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Formal Feelings: Anne Waldman’s Poetry Explores Feminist Traditions

In Trickster Feminism, Waldman employs a range of poetic forms including chant, the blues refrain, and the prose poem.

In Trickster Feminism, Anne Waldman continues her lifelong project of speaking to power through poetry. Waldman has written through the post-2016 protests, marches and resistance, amid losses to the poetry world — including several of her friends — to uncover paths of possibility under all of the awfulness. Indeed, she opens the book, which she’s dedicated to Pauline Oliveros, Joanne Kyger and Gerri Allen, with a phoenix-like directive: “when you are sitting/ with the corpse of your friend/ this is what to do/ when what do you do.” Trickster Feminism is a demonstration of how to go on, when one can’t go on.

Her intimate knowledge of the “outrider” tradition is, at this point, so invaluable that she should be considered not only a “national” treasure, but an international one — that one-of-a-kind person who has dedicated her life to identifying and tending to a lineage of creative resistance, which she traces in prehistory, through the ancient Greeks, the troubadours, the blues, Buddhism, and feminist contemporary poets and thinkers, some of whose names she encodes into the poem, “entanglement”: “Auld tray lured” (Audre Lorde); “Barb a guest” (Barbara Guest); “Loud her back” (Ann Lauterbach); “May may bur sin brooch” (Mei Mei Berssenbrugge); “Claw din rank kin” (Claudia Rankine). In Trickster Feminism, Waldman definitively shifts her investigations from masculinity and the war impulse (as in 2011’s The Iovis Trilogy) to a new strain of feminism, one that is agile, wary, angry, creative, persistent, tricky.

In Trickster Feminism, form follows function — to undergird her invocations of feminist activist lineage, Waldman employs a range of poetic forms that also have long lineage: the chant, the blues refrain, the prose poem. In the past, Waldman has expressed how she felt “insulted that the epic is seen as a male form,” and has made a conscious effort to reclaim such forms as female too. (Interview with the author, Poetry Project Newsletter, 2003.) But in Trickster Feminism, it is perhaps the chant, one of the earliest forms of poetry, that most effectively anchors and amplifies her intention to shift perspective and point the reader toward thought and compassion. With their repetition and rhyme, it is easy to imagine many of the poems being memorized and performed in arenas of protest. “Don’t forget orality of wild purpose,” she reminds us in “crepuscular”:

What is my musical disorder?

How may I sound my feet & hands?

How may I clasp the code and sing?

It was the last white stand to hold women down.

But it is the more discursive prose poems in which Waldman takes a step back to observe and to question; she reminds us that poetry is not theatre or spectacle, and that it has own essential role to “shadow,” to remind, to subvert. We are not only going to chant with her (although, of course, that is a cathartic pleasure) but we are also going to think about what, exactly, the hell is going on. In “denouement” she writes:

[…] Out on the streets. And everyone woman that day. I am woman they said. And it had already happened if you stopped to think. Winning in maenad heaven, but could earthly heart hold? The day said I am woman. The day got up and walked this far then paused to take stock. It was the last chance to observant and cry and stomp and take stock. What worth if not be accountable. It would be theater, a spectacle, come pay, or come lie down in fluid bosom of woe mankind.

Anne Waldman (photo by Nina Subin)

Another form is lurking, more obscure and barely legible, counterpointing the chant and prose poems — which, after all, can’t be the only forms for a trickster. Tricksters have many forms, and many ways of insinuating the unobvious. Struck by a seemingly out-of-place reference to “Elias Cairel, you phony troubadour” in the title poem, “trickster feminism,” I found that he wrote one surviving descort, a form in which each line of the poem is unlike the others. As defined online, a “descort is very intentional in its variability.” It’s a fascinating form, surprisingly difficult to write, as it disallows repetition, rhyme and echo — the same techniques that make the chant so powerful. And yet, what a perfect form for a trickster — impossible to predict, always evolving and creating anew as it goes forward. Waldman also refers to the “dithyramb,” what the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics characterizes as an “ecstatic, vehement or unpredictable” poem, which the ancient Greeks traditionally performed in honor of Dionysus. When a poem begins to seem too obvious, or the repetition too heavy-handed, Waldman takes a descortian or a dithyrambic turn, reminding us that the essence of the outrider tradition also includes creativity, unexpectedness, exploration, joy, openness, experimentation, playfulness.

Politics of sonorities

All the organs collapse

I am a dithyramb again

Lie down with the cobra

Tell me ye olde cobra migration narratives

(“entanglement”)

But it is these qualities that are especially hard to preserve in the face of what seems an unrelenting capitalist drive for money, productivity, race-based economic inequality and soulless extraction of resources sugar-coated with fundamentalist religion. How are we to counter the hard-edged extremes of our time with joyful experiment? Those most at risk are the ones with the least margin of error — how can one be experimental when “resisting arrest” can mean just struggling to take another breath?Considering this, Waldman’s title seems a bit anomalous. Again, those secure in their identities are those who can more easily obscure or subvert them (for example, the Scarlet Pimpernel was at core a wealthy, well-connected aristocrat), so how can a feminist, so often misheard or deliberately misinterpreted even at her most clear, also be a trickster? Yet it is this prospect that might terrify the elites (and by elites, I mean corrupt rightwing politicians) most — feminists, and poets, shape-shifting and elusive, reaching across borders to share and to join cause. And always, how can one best achieve this with poetic integrity? In Waldman’s outrider world, there are no easy answers, ever. Again from “entanglement”:

Assignment:

Find our fifth-wave feminism

And think how you would sing about it

To the Kurdish women of Rojava,

To the first person in the world.

Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman (2018) is published by Penguin Poets and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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