Monday, February 09, 2004
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.
obituary from PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS ONLINE:
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.
at the paradise
a sad day...yet another sad day
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
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.
"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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
Thursday, February 05, 2004
Dear reader, thank you for both your concern and your devoted readership. hmmm, well, the best way to put this is that we're not the kind of poets with vacation houses. so maybe think of this blog as our vacation house. when we're not here, hanging out, we're pretty busy: losing jobs, getting new ones, having babies, writing poems, going to readings, raising kids, etc.
Thank you much for your time,
now for that Jeni Olin poem! for the great poetry enjoyment for all!
I felt more at home on this pill in the bucolic shire
In the Hamptons amid the piss-colored braids
of wheat on a metamucil can, milkweed & sneeze drops,
a novelette THE LONELINESS OF A MIDDLE DISTANCE RUNNER
never checked out in the orangeade foam of dawn
Glistening like a brow in an aspirin ad on the telly
I've got a brain like soaked coral.
I've got a tongue like a baby's penis.
I'm Bruce Willis in THE SIXTH SENSE-I'm dead but I don't know it.
My pen, my eskimo blood spilled cheekily over "good & dear people..."
I managed to write this by myself.
When I said "Oh get me away I'm dying," I meant I wanted
a cigarette and a problem child on a peony-filled evening.
In the dry heat of photocopy fans,
making Easter cards with the, uh, terminally ill,
You hold the retinal scanner to my heart.
"Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
as flames rose to her roman nose and her hearing aid began to melt"
and in the darkened underpass I gave
blood and now my French is shaky.
Wednesday, February 04, 2004
This is not one of Jen Bervin's poems, but Shakespeare's own sonnet 135. To read Bervin's take on 135 read every word that is "will" or "Will" and that is Bervin's poem: SONNET 135.