Fast Speaking Woman

by Anne Waldman
   Fast Speaking Woman is not anne waldman’s first poetry book, but it brought her to the wider notice of readers especially connected to Beat movement writing. It was published by lawrence ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in 1975 as Number 33 in the prestigious Pocket Poets Series after Ferlinghetti heard Waldman read the title poem in San Francisco at a Buddhist benefit with allen ginsberg. Poem and performance were so evocative that Ferlinghetti wanted a photograph of Waldman for the cover of the book to display her as “the manifestation of woman,” as she put it. Even by then, Waldman preferred the title poem in performance over its life on the page. When she was backstage during bob dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Review tour of 1975–76 and was challenged by Mohammed Ali to demonstrate her bona fides as a woman poet, Waldman offered that poem, spontaneously declaiming, “I’m the woman walking down the backstage with Ali.” A list–chant poem, “Fast Speaking Woman” was written on the run and subject to extensions and modifications as it was performed, a capacity enhanced by the poem’s structure in anaphora and litany. More than 30 pages long, the poem is based on vibrating incantatory repetitions of the declarative enunciation “I am,” an anaphoric proliferation of limitless claims for women listed in the following manner, as in “I’m a fast speaking woman / I’m a fast rolling woman / I’m a rolling speech woman / I’m a rolling-water woman.” It is arguably Waldman’s most accessible—perhaps because most mnemonic—and well-known poem, and it served to site her as a Beat poet, albeit third generation, in spite of her frequent insistence that she is a second generation New York School poet. “Fast Speaking Woman” is a hybrid of historical moment and poetic influences that typifies
   Waldman’s work: The urgent exclamatory poem fits with her second-wave feminism as well as with the “hot” school of Beat Generation writing. The poem is indebted, as is evident from its look on the page and from Waldman’s performance of it, to Ginsberg and “howl”; as do many Waldman “list” poems, it visibly descends from Beat poetic styles of Whitmanic declamation and prophecy as interpreted and epitomized by Ginsberg. Its signifiers describing the woman of its title are ever exchanging among themselves, making it a poem as seemingly “interminable” in the motion of its lines as in its composition, which Waldman described as enduring for some time in an unfinished state. The ultimate feminist or woman-centered innovation on Beat poetics in “Fast Speaking Woman” is the work’s relationship to its sources, especially Maria Sabina, the Mazatec Indian shamaness in Mexico whose chants Waldman has interwoven into her lines. Waldman constructed the poem intertextually, using Sabina’s refrain—“water that cleans as I go”—as a “place to pause and shift rhythm and acknowledge the cleansing impulse of the writing,” as she notes in an accompanying essay about the poem in the1996 revised edition. Waldman constructs a litany/list poem that speaks with multiple voices, enacting by the pastiching in of others’ voices its claimed relation to women as a caste—the poet-speaker is many Everywomen at once. Waldman’s collage of Sabina into her Beat poem accomplishes the transfiguration of Beat aesthetics by the infusion of a woman’s material and spiritual discourse, which works to integrate women into the male mythoi of Beat Generation writing.
   The other poems of the original edition of Fast Speaking Woman have multiple inspirations but most are, as Waldman has noted, “relevant & resonant with the notion of ‘chant.’ ” “Pressure,” signed “Lower East Side / 1972,” is a list poem that pivots from a catalogue of places and environments to the phrases that give them desperate urgency, “no way out,” “no escape,” “no way no way,” “no return no way off / no way out of midnight.” “Notorious” is a list-chant of a woman’s repute—“known for her mouth, splendid temper tantrums / squeezed head, nostalgic lips & antelope eyes / known for her nonsense hands & big calves / known for laughing”-that invites identification with the poet herself in a kind of imaginative biography. “Musical Garden,” a list of “New Year’s Resolutions 1974,” continues the practice of listing chanted, repeated commands, here organized around the restrictive clause “can’t give” and making reference to literary artists, as in “Can’t give you night mail, telephone ringing, / talking about [jack] kerouac . . . Can’t give it up, foxy, classy, flashy / . . . can’t give it up yet won’t give you up yet / can’t give it up!” The delirium of refusals comprising New Year’s resolutions makes a provocative turn on resolves for improvement as the poet embraces the new year with the determination not to amend or forgo pleasures, habits, desires, artists which form her life. In poems added in the revised edition, such as “I Bow at Bodhgaya” and “Red Hat Lama,” a 1973 trip to India is commemorated. Other poems recognize figures identified with the Beat Generation. In “Lines to a Celebrated Friend” the list of advice and commands to the elder poet concludes with “No one’s smarter or more enlightened or more famous / For heaven’s sake Allen, pull up those baggy pants,” a tribute that makes the beloved man Ginsberg visible under the mantle of the esteemed poet, another kind of biography of the female speaker, his acolyte. The global reach of the poems in Fast Speaking Woman, the spiritual openness and far-flung search for understanding, typify the mature poet’s body of work, even if the list–chant form is far surpassed by the complex vocalisms, visions, pastiches, and hybridity of the later iovis. Waldman’s gambit in this Pocket Poets Series collection is to foreground women as poets, spiritual channels, and human beings in Beat Generation consciousness and culture. She claims to have always profited from her connection with the famous men of the Beat movement, having “never felt an ounce of condescension” from them, but women artists were not much recognized in the Beat heyday. “Fast Speaking Woman” brought women poets to the attention of Beat Generation writers, publishers, and readers, as Waldman brought a distinctive, self-aware feminine energy and presence to the all-encompassing, uncensored free verse form of the classic Beat poem with her ground-breaking list–chant verses.
■ Buschendorf, Christa. “Gods and Heroes Revised: Mythological Concepts of Masculinity in Contemporary Women’s Poetry.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 43, no. 4 (1998): 599–617.
■ Charters, Ann. “Anne Waldman.” In The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 16, The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar Society, edited by Ann Charters, 528–533. Detroit: Gale, 1983.
■ Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace. “Fast Speaking Woman: Anne Waldman.” In Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, edited by Nancy M. Grace and Ronna C. Johnson, 255–281. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
■ McNeil, Helen. “The Archeology of Gender in the Beat Movement.” In The Beat Generation Writers, edited by A. Robert Lee, 178–199. East Haven, Connecticut: Pluto Press, 1996.
■ Puchek, Peter. “From Revolution to Creation: Beat Desire and Body Poetics in Anne Waldman’s Poetry.” In Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, 227–250. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Talisman: Anne Waldman Issue 13 (Fall 1994/Winter 1995).
   Ronna C. Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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