Dancing About Literature
A review of Vernon Frazer's IMPROVISATIONS
A few years ago, I was pondering the "art" of the book review, and its tendency towards boring results. Noting the small and incestuous nature of the American poetry world, I realized that it would be difficult to review a poetry book by anyone who was totally outside of my peer group; I was separated from every poet in America by no more than two degrees, and I knew that that factor would be shrinking with great rapidity if I started writing poetry reviews. In most genres, a reader looks askance when a reviewer reviews his or her friends; the fact that this is commonly accepted practice in poetry reviews mostly goes to show how few people are actually reading poetry reviews.
I found this depressing, and sought a way to make reviews entertaining, in their own right. I decided that I would become a gonzo book reviewer. I would review each book in the context of the conditions under which I read said book. I decided this while on the first leg of a flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Madison, Wisconsin. There are few things in the universe less interesting than flying from Atlanta to Chicago, and while I found that the flight from Chicago to Madison fully engaged my imagination, it did not actually put me in a frame of mind to discuss books. I gave up on my gonzo book reviewing idea, and limited myself to whining, at the beginning of every book review, about how intimidated I was by the assignment and how much I didn't want to review the book.
But I mean it this time. Really.
Let's start with the facts. IMPROVISATIONS is printed on standard-sized 8.5x11 inch paper. It's a trade paperback. Its numbered pages go up to 697. The Prelude is two pages after that, and three pages before the back cover. I would tell you how much it weighs, but I don't have a scale big enough.
IMPROVISATIONS has four blurbs on the back: by Michael Rothenberg, Steve McCaffery, Ric Carfagna, and Alan Sondheim. Ric Carfagna's blurb, like the text itself, uses a number of words I don't understand, to say nothing of the sentences. I assume he did this as both an enticement and a warning. The fourth quote is by Alan Sondheim. Alan says:|'|'|' one-one rhythm intensity emergent language & new not form of bop prosody < the moments the heavy breathing dragging language where it won't speak but has to > this exciting brilliant igneous volcanism of insistent word glossolalia harnessed to < what the world said when the word spoke > you get my DRIFT "spot-time" Wittgenstein < about virtual language is about virtual particles < what the vacuum speaks > of this masterpiece: dipping in, constructs of solitons, shore-flecked language returning "all different" < did anyone write this < sure a machine DIDN'T "I am sure if language could speak, this is what it would say" > the _topography_ of language < said of a word or mineral that solidified from molten or partly molten material, i.e. from magma; also, applied to processes leading to, related to, or resulting from the formation of such words. > shards of CONTINUUM language degree & incessant < you can get lost in The Big Sky < WHATEVER YOU do READ THIS BOOK > & knot form
I don't know what that means either, but after reading the book, I'm pretty sure I know how it's pronounced.
Have you looked up the word "glossolalia" yet? Of all the words I had to look up while reading IMPROVISATIONS, glossolalia was the most commonly repeated. According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, it means "tongue." That's a little bit of an oversimplification when placed in the context of how Frazer uses it. I can't really reproduce, with my linear mind and text, Frazer's definitions, but it might help to know that Merriam-Webster gives a mention of, but no definition for, the word glossolalist.
More facts: Vernon Frazer recently turned 60. He has Tourette Syndrome. In his case, it manifests in occasional jerks of the head and, more commonly, unpredictable bursts of vocal noise. (The cussing thing typically goes away with age, but never manifested in Vernon's case.)
Vernon was, for many years, a jazz musician. At one point, I saw him on stage, reading poetry to a musical accompaniment. Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder, and often does not manifest when the patient is very relaxed. Vernon did not exhibit any symptoms on stage. He had not met the musician before that night, but read as though they were collaborators, with a clear feeling of his voice as instrument, and his words as the sort of lyrics that are designed to call attention to the music, as well as the other way around. He wore a headband. It was hot in there.
Vernon Frazer and I are friends. Before I was born, the Beats used their mutual friendships as a tool to get the attention of the rest of America. Now, it is absolutely impossible to get the attention of the rest of America. Since there is no concept of a successful American poetry career at this point in time, there is no such point in book reviews. One reviews one's friends' books because one loves their work, and feel they deserve more attention, from the miniscule percentage of Americans who give a shit.
Vernon wrote this book in five years, which is an extremely short amount of time for a sequence of poems of this size. However, I diverge from facts to offer the very popular opinion that this book is a sort of magnum opus, a book that one writes one's whole life, long before one puts…pen to… paper. Three volumes of this work were released in previous editions, on smaller pages, and have received positive reviews in that format, most of which focus on Vernon as "jazz poet." I offer another popular opinion, that the switch to a large format was absolutely necessary for this greater work, since the later sections of IMPROVISATIONS grow increasingly visual, rather than textual, in nature.
IMPROVISATIONS is self-published, under Vernon's imprint, "Beneath the Underground." Its list price is $45. I don't reckon I should share financial specifics, but it is almost inconceivable that Vernon will make a profit on his print run. For one thing, he sent out a great number of review copies. He sent them out in the summer of 2005. It is now January of 2006, as I write this. He tells me I am the first reviewer. For a smaller book, that would be considered a cold reception, but in this case, I suspect reviews will come later. It's not the sort of book one digests over a long weekend. A long sabbatical—maybe. But frankly, I believe this is the sort of book that will be discussed and argued over and analyzed for decades to come, a book the full import of which will not be considered until the social phenomena that created it are dead. IMPROVISATIONS is, among other things, a deconstruction of the era of artistic deconstruction, and whatever freedom of thought allowed Vernon to step far enough outside of his own mindset to create it did not empower me to step out of my deconstructionist language and properly review it. This book could be described as a Communist Manifesto of postmodern poetry, in that the proper comprehension of it requires a context that present in the world that discusses it. I find the idea of being its first reviewer very unpleasant.
Sorry, we needed a few more facts before we got into that stuff. IMPROVISATIONS is laid out entirely in Microsoft Word. I suspect it would've been easier for Vernon to learn Quark, but the symbolism is less cool: this book is about language, and what language can do, and all of its visual aspects were made with the world's most-used word processor. In the initial stages of the book, the "look" (as opposed to the text) is more-or-less in keeping with much contemporary "experimental poetry:" it follows the 20th Century ideas of projective verse, the ideas that word placement enhances the reading experience, and lends new meaning to individual words, in an art form where sparseness of language is typically considered of paramount importance. On the first page, a vertical line separates a few thoughts on music from a few thoughts on language. A centered thought on Cecil Taylor follows. The second page begins with the line:IF YOU PLAY (OR WRITE) LONG ENOUGH, A FORM WILL ASSERT ITSELF
(Real quick before we get back to facts: Vernon wasn't suggesting that he intended to write a book until he had something to say. He was saying that he had been writing for forty years, and now knew the form that his writing needed to take.)
In terms of form, the first page is a good bit wilder than many of the pages that shortly follow it. At first, IMPROVISATIONS is basically textual. The format serves the words. Throughout the book, the form becomes increasingly weird, and reliant on Word's more obscure formatting functions, and a great deal of heavy use of invisible text boxes. By the end of the book, IMPROVISATIONS is rarely using letters that can be deciphered outside of the context of Microsoft Word. IMPROVISATIONS is entirely a textual document. It never uses Word's image function. In a sort of cheeky nod to Dadaism, IMPROVISATIONS uses Wingdings – those fonts that come with Windows, as a sort of gimmick, that one can use to put a variety of cheap graphics in one's home newsletter or chore lists. Since Wingdings don't work on the Web, one sees them less often these days. Also: they're utterly stupid. You press a key on your keyboard, and a peace sign or pointing finger pops up. Of course, you don't know, in advance, which keyboard key corresponds to which little graphic, because your keyboard is designed for making words, not childish doodles. Vernon uses Word to progress from words to childish doodles, and does so in a way that, rather than dismissing language, elevates the doodles to linguistically complete monologue.
In case it wasn't clear: this book isn't easy to read. The counterpart is that the book is so playful, one isn't likely to become discouraged when reading it for pleasure. It is difficult nonetheless. One often sees poets who write in two voices, in two columns. It's the old trick of (for example) one column of text in which a husband tells a story, and one column of text in which his wife tells the same story. Generally, a reader reads one column at a time, but if a reader chooses to, he or she can train his or her mind to read both columns simultaneously. It's worth the trouble. A good two-voice poem, when read in such a fashion, can have a greatly increased impact.
Vernon frequently writes in five columns at once.
I am fortunate that the other writers in this exhibit know how to describe Vernon's work in the context of a "jazz poet," as I have a very poor comprehension of music, and would bore those who don't know jazz, and annoy those who did, if I tried to write about those elements of his work. One thing, though, is obvious: Jazz is the music of collaboration. A jazz musician is expected to hear each of the musicians around him or her, understand what they are doing and why, and move in a direction that is both complimentary and fresh. Vernon brings this approach to a poem by a single author by "playing" anywhere from one to five separate voices at once. He separates the voices with a number of different layout techniques; a typical page might have two stanzas aligned on the left margin, two stanzas sharply indented, and two stanzas over on the right, to signify three voices. That's not difficult to read. More complex patterns soon arise, as one voice speaks more continuously, and another plays backup. The first three-column layout appears on page 14, and the second (a much shorter one) on page 23, right before the book's first G L O S S A L D E L U G E. The first four-column layout is on page 80, and spread out diagonally across the page. By the time you encounter the first five-column layout on page 118, you're probably going to be suffering from the delusion that you've seen every possible method for conveying form in multiple voices, even if you do realize that the text in that five-column block can be read down, across, up, or backwards.1
And you ask: what are these voices discussing? Why, they're talking about how much they're enjoying IMPROVISATIONS! These voices speak of a love of speech, a love of sound, and a love of the written word. They play with language that talks about the joy of playing with language. They are arranged in forms that express the feeling of spontaneity while they discuss the purpose and ecstasy of spontaneity. Although references to spiritual traditions are extremely sparse, IMPROVISATIONS is an ecstatic work. When I read it for review, I had, gnawing at the back of my mind, the idea that I was obliged to say something intelligent about it. As I reread it, I enjoy it more with every moment I spend allowing it to simply fuck with my head. In a way, IMPROVISATIONS is like those books that attempt to simulate an altered state of consciousness, but rather than a drug experience, IMPROVISATIONS simulates the experience of living, thinking, and feeling in an entirely language-based environment. The correct way to read this book is to allow its enthusiasm to bring you into its state. It is an ecstatic treatise, and in order to appreciate its manifesto, you must become elevated to a state of ecstasy. You will not begin to comprehend its movements while trying to make sense of it, to hold on to it. To begin to appreciate IMPROVISATIONS, you must let go of the brain's attempts to control the flow of language. We, language-based creatures who have created a language-based society, have begun to believe, despite all evidence, that the purpose of language is to convey specific thought. IMPROVISATIONS does not convey specific thought. It inspires thought. Its purpose is to light your brain on fire. Only by reading it without regard for what it is saying can you begin to appreciate what it is discussing.
Note that I said begin to appreciate IMPROVISATIONS. Because this text is entirely specific. The images are bizarre, even absurd, but they are comprehensible, as one slowly begins to see as one's desire for comprehension leaves one.
Vernon's love for jazz, and its obvious influence in his poetry, gives him a shared experience with the Beats, and as such he often describes himself as "post-Beat" (no doubt influenced by the fact that people actually understand what "post-Beat" means). I am not inclined to classify him as such, and while I don't intend to commit taxonomy, I would like to bring up some movements in contemporary poetry. The first is the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, or Langpo, school of poetry. Schools of poetry are necessarily hard to define, but many people, when describe language poetry, talk about separating poetry from sentimentality, to communicate on an intellectual level without tugging at heartstrings. That phrasing would not be universally accepted by language poets, but language poets do avoid the use of the narrative "I:" that is, they take their own "personality," or the conventional definition of personality, out of their poems, for the purpose of creating works of a more philosophical bent.2
IMPROVISATIONS is joyful, but hardly sentimental, and does not use the narrative "I" (although Vernon has in the past). Nor does it use the narrative "we," which would be closer to appropriate. I would be inclined to call IMPROVISATIONS much closer to a Langpo tradition than a Beat tradition, but so many of the terms we use to describe language poetry seem foolish in the context of this work. How does one talk about the removal of personality when the poet is attempting to convey an entire jazz orchestra of speakers?
All of the speakers are Vernon Frazer, all come from the same philosophical stream, and all disappear back into that stream. He hasn't created the sort of "point-counterpoint" voices of the bickering husband and wife; that's not the point. IMPROVISATIONS is symphonic, it is a unified voice. It is all unified voices. Although you'll find many techniques in the text that allude to a tradition of Langpo, there are fundamental differences.
I'd also like to talk about Vispo, or visual poetry. People have been combining poetry and visual art throughout the history of art, but the idea of visual poetry is to merge language with visual art. What that actually means is pretty undefined. That's good. Without strict definition, there is play. And Vispo is playful, it's collage, it's the inner child of contemporary poetry. It's also the least divisive artistic philosophy imaginable. It can be expensive to produce and difficult to place on the web, but nobody has a philosophical objection to merging poetry and art.
IMPROVISATIONS is divided into numbered sections (with Roman numerals). Although they are strongly thematically connected, each section has a different way of expressing the book's themes. As the book progresses, the methods used to express these themes become increasingly abstract. Using the form of a page and the shape of words, Vernon begins by deconstructing the idea of language, then he deconstructs what he just said, then he deconstructs his deconstruction. As I've said, by the end of the book, he's communicating primarily in Wingdings.
If you just flip to the back, because no reviewer can stop you, you'll see some really funky and strange pieces of visual art using language as their backdrop. These pieces, then, are Vispo. But they are only Vispo when taken out of the context of the rest of the book. If you read the whole book, page one to page 697, you'll find, not a deterioration of language, not a merging of language with visual art, but instead a deconstruction of the concept of the letter.
And when you deconstruct the letter, you find hieroglyphics. When you deconstruct that, you find cave drawings. I said that people have been combining poetry and art throughout art history. But Vispo, despite being sometimes perceived as a new trend, precedes that. If art and poetry have been combined by people through history, primates have been merging poetry and art since prehistorical times. Vernon Frazer has used the intellectual methods of the postmodern era to return us to the art of the Neanderthal. He arrives at results similar to those of a Vispo artist, but he takes a totally different path to get there.
Of course, a living poetry school is constantly in redefinition; one could argue that IMPROVISATIONS represents a new way of approaching either Langpo or Vispo. It's pretty far out there, though. It's not a small step in any given direction. IMPROVISATIONS is not a new take on old ideas--it represents genuinely new modes of expression. And this is, perhaps, another reason why Vernon's work has not yet gotten the discussion it deserves. If there is any such thing as an "outsider artist," it is Vernon Frazer. Although his work is certainly steeped in jazz, Langpo and Vispo traditions, one is not inclined to thing of Vernon as being in any artistic "school." It's easy to overlook art that is not part of any discernable movement. In the huge morass of amateur and undedicated people lying to their diaries and calling it poetry, it's easy to assume that no one person is doing something truly exciting. But more than that, Vernon is often overlooked for the reasons I brought up in the beginning of this essay: how do you describe something new? How do you criticize something for which our culture does not yet have context?
I called this exhibit PRELUDE, partly in honor of the delightful Prelude after the last page of IMPROVISATIONS, but mostly because I hope this exhibit will be the first word on the in-depth discussion that the book deserves. I think everyone who contributed to this exhibit feels that Vernon hasn't received enough attention for his highly original work. Hey, there's always someone holding the short end of the stick. But more important than what Vernon has lost is what we, readers and lovers of poetry, have lost by not studying his work.
Let's get started.
1 I'm being absurd, of course. You're not going to read the book in order. You should. It makes sense in order. But the book is chock-full of really cool-looking pages with really odd word choices, and you're going to flip through. Do what you have to do.
2 It is part of a poet's job to define every word for him or herself. In this case, the word "personality" is particularly troubling, since a poet can only write from his or her self. But the idea is that the narrative "I" represents a more superficial aspect of self.
Vernon has informed me that he doesn't work on Microsoft Word; he works on WordPerfect.