Al Ackerman Interviewed by John Held Jr.
for ND Magazine
Blaster Al Ackerman lives tucked away in San Antonio, a descendent of the illustrious Hogg family, a line which blessed the state of Texas with a Governor, and whose wife Ima Hogg amassed one of the finest furniture collections in the country. When not driving around town in his de-acquisitioned mail delivery wagon from taco stand to taco stand, Ackerman puts much of his considerable energy into the relationships he has constructed through the postal system over the past twenty years.
Al is one of my most constant letterwriting buddies. He answers his mail promptly, and it comes in torrents. When he writes to you he puts all of himself into it. I usually feel a little intimidated by all the attention he bestows on me, and I suspect that's how a great many others feel as well. But that's how Al is. When he's there on paper with you he is completely unselfish and completely unpredictable. One of the most revealing things Al says in the following interview is that, "The idea of working in a despised medium, one that's still emerging and taking shape. There's a lot of freedom to that. You're free both to screw around and to screw up. You're not constrained by any weighty body of preconceived expectation. The unexpected is still allowed to happen."
Bearing that in mind, this is how Ackerman describes the commencement of our interview from my point of view in his own words..
Interviewing Al Ackerman is not unlike interviewing some fabled mythological beast (a platypus, say, or an anteater). Sensitive to the point of misanthropy, Ackerman falls into frequent spells of morbid schizoid depression, about 4-5 times per hour, and so there are long stretches of silence, when he refuses to speak but can only communicate sketchily through the agency of what he calls "bean farts." Two if by land, three if by water, four if by ambulance. Luckily I had arrived at the interview well-prepared, i. e. coked to the gills. After some amusing horseplay (Ackerman had given me the wrong address and so I spent my first hour trying to enter the home of his neighbor, Mrs. Elsie Gillespie) Ackerman and I shook hands and I couldn't help but notice his eyes, which shine and crinkle with the pure unalloyed light of alcoholism...
Al invariably views things in a way that many would view as twisted, but which upon closer reflection are merely circuitous. Upon reading this Introduction, Ackerman submitted this alternative:
Dr. Al "Blaster" Ackerman has been a practicing mail-artist for nearly twenty years and says he has hopes that someday, if he "keeps on practicing," he may "finally get it right."
The following interview was conducted at his home, "San Simenon," in San Antonio, Texas, a place of brooding sunlight and fantastic clutter, where Ackerman, seating himself expansively behind his desk, which he keeps piled high with stacks of unopened mail, spent the afternoon answering my questions in his typically roundabout fashion.
John Held Jr: You've told me previously that your involvement in mail art began when you read the 1972 article on the medium in ROLLING STONE magazine. What was your previous background that led you to embrace the field?
AL Ackerman: Retrogressively speaking, my background was haphazard in the extreme. Totally unplanned. A case of desinvoltura, pure and simple. My major interest in college was staying out of the military. I was there for nothing but the deferment. This was back in the 60's, and I was intent on avoiding Viet Nam the way a pig avoids bacon. Consequently my university career was one long record of switching majors, something I did as often as possible, trying to hang in there and not be graduated, you see. In this way - by managing to stay in school for seven years - I became widely and I might add poorly educated. I even did a stretch as a seminarian. Somehow or other I never got around to taking any art courses. Art was just about the only subject I missed. This came in handy a few years later when I moved to Houston and was working in tv and met this woman who had the idea that I should become a painter. Specifically, she thought that I should become an Abstract-Expressionist painter. She was a lovely woman, but very larcenous. Ran a bogus interior decorating firm. Wives of up-and-coming young tv-execs would appprach her for advice, what to put over the sofa, what color to paint the breakfast nook, that sort of thing, and Marie - (her name was Marie) - Marie would take them under her wing and screw them out of every cent she could get her hands on. Well, so Marie's idea was that I should paint these enormous Abstract-Expressionist canvases for her business. It was like - her idea was that I should paint a big fake abstract canvas, a combination Pollock-cum-Motherwell, say, and then she could sell the thing, sell it by the yard, sized and cut to order, to these little exec-wives. I remember she wanted me to sign the name "Clifford Rothko" to each painting - counting heavily on the vagueness of her clientele where art matters were concerned. I said, "But Marie, isn't that illegal? Besides, I don't know that much about abstract art." But Marie was a persuasive woman. She told me how easy it would be; in her words, "a monkey could paint one of those buggers; " and she suggested that I should go and just check art books out of the downtown public library. To use as reference guides. For images and patterns. Nothing to it, she assured me. So that's what I did. Started earning a good deal of folding-money as a painter of fake abstracts. And signing myself "Clifford Rothko." My first pseudonym, practically.
JH JR: And this was what led you to embrace Mail Art - doing these art forgeries?
AA: Well, they weren't exactly forgeries - more like amalgamations. But yes, in a roundabout way, that's how it happened. Actually, painting fake abstracts was a pretty useless occupation. And this uselessness was important, I think. As Laotse says, "One must understand the use of uselessness before he can speak of the use of usefulness. All men know the utility of useful things; but they do not know the utility of futility." The point being, I had to go through that to get to this, even if I didn't know what I was doing at the time. I mean, if I'd said "No thanks" to Marie's proposition, it would have meant taking another road, right? And who knows? Another road might not have led me to Mail Art. I might have wound up in the U. S. Senate, or some other equally slimy fate.
JH JR: But eventually you did read the ROLLING STONE article about mail art -
AA: Yes, quite by accident. I didn't have a subscription to the magazine or anything. I just happened one day to pick up a copy that someone had left lying around and there the article was. "Correspondence Art" by Thos. Albright. And seeing it - one of the illos was a great Ray Johnson piece, How to Draw a Daisy, with Dagwood holding up a bone - seeing it, I had like this immediate 100% positive response. Here all these people were, using these funny names and engaging in this great nitwit activity - mailing things back and forth. I thought, "Hey, I bet I could do that!" It looked like fun. Easy, too - or so I thought. You could say that I was fortunate when I started out, fortunate in that I had this great ignorance on my side. I thought I could do mail art just by putting things in envelopes and affixing the proper postage. I was the victim of a terrible delusion of course, but by the time I finally snapped to how hard it was, and realized how awful the stuff that I was sending out really was, I was already underway. So I just kept at it. It was a case you might say of having a strong vocation and very little sense or talent. Which is always a dangerous combination.
JH JR: Who were some of your first correspondents?
AA: Oh, John Dowd. Dr. Brute of Brutopia. The Northwest Mounted Valise - that was the name Stu Horn used. I guess Stu's collages were the first mail I ever received. Lovely stuff. Irene Dogmatic. Anna Banana. Hoo Hoo Archives. Rain Rien. Inevitably one name or contact would lead to another - somebody gave me the address of Image Bank and Image Bank put me onto David Zack. Zack really deserves a whole book to himself. I'm not saying that he was the foremost mail theorist and improvisationalist of the '70s. I'm just suggesting that what Lear was to Shakespeare, Zack was to Mail Art. It was around this same time - early 70's - that I started hearing from John M. Bennett and Eerie Billy Haddock, two of my main men and, I'm happy to say, both still going strong today after nearly twenty years. As as matter of fact, I just had a letter from Haddock last week, saying that he's moved to this little town called Bandon, Oregon. Which was nice, because it gave me the chance to write back and urge him to keep his eye out for anyone living there named "Hope," so he could refer to this person as "A Bandon Hope." But that's the thing about naming names and making lists - you can wind up with these long long lists and inevitably some very good mailers will be left out. Inadvertantly, or because you're not in touch with them. It's something to keep in mind when you read anything that purports to be a "survey" or "history" of mail art - that it all depends on whose mail box you're looking at. That's why, whenever I'm asked to render up a definition of mail art, I always reply that mail art is "an infinite sphere who circumferance is nowhere and whose center is everywhere."
JH JR: Wait a minute - isn't that Pascals's definition for God?
AA: Is it? Uh-oh.
JH JR: You mention David Zack. You were living in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-'70s and you collaborated with Zack, and with Istvan Kantor. It was here that the Monty Cantsin concept and Neoism were conceived. What was the Portland School of Art about and who else was involved?
AA: Well, you probably mean The Portland Academy. That was just a joke - like calling a Big Mac a hamburger, or George Bush a statesman. It had no formal meaning or reality - just made a nice-looking letterhead for mail-related scams and such. We used it when we petitioned the city and the AMA to allow me to carry out unliscenced dental extractions in a public vestibule, things like that. As far as who was involved and doing things, everybody had their own number going. Oregon in the mid-'70s was a fairly active mail-art hotbed. Haddock was in Eugene doing his Art Maggots thing. Inex was there, too, sending dripping embryos through the mail. Musicmaster and Rhoda Mappo were both doing great stuff. Cees Francke arrived from Holland and settled down in Portland, on our couch, to bedevil the postal inspectors with his tastefully lewd postcards - and when they came after him, be became a shadowy figure of elusive vintage. Genesis P. Orridge and Cosi Fanni Tutti came through on their COUM tour of the States. There was a fair amount of back-and-forth between Oregon and California and I fondly remember visits from Irene Dogmatic, and Anna Banana, and Lon Spiegelman, among others. (I might add here, parenthetically, that it was Spiegelman who later went on to create and edit what a lot of us believe to be the best "pure mail" publication ever devised: LON SPIGELMAN'S MAIL ART RAG.) At some point, David Zack blew into town and took up residence in our refrigerator, to begin a matchless two-year spree of mailing and munching. Dave's motto was always the same as Wimpy's in the Popeye strip: "I'd like to invite you over for a duck dinner - you bring the duck." I don't want to give the impression that Dave did nothing but sit in our kitchen and eat roast duckling. Far from it. He ate a lot of chicken, too. Then - this was a little later - Istvan Kanator arrived from Hungary via Canada, and Monty Cantsin and Neoism got born. If you're interested in these historical things, I understand that Charlton Burch's LIGHTWORKS magazine is coming out with a special Istvan Kantor/Monty Cantsin issue, which should be able to tell you more about it than I can. Or, if deep historical analysis is your dish, write Fran Jerkoffsky - The Royal Historian of Mail Art c/o 227 Westridge Drive, Tallahassee, FL 32304. Fran has all the facts right at her fingertips and will supply them free of charge upon request. But, fundamentally, I think that the best way to understand what Zack and I were doing in our Portland collaborations is to remember what Robert Mitcham said about the Gorilla Syndrome. Mitcham said that in each of the movies he made it was either a question of (A) him hitting the gorilla over the head, or (B) the gorilla hitting him over the head. Back and forth. Round and round. Basically that's what Zack and I were doing. Just a couple of old spivs hitting each other over the head with a gorilla.
JH JR: What is your relationship with Genesis P. Orridge?
AA: Every ten years, on the stroke of twelve noon, we meet in hellish Benares (India), for a reunion and to lay plans for future world domination. In between times, we're in frequent communication by short-wave radio. I give him tips on what's currently available in home-grooming devices (like H. P. Lovecraft, Gen likes to trim his own hair), so I give him these tips and in return, as Perelman once said, he gives me a grateful glance named Joe.
JH JR: Who are the 14 Secret Masters of the World? Or is it a secret?
AA: It's a secret. It's a secret more closely held than a miser's billfold. But to give you a hint - remember a few years ago, when you were hosting the First International Mail Art Congress and Rodeo in Dallas? I was there, and we were sitting around your house - that is, you and your lovely wife Paula and I and my bodyguard Gerald "The Asp" Simonsen were sitting around, and your dog went over and started scratching and whining at the door, poor thing, indicating that he wanted to be let out. And suddenly, without warning, the phone rang. And this mysterious voice shouted, "Let your damn dog out! Your damn dog has to go to the bathroom!"
JH JR: You mean - ?! Was that the 14 Secret Masters of the World, phoning up like that?
AA: No, that was The Society of Canine Telepaths. They patrol residential neighborhoods such as yours and whenever they telepathically sense that a dog is in distress, they phone up the dog's owner and alert them. No the 14 Secret Masters of the World are a lot more mysterious and shifty than that. Unspeakable, really.
JH: Lets talk about your writing talents for awhile. When did you first start writing?
AA: I started in the practical, commercial sense in the very early '60s. I was selling stories to the romance and confession magazines. It was a colorful way to starve. After several years of doing that, and after doing some tv work, writing public service spots and so forth, I drifted into other forms of penury and had a long period - quite a few years - when I didn't do any writing at all; nothing for publication, at any rate. A lot of time passed. Finally I got into the mail network and began doing a certain casual amount of writing as part of what I was mailing out - and, eventually, some of these things got picked up by the small press mags and were printed, and it was around this time, too - start of the '80s - that John Bennett asked me to write a signed column for his magazine LOST AND FOUND TIMES. So, after a lapse of nearly twenty years, I found myself involved in doing formal composition again. I've been lucky to have editors like John M. Bennett, and (to mention a few more good ones) Crowbar Nestle, Mad Dog Shields, and Phillippe Billé, brilliant visionaries all, who have used my stuff without condescension, that is "as is," without any tampering.
Now most of the pieces I write originate in the context of mail art, partake of this context in various ways, and, not that this is always discernable, because when something appears in a magazine the mail-art connection will often disappear, but these last few years I've been very interested in works where you have trouble figuring out what the intention of the piece is supposed to be - as with the "tlp's." A "tlp", and this is a term that Haddock came up with back in the '70s, to describe what it was that a lot of us were doing - "tlp" means "tacky little pamphlet." It's an interesting - I don't know if you could call it a genre, but it's an interesting format. And I've been doing a lot of those. Things like MOONHEAD NEWS, which is devoted to gibberish. A "tlp" like MOONHEAD NEWS will pass back and forth through the mail and there's also a fairly wide distribution, by hand, to unexpected places, like laundrymats, where they get mixed in with the WATCHTOWERS, and some of them wind up in the small press mags, and elsewhere - and what it is that these little pamplets are actually showing you depends a lot on the context of where and how you happen to encounter them. Something that seems natural in a mail-art context can become very strange when you pick it up in a laundrymat, or in a psychiatrist's waiting room. There's a lot under the surface that's unaccounted for, particularly if you're somebody who's merely come in to wash some clothes, not really knowing the origin of the thing when you happen to pick it up and look at it. Currently, John E. Mumbles and I have been busy experimenting with a "Creative Theology" series, and , before that, I spent six months doing a series of tlp's that I call the WHEAT-FEET-PETE-GLEET-JEET-MEET-MEAT-BEETS-KEATS-SEAT series. A dozen or so of these tlp's in that series. They're hard to describe, which is what I like best about them. Ostensibly, you could pick one up and say, "well, this is about wheat - sort of." But it's also tied up with a lot of other stuff, not all of it rational, so that, for me, speaking metaphysically, it's a little bit like the problematic aspects engendered when you do a stand-in for Hansel and Gretel. I don't know if you've ever had this experience, but when you do a stand-in for Hansel and Gretel, there is like this constant play on the tension of not wanting to enter the gigerbread house, of not wanting to have to go through the whole business with the witch. But at the same time, the witch is built into the process. The witch is a traditional expectation that's hard to avoid. I'm not sure, but this impulse may be behind what I'm writing - that I'm trying to find ways, you know, like I'm agreeing to play the game and do this stand-in for Hansel and Gretel, but at the same time I'm trying to see if I can somehow avoid the enervating part, which, for me, is having to go in the gingerbread house and dick around with the witch. Like I say, this has been going on over a period of years and I have, in effect, faced the problem hundreds of times, and (laughing) there are times when I have to face the suspicion that what I've been doing may simply have left the rails. That would be funny - if, without realizing it, I'd gone the route taken by somebody like Vladimir Pyast. Valdimir Pyast was Poe's translator in Russia, and at a special poetry convocation, right in the middle of reciting Poe's "Ulalume," he went stark raving mad. I mean, who's to say, really? I think I'm sitting here talking to you, that we're doing this interview; but that's the thing, because if I've gone up my own pole far enough, in reality it could be that I'm sitting here playing a banjo and talking to a goose.
JH JR: (nervously) Maybe this raises the question of poetry. Didn't John M. Bennett's LUNA BISONTE PRESS recently issue a volume of your poetry?
AA: That's right. I'm glad you reminded me. Anything to get off the subject of Hansel and Gretel, eh? Yes, LUNA BISONTE has issued a double-vol. Any Salyer's on one side of the book and I'm on the other. Just send John Bennett $3 and tell him you'd like a copy of the Ackerman/Salyer book. He's at LUNA BISONTE, 137 Leland Ave., Columbus, OH 43214. Only $3. What a bargain. Why, you can't even get drunk these days on $3, hardly.
JH JR: There are a lot of science fiction references in you work (the Clark Ashton Smith Fellowship Chapter, for instance). What is your interest in this field?
AA: Well, my interest is mainly in the older pulp mags - the ASTOUNDINGS and UNKNOWNS, WEIRD TALES, THRILLING WONDER and PLANET and so forth. And the fanzines. Stuff from the '30s and '40s, mostly. When I was a kid and could still afford it, I used to collect those mouldering old beauties with an abandon that was pure and unalloyed ratlike. The artwork probably had a certain influenece on me (Finlay and the Leydenfrosts and Rogers and Wesso) - although probably I was more influenced by things like the Oz books and the early EC comics. Later, much later, many years later, when I got into the mail network, I carried certain pulp ideas over into that. The use of multiple names and pseudonyms, for example. And naming my mail clubs after sci-fi notables like Clark Ashton Smith and Harry Bates. Harry Bates, it was, who in the early '30s wrote the classic yarn "A Matter of Size," about a doll-size body that contrives to mail itself inside a toothpaste carton - one of the earliest precursors of modern-day postal networking. But I think - well, I'm pretty sure that as far as pulp sci-fi goes, the main way that it relates to mail, for me, is through this kind of ghetto ideal. The idea of working in a despised medium, one that's still emerging and taking shape. There's a lot of freedom to that. You're free both to screw around and to screw up. You're not constrained by any weighty body of preconceived expectation. The unexpected is still allowed to happen. Also, mail allows me to indulge my misanthropic tendencies - to be reclusive and cranky, which I certainly am. Along with this, I like to practice a certain amount of what I call "Pure Mail." "Pure Mail" is when you select a name and address at random, somebody that you don't know from Adam, preferably somebody who's never heard of mail-art, and mail them something - something unexpected and untoward. You can see, I think, what a fine thing it would be, to suddenly receive this unexpected (and unexplained) piece of mail, straight out of the blue, as it were - and to open it, all unsuspecting, all unsuspecting, and find...what? Well, that's the the whole point, because it could be most anything. (laughs suggestively)
JH JR: One last question. To what do you own your longevity in networking?
AA: Fortuitous misunderstanding, John, fortuitous misunderstanding.