Late this Spring, APIARY had the pleasure of interviewing Gabriel Ojeda-Sague about his newest book from The Operating System, Jazzercise is a Language. What follows is a trimmed transcription of that conversation, and you can also listen to the full, unabridged interview on our Soundcloud.
Jazzercise is a Language is an elastic, sweat-inducing spooky valentine to the Jazzercise movement, lunging headlong into the concept of "fitness" and the desires that fitness movements invoke in us: to fit in, to transform, to be obliterated and remade in another's image by letting an outer ideal invade your home, your daily rituals, your body and your inner world. In this invaded space, Ojeda-Sague rearranges the furniture of daily language around Jazzercise's manic vocabulary of the body, pushing the two together in a tautly structured, rigorously perfected poetic form. Within the walls of that faultless form, the author as exerciser smilingly throws himself, over and over, against the failures of "fitting in": the failure of striving towards an ideal that intrinsically rejects you, and the faltering authority of the institution imposing that ideal.
Ojeda-Sague became intrigued by the Jazzercise movement when he first witnessed clips from the home workout videos of Jazzercise's founder, Judi Sheppard Missett. In these memefied YouTube artifacts, the casual but commanding physicality and off-beat strangeness of Jazzercise became a gateway for Ojeda-Sague to probe past the novelty and ask harder questions about the human form, intimacy, place, race, gender and sexuality, all struggling against a pastel taffy cocoon of 80's VHS nostalgia as Ojeda-Sague decodes Jazzercise through a lovingly critical modern lens.
Like a good workout, Jazzercise is a Language builds, challenges, and transforms its narrative in clearly defined, deftly choreographed movements that you can follow along at home -- if you do the work to keep up. These shape-shifting poems create a world with a rare porosity, one that allows the reader to hold a long, difficult stretch across time, bodies, homes and boundaries: a shoulder blade cutting in and out of your living room; your hand plunging deep into Richard Simmons' curls.
S: How did the idea of Jazzercise is a Language begin?
G: Back in 2015 my brother sent me a video from the Found Footage Festival, which is not a festival to my knowledge. It was a montage of Judi Sheppard Missett saying a bunch of stuff. It was captioned something like, “This 80s Jazzerciser is like a Kristen Wigg character.” It kind of is like that, it has that energy. I thought it was really funny and I started showing my friends. That clip was very funny for sure, but it also was kind of ominous. I just started noting some of the specific things she was saying and how weird I found them. The one I always bring up as an example is, “If you’re smiling I know you’re breathing.” It’s anything you could flip the meaning a little bit and it would sound much more disturbing. I was like, “What’s going on in this language?” It starts with, “What is she saying?” As I was thinking about that I was thinking more about what that looked like to the five white women in a half-diamond position doing exercise. I was like, “What is this? Why am I intrigued by it?”
I was just writing in a notebook which I usually don’t do. I started thinking about what was intriguing me about the videos. I think what’s interesting to me is this racial dynamic that I feel both attracted to and left out of. And a gender dynamic that I feel both attracted to and left out of. Almost a version of jealousy. And of course the campy funniness of it. Once I had that down I thought that this could be a tenable book project. I emailed Julia Bloch who was, at that point, a professor at the Kelly Writers House. I emailed her with my idea and was like “I know you do independent studies, I know people can do independent studies. Can we do an independent study together?” She was like, “Yeah! We’re going to make a reading list and you’re going to send me weekly responses and you’re gonna send me drafts at these dates.” I was like, “Oh! This is going to have structure!” She took it seriously. My last semester at Penn was when I was doing a bulk of the writing. So it starts late 2015 and after the semester ended I worked on it for a bit longer; it ends probably July 2016. The official release was March 2018.
Operating System came to me by word of mouth. Ariel Resnikoff was the first person who came to me and was like, ‘I think this would be a good press for your book.’ Davy Knittle mentioned it to me, then Roberto Harrison mentioned it to me. I was talking to him about the book and saying I was having trouble finding a press for it and he said, “Oh I’m going to send it to the Operating System.” He’s kind of the reason it gets to them. I didn’t do the submission myself… The Operating System works differently from other presses in the sense that, to my knowledge, they don’t hold contests. You don’t get a spot because you won a spot. It’s a more collaborative publishing process. Lynne and I had some conversations about it and I decided that was what I was going to go for.
A: How would you phrase your initial Jazzercise thesis? How would you then say that changed over time? How did the shift in forms help that argument develop, or change its development?
G: My thesis is basically, Jazzercise is a project in which a white women takes a large set of cultural practices that would most notably include jazz music and flattens them for the specific purpose of creating a thing that makes bodily movement, exercise, physical literacy, easier and more accessible to (usually) middle class white women. On top of that flattening though is added a thick veneer of hyper-affirmative lingo. You can do it. You’re doing amazing. This is awesome. You love it. I love it. Constantly beating over your head that you’re having a great time. As sinister as I think parts of it can be, I think it’s amazingly well done. I have a lot of respect for the techniques of it, though I’m very critical of its ideology.
Now that’s what I would say about the medium, but I also have a thesis in regards to myself as a spectator. I was interested in saying what it was like for me to watch these videos in 2016 - male, Latino, gay, gender-discordant. What was my viewing experience like? I wasn’t losing weight. I wasn’t doing the exercises. I was just watching. It’s a very specific kind of viewing experience. My thesis there is basically, I felt this attraction to the modes being put forward in the videos, in the way that gay men often idolize white women’s art, music, movement, things like that - and, at the same time, realize that I wasn’t under that umbrella. At least not Judi Sheppard Missett’s. I don’t think I would be included in Judi Sheppard Missett’s perfect world, but I thought that it looked amazing. That it felt good. I wanted to see what not fitting in would feel like for me. Since the book is so much about “fit” (exercise, fitness, the fit of clothing), my fitting in was this monstrous thing on the side that I wanted to center.
I started with the idea of the structure of the first section, which is justified prose blocks with phrases or sentences divided by colons. That was my initial structure because I thought that it had two things; one, a kind of “fit” to it; secondly, I thought it would be a space were I could put in a really complicated internal architecture so you could see the paragraph moving within itself. That was something I really respected about work like Sade Murphy’s or Harryette Mullen’s. Something I wanted to see if I could do.
At page like 40, I thought I was running out of material. In the first section I was very explicit about my argument. I say, basically, “This is what I think.” Come page 50 I don’t think I have anything else. I started testing ideas and and it came into these crescent moons, where the left column is this very abstracted verbal collage thing and the right column is instructions - very concrete, very plainly said. I loved Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and Acorn. I read a lot of CA Conrad. The Judi Sheppard Missett stuff is so instructional - do this, do that - I was wondering, “What if you can’t? What if your body’s not good at this stuff? What if you’re one step off?” The instructions get a little crazy towards the end.
The third section is sort of word vomit [laughs]. I ended up talking a lot about food in that section. I say it’s like vomit, but it’s also gobbling up. I wanted it to be more explicitly Latino. It came basically because I thought I had exhausted the form. Sometimes I decide that a poem ends because I get to a line and I realize I don’t have anything else to say.
S: Do you feel like you were growing and changing as the structure of the book was changing? I feel like the beginning of the book was laying out the rules of Jazzercise, then building that structure, and, by the end, you were rejecting it in a lot of ways. I saw that in the eating, in the indulgence, but we also got a closer look at your life and your feelings towards masculinity and femininity.
A: In the middle section there’s a tension between those two things. I feel like in some of the crescent moons we get glimpses of your personal life, juxtaposed by these ritualistic instructions which become more surreal. Cut out your friends. Your life. Burn down your house. This will help you achieve a perfect torso.
G: I think the last section drops a character. I think the first section and the second section I’m speaking as a Jazzerciser, [or] sometimes I’m speaking as myself. Towards the end, I abandon the idea of speaking as a Jazzerciser. It is more personal, but it’s also much more frantic. It’s a little harder to read, it’s a little less legible. The first section, this is the wrong word, but it’s stoic. I’m very planned out, I know what I want to say. At the end, I had this feeling that I wanted it to be longer, I wanted more. What are the leftovers of my argument? What’s in the shadow of my argument that I wanted to bring out? I talk about islands, I talk about food, high school, weirdly – all these things that were coming into my mind but weren’t laid out before. Towards the end I dropped a character and the only time I picked it back up was at the end, like, “We had a great session! Come back next time!” That’s a false move, too. It keeps talking and it ends on, “...june sky / parking lot long summer the evil eye.”
A: Why was the evil eye your final image?
G: I liked having a first line and a last line of each section that was the same. The first section and the last both have “Again: the sound of a body being thrown to the / ground four to the floor”; the second section, the left hand column, both end with “the mark that I was there.” In the last section, “Parking lot long summer the evil eye,” I imagined this very hot parking lot being watched over. The idea of a hot car is what I feel like that section looks like to me, a metallic, hot, uncomfortable, but intimate place. There’s also a moment where I imply being in a car with a friend that I want to have sex with. The story of my high school experience is straight men that I was in love with. I was imagining being in a car next to that person and this desire between us that was only in my mind. The air is tense because I have this desire; in his mind it’s totally calm and normal.
A: This connects to the feeling of, “Oh I think this is great, but would I be included in this person’s perfect world?” The first parts of the book are so structured and that works because Jazzercise is these perfectly geometric, choreographed patterns. It’s giving people structure and rigor around their body and minds. The final turn in the book is great because you can’t get there without building up to it: without the tidy boxed structures of the first section, and then this more conflicted structuring in the second part with these side-by-side crescents, where they’re in conversation with each other but also more disjointed. I read them simultaneously as two narratives overlapping and filtering into each other, so they got a little bit entangled and confused, which I liked. Then at the end, for all that structure to fall away, and you just see the person inside -- it creates a great release and honesty.
S: I think the final section might have been my favorite. I felt like I got to know you more as the writer and a person, that was a treat for me. It felt earned because we had arrived there at the right moment.
G: A lot of the things you’re saying about the last section, this feeling of sincerity or non-structured-ness, is almost a false affect. It comes out of this section actually being really structured. I wrote it with a justified margin, and the way that a lot of word processing programs justify text, if a final word in a line is too long, it’ll just move that word over to the next line. It’ll also create very LARGE spaces between words, which is frustrating. So one of the invisible constraints here is that I was trying to keep each line to have similar letter counts, and to have a certain amount of space so no line was too spread out or too clumped up. Sometimes I would have to change the word I was going to use [to keep the lines even]. So there is a kind of internal structure to it, but it gives off the illusion that it’s structureless. I say “word vomit,” but the way it’s shaped is actually very exacting, and the content is a little bit morphed by that.
A: So it’s word-vomit-you flooding out, but then constraining that into a very specific architecture, which is something that comes up all throughout the book. So often, as soon as a specific image of a body comes up, it’s right up against an image of an apartment, or a building, or a room, or a home, like somebody in your home. As you were justifying and writing [that section], did you vomit out the text and THEN justify/structure it, or did you justify and structure as you wrote?
G: I would write and structure as I go. I would set my page to have my form in it, and then I was trying to occupy that space with text, but would sometimes be challenged by the structure. One interesting thing about the structure of the book is Julia Bloch and I would brush up against different aesthetic sensibilities. At one point she said, “I don’t feel like your form is failing at any point.” I was like, “What if my form doesn’t fail? What if it actually succeeds? What if it does exactly what I need it to do?”
The queer art of failure is such a trendy thing. This book is full of failure. The failure of myself to meet an ideal aesthetic goal. I wanted its structure to be right, so its content inside of that structure could do its own kind of failing there. It looks like the text isn’t fitting right, but not in a concrete sense. You look inside the text, and it doesn’t look as handsome as the shape of it.
"I wanted to see what not fitting in would feel like for me. Since the book is so much about “fit” (exercise, fitness, the fit of clothing), my fitting in was this monstrous thing on the side that I wanted to center."
S: I was thinking of fitness in terms of economy and class. It’s so often that the women in the lead, in front of the Jazzercise routine, are white and are taking charge of the procession. Is the process of routine exercise a symbol of class privilege in itself? That these women have the luxury of being able to take care of themselves? Is this an element of privilege and upward economy?
G: The complication is that in the 1980s exercise trends become so big; the ability to do exercises for the first time at home appears. A lot of people who might not have the time to go the gym, go to a class, actually have access to it. It’s a genre of exercise that is very aware of people’s time and ability to commit to it. That’s what I was most interested in. I loved the idea of somebody bringing into their home a tape with a bunch of people saying, “Be like me!” It’s in your territory, on your terms. You’re the one doing it. You usually have to move furniture to make space for yourself to do the exercise. At home you have the option of doing it badly or not choosing to do that move because it “makes me look stupid.” In a class everybody has to do the same thing. On your own you can do what’s not on the screen. I was just watching these videos. It’s the weird experience of being on my bed and this woman going, “You’re doing awesome!” I’m like, “I haven’t done anything thank you!”
Sometimes I worry that I was being a little unfair. I was being too critical, too hyper-aware of things. I didn’t feel like prey. I felt that I was like, I can actually do something back to you. She is a person that is very smart, very aware of what she is saying. The language is so specific that I think that's why I picked her over Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons. This book, if written centrally about Richard Simmons, would be very different. He has such a utopian vision; any shape, any size, any age, any color, and you can be in his exercise troop. That’s not who you see in Judi Sheppard Missett’s videos. Jane Fonda was all about the best of the best doing her exercises. Judi Sheppard Missett is kind of the middle. Judi’s language is all about get small. She’s saying you’re getting thinner, you’re getting smaller. I include in the book, “The larger the circle, the smaller the waist.” She’s like moving her hips in a circle.
A: That it’s happening in the home, there's this back-and-forth intimacy there where you’re introducing this person into your most private territory, but then they’re telling you things to do with your body that you want - at the same time it’s transforming you. It’s not so much an exchange, although it might feel conversational [in terms of] what you choose to respond to and not respond to. You know that you are submitting to a process, their dictation of your body. It’s interesting to think about moving the furniture around too, then claiming the space as your own and taking up that space while simultaneously having your body dictated by someone else.
G: I wanted to think of it as a home invader that I consented to. Like a virus I asked for. I wanted to make it seem like it was haunting my house.
A: It’s like you have to invite the vampire in.
G: Yeah exactly. I wanted to make it feel very strange, like it was haunting my house. I have a lot of thoughts in regards to houses and home invasion. My nightmare, like my recurring nightmare is to have home invaders break into my house. When I was a kid that was my biggest fear: “what if somebody’s breaking in”? And my other recurring, home-invasion-adjacent dream is like, people watching me through my windows –
A & S: Ahhhh!
G: I know it’s really creepy! So I think about houses a lot, the borders of a house and what makes us feel secure. I feel very safe in my home, and also I feel very at risk, like what if someone’s gonna screw up my safety? I (maybe unfairly) wanted to enchant Jazzercise with that fear, I wanted it to feel like a home invader. And that’s not natural to it, but it’s a context I wanted to put it in because I thought it would be reactive. It has this almost bathetic quality to it, like the home invader’s going “Great Job! :D”
You’re right that there’s a lot of bodies on buildings, bodies through buildings. That comes from the home issue that we’re talking about, but it also comes from how the Jazzercisers are always implicated in a space in the video. So I read about their studio a lot. Then there’s something else outside of both the home and studio that comes up a lot, and I’m not 100% sure why – that there’s a lot of apartment buildings and a lot of skyscrapers.
A: The “gold-washed office building” –
G: Yeah and like, body parts on top of office buildings. That’s a thing that comes up a lot in Oil & Candle too. There’s a line that’s like “imagine me stretching my thigh over Philadelphia,” and… there’s something weirdly intimate about it but also terrifying? I know some of it came from a specific Jane Fonda tape where she’s doing it on a roof of a building, like it’s a fake roof, like a set that looks like a roof. And I thought it was so funny because that tape comes from the nineties, and in the nineties a lot of this stuff changes more toward like, urban funk or industrial hip-hop and they start exercising in the city — which doesn’t make any f—ing sense, right. People are usually exercising at home or in a gym, not… on a building.
A: Do you think that was a branding attempt to bring more people in? Like, “This isn’t JUST for suburban housewives!”
G: Yes, and it was also “we need to survive,” because it quickly became its own parody and people were making fun of Jazzercise as it was getting as big as it was. Everybody knew that there was a ridiculousness to it, but it was also great, and people loved it for a while . . . but I think that they failed at keeping it alive and bringing it into the 21st century. I think that the Jazzercise brand failed because they did the same actions, just applied to the 90s instead of thinking about what kind of cultural trends mattered in the 90s. And people just didn’t believe it. They started to seem faker and faker.
A: Yeah, because they didn’t change their form at all to change with the times, and change with the people in those times.
G: And they’re still doing the same f—ing moves, too, so it’s just like “Okay everybody sashay sashay!” except the song now is like… a fake Public Enemy beat. It just becomes more and more insincere.
S: Is Judi still alive?
A: She read your book, didn’t she.
G: She did! Okay, well, I think so… Okay this is what happened. Cassie Owens is the Journalist doing the Philly.com coverage, and she was like “I interviewed Judi!” and I said “Really? Why!?” and she said “I have to,” because it’s more of a newspaper kind of story. She said, “Judi says that she hasn’t finished the book yet, but she said that she likes it, and considers herself a supporter of the Arts.” And I was like OH. Thank GOD. I would be very understanding if Judi Sheppard Misset thought that my book was horrible. I actually write it out of a lot of respect for her, but it is very critical of her, and her project, and it basically says that they failed . . . And I write about her and her family members, like her daughter, in ways that I can see someone saying they were inappropriate. I don’t know if she’s read parts of it where I try to become her, or parts of it where I talk about her daughter. So either she has read it to some degree and she does like it, or she hasn’t read it and is just saying that.
A: So in terms of Jazzercise’s failure to adapt to its times and continue to stay relevant/alive, there’s that line, “You think you know us, but you don’t,” which was a re-branding strategy in what… the 90s, aughts?
G: I think that branding strategy was more recent, at least the 21st century.
A: It seems like the tactics are essentially the same, like “Here! We’re doing the same thing, but with a different aesthetic over it.”
G: And their other tagline which I mention in the book is, “Our only throwback is our left hook!” It’s like they keep alluding to the nostalgia, but trying to betray it. It’s interesting because they’re trying to make money off of their memory but also not be confined to it, and the way they’re doing that sounds bratty. They have a problem which is that their name means something very specific. Their name doesn’t mean their company, it means… the 80’s dance aerobic trend that is kind of like, funny and people will do it for costume parties. And exercise nowadays is like… the people who are popular are more extreme, in the sense of CrossFit, P90X kind of thing – so the kind of easygoing exercise of Jazzercise is not trendy anymore.
The thing that people who are into fitness sometimes forget is that what “fit” is and what a “fit” body looks like is constantly changing. What actually makes you a desirable, fit, healthy body is not an actual true thing. It changes every moment, and the goal of the Jazzercise body is very different from the one that we have today. . . . It’s one that does not have many curves, it’s one that is very well balanced, squared in the sense of being aligned, like the body should be almost a perfect rectangle. . . . I actually think the ideal body in Jazzercise is Judi Sheppard Misset’s.
A: It seems like Judi sensed that desires of the public were changing which she couldn’t really change with, because the ideal body presented was the body of the spokesperson, her. To me it also feels like a defensive brattiness around whiteness, and nostalgia around the white body: like the white female ideal of beauty being stripped away and expanded.
G: It doesn’t say anything. It’s like, “you don’t know us”, so okay, why don’t you tell us who you are? Your motto should tell me what your goals are, not what your goals are not.
S: I was thinking about the body as object, and the body as a thing that is shifting and pulling and stretching and changing, and you see that all the time in this book-
A: (it’s like taffy)
S: YEAH it’s like taffy, and it’s also pink like taffy too. Also about the body as armor, as a protective layer, [or] almost a costume that you’re wearing as a performer. So I wanted to ask you what you think the true power of Jazzercise is, and also what its kryptonite would be.
G: If by its power you mean “what makes Jazzercise great”…
S: Like what can it do for the women that it’s trying to assist, other than being thin and square?
G: I think it meets all of your desires without challenging you in almost any way, shape, or form. It takes cultures that you can gain pleasure in without any kind of difficulty, like… the kind of challenge of Jazz and the challenge of Latin music and its history are flattened out into just their simple pleasures. And then exercise that’s as easy as possible; it’s supposed to be a “no pain” kind of regimen. So I think what it tries to sell you is “everything you want, with nothing you don’t want” basically. And you can kind of see it screw up . . . but that’s what I think it gave people and why it was big. That and people like to believe in a cultural movement. The biggest thing that took them down was time, for sure. The nineties are also sort of a difficult political time in which we established new systems of pleasure and value, so… I think people just stopped believing in it.
A: This book, in a way, is bringing it back to relevance. Your narrative and figure in this, as a present-day 2016/17/18 individual interacting with it and not fitting into the norms of the ideal it presents (which is really just… Judi Sheppard Missett) – that to me is the difference between “Jazzercise is a language” and “Jazzercise was a language that we’ve now reduced to a memory-meme.” I’m curious what your relationship is to that sense of time and its being a butt of a joke now, when deciding to devote a book to this and insist on [Jazzercise] as a presence – like “It is a language, and this is what I’m sharing with you as a translator.”
G: I think when somebody reads the book they know that I’m not just doing a throwback. I think sometimes when I describe the book, it sounds like "Oh isn’t that funny, that I wrote a poetry book about Jazzercise,” but I actually take it quite seriously for our current moment. I am interested in talking about its historical place, what I like about it and what it did, but I think it’s a cultural artifact that is relevant for thinking about how American race politics works in small ways today, too. I think the book does a good job of explaining how I feel about that, but I’ve noticed a way in which the book is… very easy to not take seriously. Especially because… again, I say this with all due respect (I’m gonna say that a lot I think): a lot of writers my age or older, especially in New York, also in the Bay Area, who consider themselves post-conceptual, write about pop culture in a way that… sometimes, I don’t think it gets anywhere further than just…
A: ...writing about pop-culture.
G: Yeah. There’s just a lot of writers who are like “Oh, now I’m gonna turn my eye towards pop culture in a way that I’m gonna take it seriously,” but there’s questions about where you get from there. There’s a very good, very negative review of a Ben Fama book that I think explains what I mean quite well. It’s a review of his book Fantasy I think, on the Volta blog. I respect a lot of those people, and I read a lot of their work for this book, you know I was reading Cecilia Corrigan, Felix Bernstein, and Trisha Low who I love. A lot of that work is so good – and a lot of it’s not. So… I think when I talk about this book, some people are like “Oh, you wrote a book about Jazzercise, that’s silly kind of, whatever.” And I try to get people in by doing a silly kind of drag performance, but I’ve been having recent thoughts about it. Recently a woman was at my reading, and I did the performance, and I read the poems, and at the end she goes: “oh I love what you do – and the poems are actually pretty good!”
"The queer art of failure is such a trendy thing. This book is full of failure. The failure of myself to meet an ideal aesthetic goal. I wanted its structure to be right, so its content inside of that structure could do its own kind of failing there."
A: So like the poems as an afterthought.
G: Yeah, and I was like, “Do you think that what I do is this like, drag thing?” Because that’s actually me just trying to have some fun, and trying to get the silliness out of the way at the start. So that’s where I’m starting to have some doubts, but I think that the book does a good job of having fun with it, while also showing the ways in which it brushes up against or directly enacts difficult examples of racialized existence in the United States.
A: I think the drag performance is a very clear, embodied illustration of that idea of trying to fit in, and trying to become that person.
S: This book requires you to tune your ear a little bit differently. It’s a tonal shift I think you have to adjust to, [but] I think that the book’s doing some serious business. In a lot of ways the book feels violent, in that it forces all these things on you in the way that it feels like it’s breaking into your home.
A: Yeah, it’s… a kind of violence that (like you said earlier) you consent to and invite in, because you want to change, you want to become it. So then there’s kind of an annihilation of the true self in order to attain that change.
S: And it’s these women who come home after, you know, working, shoulder pads, rearranging their living room, pushing their furniture out, and they continue to work on themselves, right, while also not being paid as much, maybe not really being respected at work… But also that it [the book] ends in a hot parking lot, in a metal contraption that we call “a car”, right, and that’s like the go-between between the work and the home. So it’s still that larger structure that we’re living in.
A: And what are we trying to force our bodies to fit into: the perfect office environment. That’s where my brain connects like, “Why are there office buildings, why are there corporate structures?” It’s like a corporate enterprise presented to you of the body, and of what your body could become. It’s set in a studio but we know that it’s a CEO leading these exercises, so it does call to mind a certain “Health, INC.” feeling. The body, incorporated. It does also illustrate this sort of… desperate, peppy, nostalgic but at its core also sinister, flailing heat death of white supremacy.
G: I love that.
A: Like the you think you know us but you don’t, my only throwback is my left hook stuff. Which I think is a great way to talk about how whiteness is doin’ these days in America, and how that’s a big part of why Jazzercise has lost its relevance as an art form, but we can still talk to it to see what’s been changing about those ideals in the past two or three decades.
G: Yeah, no, I hope that you’re right. The one thing that I don’t wanna leave out is the actually very successful feminist mission of this stuff. Like this was actually a very important moment for women, and Jazzercise was part of that. It’s a kind of silly part, and it is a very white version of it, but it is part of an equation.
[To Steve]: this is unrelated but it’s kind of funny to me (although I actually meant it very sincerely) that the book ends with a sunset? I think it’s like the “sun… fizzling across the June sky/ parking lot long summer the evil eye.” Like it also ends with a couplet, a rhyme.
A: Very... sweet
G: Yeah it kind of ends with like a sweet strangeness. I wanted it to end like… “we’ve reached the end of the video, and I am actually not in the video, I’m not at home, I’m not watching the video, I’m not doing the exercises – I’m in a car. And the sun is setting, just kind of… hanging out.” It’s a funny way of ending it.
A: It’s vaguely like... Shakespearean? Weirdly? [Gabe laughing] No, no, hear me out! Like you were saying earlier [To Steve] that your mind has to do a kind of “tuning period” before it adjusts to the language of Jazzercise is a Language. The same thing happens with people going to see a Shakespeare play: there’s an “adjustment period” of a few minutes as your mind gets used to processing the words in that version of your language. And then Shakespeare plays will often close with a sort of Puckish narrator doing an epilogue like “thank you for joining us on this romp,” right, sort of framing it and calling attention to… not the falseness of it, but this contained world, like this was not real, but I am the narrator and I am real here with you on this actual stage. And here you are in your actual car. In this parking lot.
G: If I may, my kind-of-favorite gesture in the book is doing the song, that’s like “♪ ♫ Thank you all for coming, we’ll see you next time” … because there is a way in which the book could have definitely ended with the exercise routine, like “The exercise has ended everybody, so now the book has ended too.” But then the gesture is that it just… kept going? [Laughs] Because when I perform that section [the song], I clap my hands, I do a whole thing… and then, I bring the book back up and keep reading. And nobody… expects that? They think “Oh, ok he’s been reading for a while, this is gonna be the end of it.” I like the fake-out that they think “Oh god, this is gonna go on for much longer,” and it actually ends after just a moment after, like one more page.
A: If it were to end on the song, that would put the entity of Jazzercise and the influence of Jazzercise in the driver’s seat framing your narrative, framing the book’s narrative, whereas… This way, at the end, you are literally putting yourself and your own mind and narrative back in the driver’s seat, and kind of giving that power back to the reader too by extension.
A: That does something empowering, I think, and returning. Returning someone to themselves.
One of my favorite things about this book is the way that bodies and space and architecture and buildings are constantly reaching out through each other in membranes – like that “thigh over Philadelphia” line you described from Oil and Candle. That feeling is just constant in this book, this porous structure of bodies, space, cities, time, continents. It’s nice that at the end, you go to somewhere that’s very contained, and just you. After all of this…
G: Messy taffy webs.
A: Yeah! It’s a nice tie-up that’s in your control, rather than Judi’s.
G: I’m glad you think so.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a Miami <-> Philly gay, Latino Leo living in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of the poetry books Jazzercise is a Language (The Operating System, 2018) and Oil and Candle (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2016). He is also the author of chapbooks on gay sex, Cher, the Legend of Zelda, and anxious bilinguilism. His third book Losing Miami, on the potential sinking of Miami due to climate change and sea level rise, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms.