Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Blaster Al Ackerman: An Obituary

"Book in hand, I began to creep toward him. 'Wanna see something pretty?' I called softly."
[from "The Puffin Book", in Corn & Smoke: stories, performances, things, Shattered Wig Press, 2006.]

It started somewhere in 1994, I think. Out of school, working the kinds of jobs a pillow-soft high school graduate can get, ping-ponging between passed out on the curb, puking out the window, and white-knuckle sobriety. I was, obviously, the kind of adolescent who had as a constituative part of his self-identity something called 'being a poet'.

Part of this meant writing poems, and sending them off, to try to validate myself through publication. Being a corn dog in Denver, essentially completely without any connection whatsoever to culture, finding places to send my mediocre efforts to was a DIY affair. I had to buy Factsheet Five or The Poet's Market and work only thus dimly illuminated, with SASE and cover letter and three to five selected pieces, over and over again. (First thing you learn is you always got to buy an issue before you submit.) They list the editors in The Poet's Market, so your cover letter can sound professional—or whatever the analogue for professionalism is in the deliberately self-marginalizing, endlessly self-regarding, pseudo-mystical world of poetry. When I started submitting things to the Shattered Wig Review, their listed editor was Fred Engels. I didn't get it. I failed the test.

I wrote a couple letters to Fred Engels—I bought issues, I submitted stuff. And, page by page, issue by issue, the Wig changed my life. Mainly by way of regular and large doses of the writing of "Blaster" Al Ackerman. Weird little poems—often with faint, unplaceable whiffs of something irretrievably sad—hilarious and nightmarish stories, brilliant and unsettling cartoons. I started chasing him through the small press underground.

You Hear That
you were giving me a ride someplace
that didn't pan out, the movies I think
but that closet's too dribbly to go to the movie
you hear that
Words mean nothing to such a game of wetness and
that's why cats faint as they learn who made us
if not he who made the big purple heads
is like a wet dream of thought now willed
that can make a new being made of elements
which cannot be identified, only spent.
You hear that?
Words mean nothing to such a thing
These transitional expressions really can not be real
Now it seems to have disappeared
No, wait. It seems to be coming back again, a little
But it's becoming broken like a fruitcake
It's dreaming all the while like the blackness of sleep
But what is this? You say sleep is black as night
And yet it seems possessed by nothing but imagination
That is the way sleep goes and we are a lot like Dryden
We cannot be correct
We haven't time
[from JMB]

The most reliable source for the Blaster Al I liked best was John M. Bennett's Lost and Found Times, where Ackerman regularly had a few pages to detail his methodical and playful poem-making practices: "Ack's Hacks". One month he might take a John M. Bennett piece and a Steven Spender piece, rip each down the middle, and splice them together, left halves by Bennett, right halves by Spender. Another month he'd use what I remember he called the "World of Wastebasket": wad up and partially smooth out somebody's poem, and use the words you can see as a word bank for your own poem.

I adored the results, with their roiling mix of perspectives and rhythms, their weird, unpredictable lexical combinations—and a kind of surrealism that went ineffably deeper than unusual image-juxtaposition or unexpected placement—their humor and sadness. I also adored the window into their creation, the frank joy and attention to detail, the constant demonstration that "being a poet" is always dumped and trumped by "working to write a poem". Issue after issue of Shattered Wig Review and Lost and Found Times—and others!—taught by example that "inspiration" is nothing at all, that the poet-persona never matters as against an ass in a chair, doing the work, that doing the work was best done with humor and honesty as the watchwords, tempering the arrogance of making something with the humility in admitting where it came from and the determination to make it as good—and as well—as possible.

I found pretty much the whole world in these poems and stories. There was ugliness, horror, and immense confusion; weird rhythms of recurrence; humor that lacerated and healed by turns; references to genre from romance to hard-boiled to science fiction to newsletter to shaggy-dog story to rambling guy in a bar. Maybe sometime somewhere somebody will top The Crab as an exemplar of the personal essay; I'm not holding my breath. Sense was not always on display on the surface—perhaps the Doctor's most notable concession to consensus reality (and certainly his deepest subversion of same; one of the most consistent pleasures in this intensely pleasurable work is the slippage between name and thing and thing and thing—half his narrators spend half their time asking, and needing to ask, and not really getting straight answers to, questions like:

"Do you mean a bat like in baseball or like in 'any of numerous flying mammals of the order Chiroptera, having membranous wings and navigating by night by echolocation?'"2

2 I won't leave you hanging. The answer: "I mean 'bat' as in Batman or Devil Bat."
[from] "The White Bat" (widely reprinted))

Somewhere Ackerman noted1:

so much of what I do is gibberish, but looking at the world, it's hard to say that gibberish isn't the central art form of our time

"Sideshow Days with Your Pop"
[from: Shattered Wig Review 18, Summer, 1999.]

When I found Feh! Press' brilliant Omnibus, the lessons only amplified, clarified, purified. Blaster introduced one piece with this:1

These are words scribbled hastily in the margins of a life, by a man too often taken in drink, some written sitting behind the wheel of a car, waiting for someone to finish their physical therapy appointment

1 This quote is from memory. Forgive my citational incompetence, please: I write these words without access to my full library.

This, then, was how to go about writing. His treatise on the "Tacky Little Pamphlet" was how to go about distributing that writing: you'd write some stuff, you'd stuff it all onto some papers, you'd leave them around, in magazine racks, or at the laundromat, or stuffed into envelopes and mailed to random addresses. This I did.

"Stamp: Can I Touch Your Leg?"
[from: Shattered Wig Review 18, Summer, 1999.]

Eventually, I sent a thing or two to Blaster Al himself. He always write back—his grand scrawl "Get This to:" on the envelope, usually a hand-drawn stamp: there was never any mistaking an envelope from Blaster Al Ackerman. I lost all this correspondence moves and moves ago, I think, but I have retained the kindness and generosity he showed to a nobody from nowhere, some dumb kid just trying to figure out how and what and why to write. He once sent a draft version of an as-then-unpublished story called "Floaters". It was so good, and meant so much to me, that I carried it through six weeks of travelling, Portland to Rome to Barcelona to London to NYC to Georgia to Chicago to Austin to Denver to Portland, nothing but a backpack and not much room for books.

C.S. shifts around in the golf cart, trying to ease his legs. How can there be so many strange and unexplained things in the world, he has no idea. Recently, he has read an article in Playboy about men who are turned on by wearing lobster claws and watching boa constrictors swallow alarm clocks. They are called Dadaists.
[from] "Floaters"

The good Doctor died last week sometime. I found out on Twitter. The link was to this, excellent, remembrance: Dear Blaster. Among the regrets this instanced: I had written him in years. I had not bothered to write this appreciation.

Al Ackerman was a great man. His work was varied and brilliant, and anyone free of dogmas about the inferiority of humor or prejudices about underground writing will find a lot to learn from, and laugh at, and linger over. If you care more about what he nice, I can assure you he was. There is much evidence on this point, and it all agrees with me. The evidence of his genius is even more abundant.

His democratic willingness to engage with just about anybody isn't there, anymore—but if a legitimate titan of underground writing could take time from his medical transportation gig to answer his mail, so can you...and so can I. Good things may come of it!

Back in front of my building, three men were out on the stoop—two of them were having a beer-pissing contest, the third was refereeing from the top step. The referee, I saw, was gross old Mr. Barsh, the building super, who never fixes anything.

Book in hand, I began to creep toward him. "Wanna see something pretty?" I called softly.
[from "The Puffin Book", in Corn & Smoke: stories, performances, things, Shattered Wig Press, 2006.]

In between work and mail and life, and fighting for what dignity and decency we can manage, we can write, or draw, or sing, or otherwise make stuff. Blaster Al did.

I want to close with a couple long sections from my favorite Blaster Al chapbook. They include the powerful repetitions, the humor, the sadness, the horror, the confusion I associate with the best of his work. It's the whole world, in other words—the best words: the words of Al Ackerman. The world is a poorer place without him.


[from: Let Me Eat Massive Pieces of Clay, Shattered Wig Press, 1992.]

                    Are you sick? drunk?
Well it's good to know that for a few days
Voices come alternately from both sides
Though under normal circumstances the saying that never comes true
Starts to smell after a few years--so that each day, after that, was
     akin to a large doll's face burping outside the window
Whew: that face was the size of a parking lot, and all onions, near which stood a man named Canarse Park
Now forget that

That was no church! That was rodomontade,
Or the moss-hell "false memory"
Of lofting the teeming BALTIC AVENUE DRUGSTORE
To relocate it more nearly above locations that never change when
Proofs of dark, roam and percolate
Nourishing the urge to understand bur not hear about any
Plans to overrun or swarm about in large numbers but still, in the shredded-silver
REFLECTION that goes tearing along overhead
Topped with a drawing (chedderchrome) of mayonnaise congealing on
The lip of the drinking glass the Coca Cola and Jim Beam is in:
It was ten-of-seven
When Hawk realized he
Was unshaven and
Driving a van he had
Never seen toward
Now forget that

2 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Rupert Wondolowski said...

This is really a beautiful, in depth, critical memorial, critique and testimonial! I hope Shattered Wig didn't seem off-putting to you. I thought playing around with our submission guidelines in things like The Poet's Market would help give a taste of what we were looking for and about. "Fred Engels" the editor being in mind a tribute to Blaster's "The Crab". Can I reprint this on my Shattered Wig blog?

--Rupert Wondolowski

12:28 PM  
Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Hey, Rupert!

Thank you for your infinitely kind words. I would be more than honored if you would like to reprint: I'll forward you the files I made, which should make it a little easier.

I left this part out, because I thought there was already too much about me in a piece that was about the good doctor, but the "Fred Engels" gag did not at all put me off--I included it mainly as an illustration of my callowness. Some time later, I did manage to sneak some work into the estimable Wig, under my government name. You may remember "travel, log", which I think was a Hack I did on a New York Times travel piece... In the end, it was far from off-putting, and once I finally got the joke, I loved it.

1:54 PM  

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