Monday, February 09, 2004

In Memory of Gil Ott 

Gil Ott- poet & publisher, has died. He was an important culture worker & anchor of the Philadelphia experimental writing community for many years. In remembrance of what Gil has given us through his work & life, maybe we can take this time to share what he's meant to us.

In his honor, the Philly Sound has created a memorial page, where you can share your thoughts & memories of Gil, whose generosity, warmth & humor meant so much to the poetry community. Your messages will appear on the Philly Sound blog as they come in.

Take care,
Frank Sherlock


GILBERT OTT on Feb. 5, 2004, beloved husband of Julia Blumenreich; and beloved
father of Willa Ott; Gilbert is also survived by his parents Havel and Edwin
Ott of Lansdale, PA; and his brother Dr. Allen Ott of Southhampton, NY. Family
and friends are invited to his Memorial Remembrance Celebration 2 P.M. Feb. 22,
2004 at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., Phila., PA. Mr. Ott Int.
will be private at the request of his family. In lieu of flowers donations may
be made to either Liberty Resources, 1341 N. Delaware Ave., Phila., PA. 19125
or American Kidney Fund, 6110

Rachel Blau DuPlessis:

I am very moved and saddened by Gil's death. I respect his care and his intransigence, his working on the cusp between writing and political vision, his commitment (a word easy to say, but hard to enact). Gil talked the talk and walked the walk. That so much of his walk was encumbered with those physical problems which we all knew and saw is a cause for our own humility and respect. Respect for him, humility in the face of the human and material fact. He had a committed eye as an editor, and a committed mind and heart for his own practice. The magazine Paper Air was a model, opening debates and making a cross-hatching of networks; it was rare enough in this region--almost unique. I was just writing/talking about Gil for an interview because in the early 70s this was a difficult region to be a radical poet inside of. Gil joined us as a community, and he joined this community to other practitioners working elsewhere. Gil was principled and he had after all a clarity of purpose that was an example to us all.

Ron P. Swegman:

Gil Ott was a man who affected me physically. I felt my body and mind pulled to quiet attention whenever we were in the same room together. He possessed the silent gravity of a statesman, the self-contained energy of a marathon runner, and the pure dedication to his art and craft of poetry and publishing that I hope will live on in each and every one of us who had the pleasure and privilege to interact with him.

John Pelman:

for gil

at the paradise


a sad day...yet another sad day

Michael Magee:

So sad on hearing this. Gil was really one of the kindest people I ever met and surely one of the most dedicated to poetry. He was, during my five years in Philly, a very important presence, to me personally and to a lot of the younger writers in town then, Kristen Gallagher, Louis Cabri, many others. And it goes without saying that as editor of Paper Air and publisher of books like Harryette's Mullen's Muse & Drudge he has made a deep and lasting impact. I wish his own poetry was better known and more appreciated. Here's a poem I published of his in Combo 4:


What I began on foot I haven't
passed the opportunity to mediate

as tempers cool, and age,
more solid than a fish's swift encounter

begs calcium, from boyhood to a certain
indirection, oppresive detail, given

the yield of one small pond persisting
through rain and thought

Louis McKee:

Such sad news. I dropped Gil a note when I heard he was ill/bad a few weeks ago -- heard indirectly from CAConrad,
   I guess -- maybe via wom-po. Gil was a dear friend -- a comrade in arms in many a skirmish. And a guardian angel when I was co-editing the Painted Bride Quarterly. Our politics and social values were as much the same as our poetics were different. That never was a problem. We spent many an afternoon solving the world's problems, in subversive conspiracy, and laughing, at the Cantina on Church Street. We read together often -- at CCP, the Library, Temple U, at the Painted Bride in at least three locations, at McGlinchey. We were part of the great "white trash" reading at Ortlieb's. My favorite, though, was at the Afro-American Museum with Etheridge Knight, we were the only two white faces among the dozen poets that night -- a Pound poem come to life, Gil said of the photograph that someone took of that night. One of my first published poems was in a small ephemeral litmag from SF that also included a Gil Ott collage. That, and the readings at the Bride on South Street, is what introduced us.

Gil did a lot of good for a lot of people -- and quietly. No fanfare, no bows. Just a good friend to poets. He had a lot of pain, a lot of trouble in his life, but I never heard him complain -- and I know he mostly enjoyed himself. I'll never forget the Afro-American Museum gig -- he sang a cappela a Jack Micheline lyric, "O Harlem" -- and while the crowded room roared its approval, he smiled, and his eyes sparked.

Sainte, Gil--

Louis McKee

Al Filreis:

     "If you take an expansive definition of what poetry is,
     poetry is all around us. Rap music is poetry,
     advertising is full of poetry.... I do consider the
     many, many branches and streams of poetry that exist as
     legitimate."--Gil Ott

Gil Ott once told Kristen Gallagher that "there are no forms of language that have not contributed to some abuse of power. This realization set me out early on, looking for incorruptible forms." Put together Gil's deeply felt concern about the abuse of power with his search, in writing, for incorruptible forms and you have a view of a community-based "alternative arts movement" that is remarkably clear-eyed. Gil saw an analogy between poetry and community-development organizations. Both, he said, are small. Both are capable of responding quickly to changing conditions. Both are inherently decentralized. Both can defy interposed categories, rules that come from outside. "It is time," he once declared, "to consider the potential in such linkages." Notwithstanding the stump-speech rhetoric, which was rare for him ("It is time to..."), Gil was actually being characteristically modest when he said this, because, for him, it was long past the time he had begun such projects. That a community of poets lived alongside and in connection with people passionate about community development in Philadelphia was and is largely owing to Gil's efforts. We who care about the fate of the "small" arts here owe him more than we often know. He is in the air we breathe. I know I expand every time I take in his "expansive definition of what poetry is."

Miles Champion:

Dear CA: thanks for passing on the news (I hadn't heard). A sad day indeed. I never met Gil but did my best to follow his work ever since picking up a copy of The Yellow Floor in London's much-missed Compendium Books in the early 90s. And I thought Paper Air was an exemplary magazine in every way.

Joshua Schuster:

Gil Ott was one of the first poets I heard read when I came to Philadelphia. I have a few mental images still left of the reading about ten years ago, many more from another reading he gave two years ago, more so remember his voice which was raspy but not dark, and he would encourage every writer I saw come speak to him, each time I saw him. He also said that he started Paper Air so that he could stay in contact with the poets he appreciated, to create a community through corresponce, which to me still sounds like the best reason for a journal. I just want to say thanks.

Linh Dinh:

Mentors are always miraculous. Wise, generous, they come along at just the right time in your life, unbidden, that you shudder to think what would have happened had they not shown up. I ran into Gil Ott in 1997 at the University of Pennsylvania. I was only in that area because I painted houses in nearby Powelton, and U Penn had the best collection of lunch trucks. I first met Gil in the early 80’s, and in 1986 I did a reading at the Painted Bride, where Gil worked as an administrator, but I had no idea what he thought of my work, so I was very surprised when Gil told me he wanted to publish my first book of poems. Gil was judging me more on potential than accomplishment, obviously, because I had published only a handful of poems by 1997. Nearly half of the resulting book, Drunkard Boxing (1998), was written after Gil saw me on the street that day. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Gil commissioned me to write my first book. A mentor doesn’t just encourage, he enables you to work, by challenging you and giving you a boost of confidence.

Gil often described my work as “alienated.” In an email from 4/99, he wrote that my poems can be “knotted, almost perverse in its alienation,” but these words can also be used to describe Gil’s writing, especially his entirely-neglected fiction. It amazes me why no one ever talks about Gil’s stories?! (What’s up with that, Gil?) His stories are always strange, borderline claustrophobic, darkly atmospheric, like Tarkovsky’s films. The dominant emotion is paranoia, another word for “alienation”. In an email from 1/03, Gil equated “philosophy and paranoia” as “perhaps the same thing.” To think is to be paranoid, in other words. But why was Gil paranoid? In a 12/02 email, Gil wrote: “what you and I have in common is a poet's amazement at the fucked-uppedness of the world.” But there is refuge in community: “When I've pared away ambition (or had it done for me), I’m left with two “functions” of poetry: community, and personal pleasure. Community takes a lot of forms, and is fleeting and rare. In my reading and my writing I have my best chance at something less ephemeral” [11/99]. Creating his own community, Gil provided an intellectual oasis for Philadelphia poets through several decades. And by his integrity as man and as poet, he also showed us how to behave in this fucked-up world.

Kevin Fitzgerald:

Gil Ott as a person, poet and publisher was a wellspring of inspiration because he never ceased his exploration in writing, as his recent book PACT illustrates, and he had a sincere concern for humanity. I was deeply impressed by the book on the disability community and their struggle for human rights that Gil edited and published just before he fell ill. In the short time I knew Gil I found him to be one of the most generous and untiring poets I have known. He introduced me to the work of poets whose projects seemed useful to my own. His generosity and work will remain a lasting presence.


i was a teenager when i met Gil Ott in 1984. i was escaping into Philadelphia from my illiterate, bigoted little country town, and hanging with the blues singer / painter / poet Pegalina, who was mentoring me in the use of various narcotics unavailable back home.

one night she took me to The Bacchanal, a truly fantastic, decadent bar on the broken down end of South Street where artists and writers hung out. although it wasn't an open reading that night, it was pretty laid back, and Pegalina read from her book The Nude Testament. she peeled off her clothes and recited, bare-assed, except for a single strand of deep red rosary beads. everyone loved her of course, and bought her continuous rounds of drinks.

when Gil stepped forward to read, he first said something like, "that's a pretty tough act to follow." Pegalina immediately began yelling "SING THE MOON DOES NOT RUN ON GASOLINE GIL!" and he did. and it was amazing how that frantic, hollering crowd quieted, then roared with applause at the song's end. poets at the bar were singing the refrain later that night, "the moon does not run on gasoline, oh no, the moon does not run on gasoline, but the world turns around, turns around on love, but the world turns around, turns around on love."

back in those days it didn't take long to realize that just about the only thing every poet in Philadelphia agreed on was that Gil Ott was the real deal in poetry. he was remarkably generous, never stingy with his ideas or his ear. he would hear you read your poems and months later would be able to throw your lines back to you and talk about how he felt the poem did or didn't work for him. he was the most sincere community builder and poetic nurturer i've ever met. never once would you doubt that he meant whatever came out of his mouth.

it was Gil who pushed me as a kid to give Silliman's In The American Tree a closer read. and i'm glad he did, because he was right about how far that book can push a young mind open.

another, very different anthology he told me about was Technicians of the Sacred, edited by Jerome Rothenberg. he was telling me about it one day when i ran into him on Broad Street, and he said he had just seen a copy on the shelf at a used bookstore (which is now a thrift store). he told me to check out "Songs of the Masked Dancers," an Apache song. and of course that was the first page i looked for when i found the book on the shelf in the store. let me share a little of it now, in honor of Gil:

When my songs first became
when the sky was made
when the earth was made
the breath of the dancers against me made only of down:
when they heard about my life
where they got their life
when they heard about me:
it stands.

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