PRINT February 2020

Anne Waldman

John Giorno, Just Say No to Family Values, 1997, silk screen on paper, 22 × 22". © Durham Press/John Giorno.

AS A FELLOW BUDDHIST, John Giorno taught me something about “dakini principle,” about devotion, about the agency of the poet as trickster in the world. He was clever about technology, inspired by Bob Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver’s E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) He was disciplined, inscrutable, a unique performer—both powerful dharma seer and folksy prophet. He was a prodigious infrastructure artist. I can still see him making son et lumière extravaganzas at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, visual poems and silk screens, Dial-A-Poem and his Giorno Poetry Systems: an archive of recordings and events and collaborations. And agitprop on Wall Street long before Occupy! We had faith in a revolution of consciousness as well as in sexual and gender liberation, and interconnectivity was sizzling in ’60s New York. How much more generative could one day be? How much more purposeful? John was in the center of this maelstrom. And his energy never abated during his whole long, generous life. We grumbled as we watched the moon landing with Jasper Johns in Nags Head (couldn’t the US do better in helping the jobless and homeless?) and chanted mantras with Allen Ginsberg at the Chicago 8 trial, with Bobby Seale cruelly shackled in the courtroom. I had to talk down Andrea Dworkin (and a host of enraged feminists) from boycotting William Burroughs and John as they took the stage at the Poetry Project in 1972. We traveled to India together to seek the wisdom of Tibetan masters who spoke of impermanence and luminosity and the Dark Age. John’s poetry was often ironic, timeless: “Just say no to family values, and don’t quit your day job.” I loved his smile, so many lifetimes of gnosis and engagement and activism, and the making of art in our astonishing existence. 

Anne Waldman is a poet living in New York who also directs the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program in Boulder, Colorado.