Conning the con

Anne Waldman on the art of ‘Trickster Feminism’

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Anne Waldman
Nina Subin, 2011

More than once as we sit soaking up sunshine and sipping on tea in her backyard, Anne Waldman alludes to her own death — but not in a macabre way.

At 73, Waldman has lost friends, several of them just last year, like fellow poet and friend Joanne Kyger, jazz pianist Geri Allen, and composer Pauline Oliveros. 

Waldman’s new collection of poetry, Trickster Feminism, a meditation on gender, power, activism and consciousness, is dedicated to these three powerful, active, conscious women.

Setting the tone for the work, Waldman openly navigates her grief in the opening poem, “trick o’ death.”

“when you are sitting/ with the corpse of your friend/ this is what to do/ when what do you do”

After a sprawling conversation that touches on climate change, #metoo, the gender spectrum, immigration and, of course, Trump, it’s clear that when the co-founder of Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School talks about the time she has left, she’s really talking about the work she has left to do.

“The sense of urgency was different,” Waldman says of writing her new book. “I’m older. I’ve gone through some health stuff, like other people my age. Suddenly you feel reinvigorated; one more battle. And also feeling like I’m a journalist, I’m on assignment. I’m a field poet; I have to see what’s going on in the field and with my dying last breath, I have to tell this story.”

Waldman has long told stories of being feminine in a masculine world, but Trickster Feminism stakes out new territory for femme folks, calling for a new wave of feminism driven by adaptability, passion, agility and creative resistance. The idea came to Waldman after reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World.

“They are the lords of in-between,” Hyde wrote of tricksters like Hermes and Mercury in Greek mythology. “In short, trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce.”

Hyde argues that society flourishes and evolves because of these “figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.”

Unfortunately, Hyde says, there just aren’t any feminine tricksters. Sorry. Blame it on patriarchal mythology.

Sure, female tricksters may be scarce in literature, but they’re embedded in everyday life.

“I’m sure you can think of many tricksters from our fair sex,” Waldmen says, and I immediately picture Anne Frank, Rosa Parks and McKayla Maroney.

“Women seem to be more fluid, shapeshifters,” Waldman says. “You’re a Madonna, you’re a whore, you’re a mother, you’re a child. You have to adapt and be quixotic; you have to work with what comes up in the moment. That’s been my path, to somehow be awake moment to moment when things are vastly changing.”      

Trickster Feminism reclaims the deeply overburdened word “tricky” for feminine people; no longer does the word serve primarily as a way for men to imply devious, lecherous behavior in women. No, Merriam-Webster clearly defines tricky as “requiring skill, knack, or caution.”

That’s trickster feminism.

“Also,” Waldman adds, “working to undermine the patriarchy. Undermining his con. Sometimes you have to con a con to beat a con — and then you’re gone,” off to create the next great cultural shift.

Trickster Feminism isn’t an easy read, by any means, but the symbolism and meaning waiting in the text is worth the labor — just like any good challenge.

Waldman employs familiar and complex poetic devices to tell different stories within the collection. Some are written like ancient chants, fresh and ready for your next protest. Others use blues refrains or prose.

But perhaps the most striking form is dithyramb, an irregular strain sung and danced in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. These verses shun repetition, rhyme and echo to create something that is constantly new.

Tricky poems for a tricky feminist.

“I think of poetry as the first religion,” Waldman says. “I think there’s always been poetry in human consciousness, whether it’s oral or scribbled on tree bark or incised on a little stone or cuneiform.

“You’re creating a fabric that’s not just about you or your personal life or even your time,” she says. “You can summon your sisters, your witchy sisters, and it helps you feel more efficacious through art. Maybe it’s just your own salvation, but hopefully it can help wake people up to something that’s troubling. For me, literature has always done that, provided a way to describe things that are going on that you can’t really talk about in any other way. It might be the difficult times we’re in now, the only way they can describe it in the future is in some artistic way. We have all the TV reportage, we have so many of the facts. I can’t wait for the Mueller investigation. If he can just hang in there…”

On the Bill: Anne Waldman, Trickster Feminism. Monday, Aug. 28, 6-7 p.m. Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, innisfreepoetry.com.