“After the End, Before the Beginning” : Weighing the “Ghost Condensate” with Andrew Joron – Bishnupriya Chowdhuri

Oct 29, 2021 | Colloquy | 0 comments

An award-winning poet, essayist, and translator, Andrew Joron started writing science fiction and then expanded his scope to include innovative techniques in poetry. Joron’s later poetry, combining scientific and philosophical ideas with the sonic properties of language, has been compared to the work of the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov. Andrew has taught at the UC Santa Cruz and been a visiting writer at many colleges and universities.
Andrew 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 (2010), The Removes (1999), Fathom (2003), and The Sound Mirror (2008). The Cry at Zero, a selection of his prose poems and critical essays, was published in 2007. From the German, he has translated the Literary Essays of Marxist-Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch and The Perpetual Motion Machine by the proto-Dada fantasist Paul Scheerbart. As a musician, Joron plays the theremin in various experimental and free-jazz ensembles.
The Antonym recently caught up with Andrew exploring his world of writing, craft and the future.  
( The Antonym has previously published Andrew Joron’s work. Here are the links:

Lunagrad: Vepp
Ocean Zero )

Bishnupriya Choudhuri: Tell us about the beginning of your writing life. How did it happen and did you know “this was it?”
Andrew Joron : I became a writer while still a toddler! Not long after I learned to read and write, I was sharing written stories with my mother and the teachers at school. My mother especially gave me the permission and encouragement to be as creative as I wished. She would respond positively to my wildest scribblings. Almost as far back as I remember, I’ve been driven by the urge to write. For me, “this” (writing) was always “it.”

BC : To me, the real battle begins after knowing “this was it”. Suddenly there is “you and your art” and the rest of the world which also needs to be acknowledged and lived.  I wonder if it was the same with you and how did you find the resolve? Was there a moment of “initiation”, coming eye to eye with your form?
AJ: My writing practice — celebrated and supported by my mother and schoolteachers — did not meet any colder, more critical evaluation by “the rest of the world” until I entered college. There, I chose to take courses in philosophy of science, believing this would provide a foundation for my aspiration to become a science-fiction writer. At that time, academia did not consider science fiction a form of serious literature, so I avoided taking creative-writing courses. However, my philosophy professors were often skeptical of my poetic flights of fancy. They demanded that I express myself in a dry, analytical style more in keeping with academic discourse. At the same time, I was venturing to submit stories to science-fiction magazines, only to be rejected because of, again, my overly poetic style. I suppose that was my moment of “initiation,” when I came “eye to eye with my form.” I had to admit that I was writing poetry. I discovered that I cared more about the music of words than about plot and character. This was an unexpected turn in my practice. Nonetheless, I remained within the confines of the science-fiction genre throughout the first phase of my career, publishing my poems—which were finally accepted as poems—in science-fiction magazines such as Amazing Stories and Asimov’s. Eventually, my experiments with the music of words led me to exceed the conventions of the science-fiction genre. In the second phase of my career, I joined a community of writers, broadly known as “post-Language” in the U.S., who were self-consciously experimental and formally innovative.

BC: What’s the point of art, for you, I mean?
AJ: The way you’ve phrased the question implies a relativism: the point of art for me might be different than the point of art for you or for anyone else. And in fact, I believe the best way to think about art is relativistically. While relativity in ethics might lead to bad consequences —society is founded on the non-relativity of ethics — relativity in art allows meaning to proliferate and multiply, which is the point of art. Great art, which yields new meaning no matter how many times it is experienced, seems to ultimately outrun all meaning. It has this in common with reality.

BC: You are a writer and a teacher. How do these two selves work it out between themselves?
AJ: I teach creative writing at a university, so there’s a mutually supportive feedback loop between my writer-self and my teacher-self.  I don’t compartmentalize these two selves. I very much need to take my writer-self into the classroom with me—otherwise I would have nothing to teach. Away from the classroom, alone in my writing studio, I am still teaching myself to write. To be a creative writer is, I feel, to be perpetually learning how to write, whether in isolation or in a group.

BC: Let’s talk about “Silence” (I am not hundred percent certain about this word here but I am lacking the right synonym and wish to point to that unreachable realm of what you have so aptly described as “wordlessness”) from where words draw their charm and effect. I wanted to know your thoughts on its role in the art of communication — in both writing and teaching.
AJ: In linguistic communication, there is supposed to be an interval between each word, an interval that enables us to tell words apart from each other. An intervallic silence. This is most obvious in written communication. In spoken communication, especially when we speak rapidly, we often run our words together. In that case, the listener, without knowing it, inserts imaginary gaps in the continuous flow in order to identify the words that are being spoken. In any case, whether written or spoken, language is infiltrated by silence. Silence operates as a signifier that says, “here one word ends and another word begins.” Words, in other words, can manifest themselves only when they are set against a background of wordlessness.  Every word, in order to claim its identity, must be surrounded by silence. As for teaching, I will cite a line from my poem “Citations from Silence”: we learn to speak before we learn to be silent. We must silence ourselves to listen or to read, or to receive meaning. The teacher, too, must know when to keep silent.

BC: Is there a poem in your head now? Can you share?
AJ: Yes, because I just mentioned it. “Citations from Silence,” which appears in my book The Sound Mirror, is in my head now. This is a long poem consisting of eight prose sections interspersed by thirty-two aphorisms on silence. I’ll share another citation from this poem: The eye makes space; the ear makes time; the mind makes silence.

BC: What is the most inspiring object in your field of vision, right now?
AJ: The light that allows me to see every object in my field of view, while itself not an object, is most inspiring. As one of the German Romantic poets wrote: “Light is the essence of nature.”

BC: I have recently been revisiting Family Resemblance, the wonderful anthology of Hybrid works compiled by Kolosov and Sulak. The more I read, I find my clarity shaken about all genre definitions. How do you perceive the idea of genres?
AJ: A genre is a subculture within a broader cultural practice such as literature. Like any cultural community, genre provides a framework of conventionalized meaning that orients, stabilizes, even legitimates the activities of community members. There’s something inherently conservative about genre because it imposes a limit or horizon of meaning. In order to practice within a genre, one agrees to preserve, and not to violate, the set of conventions defining that genre. I discovered this on a personal level when my work became too experimental to fit within the confines of the science-fiction genre. Yet I believe that culture evolves through the transgression of conventional limits, through a cross-pollination between different spheres of activity, which results in  hybrid work. In my own case, I developed a synthesis between science fiction and poetry.

BC: Show us a little bit about the puzzle that makes you… where do you come from, what words, people and earth are you made of.
AJ: If I think of my life as a puzzle, I imagine myself as being organized around a missing piece of the puzzle, the piece that would complete the picture. This piece, the most important piece, will never be found. That is because I, like everyone else, am not a closed system. As long as I remain alive, I remain open to the rest of the universe pouring through me and changing me as it does so. I have an origin—I grew up in Germany and the East Coast of the U.S.—and I will have an end, here on the West Coast. In between, my life continues to modulate with the dissonant harmonies characteristic of any open system.

BC: What are you working on these days?
AJ: I’m working on my science-fictional novel Lunagrad. An excerpt from this novel appears in the October 2021 issue of The Antonym.

BC: What do you enjoy writing the most? Why?
AJ: Like any writer, I find writing to be a source of fulfillment. When I’m writing, I feel that I’m doing what I was made to do. It’s a life-sustaining activity which can take many forms. Sometimes one of these forms — poetry, fiction, essay, translation — attracts me above all others, and that form temporarily becomes what I enjoy writing the most. But eventually another form will call out to me. To stay light-footed, leaping as needed between the forms of writing, is an essential part of my practice.

BC: The best part of your job?
AJ: Helping my students to achieve a breakthrough in their own writing practice, to find their voice, to become the kind of writer they want to be.

BC: Can you tell us about some of your favorite writers—current favorites or works that you revisit time and again?
AJ: Though I grew up reading and receiving inspiration from science-fiction writers, as I matured, works of poetry and philosophy gradually assumed greater importance. One poet and philosopher whose work is always present for me is Novalis, an early German Romantic. The notebooks of Novalis, even more than his finished works, are a multi-volume wonderland of cosmic insights and thought experiments. Among the poets, I love to dwell in the works of Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Among fiction writers: Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Pynchon, Poe, Borges, Murakami. A current favorite, who may seem surprising compared to the fantasy-driven, high-flown character of the writers I’ve just mentioned, is Raymond Chandler. His writing style is richly metaphorical; and his detective stories, set in 1940s Los Angeles, read like fables from an alternate universe.

BC: For me, the writing school, despite its demand, was immensely exploratory in understanding myself and art, but there is a long-standing debate about the curses and blessings of writing programs. I wanted to know your thoughts on this.
AJ: The dangers of the writing workshop — competition, conformism — are well known. That’s why I state, at the beginning of my workshops, that we are not gathered here to impose our values on anyone; instead, our task is to understand each other’s writing on its own terms. We must ask: what is this writer trying to accomplish, and how can we help them to achieve their vision? This requires stepping out of ourselves and meeting the other person on their own ground — to perform at once an act of compassion and imagination. Doing so, we build the basis of a respectful, supportive community. I consider participation in such a community to be the most valuable aspect of a writing program.

BC: Do you have No-Writing days? How can one overcome the block-phases?
AJ: When I’m writing prose, I tend to write every day. Writing poetry, however, is a more convulsive act, from which I typically need a week or two to recover. In both cases, a lot of work gets done away from my writing desk; as I go through the day, my unconscious smolders and ferments with ideas that will reveal themselves once I’m back at my desk. I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” Writing is a choice that you make. When you say, “I have writer’s block,” you are making a choice not to write. You have the power to write—you can prove it to yourself by writing something, anything. If you then say, “But I’m not satisfied with what I’ve written,” you have already raised the problem to a higher level. You are now involved in a writing process, one that entails revision.

BC: Writing and Editing, how to balance both tasks in a creative journey as they are often said to kill each other’s vibes.
AJ: When we are dissatisfied with our work as writers, that is generally a good sign that our self-critical side — our internal editor — is active, alert, and functioning. At its best, the self-critic in us  can serve as a source of inspiration as it pushes and challenges our creative self to achieve the impossible. The “first thought” is not always the “best thought.” Revision not only requires a brave confrontation with our own limitations, but also a paradoxical defiance of those limitations.

BC: Spare some wisdom for the people aspiring to enter a Writing Program.
AJ: Come with the expectation that you are going to learn something—about yourself as a writer, about sharing your writing with others, about the very nature of writing. Realize that you will be giving up, at least for the time you are in the program, working entirely in isolation; that your writing process is about to open up and become part of a community’s learning process.

BC: Give us a writing prompt
AJ: Use an ordinary word in an extraordinary way.

Go to the Creative Non Fiction Contest announcement

 

Bishnupriya Chowdhuri is a Bengali artist and writer trying to find her roots across continents and oceans. She weaves hybrid pieces about memory, women and bodies using what is often awkward if not an unsavory tangle of Bangla and English. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida. She is a collector of girl-names, pretty pebbles and family-recipes. Her address keeps changing. 

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