In fall 2016, the Academy of American Poets teamed up with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City to present a free conversation series exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations paired some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On October 17, 2016, the series featured composer and choreographer Meredith Monk in conversation with American Book Award-winning poet Anne Waldman. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka's introduction and listen to an audio recording of the event.
Anne Waldman and Meredith Monk are two legendary and powerful women whose contributions across poetry, performance, political activism, composition, song, and choreography, have made a lasting, vibrating mark on American culture.
In the context of our current and historic Presidential campaign, so entrenched in misogyny, it’s renewing to reconsider Anne Waldman’s classic book Fast Speaking Woman. She writes:
woman was in the world was walking
woman was singing sounding the day away
sounds like a cranky old machine, someone said
(that someone was a mean man, mean child-man)
but she just ignored the cranky old machine part
& went on her way
Waldman has helped shape American poetry today. In her more than forty books, she’s remained, as she describes, an “open field investigator of consciousness, committed to the possibilities of radical shifts of language and states of mind to create new modal structures and montages of attention.” In her work, which she brings to spiritual heights in performance, she challenges the boundary of the page and genre. Her poems are cultural interventions with life or death subjects: the environment, endangered species, war. But over the past four decades Waldman has done more than create her own substantial body of work and archive, she has created spaces—now institutions—that have encouraged the work of many hundreds, if not thousands, of other poets.
With Allen Ginsberg, she cofounded the celebrated Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where she continues to serve as Distinguished Professor of Poetics. And, she was one of the founders and directors of The Poetry Project at St. Marks’s Church, in New York City, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.
One of our leading advocates for American poetry, Waldman has received the American Book Award’s Lifetime Achievement, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, and is Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Indicative of Meredith Monk’s utter uniqueness is the vocabulary used to describe her vocal compositions and performances—words and phrases, including translucence, microtonal slips, pinpricks, cries, keening glissandos, whoops and yodels, leaps and drops, nonsense syllables, pure vowels, wordless acrobatics, enigmas, incantations. Monk’s groundbreaking work lives at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound. Her musical composition which feature the voice as instrument, have been described as simultaneously “ancient and modern.” “But Monk's music isn't redolent of a nostalgic past,” a reviewer in the Guardian wrote. “It is not an escape from today's world. It belongs in the present, because, as she says, she wants her pieces to give her listeners an alternative vision of concentration and attention amid the ever-diminishing and ever-increasing speed of the world around us.” In that sense, Monk’s compositions offer and perhaps even require what poems do. That is, a turning off and tuning out of distractions, and a slow, mindful focus on the moment being offered. It’s been said that Monk’s music speaks “directly to those collective parts of our subconscious that are the deepest and oldest.”
Like Waldman, Monk is a maker and a builder. In 1968, Monk founded The House, a company dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach to performance, and in 1978 she founded Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble. She’s had commissions from the San Francisco Symphony and the Kronos Quartet, among others. And in conjunction with her fiftieth season of performing, she was appointed the 2014-2015 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Monk is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, three “Obies” She holds honorary Doctor of Arts degrees from Bard College, Boston Conservatory, Cornish College of the Arts, The Juilliard School, Mount Holyoke College, the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of the Arts. In 2015, Monk received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
Can music, poetry, art offer an antidote not to fragmentation? Waldman and Monk give us hope.