Push, Push Against the Darkness: An Interview with Anne Waldman on The Iovis Trilogy

Photo by Greg Fuchs

by Jim Cohn
Internationally acclaimed poet Anne Waldman is well known as a force in poetry. She was one of the founders and directors of The Poetry Project at St. Marks’s Church In-the-Bowery, working there for over a decade; she also co-founded with Allen Ginsberg the celebrated Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, where as Distinguished Professor of Poetics she continues to work to preserve the school’s substantial literary/oral archive. A recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, and a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, Waldman is the author of more than 40 books, including Fast Speaking Woman (City Lights, 1975), Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, and Manifestos (Coffee House Press, 2001), and several volumes of selected poems. She has concentrated on the long poem as a cultural intervention with such works as Marriage: A Sentence (Penguin, 2000),Structure of The World Compared to a Bubble (Penguin, 2004), Manatee/Humanity (Penguin, 2009), and the monumental anti-war feminist epic The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment (Coffee House Press, $40), a project that took 25 years to complete. We discussed the book on April 2, 2012, the poet’s birthday.

Jim Cohn: You began work on Iovis in the late 1980s; Book I appeared in 1993. What were the circumstances that gave birth to your writing? Did you conceive it as a trilogy all along?

Anne Waldman: The plan was always a trilogy, the classical triad. Outer, inner, secret, Heaven, Earth, Man (which is the triad of the haiku), Nirmanakya, Sambhogakaya, Dharmakaya (realms of form, light, and emptiness—a Buddhist triad), and so on. Aeschuylus’sOresteia, Dante’s Commedia. Endless complicated triads. H.D.’s War Trilogy as well, a deep bow of gratitude in my project to the power of her epic, written against a backdrop of war. I was also thinking in terms of a feminist plan of explicating the male, usurping with the female and the hermaphrodite, and then resolving in something transcendent beyond gender perhaps. And personally there is first: imagination; second: the act of writing—and third: the act/act of vocalizing. The subtitle “Colors in the Mechanism of Concealment” came with “Book III: Eternal War” but seemed to serve the entire project with its implication of unmasking layers of “concealment.” I wanted an expansive form that would make a demand on my time—tithe my time—at least a quarter century. That would be a record—a slice of history—for my son and his generation. It was interesting to publish IOVIS gradually, as it un-wound and progressed. Iovis is the generative of Jove, Zeus, and I was seeing how everything is of the Patriarch. The actual title is “The Of-Jove Trilogy,” and came from Virgil’s line “Iovis omnia plena,” all is full of Jove. You need a trilogy to cover the subject.

JC: The physical production of your 1000-plus page epic poem, as an object, a relic, is no small achievement. With its highly visual formal arrangement of words and image on the page, the sheer duration of the ink-based performance pushes the envelope of printing. How involved were you in actual book’s layout and design?

AW: I like the idea of the object, the relic. And I see it as a time machine too or a device you plug into a socket that activates a sound and light show. I was completely involved with the design and production. I wanted the Balinese figure dancing on the front cover. It’s as I envisioned it, actually, once I knew they would not be able to do afford a three-volume book-set. I was both amused and horrified by the sheer size and heft and decided to embrace it, rather than feel embarrassed. The tome feels like—and carries the burden—of 25 years, the years spent on writing it and the actual documentary time-frame of the poem, which is very different, say, fromManatee/Humanity, an ecological narrative, which is meant to take place over three days, although it took three years to write. I was extremely fortunate to have, in my editors at Coffee House, a very supportive team. I was pleased they supported the image of the “plutonium pit” from Rocky Flats. And the drawings. And the skewed spelling. And all the rest: circles, triangles, stars, musical notation.

JC: What is the relationship between the “abstracts” or “narratives” that begin each section ofIovis and the “poem” that follows? What models, if any, did you follow in doing that?

AW: Essentially it was meant as a guide for the reader through the twists and turns of the poem, to locate place, site, event, state of mind. I always appreciate the prose abstracts or summaries to Dante’s Cantos, not his I believe, but preparatory maps, and then wanting to include other events and details important to the poem but in a different mode or genre, somewhat like thealap in an Indian raga, where all the themes are laid out, was useful. Victorian and other period novels carry heady explanations in their chapter headings. Perhaps a didactic thrust but essential to guide the reader though this long montage-trajectory (as one reviewer said, Iovis is “not for the faint of heart”) and have a kind of documentary “voice,” as it were, which is another path of the rhizome. As in the Commedia, I used the first person with all its avatars and split personalities and doppelgangers, and the abstracts helped ground whoever the consciousness of the poem is. Clearly an amalgam.

JC: In the opening prose section at the beginning of “I Am The Guard” you write of your founding of the Kerouac School with Allen Ginsberg and note your Jovian intention regarding the male poets you admired: “The challenge of the elder poet-men is their emotional pitch she wants to set her own higher than.” Do you think Iovis achieves this higher “emotional pitch”?

AW: I would hope so. I think it goes higher in pitch because of the advantage of distance, and of a feminist outrage. And my vocal chords reach the high notes of “coming after,” so to speak, in the multiple guises that foreground the female, rather than having her reified as with Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams. There was a way “she” gets lost in their epics. That clear-sighted seer is sidelined, she’s not enough real flesh and blood with her own throbbing poet-consciousness. The feminist consciousness in Iovis wants you to see where she has travelled—to the complicated tin and cardboard slums of India, to a survived yet struggling land where a whole generation (my own) is decimated (in Viet Nam). In his extraordinary The H.D. Book, which importantly explores the role women played in the creation of Modernism, Robert Duncan sites the discordant note—“the rant of Pound, the male bravado of Williams, the bitter anger of Lawrence”—and calls them “purposeful overcharges” and speaks of theirs as a therapeutic art. I would agree. And we would share that. But the feminine principle of putting makeup on empty space seemed absent, and I was also driven to create also (albeit with my male comrade Allen Ginsberg, as well initially with the very strong poet Diane di Prima) a zone such as the Kerouac School that would embed what I call the architecture of the feminine, that is the “environment,” the space that allows gestation and generation. There’s reference in the Tao Te Ching (6th century BCE) to the “dark female-enigma” which is called the “root of heaven and earth,” and this text says this spirit is like “gossamer so unceasing it seems real. Use it: it’s effortless.” The environment is always there, waiting.

JC: I’m also thinking of the letter from “B.B.” which suggests you rely more on personal history rather than political or geological history in the making of the poem—and in doing so, create a different kind of poetry than the “masters.” Although you obviously included this letter to argue the point that you had achieved a greater degree of accessibility to the reader, do you believe that Iovis is actually any less dense or complex or arcane than those modernist long poems by Pound, Olson, Williams, etc?

AW: No, I would say it is as dense, but also invokes “’istorin” (the root of the word “history”) as a mode to explore the political history of this slice of war/lifetime. How infuriating it is to be continually born to war that continues one’s whole lifetime, even as one protests it—what futility. It is perhaps a more public epic in this regard, and carries a ritual vocalization. And I was concerned with certain modalities of sound and enactment, as in the tribute section “Pieces of an Hour” to John Cage. And influenced, as well, by Buddhist and Balinese rites and practices.

JC: The multipersonae of a traveler of the physical dimension, as well as others, suggests a central concern of the poem. Travel grounds the traveler in the poem’s wired global scale, its worldwide interplanetary scope. Can you share a few of your itineraries while you were writingIovis in terms of those specific locales that drove you to write sections based upon what you learned being there?

AW: I referred to India and Viet Nam above, because I have felt a strong link to those places and their cultures and their role in my own life and poetics. I first travelled to India in the early 1970s as a curious spiritual pilgrim and “took refuge” and began a Buddhist practice with Tibetan teachers, but I was also enamored of India culture—Vedic chanting, the Bauls of Bengal, and the raga as an expansive form inspired aspects of Iovis as well. But the reality of being offered an infant to take back to the U.S. with me by a family in Bubaneshwar was a startling and poignant “luminous detail” that conjured an extreme and hard reality. I couldn’t comply but I could tell the story. That area along the Bay of Bengal also suffered terrible floods after I left. In Viet Nam—traveling primarily in the North—there were few people of my generation left, they had died in what they call “The American War.” I felt a strong karmic link to my own generation, how much blood on our hands, protest as we may? My father had served in World War II and that was still palpable as I explore in the book, Korea was more distant, Viet Nam was virtually in the living room and in the streets. There’s an earlier “History lesson for my son” on Viet Nam and then the later pilgrimage, “Dark Arcana: Afterimage or Glow.” The trip up the Yangtze (“Tears Streak The Reddest Rouge” from Book III) was a revelation. This section comes out of notes from that trip. The gates of the Three Gorges Dam were like the gates of hell, the river itself the Styx. This monolithic dam misplaced whole villages and cultures, drowned important sites and historical artifacts, and was an ecological disaster as well.

JC: The 7th-century BCE Greek poet Archilochus wrote of being a poet and a warrior, which became a model for Homer. You seem to have taken that as your own investigation into concealment of women when you wrote: “I am both therapon.” Can you discuss how you came upon this multi-alternative “I” and how you placed it within the book’s heroine?

AW: Yes, the negative capability of “both, both.” And the warrior and poet, indeed—cutting though the underbrush and detritus of civilizations and layers of psyche with her stylus-weapon-scythe. The lunatic, the lover, and the poet might join in here as well. But interesting you pick up on “therapon”—Greek for an “attendant” and related to the word “therapy,” also a wonderful double entendre: there upon“I am there upon.” I am upon this work, I am upon my subject, so to speak. I think of Robert Duncan’s title “Before the War” not as relative to temporality but as standing, facing, in front of the war.

JC: I’d like to ask you more about your views on male energy because it is so central to the work. On page 61 of Book I, you write:

Don’t mock me as I avenge the death of my sisters
in this or any other dream
In order to make the crops grow
you men must change into women

On page 62 you write:

The poet . . . tries to write in anti-forms without success. But the boy, her son, guides her through her confusion . . .

On page 111, you argue:

I wanted you in agreement that women invented the alphabet . . .

and on page 122, you explicate the epic journey

to the underworld & steal the secrets of the male energies that rule there . . .

On page 154, you posit a distinct male position where

The “male” here is more dormant deity, integrated into a transcendent yet powerful hermaphrodite. . . a “double” . . .

Can you elaborate on the mechanism of male energy you hacked into in Iovis and how that may or may not have evolved over the twenty-five years you spent writing the poem?

AW: The psychological mechanism was there to be exposed in a way, and there was also the need to transcend to the hermaphrodite, help the male “get” there—explore the “both both” of sexuality and eros and how eros moves, ascends beyond gender construct. I think Iovisexplores identity in this way, instructing—correcting—the male on how to behave so he too can get free of the habitual patterns of the warring god realm, the need to always hallucinate an enemy and thereby justify his bellicose existence and lust for blood. Which also goes to the greed of plunder and loot and empire. So I watched that over 25 years, and the only power I had was in my poetry, tracking the deeds of the patriarch. But I was also tracking the life of my child, my world, my lives, my elders, the school I had helped create—a temporary autonomous zone of sanity. The dark trajectories forced the poem into being in a sense—maybe I would go mad if I didn’t track Rocky Flats, from demonstrating in the ’70s to the present with the nuclear plant decomissioned and yet the soil still toxic with plutonium, visiting Bhopal to see the residues of the Union Carbide genocide in 1986. We see how “the fix is in, the fix is in” continues to manifest in the ugly scenarios playing out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Criminal wars. A million Iraqis dead? You have to wonder and weep and rage over this horrific pathology. And the new human-less weaponry—drones and surveillance—more mechanisms of concealment. All those horrors, and how they are inter-connected and how we are “before them,” and can’t ignore them. And expose the agendas of Halliburton and so on. Quite exhausting.

I hope people of the future will go to this poem for some of the history, as well as for the imagination and beauty that counters and chides and is still in a wild place. I experience Iovis as—ultimately—a generative project. The boy guiding through confusion is key here as well. Who inherits this larynx? Who comes after us to clean up the mess? Who might sing of the darker times?

JC: You mention the Occupy Movement of 2011 in Book III. Iovis has a kind of 3-D political activism—its interconnected themes of war, feminism, and language. The poem has been described in a Publishers Weekly review, as your “attempt at a new world history, a radical re-creation myth, an homage to Blake's epics and Pound's cantos, and a mystic or matriarchal answer to the male-dominated civilization (Jove or Iovis, the male god).” Do you agree with that?

AW: Yes, I would agree. There is that tri-partite braid you mention. And it might be the language the poem finds is the answer. That our need to reimagine our world through the vibratory larynx, that’s what matters. Re-awaken the world to itself. Through ideas, pictures, sounds. Hold the mirror up to “nature.”

JC: Your own Vajrayana Buddhist practice was front and center in Book II, “Rooms”, and is woven throughout the trilogy. You wrote of your fear of “passion toward others, toward anything” and how the room of mind you lived in “was a prison.” Were there particular moments over the twenty-five years of writing the poem that informed your personal goal of attaining some kind of freedom—“this poem is the occasion of my complete LIBERATION”—in this lifetime?

AW: O dear, I sound arrogant. If you speak of your own liberation or enlightenment, clearly it hasn’t happened! Still too much ego. But certainly writing this work over a long period of time was liberating. I got all that mental projection and montage and history and sense perception OUT in front of myself where I could shape it. There’s an aspiration to keep working free of “small mind” in the Iovis project which also reflects an allegiance to reflection, contemplation, and following the breath of yourself and others, including the “plants and trees and so on. . .” and seeing poetry is also a means of liberation, in that I am awakened to this life and its beauty and mystery and complexity through the graces of a “making” of language. And there are energies that reside in each phone and phoneme. And we can release them. And it can be grand and vast and you can create a realm where you can dwell for a while. Where things are perfect symbols of themselves, no manipulation. And that connects to me to the Buddhist view. From that perspective we can wake up on the spot, be conscious of our world, think of others. Not push ahead on the line, hog the road, and so on. Most of us have glimmers of that. Little gaps in our “me me” monkey mind consciousness.

JC: You include numerous personal letters throughout Iovis, but none speaks as potentially critical of the poem as one by your longtime Kerouac School colleague Anselm Hollo. Hollo argues that “the poem needs to be more than just raw material to present to an . . . audience, in ways intentionally or unintentionally designed to cover up weaknesses in the writing. . . .” How would you respond to post-publication criticisms of the work that in fact there are vast numbers of pages in which a radical syntactic linguistics is at play and meaning is at-one with no-meaning?

AW: I took Anselm Hollo’s ars poetica to do with a critique of reading the telephone book, or some such performance strategy, more conceptual in purpose. I suppose the best response is to let Iovis find its readers and place in the spectrum, which it seems to be doing. I have great confidence in its many surprises, delights, and strategies, to use that male word. Even humor. There are intentional spaces for “raw” material, but so much of it has been worked through the “poem machine.” I see endless permutations are possible as well with how one might read it.

JC: You discuss sexism and the Beats in a long letter to Jane Dancey, in which you state that the biggest problem with the Beats was “the inattention to women and often sexist attitudes about women that undermine some of the early writing.” You follow that with an interview with poet Joanne Kyger in which she states something very real for any experimental writer working under the radar: “No one’s going to tell you you’ve got it.” What would you say is the heart of the long-term personal power that fueled Iovis?

AW: Yes, exactly, no one asks you to do this. And the male-poet compadres are not always helpful. It took Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg too long to see what a great poet Joanne Kyger is! But indeed, no one begs you to be a poet or write a 1000-page poem. You have to be fueled by a drive, a conviction—a need, a necessity, a vision that is so pressing that it has no other outlet but through you. That doesn’t mean that you are unconscious or in trance, but there can be moments like that. You are deliberately making this work for yourself—to see your own mind, to learn something, to wake up, to observe the work can be arranged, shaped, held, transmitted.

JC: You are a poet “enamored of syllabaries, alphabets, the phonemes of old tongue & groove.” You also mention how the reference point of your writing of the epic was the mantra “War, gender, language” (“Lacrimare, Lacrimatus: ‘Dux Femina Facti’”). Can you discuss your appreciation of Gertrude Stein and her “include it all” poetics in the making of Iovis?

AW: Yes, as much that could be included. I did have to cut about 100 pages at Coffee House’s insistence. They would not have been able to bind the book. It was also unfinished pages in draft that weren’t as strong. The epic is a story of your time, your wars, your heroes. For her it was Susan B. Anthony, Picasso. Stein is a champion of her own continuous present mind-grammar. The world is constantly reflected in her patterns and associations, and she is miraculously liberated by a lack of restraints. She could use the intimate things in her life, and also simple objects, names as well—where they are “reduced” to language in relationship to itself and flattened out quite democratically—so that in an interesting way they become neutralized. She wrote freely and yes, maybe things are coded, but she wrote a great many works, dense and demanding. You feel her liberation when you hold and read her notebooks in the Beieneke Library at Yale. The assertive child-genius.

JC: The “Spin or Lace It In Story” piece In Book II exemplifies the poet’s role in retelling “traditional myth”—its relationship to “phenomenal obstacles the imagination conjures & vivifies. . . .” It seems to call attention to the centrality of imagination. Can you discuss the roots of this story? Is it from a film?

AW: It’s the spider woman myth, from Navajo/Diné, Keresan, and Hopi Native peoples. A kind of creation myth, a survival myth. In this version she’s a “spinster” with “no man to touch her,” as I say. She’s probably Grandmother Spider Woman. I wanted to invoke the sense of her “spinning,” and spinning a tale, this tale—this epic—as well. The artist as solipsistic, complete-unto-her-self, letting “the centrality of imagination” as you say, come and unravel. Myths, by their definition, involve transformations, struggles through various worlds or layers of reality and of obscuration. Other characters such as Copper Man appear, and all the natural (including cobweb and gossamer) elements. I think I retold this story while being in a retreat. I was indebted to Paula Gunn Allen and her book The Scared Hoop. She was raised on the Laguna Pueblo and was an important thinker (anthropologically), wanting to restore a sense of the gynocratic to Native Amerian history, and myth. The centrality of the feminine.

JC: You begin Book III, “Eternal War,” with an introduction in which you write, “The sending and receiving practice of tonglen I recommend again as it is the crux of this project: take negatively (sic) upon oneself, call it out, breathe out the efficacy. Practice empathy in all things. Pick a cause and tithe your time relative to the half-life of plutonium.” What is the place of tonglen in your conjectures of “future . . . radical poetries”?

AW: Tonglen is taking it all in, including it all, as Gertrude Stein recommends, but for the scope of Iovis it’s all the toxicities of our world as well—the ugliness, violence, disparities, the suffering of all kinds and degrees, of others near and far. Your compassion travels beyond your own inner circle. And then you breathe out an alternative version where you mentally and emotionally and psychologically purify the poisons. So indeed, the generative idea is in the crux of this practice and of my propensity toward poetry, which is a practice of the imagination. We humans need to do better with our vast minds and alchemical powers. Future radial poetries might be more symbiotic with the rest of consciousness.

JC: There are exquisite sections of Book III, such as “G-Spot” and “Matriot Acts,” that would be the apex of most poets’ careers. And then there is “Problem-Not-Solving,” which really was the highlight of the entire poem for me. Can you talk about how your activist work at Rocky Flats in 1978-1979, as well as all your tireless antiwar, antinuke rallying over the years, came to be seen in this formulation of “problem-not-solving”?

AW: As for the activist work, it just goes on, and it seems to be more and more about how to preserve Archive, how to preserve culture, how to hide the treasures so that they can be found at a later date and re-activated. For me poems are acts re-done, and that can vibrate well into the future. So Iovis has that potential. And it was written for my son Ambrose Bye so that he could see where I had been, and he could see something of the world that he would inherit. This is the Kali Yuga, remember, according to many traditions a dark age, and we will need some paths and trajectories through it. “Problem-not-solving” keeps the potential to actually solve. Solve is close to salve—balm, a healing ointment—and also to salvare, to save. That little “not” (knot) could be eliminated. And there’s that active “ing” in “solving.” The situation in Israel/Palestine is the most crazy-making, suffering-inducing “knot,” perhaps the greatest conundrum of our time. We need a Peace Tzaress in the cabinet. We need a world-wide Department of Peace. The will is just not there yet, the other way is still so darkly lucrative. Poets have to keep pushing, pushing, against the darkness, and write their way out of it as well.

Jim Cohn is director of the online Museum of American Poetics (poetspath.com), which he founded in 1998. His most recent books are Mantra Winds (2010) and Sutras and Bardos: Essays and Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, The Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, Postbeat Poets and The New Demotics (2011). He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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