Ric Carfagna (RC) In the previous interview we concentrated primarily on your 2005 publication IMPROVISATIONS . This time I'd like you to expound on your previous works, both poetry and prose. Let's start with the writers and works which served as a catalyst and drew you into the sphere. What were the works and who were the writers which served as the initial inspirations, both with poetry and prose?
Vernon Frazer (VF) Jack Kerouac was the first. As I said in our previous interview, I discovered The Dharma Bums during a three-week period in January 1961 in which I went from high school scapegoat to an aspiring writer. Not long after The Dharma Bums , I read On the Road , Ginsberg's Howl , and excerpts from Naked Lunch when it was banned in the U.S. I also picked up The New American Poetry 1945-60 , in which Charles Olson made a lifelong impression. In the first six months after I decided to become a writer, I discovered three of my most important and lasting influences: Kerouac, Burroughs and Olson. Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself inspired my thinking about a lot of the issues of the day. While I was heavily oriented toward the Beats, I also read Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis and so many others I can't remember all of them. Oscar Williams's anthology introduced me to a number of major poets, although it would be two decades before I'd make use of what I'd absorbed from his anthology that summer.
My orientation was heavily Beat, but I was quite an omnivore. The summer before eleventh grade, I remember reading excerpts from Tropic of Cancer in local bookstores. Its language was causing all kinds of controversy in the early 1960s. But the so-called dirty words weren't anything my father or grandfather hadn't said, so they didn't shock me all that much, and Miller's descriptions of Paris were some of the most lyrical writing I'd read at the advanced age of fifteen. In my junior year of high school, the town library bought a copy of The Henry Miller Reader. I read it while I was supposed to be reading Moby Dick for English class and failed the test on Moby Dick. I have no regrets about that. In high school I also read Walden—another class assignment—and learned that you were only supposed to read about civil disobedience, not practice it, and that you were supposed to question everything—so long as you came to the orthodox conclusion, not Thoreau's. I tended to agree with Thoreau. The summer before senior year, I tried twice to order Naked Lunch from Olympia Press in Paris, but the copies never reached me. In senior year, Hartford County banned Tropic of Cancer , so I bought it legally in Middlesex county and read it. Naked Lunch became available in the states about a month after I read Tropic of Cancer .
In college, the "Black Humor" writers moved me away from the Beats to some degree. I read Joseph Heller, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, all of whom showed me ways to extend my fiction beyond the realism that emerged out of literary naturalism. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has been an enduring influence on my fiction. I also read the Olympia Press editions of several Burroughs novels that I found in the University of Connecticut Library. At the time, I wanted to become a novelist. I wrote about three poems while I was in college.
RC At the time you wanted to become a novelist did you consciously perceive a dividing line to the forms of poetry and the novel? It seems as the 20th century progressed there was a blurring of boundaries of the genres, with authors combining various types of forms to achieve a richer, diverse palette . I can note the collage method as one example and a good mid-century representative of this might be Williams' Paterson. So, where did you stand at that time in relation to those types of poetic/mixed genre undertakings?
VF I sensed a line existed, but I never encountered a work that made me have to think about drawing one. A few minutes ago, though, it dawned on me that early in 1967 a college friend named Mike Tucker gave me his copy of John Cage's Silence. When I read it, I thought, "not only is John Cage a great composer, he's one of this country's most underrated writers of prose." I remember that some pieces were to be read at specific tempos or within certain time spans and that some of these pieces involved three parallel columns read simultaneously. At the time I thought these were prose, but I think the rest of the world was calling it poetry. Considering my exposure to new concert music through studying with Bertram Turetzky, this flashback to Cage and my positive response to it—whatever the name of its form was—seems to have blended nicely with other things I was learning about. It's made me wonder if what I read of Cage wasn't stored inside me and waiting to come out—and did when I started writing Avenue Noir and IMPROVISATIONS. I never thought of that before. What would you call it? A "hidden influence?"
The element of collage interested me. Burroughs' cut-ups were a kind of verbal collage. So were his fold-ins and, I think, his overall approach to structure. Juxtaposing disparate images or phrases can create humorous, even revealing, effects. At the time, I was aware of Paterson—I had relatives who lived there for awhile—but I'd read only a little of Williams, mostly through a former high school friend whom Williams had influenced at the time. My interest was writing fiction.
I was aware of mixed-media and definitely interested in it. I played bass in a happening at the University of Connecticut in 1966 while all kinds of movement and other things that I no longer remember were kind of whirling around me. At the time, I heard Kenneth Rexroth's jazz poetry and at the time didn't think the musical accompaniment fit the poetry.
When I started my poetry band, I wanted to try to make a closer fit between the two. In the sixties, though, I didn't take all the opportunities to work in mixed media that I could have, but then again, I really didn't get too many invitations to participate. Mixed-media almost never needs a novelist, and only occasionally a bassist. At the time, I was more focused on writing than participating in mixed-media events. In the eighties a few musicians I knew did some mixed-media performances, but for whatever reason chose not to use me, even though I made it known that I was available and interested. Nowadays, I just want to write.
RC In a former correspondence you spoke of 1967, or thereabouts, and your association with a college friend, Bill Scruggs. Can you expound on how your "occasional prose experiments" with him were instrumental in developing the form that you later were to adopt as your own particular style?
VF Bill and I were very different writers. He came from Tennessee, and his serious work often employed his own variations on Faulknerian narrative devices. His parodies were brilliant and outrageous. My prose style at the time was sort of a blend of Burroughs and Heller. On the one hand, he thought I should write conventional realism. On the other, my early novella, It's Location, which I wrote a few months after I turned 19, had its effect on him in a delayed kind of way. He might not have taken its surrealistic satire seriously (try saying that three times), but it made startling sense whenever he left the house and dealt with the outside world. He saw the underlying reality I was trying to expose through unreality. We were a mutual admiration society. We read each other's work and talked at times about Burroughs and his fold-in techniques. A few months after I wrote It's Location, Bill showed me a story he wrote in which he used diagonals instead of quotation marks to delineate dialogue. I used the device in a short novel called Maxim and I, which I don't recall as being one of my more, uh, memorable works. That was early 1965, as I recall. In 1967, Bill and I were doing some serious drinking and the fold-in technique came up in our conversation. So I wrote a few pages—or maybe had already written them—and went wild with a pair of scissors and some scotch tape, cutting out circles and other shapes—as opposed to folding a page in halves or quarters—and lined them up as prose again via cut and paste. The most memorable thing that came out of it was a phrase, "SHIT CONTROL!" Incidentally, and I'm going to leap ahead a few years here, Bill's work played a role in my returning to writing after a three-year layoff between 1969 and 1972. For a while we exchanged copies of manuscripts for safekeeping, so that, say, if my house burned down, he'd have a copy of my work, and vice-versa. At the point, I had given up any hope of ever writing again and had decided I probably wasn't very good anyway. Enough people had told me as much and at the time I thought maybe they had been right. But one day late in 1972, I found a seven-page manuscript in my attic and decided to read it. I thought it was one of Bill's manuscripts, a parody of Columbus discovering America. By the end of the first page I was doubled over with laughter, and by the end for the fifth page, I realized it wasn't Bill's writing, it was mine. If my own work could make me laugh, I figured, I must not be too bad. So, I got back to writing and haven't stopped since. To go back to the past, though, I guess what Bill and I were doing in the way of experimentation or just raising literary hell were early indications of what would much later become important areas of my work, and not just in the realm of fiction. It seems that some of these ideas were simmering for thirty years or longer before they ever came out.
RC - It seems that your first attraction was to the novel and prose, albeit rather experimental. Explain some of your first works in that genre and how they relate to what was 'popular' at the time. Also, elucidate the plot and form of Maxim & I; the title seems to relate to Olson, am I right in assuming that? Lastly, whatever became of the Columbus parody fragment, was it incorporated into a later work or discarded?
VF In high school, I tried writing two novels. The first lasted 57 pages and was very Thomas Wolfean, and I had an italicized narrative running within the regular print narrative, except that the relation between the two was unclear. The second went over 70 pages, but changed styles depending on who I was reading that day. I wrote both of them in the summer before 11th grade. I was 15 years old. When I was 17 and had graduated high school, I was living in Brooklyn with a high school friend's older brother, until my money ran out. While I was there I worked for hours every day on this novel about a mistreated, misunderstood kid trying to escape the hellish town he lived in. At the time, I thought I was really onto something. Then, a few years ago, when I was packing up my belongings to move to Florida, I started to reread it and nearly gagged. Over the next few years, I tried to write short stories, which the students that the University of Connecticut found loaded with stereotyped characters, clichéd plots, etc. Frankly, I think of a lot of it was facile or uninformed criticism. In my first semester—I started a semester late—my freshman comp teacher read one of my stories and thought it could be published in Redbook, which would have been a very nice ego stroke at age eighteen, not to mention a paycheck.
So, I was already getting mixed reviews. The summer before my second semester I tried writing a play and getting everybody I knew to critique it. None of them had many good things to say. One English Professor said I sounded like Eugene O'Neill. Well, I had read a lot of O'Neill's work between high school and the age of 19. I wasn't imitating O'Neill consciously; I had just absorbed what I read and again, my style hadn't really begun to mature. One theater professor, Michael Gregoric, saw some promise in me, I think. He read my writing and told me to "teach."
Fortunately, he qualified that by talking about writers receiving recognition late in life and cited Nabokov. Instead of teaching , I ended up in the civil service. And, late in life, I'm getting a little recognition.
Before I talk about Maxim and I, I want to say that my writing started taking serious shape not long after I showed the play around. During the semester break and the first few weeks of the Spring 1965 semester, I let it all hang out in a 104 page novel or novella called It's Location, a play on the phrase of the time, "where it's at." It fused elements of Catch-22 and Naked Lunch. I was more intent on satirizing and writing humorously than writing the humorless realism I'd been writing all along, except for an occasional one or two page emulative parody of Naked Lunch called "nudie grub" that I'd write every now and then in high school. (Naked Lunch was a work that obsessed me from the first excerpt I read in Evergreen Review in 1961 ) Instead of trying for conventional plot movement, I was trying to create, not a static situation, but a situation of stasis based on my reading of Reich's Function of the Orgasm the previous summer. Instead of avoiding stereotyped characters, I decided to create stereotyped characters as a way of creating an environment of repression and futility, in which nothing can escape the mire. Some of the characters were based on people I'd encountered in the beat/hip scene of the early sixties, when "hippie" meant someone younger than a hipster and more world-wise (talk about youthful delusions) than the beatniks. This was around the time the Beatles and other British bands had just arrived in the U.S., but before their hair styles and modish clothing made the scene more attractive to the mainstream. After reading Norman Mailer's essay, "The White Negro" at age 15 and encountering a black hipster who came on like a pimp, I created Judas Jaspers, a self-styled stud trying to seek legitimacy by patenting his sexual techniques, only to be patronized and dismissed by S.H., the head of Business, Inc, an organization very much like the ones in Naked Lunch. I created a parody of bureaucracies—which has surfaced in some of my other works, as well—as an adversarial system, maintaining order through confusion while suppressing expression. The Ethnic Subculture, a takeoff on the folk music hippies of the time, had three subgroups: the Tragic Heroes, the Comers and the Inner Serenity Boys. The Tragic Heroes spoofed the pampered, but mistreated and chronically depressed bohemian types who lashed out at people because of their own discontent. The Comers were parodies of Mailer's white negro, trying to "lift themselves up by their sexual bootstraps." Judas Jaspers was one of them. So was a white character named Dick Long. The Inner Serenity Boys were parodies of the affected tranquility of a number of folk singers I met, along with the more pretentious students of Eastern philosophy and religion. Each subgroup has its conflicts with the others, and all the groups that comprise the Ethnic Subculture have already been co-opted by Business, Inc. On the one hand, I had already reached that conclusion by realizing that more "hip" people than I wanted to believe were as mean and petty as "straight" people, except that they used more intellectually convoluted arguments to manipulate people. Without my realizing it, the work portrayed the co-opted state of the alternative culture before the co-optation became blatant around 1970. In keeping with the stereotypical characters moving through a world that shifts but doesn't change are Clip-On Charlie and Plane Jane, who have no defined identity other than the interchangeable parts they use to fit the roles of business people, bohemians or whatever roles they care to adopt. It's a heavy-handed description, but the characters have appeared in other, I hope less clumsy, manifestations in my work over the decades. Looking over the work just now, I can see it's very derivative. I owed Naked Lunch a lot. The writing is pretty sophomoric—well, I was a college sophomore when I wrote it—but even so, I see that my extension of realism to a more revealing (and playful) level of reality and some of the means I used to create it were related to work that the Fiction Collective's members might have been doing at the time, before they organized around 1970. As crude as the work is in as many ways, I guess it's still a sign that I was somewhat forward-looking in my approach to writing. It anticipates a lot of my future fiction in one way or another. I've decided to go with the first draft, especially since that's the only one that exists in complete form. I re-wrote it, deleting the third section, but found that I'd refined the style while weakening the work. So, I guess the first draft and all of its flaws are the work as I intended it—-barring another six to thirty revisions.
Maxim and I was the next piece I wrote, another short novel. Actually, it has no relation to Olson's Maximus at all. I used maxim in the sense of a rule or an adage. I can't find the copy of the manuscript, so I think it's so deep in storage that I'd have to hire a work crew to dig it out. I know I didn't throw it out, and I don't think I've lost it. Other than using diagonals in place of quotation marks, I don't consider it an important part of my work, not compared to It's Location. It's probably less derivative, although I remember it as being Kafkaesque and not particularly humorous. It was about characters in an institution and I vaguely remember that I was trying to do something with the I of the narrator, make it more than an unnamed character, but without actually naming it "I" as Dorn did in Gunslinger. Other than a masturbation scene, one of thousands that I'm sure preceded Portnoy's Complaint, the use of diagonals is what I remember as the most important thing about the work.
Well, well . . . I just ransacked my files for a third time and found a copy. My memory must be failing me from a combination of aging and information overload because I didn't remember the title. The correct title is Bloom and I, not Maxim and I. The work is more surrealistic than I remember, and has at least a few moments of probably unintended humor. The book is set in an orphanage run according to a strict set of repressive rules by The Ventriloquist, who portrays the orphanage as Paradise. Residents who commit "offenses of the first order," usually involving sex or the attempt to get it, are banished to Hell. Maxim functions as sort of a maxim through his actions, in that he cracks up and gets sent to Hell. "I," the unnamed narrator, gets expelled, joins Maxim and discovers that Hell is not significantly different from the orphanage. Maxim has established an office for himself and rents out abandoned apartments to other exiles. It turns out that he's established a set of rules for living in them that are basically his own variation on the orphanage. I, the narrator, leaves to try to escape "Hell," only to find that his own world is yet another hell, this one of his own making. He finds sex that isn't forbidden, but discovers that within his partner's womblike vagina is a trap that will cost him his life, so, in the fashion of a few Norman Mailer heroes, he stabs her and merges with her in the moment of her death—except that he then returns to a state of isolation, alienation and dread. I, the narrator, has become—or always was, but never realized that he was—his own horror and that his conscience will be yet another hell. It may be that the sexual trap, by its presence, points back to the structures such as the repressive orphanage that pass for the institutions of a civilized society. In a way, the book reminds me of the sexual and physical abuses in Kathy Acker's fiction, except that in my work my lack of experience is obvious. The work has some resemblances to 1984 and Kafka, whom I'd read in some depth through high school and college. What I see as a surrealist, almost Bretonesque element was my own imagination; I didn't read Breton till later. So, I'd say the work is very different from what I remember writing in winter of spring of 1965. It suffered too because I was trying hard to be serious.
The parody of Columbus that I discovered in 1972 did become part of a novel, first title Suquitoibu, as an anagram for ubiquitous, then re-titled The Breedlust Cycle to try to make it more acceptable to publishers. In retrospect, I think the book had some good ideas but needed more editing. I was trying to stretch reality again, and violate literary convention by creating a work that didn't have a central character but a series of characters interacting through a series of blunders to an apocalypse. That book carries a lot of personal importance.
RC How did the social and political conflagrations of the late 60's and early 70's affect your writing, and which of your works (if any) reflect these cultural upheavals in an overt or metaphorical way?
VF First, I have to say that I came of age in the sixties, so no matter what I did, I was immersed in it. In that sense, the upheavals affected me in many ways. I was born about two months before the Baby Boomers, so I'm not in the category, but I'm too close not to be part of it in a major way. And the upheavals had their roots in the fifties, so I was immersed in it all my life, starting with watching the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenbergs on television. Racial integration was a subject we talked about in 1960, if not a little earlier. Like most writers, I was more observer than participant. I didn't participate in many demonstrations, though I supported the causes. I signed a lot of petitions. In the early 70s, during the civil unrest, I was the only white musician in regular attendance at a black jazz workshop in Hartford's inner city. I drove though a few race riots, fortunately outside the area where the heavy action was taking place. But my car still got pelted with coke bottles a few times. So, I had experience on pretty much every front in that era—hippies, civil rights, anti-war—even if I missed the Be-In and the police riots in Chicago. Since I went alternative before the Beatles arrived, my orientation was Beat and the people I associated myself with called themselves hippies in the sense I described above. I tried to resist the media-made hippy thing because it reduced things to the lowest common denominator. But I eventually gave in and started wearing bellbottoms and listening to more rock.
Most of the people I knew in the sixties lived through a feeling of optimism and then disillusionment. The anti-war movement and the extreme elements of the New Left became very fascistic in their thinking, not to mention anti-Semitic regarding Israel. But you didn't dare say so for fear of being accused of being a right-wing warmonger. And our leaders sold us out—the ones that didn't get killed. I didn't learn till 25 years later that Eugene McCarthy gave his youth brigade away to Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic convention, sold us out behind our backs. I'd say that period has informed my work in ways that I'm still coming to realize. It's Location has some of the social protest spirit of the sixties. The Ethnic Subculture was a parody of the various bohemians in the late-Beat, pre-psychedelic hippie years. Judas Jaspers was partly a goof on Mailer's white negro and partly a satire on institutional racism. The orphanage in Bloom and I could have been a symbol of the imprisonment many of us felt: being in college instead of on the road, one of the key restrictions that the pre-lottery draft imposed on young males. I have some unfinished novels that are more directly about the era. And in the 80s, around 1984 I wrote several versions of a play about my experiences with black jazz musicians from 1970-72. In 1985 I wrote a poem called "Haight Street, 1985" that addressed the decline of Haight Street from a neighborhood of peace and love—or so we wanted to believe back then—to a neighborhood of street punks threatening violence. I think a lot of the cultural information I absorbed in the 60s has finally come out in my work over the past ten years. In the 80s I wrote a lot about the 60s as a subject. But I didn't want to stay there; it would be like the guys whose lives never advanced past their army days in World War II. I try to keep up with the times as best my body, my age and the times allow me, but living in that unique period of history has probably influenced everything I've done artistically, either directly or indirectly. Did you want to ask some specific questions about it?
RC Well, keeping with the flow of timelines and literature, elaborate on some of the more significant pieces that you were working on at the time. If in the 80's you were writing about your experiences in the 60's, what were the subjects which occupied you in the 60's and 70's?
VF I wrote a short novel that went through a second draft—Bloom and I was just a first draft—that was as much a self-satire as anything. The Modeling Clay Statue was a picaresque send-up of my working class background and my youthful literary aspirations. Gene Byrnes comes from a blue-collar family that wants him to get an education, but has no idea of what's involved. The father objects to Gene's ambition to become a poet, with expectations every bit as delusional as mine at that age. Gene runs afoul of a super-macho Phys Ed teacher the first day of classes and pays for it the rest of the way. He runs across a campus version of Timothy Leary who gives him MRV 29 ½, which causes him to have the obligatory acid revelation of the sixties. An excerpt got published in the Floating Opera, the University of Connecticut literary magazine of the time, and some of the language I used caused a stir. I was satirizing the sixties as I was muddling through them. I don't think I was covering new ground in this one, so much as consolidating my style up to that point. The comedy was pretty slapstick, but the book was less surreal, despite its outrageous caricatures. I think I wrote this in late 1966 or early 1967.
About a year earlier, in late 1965-early 1966 it says on the manila envelope, I worked on a novel called The Withdrawal Junkie, which was straight realism. I felt a certain pressure to write realism, probably because a lot of the people I associated with in one way or another thought it was the way to go. It was more accessible than the characters and plots that emerged from my flights of fancy. I remember trying several drafts that didn't work. I have a carbon copy that shows me the first page of another draft. I got as far as 80 pages on the other draft I have and probably stopped because a severe case of unrequited love depressed me that semester or my exams might have interfered. I remember virtually nothing about it except that I was depressed during the period when I wrote it. It's a first person narration. The narrator smokes pot, but he's addicted to withdrawal, to stepping out of situations. It turns out his name is also Byrnes, so the name was in my head before I wrote The Modeling Clay Statue. Not a lot happens; the narrator hangs out with friends, wants to drop out of college. He seems to have a sexual attraction for his sister, but I don't see it turning into any edgy probing theme of incest the way I planned to write one piece and never did; it was part of my Norman Mailer influence of exploring taboo themes, except that it didn't get very taboo, from my first look over the manuscript in a good 40 years. It contains the father-son war that runs through a lot of my work. What's interesting is that Marty Byrnes, the narrator, seems to be trying several beginnings to tell his story and each beginning tells part of it. Maybe I was hitting on the novel as process—the narrator has an interest in Burroughs and Kafka—but couldn't figure out how to pull it together at the time. In fact, I just discovered a passage where Marty Byrnes confronts the professor of his Lit course that he's withdrawing from at least in part over a vehement disagreement about the validity of Burroughs's and Kafka's perceptions of reality, so even in a "realistic" work it became an issue for me, as well as for my narrator.
The manuscript I just skimmed over isn't something I remember writing. And I don't remember The Withdrawal Junkie going 80 pages. I remember more stops and starts and finally giving up. It reads a little like Chandler Brossard's Who Walk in Darkness, except that it's about bohemian college students and doesn't have the influence of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which Brossard's book did. More than anything, it seems to be a work in which my prose style got more polished. I don't know what happened to make me stop writing it, though I gave all the reasons college ever gave me for stopping a work, not to mention that the tremendous self-doubt that has lasted most of my life was compounding my depression. Several times that year, and again in 1980, I experienced depressions in which I threw out a bunch of my manuscripts. The next one I'm going to talk about I wrote 250 pages of in winter-spring 1967 and threw a lot of it out. So I'll try to make sense of what remains. I'm pretty sure I wrote it after the two drafts I did of The Modeling Clay Statue.
I came up with the character Peter Scheissberg, German for "shit mountain," who became a character in several unsuccessful attempts to create a novel. Scheissberg is part trickster, part fuck-up. The only thing I managed to finish with him in it was a first chapter in which the boss at this help-the-handicapped agency praises Scheissberg for being a company man and at the end of the chapter, Scheissberg, appearing short-haired and clean-cut on the job, comes home and pulls off a mask, revealing a hippy with full beard and shoulder-length hair. It was one of the issues we faced in the sixties; getting a job in the real world with a beard was very difficult to do back then. You were expected to look like an ad exec from Madison Avenue in the 1950s. The novel has several drafts with titles such as Crabman and the Brand-X Company and < i> The Brand-X Company. The ideas in this project surfaced in several places over the years. The beginning of one draft is a borrowing from the bureaucratic stasis at the beginning of It's Location, an image I've used several times over the years. A character named Crabman was supposed be a takeoff on the Marvel Comics superheroes. He gets exposed accidentally to nuclear radiation on the testing grounds in New Mexico and develops a superpower: he becomes very crabby. So he dons the costume of a superhero in the form of a crab and instead of rescuing people, would, if I'd gotten far enough into the work to develop it, crab about the situation, presumably until someone did something about it. If not, he'd write kvetchy graffiti somewhere. I think he was supposed to be part of a rock band, the Brand-X Company, that Scheissberg was also a member of. Another character was a depressive type who, in a black humor kind of scene, was going to commit suicide and after he's passed the point of no return changes his mind. Scheissberg has a girlfriend name Suzy-Q—the Q stands for Quetzalcoatl—whose PMS is so extreme it leads her to attempt suicide. In her relationship with Scheissberg, she believes in Free Love, but has a qualifying premise that to actually act on her Belief in Free Love is to violate it by turning it into a Practice, not a Belief. It turns out that I borrowed some of the material from It's Location, including some characters and locations. Judas Jaspers is on the scene and Suzy-Q's attraction for him makes Scheissberg jealous. Now, as I said, much of the material is gone. I threw a good 250 pages of this away in 1967, during a deep depression. I've found a sketch of an outline, which says a rock band plays a part in the novel, but I'm not sure that it's as central to the story as I thought. It would help, of course, if I could remember the story, but 40 years after the fact, even my so-called "steel-trap memory" is getting fuzzy. It occurs to me that Thomas Pynchon's V might have influenced my thinking in the way that I was putting together the social scene for the novel. Other than that, I found a stylistic device that I mentioned earlier. I'm going to use an example that I would have drastically revised if I'd actually finished the work, just to show you something I was trying to do with prose style at the time:
"He set it on top of the desk and confronted himself with it. sat down at the desk, sneaked an ashtray out of the top center drawer and lit a cigarette. puffed nervously and scrawled 'I' on the first line of the top sheet. stopped."
I thought using a sentence fragment that wasn't capitalized might allow for greater expression in breaking down a sequence of actions. I may have picked up on something Baraka may have done in The System of Dante's Hell, but I can't remember for sure. My intention might have been to use it more systematically than Baraka, but I never did anything more with it. Ever.
So far, I see that I've recycled a lot of characters, themes and who knows what else in my fiction. I'm always trying to find some way to make one of my ideas work in some context, but that never stops the rush of new ideas, either—which may explain why the old ones resurface from time to time in other works. Once I complete them, I can drop them. Of course, I may never complete any of these pieces that I worked on so long ago. Some have flaws that may make them unworkable. In other cases I have too many new ideas to go back to the old ones.
This is like rediscovering my own work, and it's fascinating to see the patterns that emerged, and re-emerged in different places. It's a shame the work didn't go through five or six major rewrites; it's all very rough. It seems to me that in the 60s I was writing about the 60s because it was my way of absorbing the experiences I was living through and trying to make sense of them, and absorbing my literary influences and trying to develop my own style. Being young, my only perspective was the immediate. In the 80s, I would write poems like "Haight Street, 1985" or "A Tale of Two Decades" in which a sixties character mocking the drunks of World War Two becomes their counterpart a generation later. So, in the eighties I wrote about the sixties from a distance of twenty years. In the sixties, though, I was writing about all the things going on around me in some way: the hippie scene, civil rights…I don't think I wrote about the war because I was too preoccupied with avoiding becoming cannon fodder and I think I intended for my characters to be unfit for service so that they could have normal lives in which being drafted didn't play a factor. I guess I was just living in the times and writing about what I was living.
RC I'd like to stay with your excursions into fiction and your growing awareness of what you considered to be your own 'style' emerging. Was it obvious at the time, or is it now only in retrospect that you see what works were of durational worth, (the stuff with 'staying power)' as well as the limitations and shortcomings of other compositions? In other words, did you sense that some of the pieces 'had legs', so to speak, and others that were written for the drawer, as exercise or something of that nature? Following that, here's some works from the same period, circa 1969, that I'd like you to delve into at some detail: "Intruders," Faustus, "Fugue/untitled" & Captain Nookie.
VF-Looking over the material, I'm not how sure much of it has durational worth. But then, I'm a sixty-two year old man judging a young man between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three. I always intended the works to be books, not exercises. The manuscripts are almost all first drafts, so it's hard to say where they would have gone if they'd developed through a few rewrites. I'm sure they would have improved considerably. My first drafts have been much cleaner over the past thirty-five years than they were when I started out. That's just from acquiring writing experience. I'm seeing things in these early works that I somewhat expected, that It's Location did anticipate post-Burroughs fiction in some ways. I'm seeing things that surprise me, such as the way certain ideas and themes have continued through my work. It's a good thing I get new ideas to offset their recurrence or keep me too busy to rehash them again. On the other hand, I'm seeing my evolution as a fiction writer more clearly. Some of the work surprises me because it's so different from the way I remember it, but I see enough in it to wonder if I could, at this stage in life, rework the material into something a lot better. Since, for a number of years, I worried that I was going make a career of writing unfinished novels, I worked very hard to overcome that. Before I retired from my day job, I had considered rewriting each of them when I retired. But I've done so many new projects that I've only had the chance to try reworking one of them. What I can say about the early fiction, cutting myself some slack, is that I was working with some interesting thematic material and that some of the characters and their situations had room for exploring possibilities, which is what my fiction was about: more than transcribing reality like a painter doing a bowl of fruit, I was looking at extensions of reality, of taking ideas to their logical conclusion, however strange they might be. To draw a parallel to music, I was like a jazz musician trying to extend chords, adding 7ths, 9ths, 11ths—the higher intervals that give a basic chord additional sound textures to define them or give them a different tonal direction from the basic chord. In this case, I was allowing room for outrageous comic behavior from the characters so that their caricatured actions would produce a work more pointed than traditional realistic fiction.
Now, about Captain Nookie as a character. I'm not quite sure if I created him while I was in college or right after I graduated, probably between 1967 and 1969. He was inspired by a Hartford Courant sportswriter. The guy's photo featured the slicked-back white hair of the World War Two generation, maybe done with Wildroot Cream Oil hair tonic, which was popular in the 50s. He had sort of a noble look undercut by a weak chin, vaguely like Thomas Dodd, the deceased senator from Connecticut. Every now and then one of the sportswriter's sentences would become a grammatical adventure. Some real awkward constructions were the creations of the man, awards to whom of which there were many given. Sentences almost like that. He looked like a bit of a lecher, and with his bad writing and slicked-back hair reminded me of some older guys I'd run across who'd always find a way to brag, "I get my nookie, heh heh." It was a typical mindset of the World War Two generation males, the kind of thing you sometimes heard in a men's room or a bar. So I pictured this sportswriter transformed into an anti-super-hero and named him Captain Nookie. He wore a superhero costume, drove his own version of a Batmobile, and whenever he heard the cry of a damsel in distress, he would come to her rescue, only to jump her bones and drive off again, leaving her in the same mess she was in, or get rejected and slapped silly for being the fool that he is. Over the decades I've written some fragmentary pieces using him. I didn't want to just write a raunchy book for males; I wanted to find a literary context for him. He's surfaced in a number of uncompleted works, the most recent being a novel that I've been trying to write for the last eleven years. I'll get back to that in a minute.
Now, I did use this character in a number of other situations, under the name "Lavvy McPloy." In 1969, I wrote a story, "After Hours on the Grapefruit Circuit," in which he gets his first chance to cover spring training and wants to spend most of it drinking and bedding down the women he meets in the bars where he spend his time. His scheme involves finding one player to write a schlock feature about: all the clichés of the period about good character, community service, even the off-season public relations job for a soft-drink firm—you wouldn't believe how many baseball players did that in the 50s and 60s, before free agency multiplied players' salaries exponentially. Then he'd party instead of covering the progress of the baseball teams. Despite his lecherous nature, Lavvy had his own cock-eyed version of the American Dream, as portrayed by his idealized twelve year old, a freckle-faced kid with a passion for ice cream. In the story, the subject of the interview turns out to be more degenerate than Lavvy ever expected and his actions corrupt Lavvy's vision of the All-American Boy, destroying some long-held yet somewhat hypocritical belief about the purity of human nature as portrayed through the baseball metaphor. The story was long, about 24 pages, and I circulated it for years, nearly getting it published once in the early seventies. In the eighties, when I was trying for a while to write plays, I even recast the story as a play, but it wasn't really effective. Finally, I reworked the story completely, replacing the character with a sportswriter a little closer to me in terms of age and attitude, but not quite, and making the baseball star someone who had been shamed from the game for a sexual scandal. The writer hopes to find some redeeming aspect to the story, but finds out it's even worse than he imagined. and loses his last vestiges of innocence. The story that finally emerged is "Baseball's Forgotten Hero" in Stay Tuned to this Channel .
But Captain Nookie surfaced in another novel, working title The Inspector, that I started working on in 1994. The work has never really found its focus. Sometimes I give a book a title and that seems to unify it. IMPROVISATIONS and Commercial Fiction began with a title and a blank page and required virtually no revision. With IMPROVISATIONS , the structure was there and I changed maybe twenty-five words and moved some text over a space or two for better alignment with the other words in frozen motion on the page. Commercial Fiction was an invention or improvisation, also. Two years after writing the first draft I re-read it twenty times and probably changed a hundred words, two hundred at most. The structure was building as I composed it. No matter how far I threw myself over the edge, I was always able to find a way back. The Inspector has been a lot more difficult. It hasn't found the right focus. I've worked on god knows how many drafts and they seem to get better, I've torn out elements that seemed too far-ranging and saved them as material for another, shorter novel, but nothing seems quite right. I've had some ideas over the past few months. About all I can do is what I do when I'm really fed up. A mindset comes over me like a boxer who's decided to knock out his opponent and go home. I just say, Fuck this shit!" and go after the problem, fully intending to make short work of it.
In this case, I think my best bet is to take the material I have, rewrite it with a go-for-broke attitude, and if I don't get it right enough to polish up and finish, decide the idea just has too many flaws to be workable and put it in the back part of the file cabinet.
"Intruders" is a short story whose first draft I wrote in summer of 1968. It was a inspired by a sanitation worker who gave me a hard time about dumping my garbage a few years earlier. Harry Clutterhill, who manages a dump, tortures rats and has an obsession with a rodent version of Moby Dick. I leave the ending ambiguous so that the reader can decide whether or not the giant rat is a hallucination. The story sat until, I think, March 1973. By this time I had resumed writing after the several-year layoff, but I was trying to be mature, practical; when I got back into writing, I told myself I would write journalism, and I was doing jazz reviews for an alternative arts paper called All About that preceded by three or four years the weekly alternative papers you find in almost any city of a decent size: the Hartford Advocate and the other Advocates throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Miami New Times , etc. At the time, I was trying to juggle playing bass and writing, while living at home and not eking out much of an income at all through substitute teaching and occasionally working in a mail room when I wasn't fully unemployed. I was still practicing bass, even though my bands had broken up. I was staying in playing shape for the occasional calls I'd get from the musicians I knew. But one Monday my bass needed immediate repair, I forget exactly what, and I took it to a repairman named Bob Tolo.
I got the impression he would have the bass for a few days, so I decided to take out the draft of "Intruders" and see what I could do with it. Bob Tolo was very conscientious; he had the bass ready for me the next day so that I could use it. I brought it home and left it in its case while I spent the next four days rewriting the story. During those days I told myself to go back to writing fiction and forget about playing. Writing was obviously a talent that came naturally to me, whereas music was always a struggle. After I wrote "Intruders," I stopped practicing bass. I wasn't getting any calls to play and didn't have a band to bring to a gig if I looked for one on my own. I'd been looking to get out of the music business because most of the people in it are, at best, tacky, and usually a lot worse than tacky. Writing was my way out of it, a creative outlet and, well, at one point All About got a small grant to pay its writers and the ten dollars the paper paid me was a lot for me to have in my pocket in those years, when I was mostly unemployed. "Intruders" got published by Aldebaran, the first magazine I sent it to, late in 1973, if I remember correctly. I figured getting my fiction published would be a breeze. I sure guessed wrong on that. I wouldn't have another story published until 1990 or 1991. And then several years of work got taken in about eighteen months.
"Faustus" was an attempt at a novel that I worked on from October 1968 till probably December, maybe January. The idea originated as an undergrad. The only reason I remember that is because James J. Scully, my writing prof, commented on the euphemisms Simeon's father employed while trying to sound as macho and as probing as Norman Mailer. So, the idea had its origins in some writing I did in fall 1967, or maybe the summer before. But I worked on it every night after my first college job, a grant writer at an anti-poverty agency in Hartford. Trouble is, I had problems with writing time. My boss would let us know we had a deadline so late that to meet it we had to stay in the office till 7:00 p.m. By the time I got home, I was too tired to concentrate on writing, so I missed a lot of nights that way. Other times I'd get stuck in traffic and have less time between arriving home and eating dinner. I'd arrive home and put dinner in the oven, then write. After I ate, I'd feel too lazy to want to write again and would settle in to watch the tube. Somehow I got in 227 pages or thereabouts before my will flagged. When I returned to writing after the three-year layoff, I learned not to pause for dinner, but to make foods that would at least be palatable when they got cold and eat them while I wrote during dinner. Now that I'm retired and have more time to write, one of my favorite small pleasures is having a warm dinner that doesn't take two or three hours to eat.
Aside from the lesson of discipline, "Faustus"—that's its "working" title—I don't think I ever gave it a genuine title—was very much a journey into the sixties of 1968, when things still looked like they might actually change for the better in American society, and youth still felt optimistic despite the Kennedy and King assassinations and the police riots in Chicago. It begins with Faustus Ulysses Casperham debating whether he exists or not. He's the son of Simeon Icarus Casperham, another Mailerian figure of probing intellect combined with sexual preoccupation. Simeon keeps Faustus locked in the family estate, isolated from the outside world, and cruises the grounds in a powered wheelchair, even though he's fully capable of walking. In the early chapters, Simeon does his version of Hemingway's crossing the catwalk to his writing room in Key West or Mailer's parapet or whatever in Brooklyn Heights. Except that Simeon falls to his death—was it accidental or suicidal? Faustus finds a note from his father saying he has to cross the pole to find out the secrets that have been kept from him. Since adolescence he had Aphrodite, an "electric mannequin," as a sex partner. He never thought anything of it. Then he finds Simeon's study on the effect of surrogate lovers on adolescent behavior; the mannequin succeeded in eliminating teenage masturbation. Simeon writes in a despairing suicide note that this monumental psychological study has been dismissed by his colleagues as pornography. Faustus also finds that Simon made unsuccessful efforts to revive his great love, Catherine Wainright.
Faustus leaves the estate in his electric wheelchair. On his first ride into the outside world, he gets mistaken for the lead singer of a rock band called Star of David, not for religious reasons but because the lead singer is an egomaniacal celebrity and his lead guitarist, named David, keeps the nuts and bolts of the band together. While a reporter tries to get an interview out of Faustus, who has no idea why he's being interviewed, the Brand X-Company, coming over from my Scheissberg material, goes onstage and sings in-your-face lyrics in a style not unlike the early Mothers of Invention. Faustus meets their leader, Earnest Zaspero. The band has the same name, but a very different approach.
Faustus's encounters in the real world reveal the extent of his isolation; when he meets a woman who wants to have sex, he responds to her much the same as he does to the electric mannequin, which offends the woman and gets him arrested. He ends up in the same cell with a band member of Star of David. Faustus becomes involved in the rivalry between Star of David and the Brand-X Company, which he eventually joins and learns to play electric bass. This eventually leads Faustus to Mephistopheles Incorporated, a key player in the music industry, which, it turns out, holds control over Faustus's legacy from his father. Faustus has to regain his father's estate.
In Faustus, I tried to combine something of the Faust legend, Ulysses and the classic tale of regaining one's legacy. After 229 pages, I stopped in late 1968 or very early 1969. I'm not sure why, except at the time the work seemed to take more time and effort to pry out of me. It wasn't flowing. It felt as though the stream was drying up. Again, I was dealing with writing and working full-time on a job that demanded more than my scheduled hours, and taught me an important lesson about how to make sure I got my writing in. After so many years, I have no idea where Faustus would have gone. I'm not even sure the story was halfway completed. Maybe I stopped because I didn't have a clear idea where it was going. But the work shows a clearer style. The characters appear more realistic despite the bizarre elements in the story. The story is basically picaresque and draws on some elements that appear in Scheissberg, e.g. the Oedipal Ballroom. The Brand-X Company reappears, this time with a clearer role, adversary to the mindless aspects of Rock and to the music industry in general. Some inexperience on my part is obvious, such as when Faustus and several attorneys speak. The language isn't out of line with what I later learned goes on in discussions such as these, but if I were writing it now I could loosen the suits up because I've worked with people like them. I'd just turned 23 when I'd written it, so, since it gives me less to criticize, I'd have to say at least that it was a promising fragment. I thought so back then, and still do now.
I actually did plan to rewrite it in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I spent several years off and on putting notes into a spiral bound notebook with an eye toward adding the new ideas to the old draft, or vice-versa, and over the years have considered other ways to rewrite it that might look more like the fiction I published around the millennium. But I've never gotten to it. IMPROVISATIONS felt as though it was clicking on all cylinders. I got involved with poetry and haven't really done much with fiction in the last five years.
But a few months after I stopped working on Faustus , I had another idea: this character is dating his boss's daughter, the boss is an eccentric old coot who believes "never trust women and the telephone company." The protagonist goes into a fugue state, although I leave some question as to whether it's by accident or design, and finds himself living in a bohemian world he barely knew existed, but obviously had a curiosity about. I found about 20 pages of the 75 I wrote and again, it looks like the idea had some promise. With the advance of electronics, though, I don't know if the idea is dated or more open to the possibilities or lack thereof that result from the boss's distrust of the phone company.
My unpublished novels have certainly given me a long apprenticeship. It's a good thing I finally figured out how to finish a novel.
RC You stated that in the 80's you began to write plays, you even tried to transform a short story into a stage work. How was, and was not, the experience of playwriting conducive to the methods you were then practicing? What drew you to consider the theater as a potential medium
in which to express yourself, and which playwrights did you find compelling?
.VF True. In the 80s I tried playwriting for three or four years. One reason I turned to it was simply that my fiction was going nowhere. I've kept a file of close calls on fiction from the 70s and 80s that can almost bring tears to my eyes when I think of what could have happened if I'd caught a break on a few of them. By the time I turned to playwriting, I had finally completed one novel, The Breedlust Cycle , which had made the rounds of agents and publishers, and caused another crisis of frustration and self-doubt that led to my jettisoning a bunch of manuscripts, and I'd written at least one more unpublished novel. You need a lot of will—determination—to write a novel, and when you feel like Publishers row is a closed shop, your doubt about ever getting through the door can make it tough to continue—aside from whatever else life can bring your way. At some point, every now and then, while you're wracking your brain for a word in a work that will most likely go nowhere, you stop to wonder why you're working so damn hard when you could be playing coed softball and becoming a low-level alcoholic at the post-game pizza parties. At the time, Hartford had a few alternative theaters, but they were in a stage of transition that didn't work to my advantage. One closed, the other featured more punk rock dances than plays. I went to a few of the dances and had fun, but no plays got produced. I guess it just occurred to me that I might have a chance to get somewhere if I wrote in a different form. And I've always been proud of the dialogue in my fiction, so writing exclusively in dialogue was something I could do very comfortably, and with a sharp ear for the characters.
Now, I've enjoyed reading plays ever since I decided to become a writer. So, the same high school summers and nights after school that I was reading all those novelists, I was adding in some Eugene O'Neill, maybe Tennessee Williams—-I had pretty much burned out on reading both of them just before I turned 19, that's how much I read of them in high school and college—and I did use the play format for some exchanges of dialogue in my fiction, a device I picked up from Burroughs. After writing the play in college, the occasional shift into play format instead of quotations seemed a useful device, partly to get rid of "he said," "she said." and partly to keep myself and whatever reader(s) I might have awake by changing the format, which also added immediacy to the dialogue, raised the intensity level of the situation by making the page "read" a little faster, or served as a kind of foreshortening device to summarize incidents and save on superfluous narrative. I've found it very useful.
But I didn't go back to writing plays until the 80s. By then, I had read Bertolt Brecht, August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, Edward Albee,
Samuel Beckett, Ionesco . . . and many others I just can't think of at the moment. Brecht's plays influenced my approach to fiction in that I didn't necessarily want the reader to identify with the characters as much as I wanted them to learn from the experience of the entire work. Strindberg's Dream Plays are among my all-time favorite reads, especially The Ghost Sonata . I loved Peer Gynt and its unreality—which seems to me about as surreal as it is folkloric—more than A Doll's House or any of Ibsen's other, realistic plays. I think reading playwrights such as these fed into my sense of the heightened reality I wanted my fiction to have: dreamlike, unpredictable and, maybe unlike the plays, outrageously funny.
If I remember correctly, I started writing plays again about a year or two before I started writing poetry. One of them—not the first—was a version of the Lavvy McPloy story. I was trying anything that would get the idea done and out of my head. In this case, I came up with some interesting new characters, but according to the rules of drama, Lavvy McPloy didn't act, but was acted upon, so he couldn't be the protagonist. And I couldn't find a way to make him one. So, the play is floating around somewhere, along with a bunch of unfinished plays or first drafts of plays in some spiral notebooks I keep in my file cabinet. So, I did try to turn a short story into a play. I also tried turning a play into a story. It wasn't working as a play, but I was able to use first-person narrative to make the story more plausible. The story, whose title I forget, was one of the first that got published after "Intruders." I think it was around 1986 or 87 that it appeared in a Belgian magazine, Tempus Fugit .
I spent about three or four years working on various versions of Playin/ the Game , a play based on the years I participated in a predominantly black jazz workshop in the early 1970s. I wrote a one-act version, then a not quite full-length version. After about a year of auditing an actors workshop in Hartford, I wrote a full-length version. I think the actors workshop read the shorter version, the 55 pager. Since the black characters in the play use the word "nigger" in almost every conceivable context and meaning, some of the black actors—and, I think, the instructor, Clay Stevens—didn't like my using the word. Later, another group of black Hartford actors read the full-length version and took greater exception. I didn't see myself as being a bigot. The play had racial elements, but I didn't view race as the only factor in the play. I guess the black actors saw it differently. I was disappointed in the readings that both groups gave. They read cold from the page, even though in one case I left a batch of copies for some advance skimming. Without fail, they missed every gut-busting line I'd written. They expressed concern about the hostility between the characters, which was definitely there, but they didn't grasp the humor that would lessen the hostility and in some cases, eliminate it. The funny thing was that the black musician to whom I dedicated the play, Emery Smith, didn't take offense at it. He knew who I was writing about and that my descriptions were accurate. Hell, I would say a good fifty percent of the dialogue was conversations I memorized and shifted into different contexts to make them more dramatic.
I tried to get the play produced through community access TV in Hartford in 1984 and ran into every conceivable hassle. While the director and I were rewriting the play and auditioning actors—I was putting in 16 hours day on it—I discovered the producer hadn't done a thing to raise money for our shoestring budget. So I ended up rewriting the play, auditioning actors and applying for grants while going to my day job. Picking up slack when I was already overloaded ran me down so badly I caught a virus. One night at an informal poetry workshop I was attending while under the weather, my mood was so foul because of the producer that I lost my welcome at the workshop. I didn't feel good about that, but on the one hand, I just couldn't conceal the mood I was in from working myself sick. On the other, the poets in the workshop really operated from an aesthetic vastly different from mine; they were more oriented toward visual imagery, whereas my poetry emphasized rhythm and movement via space on the page. Many nights I felt as though I could learn as much about how to advance my poetry by watching topless dancers than I could by listening to an Apple-School critique on an Orange-School poem. So, the loss wasn't a great one.
After I alienated my poet acquaintances and shitcanned the producer, I actually got a few grants, but had to wait to get the go-ahead from the Hartford Community Access TV board of directors. After tying me up for a few months, they rejected the idea. From there, I went to East Hartford's Community Access station. The station was eager to do it, the actors were wondering when it would happen, but to get the grant money I needed, I had to go through Town Hall, where a "fine young man" who became a homeboy mayor made lame excuses and dragged his feet. If he told me to call him on Friday, I'd call. Then he'd get annoyed because I called him at the appointed time. When I did get another grant, I only found out because, after laying off phoning him for a month or two, I called him and learned I'd gotten the grant. The grant came from what eventually became Bank of America. Its spokesman said I could have the amount only if I had all the matching funds I had proposed getting, Well, a few grants had been rejected, I had no other places to apply to, and the spokesman wouldn't give me a smaller proportionate sum to match the money I had raised and give me the equivalent of a used shoestring of a budget. He suggested that I try all kinds of things I'd already tried to get more money, as if it was a new project. It was new to him. I'd been trying to get this into production for a year and a half, maybe longer. When I spoke with the director about the bank's offer, he said we were getting past the point of doing anything but getting our brains beaten out. I agreed with him. To me, the entire ordeal can be compared to the Larry Holmes-Randall "Tex" Cobb fight of the early 1980s, in which Cobb took 15 rounds of vicious beatings and finished on his feet, a bloody pulp. I was done with community access TV and loathed it.
After deciding the best artist is a live one, I sent the play around to a variety of places. Mary Robinson, at the time a dramaturge at the Hartford Stage Company, wrote me a very nice letter about the play being written with "intensity and conviction" and saying that while the Stage Company couldn't produce the play, she'd like to see more of my work. Well, after a half-dozen submissions to other theaters, I realized two things: 1) there were not nearly as many venues for theater as there were for literature, which left me pretty much out in the cold; and 2) theater people were very bad about returning manuscripts. Since this was about 1984-86, I didn't have a computer to just print out my work. I had to re-type the play a few times Each time cost me a week I could have spent on other projects. I started sending photocopies around, but eventually got tired of lame responses or none at all. By this time, my poetry was getting published. I don't recall a specific day when I said I wasn't going to write plays anymore. I probably just shifted my focus to poetry and some fiction, and around this time, late 1985, I had the chance to record a poem with music. So I headed in a different direction. My long lack of success gave me freedom to try a lot of different things.
Would I return to writing plays? I wouldn't say no, but I doubt that I'd write another one for my hard drive alone. I'm busy enough with what I'm doing, which has at least something of an audience, however small. And I'm making enough advances in what I'm doing now that somebody would have to seriously entice me to change direction and write another play. They'd have to ante up all the things that would make it worth the effort of writing it and spare me any repetition of my past experiences before I even sat down to write. I don't see that happening in my lifetime, and I can't very well write one after my lifetime ends. This is the first time I've thought about the question of writing a play in a number of years. I like the form, but I'm not young enough to waste time on projects that go nowhere. The form, or elements of it, have been incorporated into my fiction, so I've been able to employ the format to some degree without actually writing a play.
RC It seems from your bio that you wrote relatively little, if any, poetry up to this point. Did your disillusion with the novel and your frustration
with theater drive you to seek an outlet in poetry? Also, what was the first work of poetry that you started and the first you brought to fruition, and it what year? Who at this time was your major poetic influences?
VF Well, my disillusionment with the publishing business was a fait acccompli and my disillusionment with theater was a work in progress, or lack thereof. I was writing poetry while the latter was taking place.
Let me back track. I did write poetry in high school. After a few tries at things like "An Ode in Trochaic Hexameter,"which might have been my response to a class assignment about writing a poem in meter, I wrote "Beat" poetry, or what I understood as Beat after reading Howl , Gregory Corso's The Happy Birthday of Death and a chunk of The New American Poetry 1945-60 . The high school newspaper once left-margined my "projective" poems, actually might have blocked them into prose. I forget if it was a literary traditionalist imposing his or her will, or a person who didn't like me taking a cheap shot. In senior year, I stopped writing poetry completely, partly because I had focused on fiction and partly because a friend at the time, an aspiring poet, read one of my poems and told me never to write a poem again in my life. At eighteen I wrote a poem called "SHE" that Bill Scruggs and a few other people included in a mimeo magazine called Shape and Space that lasted one issue. The following fall, a combination of romantic and glandular problems generated "Sales Pitch of an Honest Real Estate Agent" not too long after my nineteenth birthday. I tried writing an anti-war poem in 1967 and a friend didn't think it worked. In retrospect, it wasn't great, but I've looked at it since and it wasn't all that bad. I wrote a very short poem, "reflections on six years of hodgkins disease," when I was around 30.
I didn't start writing poetry seriously until 1982. I'd managed to review some records for Coda: the Canadian Jazz Magazine , as well as write some features and start a column. An article I'd done on pianist Ran Blake had been translated into French and published in Le Jazz Hot in Paris in the late 1970s. My short stories and The Breedlust Cycle were filling one of my file cabinet drawers with rejection slips. Here's how I got started writing poetry:
In May, 1982, Real Art Ways was hosting an open reading at the last Greater Hartford Arts Festival. I didn't give it much thought until I ran across a guy who said he might read some of his work there. He was a nice enough guy, but he was a little flakier than I was, and from the way he talked I thought he was more a dabbler than anything. If he could go up and read, I could read my two poems, "Sales Pitch" and "reflections," and not make a worse fool of myself. Hell, I figured a lot of people thought I was at least half-crazy anyway, especially since I was talking about a writing career or my lack of one to people who don't understand how the literary world really works and only getting jazz writing published. So what if I made a fool of myself? As with so many other situations throughout my life, I had nothing to lose.
The day of the reading, though, I thought I might embarrass myself more than I expected. Just as I parked my car, I noticed some of the people I perceived at the time as Hartford's "established poets" getting out of a car that had just parked across the street from me. Once the reading started, and I heard them recite, I realized that my two poems could hold their own. The reading went well enough to inspire me to send "Sales Pitch" to The Pale Fire Review, which had in the past expressed regrets about rejecting my fiction. They accepted the poem, which made me feel especially good because I'd written it when I was nineteen. The acceptance validated the work I'd written not long after my nineteenth birthday. Maybe I wasn't such a schmuck after all.
The acceptance inspired me to write more poems, and the poems got published. I quickly figured out that publishing poetry was easier than publishing fiction. If a literary magazine is 48 pages long and you submit a 16 page story, the editors have 32 pages remaining to showcase other writers. If they accept three stories, they can only showcase three writers. If they accept poems, they can showcase up to forty-eight. So, to be honest, I started writing poetry simply because I could express myself in the form and get published. As I worked with it, while getting published with increasing frequency, I found that poetry allowed me to do certain things that fiction wouldn't. It was an idiom open to possibilities. And the more poetry I wrote, the more possibilities I found.
As far as influences, they were pretty much the same as what I started with in 1961. Olson was the most obvious. I'd been reading Bukowski since 1973 and some of my poems reflected experiences similar to his, but I can't say he influenced me directly. Others who came along in that period were Philip Whalen and Michael McClure, who I'd originally read at age 15, but rediscovered in a major way. I picked up some things from them, along with picking up just about every book they've written. I read Creeley as a teenager and then again as a guy getting serious about writing poetry. In 1982 and the first years I started writing poetry, I'd say Olson, Whalen and McClure were my biggest influences.
Over the next few years, my poems appeared in a variety of little magazines, most of them under the "Beat" umbrella. Before I published a book, I released two home-produced cassette tapes, BEATNIK POETRY and Haight Street, 1985 , that I sold at jazz clubs for about the price of a beer. The cassettes were the only artistic projects I didn't lose money on. At $3, people would take a chance on buying them. Then, in 1987, I self-published the chapbook, A Slick Set of Wheels . It got some good reviews and some decent sales.
But, by the time the chapbook was out, I already had my poetry-music thing started. A lot of unforeseen things were about to start happening. Actually, they had already begun happening—I never expected to be writing poetry or putting it to music, for example. I had hoped to be the next Great American Novelist. But, it turns out, the most interesting things I've done artistically weren't on my radar, in my dreams . . . they weren't anywhere in my thinking, it seems. But once I started writing poetry, things started happening that led me in directions I never expected to travel in.
RC Explain some of the unforeseen 'things' that you alluded to which pointed you in the direction of poetry as a main expression. Also delve into A Slick Set of Wheels , its style, form, content, etc.
VF Well, a lot of what's happened to me has not at all gone according to the rough script of the way I thought my life would go. Remember: I was supposed to be a novelist, not a poet. And I was, in my dreams, also going to be a jazz musician and critic, as well. I figured I'd go to grad school, get a gig as one of the cool professors in some English Department, and write edgy novels like Burroughs, Heller, Barth and Pynchon. Hodgkins Disease was an "unforeseen " element. My first day in classes at Simon Fraser, I went for my first three-month check-up after receiving cobalt therapy and the doctor spotted swollen lymph nodes under my armpit. So, while attending classes I was undergoing tests at the British Columbia Cancer Institute, which took time away from my course reading and didn't make staying in grad school all that easy. I did hang in as best I could—decades later, I realized I was too hard on myself for leaving a situation in which the odds were stacked against me. I hung in, but one day the pedantry in class wore me out and I decided I'd rather get a job of some kind and write. So, Cancer was an unforeseen event that triggered many others, dropping out of grad school, which in turn caused the depression that made me stop writing for a good three years, which in turn led to my focusing strictly on being a musician, and so on.
When I got back into writing late in 1972, it led me to give up playing bass. Completely. I packed it up, put it in its case and touched it exactly once between 1974 and 1985. In 1977 a musician asked me to bring the bass to a party and jam. I laughed long and hard, thinking I'd never touch the instrument again. Now I have to laugh at myself laughing at the person I laughed at. After all, I did take the bass out of mothballs for the poetry-music fusion and played it for another nine or ten years before packing it up and focusing totally on writing.
A lot of things I did were unforeseen simply because nothing I did was successful enough to get me to the next level, whatever that might be. I wrote poetry because I couldn't get my fiction published. I wrote plays for the same reason. In the early 80s only the poetry and the jazz writing was getting published. In 1985, I never expected to put "A Slick Set of Wheels to music" and start the poetry-music thing that I did up to the mid-nineties.
When I started the poetry-music fusion, it wasn't supposed to be a primary emphasis, but after the record party for Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike I did start an ensemble. It wasn't supposed to become what it did, just a gig or two to get the jazz reviewer for the Hartford Courant to write about my work, promote Sex Queen and make people aware of my work. I got the gig, but was told the editor had changed his mind about the article.
One unexpected development related to all this was the free jazz sessions I was involved in at the time. I set some sessions up at my house when a drummer I used to know wanted to play free jazz. I figured a session now and then would be fun, and had a session at my house every week or two. Another guy was having free form jams at Trinity College, so I played there for a while. This was an unforeseen development that gave me access to the musicians who would later become part of my poetry band.
I never expected the poetry band to become my central activity. That was totally unforeseen. But it led me to a forum in which I could utilize a lot of my talents simultaneously. I had the writing going, I had the playing going . . . and all of a sudden here I was on the bandstand, using my neglected acting talent to recite the poetry. It was the most complete expression I've ever experienced. And, considering how badly my Tourettic stutter impaired me through high school, my ability to present an entire show in public was a triumph of its own. All my life I'd sought jobs that didn't involve public speaking because of the stutter, which still showed a little between pieces on the bandstand, but I was able to introduce the pieces, recite them—all things that I had put aside in my early teens. My finding what I considered a TOTAL expression was definitely an unforeseen development.
From there, it led to gigs like the one we did at the University of Massachusetts Beat Café, where we responded to truly professional treatment and the luxury of a green room with a show that had a full house on its feet, screaming. Of course, it also led to a lot of nights of playing to four people and feeling lucky to make four bucks a man off our cut from the door. And it did lead me into New York venues that were very respectable, but not well bankrolled, e.g., the Nuyorican Poets Café.
A Slick Set of Wheels wasn't quite an afterthought, but I was slow to release it. First of all, I'd just begun writing poetry and it took a while to build up a body of poems that would fill a book. I was writing in other forms besides poetry, so the poetry wouldn't pile up as quickly as it would later, when I gave it my primary focus. For a good part of 1985 and 1986 Michael Ziesing, who'd recorded my first poem put to music, suggested that I put together a chapbook. At the time, I was hustling my $3 cassettes to people in jazz clubs or wherever I might encounter someone who might be interested. Around Hartford, I knew very few writers and a lot of jazz aficionados, only a few of whom were at all literary. I wasn't sure a book would sell. And I really didn't have enough pieces that I felt confident in. By 1987, though, I had enough poems to make a decent chapbook. I probably sent the manuscript to a few places, as I do with all my work, but realized I'd have to put it out myself. I subcontracted the project to Water Row Press, which turned out to be a mistake. Every time the printer corrected an error in the proofs he made another one. The printing costs were set up so that I lost at least $1.50 on every book sold—"an investment," I was told—and was also told there were no "plates" from which I could make less costly reprints. I thought that was odd, since the book was supposed to be a letterpress job. Water Row's distribution got me about 34 sales, but if I'd never written to ask for the royalties I doubt that I would ever have received them. While I was getting this printed I was also working on recording Sex Queen, which has a lot of the poems from A Slick Set of Wheels on it. The book got a few reviews and they were all good, although one zine said I wasn't covering any "new ground," which concerned me.
I would say the "unforeseen things" weren't only what led me to write poetry—my decision to read my, ahem, two-poem corpus at the Greater Hartford Arts Festival being one of them—but also what resulted from my focusing on poetry. The obvious examples would be the poetry band, the duo with Thomas Chapin, performing as a solo poet-bassist featured at poetry slams and playing in some respectable Manhattan venues. I never expected to be doing any of that.
RC Talk a little about your autobiographical novel, Relic's Reunions. The dates you give for it is 1980-2000. Did it keep you occupied that long, and what were you working on in conjunction with it? It also seems that you attempted a screen play in 1986-91 with Forty. Expound on this also as well as your experience delving into the genre of screenwriting.
VF Wow, when I add what I was doing with poetry, plays and the poetry band to what you've asked, I realize I was really going in all kinds of directions in those years. I was doing all that!?
Relic's Reunions became the title for an idea that I'd wrestled with since 1980, as you say. Around that time, while I was getting weary of sending The Breedlust Cycle around and had gone through two drafts of at least another unpublished novel, maybe even two novels, I considered trying the autobiographical modes of Kerouac, Burroughs and Henry Miller. Where Miller had his Rosy Crucifixion and Kerouac his Duluoz Legend, I envisioned a series of six autobiographical novels that could tell my story—my parents' divorce and the ugly aftermath, the transformative effect of my negative high school experiences, battling Cancer, my years working as a musician in the North End of Hartford, and a handful of other periods of my life that I could to some extent separate from one another despite the chronological overlaps. But the times had changed and so had the publishing industry. I doubt that someone writing that kind of novel would get published today because it wouldn't be "genre" enough. An editor would try to format it into a memoir. So, the six autobiographical novels seemed an effort that would never find its way out of my desk drawer. That idea, of which the material for Relic's Reunions would have been a part, stayed pretty much in my thoughts. I don't think I ever wrote a sketch on paper; I could see how it would develop mentally. And I could see how unpublished it would be.
I remember starting a draft of what would become Relic's Reunions in a notebook in 1980 and stopping either because the pieces wouldn't cohere or because, as caregiver to my mother during the 8 ½ years she was disabled from Cancer, dealing with one of her medical crises might have pulled me away from the project long enough for me to lose my momentum. I think I had another three or four false starts before I put it aside to work on other projects . . . plays, poetry, jazz reviews . . . But I always came back to it. Throughout the eighties and especially the late eighties and early nineties, when I had the poetry band, I worked on a manuscript whose working title was "Star," because the story is about three high school friends, two of whom see a shooting star while the third doesn't, and the star becomes a symbol of their destinies. It's based on an incident two former friends from high school and I had in fall 1963, when we had taken Morning Glory Seeds at a Wesleyan University dorm formerly known as the John Wesley Club. I always wanted to use the incident. So I tried it and wrote out other sections in "Star," but the pieces could never cohere. Something was always missing. I had about 400 pages of material that needed some kind of glue to make it cohere. So, I was working on this while I was writing poetry, plays, running the poetry band, writing for the Hartford Advocate and the Hartford Courant, working a day job, and driving a pretty fair distance to have my relationship with Elaine, which was as important as everything else in my life. I was extremely busy in those years and eventually paid dearly for it.
Because of the problems with Relic's Reunions, I wrote it off and on while I was writing plays, poetry, short fiction, jazz criticism and running my poetry band. It took about four years before it finally came together.
Two things happened to finally make Relic's Reunion's come together. In 1988 or 1989, Mary Beth Johnson, a long lost friend from high school, called to suggest that I attend my graduating class's 25th reunion. Considering the way the students raked me over as a kid, I really didn't want to go. Mary Beth knew I was writing for the Advocate , a weekly alternative newspaper, so she thought I could write about the reunion. My enthusiasm was probably not unlike a rape victim being asked to write a fluff piece about her attacker. I said no. An hour or two later, another guy from my class called. I don't think I talked to him. I just let my answering machine take the message. If two people had called to invite me, I thought, maybe somebody in that group of people figured out during my 25 year absence that they had fucked me over royally. My high school years made me understand why Columbines happen before any of them did. At the time, Jennifer Kaylin was editor of the Advocate and I felt comfortable talking to her about my conflicted feelings about attending. She said to write if I felt comfortable doing it, if not, then it was no big deal. The event itself seemed almost like a night in honor of me. As one classmate's wife put it, "It was like you were the star." I wrote a well-received piece about the night. But a few phone calls I made after the reunion taught me nobody was looking to revive a friendship from those years. I began to wonder if I'd been conned into writing the review. I went to the next reunion, five years later, and it seemed like nobody gave a damn that I was there. The people I spoke to were more interested in my working for the State than in my writing. I nearly walked out before the dinner was served, and did leave immediately after, with no intention of ever returning.
The other thing that made Relic's Reunions possible was my informal diagnosis of Tourette syndrome, made by my wife's best friend from high school when she came to visit us in fall 1993. You see, Relic, the narrator, in the "Star" manuscript, had a strongly politicized awareness of his relationship to his classmates. They were the oppressors, he the oppressed. He was acutely aware of the double standard, such as the one I encountered on a painfully regular basis, in which I'd say something, maybe stammer through it, and get ignored, but the person standing next to me would repeat what I'd said, almost word for word, and get praised by the listener for having this great idea. When Dia Wingrad made the informal diagnosis, she explained that Tourette had a lot of positive attributes to go along with the more publicized negative attributes. The formal diagnosis only confirmed what she'd told me about the positive aspects. For at least eight years I'd realized that I worked about five times as fast as my co-workers. Some of it was just basic preparation for handling a task, but another part of it came from the extra rush of what I call "brain juice," maybe a dopamine rush that would start me working as if I'd had a power surge.
Receiving the diagnosis felt very strange at first because the media at the time seemed to feel free to make cruel jokes or dismissive remarks about people with Tourette Syndrome, the kinds of comments that would cause the B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and other civil rights groups to stage pickets, conduct demonstrations and demand legislation. In essence, I realized people had been treating me in a manner not unlike the way people treated an African-American before the Civil rights movement. I began to confront people who made remarks that I considered offensive. I claimed my rights. Tourette made me reassess my life from age six onward, and I realized why Edsel Relic had the awareness he did. To make the character plausible, Tourette Syndrome had to become one of his attributes.
The reunion and the Tourette diagnosis brought the pieces from "Star" together in a way that finally made sense. While starting some of the Tourette poetry that would appear in Sing Me One Song of Evolution , I went back to work on Relic's Reunions and the pieces finally fit. In 1995, Plain Brown Wrapper serialized it. Then the novel sat a few years while I published other books through Van Volumes, the short-run printer I discovered in 1997. I can't say why I didn't publish it sooner. Maybe the other books seemed more pressing to release.
Before I self-published it, I sent query letters to a lot of agents and learned even the agent business had changed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, agents would write you a short note of rejection. Now they were sending form rejection slips, same as Publishers Row, which for the most part no longer even considered work unless an agent sent it. It convinced me that Publishers Row was a closed shop, even New Directions, which rejected the manuscript essentially because it wouldn't make them any money. I've always noticed that when I talk Art, the publishers and presenters talk Money. Some of them get grants to support art. Perhaps they should rewrite their grants to say they support profit. Self-publishing was my only option—other than letting my work rot in my file cabinet.
In Relic's Reunions , I created a kind of double narrative, in which Edsel Relic, a grizzled performance poet, gets the invitation and debates with himself and his fiancé/editor whether to attend the reunion. His "to go or not to go" Hamlet shtik causes him to relive his past, with an emphasis on the summer after graduation, when he goes to New York to begin his life as the Great American Novelist and returns home less than two months later to find his best—and really, only—friends have become tight and pretty much squeezed him out of the picture. The other part deals with the imaginary reunion with his former friends, who wouldn't attend the reunion. But their imaginary trip there and the reunions with them is part of Edsel's internal debate. And they do meet—in Edsel's mind, if nowhere else. Bringing the characters together allowed me to write something that was in my head since I was about fifteen, thinking about how my friends and I would naturally become the preeminent figures in our respective arts and how we would meet over the years to compare notes and share our successes with great camaraderie. Of course, that reunion takes place very differently from what I had imagined thirty-some years earlier. And it's never happened in real life.
Writing the book was very difficult because of the subject matter, and because of the techniques that I was trying to use. A few years earlier, John Bryan, a friend who's a photographer, visual artist and writer, had told me he was bored with writing conventional narrative. It occurred to me that, at the time of the conversation, I had at least twenty years of writing under my belt and that it was time I trusted my craft instead of worrying about it. So, the techniques I developed came from doing the literary equivalent, not of looking at the "edge" and writing about it, but of leaping over the edge and trying to write my way back from wherever I landed. By the time I got through all the drafts of "Star" and transformed them into Relic's Reunions," I had no idea of whether I'd succeeded or failed. I'd done so many new things I had no way of judging it. So I've felt about it the way I've felt about the Ken Norton-Muhammad Ali fights of the 1970s. Just as I couldn't tell who really won those three contests, I can't tell if what I'd written was a success or just a wild mind gone wilder. To this day, I'm still not sure.
I'm surprised that it turned out to be less autobiographical than I thought. I didn't discover that until rereading the work in its finishing phases. Some things I wrote about were almost literal transactions of the events as they happened. Others never took place at all. Over the years, several people thought that I was writing about them in the book, and I never told them that they weren't included. The woman who invited me to the reunion wondered who my great unrequited love was that year. Since she didn't remember my boring her with tales of unrequited love in high school, I decided to let the character's inspiration remain a mystery. As a writer, I'm entitled to my trade secrets.
After publication, several people gave the book excellent reviews in small publications and online, basically saying that any reader who was a high school misfit would love the book to death. My sales were nonexistent. Friends of friends who read the comps I'd sent told me they were going to talk it up to everyone they know. If they did, it never showed itself as a sale. The writer who reviewed Relic's Reunions and IMPROVISATIONS (I-XXIV) in the American Book Review praised IMPROVISATIONS but panned Relic's Reunions , using them essentially to show the positive and negative sides of self-publishing in an article called "Self-Publish or Perish." I placed a few ads. No sales.
Around 1998, I learned from Barnes and Noble's small press department that the best way an author like me could get a book into their stores was to stage a reading or a signing. So I did those. And my distributor, Baker and Taylor, filled the orders. But my readings, ranging from Harvard Square to Westport—I couldn't get any bookstore readings in Manhattan—seldom generated a turnout, and if one did, maybe four people came. But Baker and Taylor was ordering my books for several years, so I thought they were selling at the bookstores. Then, when I moved to Florida in 2002, all the books I thought had sold came back as returns and Baker and Taylor sent me a bill for the unsold copies. This happened to four or five books I wrote, not just Relic's Reunions . So, Relic's Reunions , despite my efforts, ended up basically still-born. I still don't know what to make of the book, even after all these years. I gather it's a good read, but I can't do more than I've done to get others to read it.
As far as Forty, the screenplay was a rough draft of what I intended to be a comic novel about a guy who goes totally neurotic about turning forty, and has an affair with a stripper that puts his relationship with his fiancé in jeopardy. It was supposed to be a pretty straightforward novel, no tricky narrative devices or format changes. I viewed it as the kind of novel you might make a movie out of, and one aspect of writing the first draft as a screenplay was to have a screenplay available if the novel got published. My other reason for writing it as a screenplay was that I wanted to try a different approach to getting the novel's basic plot and characters organized. I've always had a lot of confidence in my ability to write dialogue. The only writer I've read whose dialogue I think is consistently better than mine is Richard Price. So I wrote the first draft as dialogue, as a screenplay. A second draft was a third-person narrative, but one flaw was that I couldn't establish a clear motive as to why the protagonist's fiancé's daughter, who disliked him, would try to bail him out of a jam later in the book. And I wasn't sure if the protagonist and his fiancé would make up. The ending I tried felt strained. I couldn't decide whether the protagonist was mature enough or his partner forgiving enough to reconcile. I still haven't figured it out.
I think I wrote this off and on between 1986 and 1990. I can't say that I tried writing a screenplay other than the first draft of Forty. I use the screenplay form in my fiction, but figured out very quickly that writing for Hollywood is writing bestseller material. Their box is very narrow and most of my thinking occurs outside of it. So, I saw screenplays as even less likely to be published or produced than my fiction. Around the time I was writing the "Star" drafts of Relic's Reunions, I had a stretch, in 1991 and 1992, in which years of unpublished fiction and poetry got swooped up and published in little magazines—this was years before I published online. It felt good to know that the work was worthy of publication, after circulating for so long. Since I was getting my poetry and fiction published, I decided to concentrate on writing more of it and let the notion of writing screenplays slide. I like the form and have used it in my fiction. But at this stage in my life, I don't see any point in working in the form unless someone offers me a contract and a guarantee of production. I've got enough things going to keep me busy.
RC So it seems that Relic's Reunion and Sing Me One Song of Evolution are tied together almost thematically, in that they both deal with you coming to acknowledge your Tourette. To what degree did that initial diagnosis of Tourette change your approach to writing, both from a contextual and philosophical point of view?
VF Tourette does tie the books together, although they're very different works. Relic's Reunions is a two-tiered "coming of age" novel about coming into adulthood and coming into middle age. When I started making the revisions to Relic after my diagnosis, I didn't insert all the symptoms I could have, partly because I was still learning what they were, and partly because the narrative approach itself is literally an example of the Tourettic mind at work—the fast shifts in tense and tone, the high-energy zigzagging through a consciousness that manages to cohere, but not entirely in the conventional ways of developing plot and character. Sing Me One Song of Evolution wasn't originally conceived as a book. I was just writing poems, a lot of them about Tourette, and eventually I realized I wanted to put a book together to make a statement. But it took a few years to reach that point. Some of the poems I included in the book were previously published in Demon Dance and recorded with my poetry band or with Thomas Chapin. But "The Boy with Green Hair" was specifically about the way Tourette affected my life from childhood on, as a kind of parallel to the American war-orphaned protagonist Dean Stockwell played in the movie. The poem "Sing Me One song of Evolution" was a statement of my outrage about a kid with Tourette in Enfield, Connecticut, who, after being ostracized in high school, got suspended for refusing to participate in a demonstration of school spirit because, as an outsider, he couldn't see any point in lying or going along with a game from which he was excluded. I've felt that way most of my life about the institutions I’ve had to function in and a lot of the people I’ve had to deal with. I didn't know I had Tourette in high school, but the actions I took and the decisions I made in tenth grade became Life Decisions. As Vonnegut said, "Life is high school." And my experience after high school proved him right, from college to retirement.
Learning I had Tourette changed my approach to writing, first by changing my attitude about myself. I met people with Tourette and we shared so many characteristics I felt like I was part of a culture more than a "disorder." To use the latest buzzword, I "took ownership" of my difference and transformed it into something akin to an ethnicity. I talk about that in Sing Me One Song of Evolution. But other things started happening in my writing around 1996 or 1997. Some of it involved "orchestrating text." I can't remember for sure, but I think I did it for the first time when I created a chorus in "Tourettic Possession Rant/Dance." As best I can remember, somewhere between writing that and "Discoveries of the Damned" I talked with Adam Ward Seligman, the late Tourettic author, about co-publishing the book. So, I knew that we were going to put out a book, or I was going to put one out, depending on how the negotiations went.. With "Discoveries of the Damned" I began to experiment with fonts and other techniques because I felt they were necessary to tell the story of my diagnosis. A lot of what I did, as I think I said before, I considered an extension of Olson's composition by field, with the computer screen replacing the typewriter page and the computer's capabilities replacing the typewriter's. In that poem, I think I really opened up the doors for what came a year or so later. Also, those two poems brought me to an artistic wall. I really didn't know how to create anything that could surpass them in sheer intensity. Later, I learned I'd have to use language entirely differently to climb over the artistic wall I'd come to. My philosophy altered as my approach altered. I became open to even more creative possibilities than I had in the past, and they were taking me in a truly unforeseen direction.
RC Do you now see Sing Me One Song of Evolution as a seminal book in your corpus of works, a watershed moment, in which all the pieces, so to speak, started to fall into place? Was it a cathartic experience penning these poems and realizing the coherence that each individual poem shared; and at what point in the process did you consider compiling them into a collection? I view the book as one long poem, of sorts, whose discrete elements merge into one long storyline or theme. Do you also see it that way?
VF Now I do. At the time, I realized the diagnosis was one of the most important things that had ever happened to me in my entire life. It allowed me to turn my life around, to understand why things in the past happened the way they did. Writing about the diagnosis mattered to me because I was making a statement, not only about myself but about a misunderstood and abused group of people. I was aware that I was breaking new ground—for myself, anyway—in my poetry. I couldn't see the book as seminal insofar as I didn't know what was coming next.
But looking at what did come next, I'd say the book was seminal from a writing perspective because it brought my earlier style of writing to a culmination point and held the seeds to the kind of writing I've been doing over the past eight years. These poems were particularly cathartic because they ventilated my feelings about how I'd been treated much of my life and allowed me to assert my identity as a person with Tourette. I didn't realize the poems held together in the way that you see them. Not all of them were about Tourette, although a Tourettic sensibility informed their creation. I knew at some point that I was going to make these poems into a collection, but I can't remember at what point. It must have been shortly before I contacted Adam Ward Seligman's Echolalia Press. I don't see the book as one long poem, but I can see, now that you mention it, that several threads carry through it, one being Tourette Syndrome, another the music of John Coltrane, and a third being my attempt to create poetry that communicated at the level of intensity of Coltrane's saxophone playing. I tried to come close to it with "Demon Dance," which I wrote in 1990, well before my diagnosis, and came closer with "Tourettic Possession Rant/Dance," which, I'm told, makes "Demon Dance" read like a walk in the park. Since I begin with "The Boy with Green Hair," one kind of summary of my life, and conclude with "Discoveries of the Damned," about my going through the period of diagnosis, I guess I did set up an autobiographical frame. I like the idea of your perceiving it as one work because, viewed that way, maybe its effect is more powerful. I didn't plan it, but I'll take it.
RC Your next two poetry works, Free Fall (1999) & Demolition Fedora (2000), were published by Potes & Poets Press. Explain how you discovered Potes & Poets and your relationship with them. Then, back to the prose issue: highlight The Inspector (1994- 2006) as well as the short novel I/An Other (1999?).
VF I'd been submitting work to Potes & Poets for years, one of those blind submissions you make after reading The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses and hoping to make a fit with the limited information available. This was before the internet, and before a lot of zines had web sites I thought Potes & Poets' location in West Hartford and my living in East Hartford might help from a local perspective, but it didn't. For the most part, I never got a reply to my submissions, although once I think I did receive one. (Later, I learned Peter Ganick saved his manuscripts to sell as archives to the University of Connecticut. Then, I think it was in fall of 1997, I met him at a party given by our mutual friend, John Bryan. We talked a bit and I believe I asked Peter that night if he would write a blurb for Sing Me One Song of Evolution. He agreed, and wrote a terrific one. From there, we started talking by phone, emailing and getting together. Before we got together the first time, I bought one of his books to become familiar with his work, and when I saw him, he gave me a bunch of Potes & Poets titles. He taught me a lot about the small press world and the way it really works, as opposed to the general public's perception, or even the perception of writers who haven't had direct access to editors or writers who talk honestly about the literary business. He was able to suggest things that could help me advance my career, such as it is. At times, he made suggestions that I just didn't have time or energy to do. When I knew him, I had been running on empty for a long time. The governor had increased our workweek so that I barely had time to write at home. Even though it would have benefitted me, I just didn't have the extra time after work to participate in the Buffalo Poetics List, for example. I was barely able to write and handle submissions the last two years before I retired. Once I did retire, though, I took advantage of the List and others related to it, and gradually developed a network of writers and publishers. But before I retired, I had time to read the Language Poetry Peter gave me, unsold copies of Potes & Poets books that included Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Sheila E. Murphy, Ivan Argüelles, Jim Leftwich and many others. It was my first sustained exposure to Language Poetry, but not my first exposure. I had read a Language poem by Michael Basinski in Tempus Fugit somewhere in the mid-80s or 1990. From its style and what I had read about the idiom, I gathered Basinski had written a Language Poem and that each word had equal value. One night after coming home from a night in the jazz clubs I read Basinski's poem in Tempus Fugit , then decided to try to write one in a similar vein. Unfortunately, it's lost. I seem to remember it read pretty well and that I enjoyed writing it.
But Peter Ganick really gave me a crash course in Language Poetry. Then, one day near the end of 1998, I decided to try to write some Language Poetry. At the time, I'd forgotten I'd written the poem inspired by Basinski. A lot of the Potes & Poets Press writing struck me as improvisational in nature and related to Dada and Surrealism, so I improvised a few poems. They seemed very easy to write, just turn on the tap and let it flow. Peter responded positively to most of them, but at first I wasn't sure I was doing more than a high culture put-on. The stuff came out so easily it seemed ridiculous. Then, after a few weeks of spewing Language Poems at a production rate resembling Charles Bukowski's, I started noticing there was Something To this idiom. Even though the poem didn't have a literal meaning, the words twisted around inside your head and by the last line made an odd kind of sense, even if you could never explain it to anybody. At that point, I became more conscious of the craft necessary to make the poems work. It was a different way of writing, but I took to it like a fish to water. I can't find a more original way to say it. At one point in 1999, I decided to go for broke and improvised FREE FALL , writing in different fonts and using the entire page with even more abandon. I showed it to Peter. He liked it and decided to publish it. But I had to reset the type so that it would fit an 8.5" x 5.5" page. At the last minute, I had a great idea that backfired. With the final copy already in Peter's hand, I decided to print another copy out with gutter margins to make the book easier to read. But living the rush-down-the-treadmill lifestyle I was living, Idropped the "improved" copy off at Peter's house one lunch hour without looking at it first. Big mistake! When the book came out, I was proud that it had come out, but shocked at the way it looked. My guttered margins had forced some lines to run into the next line and had ruined the formatting. When Potes & Poets finally folded, a real loss, I posted the correct, full page version on my website,
The books Peter had given me opened me up to possibilities that I thought might help me climb over the wall I'd come up against creatively. I wrote several other longpoems—FREE FLIGHT and GROUND ZERO —that were "companions" in experimentation to FREE FALL. But I was focusing on Language Poetry, or, at least, my version of it. What I was doing, other than writing per se, was exploring the creative possibilities I'd picked up from Turetzky and maybe, without realizing it, Cage. I differed from Cage and, say, Mac Low, because I used elements of what they did as part of my improvisational approach. The techniques that I'd been exposed to from 1965-1967 were coming out after thirty-some years of dormancy. And I didn't even think of how Cage fit in until we started this interview! Anyway, late in 1999, I had enough work to publish in book form. Peter liked the Demolition Fedora manuscript and published it as a Potes & Poets book. Both books received distribution from the Small Press Distribution Service, the only times I've had it, and Demolition Fedora made its way into a fair number of college libraries. After Demolition Fedora was completed, I began working on IMPROVISATIONS, starting with a blank page, writing "IS" and improvising from there. I offered what became the first book of it to Potes & Poets, but Peter said it would create a conflict because he had already published Jim Leftwich's Improvisations. Plus, he commented that it read too much like the other work of mine that he'd published. I disagreed strongly and decided to self publish it. The sales were lousy, but the critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. I sent a review copy to the Poetry Project and Ed Friedman, then the director, invited me to read there. I prefer being invited to trying to book a reading. Peter and I eventually took different paths, but I give him a lot of credit for throwing open the doors to a part of the literary world my own travels hadn't brought me to because I've been learning something new every day and applying it to my work ever since.
I/AN OTHER resulted from a combination of my literary discoveries through Ganick and my own methods of writing fiction. I wrote it about the time I'd started writing Language Poetry, or my version of it. It's probably the strangest piece I've ever written, and one that I haven't published because I know I went over the deep end with it but I haven't been able to figure out if I made it all the way back, so to speak. It's a totally improvised piece that stages a "boxing match" between Edmund Husserl and Jean Paul Sartre over whether the formation of the ego precedes consciousness (Husserl) or consciousness precedes the formation of the ego (Sartre). Dan Queen, based loosely on a notorious boxing figure, promotes the fight with an abundance of hype, fractured grammar and malapropisms—and, I think, a brief change of gender. The narrator also attends a jazz event in which a character initially viewed as "Talking Legs" becomes, in full view, a Glamour Blonde in the Marilyn Monroe tradition. The woman also doubles as a Round Card Girl and a fight judge, whose scoring of the match gets called into question. She also becomes entangled with Leroy Duke, a noted jazz saxophonist who's accused of killing a fan, and who may have escaped prosecution by going into hiding and resurrecting himself as Dan Queen. The actual murder is never revealed, but contradictory headlines abound along with rumors. And the narrator, as author and participant, writes from the moment of creation, his provisional position adding to the uncertainty of the textual changes. The Glamour Blonde's identity changes with each rumor, and her name and status change according to the changes of circumstance. At one point, a newspaper speculates that she's a Princess, something like Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a patron to Thelonious Monk and many other famous jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s. At one point, the fight promotion degenerates into a much-hyped mud wrestling event. Throughout the twists and turns, the author is aware of himself as creator of a work in process and a part of the process as he bounces between the realities he's created for himself, however fictional. The role of the author in relation to the narrator in the work is one of the questions that runs throughout the work. The author becomes a marginal participant in the story the narrator is trying to tell. The author is an offscreen character, like Charlie in the Charlie's Angels television series. In college, the professors always raised the question: Can you trust the narrator? In a mocking way, I challenge the author's credibility, as well. Maybe it's my reading of Bertolt Brecht surfacing in a way that reminds me that artifice can be an integral part of reality and that reality is in the eye of the beholder. In case this ever gets published, I'll keep the ending secret. But in the course of writing this work, I created Governor A. Wright Wingnut, who's a key figure in The Inspector and Bubbles LaFlamme, a carryover of the Glamour Blonde into a more prominent role in Commercial Fiction.
The Inspector is a novel that I've wrestled with since 1994 and haven't come up with a version that works for me yet.
Some of my books seem to require hardly any rewriting, while others require tons of it. IMPROVISATIONS really was an improvisation; in preparing it for publication, I changed no more than twenty five words. Commercial Fiction was pretty complete as a first draft when I wrote it in 2000. Two years later, when I decided to publish it, I reread it about twenty times and changed about twenty words each time through. That's not a lot, about one full page. But the little changes here and there made a big difference, not in the main flow of the manuscript, but in clarifying or adding more life to different scenes.
The Inspector deals with Gonzo Vortek, a civil servant struggling through an agency reorganization so protracted that the workers are emotionally exhausted from working in daily uncertainty about what position they'll have and where they'll be transferred. The Commissioner is based on a composite of several commissioners I worked for, one of whom had quite a reputation as a seductress among the higher ranking staff. Fair's fair; most of the male commissioners, if not fancying themselves great studs, usually managed at least one affair in their term and one found two of his girlfriends brawling in the hall outside his office. A lot of people in either gender find power sexy. In this case, why not a woman instead of a man? Commercial Fiction , another novel based in part on my former day job, is loaded with promiscuous male executives using one line or another to seduce their female staff. In The Inspector, Commissioner Vanna Morph uses her affliction of "multiple body disorder," borrowed from "I Was a Politically Incorrect Poster boy!", to wow her managerial staff and monitor her employees. Her excesses can, at times, resemble the promises Hasan i Sabbah made to his cult of "assassins." A Wright Wingnut, from I/AN OTHER , appears as a newly elected governor and a leader in welfare reform. The Commissioner is, after a fashion, an executive in the mold of Condoleeza Rice: brilliant, doggedly loyal to the governor, and utterly ruthless. The work environment is dehumanized. The novel begins with the Commissioner addressing staff via videotape recording, not personal appearance. Gonzo Vortek, already burned out, gets bored and starts writing a Captain Nookie episode on a computer. At this point, I'm not sure that Captain Nookie's appearance in the novel is as much a problem as the lack of development in some other characters. Since the novel is based almost entirely in the work environment, it's difficult to show some character traits outside the office. I'm going to need to rearrange some scenes, maybe add others. As I said, I started this in 1994, never got a good handle on it, and put it away. When I retired in November 2000, it was one of the first things I tackled after writing a 96 page section of IMPROVISATIONS . I can't remember what kind of headway I was making when on January 1, 2001, Prof. Zhang Ziqing asked me to compile an anthology of Post Beat Poetry for translation and publication in China. Zhang and the late Prof. Wen Chu- an and I had been discussing the possibility of doing such a book. The word came down on January 1 that I had three months to compile the anthology. I dropped the novel and worked almost exclusively on the anthology, except for short poems. From then on, I got so involved in writing poetry that I didn't go back to the novel until about a year ago. I decided the scope was too far-ranging and cut out elements that I think could make another, more tightly focused novel about a different subject. And I think the narrowed range of material for The Inspector might allow me to make it workable. But I'm going to have to commit myself completely to it for a while, wrestle the alligator, so to speak. And I just might discover it's not workable, anyway. I hate to leave work unfinished. As you can see, though, I've left a lot of it and the experience of writing a work, if not completing it, has definitely developed my craft, but not my corpus. But when I was 28 I realized that I had to overcome my tendency to leave work uncompleted, and managed to do it with The Breedlust Cycle , Relic's Reunions and Commercial Fiction , as well as my books of poetry. But I was also trying to overcome what may have been a Tourettic tendency to leave projects unfinished. It's one of the listed symptoms.
My mother, who had Tourette Syndrome, largely in remission and misdiagnosed as St. Vitus's Dance, a number of times signed up for typing courses that would improve her chances of getting a better job, but she dropped out of them to take care of me, because she was tired, and for other reasons I can't say I really remember. And with a half-dozen or so unpublished novels and a handful of completed short stories at age 28, I knew I had to finish what I started or just continue function as a word engine without a transmission or drive train. So, I'm hoping to finish The Inspector . But if I don't do it this go-round, I'll have to move on. I'm not young enough to keep rewriting old material when I have plenty of new ideas.
RC In what ways has your poetry changed & evolved since the publication of Demolition Fedora in 2000? Give some specific examples of this change in the works from 2000 to the present.
VF It's changed in many ways, and I employ graphic elements more frequently. Demolition Fedora was my first collection of language centered poems. I used my basic "projective" style to write the poems and tried to write with even more of a musicality than I did in my earlier work. Language-centered writing can allow you to focus on sound because the requirement for literal meaning has been removed or reduced. In allowing the sound of the language to create a flow, I find that sounds of words eventually move toward some kind of sense, the way tributaries head toward a river. Instead of my controlling the expression, though, I let the expression take its own course as it flows through me. I assume an entirely different role in relation to my work, serving more as a guide to my receptors than a creator of a specific "message."
After Demolition Fedora, I worked concurrently on several books: IMPROVISATIONS , of course, but also Bodied Tone and Holiday Idylling, as well as Avenue Noir and a short series of poems called "Score # 1 for Synthesizing," based on fusing sex and electronic music. Bodied Tone was the best phrase I could think of to explain the poems that I was writing in that collection. Tone or sound was a key component, and language and line shaping added body to the tone. Holiday Idylling is a series of poems inspired by Stephen Ratcliffe's spaces in the light said to be where one/comes from. I selected words that would create a pastoral effect, maybe some moments of love and longing, and used them in each poem, probably the only formal restriction I've imposed on my work in recent years. These books were language-centered, although Holiday Idylling was probably less so.
IMPROVISATIONS opened up everything else. I pulled out all the stops and pushed the limits of WordPerfect for nearly 700 pages. The deeper I went into the work, the more I delved into different font sizes and different fonts, to create a variety of textures on the page. To continue the improvisational buildup, I had to move into areas where I increasingly employed graphic elements. At times, pages became "pure" visual poetry, its effect to be determined not so much by the text as the visual "assault" on the reader—images that dominate the page in a way that renders the text secondary. In other sections, I found myself breaking words into phonetic groups that require the reader to find the meanings by interpreting different fonts, including the webdings that head toward the glyptic.
With IMPROVISATIONS, I took a step from language-centered poetry into a poetry that incorporated concrete poetry and visual poetry as well, so that I fused several traditions and, I hope, extended them into new areas. Avenue Noir, written in the same period, did something IMPROVISATIONS didn't do. It incorporated prose as well as language-centered and visual poetry. Inspired somewhat by the structure of Thomas Bynum's Hecatomb , I borrowed and modified one of its organizing principles. Bynum alternated a page of prose with a page of poetry. The page of prose contained two story lines, one of which eventually subsumed the other. I chose a less complex approach, changing first person narrators with every page of prose. The context of the narrator's comments tell you who the narrator is and what's going on. The juxtaposed pages of prose and poetry have aural and topical relations to each other, even though the poetry is abstract and largely language and visually- centered. I thought I should mention Avenue Noir because it's not a work a lot of people have read and because it's a very good thumbnail sketch of the range of what I do, as well as a telling (I like to think) commentary on urban life.
Since I completed and published IMPROVISATIONS in 2005, I've written four books of poetry, three longpoems and a collection of shorter poems. In trying to advance beyond what I did in IMPROVISATIONS, I've had to move from word processing to desktop publishing software to create new effects, devices and textures that I can use in my work. EMBLEMATIC MOON, the longpoem that immediately followed IMPROVISATIONS was done in WordPerfect, but contains more visual elements than IMPROVISATIONS. Sections of it have appeared in Otoliths and Mad Hatter's Review. Styling Sanpaku is a collection of shorter poems that I wrote primarily using Quark Xpress, although several WordPerfect and PageMaker poems appear in there, as well. Quark allows me to make graphic designs and rotate text in ways that WordPerfect doesn't. The poetry has the basic structure of my earlier work, but it's more visual and at times can look like a kind of Pop art. I don't layer text as often as I did in IMPROVISATIONS. The graphics allow me to do things in addition to them. * , which I wrote after EMBLEMATIC MOON, is a meditation on the asterisk and the implication of its various meanings, from something special to something reduced to a qualification that makes it less desirable. I think I wrote the work entirely in Quark. I wanted to title something using a symbol in place of a word, and the asterisk offered the most potential to work with.
In a slightly different vein, I've begun to work with more open structures. After you raised the question of whether IMPROVISATIONS was a work designed to be read from start to finish or to be dipped into and some people seem to be reading it that way—fine by me, as long as they read it—I thought about what you said and eventually composed a work titled Any Moment , a longpoem designed with fewer sustained sections of development and more pages of immediate impact, so that the reader can choose to go from one moment to any other moment, from page one to page two or from seventeen to sixty-three. The reader can determine the journey from one moment to the next, even though I've given one boilerplate presentation by virtue of binding the text. Any Moment also employs several graphic shapes of my own that I use to hint at seemingly inexpressible meanings. To me, at least, they make increasing sense as they appear throughout the work, and their presence becomes as important as the actual text in determining the "environment" of the page. All of these books are ready for publication. All they need is a final run-through for typos or incorrect tab spacings and other minor matters.
As I've moved from WordPerfect into Desktop publishing, I've found that my approach has become more compositional because the complexity of the formatting prevents me from zipping from one page to the next. While my approach is still improvisational at the core, I have to strike an even closer balance between the aural and the visual, and I find myself working at half the pace I'm accustomed to, and, therefore, more deliberately.
This exploration of the visual has led me in two creative directions, so to speak: forward and backward. In the forward sense, I've been composing visual poetry in, ahem, Technicolor. Remember: in February 2005 Carlos Luis had curated and held an exhibit of Visual Poetry at Sevigny Gallery in Miami. While I was acknowledged in Carlos's dedications, I wasn't included in the exhibit, primarily because I didn't know I was writing "visual" poetry and so didn't submit any work. I didn't think of what I was doing in names or labels, I was just doing it. But in March 2005, as I was preparing to publish IMPROVISATIONS, Michael Rothenberg took several of the last pages of IMPROVISATIONS and held them against the wall of his dining room. Thanks to him, I saw that they could hang on the wall in a frame, and that kind of work actually was visual poetry. He showed me in that moment that IMPROVISATIONS required an 8.5 " x 11" publication, not the standard size trade paperback, to show the work to full effect. Realizing that I had been doing visual poetry without knowing it made me want to do visual poetry while knowing it. So I moved forward in that I began working with color and elements of graphics. Blackbox has published a fair number of my visual poems. Some are up on www.vispoets.com and in other online magazines, including a special section of colorized panels from IMPROVISATIONS in last year's issue of Big Bridge. So, this has been another area I've been working in, but I'll need to learn new software to advance beyond what I'm currently doing.
As I said, all of my advances are making me move backward, at least at times. While preparing Bodied Tone for publication, I found that I missed the comparative simplicity of what I'd been doing with strictly language-centered poetry. Lately I've been writing a lot of left-margin poems in which I can enjoy the flow of language and I’ll probably work in the older areas as well as the new.
RC You've briefly mentioned Avenue Noir which was published in 2004 by Xpressed. Elaborate on it in some detail. I find it a compelling and eclectic piece in both its form & content. How would you classify it?
VF Other than one of the best things I've ever done, I'm not sure. Avenue Noir combines prose, visual poetry, language poetry and even quick cuts of hip-hop into an abstract collage that shows urban street life after dark. That life was a strong component of my writing in the 80s and early 90s, whether I wrote prose, plays or poetry. Avenue Noir touches on my younger, wilder days, which grow increasingly distant in the rearview mirror. So, it strikes a nerve not far from my "core," for lack of a better term. It hits on everything but the jazz, which the language in the book probably takes care of to some degree, anyway. In its own way, I'm as proud of it as I am of IMPROVISATIONS. When David Meltzer read it and emailed me: "Avenue Noir kicks ass!" I felt really honored because he's so incredible a poet. I value his imprimatur highly.
Originally, I had the title, Avenue Noir , in my head, nothing more. Then, I started with a watermark that said "NEON" in faint lettering, as it might appear during the transition from day to night. The opening pages describe the night coming to life as "glossolalia after dark" with its "Babel of tongues" creating a variety of social contrasts, "a collage of sensibilities" all hustling for kicks, survival, or both on the gritty street. Some of the rhyming passages that read like hip-hop are street corner or sidewalk voices hawking whatever aspect of "the life" they're trying to sell. The opening pages lead to "The Mysteries of Avenue Noir," the prose sections that alternate with the poetry. The narrators of the prose pages are a guy with a laptop who gets mugged by a homeless person, a homeless person hiring a hooker, a hooker arguing with a john, a drug dealer, an older man holed up in a topless bar, a jazz musician looking to score some weed from a fan in the audience, a wealthy john looking for a hooker, a cop busting a john, a literary theorist being pushed to resume a former gig as an Elvis impersonator, a druggie facing a dealer's rage when he comes up short on the money, an office worker destroying incriminating documents, a guy getting beaten for not having enough money to satisfy his robber, a chamber music group trying to perform over the volume of the rock band in the club below where they're performing, a leader of a group of criminals sensing that his younger hoods are losing respect for him, and finally a writer whose comments fade into the body of the poem as the prose section completes itself by a kind of uncompleted description that circles almost to the beginning of the prose narrative. The poem itself makes references to Ur, the cradle of civilization, a kind of running commentary that suggests this world is either a far cry from the Ur we read about in high school or is the real world revealed without its pretensions. The neon watermark gains in prominence as the work progresses, adding other words until the final four pages appear superimposed over neon messages that flicker, so to speak, like the lights behind where the action is taking place. It's a fusion of visual and textual poetry.
To publish Avenue Noir, I had to do extensive re-formatting. The printer of xPress(ed)'s books has standards that forced me to narrow the margins and delete some of the text so that I could retain the formatting. After the book was published, I was able to restore some of the material I had to delete, i.e, recreate the original manuscript, but the original manuscript never replaced the one available at Lulu.com. Because of the complexity of my layouts, I've become my own best typesetter, but doing line by line reformatting, which I did with Avenue Noir, can be a very difficult job when you write your work as a book instead of a manuscript. It's a habit I got into when I realized that more often than not I was going to be my own publisher. On the other hand, if anybody wants to publish my work after I'm gone, they'll have a lot of facsimile copies to work with, which should make the job easier.
RC You mentioned Commercial Fiction earlier and how it was pretty much complete as a first draft. Why do you think that Commercial Fiction came so easy for you? Explain its plot and method of composition and what made its composition different from the other works of its genre.
VF I really don't know. It still puzzles me. Aside from mouthing clichés like I was "locked in" or "in the zone," I can only speculate. Like I think I said earlier, some pieces have come to me very easily, others have needed as many as thirty-five drafts. After putting a lifetime into writing, I like to think that some of the ease comes simply from having my craft under the kind of control that comes from writing regularly for forty years or longer. A lot of it really comes from envisioning the material clearly, if not in advance, than at the very moment you're writing it. Commercial Fiction was an improvisation based on turning the concept of commercial fiction upside down. Writing or reading about rich, powerful people has never interested me, probably because the people I've met whom others considered rich and powerful were people I generally considered uninteresting and lacking integrity. In Commercial Fiction I lampooned them and, under a banner that promises to meet the traditional expectations, I take off on a twenty-four hour parody of a day of life lived as part of daily television programming.
Commercial Fiction is a concept book starting with the cover. The cover artist, Joe Shea, also known as the joey Zone, parodied the typical best selling paperback's cover. I placed two pages of bogus reviews before the title page, using imaginary newspapers and reviewers' names. A few weeks ago I saw that somebody had posted it as real blurbs praising the novel. (I hope nobody really believes I teach at Florida Pacific University; the place doesn't exist.) From there, I take the reader into a situation drawn from my own life as an author scuffling to get his work sold through authors events at chain bookstores, then begin the novel proper with the nameless narrator waking (presumably) and going to work. In this section I used graphics on one page to create billboards along a highway that has text running down both sides. Like my poetry, a lot of my fiction contains visual elements. Commercial Fiction contains more visual elements than most of my fiction.
What's it about? I never seem to be able say simply what my work is "about." When I write, I'm in the middle of it and I don't get an overview till later, sometimes months, sometimes decades. One day you pick up the book by chance and say "Ohhh….that's what that was really about." A key part of Commercial Fiction is about the creative process itself and the relation of the author and the narrator to the work. There are a few illusion vs. reality questions: Is the narrator is writing at home or at work? Is this a fictive dream or is this really happening? Another theme is greed and power and the banality behind it, as evidenced by Ralph Putz, who begins the novel as a professional Role Model who wears a button that says "Showing Up is 100% of Life" and grows in power in an absurd way not unlike the Ionesco play in which a room becomes filled with more and more furniture. Through the morning news and game shows, the 12 o'clock news and afternoon soaps and talk shows, and evening and late-night programming, a plot of sorts exists. A set of tapes that establishes the cultural programming of the novel's mainstream has been misappropriated, and the narrator and his boss have to find it. So, the narrator, in his day job, has to recover the lost tapes and use them to protect the status quo. The book is loaded with office sex and affairs among the rich and the powerful. The narrator has an infatuation with Bubbles LaFlamme, the Glamour Blonde who first appeared under a variety of names in I/AN OTHER. I've cast many of the incidents as television shows or commercials between segments. A number of characters launch into commercial sales pitches to advance their situations.
Commercial Fiction differs from my other work in that it employs more screenplay formatting than my other fiction, which also uses play and screenplay formatting. For me, the shift from narrative to dialogue creates an immediacy of experience: show, not tell. Since Commercial Fiction is based on a 24-hour television programming schedule, the shifts to screenplay format seemed both natural and necessary to the work. On some level, I suppose, it allows me to write in the dramatic format that I enjoyed when I wrote my unproduced plays. But I don't think the scenes would work as effectively if I wrote them in the conventional narrative format.
Again, this work was totally improvised except for the touch-ups I made, changing ten or twenty words on each rereading. I followed my basic practice of "leaping over the edge" and trying to write my way back. And I did set some serious challenges for myself. Having the host of "Good Morning, Audience" kill himself in the novel's second chapter really gave me something to work my way back from. But it gave Ralph Putz his first opportunity to become more than a professional Role Model while the Host enjoys a prosperous afterlife making TV commercials.
As far as how it differs from other work in the genre, which I guess is related to the Avant Pop or Slipstream writing that Fiction Collective and its successor FC2 have produced, I'm not sure. Stephen-Paul Martin regarded it as a send-up of the postmodern novel and thanked me for writing it because now he didn't have to. So, I'd guess that while it addresses postmodern aesthetic concerns, its tone is even more mocking than what you might find in Ishmael Reed, David Foster Wallace, Curtis White or Mark Amerika's fiction. The only other thing I can think of is that it's a very energetic work. On the infrequent occasions I take it out and look through it, the language seems so alive that I expect the book to start bouncing in my hands. But I can't say I'm totally objective here. When I finished it, I had no idea what I'd done. Stephen Paul Martin's comments helped explain what I'd done.
RC You've made passing reference to a Tourette journal that you wrote a few years back. Would you consider it a work of literature to see publication or a work from the more personal side?
VF When I wrote it, I intended it to be a non-fictional work that I could try to sell to a publisher. At the time I was writing it, I had a lot of distractions, and I never felt the work flowed right. I haven't had the chance to look at it, so I can't say how good or bad it is. Other projects just keep coming up, and I guess this one got pushed back by ideas that I found more interesting. I also have some concern that if a major publisher took it, I would be categorized as a "Tourette Syndrome writer" and pigeonholed in a way that would prevent my best work from receiving proper exposure. There's also the chance that Tourette wouldn't be this year's favored disease, that editors would say the books written on Tourette, fiction and nonfiction, have already covered the market. I had a commercial purpose in mind, but the work didn't come out the way I wanted and writing my other, apparently noncommercial work gives me greater satisfaction.
The book itself was about my receiving an informal diagnosis from our friend Dia Winograd and all the things that were going on in my life while I was being diagnosed, and how the diagnosis affected my life after I received it. I met a lot of interesting people during that period and some have become friends of some years' standing. I haven't really thought about going back to see if I should revise it and go through the agent game one more time.
As a person with Tourette, I believe—hell, I know—that some of my writing, the way I use the page, maybe a certain quickness of mind, comes from the characteristics Tourette has given me. But again, as big a part of Tourette is in my life—and it's huge—I don't want my work, neurologically informed though it may be, to be defined by my condition alone. I study my craft and work at it. Let's not be, as they say, reductive.
RC So with the publication of Bodied Tone this year, what is slated for 2008 and after? Do you have any plans for finishing all those unfinished torso manuscripts you mentioned? How about a memoir as a culminating opus of sorts, one that ties all the disparate threads you brought up together?
VF I try not to talk to much about work I haven't begun or finished. I try to save the energy for the work itself. But, in addition to writing poetry, I have some fiction and a nonfiction piece in the works. They're not going to be easy, but I'm hoping that I can make them into good pieces. I also have some ideas for new poetry books, but I want to clarify my thinking about the projects before I take them on. I'm also thinking of self-publishing one of my four unpublished poetry manuscripts, either EMBLEMATIC MOON or STYLING SANPAKU. If one of the new poetry projects turns out the way I'd like it to, I might publish that. But if I put out too many books in too short a time, I'll spend more time on production and promotion than on writing.
I'm also looking for new venues for my work. A number of magazines that used to publish me regularly have ceased publication, and the new magazines I've looked at and submitted to appear to be more conservative in their tastes. Maybe it's just a cycle. Remember: I wrote a lot of poems and fiction in the 1980s that almost kept the Postal Service solvent while I collected rejection slips. Then, around 1991, almost everything that had been circulating for years got accepted in a very short time span.
I'd like to do more visual poetry, and possibly publish a book of it, not necessarily in 2008, but sometime in the next few years.
As far as going back to finish some of the old manuscripts. . . If I tried to rewrite every one of them, I could spend my life working on them and not finish all of them. I do want to try working on a few of them. I have two of them in mind, but I'd rather not say which ones. Looking over the ancient, nearly forgotten manuscripts for this interview, I found a few others that might have possibilities. Some of them, though, seem too dated to rewrite unless I can modify my approach to them. It's hard to say what I'll do because I still get a lot of new ideas and they excite me enough to take precedence over the old ones. All my life it seems I've been living Dylan's line from "Maggie's Farm": "I got a head full of ideas that would drive a man insane." My job is to keep myself sane by writing as many of them as I can. And there always seems to be more than I have time to write, so I'm fortunate that my well hasn't dried up.
As far as a memoir, I have mixed feelings on the subject. You have to understand that it took me until I passed my midlife crisis before the literary world—or some people in it, anyway—started to give my work serious attention. Based on the number of awards I receive annually and the number of telephone calls I receive offering me huge sums of money to read my work to throngs of eager listeners, I don't think the world will figure out my work for another twenty years, maybe even fifty, assuming it lasts and that somebody with literary influence gets excited over my work, wherever they find it. By then, I expect to be long gone and that most of the people I've known will be too. While I can't at this moment imagine anyone writing my biography, I know they won't have a lot to work with if I don't write something myself. The circumstances of my life have left me so isolated in many instances that I'm the only person left who can say what happened at certain points in my life. Living with Tourette Syndrome has been an immense factor in my isolation. I've discovered that people tend to make the disabled, the different and the weird invisible, probably to ease their own discomfort. As a result, a number of people I've encountered don't remember that I was right next to them at some big or outrageous event. In effect, other people have edited me out of their personal histories. Then there are the people in the arts who I've fallen out with, who have rewritten parts of their personal histories to eliminate my role in it. It does appear that the only way I could be sure people in the future understand what I've done and the barriers that have prevented me from doing much more would be to write a huge memoir, just to provide childhood information, mention people who've influenced me or damaged me in some way and to explain what I see as my role in certain things that I never received proper credit for. So, it seems that the only way I could get my story right—or at least right enough for others to examine from their own perspectives—would be to write it myself. Getting It Right would almost have to be the title. But in this interview, I've discovered that time, aging and information overload have made my memories of the past more difficult to place chronologically or to remember in great detail. It's also reminded me that I've had enough embarrassing moments or situations in my life that I might feel more comfortable letting them fade into history and hope instead that people come to regard me highly as an author "about whom little biographical information is available." Between my doubts and the number of projects already to be worked on, I have no idea whether I'll ever write a memoir. But I do appreciate your giving me the opportunity to talk about my past work and how the various contexts I've lived in have affected it. I hope it explains my work for the readers who are interested in it, and that it interests other readers enough to make them want to read it.