Stephen-Paul Martin and Kirpal Gordon


Dancing with the Text: Vernon Frazer's IMPROVISATIONS

SPM: If the limits of our language are the limits of our world, what does the world look like when the limits of language have been called into question?

KP: A healthy chaos, like life itself. Confusion as a heads-up response to a possible brainwash and hose job---as if our real identities were not these invented ego structures but something more ancient and unfathomable. Since I was a little kid I felt there was a world hidden within this world, a world not of things but of intuitions, a world that stood before (and after) language. A world more broody and moody, scary and hairy; less the dopey and mopey, locked-in and shut-down triviality of what language could ever describe. Anyway, Improvisations seems such a world. I mean the actual page in one's hands: everything's up for grabs. The words rush liquid in places, sit in tombstone blocks elsewhere or curl like wind along a wheat field. Sentences run on, words are cut up across the page; there are patterns I can't be sure how to read or in what order. Not only does a single, sure, reliable way to go break down, the musical and religious possibilities in language, you know, ring the rational inside out. Is Frazer intent on calling into question the limits of language at every turn?

SPM: This is the issue that innovative poets have been addressing for the past one hundred years. So why raise this question again? Do words like "innovative" truly apply to a poetry scene in which hundreds of poets every year keep generating texts that raise the same language-centered questions?

KP: Anything for tenure, huh? Is any audience in sight?

SPM: A small audience, to be sure, but an audience that takes itself very seriously and wants nothing more than a text which assumes that "IF YOU PLAY (OR WRITE) LONG ENOUGH, A FORM WILL ASSERT ITSELF." Viewed from this angle, Vernon Frazer's Improvisations could be dismissed as just another drop in an already vast bucket of "experimental" poetic texts. But if we go beyond the question of innovation, if we confront the text on its own terms, allowing ourselves to enjoy what it offers, then who cares if the avant-garde has become a predictable phenomenon? The more important question is: What, specifically, can Frazer's Improvisations offer to those who enjoy the pleasures of vowels and consonants, connotations and denotations, shifting rhythms and structural patterns, a man blasting syllables out of his saxophone?

KP: That's a good description; it's a musical score/poem.

Page 688 of IMPROVISATIONSSPM: Let's begin here: "THE PERMUTATIONS OF LANGUAGE/CONSECRATE IMPEDIMENTS." Frazer's words not only interfere with familiar habits of linguistic perception; they argue that this interference--a kind of guerilla warfare waged against the deadly trance induced by mainstream communication--should be seen as a sacred rite. Why sacred? Because "the tides of tynes turn forks of nodules/encrusting the ampersand's felonious reach/beyond legitimate extension/or appeal". In what sense do tides have tynes? Is the word "turn" a disguised form of "tune," referring to the tynes of a tuning fork, suggesting that the tides are a kind of music, that music is filled with tides, and that the function of poetry is to identify those tides and tune them? But if so, why is the ampersand a criminal? Does verbal music liberate punctuation from the prison of its subordinate role, refusing to legitimate the linguistic mechanisms that limit its possibilities? Is Frazer proposing that all graphic signifiers were created equal, or should have been? What would the "appeal" of an ampersand be if it went beyond its "legitimate" function? And why is this a "sacred" process? Does authentic sacred energy necessarily lead us beyond the confines of the legitimate?

KP: The last question is the best one yet! Is Frazer telling us that the ampersand's appeal is its resemblance to a G clef, that music rules, that our ability to hear the tuning fork amidst the silence is no small thing, that we got a heavenly connection, that not only does the ampersand signify "false" or felonious connections but that even what it stands for---and---is limiting "and" unnecessary in a musical-tidemoon-world in which all is revealed over 28 phases to be connected anyway? Is he pointing to the psyche's power to re-claim cliché that he roots of the sacred are found in the dumb shit and mainstream battering down we take as a matter of getting through the day in a consumer culture? Of what else will our transformation consist? Checking it out and taking it further: Is the very act of stuttering, tongue-tying or punning a rebellion against mainstream dominance? Is there no such thing in jazz as a bad note because it's only an unresolved idea? Is Freud's tongue "slip" showing portals to liberate our repressed imaginations? Can a thing be both so and not so? Is metaphor not a metaphor but the real way we communicate to one another? And what of what the Catholics call ejaculations, short prayers said so many times they appear and disappear on our lips with our in-breath and out-breath? The shaman's channel, the reference to Cecil Taylor, the orgone box, glossolalia, automatic writing, the element of chance in any encounter, Tourette's riff of spontaneous curses, the Olson idea of the projective, the cutting up of the page, Keruoac's bop prosody, mother wit and the dozens---Frazer's working quite a catalogue. Is he showing a path to a deeper integration of who we are as a tribe and community?

SPM: He's showing who we already are when our signals aren't getting jammed by the noise of mainstream culture. Insofar as poetry like Frazer's encourages the kind of layered richness of perception demonstrated by the catalogue above, it liberates us, temporarily at least, from state-sanctioned banality. Reading without having our awareness siphoned into a logical argument, plot, or thematic sequence, we are free to take from the text what we like, to improvise, to dip into the language wherever we want and read without being dominated by the author's agendas. (Doesn't this amount to using the text as an interpretive dildo? Better that than being trapped in an interpretive straight-jacket.) I am interested, for instance, in Frazer's reference to "centipedes of lost syntax." This wonderful phrase asks a number of questions: How can syntax be lost if it underscores everything that we think and say? And if Frazer is referring to an alternative syntax of some kind, why has it been lost? Who lost it? What is keeping us from finding it again? And why does Frazer ask us to think of it as a centipede? Because it has a hundred legs instead of the two legs that our anthropomorphic syntax presumably moves with? What would such an expanded syntax look like? Frazer has provided the answer in his poem, which is both simultaneous and sequential, moving in multiple directions, forward and backward, echoing, replicating, and disguising itself, revising itself, enlarging and reducing itself in size and in the masks of various fonts and typefaces, advancing and receding. Why would I even think of watching presidential candidates on TV when I can treat myself to textual pleasures like this?

KP: Maybe because we've been conditioned by (addicted to?) the incredulity and straight-up mendacity these candidates offer. Could be we're not sure that listening to these candidates, much less voting for one of them, actually matters. Could be we're guilty over our own cynicism or some civics class notion of democracy, maybe long ago and fading fast these days. In an America becoming increasingly divided between rich and poor with a shrinking middle, certainly pleasure is where you find it. As you implied earlier, one person's experience of a challenging text-as-interpretive-dildo might be another person's interpretive-straight-jacket. It's a nice way of saying some people prefer to be lied to by handsome presidential candidates on TV (beat me, fuck me, make me write bad checks) than to find what we might call (in our own grumpy or pious way) the transcendent quality of the truth. In any case, I love the notion that reading might exist outside of what you called "being dominated by the author's agendas." Maybe each reader's experience of Frazer may be more accurately understood if gridded on an arc of time. For example, I remember when I first heard Coltrane's Transition. All that mad howling, sheets of sound and African feel of "possession states" freaked me way out as a teenager. Talk about taking a few choruses! Fifteen minutes and he hadn't repeated himself once! Though that wild song, followed on side one with my favorite, "Dear Lord," was, to borrow your catalogue, "simultaneous and sequential, moving in multiple directions, forward and backward, echoing, replicating, and disguising itself, revising itself," I kept imposing my three-chord rock 'n' roll ears to what he was doing, rather than hear it in the context of his musical maturity. You know, when I went back, as you no doubt have, to what Trane had been doing with Miles and Monk and what he was hearing out of Africa and India, my heart and my ears opened big time. So, getting back to your original point, that is: should we even call such work innovative, do you see a value to Frazer's historical references, whether beat, jazz, projective or L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, in helping readers create a context to better cohere what he's up to? Or is the whole notion of precedents in lit as contrived as our presidents in debate? Let me address this another way. Did Frazer's liquid page" remind you of those painting booths in the 60s where you squeezed ketchupfuls of color and presto: a machine sped it all around and out came a sunset of psychedelic blends? No matter how you laid out those colors on the mat, the end result would necessarily be unpredictable as colors combine and change, wiggle and whirl. Or to put it in yet another way, ponder his "perception's deception occurs post-reception,/ no exception. Reflection deflects the I/ & all its inflection/ of the moment/ in the moment/ at the moment/ or any other tale told/ by time & its pyramid estuaries." Do you hear a walking bass line here or what? Is the musical the message, rather than the literal meaning of the words?

Page 660 of IMPROVISATIONSSPM: I think the music bends the literal meaning of the words in the same way that gravity bends Einsteinian spacetime, and since Frazer is talking about the mental and emotional interference patterns that refract any moment of perception, the musical effect of the passage you've cited replicates its intellectual content. Is the evolving significance of Improvisations as "unpredictable as colors [that] combine and change, wiggle and whirl"? I'd say that's a good way to describe the flow of its meaning. But I also want to insist on reflective pauses when I come across phrases like "pyramid estuaries," which functions like a verbal trap door, halting the linear motion of the walking bass line, insisting on a meditative interval. How can the words "pyramid" and "estuary" function in an adjective-noun relationship? The connection defies our logical expectations yet in some way it feels right. Or take a more complex phrase like "the arpeggiated strangulation of the vortex of Wichita." Back when I was formally doing zen, my teacher might have given me a line like that as a koan.

The suggestions of the words move in so many different directions. To fully sort them out I have to pause, yet the linear motion of the language continues, and I'm forced to move and stop at the same time. It's as if I'm being asked to determine the exact position and velocity of an electron simultaneously, and you know what Heisenberg says about that. There's an unavoidable uncertainty in the way we process our perceptions and ideas. Language can either conceal this uncertainty (for commercial or ideological purposes) or lead us into a full and ongoing appreciation of it. To the extent that literature asks or allows us to ignore the radical instabilities of language, it creates a false picture of the world which "holds us captive," to bring Wittgenstein back into the conversation. Should writing like Frazer's therefore be seen as an antidote to the poison of delusional language practices? Is this why his audience is so small?

KP: I like your comparing how music bends the literal meaning of the text with Einstein's light, spacetime and the "refraction" of gravity. This is the parallel "journey" of Improvisations: it's the Milky Way and the Big Bang at work and at play! You know, Frazer's got the (jazz) music of the spheres, the wonder-of-the-cosmos-revealed going for him. But as for what audiences want, well: we're human, we're junkies, we (over the centuries) pay the scribe in the tribe to "hold us captive" to pictures of comfort and certainty and immortality that don't exist. In the scribe game, the shortest season is the one that talks about the emperor's new clothes. Heads roll before ears can hear. Only two requests survive all human seasons: tell me a story or sing me a lullaby. Frazer is doing both but something else as well: he's "playing the heads," giving it a be-bop once over, taking his cue from Bird's "I've Got Rhythm." He is stretching way out. And like Bird, he's playing to players maybe more than the general public. Back to your Heisenberg reference, "the linear motion of the language continues, and I'm forced to move and stop at the same time," I agree: Frazer's got speed bumps in unexpected places. Like that phrase that ends the line, "or any other tale told/ by time & its pyramid estuaries." What gives that trap door effect, haiku pause, surreal fuse and koan connector a real kick in the ass is how he gets the three Ts--- tale/told/time---to toll in the head like gongs while "pyramid estuaries" is all flowing out to sea. But riddle me this: are the pyramids of the Pharaohs behind us as we contemplate the Nile's estuaries or are time's pyramids more Mayan, their estuaries the run-off of blood down temple's turreted corridor? Or perhaps something more subtle: maybe the pyramid itself is emanating estuaries of light, like the great seal on the dollar bill, Masonic, four dimensional, Vajrayana, diamond clean mind candy, a third eye opening, a Speilberg/Wyoming sutra from outer space? The literary tactic Frazer exploits in the noun-modifyingnoun uncertainty is that we know we can't ascribe adjectival qualities to nouns, but the order of the sentence, one might say, is a greater order. Or marches on. So we run this way and that, like a tale told by time. Could time also mean musical time? It's the planting of these "white-haired revolvers" that sets off all kinds of mischief---"black holes," if you will, or wrinkles in the text's fabric---that only one's imagination can fill. Really, do you think the American reading audience (presuming such a thing exists) cannot or will not use their heads? Back to the candidates' debate: have we become so frightened, hustled and disappointed by the presidency that we'll elect any liar who tells us what we want to hear? Have the bullies so twisted our democratic ideals that we would rat out friends, make racial profiles and report all trouble to the Patriot Act? Are we numb, dead, frozen in paranoia? I ask because how we fill in the gaps in the system, how we juggle "the radical instabilities of language" as you called it, is, in every sense of the word, a quality of life issue. Improvisations seems aligned with koans and haikus and other nontheistic, non-Western tools that help us realize the world-self-stars in an undifferentiated continuum: the Vedic atman/Braham or the Buddhist samsara/nirvana or the Taoist yin/yang or the Gestalt figure/ground. In the other passage you quoted, "the arpeggiated strangulation of the vortex of Wichita," I also find I know what he means but not at how I arrive at that meaning. Yes, there is a nod to Edgar Poe here and the concept of tintinnabulation that the phrase sounds like what it does. But I think there is another clue for you all, Stephen-Paul: "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Allen Ginsberg's 1967 crosscountry poem of the power of invocation, attempts to use language to raise our consciousness, to get the USA out of Vietnam, one might say. Ever since he came up with the phrase "hydrogen jukebox" in Howl (1956) Ginsberg was looking, I think, for the surrealist shorthand that shows us we're smarter than we think/don't think. Your remark on Frazer as antidote to the poison of delusional language practices reminds me of Ginsberg at his best and also recalls Plato's fear of poets in The Republic. What do you think about getting elected to a utopia (or Woody Allen's country club) that has you as one of its members? What hope for a larger audience do you see for a work like Improvisations or is such a question part of the problem? Let me ask you if this helps: Ric Carfagna, in reviewing the third volume of Improvisations, writes, "Its facets radiate out a poetic luminescence which will enlighten the reader's mind and lead them through an everchanging semantic labyrinth." But then he considers that "it is the irony of words to enlighten us at the same time they limit us, by constricting our vision to all the eye can encompass, yet never fathom all that can be imagined in the mind." Is this good or bad news in terms of the traditional role story tellers and lullabye singers play in our society?

Page 650 of IMPROVISATIONSSPM: I'll respond to your question with a narrative. Imagine Dick Xerox coming to the breakfast table, his mind burdened with the banal but complex problems he'll have to face when he gets to work. He makes his oatmeal as usual, but when he sits down to eat he finds Frazer's Improvisations instead of his customary New York Times. Instead of getting a few bite-sized bits of information to digest with his meal, he reads "the thrust of energy crux glucose its ordinance steep the force sweeping tornado gusts of streetlamps grieving at the rift mitosis brings to molecular unity ringing isolate factotums the violence of punching clocks amid nights of proletarian clamor resuscitates stolen lunacy…". All Dick Xerox wants at this point is a few facts and phrases to play with as he drives to work. He gets little or nothing from Frazer's language. In fact, it irritates him, even if phrases like "the violence of punching clocks" speak directly to his current situation. Can we blame Dick Xerox for not wanting to explore the implications of "stolen lunacy" (How can lunacy be stolen? Who stole it? Why did they steal it? Who did they steal it from?) or for not caring why streetlamps might be "grieving at the rift mitosis brings to molecular unity"? Even if such phrases made sense to him, would he have time to think about them? Would he understand their relevance to his immediate situation? But suppose we referred Dick Xerox to William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." Sounds nice, but how can poetry like Williams's or Frazer's keep Dick Xerox from a miserable death? If he really learned to read Frazer's writing, would Dick Xerox's life really change all that much?

KP: No question. Learning to read Frazer changes Dick Xerox inexorably. Here's the second chapter: Dick calls the New York Times and complains about "stolen lunacy," that the phrase defies the rules of comprehension. The Times reminds him that there's an expensive and permanent war for peace getting waged, that feeling bad and/Orwell about language making sense is only part of the truth, that handsome presidential candidates speak in sexy hushed tones about the invasion and occupation of virgin nations as Operation Iraqi Liberation Yahoo and El Hum do leela, that Saddam is bin Laden spelled backwards in Arabic, that ya can't tell one of these sand urchins from another, that pre-emptive means never having to say you're sorry, that weapons of mass deception are constantly getting smuggled out of the White House under our noses, that all you need to know about what it means to be American can be gleaned from Vince Lombardi's wisdom that the best defense is a shock-and-awe offense, that intelligence gathered from the F.I.B says bearded brown people in turbans are evil and they're just dying to get tortured by us because they're infidels, that Improvisations has been inserted onto the front page of the newspaper for certain selected readers to find its relevance to their lives. Dick is furious. He suddenly realizes this strange catalogue from the home of the (brave) phrase all the news that's fit to imprint has now made him late for work. Into his car he tumbles, driving those mean, pre-dawn streets with a fear he'll get canned by the boss. He puts pedal to the metal, feeling his oatmeal's thrust of "energy crux glucose its ordinance steep." He curses that stupid drivel he read when he could have used a weather report. He laments his lack of umbrella as he notes "the force sweeping tornado gusts of streetlamps." He looks up and realizes the estuaries of light emanating from the bulb are "grieving at the rift mitosis brings to molecular unity." He looks down and sees that his own insides are pregnant with new life and meaning. As he approaches the punch clock booming its violent late call, he suddenly understands Frazer's passage as prophecy. He tells his boss that "amid nights of proletarian clamor" he himself, just another "isolate factotum," "resuscitates stolen lunacy." His boss decides that Dick Xerox is just a carbon copy of his own struggles with a job and paycheck. "Dick," he says, "I never told you but when I was your age this job made me crazy until someone came along and pilfered my insanity. So go home and work for us from there. Why waste the fossil fuel when all your effort takes place in a virtual cubicle anyway?" And that's how Dick Xerox launched the Back to Home Movement. Featured in the Times, Dick's being virtually on the job while sitting in his garden transforms America's highways. A spontaneous refusal to commute ensues. No one in the country goes to work who doesn't have to; car sales drop, no one needs oil and gas, candidates now decree that no American will die on foreign soil in order to make oil fields ours. In fact, all the troops return home as well. The realpolitik of gardening, not killing, becomes the national past time. Arabian water gardens, Japanese rock and evergreen, English quadrangles, Italian herb gardens, Chinese landscapes, international sculpture gardens and waterfalls replace traffic lights. Highways are now for hiking, biking and observing nature, not for mass suicides at breakneck speeds. Every day large numbers of people turn to Frazer's Improvisations in the same way that the Chinese consult the I-Ching and the Sikhs take a hookum (open by chance to any page) from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib (holy book). Frazer chat rooms and tea rooms open everywhere. Interpretations of the text replace gossip about celebrities fucking each other. People greet one another with "IF YOU PLAY (OR WRITE) LONG ENOUGH, A FORM WILL ASSERT ITSELF." Can you see a chapter 3 up ahead?

SPM: I can see many chapters up ahead. But I think other readers of Vernon Frazer's Improvisations should write them. The text is a "juncture modality" that calls for a "burgeoning oral fleet of retrospective newcomers," for improvising readers who aren't waiting to tune in next week for the next episode to be served up by whatever authority system they happen to be plugged in to. Maybe the best thing I can say about any piece of writing is that it triggers my own writing process. Interpretation isn't about figuring something out. It's about dancing with the text.