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NPF Poetry of the 1970s Conference, 4p.m. Thursday, June 12, 2008
Rebecca Weaver, University of Minnesota

    In 1977, William Burroughs, Jr. lay comatose in a Denver hospital, awaiting a liver transplant.  His father, Williams S. Burroughs, first came to Naropa to teach in 1975.   Billy moved there in 1976 because his father, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman hoped the Buddhist environment and people would provide safety and assist him in kicking his drug and alcohol addictions.  They hoped that he would fall under the influence of the Buddhist meditation teacher and leader of Naropa, Chogyam Trungpa,  and start meditating.  However, though he and Waldman were friends, and he was a sometimes affable party guest, Billy mostly maintained an aloof presence near Naropa and its inhabitants, working odd jobs in Boulder and hanging out with local petty drug dealers and thieves. 
    Waldman's poem "Billy Work Peyote," written while Billy was in the hospital, acts as a shamanic and communal chant for Billy's health and the health of the community.  The poem records and re-enacts a peyote ceremony that involved Waldman, Reed Bye, and Steven Taylor, and is a poem about community and the work it can do for its members as performance thereof.   Communal generation and reception of poetry is a central part of Waldman's early work, and when she went to Naropa, this continued with a focus on the members and work of that community.  Textually and historically emerging from the context of her communal poetic practices developed in the 1960s on the Lower East Side of New York, and intensified with her founding of the Poetics School at Naropa, the poem was intended as efficacious, with real results in the daily world, working as a representative poem of the poetics of community and of this specific community.
    The community of Naropa emerged from the swirl of energy and community in the Lower East Side poetry scene in the 1960s, in which Waldman and Ginsberg were major participants.  These communities practiced a form of communal poetics not only concerned with dispersal and support, but also with the possibilities of collaboration.  As Daniel Kane emphasizes, this sense of poetry community, poetry-in-community, and communal poetics, developed in the readings at the cafes and eventually readings and classes at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's.  Collaboration occurred not just between poets but between poets and their larger audiences, often including interruption and commentary, and often creating the poem as a partner of direct political action. 
    Thus the evolution of Waldman's poetics from a communal poetics centered in urbanity to a more clearly spiritual and healing poetics, evolving from what Daniel Kane, in discussing Waldman and Lewis Warsh's exemplary magazine of the Lower East Side of the 1960s, Angel Hair, calls a "poetics of sociability."  It continues in a more personal and local way the poem as communal gesture and the "intersocial text" as embodiment of community (333), reflecting the slightly different aim at Naropa in the seventies than the communal critique of establishment poetics prevalent on the Lower East Side of the 1960s.  In fact, this poem reflects a move away from the 1960s contests over claims to a "legitimate" national poetics toward efforts at building more locally focused and more locally immediate poetics which respond to their particular contexts and communities of generation.
    The Poetics School at Naropa is one such community.  In 1974, at the request of Trungpa, Ginsberg and Waldman started the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado.  Trungpa's goal was to eventually form a Buddhist university where academic and spiritual disciplines worked together to create a unique learning experience, and the poetics school was one area where he sought to expand programming.  As a major organizer, instigator and participant in the vibrant poetry scene in the Lower East Side, including directing the Poetry Project, Waldman was particularly well suited to the task of co-creating and running a poetics school and to carry through on her visions of the kind of community that she wanted.  She took this task very seriously, as evidenced by her work in drafting founding documents (such as the "General practices of the JKSDP" essay) and her participation in all aspects of the school's life.  Her letters from Naropa to fellow poets and friends demonstrate this engagement;  she worried about students and teachers alike and worked to protect the growing and changing community of the Poetics School. 
    Her poems during these years reflect this emphasis on building and sustaining community, and many of the poems in two books from this time period, Fast Speaking Woman and Skin Meat Bones, took the form of chants.  "Billy Work Peyote," originally published in Skin Meat Bones (1985), has the qualities of spiritual and magical chants— chants which both enact the poetry on the page and the specifics of time, place, and community of their performances.  In keeping with Waldman's experience of audience as co-creator, these poems invite their readers into a fellowship of healing ritual.    Formally, the visual and oral focus of the poem is based in breath and the movement of sound, which reflects not only Waldman's intent to keep the poem moving, but also her hope in the poem as a communal chant that would keep Billy's life moving and which would be beneficial to the community of the Poetics school by preserving one of its members, through the ritual.  As she remarked later in an essay about her psychedelic experiences, Waldman and the others (Taylor and Bye, both active in the Poetics School community of students and local poets) were not under the impression that their peyote ritual for Billy would bring him out of his coma, but as she stated in an essay about her experiences with psychedelics, "the fact that everyone was working with this intent helped us all" (236).  As a chant for Billy's health, the poem performs more than one task:  on the surface, it is a poem intended as shamanic chant, but it also works for the people chanting and performing the ritual and incantations.
    With a dedication grounded in sympathy—the human connection—the poem works as both letter to subject and as communal work.  First published in Skin Meat Bones, an early draft had the poem's dedication as "A piece of sympathetic magic for the life of William Burroughs, Jr., sick in hospital December 1977. "  In later versions of the poem, including its publication in the 20th anniversary edition of Fast Speaking Woman, the dedication changes to "A piece of sympathetic magic for the life of William Burroughs, Jr. (died March 3, 1981).  Though not originally part of Fast Speaking Woman, Waldman includes "Billy" in the anniversary edition, noting that the poem resonates in spirit with the chants in the collection (iii).  In her essay "'Fast Speaking Woman' and the Dakini Principle," Waldman characterized chant as "heartbeat" and as "an ancient efficacious poetic practice" (35).  The efficacy for Waldman comes from the naming power of poetry, strongly linking to and honoring Maria Sabina's healing legacy (38) of poetry as radical empowerment through transformational language and a manifestation of consciousness.  Poetry thus has remedial power (39), and can enable its practitioners to be messengers and protectors who change the world through the play of imagination (42).  The world here is the wider world and the community of "Billy Work Peyote," which includes the destruction wrought by addiction and its effects on small communities such as the Poetics School, its day-to-day markers and major events.
    Beginning with the repeated phrase "keep it moving, Billy,  there's some motion / we're doing    the clog dance for ya / embattled or exalted   motions of fronds," the poem constructs a cluster of  influences and meanings that operate throughout the piece.  First is movement, directly referencing Charles Olson's projective poetics ("keep it moving, citizen"), highly influential to Waldman and others in the scene of the 60s.  This "keep it moving" refrain appears four times in the poem, its various iterations fluid and in constant motion.
    The motion becomes shared possession of the audience and speaker.  By the communal dance, it is hoped that the energy exerts some healing power.  There are gaps between words in the same line, a strategy that Waldman often uses to indicate the movement of breath and the pacing of the oral performance.  Overlapping this movement is the pacing of meditative practice—required of Naropa students—as applied to the centering that it's supposed to do:  "you way back deep deep deep not enough legroom not enough to sit down and whisper // in your ear Billy    no nova Billy   more nourishment" (58).
    As the poem descends down the page, an aggregate list of items, tasks, and rituals that the actors in the poem undertake to give to or aid in Billy's recovery, such as sending stars, building a fire, raising "a tent for wanderers for a wandering soul   lost / your shadow," and the central ritual act of the poem, ingesting peyote.  The religious notion of participants' sacrifice of health and comfort appears here:
                            & for your sake we lie down
                  in a bundle of cloud & for you we eat this medicine to
                  & puke up again   I vomited for you Billy & the last
                 3 years come back up to me for you Billy   churn it
                you are still here for us Billy (59)

Perhaps the last three years come back as object of remembrance or nostalgia for Waldman, marking for her a significant time spent in this community.  And Billy, despite his precarious health, is "still here," still part of the community, where the act of the poem keeps him present in the life of the community. 
    The next section is a list of hopeful adjectives, hopeful in that by chanting them, the participants can name and thus strip of power sources of Billy's troubles ("demodulation Billy," "demon hypodermic Billy") and can effect some health and stability for him ("corrigible Billy /  Solomon's seal Billy / correlation Billy").  He is "stock still" in hospital and indelible, irrevocably marked; but something good may come of this, implied by Waldman's calling him  "hyacinth blood Billy."  "Cards on the table Billy," the last line of this stanza, commands Billy to show what he's got, to gamble on living (60).
    Waldman ends the poem with a direct address to the object of the ritual: "high drama and we're missing you Billy / where ya been Billy boy / looking for you Billy," letting him know that he is missed, that he has missed some moments of importance to the community, events Billy has missed being a part of or commenting on, such as conflicts between poets and school money problems.  Waldman wants to share these things, to tell the stories and to invite Billy back into participation.  The last two lines are a varying version of the "keep it moving" chant, ending with a request for the more mature, adult listener to "keep it, Bill" (60).
    What is distinct about "Billy Work Peyote"s performance of community is that as a chant with intended efficacy, it directs effort at inclusion within the Poetics School community, directs healing work toward a member of that community, and places its generation as necessary within the life of that community. Its reliance on concision, non-narrative form and movement, chant-structure, and reflection of "real-time" events in the life of a community performs this differently than other written records might.  Like the social poetic practices of the 1960s, these poems of community name and reference.  However, the shift in Waldman's work during this time period is her building on the "poetics of sociability" which so characterized her early work (and communities) to create and perform a poetics of community intended to act collaboratively with its members.


Works Cited

Kane, Daniel.  "Angel Hair Magazine, the Second Generation New York School, and The Poetics of Sociability," Contemporary Literature, XLV, 2.  Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press.  2004.

Waldman, Anne. "Billy Work Peyote," Fast Speaking Woman (20th anniversary edition).  Minneapolis:  Coffee House Press. 1998.

------------.  "Notes on 'Fast Speaking Woman' and the Dakini Principle," Fast Speaking Woman (20th anniversary edition).  Minneapolis:  Coffee House Press.  1998.

-----------.  "from Fast Speaking Woman, etc.," Sisters of the Extreme:  Women Writing On the Drug Experience.  Eds. Palmer, Cynthia, and Michael Horowitz.  Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press.  2000.