Mother Tongue, Manatee and Archive: A Feminafesto
The following is adapted from a text delivered at the Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism Conference, City University of New York, September 24, 2009
"It's maybe that the closest thing to America -- incredibly -- is Beirut. It should collapse but it doesn't." --Etel Adnan
Of late I've been tracking what I'd call the torques of the Mother Tongue. This project moves itself through various interstices here and now and upon material cusp, here and now and elsewhere (into various poetry cultures here and abroad, and other senses of economy and activism -- gift exchange, sousvellience and the like) with a driven sense of personal and public duty, and includes the creating and preserving of Archive and other endangered identities of the poetry and poetics work that so many of us have been involved last half century and more. It includes being a kind of ambassador of a "wild mind" lineage and a view of the primacy of imagination. And the view that there is no human dimension in any period of history without poetry. And it creates investigative projects that are long poems. It's a radical dimension in that it is a way of life. There's no time off.
It's a "calling," if you will, with a privilege of mobility that I have struggled for in what I call the "activity demon vow," in homage to Allen Ginsberg. This vow has many heads and thousands of arms, and an imagination or an image of that imagination that strives to operate in eleven directions at once, like string theory. My method of political thought and engagement and poetry is, in other words, a kind of Bodhisattva Vow.
I was born to a time that was a recurrent phrase, operating in dreams that seem to be about this worldly time, right now, with war scenarios operating as a syndicate of samsara -- flailing, suffering, urgent, where "the fix is in." Such visions inspire lifelong investigations that began, for me, just at the close of WWII, which infected and inflected my ongoing path.
Omnivorous projects including the 25-year Iovis epic which is in final stages of completion; the now 36-year Naropa experiment, its pedagogy, its activism, its archive, its community, the anthologies that we have made of its multiple voices; and most recently the poem Manatee/Humanity which was a project of time and dream and evolution and delights and outrage.
In Manatee/Humanity I was attentive to the lessons of the Kalachakra Buddhist initiation, a three-day ceremony that involves dream keeping, accountrements of divination, visualization, mantra chanting and so on. (Kalachakra: kala= time, chakra=wheel.) This Wheel of Time is viewed as beginningless and endless, and in these times is accelerated, the speed of it induces a concurrent dark age. And within this wheel are smaller wheels of time. The outer wheel is the environment -- the procession of solar and lunar days, the cycles of plants and of other creatures. The inner wheel is the body, including the nano-seconds of our own breath. And the secret wheel is realizing the emptiness of individual ego. This realization might generate empathy for other beings and may be seen as a continual thread of wide-awake consciousness or tantra, echoing the scientifically measured activity of what are deemed "mirror neurons."
Time is the central deity of this practice. I made the manatee the central deity -- a weathered, scared, endangered female creature I had encountered in a claustrophobic tank in an aquatic park in Miami, Florida.
I investigated the psychology, epistemology, and life form of manatee vis a vis time, and in relation to our humanity -- manatee as our mirror, as our mirror neuron, as a measure of our humanity. "What steward of this earth is this unnatural man, man who does not protect the manatee?" The poem also includes litanies of the grey wolf and the lemur. William Burroughs once remarked to me that most animals were in samadhi and he preferred the company of lemurs to that of humans.
The word "manatee" itself derives from the pre-Colombian Taino people and means "breast." Manatee are of the order Sirenia, of the sirens -- an order of being most likely evolving from four-legged land mammals over 60 million years ago, and whose closest living relative is the elephant. Manatee are capable of understanding discrimination tasks; they have advanced long-time memory, they are herbivorous. They have more grey matter in the brain than man, they are thinking archivally deeper than man, man with his boats and monofilament and crab trap lines and attitude.
In the Kalachakra ritual the practitioner traditionally enters the mandala set-up or "stage" (which has been prepared by adepts for several days) as a child. A mandala is a ritual diagram and structure that has been constructed, in this case, of colored sand. At first there is a symbolic ritual cleansing of one's body with the image of a mother washing her child for the first time.
Other reclamation projects and collaborations continue in performance, film, music, time. Jacques Derrida in his Archive Fever postulates that we should consider the "death drive" as a force without which there would not be in effect any desire or possibility of Archive or Anthology. The entropy of the death drive is interesting since it provides us with tremendous energy.
I exist because of the dissipative structure of Archive. Forget eternalism or nihilism. An archive meditates on memory, religion, time, war, technology. It is a technology of inscription, an inscription of our psychic processes, our utopias, our seed syllables, our cosmic batteries and hopes of future. Archive is a practice. And through Archive we show humanity -- or what ever it is -- the consciousness of the future -- the post human future -- the slime mold poets of the future -- we were not just slaughtering one another.
Have you noticed how all the new scientific research is showing us how smart animals really are? The Buddhist view, and the increasing scientific view is that all life forms are interrelated through their evolutionary history, and that human and animal minds are both participants in reality. We share the planet with billions -- trillions -- of non-human temporalities.
Minds exist at the quantum level below the level of atoms of sub-atomic particles. Minds never come from nothing or go to nothing. Consider the advances of biotechnology -- the extraordinary feats of resurrecting the DNA of the Tasmanian Tiger or the work with hair samples of wooly mammoths to the point where bio-geneticists are able to modify the DNA of a 60,000-year-old creature and place it inside an elephant's egg so it will be brought to term in an elephant mother's body.
The Industrial age is drawing to a close. Welcome to the Anthropocene! It will be interesting to see how consciousness is measured in these new engineered life forms.
I have always been grateful for the freedom to make my work, and to be part of poetry cultures that have had real presence and force in the world, that continue to require nourishment and refreshment, commitment and the time-tithe on a continuous life adjacent to these feeds, to benefit others. These sites and utopias and resistances and fellaheen worlds are practices. They are not pre-cooked. Yet they seem to strive outside the establishment whatever that is, and outside official culture whatever that is, outside politics and media (we know what that is) and stride beyond short-sighted economic blasts in that they are vision-generated. The thrust of our projects is ageless, ritualistic, often endangered, the edge of the precipice.
We need to keep fighting on gender issues, human and civil rights, to keep exchanges going with women in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tibet, Viet Nam, Africa. With our Native American sisters on this continent, Mexico, Canada. One might also conjure a sense of exile here, as a state of mind, although we all know poets in true and dire political exile, who suffer greatly the lost homeland. We are in a kind of "temporary autonomous zone" of exile. You can't territorialize a mind of artistic exile. And the de-territorializing that such a frame of mind engenders is why one is drawn to poetry which, like music, gives strength to the mission and takes one to places of risk and anarchy. Poetry is not empire building. It de-territorializes empire.
I admire and experience in my studies Adonis's axiom that "poetry is not a stage but a constituent of human consciousness." As such it will assume many forms with many upaya -- or skillful means. It can't really be programmed, co-opted or credentialized, however you can cultivate this consciousness.
There's the post modern post colonial trope of not wanting to use the language and syntax of the oppressors, and a promise of de-centering the ego, and perhaps there are poetries we would not trust or support as they reify so-called master narratives. Check it out.
I see our bodies as ethical matter. The last threshold of resistance I have is my body is Foucault's line. The body is radically non-Cartesian. It talks to itself in a continual feed. The brain is not the central planner. There's an inner sense of how the body is located in landscape and space -- including gestures of vision and touch and imagination and poetry. This is proprioception, an obsession of poet Charles Olson, who saw it as the way "in." Proprius- one's own, and perception. Perception of the body itself in this efficacious time and place.
I note Gayatri Spivak's lines in addressing recent acts of terrorism: "Suicide bombing is an act inscribed on the body when no other means will get through." Acts are inscribed on the body. Are there other means?
Spivak herself founded a Literacy Project in India. Women can and do redefine the limits of language though writing.
In addition to body, I invoke "wild mind" and the term from Buddhist Tantra of "crazy wisdom." Wild mind is elegantly self-disciplined and like wilderness, it is without a management plan As Gary Snyder notes "The practice of the wild inspires an etiquette of freedom. It is actually beautiful to care for things."
So one thinks about uncompleted projects, open systems, the yeas and nays of institutionalism and the like. And it behooves every one of us to consider the primary workplaces of our practice as poets -- cities and campus cities, towns with a sense of these sites, cities not being completed yet and their completion dependent on an identity shaped by new thought and by works of art. Places where we have some input and clout beyond our own personal agenda and aggrandizement. It is beautiful to care for things. I feel it in my larynx -- in my thrust toward language -- it is beautiful to care for things.
Mother Tongue finds herself often as stateless-woman-person-yet not one-alone-dreaming. Poet's exile. Mother Tongue follows the money to understand the setting-sun mentality and what she is up against. Mother Tongue follows the peace process as war-built-into-peace. How to shift this entrenchment. And has no illusions. Not jaded, but hasn't she seen this before -- Vietnam? East Timor, Haiti? Iraq? Afghanistan? Israel/Palestine? She sings the mantra of Why? Why? Problem Not Solving. Mother Tongue had recent meeting in Colorado with the Peace and Justice Center on the aftermath, the cleanup of Rocky Flats now called a Wildlife Refuge Center and the problem and guardianship of the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife -- or as we call it, "Fission Wildlife," on the problem of plutonium particles -- its most dangerous breathable form -- in the surface soil. How can we have a toxic refuge center? It's an oxymoron.
Inhaling or ingesting plutonium or taking tiny particles into the body through an open wound can result in cancer, disruption of the immune system, or harm to the gene pool. Because plutonium has a half-life of 24,110 years, its presence in the environment in particles so small they can attach to dust poses a permanent danger.
Recent zones of Mother Tongue Torque of wedge and suture activity include an international conference in Prague with poets from Palestine, Syria, China vowing to promote further exchange. Late night conversations after President Obama's speech to the Middle East and the need to hold tight on the expansion of settlements and how we can respond to that and, a trip in Spain during the EU elections which showed the fragility of progressive agendas. A trip last fall to China was eye-opening where for the first time I was not censored when it came to conversations and texts written about Tibet.
I close with lines from a letter from the powerful novelist, poet and visual artist Etel Adnan, written in August from Beirut:
"It's maybe that the closest thing to America -- incredibly -- is Beirut. It should collapse but it doesn't. Let's hope that there's in fact some hope. Believe me, the thing that means most -- really most -- is love. Passion, love or friendship, the getting together of a few people a few times for a few hours and it does make of living a wonderful thing. Last night we were by the sea in a dingy garden café the only one left of its sort, with some 10 people, from very young to me, in age, actors, artists and so on, some newly met, and it was so beautiful to see everyone doing his/her best to make some art, some money, some theatre...and trying to matter in this huge blind world...."
Thank you, all, and push push against the darkness.
Anne Waldman has been an active member of the “Outrider” experimental poetry community for over 40 years as writer, performer, professor, editor, magpie scholar, and cultural/political activist. In 1974 she co-founded The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University, the first Buddhist inspired school in the West, where she currently serves as Artistic Director of its celebrated Summer Writing program. She is the author of over 40 books of poetry. Her most recent book is Manatee/Humanity (Penguin Poets 2009).
The Living Theater is presenting Red Noir, based on the writings of Anne Waldman, adapted and directed by Judith Malina, through January 30th 2009.