Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010). Joron’s previous poetry collections include 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.
Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. She is the author of The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction (U.C. Press), among many other works of literary theory and criticism. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Every Day But Tuesday (Omnidawn Publishing, 2015), Incivilities (Counterpath Press, 2009) and two chapbooks: #343 (Chapvelope Press, 2014) and St. Ursula’s Silence (Instance Press, 2010). Selections from these collections won the Boston Review/Discovery Prize and the Campbell Corner Prize (Sarah Lawrence College). New work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fence, Lana Turner, the PEN Poetry Series and Prelude.
Barbara Claire Freeman: We’re beginning this conversation on November 20, one week after the terrorist attacks in Paris. It’s a strange but probably meaningless coincidence that I re-read your essay “The Emergency” in early November, with no idea how timely it would be. That essay, which has become canonical, was written late in 2001 in the wake of 9/11. There you ask a question I’m hoping you might now revisit: “What good is poetry at a time like this?” Your response involves a brilliant discussion of the relationships between song, lament and freedom: you describe “a deep blues” which is also “the seed of all resistance.” In the light of increasing terrorism and racial violence, I’m wondering what you might respond to that question today?
Andrew Joron: The answer has already been given by the slogan of the World Social Forum: “Another world is possible.” Poetry provides one of the most vivid proofs of that. In the midst of crisis, our minds tend to rigidify. We get stuck in the prison of either/or, fight or flight. Poetry liberates our minds from that prison. It’s obviously no substitute for political action—in this case, action against the imperialist wars that cause terrorist blowback. Stopping this cycle of violence means radically changing the world system. But we first have to set fire to our minds—using words, the stuff of poetry—before we can set fire to a system based on capitalist greed, on the one hand, and cultural xenophobia, on the other. Poetry—which has no market value, and whose operating principle is xenophilia—wants something other, makes a space for the other. In its highest aspiration, as an opening to the otherness of language itself, it becomes a form of deep blues, issuing a lament for what is missing in our world.
BCF: I’m wondering how your work as a musician and choice of the theremin as your instrument, relates to the poetics and politics of lament? (I recall that “theremin” is from threnos, which means “lamentation.”) How long have you played the theremin; did you choose it because it is an instrument particularly attuned to lament? In what ways does the music you play find its way into your poetry?
AJ: My poetry could be fairly described as sound-driven; I strive to push language toward Zukofsky’s “upper limit” of music. Indeed, Walter Pater said that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” and as a poet I feel that aspiration very strongly. I’m especially drawn to experimental and improvisational music as the counterpart of my verbal practice. I started out as a science-fiction writer, and science remains a reference point in my poetics, so I’m also attracted to electronic and space music. The world’s first electronic instrument was the theremin, invented a hundred years ago by the Soviet engineer Leon Theremin as part of Lenin’s program for the electrification of culture. It’s still the only musical instrument played without touch; instead, the performer’s hands move between two antennas that control pitch and volume. The theremin can be heard on the soundtrack of classic science-fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. I wrote a cycle of prose poems entitled “Constellations for Theremin” and subsequently my wife and friends gave me a state-of-the-art Moog theremin as a surprise gift. I taught myself to play it—no easy undertaking—and have been performing with several bands as a theremin player over the past decade. As far as I know, the Russian name Theremin, also spelled Terman, is not related to the Greek word you mentioned, but I love that resonance of meaning anyway: one of Theremin’s co-workers, on hearing the sound of the instrument for the first time, exclaimed “It’s the lament of an electronic Orpheus!” I’ve written an essay, “The Theremin in My Life,” on the relation between my musical and poetic practices.
BCF: Thanks! I’ve loved and re-read “Constellations for Theremin” since it appeared in Fathom (2003), but wasn’t aware of the essay you cite above, which I’ve just read with pleasure. It’s impossible to tease out all the threads that connect the poem and the essay to our present discussion, but perhaps we might focus on just one. In the penultimate paragraph of “The Theremin in My Life” you remark: “In playing the theremin or in writing poetry, I am tracing, in Mallarme’s terms, a constellation (my emphasis) of black stars (either musical notes or words) upon a white sky (of silence or of the page).” It’s the word “constellation” I want to highlight: it also appears both in the title of the poem and at the end of your preface to it. There you remark: “Caught in an etheric field, the translations and commentaries interact as ‘constellations,’ in Benjamin’s sense of a non-hierarchical, indeed, a salvational structure of thought. At once philosophical and poetical, the constellation unites without—without abolishing the differences between—its nodal elements. It is a necessarily musical relation that prefigures the moment of reconciliation.” It’s curious how the notion of “constellation’ is functioning in both these texts; indeed, the creation of “non-hierarchical structures of thought” might equally describe your own practice(s) as a poet and philosopher. I’m also fascinated by your interest Benjamin and use of the word “salvational” in this context, especially in relation to the possibility of reconciliation.
AJ: I find Benjamin’s mix of materialism and mysticism a potent one: it’s such an impossible, irreconcilable mixture. The trouble is, reality can’t be reconciled to itself; anything real is subject to flux and change. So reconciliation has to take place outside of time, accessible only to a mystical state of mind. While dialectical thought tries to capture the flux, Benjamin’s mystical tendency led him to postulate “dialectics at a standstill”—another kind of paradoxical opposition—resulting in the “dialectical image.” The dialectical image represents Benjamin’s appropriation, by his own admission, of the surrealist image, which seeks to conjoin irreconcilable realities. Salvation, if it exists anywhere, resides here, in this place where opposites embrace without yet collapsing into one another, without their difference becoming subsumed in one totalizing identity. It’s the zone between yes and no, a point of fixed explosion, the site of the emergence of the novum (a concept elaborated by Benjamin’s friend Ernst Bloch, another mystically inclined Marxist: the novum explodes into historical time out of the not-yet, the utopian no-place). Perhaps it’s worth mentioning, in the context of Benjamin’s impact on my life, that a few years back I made an unexpected visit (due to a stalled passenger train) to Port Bou, the Spanish border town where Benjamin committed suicide to escape falling into the hands of the Nazis; I posted a description of my visit here.
BCF: This is your second year teaching full-time in the MFA Program at S.F. State University. Has the practice of teaching influenced the ways in which you think about poetry? What has teaching taught you? What can you share with us about pedagogy and how to teach creative writing?
AJ: In creative arts, the learning experience must involve, at some point, unlearning all the tropes, the formulas, the conditioned responses we bring to any encounter with the unknown. That doesn’t mean entirely disposing of the established tradition in one’s art, because the best of that tradition consists of inspired solutions to the perennial predicament of making meaning. In my teaching, I present prime examples of poetic inspiration and invite students to push past those guideposts, into their own zones of unknowing. For me, teaching creative writing is not so much about delivering some determinate content or method; instead, I try to open a space of possibility and encourage my students to enter and explore that space. I then observe what the students are endeavoring to do in that space and help them decide if they’re actually getting where they want to go. That self-critical part of creativity is most crucial; it’s the phase where guidance is often needed. I have to admit that getting involved in my students’ creative process has refreshed the way I look at my own process to an unexpected degree. In particular, teaching a class on speculative literature has turned my impetus back toward writing science fiction, the genre in which I started as a writer so many years ago.
BCF: Your new collection of poems is The Absolute Letter, forthcoming from Flood Editions in the fall of 2016. I’m grateful to you for contributing a poem from it and hope you’ll tell us about the shape and form of the new book. In a recent and very wonderful essay on Novalis you state that “the imperative for the poet must be to let language speak itself,” and you describe some of the ways in which, in Novalis, “letters dissolve into vibrational patterns.” Does The Absolute Letter embody these precepts?
AJ: I’m doing my best to incarnate Novalis, the German Romantic poet who sought to cross-pollinate science, philosophy, and poetry. Novalis was especially excited by the acoustical investigations of the physicist Ernst Chladni. In one experiment, Chladni scattered dust onto a plate of resin, then stroked the plate with a violin bow, causing the dust to vibrate into distinctive patterns. Here, Novalis thought, was an instance of a sound-emitting object writing its own alphabet. Novalis was always looking for signatures of the infinite or the Absolute, as he called it, among finite things. The title of my next collection, The Absolute Letter, comes from similar considerations. Like Novalis, I see language not only as the result of a social process, but of a cosmic one; as a system self-organizing in mysterious, unpredictable ways that surpass conscious determination. In my poetry, I use sound as a divinatory property and follow sonic patterns into the inhuman or absolute spaces where language seems to be speaking itself. I would situate my work here within a broad front of scientists and other thinkers grappling with the growing significance of complexity theory, the study of complex systems characterized by nonlinear dynamics. Such systems, operating far from equilibrium, are likely to produce emergent phenomena—”emergencies” of matter and energy in which the system spontaneously reconfigures itself. Language exemplifies just such a complex system, and poetry is one of its states of emergency. I find in the theory of complex systems a confirmation of the main tenet of both surrealism and Marxism—as extensions of Romanticism—that reality is a revolutionary process. As Lenin reportedly told a Romanian poet, “We must learn to be as radical as reality itself.”
BCF: Andrew, thanks so much for this conversation and for the gift of “A = A,” with its glorious rhymes and pluralities.
A = A
Mine to ask a mask to say, A is not A.
No one, ever the contrarian, to answer.
The moon is both divided & multiplied
by water: as chance, as the plural of chant.
O diver, to be sea-surrounded by a thought bled white––
a blankness as likely as blackness.
What is the word for getting words & forgetting?
Might night right sight?
I, too late to relate
I & I, trap light in sound
& sing no thing that breath can bring.