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