Big Echo

Critical SF

Letter Home: A Conversation with Andrew Joron

Andrew Joron is the author of The Absolute Letter, a collection of poems published by Flood Editions (2017). Joron’s previous poetry collections include Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010), The Removes (Hard Press, 1999), Fathom (Black Square Editions, 2003), and The Sound Mirror (Flood Editions, 2008). The Cry at Zero, a selection of his prose poems and critical essays, was published by Counterpath Press in 2007. From the German, he has translated the Literary Essays of Marxist-Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch (Stanford University Press, 1998) and The Perpetual Motion Machine by the proto-Dada fantasist Paul Scheerbart (Wakefield Press, 2011). As a musician, Joron plays the theremin in various experimental and free-jazz ensembles. Joron teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University.

Peter Milne Greiner: In an interview in 2010 with Garrett Caples, you talked about leaving the writing community you grew up in – science fiction – and shifting your attention to the experimental poetry community, because in your view the latter community was more sympathetic to the type of work you found yourself producing. You mentioned that “leaving home” in this way was not something you regretted. What would a letter home sound like these days? In “Reversing River” from your latest collection The Absolute Letter, you reference Heinlein’s “dilating door” – doing so has become a tradition in and of itself in the sf community. Is this a letter home? In what ways does (or must) your current speculative enterprise “keep in touch” with science fiction?

Andrew Joron: I came of age in the late '60s, when the experimental spirit of the New Wave was at its height in SF. That formative moment has permanently defined my approach to the genre. I regard SF as a mode of writing that is—or has the potential to be—speculative in form and style as well as content. It's very savvy of you to notice the line from Heinlein in my latest book of experimental poetry, and to call it "a letter home." But beyond such sampling of classic phrases from SF, my work in poetry has always been committed to the "cognitive estrangement" of language itself. As I explain in my book of essays, The Cry at Zero, I understand language as a self-organizing system capable of "phase transitions" toward wholly new states of being. Keeping in mind that language originally emerged from sound, I have attempted to pursue, in my poetry, the sound-wave of language as it expands into zones where meaning becomes secondary to vibratory patterns, corresponding to those convulsive forcefields by which the universe makes itself. These investigations obviously could not be conducted within the SF genre, although they were carried out with a cosmic perspective inculcated largely by my engagement with SF.

PMG: As others have pointed out already, the compositions in The Absolute Letter seek to identify, mine, and enunciate (I would hazard to add dream) English homophonic coincidence – and so reveal an alphabet that is at once profoundly agile, that can create a cosmos of meaning, but is also consequently on the verge of collapse by nature, relying as it does so heavily on a relatively infinitesimal set of tools, including the human vocal apparatus. If language is emergent of sound—of human physiology and its surrounding environments—, if one of its functions is to establish standardization that allows de-standardization to be understood readily, to what extent does that language interpret (or investigate) its users? Put another way: if one of your callings is to conduct these investigations, to “count chance’s chants,” as you put it in one poem, do you consider your findings to be personal?

AJ: I don't regard the "personal" as an entity that can be separated from the rest of the universe. Instead, the personal is an interference pattern arising from the interaction of a multitude of transpersonal systems (biological, social, lingustic, etc.). The pattern sustains itself for a little while, acquiring a unique history that makes it recognizable to itself and others. Nonetheless, the personal can be no more than a surface phenomenon, a membrane enclosing, and enclosed by, abyssal depths. Conceptual "breakthroughs," whether in art or science, always break through this membrane. Listening to language speak, following the sound waves that cross between wor(l)ds ahead of meaning, is one way of making the breakthrough. And of course my personal pathway across these abysses will be to be different from anyone else's, if only because everything is always happening for the first time. Moreover, because nothing repeats itself exactly, nothing can be standardized completely. The standardized elements of language, whether sonic, syntactic, or semantic, are simply frozen contingencies that, once we breathe on them (use them in a poem) quickly regain their fluidity.

PMG: Could close analysis of such a history, together with its attendant serialization of breakthroughs, be used reliably to predict the nature of a future breakthrough? I would avoid such predictions myself because I value the surprise element that is inherent to breakthroughs—but suppose one didn’t, and suppose we were instead talking about translation—another of your endeavors. Would it be possible? Perhaps to suppose that such predictions are indeed possible assumes that breakthroughs are the culmination of coherently related steps. But often the architecture of that coherence is available to us only after the fact, after a breakthrough event that appears random or spontaneous. And so the breakthrough itself isn’t the result (or rupture) we thought it would be. Is that what attracted you to translating Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine? Could it be argued that the act of translation in this sense is possessed of objectives other than making a text available in another language? Could The Absolute Letter be made available in another language?

AJ: Because poetry activates all the powers inherent in one's native language, it usually can't be translated successfully. Too much gets left behind: the sonic, syntactic, and semantic qualities unique to the source language—and the life of poetry is rooted in those qualities—have no exact equivalent in the target language. My own poetry turns crucially on the sound-plays and wordplays that English makes possible, and those moves can't be reproduced in—have no correspondent in—another language. For example, a line from The Absolute Letter reads: "I am a being from another word." That pun can't be translated because it needs the English spelling in order to work. I write under the spell of English. Nonetheless, translation happens—but it's not what most people think it is. A translation can never give you direct access to the meaning of the original text. It's a paraphrase, a substitution. Whenever you exchange one word for another, the meaning inevitably changes. A translation is a creative act in its own right, a response to—rather than a reproduction of—the original. Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay "The Task of the Translator," asserted that in some mystical sense the translation "completes" the original by changing its meaning, and that both translation and original are equally derived from a "pure" language in which every word has infinite meaning. So that every truly poetic speech-act would be the result of this pure or absolute language breaking through the surface of ordinary language. Breakthroughs like this can't be predicted, or even reconstructed after the fact. They represent the "impossible" manifestation of the infinite within a finite thing: a word, a sound.

PMG: To what end (just an expression) and to what extent does your poetics source scientific critical thinking—the type of critical thinking that institutions train scientists to use in their practices and research? I ask because the timbre of your responses here reminds me of my correspondence with colleagues in the scientific community. Scientists and poets are taught, or learn, critical thinking in accordance with institutions and legacies, and their respective literatures are possessed of their own vocabularies, conventions, parlance. Underlying this bifurcation—these various modes (nodes) of inquiry—might be an absolute language of inquiry similar to the one you mentioned. How can the two schools inform each other if we consider them to be two “translations” that “complete” a shared investigation? Ethic? Or, more grandiosely, a shared and insatiable entelechial value? I invoke entelecheia here because Aristotle was under the spell of Greek.

AJ: You're right to invoke Aristotle: I believe Aristotle's Greek neologism "entelechy," referring to a form of motion that strives toward the realization of essential being, stands behind Benjamin's notion of a "pure" language toward which all existing languages are heading. Aristotle envisioned everything in nature moving in this purposeful way toward self-realization. Of course the modern scientific world-picture no longer attempts to find an underlying purpose in nature. Evolution is random. Even if we see some systems evolving toward greater complexity, most systems in nature become increasingly disorganized over time (the law of entropy). Modern art has incorporated this sense of randomness and disorder. Scientists and poets are working along the same lines here, attempting to make sense of a universe that lacks inherent meaning. We could view this lack of meaning as liberating or annihilating, or both. The surrealist in me says that it's both.

PMG: Surrealism carries me swiftly to a twist. The word “pun”—short for pundigrion—has its origins in a language’s interest in making fine points. Puns flourish in rhetoric of all stripes, and we delight in them because they are pleasurable and useful—hence their ubiquity in human communication and affairs. They are purposefully funny, often purposefully unfunny and therefore still funny, and they are designed (when they are, in fact, designed) to exploit our understanding of how funds of words are interrelated and entangled, slouching kaleidescopically toward Alephs of laughter and sudden breakthroughs of clarity. And so the pun is a tool and a plaything we use in a quest for gratification, whether we’re motivated by successfully landing a joke, or sucessfullying landing an argument—and all of the pleasures we’re rewarded with by such successes. Throughout your career thus far, and especially in your most recent volume, you’ve emphasized the role of sensation in respect to experiences of sound. “I have lain in reverse agony / along the fracture-plains / of the calm and necessary voice,” you wrote in a poem from your volume Science Fiction, published in 1991.When I hear your poems, in which puns are so often deployed and discovered, humor is a harmonic that rings above the other sonic and linguistic features and considerations we’ve touched on so far. You’re funny!

AJ: Thank you for noticing. It's not often on the surface, but humor does form a part of my wordplay. Linguistic humor springs from unlikely meet-ups of, or mix-ups, of meaning—and that accident-prone intersection is where I live as a poet. Sometimes I feel as if I'm helping language to perpetrate its joke on consciousness: it's funny to see an all-too-earnest, all-too-innocent act of communication trip over its own feet. If I can create a sound-effect between two serious words, exposing the noise inside the name, I laugh to myself. Laughter is the shudder provoked by witnessing another's loss of innocence. The other, in this case, is the fool who occupies the subject-position in language, unaware of the trick that has substituted word for world. Aleph: a Laugh.