www.annewaldman.org, www.fastspeakingmusic.com, EdBowes.org.