An Interview with Vernon Frazer
Vernon Frazer’s poetry manifests both illumination and obscurity. Although these qualities appear to be diametrically opposed, the contrary holds true: each contains an element of the other. The nature of illumination contains perceptions of obscurity and indeterminacy, insofar as the human mind conceives of itself as incapable of completely 'piercing the veil' of its own ontological quintessence. Within the nature of consciousness, however, one questions what one accepts as the essence of that which encompasses us. Therein lies the delimiting shroud of obscurity whose imbricating aspects and inaccessible realms epistemology and imagination can only speculate on. Here, ironically, lies the illuminating aspect of obscurity: it forces us to look upon the ordinary with 'new eyes', so to speak.
In Frazer's poetry, both realms engage in a constant interaction/conjoining. Frazer creates landscapes that appear familiar at first. but the 'commonplace' in these initial apprehensions is perpetually being questioned and held up to the light of philosophical/poetic scrutiny. Here is where we explore the new, richer realms wherein we can moor ourselves to the continual dimensionality of change that Frazer’s poetry presents.
To get the most out of Frazer’s poetry, the reader must transcend the pattern-seeking familiar narrative paradigm of traditional poetry to experience the reality of chaos and randomness interacting and in doing so apprehend a poetic consciousness which is not presenting tidy, orderly verse-packages immune to the possibility of progress and transformation.
RC - Vernon, In this interview I'd like to concentrate on the Beneath the Underground publication of the complete IMPROVISATIONS which was released in 2005. Before we delve into the world of Improvisations, could you expound a bit on some of your other work, both poetry and prose. Then could you give us a little background about how you came to writing.
VF: Well, Ric, I've been writing for a long time now, and in a variety of forms. I started out as a fiction writer at age 15. But early in my career I had difficulty getting my fiction published. A traumatic period of my life during which I dropped out of graduate school led me to stop writing for 3, almost 4 years. During that time I studied jazz bass in a jazz workshop in Hartford's North End. My frustrations with the music business led me back to writing fiction and jazz journalism. While my jazz journalism got published, my fiction didn't. Through a long story---all of these references have long stories attached, by the way---I started writing poetry in 1982. My poetry started getting published and about 9 years later my fiction started getting published as well.
My fiction and my poetry have taken very different directions.
My first really developed approach to fiction synthesized William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Early in 1965 I wrote a short novel called It's Location that showed my influences. Despite its sophomoric moments– I was a sophomore when I wrote it, actually---it anticipates the work the Fiction Collective writers and other members of the fiction avant-garde were doing at the time. Over the years my fiction has stayed in this satiric-surreal mode, although I've added a number of mixed-media elements to it. So far I've published two novels, Relic's Reunions and Commercial Fiction, and a story collection, Stay Tuned to This Channel.
My poetry has taken quite a different route. I didn't start writing it seriously until I was in my mid-30s. My basic roots are in Charles Olson, the first poet I read in the New American Poetry anthology. My style from 1982 on was kind of Black Mountain-West coast Beat with a dash of Bukowski thrown in. From about the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s I fused poetry and free jazz, running a poetry band for five of those years. When I couldn't keep the band going anymore, my poetry began to change. I began to orchestrate the texts as if to replace the instruments that played counterpoints to my recitations. In 1999 I received a crash course in Language Poetry, which led me in an entirely new direction, which has culminated, at the moment, with IMPROVISATIONS.
How I came to writing combines a somewhat standard upbringing with a three-week period at age 15 that changed my life forever. My parents always encouraged me to read and were avid readers themselves. When I first learned to read, I read a lot of comics, including the Classics Illustrated series, which gave me a head start on acquiring culture. Once I learned how to read I started writing comics that my mother would stitch together for me. Later, I wrote some short stories in elementary school. At some point during elementary school I stopped writing, but read voraciously.
During elementary school I began to manifest symptoms of Tourette Syndrome, a genetic neurological condition characterized by motor and vocal tics and thousands of related symptoms. By junior high school I developed what sounded like a severe stutter but was really a complex vocal tic. The stutter turned my life into a living Hell. So many kids made fun of me that by ninth grade I was the scapegoat of an entire school. I couldn't walk down the halls without at least fifty people making fun of me. People stuffed gross things into my lunches and one winter knifed up three coats in my locker. The teachers knew what was going on but didn't stop it. My parents complained to the principal, whose disciplinary efforts made matters worse. I knew something was extremely wrong with the picture: a sometime honor roll student on the college track shouldn't be thinking about quitting school or worrying that the pains in his stomach were ulcers. I thought about shooting some of the kids, but knew I couldn't get very far with a single shot .22-caliber rifle. If this were the Columbine era, my story might have had a much more tragic outcome.
A few days after the New Year's break in 1961 a kid in my biology class kicked my chair. Something finally snapped. I didn't care about college or my future, only about stopping the horror that my life had become. I got up in the middle of the class, bloodied the kid's nose and sat back down. The teacher didn't say a word or send me to the office. For a few days after that, the kids called me "Tiger" but left me alone. By then, I didn't want any more than that from them; they'd done too much damage for me to ever want them as friends.
A few weeks later I was shopping with my mother in a Hartford department store. I was looking for a book to review for my 10th grade English class. I saw The Dharma Bums and remembered the previous year that Mad magazine had run a satire on the Beats. I decided to buy the book for my book report. Kerouac didn't look like the eminent authors who appeared on early TV, white-haired, dignified and seemingly born at 60 with their collected works in their arms. In his flannel shirt and five o'clock shadow, he looked like one of the working stiffs who hung out at my grandfather's fishing shack. It was the first time I thought a regular guy, not a born aristocrat, could actually become a writer. The book exposed me to a new lifestyle that seemed more tolerant than the one I felt trapped in.
During the three days it took me to finish the book I realized that I wanted to move to a place where I could live in this more tolerant bohemian culture and I decided that instead of trying to beat the Russians in the 1950s Space Race, I would become a writer. Since I couldn't talk effectively, I would write so well that people would have to listen to me. I realized that my students and teachers were a microcosm of American Life, a life in which I had no part. So I did my best to drop out of that life. I stopped believing what we were taught to believe about God, Mother, Country and the Communist Menace, and began a lifetime of challenging the system every step of the way.
I think I marvel at this transformation more now than I did then because I'm able to look back and see how drastically my life changed because of a three-punch combination thrown and a novel read in such a short stretch of time.
RC - It seems you had a plethora of diverse experiences which molded your character and in turn is reflected in your writing. Do you find different facets of yourself being manifested in the variety of forms you write; by this I mean does an 'alternate' Vernon get expressed in the poetry vs. the prose?
VF: I've lived through a lot, that's true. And different facets of my experience have come out during different periods of my life. I try to integrate my experiences into one "Vernon," but it's not that simple. My earlier poetry used to be very personal, expressing my feelings about bad relationships, surviving Cancer and Tourette Syndrome, and other things I've lived through. Over the past six years, my poetry has become very abstract. My experiences may come through in the language, but the poetry is more about the language than the experiences. My fiction is very different from my poetry. I remember Thomas Chapin used to comment on that. I've written some fiction that's autobiographical and some that's not. Every now and then I write a straight realistic story, but my fiction tends to be outrageously comic whereas my poetry has---so far, anyway---less humor or a more biting variety or, in recent years, more play on words and forms of thought. My fiction, like my poetry, will use different fonts for expressive purposes. But my fiction is likely to have a character break into an unexpected commercial or news broadcast or some other device that satirizes the mass media whereas my poetry isn't. So, while I haven't actually tried to make one form distinct from another, they are distinct.
RC - You say your poetry is more about language than experience, do you believe that this is a result of the various 'schools' of poetry (Beat, Language, Surrealism, etc) that helped shape your current way of approaching the genre; also where do the language philosophers (Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc) fit into this mix?
VF: It's a combination of all that and changes in my personal life. Until 1999, I was writing poetry in what I describe as Black Mountain-West Coast Beat with a dash of Bukowksi thrown in. I have very strong roots in Olson, in particular. Much of my poetry was autobiographical. Although I became known somewhat for writing about surviving Cancer, that wasn't my only subject. In 1998 I was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, after living with an undiagnosed case of it for 42 years. The diagnosis made me reexamine my entire life. It explained why I'd felt most people I knew treated me according to the low end of a double standard. Two long poems I wrote about Tourette, "Tourettic-Possession Rant/Dance" and "Discoveries of the Damned" started me in a new direction and sealed off my old direction. On the one hand, in writing the poems I used different sized fonts, extending Olson's notion of the typewriter and page as "field" to include the computer and its capabilities. This opened the door for what came later. But in writing these poems I achieved a level of intensity that I felt I could never achieve again while writing about my personal experiences.
Let me add that it's difficult to write autobiographical work after a certain age. As I approached 50, my daily life was much more stable. I was married and spending time with my wife instead of shutting down the jazz clubs and strip joints the way I'd done five or eight years earlier. If I wrote about reading in bed with Elaine, it wouldn't have the same charge as writing about the stripper who inspired "Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike." And if I wrote about the dancer again, I wouldn't have anything new to say. I'd just be repeating myself. I think autobiographical writers such as Jack Kerouac reach a point in their lives where their bodies can't survive living the kinds of experiences they write about. So, they tend to rehash old material. I wanted to avoid that trap so that my work could stay fresh. But I wasn't sure where to go next.
About the time I completed Sing Me One Song of Evolution, the book of poetry about my Tourette Syndrome, I met Peter Ganick, who proved to be very influential. He wrote a blurb for the book and then inundated me with at least thirty Potes & Poets Press books he'd published when he was in charge of the press. It was my first sustained exposure to Language Poetry, which I'd encountered in bits and pieces, such as the times that Michael Basinski and I would appear in Tempus Fugit. I think I tried writing my first "language poem" around 1990 after reading one of Basinski's. The more Language Poetry I read, the more I realized it had roots in Dada and Surrealism, which I'd been reading all my life. After a year of reading it, I tried writing it. The duck discovered water, you might say. The poetry field widened so that I could not only use the new things I'd learned from reading Bruce Andrews, Sheila Murphy and many others, but I could also draw on all these other materials I'd never had the chance or occasion to use in my writing before.
As far as philosophy, I was a Philosophy minor in college. I read a good chunk of Philosophical Investigations as an undergraduate and I reread Wittgenstein a few years ago, with about 30 years between readings. I like what he has to say. I don't feel as conversant with Derrida. I read Grammatology in my last year of a full-time day job. Trying to juggle a job, a marriage and a writing life didn't allow me to give it the best reading. I'm going to reread it one of these days.
Here I pause to make a generational statement. When I was in college, the Philosophy curriculum emphasized Sartre, Camus and the existentialists once you got past Plato, Descartes and the classic philosophers. Derrida et al didn't enter the curriculum until about a year after I graduated. But I was very interested in phenomenology, so what I got from Grammatology was an understanding of how phenomenology related to semiotics. No matter how you use language, the process of perception plays a role in its use. So, I can't say that I feel as well-versed in contemporary theory as I'd like to be, although now that I'm retired I have more time to catch up with it. But parts of IMPROVISATIONS address the relations between ego and consciousness that link Derrida and the phenomenologists. Sartre's The Transcendence of the Ego has a lot to say about how contemporary notions of the "self" developed. So does Edmund Husserl, by way of Gurwitsch and Merleau-Ponty.
RC - I want to touch on Olson in depth later but initially, what elements from Olson did you find most inspirational and helpful in developing your poetics – was it his projective verse theory, poetry by field, his diverse and exhaustive approach to the epic, his idiosyncratic way of poetically expounding history - or was it a combination of all of these plus others that you gleaned and can explain?
VF: Initially, my first encounter was a kind of imprinting. You see, somewhere in the six months after I decided writing would be my life, I bought Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-60, probably because it contained writing by the Beats I was just learning about. When I opened the book, Olson was the first author. His language and the way he moved words all over the page immediately became the basic premise for my own poetry. Although I wrote very few poems as a teenager, most of them featured the dropped lines and indented stanzas of Olson's work. So, Olson struck me on a primal level as a fifteen year old. I read his essay on Projective Verse at the back of the anthology, but don't remember my first impressions of it. But given my understanding of how the imprinting process works, I probably had an intuitive grasp of composition by field. His theories were always in the back of my mind, but I didn't give them a lot of thought at first. Probably the Olson theoretical writing that influenced me most had to do with projective verse and composition by field. His approach to the epic and expounding on history were things I became aware of much later. But he made a lasting impression on a fifteen year old--- enough to be my primary poetic influence.
RC - When you originally started composing IMPROVISATIONS with Book I, did you consciously then envision it to be of the scope to which it eventually burgeoned? Was it, and is it your foray into the epic, and if so explain what the designation 'epic' connotes to you in this poetry of the new millennium?
VF: When I started writing it, I had no idea where it would lead. I never thought it would become what it did. Essentially, I put myself into the role of a poet thinking like a free-form jazz ensemble, playing without a preconceived melodic or rhythmic structure. The piece would develop its own themes and shapes and continue for as long as it stayed interesting to me. It started with one 96 page book, IMPROVISATIONS (I-XXIV). Once I finished it, I realized I could take the idea further. The first book had mapped out the basic themes and motifs. At some point, I'm not sure exactly when, I envisioned a four-book structure. I can't remember if I completed it before I moved to Florida in Fall of 2002. But its ending allowed the possibility of extending the work. In winter 2003, August Highland asked me to compose a serial poem for Muse Apprentice Guild. I didn't want to serialize a work until I had finished it, in case the piece developed problems I couldn't solve. I thought about what to write for a serial poem, looked over IMPROVISATIONS and decided I could write a fifth section and keep the material fresh. As IMPROVISATIONS got longer, though, I noticed that my freedom decreased. Increasingly, the themes became boundaries, paths narrowing instead of widening. As it turns out, only one part of that section of IMPROVISATIONS got serialized. But I discovered from writing it that the work became increasingly visual and gave me new areas to explore while adhering to the basic themes of IMPROVISATIONS. So, I produced a total of seven sections of improvised text and decided to stop and let the work be what it was.
I never considered IMPROVISATIONS to be an epic. My understanding of an epic is that it's a narrative, and while IMPROVISATIONS has movement and development, it's one flash in the moment leading to another---like Olson's "perception." It has no narrative per se. It has no characters other than the characters of the text, so it doesn't tell a story; it offers a sustained sequence of linguistic experiences. It doesn't have a central narrator like Maximus. In fact, the first person pronoun appears no more than two or three times in the entire book. I really wasn't thinking in terms of an epic when I wrote it. If I was, the book's development would have taken a more formally structured path. Moving from A to Z would have involved a more restricted development than the improvisational mode I use to compose IMPROVISATIONS. Essentially, I knew I was writing what most people call a longpoem. The first book of IMPROVISATIONS that I wrote would have been a longpoem by itself. But then, at least one poet has described IMPROVISATIONS as a "large poem" as opposed to a "long poem." So, the matter of defining the work has created conflicting possibilities. I've either written an epic, a longpoem or a large poem, depending on whose definition you use. But a definition can mean one thing to one person, something else to another. I'd rather write than split hairs. So, I'd say that I've written a 696 page poem in the spirit of free jazz improvisation with no narrative thread and, I think, a different approach to development from other literary works that someone might compare it to. Whatever its designated label becomes, I hope I've advanced the form, and opened the door to new possibilities for poets and readers alike.
RC - As IMPROVISATIONS progresses it seems the use of the symbolic predominates, much more so than in the beginning. Does this more frequent and larger presence of the symbolic (negating the fact that letters, i.e. the alphabet, etc. is in actuality a set of 'accepted' symbols themselves) depict the inherent limitations of words and their inability to relate the core aspects of experience beyond the abstractions they represent; in other words, is the increasing presence of the symbolic in the poem a morphing and/or evolving of the basic nature of language itself?
VF - I'm not sure that I can say yes or no. Essentially, I was trying to express the inexpressible through language. At the beginning, I was attempting to do that through aural means, the sound of the language, what I've called the "orchestration of text." So far, I haven't heard many readers comment about the musicality of it, or the phonetically inter-related columns or lines arranged to be read simultaneously with other lines or overlapping them. In any improvisation, you want to keep building, you want each section to become more intense. As the piece built, it eventually moved from the aural to the visual and from the fluid nature of music to the fixed nature of visual art. It didn't exclude either, so much as it explored the tension that exists between them, the attempt of visual art to fix in place actions that are inherently fluid and the problem of reflecting that fluidity within the contradictory nature of the fixed form. The varying font sizes increasingly appeared as expressive devices when I felt that I needed to move beyond conventional language to express the Moebius Strip of tension that links the fixed to the fluid. Although the visual acquired increasing importance, the aural never disappeared; it just took on a different manifestation. For example, if you look at the way I layered the text visually in the latter sections of IMPROVISATIONS, you can still sense an orchestration taking place, with the background text functioning like a big band horn section while the foreground text solos over it, with the sounds and images blending to create both visual and aural effects. I think the language morphs as the work progresses, but I think it reflects a morphing that has always existed between using language as a fluid aural idiom and a fixed visual idiom. The tension has existed ever since people tried to communicate through speech and through carving on cave walls. My improvising just took me there and I had to deal with what was in front of me. That's my best explanation at the moment. And in more specific instances I'll have to expand on and in some cases qualify what I've just said because, as with any improvisation, the circumstances inherent in its composition change and the improvisation changes to address the circumstances.
RC - There is the tension in the attempt to express the inexpressible in words; music initially seems like a viable alternative. Although music also comes burdened with the preconceptions of a societally-indoctrinated listener (partaker). A truly objective listener/reader seems to me more of a concept than a reality. I feel that a reader's pre-formed assumption of the genre in question (poetry, music, etc.) could impair the attempt of any objective approach to the work, and this even before actually experiencing the work, be that good or bad. Thus my question - does your synergistic method of composition, in which you desire to "move beyond conventional language", consider what effect the work as a whole will have on the reader/interpreter, and if so does that move you to approach your art in a different mindset: one different than what you originally envisioned at that first movement of inspiration? I guess in a nutshell I could say, does the reader influence your method of composition?
VF - For the most part, the reader has very little influence on my method of composition. Expressing myself in writing has always been my primary concern, and early in my career I received a lot of inaccurate criticism of my work. College faculty and friends didn't have a frame of reference for what I was doing, so they didn't like it or didn't understand it. Because I didn't have a fully-developed sense of my self and my work at that period in my life, I used to take their criticism very seriously, which invariably caused me to alter the direction of the work I showed them for the worse, often causing it to go unfinished. As a result of the inaccurate criticism I received, I've become very guarded about my work. I don't want to think about other people's opinions until I'm fairly certain that the work is developing the way I want it to. At that point, I can consider comments in the context of the work. When I write, I try to write what I'll enjoy reading. In writing fiction, I found that I got bored with conventional structures and attempts to be "serious" without humor. I try to make myself laugh when I write fiction, to entertain and surprise myself. When I write poetry, now that I'm working in abstractions, I try to write phrases that I'd like to hear back and create images that I'd like to see in other books I read. So, while I'm not writing for the reader per se, I hope that by writing the kind of literature that I would like to read, other readers will feel the same. I'm hoping that what gives me pleasure will give others pleasure, as well, and that they enjoy the challenges I try to address in my work. Having said this, at a certain point in the creation of a piece, when I'm pretty certain I have most of the major elements in place, I choose a reader---very carefully---someone whose opinion I respect and who has a solid grasp of what I'm trying to do with my work. As you say, it's very difficult to find readers who don't bring their own preconceptions and expectations to a work. And their preconceptions and expectations could very well impair their understanding of the work I'm doing. When I'm in the middle of a project, I don't want the kind of perception that comes from that mindset to interfere with what I'm doing.
Since my method is not so much to go near The Edge as to leap over it and find my way back from wherever I've landed, my first question to my carefully-chosen reader is: "Have I lost my mind?" My second is, "How well do certain sections work?" So far, the readers I've chosen have assured me that I haven't lost my mind---not completely, anyway---and have offered helpful suggestions about the sections whose effectiveness I had doubts about. With IMPROVISATIONS, I wrote and published the first book without any criticism. IMPROVISATIONS (I-XXIV) received enough praise that I decided to continue the idea through several other books. Jack DeCarolis, whose literary knowledge I respect tremendously, critiqued what became IMPROVISATIONS (XXV-L). At his suggestion, I revised one small stanza. He thought the rest worked very well. By this time I knew IMPROVISATIONS was going to be a sustained work, whether I published it as consecutive volumes or as one large volume. As I recall, you critiqued---and later reviewed---the section that I published as IMPROVISATIONS (Book 3), although I had already written a fourth section. After August Highland requested the ultimately aborted serialization for Muse Apprentice Guild, I worked entirely on my own, completing the work with another three sections written in separate sittings, but all part of a sustained verbal improvisation. Aside from you and Jack, the feedback I received on the work before its completion came from reviews written by you, Clayton Couch and Tom Hibbard.
The reviews didn't alter my approach to the work, so much as they gave me the impetus to continue in the direction I was going. Since we're talking about a work that's modeled after a free jazz improvisation, the critiques and the reviews felt more like an audience shouting "Yeah! Go!" the way some people do at a club or concert when the band is hot. And my reaction was to keep building the piece and keep raising its level of intensity because I knew the audience was enjoying the ride I as taking and giving them, as well. With IMPROVISATIONS, the reader response didn't alter the direction of the work so much as it confirmed and encouraged it.
RC - You say you work in abstractions. This brings to mind one of the High Modernist's credo," no ideas but in things" by William Carlos Williams. It now seems with the advent of the 21st century, quantum physics, new burgeoning technologies and the evolving theories of language, etc, that 'ideas' are 'things'; thus abstraction and indeterminacy have become suitable vehicles in which to relate the current notions of existence, be it in poetry or science, indeed both. Do you see IMPROVISATIONS as being an integral part of this evolution with its abstract and aleatoric presentation of image, content and form; and if so then how can you relate this process back to the Modernists who spoke so 'definitively' on the approach, praxis and execution of poetry?
VF - Interesting point! It reminds me that in 1967 I wrote a paper for a Phenomenology course in which I said something to the effect that words were "things" in the sense of being "objects" that one could perceive just as one can perceive Williams's little red wheelbarrow. I didn't think about that paper consciously when I wrote IMPROVISATIONS, but now that you've mentioned it, the notion of words as things to be perceived probably informed IMPROVISATIONS in a major way. Placing words outside of their conventional contexts alters the reader's perception of them and what (or how) they mean. Although I didn't practice indeterminacy in my writing until late 1998 or early 1999, I was aware of the concept by 1965, and probably touched on it during high school. Bertram Turetzky, the innovative contrabassist, exposed me to those concepts with some regularity when I studied bass with him in the mid 1960s. He performed a tremendous amount of avant-garde concert music, so he'd play me sections he was practicing from pieces by John Cage and other composers considered radically experimental at the time. A friend gave me a copy of Cage's book SILENCE in 1966 or 1967. When I finished reading it, I realized Cage was one of our most innovative writers as well as an innovative composer. Plus, I've been an aficionado of free jazz since summer of 1965. I'd say all the pieces were there---all the "new" ideas you mentioned---just waiting for something to bring them together. I always moved in that direction, but much more cautiously than I would have if I'd been living in an environment where these ideas were discussed with some regularity. But the pieces floating in the air all those decades did come together with a vengeance when I started writing IMPROVISATIONS.
I don't see myself in opposition to the Modernists, although they might see it that way. I just saw myself as extending an alternative tradition that some of the Modernists helped create when they were considered literary radicals. In IMPROVISATIONS I use a lot of what I learned from reading Olson, who I guess is "postmodern" but derives greatly from Pound, who was "modern." I don't express myself in "ideas" per se in IMPROVISATIONS or my other recent poetry because my vocabulary, grammar and syntax frequently confound any attempt at finding "meaning" through the ways of past practitioners. If you try to read passages conventionally, though, your interpretation will frequently involve some aspect of epistemology. Sounds, sense impressions, and the layering of visual, verbal and sonic textures create an environment more related to abstract expressionism or free jazz. Themes occur, disappear, then return later, but more in an associational way than in a linear development. Pound believed an aspiring poet should study music. I certainly did that. But the music I studied didn't exist at the time he was writing. So, I have no idea whether he would be comfortable with what I'm doing. On the other hand, his thinking was so vast...I have no way of knowing whether he and his colleagues would embrace what I'm doing or recoil in horror from it. And when I extended Olson's notion of projective verse while writing IMPROVISATIONS, I found myself incorporating ancient forms such as concrete poetry, which the Modernists talked very little about to my knowledge, and new forms such as Language poetry. It may very well be that in extending the Modernist elements of my literary background into the "postmodern," I turned Modernism on its ear. Some people have written that I do the same thing to postmodernism. I'll let others choose the labels. I just try to do the best work I can and let it find its place along the continuum.
RC - I find in reading through IMPROVISATIONS a uniquely complex constellation of sound, form and visceral sensation. Indeed all the influences you spoke of and a myriad more seem present, transformed by a subtly ingenious idiosyncratic poetic methodology, it presents a vast literary labyrinth to explore. Does the complexity, scope and sheer physicality of the work make you wonder how future poets and readers will receive and interpret it; and following on that, how would 'you' like it to be perceived?
VF - It does make me wonder. I wanted to create as open-ended a work as I could, one with lots of potential, not just for interpretation, but for appreciation, as well. You can read through the book quickly, almost breezily, and find a variety of experiences in the verbal, aural and visual textures that run through it. You can read more cautiously and find philosophical and social commentary or, from a technical perspective, the ways the multiple voicings work, the poem's progression from an aural/oral medium to a visual medium and the tension the two generate as fixed and fluid forms. I wonder how many people will grasp certain elements but not others. Some people emphasize the visual components, others— but not many— emphasize the musical. I wonder if it's possible for the work to be appreciated in its entirety. Trying to say how I'd like it to be perceived is difficult without sounding like a pompous ass. But I hope readers will find all the things in it that you and I have mentioned and more, that it influences the way people think about poetry for a very long time to come, and that its contribution to literature will be regarded as highly as those of Whitman, Pound, Joyce, Olson, and Zukofsky.
RC - When I think of major 20th century long poems that were adapted and set to music, Zukofsky's 'A' and BP Nichol's Book 9 of 'The Martyrology' come to mind. We also must include Gertrude Stein's '3 Saints in 4 Acts' as well as other texts which she wrote to be set to music. With this in mind — and minding your previous statement that not many readers "emphasize the musical" in IMPROVISATIONS — can you foresee you or another interested ensemble adapting part or all of IMPROVISATIONS to music; and if so, what type of grouping and/or orchestration would you choose for its execution?
VF - I can't foresee it happening because it would be a massive project and I don't know where I'd get the funding to do it. My pockets certainly aren't deep enough. But after years of performing poetry with music, I have some definite ideas of how I'd present IMPROVISATIONS. It would take a lot more than the quartet I used to play with in New England or the duo I had with Thomas Chapin. First of all, I'd require a screen on which the audience could follow the way the text moves and see some of the word play that isn't apparent in a recitation; some passages mean more than one thing and the audience should be aware of it. Other visual elements could be included, possibly some of the vispo panels I made from IMPROVISATIONS. These wouldn't be mandatory, but in a mixed-media presentation, they might help engage the audience. Sun Ra used to have slide show accompanying his concerts in the 1970s. I would need seven voices to cover all of the unison parts that appear in the work. The voices should be a mix of male and female, with very different ranges and textures to bring out the musicality of the text. And the voices would have to rehearse the parts. Once they know how to interact, they can vary their patterns during the performance. So, we have a lot of things already and haven't even talked about the instrumentation.
When I wrote IMPROVISATIONS, I thought of something like a Cecil Taylor sextet or septet, its many "voices' expressing the one "voice." But for a performance of the complete IMPROVISATIONS, I'd actually like a larger ensemble because the piece would be a marathon, possibly longer than 24 hours to perform, and because of its length I'd like to add additional textures. For the front line, I want two saxophones, a trumpet and a trombone. The saxophonists should have a variety of saxophones, flutes and clarinets at their disposal to add musical texture. They rhythm section would have two keyboardists. One would play the piano, the other would play a synthesizer. In recent years, I've come to appreciate the guitar, so I'd add a guitarist who was capable of adding sound textures as well as fast lines. I'd like two contrabasses and a bass guitar, a drummer and a percussionist. I'd also add a cello and a violin to the mix because of the textural possibilities they add. To keep the piece moving from a textural perspective, I would want a conductor, not a traditional conductor, but someone like Butch Morris, whose “conduction” techniques orchestrate the flow of improvised sections. Once we had the elements in place—I work with what the musicians can do, the way Ellington and Mingus did— I'd have to go through the text and devise bass lines for some sections and instrumental combinations for each section. I might want the full ensemble for dense, prose-like passages, or maybe a duet or trio for contrapuntal textual passages or passages that have a lot of space on the page and need only one reader to recite. Like the text itself, the music would be an ever-shifting series of textures. Even though most of it would be improvised, extensive rehearsing would be necessary to make the vocals tight where they need to be tight and where they don't to overlap in such a way that they start and finish their passages at the same time regardless of how they vary the pace in the middle according to their own speech patterns. The instruments would have to rehearse, not because they're playing fixed parts but because it's as essential as the flow of the text for the instruments to enter at the right moment. The piece would also have a number of instrumental interludes.
After saying all this, it occurs to me that the improvisation has already taken place in the text I composed and that you could consider this an orchestration of an improvisation. Or it might underscore the tension between a fixed medium and a fluid one, one of the key themes in the text, by fixing the improvised text in the fluid medium of improvised music. It's a matter of perspective, I guess. You can regard IMPROVISATIONS as an improvisation in itself or as a score for fully realizing a mixed-media work. I've tried performing sections of IMPROVISATIONS with bands, with multiple readers and with Chris Sampson, a DJ whose calls his work sonocollage. He'll play three or four CDs at a time and replace them. When we collaborated for an hour on his radio show, he must have used at least thirty CDs. It worked surprisingly well, better actually than working with the bands. I still think a live band would be best, but it occurs to me that some sampling equipment might come in handy, as well. But the project is so massive, I don't think even a MacArthur Foundation grant could entice me to do it; I'd have to sacrifice a lot of other work to realize a performance of IMPROVISATIONS in its entirety.
RC - I'd like to go back a bit and talk about other poetic influences. The reason being was the answer to a previous question in which you named Joyce as being one source for your inspiration. You covered the influence Olson had on you, so could you now elaborate on the affect Joyce had on IMPROVISATIONS: In particular what specific works - seeing that his output was quite diverse - had an impact on the way your poetic methodology developed?
VF - I mentioned Joyce primarily as an indication of the caliber of consideration I hope IMPROVISATIONS will eventually receive, although IMPROVISATIONS doesn't approach the erudition of Joyce's work. Still, one friend of mine with an extensive literary background has actually referred to IMPROVISATIONS as a combination of the Cantos and Finnegan's Wake I've read both books and feel as though I've absorbed about ten percent of them. I can't say that Joyce had a direct impact on me, the way Olson did, but he certainly extended the possibilities of language and I must have picked up on that, but not in a way that my style makes obvious—to me, anyway. I've certainly absorbed stream of consciousness and other narrative techniques of his, but I picked up on those the summer before my junior year of high school, when I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
RC - I feel the depth of poetic, epistemological, musical possibilities warrants an extensive cross-genre study of IMPROVISATIONS, much more than can be gleaned from reviews, essays and interviews; although these three formats help readers obtain a basic introduction to the work. Some major poetic works of the 20th century: The Cantos, The Maximus Poems, The Changing Light at Sandover and Ulysses, to name just four, have guides/reference books written by other authors expounding in minute detail their corresponding works' complexity and nuances. Do you think the intricate labyrinth which is IMPROVISATIONS warrants a similar guide/reference book, and would you welcome it — or — do you feel that the basic aleatoric and shifting scope as well as the unique nature of the work precludes and makes such a guide unnecessary ?
VF - This is a very interesting question. When I wrote IMPROVISATIONS, I wasn't thinking that far ahead. Staying focused on the work and its movement prevented me from thinking beyond what was in front of me in the moment of writing. I knew all the references I was making and in the heat of composition I wasn't thinking about other readers, just creating the work itself. Now that you mention it, though, I can see where a guide to IMPROVISATIONS would be very helpful to other readers. It would also be very flattering, but that's another matter entirely. The guide, as I envision it, wouldn't be like the guides to The Maximus Poems or the Cantos, which document and explain the obscure bits and pieces of history Olson and Pound refer to in their work. IMPROVISATIONS does have some of those, but since its emphasis isn't historical, I think the guide would have to address other areas, possibly even ways of reading the text. Historical areas where a guide would help would be the history of slavery and its relation to the development of jazz, and the war in Iraq and Iraq's once being the so-called cradle of civilization. There are others in there as well. I think a guide could provide more explanation of the musical phrases that abound in the work and how they may relate to nonmusical topics in the work. It would have to point out some of the epistemological issues the work raises, as text as well as being an entity that itself exists in the moment. The guide might suggest several ways a person can read a given passage---whether to read it as simultaneous voices that create an orchestral effect or to read concurrent passages separately. The book uses both techniques and lets the reader decide what to do in the "moment" of reading, in effect creating an interactive, or possibly improvisational experience in which the reader chooses a direction to go in. Some of my references are so obscure and others so contemporary that future generations might not understand them readily. I think some readers may need direction in how to read the book. Probably some reference to the techniques I employ and a discussion of their past use would help the reader. And as I move from the aural into the visual, an explanation of how the layered graphics over the last few hundred pages are not only visual in their effect, but musical as well. At times I look at those last pages and realize that one layer could be a horn section, another a string section. And some explanation of my use of webdings might illuminate pages on which words form from combinations of layered fonts that at first look like random letters hurled across the page. The guide would also need to explain elements of jazz improvisation, especially the free jazz idiom, since the work was written like a free jazz improvisation. It might explain that IMPROVISATIONS has structures that very loosely resemble choruses, the way lines in certain sections come in like horns. At one point in the work I cite Julius Hemphill's recording Coon Bidness in the hope that a reader will listen to it and see the relationship between what Hemphill does with spontaneous orchestrations and how my work parallels it.
IMPROVISATIONS is a work that you can experience in a variety of ways. You can read it quickly and get one sense of it. Or you can read it deliberately and see how diverse and disparate elements fuse together. The more I think about it, the more helpful I think a guide would be.
RC - You state that in the last 100 pages you shift from the aural to the visual via layering techniques. This again brings to mind the potential for the work to be transformed into a multi-media production. I understand the apprehension you stated earlier, as to the staff (musicians, readers, etc) required to pull it off, this included with the always present budgetary situation. I wonder if you thought of creating (or have it created for you) a virtual computer-generated version of IMPROVISATIONS? The layering of sound and image could be realized with the application of the appropriate software. Many new and relatively inexpensive software packages now offer this possibility, and I don't think you have to be a computer guru to work with these programs. So has that option entered your mind?
VF - I'm aware that software like this exists, although I've never really seen it in use for more than a minute or two. I've even had passing thoughts that I could move in a direction like that because the corporate takeover of publishing in the last thirty-five years has restricted outlets for writers on the edge to small and micro-presses or self-publishing and limited distribution in general. Experimental literature thrives on the net and the medium is allowing people to create new art forms or extend old forms into new areas. I can see myself moving into mixed-media at some point because I've had forty years of exposure to it and have already done mixed-media with the poetry-music fusions I did. But to tackle IMPROVISATIONS would be...let's just say daunting is an extreme understatement. I'd say the piece would be over twenty-four hours in length, possibly much longer. I'd have to orchestrate as many as seven voices and ten instruments. As a composer, I'm not nearly sophisticated enough to compose the instrumental accompaniment well and quickly. When I had the Poetry Band, after a few basic instructions, the musicians improvised whatever they felt fit the poem we were performing. When I played bass in the band, I could alter the direction by modifying the bassline. Percussionist Brian Johnson and the late saxophonist Thomas Chapin never received instructions from me because I knew from hearing them that they would come up with a much better idea to play than anything I could suggest. It seems to me that the project could take at least a decade of full-time work if I did it on a computer. The orchestrating of so many elements into such a large piece would keep me from writing anything new. As interesting as the idea is, from a practical standpoint I'd rather spend that decade writing new books.
RC - Did you ever consider the translation of IMPROVISATIONS, and if so what languages do you think would best relate the content of the original?
VF - At the time I wrote it, I wasn't thinking beyond what was in front of me, but I'd love to see it translated into as many languages as there are interested readers. But what I do with syntax and meaning might make translation difficult. About two years ago, Professor Zhang Ziqing of the University of Nanjing translated a short section that he incorporated into a presentation. But when he introduced me at a reading in Nanjing in 2004, where I was reading my earlier work, he explained that my more recent work, like IMPROVISATIONS, was untranslatable. From what little I know of languages other than English, translation is very difficult and seems to leave out key elements of the work---nuances of words, changes in rhyme, rhythm or meter---and you're left with the gist of the work while its deepest elements remain locked inside its original language. If I were to guess a language that would be offer the most accurate rendering of IMPROVISATIONS, I'd say Spanish or possibly Portuguese. A number of words in Spanish and English are very similar, and the Concrete poets of the 1950s who wrote in Spanish or Portuguese were able to render their work successfully in both languages. But IMPROVISATIONS is more labyrinthine than most Concrete Poetry, so it might be difficult to translate the more elaborate constructs within the text.
RC - What would you say to introduce a reader approaching IMPROVISATIONS for the first time? What would be the key elements and infrastructural patterns you would want them to notice, and by patterns I mean the elucidative benchmarks delineating the philosophy which permeates the work?
VF - I'd have to tell a lot of them that they probably haven't experienced a work like this before, and to remain as open as possible to experiences they might find unfamiliar and unorthodox. I would explain that my use of language requires a variety of approaches to understanding and that the literal meaning of the words and sentences isn't always the key component to pay attention to. Sometimes I take formal rhetorical structures and jar the meaning out of them with an unexpected choice of words or a pun that necessitates the reader's perceiving and interpreting a passage much differently. The reader should note that the work draws on a number of literary traditions: projective verse, Language poetry, Dadaism, surrealism, and concrete and visual poetry. Sometimes I'm working within the tradition, other times I'm trying to move beyond the tradition into new areas. It's like a free form improvisation. It's not a conventional narrative, but a series of moments that, I hope, become a sustained experience of the moment in the moment. If they look at it musically, they might see that the appearance of "IS" functions throughout much of the work like the beginning or ending notes of a chorus that's very loosely structured. The chorus itself can move in many directions before it touches back on "IS" and moves outward again. The reader can identify certain philosophical underpinnings starting with the very first word, "IS." One of the recurring themes of the poem is whether Being is a transitive or intransitive state. Then I employ a vertical line to represent the kind of hierarchical thinking that informs the sensibilities of much of Western civilization: the top-down military administrative structure that most institutions use; the taxonomical approach that classifies things in ways that limit our understanding of their possible range and depth; the emphasis on order that encourages categorical thinking, which can narrow one's vision; and a number of other possibilities. A horizontal line appears throughout the work to offer an alternative. The line represents a continuum on which all things fit or can be made to fit. Instead of exclusion, the line represents incorporation, a structure in which the components are considered equal. In this sense it relates directly to improvised musics such as jazz, in which elements from their cultures are appropriated and assimilative. When I explain it, I use a cooking analogy: if you have chicken, green beans, carrots and spices, the vertical line would create a plate on which all these items are separate from each other. If you work according to the horizontal line and combine the elements, you come out with a stir-fry. And of course a tension exists between the two concepts; the work explores this graphically as well as verbally. Another key to the work appears at the top of the second page, where I paraphrase a statement about free improvisation that Cecil Taylor made in the 1960s in an article that I found on an ESP-Disk liner jacket: "If you play long enough, sooner or later a form will assert itself." This serves as an introduction and a guide, of sorts; as IMPROVISATIONS progresses, it assumes a variety of forms and if you follow it from beginning to end, you'll see the form emerge and reshape itself. As a kind of unstated corollary to Taylor's statement, a free improvisation assumes its shape at whatever note the improviser determined is the ending note. The shape of IMPROVISATIONS would be different if I stopped at any page before the one I did and its peaks and valleys would have a different effect. As I said before, although I composed the work with a beginning and an end, the reader can make an improvisation out of the reading experience by reading different sections and letting his or her perceptions of the work accumulate.
The musical terminology extends throughout the work, sometimes assuming musical significance, other times social. Words like tonic, dominant, and inversion help convey the analogy of the work to jazz, but suggest other relationships as well. As I think I mentioned earlier, the work makes references to the history of slavery in America and the relation between slavery and jazz.
IMPROVISATIONS also contains commentary on the war in Iraq, American businessmen and politicians. The themes flow in and out of the improvisation, instead of appearing at regular intervals. As a free improvisation, they appear in the text as they come to mind. They're commentaries and observations, not statements that you can summarize and organize in neat little paragraphs. I'm not writing toward a conclusion, but writing as a process. As the work progresses, it becomes increasingly visual but doesn't lose its aural effect. The different fonts I use in different sizes and combinations create certain effects for the reader, but eventually raise the question of the glyph, one of the roots of Concrete Poetry, and its relation to the fluid process of improvising. The early images found on cave walls were meant, I think, to represent dynamic acts, but the nature of its medium froze them in place, fixing them in time but sacrificing the spontaneity as a necessary consequence. The work itself exemplifies the tension between the two because it's a fixed work composed in a fluid format.
I think that should give readers an idea of what to look for when they open the book. I could probably cover even more ground, but I want people to read the work and not rely on my previous paragraphs as "crib notes."
RC - According to your description, is IMPROVISATIONS a physical manifestation and/or emulation of the thought process itself? I ask this for you state: "I'm not writing toward a conclusion, but writing as a process." Also you say in regards to the writing of IMPROVISATIONS: "it's a fixed work composed in a fluid format." Thus, is IMPROVISATIONS (the book) a tangible representation of consciousness/mind awareness presented empirically in the physical medium of the word on the printed page?
VF - IMPROVISATIONS exemplifies the tension between the fixed and the fluid. My approach to composition was fluid in the way that an improvisation is of necessity fluid, but I was practicing that fluidity in a format that would eventually become fixed. As an improviser, I had to create a beginning and, at some arbitrary point, an ending. As I said earlier, the shape of a solo is largely determined by the beginning and ending because it creates boundaries that define the shape of the middle, the peaks and valleys of its energy flow, so to speak. Just as I chose to stop at a certain point and declare the improvisation completed, I could have gone on indefinitely with the work. In that sense, it would have remained a work in process. I could actually resume the work and extend it indefinitely, if I chose to. But since I've declared it completed, it does stand as you describe it, "a tangible representation of consciousness/mind awareness presented empirically in the physical medium of the word on the printed page." In IMPROVISATIONS—actually, with almost everything I write—I try to achieve a state of consciousness that will manifest itself directly on the screen or page. Sometimes I achieve it, sometimes I don't. It's a focused thought process that incorporates random elements. I'm conscious of what I'm writing, but while I have to maintain a focus on the work at hand, which would restrict the free flow of consciousness on one level, I have to remain open to whatever my mind produces in the moment, be it something from the environment, or a distraction, anything that enters the consciousness and affects its flow. Several days ago I read a discussion in All About Jazz between Sonny Rollins, one of the great saxophonists in jazz, and David Ware, a highly-regarded saxophonist Rollins mentored. Rollins said that when he improvises, he doesn't think about anything. He leaves his mind free so it can do the playing. I try to do the same. I don't try to determine the direction so much as I let my mind work freely and a part of my mind keeps track of the movement within the work. To some extent, I try to extend Kerouac's Spontaneous Bop Prosody to capture my state of consciousness at the moment, but my consciousness differs from his in that it's focused on language happening in the moment, as opposed to writing about specific life experiences in the moment. To some extent, I also follow William Burroughs' statement about writing what his sense experience at the moment. The purpose of the work is to achieve something as close to immediacy—the experience of consciousness—as possible in a form that ultimately fixes a portion of what really is a continuing flow. Even in jazz, you never quite capture the moment in the moment. You're always a micro-second, a fingering or flash thought behind the moment of real time and yet you're working as close to real time as you can possibly get.
So, in summary, I do present "a slice of mind," but, as with every other attempt in literature or philosophy, the moment is never completely "pure" because the process— or processing—of consciousness itself is too complex to be absolutely free of a cash register or telephone ringing, a voice from outside whose words pass through even a focused consciousness and perhaps leave fragments of its passage behind. Maybe I should say that I try my best to manifest consciousness in my work, but the nature of the process, as with philosophy, ultimately renders it an emulation of a manifestation.
RC - So by saying IMPROVISATIONS is "a form that ultimately fixes a portion of what really is a continuing flow", then what you have created is akin to a 'poetic snapshot' out of a moment frozen in time; but paradoxically the flow continues in the fluid and myriad potentialities that each incident of improvisation allows. In effect you have composed a work of limitless poetic possibilities with endless interrelations and associations. Do you perceive the work in this light?
VF - Yes, I do. The writing drew on many threads of thought, which wove together in more ways than I could begin to explain. I wasn't fusing these elements together to make a single statement; I was trying to create a prism that projects the work outward in a variety of directions as opposed to consolidating itself in the reductive way that many "statements" do. As with a musical improvisation, I hope the audience will experience the work differently each time it reads it. Like a solo, certain forms are in place, and certain themes— these give the material its overall shape and flow. But like a solo, the work contains many nuances that might strike the reader differently with each reading. I'd like my work to hold up on re-reading, just the way a good jazz improvisation does. And being an improvisation, the work is definitely a snapshot of the moment and, perhaps being more akin to a recording than to a live performance, it is frozen in time. But it captures a moment that contains so many allusions to other moments within it that it will reflect all those moments and their numerous perspectives through that one moment that exists as the text.
RC - One of the reoccurring leitmotifs that appear is 'INWARD/OUTWARD'. Relating this to the prism analogy stated above ("...a prism that projects the work outward..."), explain how these recurring themes tie into the overall structure; and I mean this more from an epistemological/philosophical perspective?
VF - "Outward" itself is a nod toward Olson and Creeley, "the figure of outward," as Olson referred to him. I've yet to find an explanation for the term, so my own guess is that Olson was more "inward" than Creeley and admired a trait complementary to his own. Taken together in IMPROVISATIONS, the words reflect the inherent tension between a fixed medium and a fluid one. It pivots on the relation the fixed and the fluid, and hints at the glyphic elements of the work with the arrows that frequently occur around the words. The fluid medium moves more directly outward, into the world, although an "inward" process, thought, is essential to creating its movement. A fixed medium requires its creator to go inward and, while the work it creates is directed outward, to the external world, it never makes it there as a fluid entity, even though the process of putting it on a page or a cave wall is a fluid one. This, in a way, relates to the immediacy with which we experience a musical performance, as opposed to experiencing a painting or a book, although many artists and writers strive to create, if not immediacy, then at least an illusion of immediacy in their work. I tried to place IMPROVISATIONS as much "in the moment" as I could. I hope its prismatic effect will direct the reader's perceptions in every direction, inward, outward, and in other directions, as well. It also has to do with the issue of Being as a transitive or intransitive state, a difference in perception that exists between Western and Eastern civilizations, as do the vertical and horizontal lines we talked about earlier. "Inward" and "outward" are terms that relate to consciousness, a key component in Being, at least at the level of human cognition. Pondering your own existence is an "inward" process of consciousness. "Outward" may phrase the question of one's own existence in relation to the Other. "Do I exist?" "In relation to what do I exist?" The social element, or the element of the "other" comes out in the "out, word" play I make on "outward." The pun carries a certain ambiguity. On the one hand, it rhetorically tells Language to go into the world and shape our experiences. On the other hand, it can mean, in effect, "out with the conventional meanings created by words, grammar and syntax." I don't intend to use it in an anti-Language sense, as with Burroughs's Word Virus because I love language, but I also see its limitations in terms of communicating, just as all means of communication have their respective limitations. Basically, I "deregulate" language to expand its expressive potential.
RC - Well said. Could you now elaborate on your specific process of "deregulating" language? Do you endeavor to destabilize its Indoctrinated and accepted presence as dictated by the 'status-quo'; and could you call this an anti-establishment technique?
VF - Again, I have to make an analogy between jazz and the way I write. The jazz that preceded free improvisation relied heavily on chord structures, established time signatures and tempos to structure their work. To me, these devices are analogous to definitions, grammar and syntax. To improvise freely with language, I had to move away from these boundaries into areas more closely related to Language Poetry, Concrete Poetry, Visual Poetry, Dada and surrealism. On one level I wrote with no intention to "mean" in the traditional sense, letting associations form between words that had no previously established contextual relationship. Placing a word or phrase in an unlikely context opens a field of new meanings or interpretations. Taking this liberty with language allowed me to create a flow more suited to the dynamics I wanted to work with: the aural element generated associational patterns that conveyed a musicality one can't consistently achieve using language conventionally. When improvising, some players will find a standard tune enters their field of thought and they interpolate a phrase, sometimes for humorous effect, sometimes because it just happened to be the most logical line to lead from one passage to the next. In the kind of writing I was doing in IMPROVISATIONS, my mind would come to a cliché or a figure of speech. While I use some of them in the work— who can escape them, really?—I toyed with a lot of them, inverting the phrase, or inserting a pun or an unlikely word for the word you'd normally expect. Instead of working on building a fixed image from language, I was letting the language create fluid images, images that a reader might not grasp in a logical, syntactic framework, but might grasp as a flow of sense impressions that made other perceptions possible. The use of fonts and webdings were other devices for creating a perceptual disjunction. The variations in fonts and their sizes alter the reader's interpretation of a passage. Certain fonts tend to appear more official, more intimidating, whereas others appear more playful. The webdings are supposed to represent, if not code, then the illusion of code—a sense of secret writings, maybe mystical texts. But the webdings add a spirit of play to the search for these "hidden" truths, as if to say yes, they're here but the message isn't as somber as you might think, or as secret. Late in the work, the webdings become part of the layered text I create using watermarks in the WordPerfect software. In some cases, the symbols acquire multiple contextual meanings. For example, the eye that appears through the later section of the work represents "n" in other fonts. But the reader can interpret it as the letter "i" in some contexts and as something else in other contexts. In the last fifty pages, the reader can piece together words and symbols to make phrases and sentences out of what appear to be floating characters. The spacing around them is actually quite precise. I structure lines and spacing to dictate the tempi at which section of the work should be read. For example, one should read a passage with a lot of space more slowly than a page of unpunctuated fully justified language, which one should read at a faster pace or tempo. The pace of the textual movement can affect the reader's perceptions of language. In structuring a number of passages, I allowed for multiple interpretations, creating situations in which the reader can choose one or more ways to read the text. I've designed some sections so that the reader has to interpret how to read them as well as what they might mean. At times layering one textual passage over another creates possibilities for multiple interpretations because the background and foreground passages reflect off of each other to some extent.
I'm sure there are a number of things I do that will come to me after this interview. As a general practice, I try to write in what I call a state of "pre-perception." In Sartre's Transcendence of the Ego, he describes consciousness as existing as a perceiving mechanism which transmits messages to the "self" created by consciousness. The "self" structures the perceptions according to its own system of cognition. I try to write in the moment before the perceptions become compartmentalized by the "self." Since the nature of the process almost leaves us living a millisecond-delay between experiencing it and the processing of it that we commonly call experience, it is very difficult to even approach that moment. When I fall short, I use other ways---puns, etc---to "deregulate" the language. I don't consciously consider this an anti-establishment technique, but then except for the time I spent I the office earning a living, I pretty much dropped out of the establishment at age fifteen and almost intuitively work in opposition to it, whether it's in the foreground of my consciousness or not. I'm aware of what Barrett Watten said in the early days of Language Poetry about him and his colleagues writing the way they did to destabilize the language and to undermine its established meaning. As a mass political strategy, I don't think it succeeded and probably wouldn't succeed now, simply because the average person doesn't have the background to understand the role of destabilizing the linguistic control structure created by the forces in power and because a stable communications system is necessary to take actions that are based on practical issues, as opposed to theoretical issues. Nevertheless, I think destabilizing language is a way of opening up people's sensibilities, making them receptive to new experiences and artistic structures. I don't consider myself a political writer, although political awareness is often present in my work in some fashion. Some of my work, especially my earlier poetry and my fiction, are blatantly anti-establishment, even though I don't write with a message of reform. The "message" in my work really is about consciousness and making one’s receptors more attuned to unique experiences and seeing. If it happens frequently enough to enough people, it might make a difference. If not, then it at least offers the potential to experience life at a greater and more rewarding level of awareness.
RC - On the subject of "pre-perception", and may I add pre-conception: does IMPROVISATIONS' opening word "IS" presuppose an existence prior to a perceptive observer creating it? Basically, what is "IS" and how does it tie into the layered potentialities of the book's synergistically generative philosophy, and finally, its relationship to IMPROVISATIONS' closing page's statement?
VF - It definitely presupposes an existence. At the time of writing, I didn't think of the "IS" as being the process of perception before the "I" comes into being via the perceptual process, but now that you've pointed it out, the verb is playing into the notion of reflexive consciousness that runs throughout the work. Actually, it appears before the first comment the "I" makes. When I wrote it down to start the improvisation, it probably came out in a way similar to the process of perceiving, before the perceiver's ego can structure it. It did come out "by ear, so to speak, as the first note of an improvisation and as a nod to Olson. At that moment in the work, I was proceeding by ear, by instinct. I had to, until enough thematic material appeared that I could start shaping it in different ways. It's a statement of the moment made in the moment, the way it happens in an improvisation. In that respect, it signifies the entire process of the work at the very beginning. It's the core word for the epistemological and linguistic themes pertaining to whether being is a transitive or intransitive state that runs through the work. In relation to the themes of music in the work, it once again is a statement in the moment, as any performed music really is, even if composed prior to performance. It has a more practical application in the themes of slavery and war, in which 'IS" expresses a practical placement in situations that can't be avoided. The verb opens the field for epistemological discussion on several different levels that appear through the work as metaphorical use of language, as a layered graphic, and as a several layerings of "presence" as the work moves toward the glyphic. It performs multiple roles, and they move like the Moebius strip in the work as a process. The epistemological discussions reflect the play of tension between fixed and fluid forms. In the end, they reach a paradoxical statement in which the movement of Being has occurred, and yet has not. It sort of shimmers in the reflection of its own paradoxical presence.
RC - How do the "themes of slavery and war" work themselves into the work, both on an abstract and empirical level? And if you wish, please cite some examples from the text.
VF - Both themes entered the work as things that come up in the process of improvising. Neither was planned. In meditating, so to speak, on the improvisation and its development while improvising, elements of the history of jazz came to the surface of my consciousness. When you consider the history of jazz, you have to consider the role slavery played in its creation. The elements of African culture that combined with European harmony to create jazz came here with the people brought here as slaves. In one sense, my paraphrase of Cecil Taylor in the first two pages helps set the stage for it; in interviews that I’ve read, Taylor is extremely knowledgeable and has strong opinions about the music, its history and its development. But my first direct reference to the theme appears on page 39:
Xtimes of passage through wooden
holds to diasporic histories, the adage
of lost calendars
cryonic amid cracks of whips
& riffing hipsters
timed by the squares
or the Village fountain
The “wooden holds” and whips represent the slave ships and way the crew treated its human cargo. “Diasporic histories” refers to life in the United States, which some African-American musicians have called the American diaspora. I think Archie Shepp used the term. “Riffing hipsters” would be the bop aficionados of the 1940s and 1950s. “Below Harlem” could suggest the 52nd Street scene and “the Village fountain” refers to the fountain in Washington Square in Greenwich Village, a place where jazz musicians and aficionados could meet their drug connections. A lot of imagery refers to brick alleys and the like, suggesting the activities, many of them illicit, that took place between sets at a club. The juxtapositions of the colonial period and a period anywhere from 1945 to the present encapsulates the history of the music, where it started and how it developed, and the similarities that exist between past and present in the control of the music as a business. In a sense, you can’t create an improvisation without thinking of the history that preceded it and the guideposts its practitioners established through the performances that created its history. In working with the material, I don’t develop it into a “statement.” It works as a prism, like the other themes in the work. You can’t draw a conclusion because the process that created the music continues. The idiom has evolved, but human nature hasn’t changed. Likewise, in a work set in the moment as best it can, a mind in the process of improvising can’t avoid the phenomena of the moment and the history that led up to it. When you improvise, you work with the material that’s in the forefront of your consciousness. These days, the war in Iraq is difficult to ignore. So, a few references to war emerged and these, in turn, led to a reference to Ur, often referred to as the cradle of civilization, which is exactly where the war is taking place. It seems we’ve come full circle, given the volatile situation in the Middle East. One wrong move and the civilization that I was taught started there could be destroyed there. The “IS” of IMPROVISATIONS appears in a circular sort of way throughout IMPROVISATIONS as a return to Being at its source, and the movement I see in the Middle East is a circular development that could eliminate the epistemological issue of Being by eliminating Being as we know and discuss it. The reference to Ur actually appears only once, on page 411, where the flow of language leads to a play on “textural” that becomes Text-Ur al/ Hadj seeks/at vision’s end.” Hadj is specifically a pilgrimage to Mecca, but the move to Iraq is a reflection of the religious nature of the war being fought there. While I can’t recall images specific to the Iraq war, images of force and destruction appear with great regularity, an abstract passage from page 497:
slay the adage with the beast | armed with feasting prayers
subjected to | objected to
inordinate | an ordinary
|profit | prophecy
Page 569 mentions the "cradle of civilization" several lines after this passage:
But images of war and its corollary of political corruption thread through the work. On one level, they represent, aside from war itself, the suffering inflicted on people in a system that is by nature unjust, at best. On another, war is a metaphor for struggle, which ties back to the relation between slavery and the music that emerged in large part from it as an expression of a desire for freedom. The process of improvising is a war or struggle to shape the amorphous material in front of you, to shape amorphous elements. It’s not a life or death struggle with other humans, but it is a struggle to overcome resistance. In IMPROVISATIONS, one might find an implied tension between the language of war and struggle, and the ecstatic expression of the work’s glossolalic passages.
RC - I understand the method behind your representation of these human 'situations'. It reminds me of Olson's cryptic allusion to slavery in Maximus, Letter 2. It seems that the scale of these human atrocities are best handled and absorbed in an indirect circuitous method; when all of the parts of the puzzle are put together, then it appears the full impact is realized by the psyche. It seems an ironic way to deal with such situations, but such is the way humanity...evolves (?) - What are some of the other social and/or existential situations IMPROVISATIONS takes up, and what are some of the ancillary ones; are they both presented with the same allusive patterning, or do you use different methods for the scale of the theme you are taking up at a given time?
VF – I see the resemblance in that we state observations, not conclusions. I think you can discuss human atrocities in a variety of ways, depending on your purpose. If you want to shock people into correcting injustice, you write about it strongly, directly and in full detail. Of course, blatantly political art isn’t always good art in the long run. I don’t consider IMPROVISATIONS an overtly political work, but I do believe that any work or act has political implications regardless of whether the work’s primary focus is politics. The themes surface and resurface in fleeting ways because that’s the way themes develop in an improvisation. You’re continually adding new ideas to those you’re already working with, just as a fact of the process of consciousness. For IMPROVISATIONS, accumulating the details in this allusive way works best because the work is a statement of a mind in motion through a particular point in time, the time the improvisation takes place. It’s like walking down a street in Manhattan; you absorb the stimuli and respond to it, but your response is a method of moving through the experience, not a judgment and evaluation of it.
As far as irony, I don’t know that my dealing with thematic material indirectly is ironic so much as it is inherent in the nature of the improvising process. But the work contains more than its share of ironic phrases and verbal collisions. So many ancillary and allusive themes occur in such a long work that I don’t know if I can state them all. Here are some of them:
A tension exists between the language of oppression found in the work itself and the language of glossolalia; the former reduces your spirit to submission, the latter elevates it to ecstasy, a fairly common path for religious experience. The search for ecstasy is an allusive theme that gets a lot of attention because I think any jazz solo—at least of the variety I’m most interested in hearing—leads to an ecstatic experience. But it’s not an ancillary theme because the glossolalic passages recur somewhat regularly. If you look at “IS” and its related references as frequently coming at the start of a “chorus,” you can also look at the glossolalia passages as the climax of a chorus. But you would have to recognize them as very complex choruses, structures of a form that is like extended form in music while remaining improvisational in nature. Cecil Taylor and Julius Hemphill, musicians I refer to by name in IMPROVISATIONS, work in extended forms, as have my other favorite jazz musicians, such as Charles Mingus.
Some thematic material also functions as structuring techniques. Musical terminology serves as both theme and structuring device. “Dominant,” for example, is a chord of resolution in harmony. It is also a word of oppression in relation to the slavery theme. And the music and the slavery are as intertwined as the Moebius strip that reflects the glimmering riddle of fixed and fluid form in the last half of the work. I also employ musical devices, such as stop time, in addition to literary devices. In effect, I draw on musical techniques as well as literary techniques.
The Moebius strip shows the paradoxical and sometimes even contradictory elements that IMPROVISATIONS seeks to fuse into a unified work. Like the Moebius strip, the work shimmers, shows you different angles and shades of light, a kind of stability and instability at the same time. Its underpinnings run throughout the work, but appear more prominently in the last half. I don’t know that the strip is a theme per se, but it’s an organizing element, a lesser motif. Even the theme of “IS” as transitive or intransitive functions along the lines of a Moebius strip.
The corruption of political leaders and people possessing power in some capacity surfaces throughout the work. As I mentioned, the language sometimes juxtaposes oppression with glossolalic ecstasy. At other times, though, it can bounce like prismatic light off the theme of slavery, which again reflects off the component of music, which in turn plays off the idea of improvisation itself, the work itself as a process. Some sections where I invert columns of text could be read as the equivalent of a tape loop. “XCI” is a good example of that. At times I mock legal and authoritarian pronouncements, as with my use of “Nota Bene:” followed by something incomprehensible.
The improvisation and its components are themselves self-referential themes that reflect prismatically within the work. The use of fonts and even ascribing certain mock qualities to the Garamond font reflects on the process itself, goofs on it, toys with it and injects a spirit of play into the work.
I’m sure there are other themes and devices that double as themes, but I can’t think of them at the moment. I’d say that while I use a number of parallel approaches in presenting the thematic material, I probably used in some way virtually everything I learned up until the time I completed IMPROVISATIONS.
RC - What would you say is the main function of the "something incomprehensible" moments that appear throughout the text? Do these moments serve to emphasize the 'chaotic' nature that seems to permeate our current (and historical) social and political reality?
VF – I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, because there are many passages in the text that a reader could consider “incomprehensible.” I think they serve a variety of functions. First of all, this is my version of Language Writing, or the way I put Language Writing to work in my own writing. So, in one sense, the reader is supposed to make “something incomprehensible” mean “something comprehensible” through his or her own efforts. Many parts of the book have no literal meaning, as such, but one can find meaning within them through metaphorical interpretations. Depending on the passages, the reader has to make the choice of how to navigate them because some read from right to left instead of left to right, parallel columns can be read simultaneously or sequentially, some passages dovetail into one another and arrive at a culmination point while others appear to be dead ends. Because of the references I make to glossolalia, some of these passages could be interpreted as “talking in tongues,” an expression of ecstasy. From an improviser’s perspective, they could parallel one of John Coltrane’s methods of building intensity in a solo; he would play very fast runs of notes which the critics circa 1960 called “sheets of sound,” inverting chords and playing all their notes in as many possible combinations as he could, until the mounting tension found release in a howl or an intense and intensely lyrical passage. I like to think that some passages in IMPROVISATIONS build and find release in a similar way. At times, I’m building linguistic energy and releasing it. If you suggest some specific passages, I’ll try to explain what I was doing or trying to do at the time I wrote them.
RC - You just mentioned your use of glossolalia. The American Heritage Dictionary gives as a definition: "1-Fabricated and nonmeaningful speech, especially such speech associated with a trance state or certain schizophrenic syndromes. 2- Gift of tongues." With this in mind, how does this definition tie into the text? Is your use of this technique a conscious or an unconscious 'channeling', per se, and does this in turn bring the work into the transcendental, supernatural realm?
VF – It probably fits the former more than the latter. The “gift of tongues,” I think, refers to people who reach a state loosely described as “possession” and speak languages they have no prior knowledge of. The second definition seems to me like a continuation of the first, which is the definition most suited to the “glossolalia” passages in IMPROVISATIONS. I don’t see the language as “fabricated” but I do see it as “nonmeaningful speech” that arises more from a state of ecstasy, a kind of religious experience, than from a trance state per se. This isn’t to deny that the state of ecstasy contains trance-like elements. My use of glossolalia derives from an experience I had about twenty years ago, when I reviewed a Shirley Caesar concert for the Hartford Courant.
Caesar is a very powerful gospel singer. But I had no idea she was an equally compelling preacher. I started out prepared to review a concert of gospel music and ended up reviewing what seemed like the revival meetings described in the jazz history books I read as a teenager. People danced in the aisles. Some young women would blurt bursts of words that made no direct sense but expressed the ecstasy they were obviously feeling. I realized the experience wasn’t significantly different from the states of ego loss I experienced listening to John Coltrane or Thomas Chapin’s most intense solos, where I would often find myself shouting “Yeah!” or “Go!” without realizing I was doing it until after it had come out of my mouth. The ecstasy people experienced with Shirley Caesar, I decided, was basically the same experience I had when listening to the best jazz. The loss of self and the gain of ecstasy struck me as a more meaningful religious experience than any somber church service I’d attended. Since these moments occurred most frequently during climactic moments of musical performances, I used them to create or express climatic moments in IMPROVISATIONS. If you look at IMPROVISATIONS as a series of extended choruses, you’ll find that the passages referring to glossolalia function as climaxes, not in every “chorus” but in three or four of them. The first appearance, the permutations of the letters, is “glossal deluge,” appears more restrained than later passages in which the word “glossolalia” is repeated with blurted expressions or syllables of the word in enlarged fonts breaking the repetition of the word. “Glossolalia” both names the experience and attempts to create it. Much of IMPROVISATIONS results from a kind of channeling. More than anything, I tried to open my receptors as wide as I could to allow a rush of energy to come through me and take its own shape. This isn’t always possible, of course, but while I did give the material direction at times, I tried to move within the moment and direct the flow without altering it. So, I engaged in a kind of self-surrender while creating the work that made me receptive to the “spiritual” element of the work that built the glossolalia passages.
I would say it takes the work more into a transcendental than a spiritual realm. If, instead of analyzing it, you try to surrender yourself to it, I think the work can engender a spiritual or religious experience in receptive readers. But let me say that my views of spirituality differ from those of the people. I believe that what we call our spirituality derives from an internal source, not an external. It’s a byproduct of our biochemical makeup. When Michael McClure talks about “meat” I interpret it as talking about protoplasm. And I think the biochemical interactions taking place within our bodies create the feelings we consider spiritual or religious, just as much as they create hunger, anger, joy or any other emotion we might feel.
RC - There are times I see IMPROVISATIONS as a portrayal (in language) of the multi-dimensional aspects of reality, complete with its chaos-theory, impenetrability of its surface, and its excursions at times into the 'unsayable' (via the visual aspects which defy a 'concrete' representation to delineate what is intended to be relayed). Is the work consciously designed to depict this, and if so, how can the inherently limited vehicle of language convey such immense concepts adequately, owing to the perceptual boundaries of human nature?
VF - I think that’s an excellent way to look at it. I can’t say that it was an entirely conscious effort on my part, but that everything you said was reflected in my writing in some way. “IS” puts you in the moment and whatever the moment consists of. My “reality” was the screen in front of me, the words and images I put on it and whatever life was going on around me as I worked. And, of course, the improvisational composition that was taking place inside my head. But as an improvisation, I wasn’t dwelling on things like chaos theory, so much as I was working with it or portraying it from an intuitive level. But its design is multi-dimensional, partly to create a three-dimensional text—as best one can do it on a printed page. The images underscore the text, reflect back on it, become part of it, in a some or all of the above kind of way. To fully grasp a page like 696, for example, the reader has to read several layers of text together if they want to get a real sense of it. The webdings I use represent letters that blend to give meaning to words on the page’s surface level or symbols that add to what the words at the surface are saying. They also fill in letters that otherwise appear to be missing from words. Despite—or should I say in addition to?—the themes I’ve discussed earlier, I was definitely trying to “say the unsayable” because I think that’s where the deepest grasp of experience lies. Words themselves can be little packages, like sugar packets that contain a measured dose of what we could call “the sugar experience.” I’m trying to use “the sugar experience” to show you the canes, machetes, workers, and how they all fit together as the complete process, the sugar experience that creates “the sugar experience.” And the process never has a full resolution or closure. In effect, I use language to try to get beyond itself and reflect those things which lie beyond the structural and perceptual limitations inherent in conventional expression. The “perceptual boundaries of human nature” is a very apt description. I try to write, as much as is possible, from beyond the limitations of our perceptual constructs and to convey an expression that communicates, obviously within but also beyond those constructs to the reader/perceiver of my work. Ideally, a reader would grasp the sense of reality at the level of “pre-perception” that I try to write from, but interpretation I suppose is both unavoidable and part of the experience. It presents us with one kind of “reality” that our minds restructure into another, more restricted one. I think I’ve created a paradox here in that the work requires both aspects of perception to aid in understanding it, but the perceptual process will restrict the work’s “meaning” as much as it will illuminate it. But then, the question of “IS” and the related themes possess a paradoxical nature, so it’s possible that the paradox inherent in the perceptual process reflects itself in the work as well and contributes to an understanding of it.
RC - Some practitioners of poetry strive to achieve clarity and transparency in their work. Other poets believe that abstractions and indeterminacies contain much more 'enlightenment'. Where do you place yourself among these two views, and this in relation to IMPROVISATIONS?
VF – I’d say I’ve made a transition from transparency to opaqueness, for the most part. The poetry I wrote before Peter Ganick gave me about thirty Potes & Poets Press books to read was generally very clear. For the most part, you could understand it on the first reading. While IMPROVISATIONS contains moments of transparency, it doesn’t make transparency the primary function of its language. The opacity of IMPROVISATIONS enables the reader to imagine things that make no apparent sense and to receive sense impressions from the words as words in themselves, not as words representing things other than themselves. But since it’s impossible to avoid referentiality entirely, the representational images associated with the words create sense impressions that relate to the work’s thematic material. The opacity adds to the richness of the experience, I think, because it creates the prismatic effects we discussed earlier and allows them to ping pong off one another in such a way that the reader experiences a passage differently each time it’s read. And given the paradoxical nature of some of the thematic material, opacity seems to point toward a “higher” clarity, one beyond the limits of verbal transparency. It’s analogous to using hallucinatory elements to create a more vivid reality.
RC - I'd like to touch on the "hallucinatory elements" that you mentioned. It reminds me of Olson's hallucinatory experience with Leary in the sixties and his subsequent expounding of it in his works. There are a few brief references and poems relating to it in Maximus, but the situation is clarified much more in an interview Olson conducted regarding the event. That interview resides in the Olson publication published after his death. This whole subject brings me back to the reality arena that we touched on earlier. I'd like to expound on that a bit. I guess it comes down to the 'facts' of what reality consists of; insofar as our limited sensory organs and immersion in three dimensions can fathom. No one could deny that we all exist in a 'consensus reality' that seems to be suited for our perpetuation and evolution. History has proven (witness the mystics of all ages and cultures) that there is another 'reality' that the human mind can achieve, be it through 'substances', heightened states of meditation, or by contemplating profound works of art, and/or in the creation of the art itself. Could the 'opacity' you spoke of which the reader encounters in the text of IMPROVISATIONS, be one constituent which enables that reader to 'lift the veil' (so to speak) and reveal a nature which is indeed accessible to the human mind yet out of the reach of the diurnal perceptive faculties; and what are some of the elements and situations the reader should look for in the text to heighten awareness?
VF - I haven’t read the Olson issue about him taking psilocybin with Leary, so I can’t speak to that except to say that at the time he did it the conditions were much more controlled than they would become a few years later. Regardless of controlled environments, the effect of the drug would be the same. My own experiences with hallucinogenics were with very mild ones, but I did see after-images, distortion of physical features, experience a sense of living in a timeless state and a feeling of incredible serenity. Some of these elements appear in IMPROVISATIONS, particularly in what the visual elements try to convey when merging with the text. I do try to reach a “higher” level, an ecstatic state in which sensory awareness becomes heightened, even distorted, and, I hope, bring the reader along with me. Obviously, I can’t achieve that state on every page, but, as with any improvisation, I try to achieve climactic moments that would “lift the veil,” so to speak, and I do employ specific means to try to achieve an understanding beyond language through language. The glossolalia, a kind of vocal opacity, attempts to express heightened emotions that words placed in conventional linguistic structures can’t. For example, saying “I’m ecstatic!” isn’t the same thing as making a sound that comes from the experience of ecstasy itself. “I’m ecstatic!” contains the ecstasy, reduces a vast feeling that encompasses a person’s entire physical being to something that can be squeezed through a mouth in two words. The layering of text and the multiple ways of interpreting it might achieve a hallucinatory effect. In the very last pages you can find characters and webdings forming different words and passages depending on how you choose to read through or around the pages. You can find a sense behind the apparent “nonsense” if you read carefully and flexibly enough. The condition I call pre-perception could also present itself as hallucinatory because the perceiver’s sense impressions haven’t sorted through everything that presents itself at the moment of first encounter. The jumbles of language in the work could sound hallucinatory, if one tries to make literal sense of them and place them within the logical and linguistic confines of what we think of as reality. While it’s an incredible expressive tool, language also limits expression through the agreed-upon structures used to convey information. Sometimes you have to use language to leapfrog beyond its own limitations to achieve an expression beyond what it can convey within its structures. The glossolalic expression would leapfrog over “I’m ecstatic!” for example to express its speaker’s ecstasy, as opposed to its statement of ecstasy. I think the presence of paradoxical elements creates a kind of hallucinatory effect. In western logic, paradoxes appear to be contradictions. But they’re actually ways of embracing the complexity of a phenomenon that can’t be explained in any other way. The inherent tension creates a dynamic that can seem hallucinatory because its seemingly contradictory elements never separate into components that settle into the comfortable confines of consensus reality. When I play on the tension between fixed and fluid forms, I perceive them as working in a Moebius strip, in which the continually shifting shimmer of the contradictory elements creates its own shifting prism. When I cast the word “shimmering” in a variety of fonts, I try to visually recreate the shimmer and the hallucinatory distortions that the different fonts create when placed together. And then the text that appears over them becomes distorted by the shimmering background. I probably use other means to achieve the “reality beyond reality,” but these are the basic ones.
RC - Considering the myriad facets of IMPROVISATIONS, some of which we have discussed, how do 'you' envision the text? Is it primarily: a poetic work, a musical philosophy/analogy put into words, an epistemological and/or sociological treatise, or owing to some of your previous answers, a consciousness-expanding transcendent experience?
VF – Ideally, it should be “all of the above.” But I’d say I view it as a poetic work that incorporates musical elements, perhaps as poetic techniques that other poets can explore. I think the work contains a number of elements that should stimulate discussion among literary theoreticians, from the perspective of craft as well as content.
In terms of content, the epistemology is there, along with many other themes, but they should be interpreted in the context of a poetic text. And while I hope it proves a consciousness-expanding, transcendent experience for every person who reads it, I view that as the ultimate goal of IMPROVISATIONS as a poetic work.
RC - Was the poetic process that led up to IMPROVISATIONS an evolution that can be traced via the previous benchmarks you have left in the works that antedated it? In other words, how would you document your growth as a poet in regards to each work that preceded IMPROVISATIONS?
VF – I can trace an evolution, but it’s not a gradual phase-by-phase development. Remember that my first poetic influence was Olson. Because of him, I wrote poems that were somewhat projective in nature from the time I first read him. I wrote some poetry in high school, but not much because my real ambition was to be a novelist. But those early poems, in addition to being “projective,” had a certain visual symmetry about them. About six months after I decided, at age 15, to make writing my life, I discovered jazz. At seventeen I started playing contrabass. Turetzky exposed me to musical works by John Cage and other composers whose work shares certain concepts with some contemporary poets. I think he was also the first person to show me Concrete Poetry and a novel written on cards that could be reshuffled and read a different way each time. We talked a lot about free form jazz, which I’ve played off and on when I could find musicians to play it with me. What I absorbed from Turetzky in all of these areas stayed with me for decades, sort of an event waiting to happen. After I finished studying with Turetzky, I wrote a short story that used a tattoo of a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as its “punch line.” About eight years later, in the mid-1970s I wrote a novel that used a mock TV-network logo within the text. The story got published much later in a much different form. The novel is buried deep in one of my filing cabinets. Sometime in the mid or late 70s I found a book called Open Poetry that introduced me to a fair number of the poets I would read twenty years later. When I started writing poetry seriously in 1982, I found that in addition to my choice of words and getting the poems to say what I wanted them to say I wanted them to appear on the page a certain way, as well. So, the visual element has always been there, most often below the surface. When I became somewhat proficient with word processing software, I decided to try extending Olson’s concept of the page from the typewriter to the computer screen and found myself using different fonts of differing sizes to increase the expressiveness of the text. As I said earlier, Peter Ganick helped open the floodgate by giving me about 30 books of Language Poetry published by Potes & Poets Press late in 1998 and early 1999. Some of my first work in this new vein—FREE FALL, for example—used elements of visual or concrete poetry, even though at the time I didn’t think of it as that. All of this, I think, set up the possibility for me to write IMPROVISATIONS. I’d had over forty years to acquire the background in literature, free jazz and avant-garde concert music that made IMPROVISATIONS something I could write as an improvisation. So, I had the background. Sometimes I think I could be compared to a jazz musician who had spent his life playing standard tunes and felt comfortable enough with the material, but played free jazz one night and discovered he was really in his element. I realized that all the artistic skills I’d acquired in my lifetime could be used in this work. What came out surprised me as I was writing it, but in a comfortable way. I had created for myself the literary version of what jazz critic Whitney Balliet had called “the sound of surprise.” And yet none of the surprises felt unpleasant or unfamiliar. I’d had a long-buried grounding in what I discovered was my true element.
In summary, I’d say, yes, there were benchmarks, but the evolution didn’t reveal itself through step-at-a-time changes so much as it did through a leap off the edge and a joyously unexpected flight.
RC - Do you consider the release of IMPROVISATIONS a watershed event in your poetic career?
VF – Yes, definitely. It’s by far the most ambitious work I’ve ever written, even if I didn’t realize it when I first started. Everything I tried in it—and I tried a lot of things I’ve never even contemplated doing before— seemed to work, and work easily. Everything just came out in a flow, sometimes a gush. I felt like an athlete having a “career year.” I feel that if I walk out the door and get hit by a truck, I’ve left something behind for literature. The question, of course, is whether people pay attention. I really don’t know if I can surpass what I did with IMPROVISATIONS. Sometimes I think I should say I can’t surpass myself and sit in retirement at the pool or the beach. But I know I can’t stop writing—I’ve already written another longpoem titled EMBLEMATIC MOON.
RC - Actually, that was going to be my final question: Where to after IMPROVISATIONS? I guess you've hit on that with mentioning your new work. Give me a sense of what EMBLEMATIC MOON encompasses. Is it an 'afterglow' of IMPROVISATIONS, or is it a totally new path for you?
VF - Like I said, IMPROVISATIONS is a tough act to follow. Before I started it, I gave EMBLEMATIC MOON the working title of TAKE TO, as a play on the musical term “take two” and the questing aspect of our natures. It is at least partly an “afterglow” of IMPROVISATIONS. But its structure lies more in the graphic components than in the textual. I create visual images and the text changes colors as it encounters the various backgrounds. As I went further into the work, the EMBLEMATIC MOON and all that it seems to imply acquired increasing importance and the work became something other than a second take on IMPROVISATIONS. I knew before I started it that it probably would contain more visual elements. I also knew that I had just about exhausted the possibilities of word processing. Since then, I’ve been trying to learn Quark Xpress, PageMaker and Photoshop and begun to produce some work with them. It’s increasingly visual and slower to compose for now, but if my work is to change, I have to learn new methods of creating it so that I can enable those changes to take place. Since I can’t stop writing, I have to keep trying to find something new in whatever I do.