a literary review
Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Anthony Michael Morena about The Voyager Record: A Transmission, a book-length lyric essay using bricolage and fragmentation, fact and speculation, to examine the contents of the golden phonograph record launched with the Voyager spacecrafts.
Where did your obsession with Voyager’s Golden Record originate? Why you?
I think it’s not one obsession but a few different things that the record unifies. There’s space, there’s culture, love of music, science fiction, nostalgia, social justice, aesthetics. It’s really not just me obsessed with it. Two other Voyager poems or poem collections came out just this year: Alyse Knorr’s Copper Mother and Jessica Rae Bergamino’s The Desiring Object OR Voyager Two Explains to the Gathering Stars How She Came to Glow Among Them. That’s just this year. You can find more if you look at music and film and dance and visual art. Voyager is so diffuse. It’s carrying every one of us. Why not take some of it back?
You’re a voyager, yes? How? How did this aspect of your own character influence this project, this obsession?
I guess that’s the metaphor: I live far from home, Voyager is far away from Earth, so I’m the lonely spacecraft, I’m the record with all those sad songs on it. But I’m the aliens too, when I feel othered. And the human race when I’m the one who is doing the othering. Living in Tel Aviv was fairly new to me when I wrote the book; it’s a subtext that you can feel all the way through. Plus I was riding the bus a lot, reading and listening to music, which is about both motion and inaction both at once, which describes Voyager I think.
How did the book’s form develop? Talk a little about your use of bricolage.
I knew I was going to write something piecemeal and I was collecting ideas as I went along, without thinking about an overarching plot or flow. It was going to be a book that I wrote in David Markson’s footsteps, I knew that. I had all this data about Voyager, and Markson’s last four books were nearly plotless, data driven books of aphoristic asides and facts about art and culture. He called the process bricolage. I did more wholesale inventing than should really apply to that term, but there was definitely a cut and paste element to the expository parts of the book.
You pepper the book with fragments that imagine what the extraterrestrial recipients of the record might be like. Are there any iterations of aliens that did not make the book?
Out of the original draft I wrote, there was only one recipient experience I left out. It was a world that really only likes one track: the Anthony Holborne Renaissance English harpsichord track “The Fairie Round.” They become Elizabethan in the process: wearing ruffs, going to outdoor playhouses. I wrote it because I hadn’t dedicated any space to that track and it’s one of my favorites, but in the end I decided not to use it because it seemed too similar to the alien world that Voyager induces to mimic all life on Earth.
When I read the Arnold Schwarzenegger joke (p. 98), I laughed out loud. I very much enjoyed the whole book, but that page was the gold nugget for me. Did you vet the joke? What was that like? Are there jokes that didn’t make the cut?
I think that joke was untouched throughout the editing process. Later on I thought that I could have labeled it “A dad joke” instead of just “A joke” since it is a dad joke: my father-in-law told it to me when I described the Bach situation on the record to him (three of the 27 tracks are by Bach).
It’s part of the thread in the book where I was formalistic. I wanted to see Voyager and the record through any form possible, and see if they could all exist within one book. So there is a joke, and a micro-fiction, and a flash story, and an accentual poem. There are other forms that I wish I had done: a sonnet, a haiku, and a shaggy dog story. Originally there was a limerick too but that one was vetted.
I guess I wonder if, in a sense, you are still mentally writing the book even though it’s done. Does the Voyager Record still have you in thrall?
Thrall is probably the wrong word to describe what’s going on between me and Voyager. I don’t think the power relationship inherent to thralldom applies. Thralls are slaves, and I wouldn’t say that I’m enslaved to Voyager, it’s just a dumb space robot. I like to say I’m obsessed with the record because obsession is really about ownership, a kind of wrongful ownership. To obsess over something originally meant to besiege it, and then a little bit later, obsess also meant to haunt and possess, in the demonic sense. I like that better. I think there is an attack going on in the book, a needling, stalemate hostage negotiation, with me surrounding this object that is round and ringed with gold.
I think I am still writing about it too. I am here now, after all. Somehow writing about writing about Voyager seems like it’s part the same process.
What’s your definition of Americana? How do you and your book fit into that definition? How do you defy it?
Americana can’t just be a history of America, right? I have seen bookshelves labeled that way. Americana is a tactile quality. Old blankets and sawdust floors. I think object-oriented is the best way to describe it. The flea market, stoop sale. The box in the attic. Consumerism turned over into folkstuff. The Voyager record is Americana, the Voyager spacecraft may not be.
In the book, you list a few of the pieces of music that you would have put on the Golden Record. What would Anthony Michael Morena’s personal Golden Record sound like?
So the music is my way into the record and what made me write the book, so this does come up a lot. And there are a lot of suggestions inside the book (and outside of it, like you mentioned) where I offer new suggestions. But what if a personal record was just that—just me. Singing. I’m not a good singer. I don’t think so. During the tour in the spring I had one reading that was a mixed lit reading/karaoke open mic and I sang “Johnny B. Goode.” There’s also one part of the book that I sing at readings, to the tune of “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,” the moving Bulgarian folk song on the record. What if I had to replicate all of the music on the record myself, even the instrumental parts. I think that would be as personal, as kind of wrong as any collection of music with a task as big as the one given to the tracks on Voyager could possibly be. But it could also be something very vulnerable, and therefore very human. But it would have to be complexly honest, with zero irony, to work.
The book’s design looks like a record album cover. Did you have an idea how the book should look while you were writing it?
I kind of imagined it squarish, and it’s cool that it turned out that way. But I think that thought, for me at least, came from the shape of the text on the page rather than a record album’s dimensions. The text on each page is so condensed, there is a tightening your eye makes that automatically cuts off the excess white page in a more traditional trade format.
Which writers influence your writing?
I was in school when I wrote the book, in a semester I was enrolled in five or six classes so I had a lot of incoming influence. It’s so hard to say who wasn’t an influence out of the books I was reading, both in and out of class. Lydia Davis, David Shields, David Markson, and Takashi Hiraide are the quartet I think of the most, but also Jonathan Swift, Tao Lin, and Eula Biss, and E. Ethelbert Miller, John Keats, and Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Langston Hughes. I was also playing Skyrim at the time, and had recently watched the Canadian TV time travel dramedy Being Erica.
Do you have other projects in the works?
Some things that are big and some other things that are not so big. I’m working on a chapbook and a novel maybe and something else unidentifiable like The Voyager Record. And I still keep up with the Misreader blog on my website so there’s a lot going on in the kitchen.
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Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. He is the author of The Voyager Record (Rose Metal Press, 2016) and an assistant fiction editor for Gigantic Sequins. His writing has appeared in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, The Ilanot Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor and at anthonymichaelmorena.com.