Interview with Andrew Joron on The Sound Mirror — April 28, 2010
Andrew Joron has been called “the metaphysician-elect of contemporary American poetry” (Cal Bedient, Boston Review). Joron’s work shows the influence of surrealism, science fiction, and German Romanticism. Joron attended the University of California at Berkeley to study with the anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend, graduating with a degree in the philosophy of science. 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). Joron’s latest poetry collection is Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, published by City Lights in 2010.
Christopher Nelson: The sonic acrobatics and musical agility in The Sound Mirror are hypnotic and fun, but there’s more to it than that. Can you talk about the relationship between sound and the cosmos?
Andrew Joron: Sound pre-existed light in the early cosmos. I make this point in the title essay of my book The Cry at Zero. Following the Big Bang, it’s theorized that the density of matter/energy was so great that light could not propagate without being immediately re-absorbed into the surrounding medium. Sound, however, could and did travel far in this primordial medium, creating density waves that structured the cosmos long before the medium cooled and attenuated sufficiently for light to break free. So the first pattern ever imprinted on the universe came from a kind of infinitely loud sound, a kind of Logos or Word transcending meaning. Poetry, for me, perpetuates this transmission from the abyss.
Nelson: By foregrounding sound in your poems, do you aim at making perception equal to subject, theme, idea, and object?
Joron: Social communication depends on linguistic transparency; poetic perception, however, reminds us that language is inherently opaque—that language has a material body as mysterious and meaningless as any other natural object. You could define ordinary language as a socially domesticated cry; poetry alone is capable of rediscovering a wilderness, a cosmic bewilderment, in the sound of words. At the same time, I don’t suggest abandoning the entire history of consciousness that evolved in consequence of the first cry; I only want to assert that the poem in some way recapitulates the emergence of meaning, or light, from the opacity of sound.
Nelson: Your title, The Sound Mirror—can you elaborate on that synesthetic paradox? Or would that be to explain away the pleasant mystery?
Joron: In one sense, the idea of a “sound mirror” is not a paradox. Part of the science of acoustics is concerned with the way sound is reflected from surfaces such as the walls of a concert hall. And before the invention of radar, England constructed huge hemispherical “sound mirrors” out of concrete and placed them in open fields as listening devices that would amplify the sound of approaching bombers from Germany. In my case, I appropriated the title from an old Sun Ra LP, which has never been reissued on CD. Sun Ra himself got the title from the first commercially available recording device, released in the forties, which was called The Sound Mirror. But you’re right to note my intent to complicate the sound/light relation in presenting this title. Writing that uses the phonetic alphabet becomes a “sound mirror”; I want to emphasize that, while sound may be exiled from the written word, it continues to haunt the scene—the seen—of writing.
Nelson: The Sound Mirror, so invested in sound and music, concludes with a long meditation on silence. What is silence’s role in your music-making and meaning-making?
Joron: Louis Zukofsky famously defined the range of poetic language as “upper limit music, lower limit speech.” Yet it’s obvious that both ends of this spectrum are delimited by silence. Sound only “makes sense” against silence. Or to put it differently, all sound is relative to silence, while the reverse is not the case. Sound varies, whereas silence is a constant. Or maybe sound, understood metaphysically, is variable silence. Ever since the shamans invented it, actual poetic practice has been based on the recognition that words speak directly to silence, and only indirectly to us, their human keepers.
Nelson: Stylistically, how does The Sound Mirror “fit” with your other books? Is it part of a larger trajectory?
Joron: If there is a trajectory, it’s toward silence by way of sound. But my development as a poet has been somewhat nonlinear. A fascination with sound, with syntax, and other properties of language defeated my earliest ambition, which was to become a science-fiction writer. I realized I was more interested in language as a speculative substance, and not as a platform for building plot and character. So I became a poet almost against my will. The cosmic perspectives afforded by science fiction continued to hold my attention, however; so for the first half of my career I wrote science-fiction poetry. Eventually I felt constrained by the conventions of the genre and, in my late thirties, left “home,” as it were. I migrated from one writing community—science fiction—to another, namely the experimental poetry scene. My latest book, Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems from City Lights, covers this trajectory.
Nelson: We met at a tribute to Gustaf Sobin at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. He is mentioned twice in your book, The Sound Mirror. For readers unfamiliar, who was Gustaf Sobin, and how did he influence your poetry?
Joron: I’ve always been drawn to poets whose work implies that the mystery of language and the mystery of Being are one and the same. There’s a complex philosophical argument behind this notion, which I can’t rehearse here, but it turns on the proposition that Being, like the system of language itself, can never be fully present to itself, except in an absolute sense. Yet, our everyday life and our language present only relative conditions; the poet’s task is to search for signs of the absolute, or the infinite, among finite things. And Sobin’s work accomplishes this with a grace and an intensity unparalleled in recent American writing. I sought him out at this home in the south of France and he visited me in San Francisco as well. He taught me a lot about the relation between sound and silence in poetry.