bDharma: I’m very curious what writing poetry is to you at this point in your life. You’ve published five books of poetry since you graduated from Naropa, lo these many years ago. And you’ve got, what, an MFA in poetry from Naropa’s Writing Program?
Gary Allen: I have a B.A. and M.F.A. from Naropa. Writing poetry, or sometimes writing pretty much anything, is a way to exercise the artist in me, and he does need exercise or he gets cranky about it. I can ignore him for months at a time, and maybe all that I write is a rando haiku or fragment that just hangs there in the poem notebook to remind me that the poet still lives on in my mind. I’ve been writing this long dharma book, ostensibly on the Indian mahasiddha Tilopa (set to be four volumes now), which involves primarily scholarly work, and that has eaten up my literary energy and imagination for long stretches. Sometimes I couldn’t get myself to face anymore of that kind of academic writing and the mind that goes with it, so I’d work on translating dohas by Saraha or do a version in English of “Praises to the 21 Taras.” It’s almost a physical, or at least, a somatic part of me that has to find its way into thinking and functioning as a poet.
bD: What drives you to write poetry at this point?
GA: There are a lot of kinds of poems, and they reflect different mental states, different kinds of perceptions and sensibilities. Since I’m trained to be fluid that way, it’s not necessarily any special state of mind pushing for expression. A lot of it for me rests in the way that you can experience things through the writing and reading of poetry. It’s constitutes its own way of thinking and feeling that you don’t quite do in any other medium. It’s not like a news report or a conversation, even if that’s what you’re doing in the poem at some level—reporting on events or having a discussion. If you put it in the form of poem at all effectively or artfully, you’ll experience it differently than turning on the TV or talking to your friend. Typically there’s more space and fewer words; the space allows for alterations in how you receive the information, and the compression and arrangement of words heightens their impact.
As I’ve aged, I’ve now absorbed a lot from both the western and eastern literary traditions, from buddhadharma, from meditative and life experiences, and I find there’s still a lot to say, and maybe now I have a better facility to say it. I’ve always seen myself as trying to pioneer some way to express dharma in English with the literary tools I’ve developed. It’s a task we’re only at the beginning of.
bD: There was a marked shift in your poetic voice at one point, several years ago now. Suddenly the words had tremendous flow, not prose-like but fluid and with an effortless sense of movement. Transmigration Suite, your recent book, has this. To what do you attribute this quality?
GA: Is it a shift? Yes and no. Like I said, I’ve trained in writing poems in many forms. This definitely is an imprint the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa left on me. I did absorb the attitude of poetry as play on the page, despite writing any number of lovelorn poems or poems of despair, and that kind of thing. Something did happen with this particular book. With the main poem, “Maze of Birth & Death,” which takes up 200 pages, I suddenly created the right kind of context for myself, just narrow enough that there’s some boundary or cohesion element going on, while at the same time, I was able to give myself free rein to explore any tone or form that arose. I started writing poetry in 7th grade, and I’m now 63. Suddenly all kinds of things I’d digested in the interim started pouring through me. Certain kinds of writers whose visions I’d explored, even many decades ago, suddenly came out of me in a fresh and delightful way. It wasn’t a strain, but a natural unfolding. I made myself stop at 200 pages; I could have written a thousand.
bD: Has anyone ever told you that your sensibility is at times extremely dark?
GA: I’m writing here about samsara—that’s what the “Maze of Birth & Death” is. I remember thinking about 40 pages in that I was way too amused by it. Samsara is this horrific thing, though it may not seem like that sitting on your sofa in your American living room. However, I think I managed to solve that problem as I went on. I followed certain descriptions in the Buddhist tradition of how suffering plays out, for instance, as plague, famine, and war, or as the six realms of rebirth in delusion. It’s very classical that way.
The first section of the book, “Gods & Suicides,” grew out of a period when both I and my girlfriend of the time had a lot of people we knew either die unpleasantly or commit suicide. Thanks to her psychic ability, it was possible to call their spirits and work to help them cross the bardo. A lot of the images there came out of the sessions we did to aid them. At the same time, I think you’re not getting an ordinary view on all of that. There’s no immersion in their personal misery trips. It points to a much larger universe they’re within. Not knowing their own divinity, they don’t realize that it’s right there with them.
The entire book focuses on birth, death, bardo, and the complications therein. Those kinds of themes run through everything.
bD: Your new book includes a 20-page rollicking river ride down the story of Helen of Troy.
First, what possessed you to take on this story? And second, tell me the personal
connections you have to it. I mean, you have in the past written about your lovers in
your poetry. Is this new one a reflection on personal experience in any way, shape, or
GA: At any obvious, conscious level, that poem came out of reading H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, one of the classic, dense, and difficult book-length poems of the XXth century modernist tradition. I had never read H.D. in depth until fairly recently. None of my literature classes ever treated her. I had another classic of hers, Trilogy, on my shelf for maybe 15 years until I finally took it down and did something I’d never done with any book in my life: I read it through three successive times. There was something about the sound of her lines and her sensibility that held me rapt:
O, Heart, small urn
Of porphyry, agate or cornelian,
how imperceptibly the grain fell
between a heart-beat of pleasure
and a heart-beat of pain;
I do not know how it came
nor how long it had lain there,
nor can I say
how it escaped tempest
of passion and malice,
nor why it was not washed away
in flood of sorrow,
or dried up in the bleak drought
of bitter thought.
She speaks from the still burning flame of spirit, something that reaches at least as far back as the Grecian mystery cults. When I read Helen in Egypt, I did the same thing of reading through it again three times without stopping. I then found quite an erudite, almost magisterial doctoral thesis about H.D. online (Harriet Tarlo—H.D.’s Helen in Egypt: Origins, Processes, Genres) and worked through that. Somewhere in there I started getting lines arising spontaneously. The first ones that came to me became the beginning of the poem:
But desire, after all,
is a familiar thing,
already old in the world
3,000 years ago—
I think I wrote the whole poem in maybe a couple of days, fairly effortlessly. It was like I’d gotten saturated in H.D.’s mind and wrote my own, far briefer version of her poem. So if it’s really about me being enamored with a woman, that woman would be H.D.
bD: In the section called “Possession,” you introduce Helen’s POV with a whole series of questions. That’s either a dodge or a really good way of not colonizing her point of view. Not to detract from the poem itself, which is gorgeous and ever reaching, but do you ever think of it in those terms?
GA: H.D. took The Iliad, essentially the cornerstone story of western civilization, and swung it centrally into Helen’s point of view. This awful ten-year war got fought over Helen, with far-reaching effects, but somehow you barely hear from Helen herself, supposedly the irreducible object of all the fury. So at an obvious level, H.D. was reversing the male-centrism of both Homer’s epic poem and the critical tradition that followed it down the ages.
That seems simple and corrective enough, but she does something thoroughly modern with that—she shatters any easy, fixed idea of who Helen is or even what happened to her. Some scenes take place where she could simultaneously be in a temple in Egypt or an island in the Mediterranean or on the battlements of Troy. Her name itself oscillates between Helen and Helena, and maybe those aren’t entirely the same woman; the god or gods important to her seem to shift in their identities as well. Her lover was Paris, or her lover was Achilles. While you certainly hear her views of things, those views seem to exist as shifting sands, getting revised and realigned all the way through. Who exactly is Helen and where does she come down in all of this? You learn a lot of things, but she’s more like a spectrum of views, relationships, and events than a fixed entity.
So a primary theme in Transmigration Suite is the dualistic split of the subject in pursuit of the object. Helen’s the ultimate object—something an entire army is raised for in order to cross the sea to obtain and return her, at enormous cost to everyone. The glaringly obvious question finally occurred to me: Why did they do it? What was so important here that they had to make such a sacrifice to get her returned?
You can see how all the logics don’t really explain it. Is it because she’s just that hot? Because their king is out a queen? Because Trojan scum foisted this outrage upon us? Etc. Everyone has a different idea of who the object they’re pursuing is. On the other side, you have to ask why she did it. I give you some plausible explanations, maybe the best being that she simply falls in love and throws caution to the winds. It’s not like anyone ever cared what she really wanted. She had to be married off, and she did get to choose to whom, but otherwise the world simply closed in around her as she marched through her ceremonial role and provided a male heir.
I fancy that you see her in a more fundamental sense as a goddess devotee in a far-off temple, in a state of being that’s uninvolved in the drama unleashed in her name. Once the ships crossed, it stopped mattering what the reasons for it were. No one could interrupt the interdependent forward motion of karma then. Who is she—or anyone, really—other than an egoless concatenation of conditions and perceptions? And yet…you can’t help but think that there’s something divine (her father was Zeus, after all) speaking through her as well.
bD: The first time I read the “Maze of Birth & Death” poem, I dipped into it at random spots,
and read excerpts that were 5 or 6 pages long. It still was remarkably coherent and
comprehensible, even skipping around that way. I don’t have a question but could you
comment? It’s something about it not being at all narrative.
GA: It’s mostly narrative. It’s just not a conventional narrative where so and so is born in this place, does such and such, and then dies, and you know who and where they are conventionally and what happened, end of story. Instead, it’s the story of consciousness splitting into subject and object, then getting lost in myriad worlds of perception and experience as it tries to reach an ever-changing object it’s pursuing. It’s continually dying and getting reborn in different situations, in different guises. Sometimes that’s quite explicit, like the consciousness becomes a hunter tracking a deer with a bow and arrow, in very taxing, survivalist mode, and at another it’s a young lady going shopping in a skyscraper mall in Hong Kong. Sometimes it questions its own existence or its progress at all—though it constantly has to progress through this sequence of experiences, which include crossing bardos of various kinds, being continually born into new situations or labyrinths or projections of mind, and dying out of them.
bD: “Maze of Birth & Death” reads representational and not that abstract, weirdly enough for a poem that sometimes scatters across the page like an army of wayward ants.
GA: The poem proceeds in a continual transformation of form, just as the consciousness is experiencing multitudinous transformations. The visual form and energetic rhythm the poetry takes shifts as the consciousness does, so each time you’re in a somewhat—or radically—changed circumstance. It’s poetry, after all, so it’s not there to spoon-feed you as to what’s going on, anymore than passing through a bardo automatically comes with GPS and well-marked roads. It’s enacting the experience, and it’s making a demand on the reader that you have to continually adjust to what’s happening as you go along. You’re taking the same journey the consciousness takes, and so how the poem unfolds on the page requires a certain amount of flexibility; sometimes it seems pretty straightforward, but then the punctuation disappears; sometimes the lines are long and others they become short and clipped. If you think of the space of the page as the space of mind, you can see that the poem manifests graphically in that space in the same way different patterns of thought project in mind space.
bD: You use a lot of weird forms. I don’t see the point; it just makes it hard to read.
GA: You have to settle into the rhythm and be willing to go wherever it goes—in that way you’ll take the adventure! The rhythm gets established through where the line ends—there’s always some slight pause. (I likely got imprinted with that from reading Robert Creeley.) A friend of mine was struggling with the poem, who is not familiar with poetry, but he is a musician. Once he started reading it out loud, it started making sense to him, which makes perfect sense to me. He tuned into the sound.
Because it’s poetry, there’s no rush! You have to feel the lines as you read them, and then as they shift, exploring different worlds of perception, you shift with it. At the same time as you’re reading the words, the poem on the page is visual art. It’s depicting something about what you’re reading. There are a lot of surprises this way! Relax and take the ride!
GA: You remind me of Douglas Penick in the exuberant, insouciant tone taken with subjects
as dark and forbidding as anything can be. How so?
GA: I think I did get opened to that dimension through reading a lot of modernist, western literature—Burroughs and Celine come to mind—what’s called, or used to be called, anyway, “black humor.” That’s not a racial term; it’s laughter in the abyss, laughter in the darkness, or maybe the darkness laughing. From some point of view, it’s laugh or cry. If you pull the camera back, far enough to shrink the details of individual (melo)dramas, you can see the cosmic irony in the way we incarcerate ourselves in conceptual prison cells. From one angle it’s horrific and tragic; from another it’s theater of the absurd; from another it’s a series of brilliant dreams each fading to black.
For book purchases visit Gary’s web site: https://garyallenantarabhavapress.com/