Monday, February 09, 2004
I first met Gil Ott in 1985 when I was studying creative writing at Temple. For a long time my dealings with him mainly occurred through my friendship with his wife, Julia Blumenreich. At that time, I found Gil quite awesome and somewhat intimidating, and it would be several years before our friendship actually began. But once you'd gained Gil's respect and friendship, there was really nothing like it.
Gil was one of the most generous writers, activists and community workers I've known. He was completely honest, never compromising his values for any 'thing' or anyone. This is one reason so many admired him so much. Another one was that though he was an extremely talented and sophisticated writer, he remained a poet of the people. I don't think he was ever 'about' his own success, especially as he did much to promote others, so, in part due to this, he did not really receive the credit he deserved. Perhaps this helped keep his writing ever fresh and highly unique; though I suspect this would have been true with our without recognition. Gil cared deeply about others and it showed in all areas of his life.
From the time I'd started visiting him in September 2003 to the last time I saw him in January, he had progressed from barely being able to move or speak-to talking about his life, dreams realized and not, authors he loved like Kafka, and being able to eat pumpkin pie again. Over the months it was both joyful and painful to see him, depending on the day, yet always rewarding in some unexpected way. Through this, I was fortunate to have had the privilege of getting to know him better, tenderly, his vulnerability and courage, and never felt closer to him. I will miss him very much.
Can You Hear me Mr. Ott?
Entre of IV's from the vacuna
of each breath stole you lifted from
the luxury of grief you, just a moment..
no, ye(s)t you lifted your leg when for the women who s
poked of as Julia quietly left and Willa, thought, but
instead Let's go out to her. Sparrow to you
shuddered in disbelief of this, Gil,
I think you would like his work
struggled to remember, breathe
the same exceptional bird'd sd
"Everywhere I go I kiss ass"
on Tuesdays and Thursdays
in town Gil, I meant,
"I couldn't get my lips around hers."
you smiled, no, no, but you did
move the...well, your gnarled, hands.
It was all but surface and many
violations needling the singular
leather of the skin's state's failure
"Take the plastic off my hand"
illness utter|ed|ly wicked bent
angle of your wit, extra dry, pointers.
Not laughing in le French w/witty authority
Mr. Wuachamole says you, the meds, hollered
peripheral you, real(ly, outside l' academe remained.
Le plastique had become your epiderm 's(y)ou(r)
so)s|kin/y too itchy to imagine art here capita|l(in)
of L'Art you true worker of|fer the lower case.
"WE LIKE TO THINK THEY DO"
in the (k)now
see s(aw) ing
SO "It's OK if you agitate him,
I want his pressure to go up.!"
hea(r)d in he((ou)r) d/es IRE to(o)
felt for closure, planting the i'm/possible
(reside/nt! again(s)(t/he merely of le
merde bein'invalid or pretens(h)e/us
No, no this is nt him.
As we viewed an 'installation' of a new
archbishop thru a hole in the trache collar
amid un+coordinated meetings of therapists
who spoke to each other or not across your
bed wife about you Mister Ott:
Can't do what neither take you wasn't home
wasn't but an I escape from Nor even NOT
three feet to the blue seat an old face from the
real world once you knew what we
for you, Gil
I can’t speak about Gil Ott without also speaking about connections. Gil has been a kind of presence for the entirety of my poetry life. I, like Chris McCreary, discovered his poetry in the local author rack of Robin’s Books. I remember the where, but not the when. I may have even been introduced to his work the same day, since Chris & I used to do the bookstore circuit as Temple undergrads.
Back then I used to talk with Chris about Gil as a figure, before I ever spoke of him as a person. He was what we hadn't known existed in Philadelphia. He was a poet who was active in the city we lived in, who served the kind of poems we liked to eat- through his own work &, as we soon would discover, through Singing Horse press. Gil made it okay for us younger poets to be from Philly, a city whose artists often suffer from a not-quite New York inferiority complex. Singing Horse put Philadelphia on the experimental poetry map. I felt like we were represented, & I hadn’t even met him yet.
Fran Ryan made me almost familiar with Gil prior to meeting him, talking about Paper Air, his book press, & the details of his thoughfulness with regularity. Fran brought me to a Singing Horse benefit reading, where Bob Perelman, Harryette Mullen & Julia Blumenreich read in a now defunct Olde City art gallery. I met Brett Evans there. We talked about pro wrestling & losing football- his Saints, my Eagles. It was one of the first times I’d spent any time w/ CA Conrad, who was wearing a black skullcap over a shaved head, goth skirt & nails painted black. Rachel Blau DuPlessis was there. Ron Silliman was there. It was my first encounter w/ so many names I’d only seen on paper. And I made an ass of myself. I was in the gallery restroom when a Harryette Mullen poem ended. I flushed the toilet just before applause for her poem began. I walked out of the bathroom & everyone stared at me w/ disgust. Immediately after, Fran introduced me to Gil. I was prepared to feel ashamed for my social faux pas. But Gil told me he’d heard about me from Fran. He said he was glad to meet me. And I believed it. Gil made me feel like I had always wanted to- like a real poet, from someone who was undoubtedly a real poet.
Years later- after correspondence & an occasional poem in the mail, I embarked w/ Greg Fuchs on a mission to have Gil read at La Tazza. It proved difficult. Gil had a busy schedule & wasn’t so sure about the La Tazza scene. We finally got him to read, & it made me glad to see so many younger poets engaging Gil’s wisdom, buying his books, demanding his time for serious poetry talk. I’m pretty sure it made him glad, too.
Few things made me happier than when I got the news that Gil was publishing books by Jenn & Chris McCreary. I can’t speak for them, but Singing Horse was one those presses I’d dream about before I ever had any business seriously thinking about it. It’s been years since Chris, Jenn, Tom Devaney & I sat in our undergrad writing workshop. We’d been through a lot together. Gil took us all to the next level, by taking us seriously.
It seems I’m talking about everyone else as much I’m talking about Gil, & it’s no accident. Gil Ott was the model for the living integration of poetry & community. When so many of his colleagues are sweating their own legacy & their place in future anthologies, Gil doesn’t have to worry about a thing. Gil Ott is gone. Gil Ott is the future of Philadelphia poetry.
I had something different in mind for today, but it can wait. Everything can wait. Even though I’ve known just how sick Gil Ott has been for the past ten months – and indeed how frail his health has been during the entire 26 years I’ve known him – his death yesterday came like a kick in the stomach. Philadelphia will literally be a different city without him.
I first began to correspond with Gil back in 1978 (so say the archives at UCSD) & I must have known about him for a time before that, although I hadn’t run into him during his Northern California period earlier in that decade, so the tales of a poet living in a tree house in Bolinas came later & sometimes second hand. He had, I believe, asked to see some work for Paper Air & published a section of 2197 that year. Paper Air was a wonderful magazine – post-avant & political all at once, proposing a new aesthetic that was neither langpo nor a mere reflection of previous New American strategies. Here was somebody who was thinking for himself, pushing hard at his assumptions & at my own. He described the problem of his failed kidneys & it sounded horrific, but frankly I had no clue what that might entail.
I didn’t actually meet Gil until sometime around 1980 or ’81 when I was visiting New York. Charles Bernstein, who may have been working with CETA at the time, had set up a date to meet with the two of us for lunch in the Village &, after Charles returned to work post-lunch, Gil & I decided to take a walk together through the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that I at least had never really explored. It was an arduous process because Gil, then waiting for a kidney transplant, was weak & took the slowest steps imaginable. Still under 30, he walked at a pace slower than most 90-year-olds. I suggested that we just find a café and hang out, but he was insistent – he wanted to walk, no matter how difficult the process. So we did. Slowly. Finding our way eventually to Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, some blocks of old ethnic Jewish culture that a California boy like myself had only read about in books. I bought a lambskin hat from a vendor operating out of a cart (there was a hint of snow, tho none fell). I still own the hat & have refused to throw it out, tho I haven’t worn it in at least a decade.
Although Gil seemed as weak as a feather – as frail as I ever saw him up to this last long hospitalization – our walk took three or four hours. As we walked, we talked about everything: poetry, politics, his illness, the emotional consequences of having to move back to his parents’ house in suburban Blue Bell while awaiting a transplant. Gil was adamant that he liked the political side of language poetry, but that there was a lot of avant-gardism for the sake of itself associated with the tendency he wasn’t so sure about at all. We discussed Philadelphia – which at that point I’d only visited once in the 1960s --, the Bay Area, people we knew in common such as John Wilson, the ineptness of the Carter administration, writing strategies, winter on the two coasts, everything imaginable. We talked a lot about the meaning of narrative & reference. By the time we left one another, I knew that I had made a friend for life. It was one of the best afternoons I ever had with a writer & I can still say so 20-plus years later. I came away immeasurably enriched.
I was working on the opening sections of The Alphabet at that time & I wanted a section that would address both the question of narrative, as such, and the trope of the poem as a journey – I thought that the project might take me as much as seven or eight years. My afternoon with Gil & our discussion in particular of narrative in what was then contemporary poetry & writing led me to reread Paul Valery & take up his example of why he could never write fiction. A version of that sentence in English opens Blue, the second part of The Alphabet. That poem grew directly out of this afternoon & was & is dedicated to Gil.
Gil published me three times in Paper Air, each occasion completely different from the others. The second was an essay in the year after my first contribution that would evolve into the “Of Theory, To Practice” section of The New Sentence. The third came about as the result of a day, 12 April 1986, when Krishna & I were passing through NY on our honeymoon. We stayed at the Algonquin just so we could eat the overpriced lox at the round table downstairs (Michael Feinstein’s piano had leaked out of the club there as we did this the night before). I was reading that afternoon at the Ear Inn – the same reading that is partly captured on the Live at the Ear CD – and Gil, who was teaching at the time at Temple, had come up to Manhattan with two students, Don Marks & Julia Blumenreich, who wanted to interview me. I don’t know if Gil & Julia were married by the time the interview ran in Paper Air in 1989, but when they did get married I recall thinking that this was one of those perfect combinations, two great people who strengthened one another in the best possible ways.
Although I’ve lived out in the ‘burbs in the almost-nine years we’ve been here & never saw Gil & Julia more than a couple of times each year, it’s not at all clear that we would even have entertained moving to Philadelphia in 1995 had Gil not lived here. I didn’t really know Rachel Blau DuPlessis all that well yet, didn’t knew Eli Goldblatt at all, had never even heard of Linh Dinh & was in full denial that Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw had already lived here for five years back then. From a distance, APR looked like a very big fact of the landscape – it turned out to be a mirage. Writers House didn’t yet exist. But the fact that Gil & Julia had thrived in this city all these years meant that Philadelphia was definitely possible & do-able for a poet. This was something Krishna & I talked about when weighing all the pros & cons of that momentous decision.
I don’t know how to sum up all the ways in which I’m indebted to Gil. I’m not even sure that I understand all of them. That’s a lesson I expect to keep on learning even though he’s gone. Yesterday, Linh Dinh, a poet whom I first met through Gil in 1999, sent me an email that said, “He had the biggest heart.” That is surely true.
Been thinking about Gil Ott, who died a few days ago. "Died" has an inappropriate connotation, especially for a poet like Gil, whose work will last despite the lack of critical attention it's received. His work represents a bridge between the post-Objectivism of Cid Corman and his friends (Gil was published in Origin and corresponded widely with that circle), and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement (which he was never a card carrying member of, but nevertheless embraced the idea of language as an oppressive power tool, and worked, like them, to subvert it through abstraction and dissonance -- to deconstruct it).
And yet Gil never strayed from the human. His work addressed personal issues: poverty, the struggle to raise a family, illness that almost took him away too soon -- a kidney transplant saved him, in the early 80's, and he was lucky. From what I've read the procedure was a lot riskier then. His work also approached political and social concerns, most prominently in his book Public Domain.
His work as editor and publisher (the magazine Paper Air and Singing Horse Press) was important not only to Philadelphia, which for years had no discernable "scene" other than Gil Ott and his efforts, but also to the poetry community at large.
I never had the chance -- or, rather, I never gave myself the chance to meet him, unfortunately. We exchanged e-mails a couple years ago. He was incredibly warm and receptive, and some of the things he said about my work altered my perception of it -- for the better.
His books are some of my favorites. Traffic and The Whole Note I've read dozens upon dozens of times. Each reading feels like the first. His poems have a way of opening their own space, a fluid space, for the reader to write along with him. A personal exchange.
Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore:
I loved Gil Ott's monosyllabic first and last names... so cleanly sounded! Like crackling wood in a forest. So Poundian and Anglo-Saxon. But I only talked to him twice in my life, impressed though by his grave aura and dry wit, not knowing he was ailing. My wife and I heard him read at I think at The Painted Bride about 10 years ago, and then there later at a Poetry Marathon. I went up to him after he had read a very moving poem with reference to Arthur Rimbaud, and mentioned it to him, and he said he thought I might be among the few who knew it wasn't Rambo.
For me anyone who uses language to deepen our understandings, grapples with words to light up some corners, and does so with an essentially compassionate intention, has taken on a saintly duty. So I pray he finds rest and delight now, leaving us with his words.
Though I can't be more personal than this, I just finished reading the other memorials while editing a poem from 1984 (of all years!) in my ongoing project, which seems somehow fitting as an offering in memory of Gil.
TALE OF THE HOODED ONE
O let me say it!
There’s a woolen-robed and hooded
bearded figure who stands just around the corner
in the City of Ancient Wisdom
and who does nothing, and yet
the entire machinery and computerized dazzle and deranged dismay
of western barbarity on its
square wheels of so-called “civilization”
rolls right into the darkness of his hood
and disappears and he is
not in the least disturbed. His face remains still.
He is even smiling.
When the light is right
he comes out and with a single gesture
of ineffable subtlety
commences the roadway that winds around
a no place that leads, step by step, to the
understanding of everything.
His robe is lined with the knowledge of concrete actions.
The way to do things based on the way they were done
by that supreme one who showed the Way
out of an ignorance
happy with its darkness.
For those unhappy with their darkness
this hooded figure beckons to a place
open to everyone.
For those willing to take that Way
the only thing to be left behind
is their shadows.
I did not know Gil that well, Gil was the guy at the Painted Bride I had the most contact with in the mid 80's. I had a performance there in 1983, and wanted an art show, so I would take my slides and current proposals there and spend time with Gil, who seemed like the nicest person to chat with... any ways.. At the time I did not know Gil was a poet, to me Gil was the Gate keeper for getting a show at PB... the one thing I remember Gil saying is; take your time.. you are just starting out.. or something like that... I wanted to see Gil when I was back reading at La Trazza.. say, I have grown up now and taken my time.. but it was too late... I should have not waited so long to return
Gil and I first met at one of the after hours poetry workshops I and some other student- poets had instigated in a corner lounge on one of the floors of Temple's Humanities towers back in 1975. The gathering was open to the poetry community of Philadelphia at large and all sorts of people showed up unannounced and unexpected but welcome, so Gil was one of these "outsider" poets. He was full of stories of the scenes in San Fran, New York, and overseas and the personalities famous and otherwise underground. I loved his poetry; I felt that he was doing "pure" stuff, something a real poet could pull off. I was getting into the Projectivist- Black Mountain school back then feeling around, in part, for an alternative to the mainstream Beats, that was both intellectually giving and cutting edge. As we began to hang out more after "Hybris" poetry magazine and myself cut ties to the University, and the city's poets began their baptism by fire in the so called Philadelphia Poetry Renaissance-- a very hard but very exciting time to be a poet here, Gil deepened my acquaintance with contemporary American experimental poetry and accompanied me in the fostering of a "surrealist- radical" mode of realationship with the urban reality; and the then egalitarian "Spoken Word Hour" on WXPN which he hosted. We once began banging on and "free forming" to the intact but upturned guts of a grand piano abandoned on North Broad Street. It was a good lesson and a hell of a lot of fun. A lot of things happened since then especially in and around the reading series that Gil graced, and we would pretty much chance upon one another as our separate hands were dealt out, I guess. He always appreciated my work and that was important really because of his great honesty. He hit me with the moniker of "Philly Oracular" back in the early '80's and I'm still grateful to him for that, especially. I grieve for his family and am saddened by his passing but he has returned to source, the "field" he reveled in with such facility in his poetry and its performance. Simply. The field all true poets are well acquainted with. Gil here's a piece of something for you that you told me you liked very much: And Metta!
From, Art Of The Sword, Part II
hand in hand
Gil Ott links:
The Whole Note
The Amputated Toe (forthcoming)
Gil Ott & Major Jackson
Gil Ott & CA Conrad
form of our uncertainty
GO/- (a mapping/ to & fro Gil Ott) by Bruce Andrews