Gil Ott, Charles Alexander, post-9/11

On the near or random acts of love

On October 27, 2001, admirers of Gil Ott gathered at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia to celebrate his work. Several of them — Charles Alexander, Ammiel Alcalay, Linh Dinh, Kristen Gallagher (one of the organizers of the event, and editor of The Form of Our Uncertainty: A Tribute to Gil Ott, published by Chax), Craig Czury, Eli Goldblatt, and Chris McCreary — read from Gil’s work and their own. The program was recorded and is available on PennSound. Later, a 20-minute excerpt of the whole program was made available as a podcast.

When it was Charles Alexander’s turn at the podium that evening, he gave a 2.5-minute introduction and then read excerpts from his own then-new work, Near or Random Acts, a reinscription of N-O-R-A, his daughter's name. Some of the most recent sections of the poem are responses to the 9/11 attacks which had occured just six weeks before this event — thoughts of Nora, in part, and of her age and future.  The mostly implicit connection between and among love/writing/existential threat/family gets made astonishly well in the randomness of the near acts of the poem. I was moved then — and am still — by Alexander’s understanding of the convergence of two major occasions: celebrate Gil Ott and his family; do so six weeks after 9/11. The event, which had been previously scheduled, was much more than poetry’s “show must go on.”  The meanings unintentionally made (by the event, the communal reading) were of course not so random after all.  Kristen Gallagher, editor of the celebratory volume, wrote: “One thing has concerned him consistently: ‘the struggle to articulate.’ His acceptance of uncertainty and his history of stirring things up in status-quo-ville are the defining qualities of Gil Ott’s poetics. One thing Gil says he has often reacted against is the assumption that ‘people seek out order.’”  This disorder-seeking impulse toward social uncertainty Alexander blessed that day with a work Anne Waldman later called “an investigative blessing.”[1]

Here are those two recordings:

Charles Alexander’s introductory remarks about Gil Ott (2:29): MP3
“Near or Random Acts,” sections 16-29 (5:05): MP3

And here is a transcription of the introduction (prepared by Michael Nardone and edited by Katie Price):

Well, some nice things were said about my role in publishing this book [The Form of Our Uncertainty], but I have to say, as a publisher, when you have a book come to you about someone you dearly love, whose work you dearly love, with contributions in it from many writers you care about — and the book comes edited and intact, and also comes with having fundraising done that lets you pay the money to publish the book — it’s pretty much a publisher’s dream. And I’m really glad I had something to do with it. This is, in fact, one of three books I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with Gil. One, several years ago, called Wheel, and one that came out almost simultaneously with this, a new book of poems by Gil called Traffic.

My own relationship with Gil began just about sixteen years ago, I think, when I spent some time sleeping on his floor when I came to Philadelphia for the wedding of other friends who were friends of Gil’s: Wendy Osterweil and Eli Goldblatt. I feel like my relationship with Gil has always been not only one of two writers and two editor/publishers, but also involved with a very personal side. My relationship with Gil is one to Julia and Willa; it’s one that involves my family and their relationship with Gil and Julia and Willa.

So, tonight I’m going to read some sections from a poem that I’m in the process of writing that’s dedicated to my youngest daughter Nora. It’s named Near or Random Acts, which is an acrostic on her name. It takes the form of seven line groupings because she was seven when I began it, and it has five words for each line because seven times five is thirty-five, and I was thirty-five when I just became a parent. But in some ways, I guess I feel like I’m reading this not just for Gil, but for Julia and Willa too.


[1] In a statement issued for the Singing Horse Press edition of Near or Random Acts.