Ken Waldman, Alaskan Fiddler-Poet, on Teaching and Playing

July 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ken Waldman combines old-time Appalachian-style string-band music, original poetry, and Alaska-set storytelling for a performance uniquely his own. He has six full-length poetry collections, plus a memoir, and individual poems have been published in Beloit Poetry Journal, New York Quarterly, Quarterly West, Yankee, and many more. His nine CDs have received widespread radio airplay nationally and internationally, and his resume includes appearances at some of the country’s leading performing arts centers, concert series, festivals, universities, and clubs. Here, he expounds some on his love of music, the art of teaching poetry, and what fans can look forward to when they come see him play live. 

Tell us a little about your musical background. When & how did you learn to fiddle? When was the first time you wrote something you recognized as a song to be sung and not a printed poem?

About 30 years ago I was living across the railroad tracks from Chapel Hill NC, in a little mill house in Carrboro NC. One of my housemates was a fine clawhammer banjo player, storyteller, and dance caller. My other housemate played some guitar, harmonica, and could clog. They threw some terrific parties, inviting musicians who were good 30 years ago (and are good now). I was the boring housemate who worked in a bookstore. After one party, a furniture maker, who wasn’t such a great fiddler, left his fiddle with the understanding that it was up for grabs and $100 would take the instrument, bow, and case. I bought that fiddle, struggled mightily at first, but eventually got the knack. It meant playing every day for almost a dozen years, time which took me from North Carolina, to Seattle, to Alaska, where in 1985 I started graduate school in Creative Writing (I went up there as a fiction writer, graduated as a fiction writer, but also started writing poems–which is a whole other story). It’s a miracle to me that I learned to play, and even have composed over 100 tunes.

Actually, I don’t do much singing–and what singing I do is as much a novelty as anything else. My niche is putting poems to the string-band music, and I’ve stretched it pretty far to also include stories. But I do sing a few things, and have written a handful of songs–but they’re for my kids’ CDs (and even there I don’t mind when there are other folks singing them).

How do you teach little kids poetry? Is it like language, easier aquired early, or do you think there’s advantage in maturity? 

When teaching kids poetry, it does depends on the age. Mainly, I’m interested in making it fun and weaning them away from the notion that poems have to be sing-songy rhymes. For all kids, I’ll use repetition, and I also find sharing acrostic poems for a particular community is fun. In addition to using poems written by other kids, and poems by writers I admire, I share my own age-appropriate poems (simpler ones for younger writers, much edgier poems for high-schoolers). It varies by audience and class. I have a few exercises that invariably succeed–I’m always striving to make poetry an inclusive rather than exclusive thing.

Earlier or later? I think it depends. People can come to it at anytime. No matter what, I’m always hoping to show it’s fun to write poems and can be a playful exercise, no matter how serious the subject matter. I’ve met too many wounded writers, and the wounding can happen at any time. I’m striving to show that there’s more to poetry than they think, and that reading and writing poems have real value.

What can folks expect to experience when they come see you? Are there aspects of your appearence that change when at a little cavern like Cornelia Street, versus a bigger stage outdoors? 

What’s the truism–no surprise to writer, no surprise to reader? I know I’ve not only read that somewhere, but know for a fact that you can tell when a writer seems to be on a tightrope. It’s more exciting. I mention that since I think it’s also no surprise to musician/performer, no surprise to audience member. An intimate space like Cornelia Street Cafe allows a more intimate performance, meaning I’ll try things I wouldn’t try on a bigger stage, plus I can sense the feedback with more immediacy. It’s more fun–though bigger stages are fun in a different way. But what’s the other truism–more fun for musician/performer, more fun for audience member?

Anyone coming by will get a mix of old-time Appalachian-style string-band music (both traditional tunes and some of my originals), poetry (and the poems have passed muster on the page and on the stage), and some Alaska-set stories. Plus the sum is greater than any of the individual parts. I’ve been told that anyone who likes traditional music or poetry or Alaska will really enjoy one of my shows. Folks who like two or three of those categories will absolutely love it. I expect to include some poems and tunes I do often, plus a few surprises. (I just heard today that one of my accompanists, Betsy Plum, will likely be unable to make it–she has a broken foot, and has been hobbling around the past weeks–which means there will be a surprise special guest joining Charlie Shaw and myself. So, there’s always a little something to keep us on our toes.)

Who designed the cover for D is for Dog Team/D is for Denali? It’s great!

A long-time Alaska resident, I’ve also had a second home in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, near Lafayette. That region of Louisiana is the center of both the Cajun culture and the zydeco music (and that culture). Lots of great music, dance, and art come from there. Several years ago I met an artist, Kathy McInnis, who designed several of my book and CD covers. Even though she’s never been to Alaska, she did an absolutely wonderful job with the D is for Dog Team project.

Ken Waldman appears Friday, July 29th at 6pm. Visit or call 212/989-9319  for reservations. 


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