Beat Generation poet Waldman likes to play with words, expectations

| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 9:28 p.m.

Anne Waldman laughs when asked about the juxtaposition of pop culture and Indian spirituality in her poem, “Alphabet of Mother Language”:

If Kali were a car what kind of car would she be?

A Batmobile? She, as primordial vehicle. ...

This subversion of expectations occurs naturally, according to Waldman, who appears Oct. 10 at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium in Oakland as a guest of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series.

“I enjoy thinking that way,” Waldman says. “I'm trying to track my own imagination and the idea of torquing language, image and sound, and playing with certain kinds of tropes, and being able to throw the Batmobile into reality.”

Waldman, born in 1945 in Millville, N.J., is one of the most notable American poets of the past 50 years. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award and an appointment as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets.

Waldman also is one of the original founders and directors of The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery section of New York; a co-founder, with Allen Ginsberg, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., the first Buddhist-inspired university in the Western hemisphere; and was part of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976, again with Ginsberg, as a poet-in-residence.

Perhaps what inspires Waldman the most is poetry's potential to inspire social change. She's used her work as a vehicle to state her views about human rights, women's rights and the environment.

Her goal is to “make sense of the world I live in, as a poet, as a thinker, as an activist,” she says, and if that means stirring things up, so be it.

“Yes, it's intense, and it often provokes emotions and things you don't want to look at that go deeper into the psyche,” Waldman says. “I think that's a place one travels and so often needs to travel. ... At times you can be preaching to the converted, you can have a political slant or someone agrees with a feminist view. And, sometimes, you're up against Rocky Flats (a nuclear weapons production facility outside of Denver that was closed in 1989 because of enviromental concerns) where they don't want to listen.”

But, while Waldman has used poetry to protest what she sees as injustices, she acknowledges and uses the form's lighter side. Humor, she says, “is very helpful, and playfulness can show your delight in language.” That penchant for whimsy is apparent even when Waldman is trying to make a point.

Her 1,000-page masterwork, “The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Weapons of Concealment,” tackles serious issues of contemporary life even as it includes references to video games.

“The book was written for my son (born in 1980) and his generation,” Waldman says. “As with epics, you look at the history of your own tribe, you look at the wars of your own tribe, the heroes and heroines of your own time, the various structures and ideas and struggles. ... That text has a lot of surprising juxtapositions. I consider it a montage of elements.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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