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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

JACKSON MAC LOW and GIL OTT: 1979 interview 

While looking through the Jackson Mac Low Papers recently at the Mandeville Special Collections Library (Geisel Library, University of California, San Diego) I came across the following interview. A marvelous find, I'm sure you'll agree! Many thanks to the staff of the Mandeville Special Collections for all of their help, and to Eileen Myles, and to Anne Tardos for reprint permissions for Jackson Mac Low, and to Eli Goldblatt and Julia Blumenreich for reprint permissions for Gil Ott. Working directly from a facsimile of the original transcription typed by Gil Ott, I have been careful to be exact in my retyping through all notes and markings he had made.
--CAConrad

JACKSON MAC LOW (1922 -- 2004). He was a poet, composer, painter and multimedia performance artist who often collaborated with his wife Anne Tardos. He performed and lectured all over North America, Europe, and New Zealand. Among his many published books are 22 Light Poems (Black Sparrow, 1968), Stanzas for Iris Lezak (Something Else Press, 1971), The Pronouns (Station Hill Press, 1979), The Virginia Woolf Poems (Burning Deck, 1985), Two Plays: The Marrying Maiden and Verdurous Sanguinaria (Green Integer Books, 1999), 20 Forties (Zasterle Press, 1999), Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces 1955-2002 (Granary Books, 2005), and others. Some of his audio can be found online at PENNSOUND, and UBUWEB. Tim Peterson, John Mercuri Dooley and Christina Strong put together a Jackson Mac Low Tribute page for EOAGH. He received the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1999. He lived in New York City with his wife until his death on December 8, 2004.

Gil Ott (1950 -- 2004). He lived and wrote in Philadelphia with his wife, the poet Julia Blumenreich, and their daughter Willa. Before he passed away in 2004 he had written and published many books of poetry and prose: Yellow Floor (Sun & Moon, 1985), within range (Burning Deck, 1987), Public Domain (Potes & Poets, 1989), The Whole Note (Zasterle, 1996), Traffic (Chax Press), PACT (Singing Horse, 2002), The Amputated Toe (Cuneiform Press), and others. He was the editor and publisher of Singing Horse Press, and the magazine PAPER AIR. (There are some of us who secretly wish to see the issues of PAPER AIR released as an anthology.) Kristen Gallagher edited The Form of Our Uncertainty: A Tribute to Gil Ott (Chax Press). There is a marvelous recording of the Gil Ott Celebration on PENNSOUND (from 10/27/01). You can also hear him sing a song and read a poem for FREQUENCY Audio Journal. His last interview appeared in BANJO Magazine.


JACKSON MAC LOW, interviewed by GIL OTT at PS 1, Long Island City, NY (August or September 1979)

Copyright © 1979/2007 the Estate of Jackson Mac Low
Copyright © 1979/2007 the Estate of Gil Ott



GIL OTT
From your beginning to write up through performances, where does emotion enter into your work?

JACKSON MAC LOW
The pieces I've composed from at least 1961 on have been of a kind of which the score may be produced by relatively "objective" chance means, but of which performances are done by performers following certain procedures spontaneously when using the given materials. Thus performers' emotions are involved as much as they like (although I strongly discourage "ego-tripping") when they use the given materials and procedures. Nonhuman means are, so to speak, shaded and modified by people's feelings.

GIL OTT
I ask that because I see your writing as aleatoric...

JACKSON MAC LOW
But it isn't all that way. In a poem such as the "Light Poem for John Taggart" (PAPER AIR, vol. 2, #1), many of the names of kinds of light were drawn from a chart of such light names that I made in 1962. There are 288 names of kinds of light on this chart, but it only includes light names that begin with letters that appear in my name or in that of Iris Lezak, my former wife. The chart's columns are headed with the letters that are in our names. In making it, I just collected names of kinds of light. Then I used the chart as a source for light names in most of the Light Poems I've written between June 1962 and the present.

So there were "objective" means that drew the names of kinds of light into the poems. In writing them I followed a method that I call "working from nuclei": certain pivotal words or phrases are given by some "objective" system--usually one involving chance in some sense of the word. In composing most of the Light Poems, light names were drawn into the poem by such a system. In writing many of the Light Poems, many of the later 1962 ones and almost all of the more recent ones, such as the one for Taggart, I then composed freely between the nuclei, that is, between the names of kinds of light.

Since all of the Light Poems are dedicated to particular people or groups of people (or in one case, to the interior regions of the sun), I usually use the successive letters of the dedicatees' names to determine the columns of the chart from which the light names are to be taken. Then the particular item in the column that is to be drawn into the poem is usually determined by a random-sampling means such as random digits (a table of which I've used for about 21 years). In making the chart I sometimes was unable to think of enough light names beginning with a certain letter to fill a whole column (i.e., 20 light names), in which cases I filled out the remainder of the columns with light names beginning with related letters. For instance, not many light names begin with a "Z," so after running out of "Z" names, I filled the rest of the column with light names beginning with "S." As a result, some letters in dedicatees' names are represented in the poems by light names that begin with other, "related," letters.

GIL OTT
To what extent do you regard writing as a meditational practice?

JACKSON MAC LOW
I don't think I've ever consciously thought of it as such.

GIL OTT
Not even in those open areas?

JACKSON MAC LOW
No. I just write in those stretches as I would when writing any other (i.e., nonaleatoric) poetry. Of course, there is a sense in which writing poetry is a meditational practice, but I don't think this is any truer of my writing, aleatoric or nonaleatoric, that it is of anyone else's.

GIL OTT
Where the writing isn't predetermined, e.g., by a chance system, how do you form it?

JACKSON MAC LOW
I think I proceed intuitively--usually, spontaneously--in those poems or parts of poems--without preconceived plans.

However, many whole series of poems, such as the ones in the book STANZAS FOR IRIS LEZAK and both the numbered and the "matched" Asymmetries, were entirely produced systematically. There's nothing (or hardly anything) in STANZAS that was chosen, except that sometimes I chose to use a particular text or group of texts as a source.

GIL OTT
How do you choose the texts that you use?

JACKSON MAC LOW
That's usually impulsive. Usually, when I've written that kind of aleatorically-determined poem, I've worked from whatever I happened to be reading at the time. For instance, the summer of 1960, when I was writing STANZAS, I was reading books on botany, Buddhism, politics, and so on. I was reading some poetry and many articles in Scientific American and all sorts of other things, ranging from the National Enquirer and the Marquis de Sade to pacifist flyers and religious pamphlets. The poems came largely from whatever I happened to be reading. That's the personal part of those poems: the fact that I applied my aleatoric methods to whatever texts I happened to be reading, since what one reads is a very personal matter.

I began using the "Nucleic Method" in 1961, when I wrote a number of poems whose titles begin "From Nuclei..." At that time I also produced a whole pack of cards for improvising performers (NUCLEI FOR SIMONE FORTI), parts of which later became the basis of the series of Dance-Instruction Poems called THE PRONOUNS (3rd edition, Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY, 1979). (This pack and how I got from it to THE PRONOUNS is described in the prose essay published with the poems.)

At that time in early 1961 I drew several lists of words by means of random digits from the Basic English List. Both the NUCLEI FOR SIMONE and a number of verse poems I wrote at the time were made by using chance means to draw words from these word lists that themselves had been compiled by chance operations. The Basic English list had been compiled in, I think, the 1920's by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards. They believed that it included all or most of the most basic words in English and that most other words in English (except for proper names) could be "translated" into combinations of these Basic words. For instance, they translated the whole New Testament into Basic English. They thought that Basic English would be a better universal language than Esperanto, which in the 1920s was the widely used "universal language," albeit an artificial one. Since English was already so widespread, they thought its grammar and basic words would be a better universal language than any artificial one.

In making the FROM NUCLEI poems, the NUCLEI FOR SIMONE, and some other 1961 texts, I just used aleatoric means to draw words from their lists, which was in one of my dictionaries. That's when I began working freely between chance-given pivotal points ("nuclei"). Starting with Ogden and Richards' list, I'd let random digits draw a large list, and then often make a smaller list from the larger one, also by means of random digits, for use in any particular poem. As I said, between the chance-given nuclei I wrote pretty freely. I used similar methods in writing THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, but in making that series, I used the Phoenician meanings of the successive letters of the alphabet that comprised the presidents' names as my nuclei. For instance "G" is "Gimel" or "camel": thus the first line comes from the first letter of George Washington's name: "George Washington never owned a camel." Similarly, "E" and "O" mean "eye" and "head": the next line begins: "but the eyes in his head..." and so it goes throughout the series.

GIL OTT
What I really want to get to is why you use methods so exclusively.

JACKSON MAC LOW
For reasons derived from Buddhism--originally from Zen. For the Buddhist, the ego is an illusion. My purpose in using chance operations is to try to evade the ego, at least to some significant extent. The "pure" chance work presents each word, phrase, etc., apart from any valuation I might put on it. It's somewhat like the practice that later developed among people such as Clark Coolidge, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Steve McCaffery.

GIL OTT
But they select their words.

JACKSON MAC LOW
Yes. But I mean the effect of the words they select is somewhat similar. Each little word or word string--sometimes even fragments of words--is set off from the others. My words are seldom as detached from each other as those in the work that Clark produced in about 1964 or 1965. I tended to go in the opposite direction--toward more and more connection--after I began using the "Nucleic Method" in 1961.

GIL OTT
Do you feel, when you've written a sentence, that it satisfies you, or is it just another grouping of words or phrases?

JACKSON MAC LOW
It's according to what kind of work we're talking about. In poems in which I say things all the time, as in the later Light Poems, I play off between the ego and the nonego. That's something I got interested in about the same time that I started composing performance works that are realized largely by performers' choices (in a loose sense of the word, by "improvisation") rather than by strict chance regulation. Works written before 1961, such as my play THE MARRYING MAIDEN and the performance methods for realizing STANZAS FOR IRIS LEZAK as a simultaneity, have rather strict chance-given regulations of delivery and/or other performance parameters. In performing STANZAS, for instance, performers use three kinds of cards to determine what and how they speak and when they're silent and/or produce nonverbal sounds.

GIL OTT
Do you regard a lack of restriction, allowing for more improvisation, as allowing for more of the performer's ego to show, or less of it?

JACKSON MAC LOW
What I think of the ego, and what I think the Buddhist position on the ego is, has, I think, changed over the years. Some kinds of Buddhism, notably, Tibetan Buddhism (or some forms of it) work through the ego to achieve a nonegoic state. Personally, I have a mixture--maybe, a self-contradictory one--of attitudes toward the ego. What ego is and what it isn't gets more and more problematical for me. When instructing performers, I always ask them not "to go on ego trips," but always to relate to and respond to everything else they hear, everything else they sense during the performance. I ask performers to allow themselves to become part of the performance situation. I'm not interested in ego expression per se--as "self-expression"--but some degree of self-expression is an inevitable by-product of working, to whatever extent, improvisatorally. One is restricted by the rules of the pieces to using the given materials in prescribed ways, but this includes almost an infinite number of possibilities. Nevertheless, what comes up spontaneously in relation to the environment and other performers is not necessarily the same as what one would be doing as an ego expression. In fact, I'm doubtful as to how much poetry or art of any kind is really ego expression.

GIL OTT
When you have performers in this nonegoic state...

JACKSON MAC LOW
It's not actually nonegoic, but it isn't centered on expressing their egos. They're using their faculties and skills as sources for the performance. The main point lies not in their "expressing themselves" but in the whole situation's becoming something in itself. That's the relatively "objective" aspect of such performances that's analogous to the use of chance operations.

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