Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman
No exaggeration to say that Anne Waldman changed how I think about poetry, and therefore my life. My trapped-in-small-town-conservative-Michigan mind was already beginning to crack once I got to Michigan State University, but then my professor and mentor, poet Diane Wakoski played a recording of Waldman reciting "Fast Speaking Woman." I didn't know poetry was allowed to be that energetic, with long lines and repetition that made it sound like a shaman's spell. Which it is.
Waldman may be one of the top five people to nurture poetry and Buddhism in America, both with her own poetry and with being one of the founders (along with her friend Allen Ginsberg) of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the only accredited Buddhist university North America, including the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, where she served as a top administrator and still teaches. I bow deeply to all of that.
I have not always liked all of her poetry, however. The Iovis Trilogy, for example, just does not 'work' for me, because the style, if I may generalize, is more about breaking up meaning into chunks and assembling those chunks into a larger, new, meaning. Or, the breaking up of meaning is the meaning. Which makes for some jagged reading. I really enjoyed her book Manatee/Humanity which came out about ten years ago, which was a return to the shaman chant style. Her latest book Trickster Feminism, she says, is a return to (and part of) The Iovis Trilogy.
In all ancient cultures there is a trickster figure, such as for example Legba or Kokopelli, who stands outside of society and mocks it, and in this way leads people to change society for the better. Except the trickster figure is always male. Or at least the ones we know about. In Trickster Feminism, Waldman is both finding possible female tricksters in mythologies, and is herself embodying one. Which of course she always has been. And which of course poets tend to be.
One of the tasks, or perhaps 'labors' might be a better word, of the feminist trickster as poet is, according to Waldman, to overthrow patriarchy, including patriarchal poetry, made fairly clear, at least at first, at the start of the poem "denouement" ('the end' or 'the final part'), with a quote from Gertrud Stein:
Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.
Patriarchal Poetry at peace.
Patriarchal Poetry a piece.
Patriarchal Poetry in peace.
Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.
I'm left unclear about what qualifies at patriarchal poetry. Some examples or names would help. Is any poetry by a heterosexual man? Or any poem by a white heterosexual man? I understand the idea that any man writing from a position of privilege and power will/might reflect the values of patriarchy willfully-ignorantly. But still, does that mean, for example, Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett are patriarchal poets? If so, we're in trouble.
This question becomes more problematic as we delve into the actual poem, a series of prose poem paragraphs, because here is where Trickster Feminism most clearly screams against the last two years of trumpet-ism, like this one in particular about, or at least inspired by, the protest marches that followed his inauguration:
Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic
experiments to shift tone & danger. Apo, away, trepein, to turn. Make the
day an amulet. And there were women everywhere across the land,
children women, and girl women and they women and fluid women and
men who were women and boy women and women from the past on the
tongues of mind & ear and images of women everywhere: ancestor women.
Out on the streets. And everyone women 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 be 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.
I have two problems at this point, the first being the idea of patriarchal poetry woven into the idea of the Trumpet being elected president: I'm pretty sure that poetry by white men isn't the problem. I wish poetry had that much power, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that no serious white male poet voted for Trump. I can tell you that this white heterosexual male poet (moi) also did not vote for the other major party candidate, which some people might try to argue is a form of sexism, except the candidate I voted for was a woman. But none of this gets talked addressed in this poem.
If Waldman, or any poet, is going to bring politics into their poetry (which I am for) that she needs to show us that she has an understanding of the whole shitshow—it's not enough for me to hear someone is anti-Trump. The system is broken and many of us (more and more of us) say to the two major parties, invoking another well-known poet, "A pox on both your houses." Waldman has been politically active all her life, way more than I, so I know that she knows the Democrats take just as much money from Wall Street and Big Pharma and other rich donors, I know she knows the system is broken. I want to read about that. Then her breaking up of meaning would reflect the breaking up of meaning of our political system.
My other problem with this section of "denouement" is the idea that the protest marches after the inauguration were a "day [which] said I am woman." I understand that many women marching together meant something, and that there may have been a feeling of unity among them (and men who were there) wearing the pink pussy hats, except: 53-55% (I've read different numbers) of all white women who voted, voted for Trump. That cannot be ignored. In fact, I would think a 'trickster' would have to address it.
"denouement" is maybe the most accessible poem in Trickster Feminism. Others are a bit more jarring. At least two are collages from other texts, as Waldman explains in a "Notes & Citations' section at the end, like "trick o' life", which uses "appropriated cut-up lines from Classical Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by David Hinton." The poem starts out (note: the indents on this poems more varied and subtle than I can do justice for an online article):
this is and this is
this is the way it looks
and this is and this is
ghost in the syntax
hid from the eclipse
will you step forward
have a woman's back?
The poem goes on like this for eight pages (!) and I'm never quite clear what it's about until towards the ending: "where's all this beauty heading? / din of confusion / war drums on the street...../Year of Infinite Protest." So it is a protest poem, with the confusion of the poem mirroring the confusion of our politics, our country, our lives. And yet, a poem should stand on its own, and not need an explanation, though this is kind of how the visual arts are these days, with and explanation of the process being part of the experience. I found myself wanting to go back to my own copy of the Hinton anthology.
The LANGUAGE poets of the 80s and 90s (I guess they're still around in MFA programs) wanted to break apart meaning and thus break apart the language of the oppressor. Which left some of us scratching our heads, and which separated poetry from mainstream culture, or at least made it a joke. Waldman was never associated with that school of poetry, and her breaking-apart of meaning is both a reflection of the breakdown of mean in our culture (I think) and (thus) and intent to create a new meaning from the broken parts. I'm not sure it's successful, again, if you have to give explanations or say at the end of a poem that it's a protest poem. I've always thought that poets change language, make it new, as a response to the oppressors, without losing meaning.
Of course there are many responses, as many as poets who choose to respond to contemporary American (or Amerikan) politics. Anne Waldman could read from an old phone book and be mesmerizing. Even if Trickster Feminism is not quite your cup of poetry, I would still encourage you to seek out any readings she gives. I suspect these poems need to be seen and heard, live, to experience their full power.
By Ann Waldman
Publication Date: July 3, 2018
Length: 160 pages
Published by Penguin Random House
About the Author: Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan and lives in Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, fire lookout, as well as a teacher of writing. He was previously published in gravel, here. You can find more of him at www.johnyohe.com