A n n e   W a l d m a n :   K e e p i n g   T h e   W o r l d   S a f e   F o r   P o e t r y

N a p a l m   H e a l t h   S p a :   R e p o r t   2 0 1 5 :   S p e c i a l   E d i t i o n






::::Anne Waldman&JimCohnat NU by Jack Greene 7/09.jpg


Anne Waldman & Jim Cohn, Naropa University, July 3, 2009. Photo by Jack Greene.



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



Jim Cohn: You began work on Iovis Book 1 in the late 1980s. Book I appeared in 1993.

What were the circumstances that gave birth to your writing The Iovis Trilogy: Colors in

the Mechanism of Concealment (Coffee House Press, 2011)? 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 principle (which is the triad of the haiku), Nirmanakya,

Sambhogakaya. Dharmakaya (realms of form, light and emptiness––a Buddhist triad)

and so on. Aeschuylus’s Oresteia, 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 a line of Virgil’s

“Iovis omnia plena,” all is full of Jove. You need a trilogy to cover the subject.


JC: The physical production of your one thousand-plus page epic poem, as an object, a

relic, is no small achievement. With it’s highly visual formal arrangement of words and

image on the page, the sheer duration of the technical 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 at over 1,000

pages 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 from Manatee/Humanity (Penguin

Poets 2009), 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 base and editing 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 of Iovis and the “poem” that follows? How did you come upon that format? 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 the alap 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” (269), 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

the “emotional pitch” that you measured your life & work against theirs?


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 have her being

“re-ified” as with Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams. There was a way “she”

gets lost in their epics. That clear-sighted seer, prophet 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 B.C.E) 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.” (294-5) in which the suggestion is you rely

more on personal history rather than political or geologic 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 intellectual or made of arcana any less than those modernist poets such as Pound,

Olson, Williams, etc?


AW: No I would say it is as dense in a comparable way but also invokes “’istorin” to find

out for oneself (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. It’s epic nature. Can you share a few of your

itineraries while you were writing Iovis 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, 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––travelling 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 WW2 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, an ecological disaster as well.


JC: The mechanism of disconcealment that I notice best is the invention of a

multidimensional “both, both” “I” based upon the 7th century B.C. Greek poet

Archilochus who 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” (75). 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 of evolved over the 25 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 Iovis explores 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. But 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

decommissioned 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 weather weaponry 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 (Xi) 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

was described in a Publishers Weekly review (http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1

56689-255-1) as an 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”

(423), and is woven throughout the trilogy. You wrote of your own fear of “passion

toward others, toward anything” and how the room of mind you lived in “was a prison.”

As a liberation epic, were there particular moments over the 25 years of the writing of

the poem that informed you as to your personal goal of attaining liberation––“this poem

is the occasion of my complete LIBERATION” (688)––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 you

can dwell in 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 your longtime Kerouac School poet/colleague Anselm

Hollo’s letter (473-475). 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” (474). 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 letter to Jane Dancey (475-478). In that long

letter, 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” (478). What would you say is the heart of 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 1,000 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” (“Glyphs” 480). You also mention how the reference point of your writing of the

epic was the mantra “War, gender, language” (“Lacrimare, Lacrimatus: ‘Dux Femina

Facti’,” 529). 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: One of my favorite shorter sections of Iovis occurs in Book II. The “Spin or Lace It In

Story” piece exemplifies the poet’s role in retelling “traditional myth”––its relationship

to “phenomenal obstacles the imagination conjures & vivifies...” (608). 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 it

all 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 (655-657) 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” (656). What is the place of tonglen in your conjectures of “future...radical



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” (946

975), 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/by this formulation of “problem-not



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. A 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.



April 2––the poet’s birthday––2012.




[“Push, Push Against the Darkness” was originally published in Rain Taxi Review of Books

(Spring 2012). See http://www.raintaxi.com/push-push-against-the-darkness-an-interview-with

anne-waldman-on-the-iovis-trilogy/. Reprinted by permission of Eric Lorberer, Rain Taxi.]