Monday, June 04, 2007
And while the event was more than I had hoped it would be there's something I want to address. While I was at the microphone I mentioned that Gil Ott was what I call the Anti-Mentor. Ron Silliman responded from the audience by saying something like, "But yet he was a mentor." Yes, to an extent I agree with Ron, but that depends if Ron is meaning mentor in the traditional sense. This is something I didn't want to get into at the microphone because in order to do it I would have to talk about my life and experiences in order to do so, and I wanted the event to be about Gil.
When I first met Gil I was just a teenager, and he was old enough to be my father. There were A LOT of poets Gil's age hanging around the Philadelphia poetry scene at that time, and what set Gil apart from those other poets is that he NEVER got in your business with disrespect. Meaning he never thought you didn't know something, and when he talked he talked WITH you, instead of AT you.
All these other older poets were busy telling me what I Should read, how I Should write. And the truth is that all these guys (these poets were men who were doing this by the way) contradicted one another with their schoolings, which I didn't ask for, and didn't want in the first place. It seemed weird that they were so interested in giving me advice when it was clear I was such a disagreeable prick at that age.
One of the most important things to be noted is that all these other older poets had already STOPPED writing poems. They were busy reading their old stuff (like Etheridge Knight, who read the same fucking poems every single time I heard him read, yet was so busy telling me how to write every time I saw him). Gil Ott on the other hand was writing up a storm.
It's important to point this out because Gil was more interested in creating, instead of having others be his little fledgling students. These other guys were spent for whatever reason, not writing, bitter about not writing, and instead of finding SOME WAY TO GET the Muse back on their sides they decided to mope around and tell others what to do.
This is not to say that Gil was not generous, or that he didn't have some advice. For instance when I was 19 my boyfriend at the time was a drug dealer with a motorcycle, and Gil knew that there was NO WAY I was going to give up this excitement! I had just arrived from the country, and all of a sudden I'm going to nonstop parties, all the drugs I could ever want, and what teen wouldn't want that? Well, I should speak for myself. But Gil said to me one night after a reading, "You know he's a real scumbag!?" He said this then backed away. He had a way of seeing danger, making note of it out loud, but realizing where things had to play themselves out.
On one of my visits to see Gil in the hospital he brought this up, and admitted that he could see back then that I was not interested in listening to anyone about the situation. He then said -- which was very nice of him to say -- that he was glad I didn't ruin my life, or lose my life before the whole thing fell apart.
When Jonathan Williams first announced that he was publishing my book back in 1994, Gil Ott was the first person to congratulate me. That was something I remember well because when that announcement was first made on Jonathan Williams's airwaves I was suddenly being treated like shit by a lot of poets I knew at the time. Gil had heard me read some of those poems when I read with Julia Blumenreich and Miriam Kessler at the Painted Bride a year or two before the book offer. It's these small generosities we remember the most, mainly because Gil took the time to actually call me up at home to congratulate me. That says a lot about his character, being the elder poet reaching out like that.
And one of THE BEST pieces of advice anyone has ever given me was during that phone call Gil made to me. He said, "Just don't let it go to your head." And I said, "You mean don't be boastful?" And he said, "No, I mean don't think you've got all the answers now just because you have a book coming out." Yeah, THAT WAS SUCH A GREAT THING TO HEAR! I was pretty young when Jonathan Williams showered me with praise, and Gil Ott brought me back to Earth! Gil let you know you were always a student to poetry, no matter who praised you, or how many books you had, or how old you were going to become.
So in a way, I have to agree with Ron Silliman to some degree after sharing such things.
But how I really mean to convey the Anti-Mentor-Mentor comes into play when running into Gil after I had attended my one and only poetry workshop. It was with the poet William Stafford. It was terrible. It was SO terrible! I told Gil how I had asked Stafford what poets he was reading, and that Stafford said "I don't read poetry, I read novels." That was it, I just tuned the whole workshop out after that. And Gil shook his head and said, "Why would you do that to yourself!? You don't need to go to these workshops!"
The fact is Gil LIKED that I spent time in the library alone, he LIKED that I discovered poets on the shelf, books like Cid Corman's GIST OF ORIGIN, things like that. The awakening of poetry is there for anyone willing to drink it in. Gil was all about giving a high-five to the Outsider notion of learning the poems.
And I think Ron Silliman also probably remembers me telling the story about checking out IN THE AMERICAN TREE when I was younger. And I only did so because I WAS A DISAGREEABLE PRICK, and was told over and over that LANGUAGE POETRY was the worst thing of all time! So I wanted to see what I thought. I wasn't about to take anyone else's opinion until I had checked it out for myself, right!? But I didn't jive with it. And I ran into Gil and he said that I should read Stephen Rodefer's FOUR LECTURES section, and I did, and then I was HOOKED, and the rest of the book found it's way to me with time. But once again, Gil had a way of KNOWING the entrance, where to be with it, then back away.
Gil Ott was not a mentor in the traditional sense, but then again there was nothing usual about him. And that's why we celebrate him, because he was unique.