Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Interview With Poet GIL OTT 

GIL OTT is a poet and publisher of Singing Horse, a literary press, which has produced over twenty-five titles by emerging poets and writers in the past 27 years. The journal Paper Air, which the Press published from 1976 through 1990, was the recipient of an Editors' Fellowship from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in 1985. He has thirteen books of poetry and prose, including The Yellow Floor (Sun & Moon, 1985), within range (Burning Deck, 1987), Public Domain (Potes & Poets, 1989), The Whole Note (Zasterle, Canary Islands, Spain, 1996), and Traffic, (Chax Press, 2001).

Gil has several poems and songs on the forthcoming FREQUENCY Audio Journal. To purchase a copy of the compact disc, please contact the editors: CAConrad at CAConrad13@AOL.com, or Magdalena Zurawski at magdalena@leapfroginet.com

THE AMPUTATED TOE is Gil Ott's latest book, and is forthcoming from Cuneiform Press. Please contact the publisher Kyle Schlesinger for details: ks46@acsu.buffalo.edu

"The action takes place quickly. This is called 'the element of surprise.' The players are surrounded by a horde of players who apparently do not realize that they are players. Chaos ensues, with its attendant cacophony, which we are left to decipher. The effort this requires threatens us with a descent into exhaustion. I don't know about you, but the job of making sense of hubbub is taxing, and I'd welcome a rest."
     --Gil Ott, from THE AMPUTATED TOE

When I interviewed Gil Ott, he had already been a patient in Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania Hospital for nine months. He was first admitted with what Gil himself calls a minor stroke, but went onto catch Staph Infection and other diseases and complications common in hospitals. He had asked me to come during his dialysis treatment, as he would be relaxed for the interview. He was a little worried that my questions were going to be like my 9for9 project's questions, "You're not going to ask me to turn poets into kites again, or anything like that I hope? I'm not sure I have the energy for such things right now." I assured him the interview was to focus on his poetry and his work with publishing poetry, questions mostly involving memory.

The room was as you would imagine it, filled with beeping computerized equipment, tubes and wires crossing one another, leading to Gil. The walls were covered with cards wishing him well, wishing him a happy birthday, happy new year, and whatever other holiday he had spent in there so far. Over the months many of the younger poets who understand Gil's genius as a poet, as well as his generosity and support of young poets, have come to visit: Frank Sherlock, Chris McCreary, Jenn McCreary, Magdalena Zurawski, Tom Devaney, John Coletti, Alicia Askenase, myself and others. There were several copies of his books on a shelf by the window, most visible was The Yellow Floor, and so I was surprised when the nurse hadn't known Gil was a poet until asking why I was there to interview him. "So you're a poet Gil?" And he answered, "No, you can only aspire to be a poet in these dark times we live in." She wrinkled her brow with a laugh, punched a few buttons to stop whatever was beeping from beeping. We were set for the interview, which would be interrupted several times by nurses, doctors, orderlies, but Gil, even though he was very sick, was often better at picking up the thread of the story than I was.


January 17th, 2004
10:50 am

CAConrad: You've always been one of my favorite poets to hear read, and one of the reasons is that I know I'm going to get to hear you sing. I'll never forget the first time I heard you, it was at The Bacchanal. I was just a teenager at the time, I was there with Pegalina, and she requested that you sing the song "The Moon Does Not Run On Gasoline." It was amazing, it was our favorite, and we sang it in every bar in Philadelphia and Atlantic City that year. Did you write the words to that song Gil?

Gil Ott: No I did not write that, that was composed by the poet Kush, who lives in San Francisco now. I doubt it's written down anywhere. Actually, very few of the songs I sing were composed by myself, they were mostly composed by Kush. He's a street poet, and we connected years ago when he was trying to get out of the draft, get out of going to Vietnam. He was friends with my friend Randy Byar. They were both graduates of Bard College. And I had other friends at Bard, this is back in the sixties. And Kush, being a poet, was who I connected with best.

(short interruption by nurse)

CAConrad: Okay Gil, we're back. You were talking about Kush, and friends at Bard. Was Robert Kelly there at the time?

Gil Ott: Yes, but I had no contact with Robert Kelly. I met him years later through George Quasha who ran Station Hill Press. But Kelly is not part of this particular story. Kush, being a street poet, had an idea that he would spend 1976--the Bicentennial year--in Philadelphia reading the entire book Leaves of Grass on the street corners. And that's what he did, in both Philadelphia and Camden, he gave a full-voice reading through this entire book, and I found that intriguing. And I joined him often, but then found myself dealing with the onset of Renal disease. I wanted Kush to be my friend, but he took it in a very businesslike attitude, so he took what he was doing very seriously, and I couldn't always catch up with him, because I was often sick. So even though I wanted a friend, what I got was a guy who was going his own way, and we both had our separate lives. But one thing I got out of it were these little song-poems which he composed. There's "The Moon Does Not Run On Gasoline," which people remember the most because it has a silly sound to it. There's one called "Night and Day Will Pass Away"--no, wait, that's one that I wrote actually, something I got off an Archie Schepp record that I heard on the radio. (begins singing the song) "Night and day will pass away, but love will always win, night and day will pass away, but love will always win." My delivery is not so great, because I'm sitting in this awkward position, in a hospital bed, right now. Another one that Kush wrote sounded like this, "Life is sacred, let us be walking images of our beautiful ways of life," that's all there is to it. He was a big fan of Gary Snyder at the time. His master's thesis at the New School had been on ethno-poetics, which was--and still is--a borderline, academic discipline. It's not really accepted, but was championed by Jerome Rothenberg, who was at the New School at the time, I believe. Kush embraced ethno-poetics, and I remember years later traveling with him, driving up to the Pacific Northwest, where he used his credentials as a student of ethno-poetics to get us into an archeological dig. I remember going to the site with him, out in the woods, and seeing what they had found, which consisted of totem poles, and big carved boxes, and other items. They were carved and painted, and probably not that old because they were wood, and had survived. But that was a long answer to your question, but no, I did not write "The Moon Does Not Run On Gasoline."

CA: Poet George Delaney once told me that you were one of the few poets he had met who understood poems to be songs. How do you respond to that?

Gil: (laughs) One has to be very careful how one responds to whatever George Delaney might say.

CA: (also laughing) That's a good answer.

Gil: Is that my full answer?

CA: I don't know, is it?

Gil: I'd say George is a genius with a huge monkey on his back. He has a huge problem. And I doubt he's ever going to get well from it. Which is unfortunate, because I think he really does understand poetry as song. But I take it as a compliment when he says that about me, because I think he's a true poet.

CA: One of my favorite poems of yours is "Stingere." You've said that you invented the word for the title. What were the sources for making the word?

Gil: The word came from newspaper articles, it was pure Madison Avenue treatment of major weapons systems. Back in the early 80's the Pentagon and the military industrial complex unveiled new missiles, and what their capacity was in warfare. It was their attempt to sell them to the American public, and to scare the rest of the world. They were ship-born missiles, and their names were Stinger and Cruise. They had unveiled them at some sort of military hardware convention, and the headline on the Inquirer article read something like, "Stinger and Cruise Show Great Potential." I love to take bits of language and fragment them, I do that constantly while I'm reading. And I get new combinations. So in this case I got "Stingere," which to me sounded like a fragment of German, sounded like, "Sh-ting-er-ah." When you break it down that much it doesn't make any sense, so I'll never explain that enough.

CA: I've always appreciated how you ended your book WITHIN RANGE with the lines:

taken sparingly, gain in significance. Choice of poverty
affirms abundance. My perspective is certain; it is the same
seed in me. It wants to go outside to love me, and so comes

Can you share some thoughts or feelings about ending with those lines?

(doctor comes in and talks with Gil, so I repeat the question after he leaves the room)

Gil: Do you have that excerpt written down?

CA: (hands papers to him)

Gil: You're asking for exegesis, which I've never been too good at.

CA: We could skip this question if you'd like.

Gil: Well, let me say that it's always made sense to me that a poem only makes sense to an individual reader. So it's going to have a different sense to you, and a different sense for the next reader.

CA: Kyle Schlesinger is working on your next book THE AMPUTATED TOE, forthcoming on his Cuneiform Press. What can you tell us about this new book?

Gil: It was very difficult to write it. I had finished the book PACT, which was a collection of prose fables. And I had great difficulty finding the string which would lead me back to writing. I couldn't even figure out what to read at that point. Although I managed to write this one piece, THE AMPUTATED TOE, because I had an epiphany, of sorts. The epiphany consisted of being called to my father's bedside one night last February. He's old, but very hardy, so being called to his bedside is rather dramatic.

(a nurse comes in, and we need to stop the interview for a few minutes.)

Gil: (picking up where he left off) He is so old, and he's blind, and he was cutting his toenails, and he lopped off the end of his toe. And he didn't even know it. And he got an infection in his toe, which bloated up, and looked very mean. And the nurse from his nursing home came in and looked at it, and she was the one who gave me the call. And she said, "If he was my father, I'd take him to the emergency room." So I did, immediately. This was a Friday night, so we sat there for several hours, while gunshot wounds and car accidents came through the door. And it's one of those experiences you hope will lead you to a greater understanding of your father. But fathers are always out of reach. The story is not about the father. The story is generated by the title in this case. The doctor finally came to see us, he looked at the toe, he said, "That looks awful! " And he used the word for the first time, "We may have to amputate it." It turns out they didn't amputate it, but they admitted my dad to the hospital, where I was sure he was going to lose his toe. Which wouldn't be a big deal at 89. So I was given the title in that way, and the story came from that. But really the title only provides a certain tone for the story. The story has no relevance to amputated toes. Although I could make one up if you'd like. (laughs)

CA: That book is coming out soon.

Gil: Kyle Schlesinger does fine work, and i'm happy he's publishing the book. I just hope I get to see it.
CA: Something I've always wanted to ask you Gil--

Gil: --shoot!

CA: Your magazine PAPER AIR, what was the inspiration for the magazine's name?

Gil: That's very simple. I think I was inspired by the American Poetry Review, which is easy to say in that for most of the time before, I had lived on the West coast where American Poetry Review didn't have much of a presence. But on the East coast it seemed like a big deal, and I guess it was a big deal nationally, and probably still is. But what I liked was the format of a tabloid newspaper. And I imagined that to be a cheap way to produce a magazine. But I found out when getting my material together and seeking bids from printers that that was not the case.

(interruption by orderly for a few minutes)

Gil: Okay, where was I? Oh, PAPER AIR. What I found out was that the tabloid format was prohibitive as far as affording the printing. So I dropped that idea, but the name was inspired by that original idea of the tabloid. I imagined myself standing on the corner of 34th and Walnut in West Philly, standing with a pile of these newspapers, which were my magazines, and selling them, and shouting out, "AIR PAPER AIR PAPER AIR PAPER AIR PAPER AIR!" That seemed like a logical name for a magazine of poetry. There was also a local aspect to the magazine, I wanted to include local poets. In fact the first issue has a lot of local poets. From early on I published the poets who were available to me, including Toby Olson, Nathaniel Tarn, Ammiel Alcalay, Janet Rodney, and others.

CA: What would you say was the magazine's main focus?

Gil: The aesthetic changed and moved over the years. Originally is was a Beat focus, which had been my personal focus when I lived in San Francisco, before moving here. Beat was heavily influenced by surrealism at that time. I liked surrealism, I still do. But that changed when I arrived here, and met poets like John Wilson and Eli Goldblatt, where we became involved in discussions of Objectivism. And suddenly I did some serious reading! Pound and Williams and Zukofsky. That was also the time when I met Cid Corman, and I started reading Frank Samperi and others in Cid's Origin magazine circle, you might call it. And of course that focus surfaced in my magazine. Finally the magazine became what I believe all magazines should become, it became a political instrument. It put forth a political view point. When I finally saw it as a political instrument, that's when I stopped publishing it, because I realized it had fulfilled its purpose. It got to the point after twelve issues that it had finally run its course.

CA: Jonathan Williams once said that he had originally wanted to start a magazine, but realized he preferred the idea of focusing on volumes of work by a single poet, and in turn started his Jargon label. Did your Singing Horse Press come about in the same way? That need to focus more on a single poet's work?

Gil: Yes. You can do a lot more for the poet with books. Magazines have a very short shelf life, usually about three months. Unfortunately that's true for all magazines. By the time People magazine shows up in your dentist's waiting room, it's three months old. It's been around the living room, and it's managed to survive, and finally somebody says, "Let's get rid of this," and it goes to the waiting room, where daddy works. Of course it's the same situation with poetry magazines, although you don't find them in dentist's waiting rooms. I have boxes of them in my basement, which I've been trying to pawn off for years. Poetry magazines which, to me, have value. But to librarians, even rare book librarians, they have no value. Publishing a magazine is ultimately futile, if you're looking for some kind of permanence for the poet. You have to do books. Even smaller books have a greater impact than magazines.

CA: You've published some wonderful looking, important books, which include Harryette Mullen's S*PeRM**K*T, and Jenn and Chris McCreary's collaborative flip book. You also published a book by poet Linh Dinh called Drunkard Boxing. What was that like working with him?

Gil: Linh is kind of a mystery man. I don't know him very well, but his work always appealed to me. Although I'm sure it's a persona he projects, that he's not as alienated as he seems. He is a Vietnamese expatriate who writes, as Ron Silliman noted, a new form of surrealism that answers the alienation. His writing is very urban, it's also Kafkaesque. Working with Linh was a pleasure, and he seemed very happy to have that book. I asked him to do original art for the cover, which he turned out right away. He's also a painter you know. Linh is a very professional guy, very serious about his work. I'm glad to see he's had successes since then.

CA: Earlier you mentioned Frank Samperi, and he's someone you have mentioned over the years as being an inspiration to you. Can you share some of your thoughts about how his poems fit into your life as a poet?

Gil: Poverty and art is something I've discussed with the Australian poet David Miller, who is also familiar with Samperi. At the time--which would be the early 80s--Frank Samperi seemed to me to be a great undiscovered poet in our midst. The notion of poverty and art was very strong, and he seemed very monkish to me. This is something I have adopted, as a condition, which is what's interesting in that quote you pulled out earlier from my book WITHIN RANGE.

CA: You met him once didn't you? At the Ear Inn, isn't that right?

Gil: Yes. He gave a once in a lifetime reading at the Ear Inn. It's funny, because sometimes you meet people at the Ear Inn and you expect something from them that they're not. I guess that's true of many things. I expected this guy to look like a monk. And he shows up with his wife, who is wearing a frilly outfit, with fur around the edges. Everything I saw in them bespoke a struggle to maintain a middle class existence. Anyway, he sat down and read, and he read very softly. I have long-sought a recording of that reading, but apparently, due to the Ear Inn's technological failures, no recording is available. But it was beautiful! You really had to listen hard, because his voice was so soft, and the microphones weren't working.

CA: Didn't you say that he died soon after that reading?

Gil: Yes he did. He seemed fairly fragile. I also want to say that part of the appeal of Samperi were the books of his work that were produced. Grossman and Mushinsha published his trilogy. Also some very nice chapbooks of his work that Cid Corman had put out at one point. The linkage with poverty was through the line. His line was very spare. Sometimes one word or two words to a line. And you get these long thin lines that are just barely there, but powerful.

(orderly brings in Gil's lunch. I notice on the tray is the name Gilbert F. Ott)

CA: What does the "F" stand for in your name Gil?

Gil: Frederic, no "k."

CA: One of the more inspiring things written by you that I've read is online for CommunityArts.net, where you write:

A well rounded and diversified arts community will survive and thrive. It will support an avant-garde; it will help advance the dialog on progressive issues, and it will build alliances for stronger communities. But the commitment to collaborate must run deep, and those artists and organizations who take it on must be willing, themselves, to change. This is the risk, and the reward.

If I had no idea who you were and read this, it would be clear that you write this from experience Gil. What are some of your highlights with artistic collaboration and community building that you'd like to share?

Gil: I guess they're mainly administrative. I worked for years at the Painted Bride Arts Center raising money and building programs. And finally that's what cost me my job there, because I didn't raise enough money and I built too many programs. But my main accomplishment had to do with community arts, building collaborations between the Painted Bride and other arts organizations. I would go out and find community centers that wanted to start arts programs, usually working with kids, and they were in churches, sometimes in someone's living room. Sometimes it was successful, and sometimes it was disastrous. Really, it's very hard to build a community from the outside, the way I was doing it. I would bring in an artist, and introduce them to a community, and for a time everyone said it sounded like a great idea because I was also bringing in money, and everyone was hoping to get some. But the quote you're sharing is my more idealistic side, and the quote is focused on existing communities that are already committed to collaborating with another existing community. I guess I'm speaking more pessimistically than I should. But there are some communities in Philadelphia which exist because I introduced them. The Southwest Community Enrichment Center would be one. I was also part of organizing a citywide festival of the arts, and it was called The Arts of Social Change. And part of that was a tour of community arts centers by bus. For many people downtown, it was their first experience with these neighborhoods, and with places like the Village of Arts and Humanities. We took them out there, fed them local food, and they saw art and performances by local artists, and they saw many things that they had never seen before.

(a team of doctors walks in, and we need to stop the interview again for a few minutes)

Gil: Okay, but since that festival, funders, and corporate sponsors have gained an understanding, so there you have a community that has changed, but which would have survived regardless.

CA: So The Arts of Social Change was a highlight for your time at the Painted Bride.

Gil: Yes, and I can't even tell you what year that was. We invited artists from all over the country to come in and work in Philadelphia communities. And they were to work over the weekend on producing a piece of art, which usually wound up being a theater piece with neighborhoods, and they were often performed in those neighborhoods. As well as performances at the Painted Bride, which everyone could go to.

CA: You're married to poet Julia Blumenreich. What has been your experience with two poets being married?

Gil: For every two poets there are differences, but we support one another in various ways. One is that Singing Horse Press published Julia's book. It's a very good book, and it's dealing with racism in ways no one else has done. And I feel I did a very nice job of it, and she now has this book to take with her when she does poetry presentations, which she does every year.

CA: Is that book called Meeting Tessie?

Gil: Yes, that's right. The book is an example of our differences. I'm a purist, poetry is poetry, and social action is social action. But Julia mixes her poetry with social action. And she's teaching poetry all the time. She'll bring home a poem by a fourth grader, and show it to me, and say, "Isn't it great!?" I don't see greatness there, I just see a fourth grader's writing, but she means it, that it is great. She sees the seed's potential, and she can see greatness there. I have much respect for that.


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