Gabriel Ricard: Emblematic Moon is easily one of the strangest, most fantastic poems Iíve ever had the pleasure of reading. Where exactly did it come from? What would you say was the genesis of this book?
Vernon Frazer: After I completed IMPROVISATIONS, which began with my typing "IS" onto a blank screen, I considered improvising another long poem that I would title TAKE TO, a play on "Take Two." I was going to start with a blank page, but "take to" had other meanings that shaped the poem before I started. Jazz musicians often talk about taking their music "out" and vague as it sounds, it suggests a desire to go to a more advanced place in terms of musical technique, in terms of the state of mind one experiences while improvising and ultimately implies a quest for ecstasy, spiritual unity or some other transcendent experiences that I can't find words to express. So, the page wasn't entirely blank.
As I improvised, TAKE TO took on a shape different from yet related to the loose thematic material in my head. As I wrote the work, the emblematic moon appeared and I recognized it as a symbol for the aspiration to "take it out" and the material eventually shaped itself—to my mind—around the moon. I dropped the working title and let the improvisation take its own shape.
GR: Obviously, one of the best things that comes out of enjoying abstract poetry is the opportunity for interpretation. Does it bother you that a reader might get something from Emblematic Moon that might be a million miles away from what you actually intended? Or is it just a fact of life that the writer must accept when creating something like this?
VF: Not at all. A reader has to come to my work with the same openness one brings to Jackson Pollock, just to choose one example. They have to read the work without preconceptions and let the words and images come according to their own perceptions. On the one hand, my work has no predetermined literal meaning, but on the other, as I read over it, I find it has deeper meanings once I start interpreting the passages metaphorically. A reader can experience Emblematic Moon on many levels. Some might concentrate on the layout of the text, while others might analyze each line in depth. A friend of mine read a page aloud with no rehearsal, just choosing the passages that came to her attention first and adding other sections of the page later, as she saw them. As I listened to her, I found that what she read made more sense than I expected. She understood that one's perceptual field isn't restricted to the line but to the surrounding area, where you might see another passage that your mind connects with. If a reader tries to be receptive to the work running its course, it's not all that intimidating. And using improvisation as a mode of composition means that themes will take a shape different from something more preconceived, so that on one reading you might pick up one thing, but on the next you might pick up on something entirely different.
I think it's good that readers come away from the book with different interpretations. I design the work so that the reader has to participate by choosing which of several lines on the page to follow. If you follow one direction, you find one meaning. If you go in another direction, you find a different one,or maybe several, or a maybe just a run of sense impressions that resonate this way on one reading and that way on another.
I try to create works in which the reader will create the meaning, instead of superimposing one of my own, the way I used to do in my earlier work.
GR: In abstract poetry, particularly, with this new work of yours, is it difficult to find the middle ground between creating something that is so distinctive in its form and approach but also never sacrifices anything in terms of the language used?
VF: When I write a work like this, I just go for broke. So, I don't think of middle ground. I just think of what I'm doing in the moment, so to speak.
GR: Do you have a favorite passage from the book?
VF: Probably the last four pages are my favorites because they combine visual and textual elements to create the climactic passages in the work.
GR: For those of us unfamiliar with abstract poetry, tell us exactly how a work like Emblematic Moon is put together. Is there for a formula for a work like this, something that really seems quite freewheeling and chaotic much of the time. If so, what is it?
VF: Since my approach is based primarily on free jazz improvisation and a more abstract use of Jack Kerouac's Spontaneous Bop Prosody, I really don't use a pre-conceived formula. As themes emerge, I become aware of them and develop them in the ways that the process of spontaneous composition allows. The theme may be visual instead of verbal. A pattern of shapes will emerge in one context, then appear in another, reflecting on one area while pointing toward another. I have to be very mindful of what I've written before and, as the work progresses, repeat elements of it in different contexts as motivic material.
GR: How long did it take to write?
VF: Five or six weeks. Before publication, I made some minor formatting changes, such as making sure certain passages were aligned properly.
GR: You began your career in poetry by writing what could be considered a more traditional verse. How did you go from that to something like Emblematic Moon?
VF: I'll try to make a very long story short. At age fifteen, I set out to be a novelist. My first influence was Kerouac, followed by Norman Mailer, William Burroughs and Henry Miller, more or less in that order. I also read Joyce, Salinger, Steinbeck and Dos Passos, among many others. Some of them use unconventional techniques that may have influenced my later work, e.g., Burroughs's fold-in techniques, Dos Passos' Camera Eye and Joyce's stream of consciousness. I also read surrealists and learned about automatic writing. In college I read Heller, Barth, Pynchon and Vonnegut among other "Black Humor" writers.
About 1965 I began to study contrabass with Bertram Turetzky, a contemporary classical bassist who performed the works of John Cage and other composers who utilized indeterminacy, mixed-media and other concepts that were new and controversial at the time. I also read Silence by John Cage and saw that he was a very innovative writer.
For the most part, my fiction read like a combination of Naked Lunch and Catch-22 in my early twenties, with other influences to spice it up. In my mid-thirties I started writing poetry seriously, with Olson and the West Coast Beats my major influences. My poetry from 1982 to 1998 reflected these influences.
By 1998, when I published Sing Me One Song of Evolution, about living for forty-two years with an undiagnosed case of Tourette Syndrome, I reached a creative wall. Pieces like "Tourettic Possession Rant/Dance" and " Discoveries of the Damned" achieved an intensity that I knew I could never surpass using conventional language. The musician inside the writer strove to achieve and even surpass the intensity of John Coltrane. I had even extended Olson's composition by field from the typewriter to the computer so that I could try to increase the intensity of "Discoveries of the Damned" through using different fonts and font sizes.
When I was at the point where I couldn't push any further, I met Peter Ganick through a mutual friend named John Bryan. Peter wrote a tremendous blurb for Sing Me One Song of Evolution, and introduced me to his own work and the work he published through Potes & Poets Press. Most of it was Language Poetry, but some of it was visual poetry, as well. I read about thirty Potes & Poets books in less than a year. At some point I decided to try writing language poetry—or my version of it. I enjoyed the freedom of not writing to achieve a literal meaning or make a statement, the way I did with everything I'd done previously.
GR: Are there any writers or particular works that inspired it?
VF: The writers whose Potes & Poets books I read—Sheila E .Murphy and Bruce Andrews I particularly enjoyed—were fresh in my mind. But as I worked with Language and early pieces of visual poetry, my influences from the 1960s surfaced, free jazz and concepts of mixed-media and indeterminacy that I picked up from Turetzky, along with my reading in surrealism and Dada. Ideas that had been waiting forty-some years to break free started gushing out of me. But at the age I started writing in this vein I already had my own developed style from thirty-five years of writing, so the Potes & Poets writers served as guides more than shapers. The musicality of many of the Potes & Poets writers also attracted me because of the influence that jazz has had on my writing. To write the most musical language I could and let the meaning find its own way to the surface was very liberating for me.
GR: A writer obviously needs a certain amount of instinct when it comes to their work. By instinct, I mean something that tells the writer where to go in their work, how to move and how to go about putting everything to bring the idea to life. I could be completely off the mark here, but it seems to me that writing a poem like Emblematic Moon would require a different kind of instinct than the one you might have for a short story or a more traditional type of poetry. Would you say thatís at all true? If so, how is it different from writing something like a novel or the kind of poem that most people are used to?
VF: Much of my writing over the past ten or eleven years has come entirely from instinct. My decades of reading and writing experience allow me to trust that my instincts will lead me where I need to go. Once I'm into the work, flying by the seat of my pants, I'm conscious of what I'm doing, what I've done and what I will need to do to make the piece work. It's definitely a different use of instinct from what I used in my earlier, more pre-determined work. The development comes more from improvising on the motifs that appear as I go along than following a pre-determined outline. Instead of sequential logic, you might get a layering of themes. It's very challenging to try to improvise a longer work; it's easy to get bogged down. But I used to get more bogged down more frequently in the work that I planned more carefully. When I tell myself to just keep moving, I think my focus tends to be much more intense. I can't afford to make as many mistakes because I won't be going back to correct them. I have to remain true to my concept, so to speak.