About the Author:
Anne Waldman is an internationally renowned poet, performer, and Distinguished Professor of Poetics at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She is the co-editor of Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action and the author of over forty books, including In the Room of Never Grieve and Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos.
Winner of a lifetime achievement award from 2015 American Book Awards and the Before Columbus Foundation
Anne Waldman in conversation with Noelle Levy
Noelle Levy: In what way do you intend to “change the frequency” through Iovis?
Anne Waldman: I’ve already changed or influenced my own frequency through the ongoing construction of this poem. As I investigate, the frequency of rage shifts toward knowledge, reconciliation, and curiosity. The epikos—epic, which is also a song or long libretto—is an “open system” providing a lens through which to interpret the world’s history and catastrophe. The poem as a practice is life-changing; the wheel of time is really a wheel of change. But I’d also hope that the frequency for anyone interested in the poem can shift, as it might also be revealed that poetry IS a place to go for history, for the “news” of one’s tribe and time, and that one can become wiser through the assault of poetry over war.
Noelle Levy: Does each book have a specific purpose in relation to the entire work?
Anne Waldman: Well, the tripartite structure is classic, and each book is a transition having to do with the commensurate “history” in time. The first book is seen as male-investigatory from the point of view of a younger woman’s gaze, honoring dead fathers, teachers, etcetera. The second book is more hermaphroditic and demonstrates coming to a further balance and puissance. The third book, entitled Colors In the Mechanism of Concealment, is still in flux. Maybe it’s the ultimate mother-hag-shaman rattling her cage and her caches of bones and vocabularies as the planet suffers further degradation and human neglect: flood, famine, endless war. Book 3 includes a section entitled “G Spot” that includes a tribute to the struggling loggerhead turtles on the beaches of Cape Canaveral and visits to local strip joint, the Bottom’s Up Club.
Noelle Levy: Could Iovis be read as a tale of a “poet on the battlefield of Mars”?
Anne Waldman: I think we’re in a post-heroic period. I grew up during the brief poetic heroic age, and I understand and benefit from that role that Olson, O’Hara, Duncan, Spicer, Ginsberg, Creeley, Berrigan, others had as “outrider” poets in their time, pushing against restrictive norms and dead language. As warriors or anti-warriors, perhaps. I am interested in the homosexual Duncan, O’Hara, Ginsberg, Spicer as well: questions of identity, gender, against a shifting backdrop of social awareness and reaction. You know William Carlos Williams’ famous letter to Creeley written in 1950, where he says “To write badly is an offence to the state since the government can never be more than the government of words”, and “Bad art is then that which does not serve in the continual service of cleansing the language upon all fixation upon dead, stinking dead, usages of the past”? Well these guys were instrumental in wrenching poetry from some boring places and moving the project forward a few dramatic inches. They were also sensitive “seers” in Rimbaud’s sense. But also, as we all are, caught in the net of the exigencies of their own “time”. I felt the reclaim this heroic role as a female investigator in my time who did not, like my father John Waldman, literally HAVE to go to war or do time as O’Hara and Creeley and Berrigan did, but had war pushing on my psyche all my life. I also am a daughter of Homer and Chaucer and Dante, whatever that means. But Barbara Guest, Joanne Kyger and Diane diPrima have also been heroes for me personally and one needs to position the female in terms of this out-of-kilter war realm. I’ve traveled to Berlin, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bhopal, troubled zones where you sense the karma, if you will, of war, chemical disaster, environmental debasement. Our culture has been embroiled in dead stinking usages of the past, and war is the most egregious of them. And women writers can examine and transmute the language, as I believe they are doing. But it’s more collective than heroic.
So many people (and plants and animals and eco-systems)are in horrific war zones on a daily basis. The “unresolved” suffering, and how one is accountable and complicit in that suffering, should tortures all our sleep. Katrina as a crisis, a wake-up call is closer than one thinks, and the dead —so many—of that crime, will haunt our comfort zones. One needs, as a poet, to work it out ritually, psychically, and through language and dream and study and personal generosity. But not as a victim or a conqueror. As a maker. As a medium. I see the Iovis project and other work as a vow to conscience. Mars is very real as an imago as well; we might all be out there one day, can’t you feel the pull? The allure of the red dust?
Noelle Levy: Often in Iovis you “take on the male mantle.” How do you achieve this?
Anne Waldman: It’s more about male energy, not literally a man’s perspective. And the invocation is towards upaya, or “skillful means,” which in Buddhist psychology is considered the gesture of male energy. Action. Deeds. I remember how close I’ve been to male vulnerability with my father, my son. Writers are natural shape-shifters. But I also feel often that I’m on ical, the way when one is a different gender in a dream. It’s mysterious, a bit transgressive even, and one thinks later, would I do the same thing as a woman in the dream? Gender is a social construct so much of the time.
Noelle Levy: How has your son Ambrose influenced your perspective on male energy within the text?
Anne Waldman: He’s been a terrific source of insight and delight. The poem began a few years after his birth. I am inspired by his talk and talking-back, his perception, humor. There’s also tremendous sympathy with the generic young male that comes through. How quickly he loses innocence, becomes disillusioned, has to secure an identity. Patriarchy is a dangerous myth. The boy/youth is also a warrior, the Parsifal, the wise fool. How does he deal with the post-heroic?
I think it comes back to male vulnerability and the push in this culture to be tough, to be pushing the video buttons that blow up whole worlds. It’s a simulacrum of that atavistic urge perhaps. Iovis includes the letter from the young gay kid, miserable with his environment, suicidal. I feel sympathy for the most part for the boy that doesn’t want the patriarchy either. That’s the perspective Ambrose has influenced.
Noelle Levy: When writing about war, your tone is more educational rather than judgmental. Do you try to employ a Buddhist perspective in writing these sections?
Anne Waldman: I think that’s true and intentional. I don’t just want to scold, but to elucidate and to present information about the way things seem to “work.” But there’s also the notion of “master narrative” that creeps in with how history is passed on, so one can play on that as well. I want to go against the grain of that patriarchal agenda, emotionally and with the “minute particulars,” the counter-weapons of opposition.
The Buddhist perspective might be summed up by the notion of “both both,” “negative capability,” balance and so on. If you see anything beautiful, don’t cling to it; if you see anything ugly, don’t cling to it. But the epic can also shift to a modal structure of out- rage as in “The Devils’ Working Overtime.” When Ambrose composed the music for that section (on the CD In the Room of Never Grieve and also on the CD The Eye Of The Falcon) I was pleased with the heightening of the dynamics. The lines came off the radio from a black preacher in St. John’s Island. Sometimes the oral sections capture the nuances of the epic best, and yes I see the poem as tracking-a-life performance.
Noelle Levy: Did you travel to research the poem, or did you find that your ordinary travels fed the poem?
Anne Waldman: Both approaches seem to work. There’s the constant “auspicious coincidence” of travel, the serendipitous quality, the echoes and leit motifs that keep weaving in and out. Travel never seems “ordinary” in any case but I know what you mean. I was in Florida near Cape Canaveral and began the long section “G Spot” without necessarily intending to. I had always wanted to go to Viet Nam on a pilgrimage, and I knew I would write about it. I had so many questions and was driven by the sense of my generation’s karmic participation in the horrible “American War,” as they call it in Viet Nam.
The gaze towards the East has been important to me, after a large dose of English Lit and the constant reference to the western canon, as if lineage for American poets. Let’s consider the Rig Veda, the Spider Woman myth. And investigating the reality below our border is important, The Maya of the section “Glyphs.” We share a continent with a lot of other realties. So there’s lot of intentionality as well in the process and accumulation of material. Geo-political as well. I think of myself much of the time now as an investigative “field poet,” not unlike Olson’s “archeologist of morning” (and mourning).
Noelle Levy: Mythology and language from around the world is included in Iovis. How did writing from different countries and cultures affect your perspective?
Anne Waldman: I notice that mythology often goes right to the center of whatever dynamic is being played out, and it is often a familiar one in any so-called “historic time.” The Siwa story in “Shiva Ratri” is about a time of no ethics, creatures living in cages, sperm falling on the ground, the world of the barbarians coming to a hiatus that results in a kind of apotheosis. The video games listed in “Hem of the Meteor” suggest and make reference to particular popular warrior realms. I am also interested in the conjuring of animal names and forms: “Silkworm,” “Falcon,” and so on. How we don power or wear masks always interests me.
The perspective remains open, curious, and as a poet the language of mythology and lore makes more sense than traditional master narratives of conquest, the chosen few and theism of the Judeo/Christian as if god is always on the winner’s side and we do it all for god. In eastern philosophy and psychology you ARE the god, the shape-shifter, you are the deity, the serpent, the “twin” in the dream, the activist. You gesture and act out the deeds against the patriarch. You subvert the agenda of the war machine. You torque your language into a range of form and sound. The imagination from these other places is both rich and strange. Intoning the sound from other places I see as mantra, invocation, a way to make the walls shake.
Noelle Levy: In the space of two pages, you call in the voices of a wounded soldier, a Vietnamese woman, the voice of the land and history of Viet Nam, the “old mothers,” the monk, and the poet’s voice. This amalgam of voices, which are often in the same italicized print, argue with the poem’s refrain that “the war is over.” The voices still echo in a chorus of their mingled past, and recall the work’s subtitle of “Afterimage or Glow.” In what way did you arrange these voices together? Did you do it intuitively, or did you impose a structure?
Anne Waldman: I wanted the sense of the questions being answered from myriad places, representing a larger orbit of voices. And although there is the refrain (which was definitely coming from the younger people I was meeting, many born AFTER the war) that the war was over, there still existed a “haunting” if you will, a residue of unresolved pain, the particular stories of so many who died in their cause. Imagine the current situation in Iraq with so many hundreds of thousands Iraqis (as well as some of our own) dead, all those energies, stories, hopes and fears. Where is the imagination of that?
Noelle Levy: You frequently invoke the voice of the land of Vietnam in “Dark Arcana.” In this section, the land’s voice is preceded by a Vietnamese myth and followed by excerpts of Vietnamese language. This juxtaposition creates a link between the land and its people, as if they are part of the same organism. How have the people you’ve met in Vietnam influenced your concept of the voice of the land?
Anne Waldman: I was meeting some people from the country, outside Hanoi, in Halong Bay. One is constantly hearing the language spoken, sung at times. There were fisherman still very connected to the sources of their survival, physically. The land has a dramatic history, there is a fierce guardian spirit towards the incursion of empire, whether it be China or the USA. The younger people I met are quite environmentally astute.
Noelle Levy: The syntax in this section is ongoing; besides the “One Pillar Pagoda” myth, there are no sentences, no beginnings or endings of thought. One idea feeds into another, yet the lines are mostly double spaced to give each idea breathing room. In this way the images of the soldier, the phallic pillar, the “ghost money,” and the mothers who “intone the dead” blend together yet retain their own space. What was the connection you intended by blending these images in the mind of the reader?
Anne Waldman: That as someone passing through—a field poet, a dreamer, a pilgrim, a tourist, one who as an American has blood on her hands—the images are coming in on one in a rush, impressionistically. Some of this was literally written on the street, trying to catch the fragmentation of quotidian reality there. This was a broken land, a traumatized land and yet the people, the “historical” and religious sites, retain an amazing power and dignity and magic. There’s a reserve. No one is confrontational, which is extraordinary given the devastation. But they, the North Vietnamese, were victorious without being arrogant. I wanted to honor that, give space and see that there is no “end” really. It’s a world in flux and reconstituting itself. Time is more circular, as in the cycles of rice planting and harvest.
Noelle Levy is a poet and musician whose work appears in the print journals Caesura, Bombay Gin, Solid Quarter American Drivel Review, Fear Knocks, and Summer Stock. Her work can be found on the web at Spent Meat, Laika Poetry Review, Catalyzer Journal, and Fear Knocks.
lifetime achievement award from 2015 American Book Awards and the Before Columbus Foundation
Shelley Memorial Award