Monday, February 09, 2004
Thank you for sharing this sad news. I wanted to take a walk, and re-read some of the Gil's early chapbooks before writing back to you. Below you'll find a letter forwarded from Aaron Levy of Slought. He hosts the homepage for Kristen Gallagher's Handwritten Press, who in collaboration with Charles Alexander's Chax Press, published The Form of Our Uncertainty.
Kristen introduced me to Gil's writing about three years ago. I think she was describing a "blunder" in the layout of Bruce Andrew's contribution to this anthology. I asked for a copy, which she gave to me, and I was captivated on the instant. What I had wanted was a poet who was in the world - although I'm not sure I knew (or now know) exactly what I meant by that. It was there. It occurred to me that his feeling for syntax and abstraction had a direct bearing on various instances of the everyday attentions the poet brings to the senses - senses of relationships, senses of things, the sense of the sublime in ordinary responsibilities. Like Creeley (to whom The Children is dedicated, along with Jennifer and John Taggart) situations of no prescriptive sequence unfolded in the order of the mind's making. If not always comfortable, the possibilities presented by the passages of language, the passing of faces, and the slippage of vernacular felt direct. Relationships between things always gleaned hope in some respect, presenting an opportunity to observe changes, quick and slow, in the world as one reads through and out of it.
A shared vitality
eye that startles
I find it ever open.
One writes it also. About a year ago, I had written to Gil a letter, simply to express my enthusiasm for his writing, and offer a standing invitation to submit a manuscript to Cuneiform. It wasn't long before an envelope from Carpenter arrived, containing "a fable" and a thoughtful letter of thanks. I read the enclosed, and knew immediately that I was interested in publishing The Amputated Toe. I sent another letter with my feedback, and enclosed a few books. Months passed, and I received a letter from him composed in the hospital. It was spring. He was very pleased, and indicated that the composition of this letter was no easy task. He asked that I put the book on hold until he was back home. That was the last time I received any direct correspondence from him until you told me about the forthcoming interview and visits to the hospital.
Well, I guess I've gone on. I do hope to have the opportunity to print this fable as described in my letter to you last night.
Thanks for all of your correspondence, and for making this forum for communal discussion and reflection.
For those that may or may not be familiar with Gil's wonderful work, Tom mentioned Kristen's tribute anthology, "The Form of Our Uncertainty." It is available in book form and also as a free PDF download from the Handwritten Press website: http://handwritten.org/auth/ott/
"Gil, for all you have done, and continue to do, this is but a sliver of what we would give back."
--From Kristen's introduction
into my eyes.
The same gradual fire
has its trace in the music
all that I am stone
take the form
of our uncertainty.
A shared vitality
eye that startles:
I find it ever open.
- Gil Ott
from "The Children" in The Yellow Floor
I've been thinking about it all day. And I kind of feel like taking to my bed w/his books, of which I have a number here. I kind of wish I had paid more attention to his work - but then I always feel that way about people after they're dead. He was ahead of his time - way ahead. Among the least conceited of poets I've ever known - He came up to my squalid
little apartment on Spruce St. when I first moved to Philly. Was amused by the barbells. I would've done well to listen to him in matters having to do w/poetry, but then again I had a hard time listening to anybody then & still do, to some extent, today.
when i saw frank's email with the subject, "in memorium gil ott," i released a loud "oh my god" from my desk and tears streamed down my cheeks.
thing is, i didn't know gil. i didn't know him at all. yet i know from chris, and jenn, and frank, and you, and tom that gil was at the heart of philadelphia and in the hearts of philadephia poets, a community i value and cherish. from your testimonies over the years, i feel this loss, sharply -- primarily for you, individually, but also for poetry at large, which will have to endure the passing of a most generous spirit.
i am thinking of you and everyone down there. i send you my deepest sympathy.
We remembered Gil Ott last night at the Chax Press reading in Chelsea. He cast a big, dark, deep shadow over the event. At times like this I am reminded that shadows are the foundation of imagination.
Charles Alexander, Chax's editor and publisher, came to New York to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his press but also his new collection, near or random acts, which is, as it happens, Gil's last Singing Horse Press release and at the same time the first book in the new life of the press, under the very capable hands of Paul Naylor.
I am glad I got to see Gil last week at the University of Pennsylvania hospital intensive care unit. Bob Perelman and I went on Tuesday afternoon. Gil was miraculously self-possessed, engaged with the conversation, ironic, barbed. If my eyes had been closed I imagine I could have been across the street, chatting in my office; there was little in his voice that reflected the grim intensity of the surroundings or his physical circumstances. Gil spoke of his forthcoming book, The Amputated Toe, from Kyle Schlesinger's Cuneiform Press as his "last" book and wondered if Kyle knew it was his last. Bob and I offered a alternative meaning to last: "you mean your most recent book." Then Gil told us the story of how anxious Franco Beltrametti had been for Gil to bring out his Singing Horse book, though Beltrametti never explained to Gil that he was dying, that this was to be his last book (which, indeed, he did see before he died). Then Gil said, "Let's talk
about something else."
Gil also spoke of how extraordinary his prolonged life had been, the gift of living without his own kidneys for a quarter of a century. He said he was one of the longest surviving members of that class of early kidney transplant patients and almost all we know of Gil and his work as a poet, editor, organizer, has been in the period of grace provided by his renal subversions.
My first memory of Gil is walking down Spring Street in the late 1970s, going east from the Ear Inn, in the year or so after an unsuccessful transplant. Like Ron Silliman, I remember how slow he walked, how cumbersome and heavy his body seemed. And how, just a year later, he came into a new life and new sense of physical and cultural possibility, after his first successful transplant.
I remember Paper Air: the Mac Low issue and Taggart issue especially. And I remember Artifice of Absorption, my essay-in-verse, which was first published as an issue of Paper Air in 1987 and which may have been part of Gil's turn from magazine to book publishing. This was Gil and my first experiment with producing a book directly from a computer file. There were so many errors that crept in that the process itself seemed to be insisting on a level of textual impermeability well beyond the desires of author and
But no number of anecdotes will bring Gil back from the dead: Gil, father of a daughter just the age of my son (11), life companion to Julia Blumenreich, friend to so many of us.
Dead poets have one trick left: they live in our ears, in our minds, in our personal hearafter.
I do this thing, when I'm having a hard day, to pull any book of poetry off of the shelf, open it to any page, and see what words are there to inform my particular sadness. Yesterday, I randomly pulled Gil Ott's book The Whole Note off of the shelf, and turned to the words,
"More nettle than tooth, anxiety than the strength summoned during
yesterday's possession dries in its relation.
Poverty, from my wife and family separated
for batting, forgiving the very thorns that wreck my sleep."
I paused to read the whole book, and was touched by the density though which Gil is able to write about the deepest emotional matter, with language that itself bears its own deeper life. Thanks to Gil for helping me out yesterday; I will do the same by lighting a lamp this morning to honor his passing.
Before I actually met Gil, I discovered his chapbooks at Robin's Bookstore, and realizing that he was a local poet of such innovativeforce proved to me that there was more to the Philly poetry world than the bombastic slam poetry and the cliched confessional verse that I kept running into around town at that point. Only much later did I connect him, I think, to the haunting fictions that appeared in TO magazine in the mid-90s and that stuck to the corners of my consciousness for ages. Once we met, I quickly realized that Gil was not only a writer of rare power but also a profoundly unique and admirable human being. What I mean is this: Gil had rare traits that I look for in friends but often have a hard time finding, especially in men. He demonstrated that strength can come not from pushing others down but actually extending a hand to help them up. And he showed, too, that one can act from a place of pure love and generosity without sacrificing one's own spine in the process. In fact, Gil was one of the most determined folks I've ever met. A couple of years back, at the Kelly Writers House celebration in his honor, he read a brief, untitled prose piece that we were ultimately lucky enough to have appear in ixnay number eight. It contains one of my favorite lines of prose or poetry ever: "I will walk, I am walking the wreck that is the strand." The focus and willpower evident in that single, distilled sentence -- "I will," "I am" -- sum up Gil perfectly for me.
Philly is lousy with Gil Ott's death. Feel it from here, the slouch hat hung low after measurable months of expectation. I am here imagining the variant fluff piece in the paper, or the other paper, exposing the absence, giving the news, posing the missing rather than defining what he did. Doesn't he look well in this photo? Or should we use "the urban poet in his environment" pose? Talking about what all else but the subject.
Gil lumbered against the black puritan trees of Pennsylvania. Every single time I met him. If one could stoically breathe heavy he could. After Paper Air ended, he continued. Few of his contemporaries did. Gil had stones. Name another small press publisher who bothered publishing plays. Who would have printed Harryette Mullen's S*PeRM**K*? Gil was a man who contributed.
Gil wrote prose. And always wore a trenchcoat. Often. Like this but repetitively meditative. A harmonious tuning fork of wavelength. In the way I wish I still had his books in moments like this. Especially Wheel. Or any of the Singing Horse titles. Or the last manuscript he sent. But such is not to be for the life of me ran otherwise. This the cost of verse beforehand, the lost weight necessary to live. Recording and speaking at once, a phone voice echoing through an answering machine. Bye Gil, grateful to have caught an in depth transmission.