Started on 17-6-1996
RJ: Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 29-7-1996
(Al's first answer came typed on a paper with a copy of one of Al Ackerman's famous drawings with the text: "Sigh....My most gifted pupil.... too bad her head is bean shaped" on it).
AA: At the time I started doing mail art I had already tried a lot of other things, with zero-to-little success. As a kid I'd early on become addicted to the old pulp magazines Weird Tales, Trilling Wonder, Planet, Doc Savage, Dime Detective and so forth -- and my earliest aspirations had to do with becoming part of this world, which seemed to me to be a nicely hermetic three-ring- circus & pocket universe thing where marvels were still allowed to happen.
I'd developed this pulp-ghetto ideal where, by turning out reams of pulp under various pseudonyms for very low pay, you could live a precarious but romantic existence. That was the idea. But by the time I was actually old enough to begin my hand at it, 1953-54, most of the pulp mags had folded, the whole pulp market collapsed, leaving me and my dream bereft. Along with this I had been having some correspondence with Fredric Brown, the late-great sifi and mystery writer. And one of the things he told me, by way of helpful advice, was, "Always try to be lucky enough to work in a despised medium." I wasn't quite sure I knew what he meant but I filed it away, at least subconsciously, for future reference.
So -- time passed and I drifted into quite a lot of writing for the confession magazines and then did some TV work, had a nightclub & TV act, did some theatre, wrote plays, etc. None of it very satisfactory from my pulp-dream standpoint. Finally, in 1972, I happened to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone, the issue with the Thos. Albright article Correspondence Art. I read that and all the names and addresses of these people mailing things, I thought that sounded like it might be right up my alley. I had like this very positive 100% yes-response. To me, the whole mail art thing seemed like an ideal way to realize my long-cherished pulp dream, that is, to do a lot of fundamentally rapid work and use a lot of different pseudonyms and not make a dime.
So I started right in mailing out these nitwit Gnome Club and Clark Ashton Smith Fellowship Chapter doodads. I got a nice response, people like The Northwest Mounted Valise and Dr. Brute and John Dowd and Image Bank and Irene Dogmatic, and later on Billy Haddock and John M. Bennett, and then Image Bank put me onto Dave "Oz" Zack, etc. And on that basis I got hooked. And now here it is, nearly a quarter of a century later, and I'm still hooked. I also understand what Fred Brown meant when he said Always try to be lucky enough to work in the despised medium. I've had a very lucky run. In fact, looking back on it all, I have to feel luckier than a moth in a tampon factory.
RJ: It is always good to hear that someone feels he had a 'lucky run'. In The Online Blaster - Meanderings of an American Ling Master the text about you starts as: "A master of pseudonyms and of schizophrenia,...." How far do the pseudonyms influence you?
Reply on 23-8-96
AA: Here again -- for me -- the use of pseudonyms is something that goes back to my first early fascination with the pulps. In the old days, when a pulp mag used more than one of a writer's stories at a time, it was common practice to put a different byline on each story -- this helped give the reader the illusion he was getting more for his dime. If a writer was at all prolific -- and some of those guys, like Kuttner and Woolrich, were singlehandedly writing entire magazines -- he very often found himself operating under a half-dozen or more pseudonyms. And somehow this was a convention that held a lot of romantic appeal for my younger self. Probably because of its shady, less- than-honest aspects, the multiple-name dodge became in my mind a sort of cicerone or ideal. Years later when I began doing mail art I carried the idea of using multiple names over into that. The fact that the mail art network had long favored the use of weird and intriguing pseudonyms -- Dr. Brute, Anna Banana, Rain Rien, Andre "The Scientist" Stitt, Art Tar, etc. -- seemed made to order for what I was up to.
I started out mailing under the name of "Blaster Al"-- and I was also "Mrs. Blaster" and "Leonie of the Jungle" and Ralph "$50,000 Party" Delgado and the critic Ernst Stroh-Symtra (to get what "Stroh-Symtra" was about, read the name backwards) and Eel Leonard ("The Newark Cannibal" -- don't ask him what he had for supper) and Glans T. Sherman and Jana Peruda and Emergency Room Metcalf. (The last named mail art phantom was also known as "The Bleeder" because he suffered from hemophilia and could bleed to death from the slightest paper cut or prick from a postage stamp) plus quite a few other colorful and bogus handles I've mercifully managed to forget.
Along with all of this there were the different club names - Clark Ashton Smith Fellowship Chapter, Scientific Electricity Foundation, various incarnations of Gnome King and/or Kink Club, among others, and, later, when things went really out of hand, the Harry Bates Club scams done in collaboration with Gene Laughter and Lon Spiegelman. It was fun. Eventually the Harry Bates Club doings became so twisted that it would require a whole book (some would say a lengthy court deposition) to detail all that went on, including the postal inspectors being called in to investigate charges of "menace" and the seeming establishment of Pepeland, a top- secret Harry Bates clinic for maimed and crippled pets.
You mention the Ling Master -- that name came about because I had promised my pal R. Kern a story for his magazine DUMB FUCKER. That first story was called Confessions of an American Ling Master. I did others. Ultimately, Ling and his mystic pillowcase hood with the single eye hole went from being a character in a series of stories to a pseudonym I adopted as part of a mail art offer ("LING ANSWERS ANY QUESTION FOR $5!"), something I was hoping would generate a little extra income. As it turned out, Ling was one of those creations that become somewhat autonomous, and goes on to lead a life of their own, meaning that as time went by, the Ling persona was picked up and adopted by a number of people who started using it for their own agendas. For instance, there was a seriously disturbed man in London who went around calling himself "Young Ling" until the police stopped him for questioning and found all sorts of unspeakable flotsam taped to his body. More recently, Steve Sleaze Steele's Provident Hot Check Productions Ltd. has done a film adaptation of the Ling story I, the Stallion! It just goes to show what small nuts the mighty okum runneth down and around all over the place seeking whom it may to deflower.
Of course, I could go on and provide a long song and dance that would freight across some fairly portentous academic-type theoretical blather having to do with the use of multiple names. I could talk about alternative realities and personalities as used for mimetic framing devices to create meta fictional constructs ( and vice versa); also the philosophy behind "Plagiarism", "Neoism", "Carrotism" and "Fletcheritis." Fortunately, though, life's too short. Besides, the truth of the matter isn't all that hard to glim: In the final analysis using a lot of fake names is a neat thing because it allows you to experience more than one reality, and dick around a lot in the process. I recommend it.
RJ: Sounds like a good advice. You have been doing this mail art now for quite a long time (nearly a quarter of a century as you mentioned it yourself). Probably you have noticed some changes in the mail art network over the years. What changes strike you the most?
Reply on 18-9-1996
AA: Well of course the two most obvious changes that come to mind are:
- The hellish (and seemingly never-ending) increases in postage, and
- The sheer growth & proliferation of the mail network itself.
Back in the early '70s, when I was just starting out, it really was possible to know most of what was going on in the mails, to have at least a fair handle on 80% of the names, the personalities, the shows & scams & projects that were happening. Back then, mail art was very much a world unto itself & not all that populous, either. Plus postage was cheap enough to allow you hit the lists and range pretty widely. It made for an intense -- and intensely rapid -- situation, in which exchange and dissemination seemed to occur practically in the same breath. Things were very concentrated (humm, I almost wrote "consecrated".)
Whereas today, it all seems a lot more spread out. More diffuse. More "hobbyist" orientated, perhaps. Or maybe after 20+ years I'm no longer quite so able to react in fresh ways. Joyce said we go through the world meeting Kings & Queens, thieves & baby pigs & incredible glycerin beings on legs that keep trying to dart behind us -- meeting all these things but always meeting ourselves. So that may be all that I'm reporting here. I don't know -- as far as today's teeming mail-edifice goes, it's perfectly possible that someone super-industrious, like, for instance, my pal Ashley Parker-Owens over at Global Mail can keep up and keep track of the scene, maintain some sort of coherent overview..... I can't. From my point of view, it's simply grown too huge. These days there seem to be as many practicing mail artists as Wheaties has flakes. Maybe a good thing, maybe not. Who knows. (I tried asking The 14 Secret Masters of the World about it once, but the best they could tell me was, Think about the life you would like to lead, and will lead, just as soon as you start selling reefer.)
Anyway, I still try to enjoy what small corner of it comes my way. Changez les draps, as Decartes says somewhere.
RJ: You mention The 14 Secret Masters of the World. Who are they?(On September 27th I received some copies from Al Ackerman's book where some texts he wrote explain some details of the things he told about in his answer).
Reply on 5-11-1996
(Al's answer was typed on paper that started with a special cartoon with title: "I often wonder, am I........mad?" made by Al Ackerman)
AA: I have been thinking about this one all day, and I wonder if I can come anywhere near answering it without sounding like The Bat Staffel.
I think, for our purposes here, it would be best to stick to the immediate ascertainable mail-art side of things, which means eschewing the palmier and in some ways more fascinating background of ancient mystic lore and eldritch hoodly-doodly that permeated The 14 Secret Masters like white permeates rice. The surreptitious powder theories of Thomas Dalton. The Egbo Assembly, said to have originated at 13th century fairs. Various ideas about legominism and critomancy. Borges insisting, quite correctly, that "the secret is sacred but it is always vaguely ridiculous." The Mordacaii Brotherhood, so weird and drooling. Leviticon and Maat Kheru, the true intonation, the Flying Legion and Charles Williams and Chullunder Ghose and Mrs. Guppy's famous transit and the eerie Hastraun sect.... Some time I'm going to write a book about The 14 Secret Masters complete with all the esoteric trimmings, but this isn't it.
To begin with, then, let's just say that The 14 Secret Masters, in certain ways, was a lot like RayJo's Buddha University. That is, a handy all-purpose cover- name for a number of mail and mail-related activities, not all of them strictly "real". In the case of The 14 Secret Masters of the World (to give the thing its full sobriquet; hereafter abbreviated 14SM) the emphasis was on the sort of shadowy secret society that exists somewhere between the dingbat metaphysical realms of the Golden Dawn Society and the more lurid down- cellar activities of Fu-Manchu. The 14SM was meant to seem screwball, but it definitely had its meaningless aspects.
In this respect -- and taken purely as a mail-art entity -- the 14SM functioned on several levels. Sometimes it simply served to designate my favorite core- circle of mailers... or as a convenient letterhead for whatever correspondence scam happened to be going down at the moment. Sample from '75: "Dear Richard Nixon -- ways of filth stand by you and land smell naz creep figure span down toward how long your finger been exhaustingly pleasing little things in big twin hillocks.... (etc., etc. for three more pages). Signed, 14 Secret Masters of the World."
At other times, especially as the 14SM action became more elaborate and maze like, there would be actual meetings. My favorites were the ones held at Dave Zack's house ("Manderlay"), in Portland, Oregon; this was around '78-'79, when Istvan Kantor was in town. We did a fair amount of plotting, affecting sinister disguises, etc. Zack, for instance, used to don his Arthur Caws mask. I had the beautiful Edgar Allen Poe Head, big and purple and built entirely out of paper-mache. Andre "The Scientist" Stitt would cover himself in garish filth. There would generally be someone dressed in the mystic Ling pillowcase hood -- lots of colorful and dramatic outfits.... Some have said Istvan Kantor ("Monty Cantsin") was a bit eccentric. He used to come to the meetings dressed as the Oscar Meyer Wiener, and he may have thought he was that character. Talented guy, though.
In those days, Zack had a crazy man named Jerry Sims living in his basement and Jerry used to rush upstairs, burst in on us and jabber things like "I'm very ashamed of my tiny bone structure! I'm very ashamed of my tiny bone structure!"(For some reason he liked to repeat everything twice.) I remember I used to tell him, "Don't worry, Jerry -- your bones are larger than a chicken's." At this, he would look relieved, somewhat, and return back downstairs. Point being: this sort of unplanned manic interruption was as much a part of what the 14SM was about as anything else that might have been going on at those meetings. maybe more so.
The -- for me -- nice thing about the 14SM was that when I started writing the Ling Stories, in the 80's, I found I had this whole ready made background to draw on, this meticulously built-up pocket universe I could dip into for purposes of verisimilitude. Very handy. Still, what I remember most fondly are the scams and mailings and meetings of the 70's, when things were at their peak, it was all.... I wouldn't say overwrought, but it was definitely stimulating, and there were times when, as the saying goes, we stimulated each other practically to the point of nervous breakdown.
I guess that's all I'm at liberty to reveal about the 14SM.
RJ: Well, the things you write down now reveal already a part of the 14SM. What ever happened to Dave Zack?
Answer on 5-1-1997
AA: Dave Zack, now, that glittering guy. There are times when I think he was the most wayward-tragic-doomed figure I ever met, and other times when I think of him I can't stop grinning. (Humm, something not quite right about that last sentence, but hopefully you get my drift.)
"It doesn't make it if my postman doesn't get it," Zack would mutter, shuffling toward the mailbox, his arms overflowing with envelopes, each day's astonishing, and astonishingly arted, output.
"This is this," and as he moved, things would drop from his beard and shaggy jacket: cookies crumbs, flakes of gold glitter, twigs and old leaves. When it came to grooming he was a sort of latter-day Swamp Thing.
There are mail artists, quite a few, maybe the majority, who manage to practice their art and in the same `breath are able to coexist peacefully and even successfully with the workaday world: they pay their bills and hold down jobs and have families, and never jail, and this and that. Not so Zack. Zack was a law unto himself. He was what the scifi people mean when they use the term "mad genius", and what Aesop had in mind when he penned that cautionary fable about the grasshopper who got punished terribly for dicking around on his fiddle when winter was fast approaching. Zack was brilliant, madding and great. Difficult, visionary and cracked. I would go over to his house in the late 70's, in Portland, and find him busy as a bee collaging phone and utility bills. As I later explained it in an article, "In those days Zack knew he would never be able to pay all the bills that came to the house, so rather than show any favoritism or partiality he made it a practice to pay none of them, equally. Rather, he would take the various gas and water and electric bills (also the subpoenas and summonses -- never any lack of those) and construct these beautiful 10-foot-high assemblages, which he would then title 'Tall Carefree Clown #27,' 'Tall Carefree Clown #28,' whatever number it happened to be in the sequence, and these he usually sent out and about as part of his mail art. It was a quite amazing continuous year-round project...." Or I'd go over and find him busy petitioning officials at the state capitol, pestering them with his different nutty fundings proposals. Or he'd be playing his cello upside down. Or he'd be writing something for the art mags.
At the same time he gave the imprimatur to mail art by being one of the first to write about it at length for a major slick-paper journal (Art in America), he was finding time to come over and live for long stretches in my pantry, and in my dreams I can often still hear him in there, munching, munching. (Like Wimpy in the Popeye strip, Zack's motto was always, "I would like to invite you for a duck dinner -- you bring the duck!")
In collaboration with Istvan Kantor, he helped dream up the "Monty Cantsin" name and concept, and what later became Neoism. He was certainly one of the all-time world-class letter writers, right up there with Henry Miller and Fanny Burney. At some point I gave him the nickname Dave "Oz" -- Oz obviously being the only locale that could comfortably accommodate him, Baum's magic fantasy kingdom where even the animals can talk. By and large we had a lot of laughs and he seldom failed to make me want to chew the rug and pull my hair out.
In the late 70's, true to his history of hairbreadth escapes, Zack gave his Portland, Oregon, creditors the slip by moving to Canada. There he operated a sort of quasi-legal rooming house for drunkard Newfies. A few years later, he left Canada one jump ahead of the mounties and used the money I grudgingly loaned him to lam down to Mexico. Ultimately it didn't make a hell of a lot of difference to the Mexican authorities that, in Zack, they had one of the world's top idea-man and practitioners of mail art. The authorities were more interested in the fact that for two or three years he'd been cashing his dead parents' Social Security checks, which was the routine he'd worked out to support his mail art activities. They tossed him in the jug (I tend to lie awake thinking of this by the hour because if things had happened a little differently I could have gone the same route myself). In '91, after three or four years of who-knows-what-hell, they finally let him out, probably afraid he was going to die on the premises -- by then, Zack who had a lifetime history of diabetes was gravely ill, with (among other things) gangrene of the foot. Somehow he made his way to San Antonio, Texas, and all praise to Patty Blaster who took him in and did what she could for him until what little health he had left failed him.
Last I heard he was in a country rest home or some damn place, stroked out, largely unresponsive. Not long ago - last week, in fact - I had an E-mail from one of his former girl friends, Judith Conaway, who'd done a lot to help him over the years, saying she'd heard that he'd died in the latter part of '95. Maybe so. On the other hand, such was my old pal's cantankerousness, his boundless power for aggravation that I wouldn't be surprised to see him pop up again. The way I picture this, I'll be transporting a heavy piano across a rope bridge in Africa and halfway across the chasm I'll meet a figure in a gorilla suit who'll proceed to jump up and down and mess things up outrageously. That'll be Zack.
RJ: Are you crazy enough to be transporting a heavy piano across a rope bridge in Africa, or do you lead a quite normal life now days?
Answer on 18-3-1997
AA: I don't know if you'd call it "quite normal" but now days my life is definitely quieter. Partly, this is due to natural attrition, the slowing-down process that comes with getting older and no longer being able to sit up all night drinking and bullshitting. These days I find that my night clubbing activities are likely to add up to no more than two or three nights a week. I am no longer such a rumba addict as I once was. I haven't gone on the wagon but it must be at least four years since I drank enough to fall down in public. I can't tell you how long it's been since I sunk all my money in a get-rich-quick uranium deal, or even bet on a horse. No more harebrained coast-to-coast bus flights with $3.50 in my pocket.
Aside from getting up on stage and performing on the last Tuesday of each month at Rupert Wondolowski's Shattered Wig Night, downtown, which I love and which pretty well satisfies my hunger for making a spectacle of myself in front of an audience, I feel happy staying out of the spotlight unless there's a good deal of money being offered. Fortunately, the people who are likely to offer me this kind of money are not, on the whole, the sort of people I feel comfortable or even safe being around, not the sort I'd want to be trapped in an elevator with, as we used to say in the hospital business. So finding myself tempted into strenuous flamboyant displays is seldom a problem. Living a more sensible life, I often think of myself as a little old character who has survived his own bad habits to become rather monkish and retiring, almost flowerlike.
As I say, getting older accounts to some extent for this new-found mellowness. But partly (and maybe largely) it also has to do with finding myself in this very lucky position, where for the first time in my life I'm able to sit down and devote 6-12 hours a day to just writing. Thanks to the fortunate situation I fell into six years ago when I landed here in Baltimore, I now have considerable stress-free time available, something I never had before, and I am able to put in as many hours at the typewriter working on poems and stories as I want to. That's where you'll find me at all-hours -- hunched far over the keys, smoking and sipping, my ears ringing. At such times the true bright nitwit light of the fanatic will come into my eyes, I'm told. And once the day's writing gets done, there's generally enough time and energy left over to persuade my mail art activities. At this moment I have a new book out from Shattered Wig Press that I'm definitely happy with in the sense that I was able to go all out on it and not have to stop for anything; I am well along with a new batch of Eel Leonard poems, and this week, in a burst, I finished two other short magazine pieces and am also about to start mailing out my latest "14 Secret Master Reports on Cloning". This last, which is a mail thing, will give me a chance to do up some strange envelopes showing off the new postage stamp series that I and my charming mail pal DKA recently collaborated on. (Which seems as good a place as any to give credit where it belongs, and say that if I still devote a part of each day to mail art it's largely because of terrific mailers like DKA. Terrific mailers like Rudi Rubberoid with his inimitable handmade envelopes and gnomic, nearly indecipherable handwriting. Terrific mailers like Suzy Crowbar and Sleaze Stele, who has raised head-infestation to an art, and John M. Bennett and Gerald "Flash" Burns and Jack the Raver Saunders. Aces all, whose work keeps on coming and keeping me interested.). Anyway, when it comes to the stuff I was able to churn out this month, my aforementioned writing and mail output, I'm happy to report that it was mostly accomplished without too much undue strain or looniness, as distinguished from ten years ago when my life was so crazy complicated that this sort of output (coupled with the scuffling I was having to do just to stay afloat financially) would have wrecked me, physically and mentally -- and often did. To say nothing of what I put my family through. I don't kid myself that there aren't things about the old hectic life I miss, but as I come creeping up on the Big Sixty, I have to feel very lucky that I've lived to make the adjustments which have allowed me to remain fairly productive and not vagged or institutionalized as yet. So far so good.
RJ: You say "........ that there aren't things about the old hectic life I miss". You can guess that I am curious to know which things these are, or are they too obvious to tell about?
Next answer on 2-5-1997
AA: I wonder. That is, I'm not sure I can successfully convey all that I mean about missing -- I might as well put "missing" in quotes -- certain things from a time in my life that, in retrospect, now seems hectic to the point of being chimeratic, if not actually deranged. I look back on those days and I have to wonder how I survived them. In a general sense, the period from 1972 to 1990 during which I was living the mail art life on a full-time basis was not unlike having a job where every day you're required to go down in this pit, and for 10-12 hours, sometimes longer, you have to try to control seven maniacs with just a chair. Along with the maniacs, there are flames down in the pit -- and rats and snakes, etc. And every 10 hours or so you get to take a lunch break, which consists of preparing a bat over the leaping open blue flames: a bat sandwich. That's the job. You also have creditors and bill collectors trying to get in at you all the time, and relatives and neighbors who think you maybe ought to be put away. It may seem like I'm being excessively metaphoric here, or morbidly fanciful, but consider: on a typical day when I was at my peak and the mail art "life" was running high -- let's say, for instance, on 5-7-83, in San Antonio, Texas, a Thursday morning, I can remember getting Stephanie, my wonderful daughter, off to school and then setting down in the kitchen to work on six or seven separate pieces of mail art. (For years, I've worked at the kitchen table, partly because I've never been able to function in a formal office or studio space, and partly because the kitchen table puts me in closer touch with the cold beers that function for me in lieu of breakfast.) As generally happens on such mornings, I'm having a lot of untoward thoughts, doing a lot of writing in my head, thinking about Pego Von Berndt's proposal that the name "Mail Art" be changed to "Spanish Art," thinking about the neighborhood bruja (witch) who's sworn to get me ( a long & complicated story having to do with her mistaken belief that I stole her blouse) etc. On this particular day, I'm also remembering that I have to go over to the stamp place on San Pedro Avenue and pick up my latest rubber stamp. The stamp says "SURFACE FREE LITERATURE FOR THE BLIND" and I'm wondering how that's going to work out, whether it's going to help me realize my dream of significant postal savings or mean more trouble from the inspectors. (Too. there's also the chance that today's the day Dave Zack will pick to arrive from Mexico, he's been threatening all month to pay us a visit) but for the moment I'm in the middle of making these envelopes, when I detect the unwelcome sound of footsteps coming up the wooden staircase and onto the back porch. I know those footsteps. They belong to the landlord, who's intent on collecting his measly $200 - 300 in unpaid rent and always picks the early morning hours to come nosing around, a fanatic, fanatic character. Well, I've changed all the locks, so that part's O.K.; he can't get in. But I've forgotten to pull the curtain, so he can see in, and to prevent him spotting me (this morning, for some reason, I'm wrapped in my wife's dressing gown) I have to get down on all fours and, with a partially completed envelope to Lon Spiegelman (or Pat Tavenner or R. Kern or John Evans or the Mambo 6-Fingers Club -- whomever) clutched in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, crawl rapidly into the bathroom. Where I find Sleaze Steele, our current house guest, kneeling on the tiles and talking to Ed on the Big White Phone. Sleaze has been with us two months now. He has serious nerve and gastric problems, no question about it. He should probably try laying off the wine coolers and cough syrup. In the meantime, having to share the bathroom with him while he's pouring out his esophageal wealth and I'm waiting for the landlord to give up and go away, is not exactly my idea of a great morning situation but what you gonna do, Ruud? Through it all, between spasms, Sleaze is rambling feverishly in his mind, saying things like, "The car wash in Spokane failed, and Vi and I set out to see if we could build a life together", "I have never been at ease knowing there's a jealous husband in the picture", "Vi wasn't much of a talker, so I never really had a chance to find out how much Walter knew, or if he'd hired detectives to follow us, or whether he might be back there somewhere on the road himself grimly dogging our trail in his ancient black Buick", "I knew the pain the jealous outraged husband in my grandmother's life had caused my father", "My brother and I were silent witnesses of it all, the whole neighborhood in on the secret from the beginning when my grandmother grew too passionate about being on top, the unexplained giant rodent, etc."
By then, it's nearly 9:30 a.m. and my mail art is just beginning. So to think of doing this willingly -- even happily -- seems hard to believe, but that's how it was, back when I was younger and had the energy. I think that's probably what I mean when I talk about missing certain things.
I mean that I miss the energy I had back then, the energy that allowed me to get through it all and arrive at this quieter, more balanced state where I'm enjoying, as Philip Whalen would say, "Relaxation to write while hearing / Half-misunderstood foreign language in Grant Street."
RJ: I re-typed your answer today (May 30th 1997), just after coming from the dentist, and because I passed the Postoffice, collected my mail also. Not much mail today so I am able to deal with delayed mail. Mail art is fully integrated in my life, and probably it is the same with you (especially when I hear the details of that specific day in 1983). The question that arises now might be a stupid one, but who cares. Are you able, nowadays, to pay your rent? Or do postage stamps still get priority?
Next answer on 19-6-1997
(Al Ackerman's answer came in a envelope with a drawing on it stating 'you are the ENTITY' - 'MUY PICANTE', where a typical Al's Adam & Eve are witnessed by a snake in the tree..... In the envelope also a newspaper-article with photo of Al, where Peter Werbe writes -- among others -- about Al's forthcoming reading out of his book The Blaster Al Ackerman Omnibus at Detroit's Trumbull Theatre)
AA: As Ed Higgins might say,
Blood Red Sun. And honeycomb in the shape of the body from my sleeping on sofas, its expanse stretched in mid-air, nearly weightless, yet already bending a little from its own mattedness. Looking down at this, all this hair and stuff on my comb, made me think of how it would be to restage the Trial of Socrates with just crickets.
Or maybe you were 2 years old and you had a friend, name of Vennie Lice, with a brother got some Lady-Fingers still had the bandage on his right arm from slamming some clam....never mind....besides us sails a mighty armada of rears, crapping the planet on its upper third....HELP ME OUT HERE, RHONDA!
Ah, I love those Higgins Answers.
Actually, making the rent is always a struggle, always a victory (these days, Ann and I split it on a real hovel) and if I was still spending as much on postage as I was spending back in '72-'91, it wouldn't even be close. Nowadays, though, postage only runs me $5-10 per week, a savings of about $60-70. I thought I might go in the hole, last month, when I traveled to Detroit to appear at the Trumball Theater but even though I had a slight psychotic episode on stage (very weird, I suddenly found the spirit of Dwight Eisenhower manifesting itself in my voice and gestures, and ran around trying to light various small fires) the theater management was kind enough to pay me, plus I sold some books, so I wound up doing O.K. on travel expenses and was able to pay my half of this month's rent, i.e. , $160, when I got back to Baltimore. The old story of Horrible rent / beautiful art, and vice versa (I just hope Bierce was right about this.) Hi Vennie.
(Perhaps it's snowing?)
RJ: Reading or talking in front of a public is quite different from writing letters or texts which are sent in the mail to others. Do you like to 'perform' in front of a public, or do you prefer the intimacy of the envelope (when there is a choice...)?
Next answer on 28-7-1997
AA: The best answer I can come up with runs like this: if you crossed a horse with a spider you'd have an awful odd-looking thing but at the same time it would be something that when it bit you you could maybe climb on and ride it to the hospital. That's sort of how I tend to view (and do) mail art and performance stuff. There's a lot of overlap. It's not always easy to keep the two activities separate. For example -- a few months ago, I wrote something called Palookaville which I sent out as a mail art piece. It's a rather delicate "mood" piece that begins, "The one-way ticket to Palookaville expressing sexual prejudices in witch hunting has been fortunate in that the possessed and their investigators usually couldn't concentrate. But the true success story has been my leaving the marine Corps to investigate the initial charges from a possessed fifteen-year-old girl --" and goes on poignantly in this vein for a page or so, and ends with the words, "Awoke instantly for my mind crossed a rabbit and a fox to produce a thing addicted to bad public relations to the air force."
Anyway, once I'd mailed it out I had no further plans for it. So, and this is what often happens, I more or less forgot about it. Time passed. Then, several months later when I was in Detroit doing a show and I needed something to read on stage -- something brief that would serve as a bridge between two longer pieces -- I remembered Palookaville and dug it out and read it, and as an extra added gimmick I read it with a half-empty cigarette pack stuffed in my mouth. When you read something and you have a cigarette pack jammed between your teeth it can impart a whole new dimension, can make the piece seem even stranger than it was originally, which, in the case of Palookaville, seemed to be what was needed and, sure enough, I had the impression that the thing worked better in performance than it had on the printed page. So that's one way -- using a piece of mail to generate a performance or reading.
The other way is like what I do once a month at the Shattered Wig Nights here in Baltimore. I should probably explain that Shattered Wig is, first of all, a really terrific magazine -- The Shattered Wig Review -- edited by poet and bon vivant Rupert Wondolowski. It's like one of the very few magazines I take seriously. Fortunately it's been around for a number of years. And over the years there has grown out of this publishing venture a tradition of Shattered Wig Nights, monthly blow-outs that happen at a club downtown, involving poetry, music, performance and what-have-you. (I say "what-have- you" because some of the acts can get pretty weird and it's not always easy to tell. I'm thinking here of things like The Montana Joe Project, which involves eroticism with Sesame Street dolls -- and T. "Justice" Duggan, whose thing is to dress as a Supreme Court Judge and punish people -- anybody who's foolish enough to get up there with her on stage can have their skin flayed with a whip.) So anyway, while I'm nowhere in the same league as these people, I do get up once a month at these evenings and do readings and sometimes I'll push it over into the realm of actual live performance and do things like, well one night I had ten people up on stage with me. They were tied -- they were roped around me in a circle -- with surgical tape. And they'd each been given the task to perform -- : "Crush a bag of potato chips under each arm and go, 'Urg'! I'm a party animal!, "Pretend to knit a straitjacket for Saul Bellow and meanwhile discover turfy things in your hair while squatting and brooding." So I had these ten different activities that were taking place around me while I proceeded to stand up and read this long poem whose text featured the word "muff" over 150 times. It was quite a spectacle. It took me about 45 minutes to read the "muff" epic and meanwhile the helpers around me were carrying out their various repetitive acidities and, towards the end, everybody was becoming frankly exhausted -- moaning, falling down, etc.. -- so that the stage took on the appearance of The Raft Medusae, that old disaster-at-sea painting where the survivors are writhing in agony on a raft. But the point is, I wrote the "muff" piece especially for this particular Shattered Wig Night. In fact, I was working on it right up until time to go on, practically. It wasn't till later I xeroxed it for mailing, turned it into a mail art thing, cut it up and pasted it on envelopes and so forth. Made postcards. That's how it works for me.
Sometimes the performing swings the mail and sometimes the mail swings the performing. I don't really have a preference -- how could I? It's more like falling down the stairs than any pre-conceived programmatic thing and I'm just taking it as it comes. I'm usually surprised and I'm always the last to know -- but, I don't know, Ruud, does that answer what you were asking? I'm not sure I haven't gone off on a tangent and missed the point entirely. I have the feeling it may be like the old riddle: "Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?" Ed Dorn, the poet, has a nice answer to that one, where he says, "The question is not, which came first / the chicken or the egg / the question is which came first / journalism or tobacco." Hell if I know.
RJ: If you missed the point entirely or not isn't interesting at all. Your answer shows clearly how you work, and I am very much interested in that. Just wondered, do the people who see those performances understand anything of the concept of mail art. Do they participate in the network, or is that part unknown to them?
Next answer on 8-9-1997
AA: It varies. I've done readings, especially here in Baltimore, where at least half the audience either had done mail art themselves or knew what it was. So they were certainly aware of the connections. Although I don't know how much difference it made in the long run, as far as my performance went, because, I mean, you can get up in front of a crowd that's primed to bursting with mail art insights and you can still give a bum reading. Again, I've done readings -- at high schools, say, or in front of straight poetry groups -- where nobody had a clue, the 'term' mail art was something they'd never run into before, just a cypher.
In such cases, there are two ways you can go about it. You can either throw out some prefatory remarks, try to explain what mail art is and how it ties in to what you're about to read -- or -- you let it go and just read. I've handled it both ways. I must say that, times when I've tried to explain, I didn't really feel I was making much headway. Trying to briefly explain the concept of mail art to a roomful of people who've never even remotely encountered the term before, is about like trying to explain the concept of model railroading to a Martian. Once, I got up and said: "Mail Art is a sphere whose circumference is infinite and whose center is everywhere" -- and everybody in the audience just looked at me. Now days I mostly eschew the explanations. It saves a lot of wear and tear. Now days, I'm likely to begin very softly, I'll have my head sort of lolling to one side -- and speaking in this very affected, very fruity- sounding voice, I'll start by saying something like, "Hello there, poetry povers. I'm Blaster Al Ackerman and I'm not wearing any socks but my ankies are painted with Indian ink. Here's one called "Yellow Wallpaper Song" that's a favorite of mine and -- I hope -- of yours?" Then I'll jam a cigarette pack between my teeth and yell:
YELLOW WALLPAPER SONG
I'm goin' down Georgia
I'm goin' down Georgia
pelow on my mind
I'm goin'back stay
I'm goin' back this time
today -- really goin'
I see my tie, childish
from gin I guess I'm
freezin' my palm when
them ripplin' eyeballs
insistent up the wall
from full intent to
wed my penis to some
wealthy invalid. Oh my veins are blue
wherever they make you
wait in line
RJ: Because you have been so long working with this mail art, you must have received tons of materials. Have you kept it all, thrown it away, or to be short: what does your "archive" look like?
Next answer on 15-1-1998
AA: You reminded me of how long I've been putting off shoveling up the mess in here. Things are getting way out of hand in my "archives".
Actually, where my methods are concerned. the term "archives" is something of a misnomer -- venture to say a joke. Just as a hen mysteriously lacks lips -- and a snake a navel -- I have always mysteriously lacked the power or ability or whatever it takes to keep an "archive" going. I seem to be incapable of maintaining any sort of systemized filing system. Rather, over the years I've learned to deal as best I could with greater or lesser "accumulations". Mail in boxes, mail on the floor, mail stacked out in the garage, etc.
"Piles" might be not a bad way to describe it, except for certain spurious medical connotations. For years I used to let things pile up, the glut and overflow relieved only by what I was glomming up on the walls or recycling back into the mail network. From time to time I would make desperate gifts to this or that museum -- the Krazy Kat Archives at St. Andrews (Scotland) got a lot of the early stuff, and later on the Smithsonian took some of it off my hands.
Once, when the walls of my kitchen, in San Antonio, had reached such a state of overload that the layers of mail were threatening to drag down the plaster, I removed everything, peeling it off laboriously into a sort of continuous gigantic scroll and, with John M. Bennett acting as go-between, donated it all to Washington University. This vast and lumpy artefact known as The Ackerman Kitchen Collection, which I packed in a large crate for shipping, comprised five years of nonstop mail art accumulation -- postcards, letters, collages, paintings, manifestos, you name it. Quite a treasure.
Unfortunately, a multitude of roaches had started nesting behind it on the walls and when the art came down and went into the crate a good many "roach hotels" went along for the ride. I never did find out how the people at Washington University reacted to what must have certainly been a lively uncrating scene.
Bequests to museums and universities, frantic recycling measures -- no matter what I tried, I could never keep ahead of the build-up. I wasn't the only one. Nunzio Mifune, another top mailer, was also having problems with overflow. I visited him once at his home and found him staring glassy-eyed at the piles. I asked him if he had any ideas but all he said was, "You may have heard the one about the after-dinner speaker who knew a good story about a gun and wanted to tell it, but couldn't think of any graceful way of introducing it into the speech he was making. Desperate at last, he cried, 'Bang! Was that a gun I heard?' and went on happily to unleash his gag......"
At this point I realized poor Nunzio had gone clean off his rocker. He had become hebephrenic -- just another tragic victim of mail-art build-up. My living situations have always been on the precarious side, with lots of relocations and moonlight flits. Nevertheless, between '72 and '89 I managed to haul a dozen or so jumbo boxes of mail along with me wherever I went, including two hellish cross-country moves that left me shaky as a kootch-dancer.
Seventeen years of this. What to do? Finally, in 1990, a year of unpredictable weather and heavy rains, the matter was taken out of my hands when a flash flood in San Antonio, Texas, wiped out most of my collection. I think it would be a bit inaccurate to say that just because I was suddenly relieved of carting around hundreds of pounds of mail art the loss came as nothing but a relief. A lot of what I lost was irreplaceable and to this day I still miss it. On the other hand, there are days -- especially moving days -- when I can't stop grinning.
Anyway, my decision after the flood of '90 was to save no more than I could comfortably carry. I've found this to be a challenge but by recycling most of what comes in I've managed to stay in the clear. As it is I still manage to go on accumulating a hell of a lot of stuff. Even though the clutter and overflow is nothing like it was in the old days, my mail space here at the bookstore is far from tidy. I keep looking around at the piles, which have a way of accumulate glacially, and telling myself that tomorrow, for sure, I'm going to give things a good sorting and cleaning. That's what I keep telling myself.
Well, we live in hope, and when the time eeeeaaaaGGGGHHH!
Excuse me - something just came out of one of the piles and bit me.
RJ: I hope you are O.K. Blaster, this mail art can be dangerous sometimes. I guess it is time now to end the interview so I won't be feeding your mail piles anymore. On the other hand, when I publish the interview it might cause some reactions to your mail box....... Anyway, my last question is always: "Did I forget to ask you something?". But somehow I know I probably did......
Next answer on 14-5-1998
RJ: I could have known that...... Thanks for the interview Al Ackerman!
Mail-artist: Blaster Al Ackerman, c/o Normal's Books, 425 - E
31st Street, Baltimore - MD 21218, USA
Interviewer: Ruud Janssen - TAM, P.O.Box 1055, 4801 BB Breda, NETHERLANDS