GARRETT CAPLES: You’ve recently had your selected poems, Trance Archive, published by City Lights; it goes back to your first book in 1987. What is it like, at this point in your career, to take a backwards glance at your trajectory as a poet? Do you see more disjunctions or continuities in the development of your work?
ANDREW JORON: My first poem was published three decades ago in a science-fiction magazine. In fact, I spent the first half of my career as a poet in the science-fiction field, an unusual trajectory for a poet. I regarded science fiction as a place where the Romantic imagination was still alive; the affinities between science fiction and surrealism informed my practice for most of that time. Eventually, my work exceeded the conventions of the genre, and I began to realize that the experimental poetry scene was much more conducive to the kind of poetry I was writing. So, in my late thirties, I abandoned the writing community I’d grown up in––science fiction––to join another. This leap was accomplished without a great shift in my practice: I was (and still am) writing what I consider to be a mode of “speculative lyric.” But this work has received a warmer welcome in the experimental-poetry scene than it ever did in science fiction, so I have never regretted “leaving home.”
GC: At a reading once, you claimed that many of your poems were secret biographies of letters of the alphabet. Can you elaborate on this?
AJ: I said that? Usually I think of language as a system coming to us from an Inhuman starry background, a kind of coding that appropriates our animal bodies. So I guess letters share the fate of our bodies––they’re arbitrary squiggles with the weight of the Ideal imposed on them. So poems participate in the fate of letters before words. Of patterns before meaning. This is one of the definitions of a hieroglyph. The science lies in seeing the hieroglyph (and by extension, the poem) as a complex system, overboiling its own parameters, and moving unpredictably toward an ontological rupture.
GC: What is the relationship between your work and anarchism, given your connections with philosopher Paul Feyerabend and surrealist mystic Philip Lamantia?
AJ: It’s probably naïve of me to think so, but I see a group of improvising musicians as embodying, in microcosm, the social relations of a liberated world: each musician is listening to––responsible to––the others as a way of energizing his or her own expressivity. Directional structures, “ideologies,” even leadership positions, arise only to be changed mid-flight, like the motion of a flock of birds. It will be a challenge to extrapolate this model to the techno-global world, but if the goal is the achievement of non-coercive, non-hierarchical social relations, it’s got to end up looking something like what Marx called “the free association of the producers.” This phrase resonated with the surrealists, for obvious reasons. Feyerabend taught me that “anything goes!” in the knowledge disciplines, and Lamantia provided me with a similar sense of permission in the poetic sphere.
GC: Why did you never take a literature course during your post-secondary school education?
AJ: This goes back to the nonlinear way in which I became a poet: in my college days I aimed to become a science-fiction writer. This was in the early seventies, a time when postmodernism had not yet taken over the academy. So science fiction was not taken seriously in the literature departments of most schools, including Berkeley. Instead of majoring in literature, I got my degree in the history and philosophy of science. Of course, along the way I discovered that I cared more about language as a speculative substance than about language as a platform for plot and character––and became a poet almost against my will. Beyond this, I have always felt stifled and regimented by the school routine. The library at Berkeley, with its millions of books, has been my real teacher, up to the present day.
GC: Would you characterize your playing of the Theremin as a literal poetics of the body?
AJ: The theremin is the quintessential musical instrument of science fiction, but it is also a Communist instrument, having been invented by the Russian engineer Leo Theremin in the wake of the 1917 revolution. In my prose-poem sequence “Constellations for Theremin” I call the theremin “the lyre of the Russian Revolution.” The design of the theremin is almost one hundred years old, but it’s still a vanguard musical instrument: it’s the only instrument, in fact, that’s played without being touched by the performer. Instead, the player passes his or her hands through an electromagnetic field generated by two antennas. The player’s interference in this field creates an ethereal musical tone. I feel that what results is not only the sound of my physical body caught in this field, but, in a moment of transfiguration, the emanation of my inner being undulating in the ether. The positions taken by my body while playing the theremin do indeed correspond to the shapes of letters in some futuristic language of the unsayable.
Garrett Caples is a poet who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader and Complications, and is an editor at City Lights, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Wave Books will publish his pamphlet Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English in May 2010.
Andrew Joron is the author of Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2010). After a decade and a half spent writing science-fiction poetry, culminating in his volume Science Fiction (Pantograph Press, 1992), Joron began to elaborate other forms of lyric speculation. This work has been collected in 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. Joron is also the translator, from the German, of the Marxist-Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch’s Literary Essays (Stanford University Press, 1998). He lives in Berkeley.