An Interview with Vernon Frazer
Danielle Grilli: What made you decide to devote yourself to writing?
Vernon Frazer: I wanted to become a writer from the time I learned to read. I read comic books avidly, including the Classics Illustrated series. When I first learned to read, I wrote my own comic books and stories at home.
I decided to devote my life to writing in January, 1961, when I was 15 years old, during a three-week stretch in which I morphed from a well-behaved aspiring engineer who wanted to beat the Russians in the Space Race of the 1950s to an aspiring writer who rejected the existing social order.
An undiagnosed case of Tourette Syndrome made me the scapegoat of the smalltown high school I attended. One of my worst symptoms was a complex vocal tic that sounded like a stutter. It was so severe that some days I could hardly talk. The kids in high school ridiculed me mercilessly for it, put gross things inside my sandwiches and knifed up three winter coats. After a year and a half with no meaningful intervention from the school, I snapped. Right after the New Year's break, a kid provoked me for what I decided would be the last time. I stood up in the middle of the class and bloodied the kid's nose. To me, the school was a microcosm of the United States, and my high school experience taught me that it was not the wonderful country we were told it was.
About two weeks after I punched the kid, I was looking for a book to write a report on for my English class. The Dharma Bums aroused my curiosity. The novel showed me another, more tolerant lifestyle. Not only could I live in a subculture in which I wouldn't be ridiculed, I would write the things I couldn't say, and people would have to listen to me.
DG: Who or what, if anything, has been the greatest inspiration to your creative endeavors?
VF: Obviously, it all started with Kerouac. I read anybody I thought I could learn from, especially if they came from the "alternative canon." William Burroughs became a major influence a few months after Kerouac. The New American Poetry 1945-1960 proved seminal, in a naïve kind of way. The first poet in the anthology was Charles Olson. I liked the way his lines moved all over the page. He became one of my major influences, along with Philip Whalen and Michael McClure.
But I didn't start writing poetry seriously until I was 36. Before that I focused on fiction. In that area, I'd say my major influences were Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Celine, and the writers of the 1960s who were described as "black humor writers." And Kenneth Patchen got into the mix, starting with The Journal of Albion Moonlight in high school and continuing through his picture poems.
Listening to jazz in all its forms influenced me as much as literature. My approach to writing is very improvisational, even though some pieces get reworked dozens of times, if not more. But Monk, Mingus, Coltrane and many others have influenced the rhythm of my work and the sound of my language.
Bertram Turetzky, with whom I studied bass in the 1960s, exposed me to the world of avant-garde music and mixed-media. I wouldn't actually incorporate what I learned from him into my work for another 30 or 35 years.
Peter Ganick came along when I had just finished writing Sing Me One Song of Evolution, in which I achieved an intensity that I believed I could never replicate using conventional language. He inundated me with books he'd published at Potes & Poets Press. I must have read 30 books of language poetry in 1998 and 1999. After a year of reading it, I decided to try writing it. It was like a duck discovering water. Peter published my new poetry in his Potepoetzine and a special issue of Potepoetext that featured my work. His Potes & Poets Press published Free Fall and Demotion Fedora in 1999 and 2000.
The other major personal influence was Michael Rothenberg. The summer before I moved to Florida, I submitted a story to Big Bridge. Michael e-mailed me that he loved the story, but couldn't publish it in Big Bridge. He arranged to have it published in Jack Magazine. When he learned I was moving to Florida, we arranged to meet and hit it off immediately. We've become very close friends. He's a tremendous brainstormer. I haven't had such stimulating literary conversations since college. He was instrumental in the way the completed IMPROVISATIONS appeared in print, suggesting that I publish it in a larger format that would allow the reader to experience the visual components that appear through the work.
Another inspiration is the computer. Charles Olson predicated his composition by field on his use of the typewriter on the printed page. The computer allowed me to expand the compositional field to include fonts of varying types and sizes and to add more visual elements to the page.
DG: You have been writing for 40 years. How has your career as a writer progressed?
VF: A small correction here: I've been writing for 45 years. For most of my writing life, progress has come slowly and painfully, in microscopic increments. I started out with the desire to become the Great American Novelist, and didn't start writing poetry seriously until my mid-thirties.
In 1969 I briefly attended graduate school at Simon Fraser University. Very little seemed to go right while I was there. The previous spring, I had contracted Hodgkin's disease. At the time it wasn't nearly as treatable as it is now. My first day of classes I went for a routine checkup and the doctor found swollen lymph nodes under my armpits. So I spent a lot of my time going to the British Columbia Cancer Institute for tests, which proved negative. One day in class the pedantry got to me and I dropped out. When I got back to Connecticut I tried writing and the words just seemed dead on the page. So I stopped writing for nearly four years.
In the years I didn't write, I played in a jazz workshop in Hartford's North End, which is primarily an African-American neighborhood. Our instructor, Emery Smith, worked with me night and day, improving my playing and showing me just how much work it really took to be a serious artist.
But rock was at its peak and jazz at its nadir. After two years with very little work, I vowed that if I could find a way to get out of the music business I would. One day I discovered a seven-page satire of Columbus discovering America in my attic. I was doubled over with laughter and thought a college friend had written it. When I got to page 5, I realized that I had written the piece, not my friend. After that, the first short story I worked on, "Intruders," got published in the first magazine I sent it to. I figured getting published was going to be easy. Wrong! I wouldn't see another piece of my fiction published for 18 years.
I worked four and a half years on a novel that made the rounds of publishers and agents before landing in my desk drawer. To get published, I wrote jazz reviews through much of the 1970s and 80s. In the 1980s I also tried writing plays, but they never got produced.
In 1982, I was going nowhere as a writer, except for my publications in Coda. The Greater Hartford Arts Festival was presenting an open poetry reading. Armed with two poems, one written at 19 and the other at 30, I drove to the reading. As I parked my car, four of the Hartford area's better known poets got out of theirs. I thought I'd set myself up to get hammered big time. But when I heard their work, I realized that mine held its own with theirs. A few months later, The Pale Fire Review published the poem I'd written at 19. I wrote a few more poems that got published. The more poetry I wrote, the more I discovered it allowed me to experiment in ways that fiction didn't.
At the beginning of 1985 I began an eight-year period in which I fused poetry and music. To put the poem to music, I started playing bass for the first time since late 1973. Instead of telling me once was enough, people encouraged me. I continued, releasing two home-produced cassettes and doing a bunch of readings using pre-recorded bass tracks.
In 1987 I published my first poetry chapbook, A Slick Set of Wheels. It showcased the Black Mountain-West Coast Beat style of poetry I was writing at the time.
By 1987 I had enough material to do a record, Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike. I arranged for a record party after its release, but all of the musicians had gigs that night. At the time I was involved in a free jazz scene in Hartford, so I asked some of the musicians I knew if they would play with me at the record party, then spent the next two months teaching myself how to recite poetry and play bass at the same time. This led to my forming a band that fused poetry and free jazz. I also played as a poetry-bass-saxophone duo with the late Thomas Chapin at the Nuyorican Poets Café and any other venue we could find between New York and Boston. I also did a number of solo engagements as a poet-bassist. It was an exciting period. I was not only combining my writing and musical talents, but rediscovering my acting talent, which I'd put aside because of my stuttering tic. After a few years of 15-hour days of working a day job, then writing and practicing at night, I collapsed mentally and physically. I came back, but stopped performing when I thought I was about to collapse again.
After giving up performing I fell into a deep depression that segued to a midlife crisis. In the middle of it, my wife's best friend from high school came to visit us. She diagnosed my Tourette unofficially. Her daughter and her deceased lover had had it. She told me it wasn't all bad, that the brain chemistry that caused people with Tourette to tic also enabled them to do things that "normal" people couldn't. I reexamined my entire life as I learned about Tourette. What I learned validated my sense that for much of my life I had been treated like a minority who had no civil rights. My new understanding gave me the perspective I needed to finish Relic's Reunions¸ a somewhat autobiographical novel I'd been working on since 1990 or 1991 that never seemed to come together. I self-published the book in 2000.
In 1995 I co-published Demon Dance with a literary magazine whose editors seemed eager to make a mark. About a month after I co-published it, the editors disbanded the magazine. I worked hard on my own to get the book out, but I don't think it ever got reviewed.
In 1996, a short story collection finished as a finalist in the Black Ice/FC2 Fiction Contest. But the contest's judge couldn't pick a winner. I wondered over and over, "What does a guy have to do?" In 1999 I self-published the book under the title, Stay Tuned to This Channel.
The Tourette diagnosis also led to my writing Sing Me One Song of Evolution, which I published in 1998. It had some success in Tourette circles, but not nearly as much as I'd hoped.
As I've already mentioned, things took a turn for the better after I met Peter Ganick and started writing in more of a language poetry vein. People responded to the kind of writing I was doing. I began to hear from people who genuinely liked my work. Before that, I felt I worked pretty much in a vacuum.
In 1999 I wrote the first section of IMPROVISATIONS and self-published it. IMPROVISATIONS caught the eye of Ed Friedman, who was Artistic Director of the [St. Mark's] Poetry Project at the time. One day, I came home from work and found e-mail from Ed inviting me to read at the Poetry Project. I felt validated in a major way.
Over the past five or six years, my writing career has really taken off. One contact led to another and most contacts led to publication in one magazine or another, especially in the online literary magazines. What moved at a turtle's crawl for 39 years started moving in ever larger leaps and bounds. After decades of struggling, I love every minute of what's happening now.
DG: How was the reading at St. Marks's Poetry Project?
VF: It went pretty well. I used four readers to assist me in reciting the contrapuntal lines of IMPROVISATIONS. The Poetry Project didn't have the equipment to enable me to do the performance quite the way I wanted. When I listened to the playback, I heard the imbalance between the other readers and me, but I also heard that the different readers were creating the kinds of word and sound textures I was trying to create when I wrote the poem.
DG: So many writers continually submit their work to large publishing companies, but you self-publish most of your work. Do you prefer self-publishing?
VF: Self-publishing is a last resort. I prefer to be published by other publishers. But I prefer being self-published to becoming a bitter old man whose wife can't stand to live with him and who can't stand to live with himself.
In the case of IMPROVISATIONS, I chose to self-publish the complete work because I didn't think any other press was going to want to pay what it costs to publish a book of that size.
I'm past the age where I can finance my promotional efforts and drive hundreds of miles to read at bookstores to try to sell my work. I'm hoping that some publishers will offer to take over the work that I've self-published.
DG: Do you find that self-publishing has added to or detracted from your career as a writer?
VF: It's definitely added to it, but I've suffered from the stigma associated with self-publishing. The stigma seems absurd because so much of the publishing business is based on personal connections. On the bright side, as a self-publisher I'm in good company: Whitman, Twain, Stein, and Acker, just for starters. A lot of America's most interesting and innovative writers self-published their work at one point in their careers.
DG: What advice would you give to an individual who is considering self-publishing?
VF: Other than "Don't give up your day job?" I'd start by telling him or her not to expect anything other than documenting their work and losing money. I'd recommend they find a short-run printer with good rates or a print-on-demand publisher. The latter will save storage space. I'd recommend a print run of 100-250 copies because it will take a fantastic salesperson to sell even that many, unless it's a "commercial" work. If they're young and energetic enough to be out and about, I'd suggest they carry a copy or two with them at all times so that they can make a sale at a club or a social gathering. I'd tell them that Small Press Distribution doesn't carry self-published books and that SPD and Ingram charge for storage, which will consume their profits before they start. Baker and Taylor would be the most likely distributor to carry their work. Amazon.com will list their work if it's listed in Books in Print and carried by Baker and Taylor. I'd suggest they contact distributors such as The Book House that buy for libraries.
DG: Why did you make an exception with your book of poems Avenue Noir?
VF: It wasn't an exception, it was a preference. Jukka-Pekka Kervinen has consistently published my most adventurous work. He's publishing some of the most exciting writers I know of. I wish I knew of a way to get the books he publishes better distribution in this country.
DG: How do you feel about publishing on the web, versus print?
VF: Publishing on the web has done a lot more for my career than print publishing. My reading audience has come largely from my web publications. E-zines take a bum rap. The advantage of publishing on the web is that more people will read your work because they don't have to buy it first. I think nowadays you'll find the most adventurous literature on the web, which has become the primary publishing venue for the literary vanguard. I think universities are coming to recognize this and that's why they're archiving a lot of e-zines. Still, I love books. I wish the print publishing world would publish more of us, but I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime.
DG: You have become a forerunner in the art of visual poetry, a process that's culminated with the release of the full text of IMPROVISATIONS. What has that process been like?
VF: Actually, I hesitate to call myself a "visual poet" because it seems a little, as they say, reductive. I've regarded myself as a textual poet who incorporates visual elements into his work. I didn't even realize I was writing "visual poetry" until last spring, when, after Carlos Luis curated an excellent Vispo exhibit in Miami. Michael Rothenberg held some of the later pages of IMPROVISATIONS against his dining room wall and had me look at them as individual panels, like visual poems.
I'm flattered at being considered a forerunner. To some extent, that's what I'd hoped to accomplish as a writer. But if I were to try to speculate why I'm a forerunner…well, in my fiction I've employed visual elements that I've only seen Raymond Federman and Robert Matzels do. And IMPROVISATIONS has been described as the longest visual poem written to date. Maybe that makes it a forerunner. I consider IMPROVISATIONS a forerunner because it synthesizes projective verse, language poetry, surrealism, Dadaism, concrete poetry and visual poetry into a unified entity. It might also be the first long poem—that I know of, anyway—to be written as a non-narrative, happening in the moment while still developing thematically. It might also be unique in that it moves from the aural to the visual and orchestrates the textual and visual components somewhat like a musical score.
DG: Are you happy with the result of IMPROVISATIONS?
VF: Tremendously. I don't think I've ever been happier with a book I've written. It really was an improvisation from beginning to end. I'm amazed because my mind must have been focused better than at any other time in my life to create and sustain the improvisation. The reception the book has received has been incredible.
DG: What do you feel that the creation of visual poetry allows a writer to express that the traditional page format cannot?
VF: I think you can express anything in any art form, but that some art forms express certain feelings or ideas more easily than others. With music and visual art, I think you can communicate some emotions immediately, whereas in a work of language you might have to take a more circuitous route to express the same things. But language expresses other things more directly than music or visual arts. Visual poetry facilitates expression by using each medium—visual or literary—to do what it does best while synthesizing the two in the process. In my work, because of its musical element, you could consider the enlarged font watermarks in Avenue Noir or the last half of IMPROVISATIONS as a counterpart to a big band arrangement in that the background textures spur the foreground material to a greater intensity or create a thematic counterpoint to the text in the foreground.
DG: What has the process opened up for you creatively?
VF: It's opened a wide range of expressive possibilities. The more possibilities I have, the better I can express myself when I'm working. I try to keep my work as fresh as I can and to do that, I need to have as many expressive possibilities available to me as I can find. For me, writing IMPROVISATIONS really kicked open the doors.
DG: You also produce audio pieces. What attracts you to spoken word performance?
VF: First of all, I think hearing a poet's voice facilitates one's understanding of the work. A poem that seems impenetrable to me becomes much more comprehensible after I've heard the poet's voice apply his or her rhythms and variations in tone to the work.
As far as what attracted me to reading, I had practical reasons, such as trying to make people aware of my work, and personal reasons such as using the acting abilities that went undeveloped after my Tourettic stutter kept me offstage as a teenager. When I fused poetry and free jazz, I was hoping to increase my audience by crossing boundaries. And giving all three talents the opportunity to express themselves simultaneously was very exhilarating.
But spoken word limits you, as well. Some of my poems have letters in parentheses that suggest several different words. To understand that aspect of the poem, you have to look at the work on the page.
DG: In general, how have your works and techniques changed over time?
VF: They've become wilder. When I started out, I wanted to write novels that would explore the depths of the soul, like Dostoyevsky. Then, as a reaction to the negative and generally inaccurate criticism college students and professors gave this "serious" work, I wrote a short novel called It's Location, which combined the zaniness of Catch-22 with the surrealism of Naked Lunch. Since I was a sophomore when I wrote it, it has more than its share of, ahem, sophomoric moments, but when I reread it I see that in early 1965 I was working toward what the metafictionists and surfictionists started doing about five or ten years later.
Even in my early twenties, I employed graphic elements in my fiction. But in the three books of fiction I've published, I've used graphic elements much more than when I started. I also use more play and film script formats than I originally did, partly to convey more immediacy, partly to satisfy my urge to write dialogue.
When I gave up the poetry-music fusion in 1993, my poetry became more complex. Being used to hearing a saxophone in one ear and a violin or synthesizer in the other and drums or percussion instruments behind them, I started to "orchestrate" my text so that its "voice" became multiple in nature. Some lines were intentionally contrapuntal or discordant. I replaced the music of instruments with the music of language.
DG: What do you hope to achieve, ideologically, with your body of work?
VF: I'm not an ideological writer. But I do have social concerns that come out in my work. My fiction satirizes the way the media saturates our life and comments on social problems, as well. Some reviewers commented that my earlier poetry showed some social awareness. As abstract as Avenue Noir can be, it comments on urban street life and the American underbelly. IMPROVISATIONS hints at the history of slavery in America and its relation to jazz, and offers some commentary on the war in Iraq. These themes don't dominate the work; they just weave through it and surface at random moments.
What I do hope to achieve in my work is to open creative possibilities for other artists and create fresh, challenging experiences for readers.
I also hope I've written a few passages that might get some troubled person through a rough night, the way John Coltrane's version of "Out of this World" on his Coltrane CD and passages from Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion"—and many other works—helped me get to the next day on a night when hope seemed nonexistent.
DG: What upcoming projects can we expect from you?
VF: I don't talk specifically about a project because I might spend the energy I need to write it. Like Bob Dylan said in "Maggie's Farm, "I've got a head full of ideas that would drive a man insane." I stay sane by writing some of them out of my head and into existence. But I can't say today what's going to come next. It's like the title of a Herbie Hancock tune: "You'll know when you get there."
DG: What have you learned that you may want to share with aspiring writers?
VF: First of all, write because you love writing and don't expect anything from it. The literary business has changed drastically for the worse in the 45 years I've been writing and could change just as drastically for you over the course of your lives. I write because I can't seem to live comfortably without writing.
Second, never give up. Writing can be a heartbreaking field. The ability to persevere is essential. My theory, formed a few decades after my failure to become an internationally acclaimed novelist at age 25, is that the American public beats its artists unmercifully until they turn 50 or 55. Since you've taken their best shots and are still coming back with your own in the form of creative work, the public finally has to recognize what you've done and what you're doing.
Third, write what you want to write. Even if you target your writing for a certain audience, you have no guarantee that that audience will read you. Don't let your desire to get published keep you from trying to write new things or try new techniques or new subject matter. If you hang in long enough, your audience will find you. At least, that's what's supposed to happen.
Fourth, network. In literature, as in any other field, friends and contacts help you advance. This sounds cynical, but it's really pretty much the way things work.
Fifth, fame and fortune are matters of luck. Luck often occurs when hard work meets opportunity. Work hard at what you do and try to create opportunities. But understand that you have no guarantee the opportunities will occur. Having the respect of your peers is a currency that is much stronger than the American dollar at this time.
I'll stop here. I'm beginning to sound like Polonius.
DG: Where can people find your books and read more about you?
VF: Put my name into Google and you'll find a lot of my work online. Most of my work is available at online booksellers like Amazon.com or www.allbookstores.com. A lot of my published work appears on my web site, vernonfrazer.com. If you click on Poetry or Fiction at my web site, you should gain access to a fair amount of my work, some of which is now "out of print." I add other works from time to time, so keep coming back to see what I've posted. If people have difficulty obtaining my books, they can always contact me at frazerv AT bellsouth DOT net. If they want to discuss my work, they can contact me there, as well.