“Blaster” Al Ackerman, Together At Once

“Blaster” Al Ackerman is the greatest writer you’ve never read. But his new posthumous collection, The Complete Works from Lost & Found Times 1979—2005, as compiled by John M. and C. Mehrl Bennett of Luna Bistonte Prods, gives you no more excuses to keep seconding a writer who deserves to be at the top of your reading list. Active as an artist, writer, and curious collaborator since the 1960s and/or ’70s, Ackerman’s style is at once serious, off-the-wall, bizarre, surreal, hilarious, ironic, parodic, and totally unpredictable. His death this past March (at the age of ??) invited some well-written homages from the fringe, but didn’t otherwise make many waves in the greater literary or arts world. And that’s because, unjustly, this world didn’t know Ackerman.

In this world’s defense (a rare occasion where you’ll hear me defend this world), Ackerman wasn’t always so accessible, with the bulk of his activity and notoriety supported by his ceaseless activity in the ‘mail art‘ world, itself a willful Fluxus brainchild and pasted with an ‘outsider’ label as such. But what’s great about being on the outside is that the rules of the ‘popular’ world—and its ridiculous nuances and political correct-ness and senseless decorum—no longer apply. This frees ‘outsiders’ from the stringency of genre, of form, of expectation, and produces an art holistically and refreshingly independent. And that’s probably a way over-intellectualized way of saying what I enjoy most about Ackerman’s writing: it doesn’t give a shit, and does ‘not giving a shit’ better than anyone else. With Ackerman, there’s no contrivance. It’s also why I often cite him as one of Anobium’s favorite writers, and I’ve published him in both Volume 2 and Noospheria.

And if that doesn’t explain it well enough, here’s a video of Ackerman reading a poem with a bar of soap on his mouth:

Ackerman has collaborated with scores, if not hundreds, of writers and artists in the past, but a name that often comes up with Ackerman is John M. Bennett, another prolific writer, artist, and performer, and former publisher of The Lost & Found Timeswhich ran from 1975 to 2005. I interviewed Bennett for Noospheria and discussed Ackerman a little bit with him at the time, and knew that Bennett, and many others, considered Ackerman a close friend. (This 2002 write-up about Ackerman in Baltimore paints an excellent picture of Ackerman’s character and inherent friendliness.) So it was a welcome surprise when I first learned that Bennett’s publishing company, Luna Bisonte, would be releasing Ackerman’s first (hopefully, of many) posthumous collection, compiling all of his writing and art from those thirty years at LAFT. Ackerman has had other books published—including this out-of-print omnibus collection from 1994—but this new Complete Works promises to be far more accessible, and far more affordable. (Plus, it’s fucking huge in the best way possible: 384 pages, 8.5″ x 11″, 2.46lbs. A tome, if ever there was one.)

To learn more about this collection, and more about Ackerman, I recently exchanged a series of e-mails with Bennett. Here they is:

Benjamin van Loon: When and how did you first meet Ackerman?

John M. Bennett: I first met him in the mail around 1975, after which we corresponded a lot and occasionally talked on the phone; we didn’t meet in the flesh until sometime in the 1990’s. After that we met many times, most often in Baltimore.

BVL: Meeting someone through the mail—that doesn’t happen much anymore. How did you meet him through the mail? What were your first impressions, and how did those differ from when you later met him in person?

JMB: I don’t remember exactly how we met in the mail, but it was doubtless through the vast international network of mail art in which I had started to participate in 1974. I met a LOT of people that way, many of whom remain close friends, including my wonderful wife, C. Mehrl Bennett, who is largely responsible for all the work involved in putting together this new Blaster anthology. Blaster’s work—the drawings, stories, poems, scams and stunts—immediately impressed me as being closer to what I was doing myself, or wanted to do, in my own media, than that of anyone else I knew. In person, he was one of the sweetest persons ever, a real gentleman, with an amazing sense of humor regarding the vast swarms of absurdity that surround us.

BVL: Perhaps the anthology/collection can speak to this to a certain extent, but has Blaster’s work been relatively the same over the years, or would you say there’s a particular ‘peak’ period? That is, how distinguishable is his work from the ’70s compared to his work from the ’90s? And how would you describe his work?

JMB: Of course Blaster’s work has always been uniquely Blaster’s work, and I have to say that it was always at a “peak”. The media of his expression evolved over time; in the early days he was doing a lot of mail art and other stunts, though he was always writing about them. So the writing is a constant. He started writing stories a lot in the 1980’s, many of which first appeared as his column “Ack’s Wacks” in Lost & Found Times. (Asking him to do this as a regular column was one of the best things I ever did in that magazine.) Also in the 1980’s he started doing more and more artwork, drawings and paintings, and it was marvelous to see how his work in those media evolved into something truly extraordinary. This was the period in which his literary activity increased and evolved as well, and he produced a constant stream of poems, stories, hacks, and other materials. His literary work has a wonderful mix of pulp themes and aesthetics with an extraordinarily lunatic and sophisticated mastery of literary techniques and literary experimentation.

How would I “describe” his work? Whew, a tall order! He delighted in the absurdities of life, and had a clear view of the craziness at the core of human existence, which he delighted in showing in all its brilliant lunacy. Underlying this view of things, with all its scatological horror and bizarre rationalizations, was a unique combination of disbelief, disgust, and love for the things human beings are capable of doing. It’s as if his work were a way to try to understand the basic schizophrenia at the core of our species. And that constant and deeply ingrained sense of humor involving all things! In a lot of ways, Al was one of the most illuminated, in the Zen sense, persons I have ever known.

[A cut from the I Am Drunk LP.]

BVL: The most I know of Ackerman is through his writing, artworks, and stunts. And there’s not a whole lot of biographical information out there on the Internet about him. What can you say of him outside of his work?

JMB: He was a good and caring friend, has a wonderful daughter, and though separated from his wife Patti after many years together, always cared about her (she died a few years ago). He was rather estranged from his parents and family, who were part of the wealthy (some of them) and conservative Hogg family of Texas. In fact, he changed his name to Al Ackerman in order “not to embarrass” them (I paraphrase how he put it). I’m not all that familiar with his employment history, but I know he worked as a medical orderly for the military and in Texas hospitals, and then worked at the great Normal’s Bookstore in Baltimore. Both environments provided plenty of great raw material for his stories and art!

BVL: So Ackerman does have some books out: the Omnibus, Corn & Smoke, Break Up My Water, etc. What’s different about this new anthology (besides how massive it is)? What was the intention behind anthologizing all of that work?

JMB: It was Cathy’s idea originally (C. Mehrl Bennett), and I thought it was a good one. Ackerman was such a constant and major presence in LAFT, and much of his work there was not published in other books of his, including the books published by Luna Bisonte Prods, that we thought this tome would be a great way to highlight and make it all available in one place. And to make it as legible as possible! Sharper images of type and drawings, larger, etc. It is also a way to honor and celebrate his life and work. It certainly is wonderful to be able to read through all this material and sense the wonderful arc of it all.

BVL: This new ‘tome’ is huge, but realistically, it’s only one fragment of Ackerman’s work. He was incredibly prolific, but within the greater ‘writing’ world, he’s relatively unknown. Why do you think this is? Did Ackerman ever try to ‘make it big’ (whatever that means)?

JMB: Indeed, The Complete Works from Lost & Found Times is only a part of everything he did. He is relatively unknown in the “greater writing world,” as you put it, for the same reasons most of my generation’s best and most interesting writers are: that “greater world” is largely a closed circle of corruption and mediocrities. Ackerman was refreshingly indifferent to all that nonsense, and in that an inspiration. Point a sticky finger at those nattering fools and laugh!

[A low-budget imagination of a “Blaster” Al Ackerman story.]

BVL: This might be more sensitive, but I am curious. I exchanged a few letters with Ackerman in 2012, and learned sometime around the New Year that Ackerman had moved to a nursing home. And, of course, I was saddened to hear that he passed in March—largely because, from my vantage point, I didn’t expect it. Did his passing take a lot of people by surprise?

JMB: No, not really; he had become rather frail over the last couple years. But he was working and doing great work up until almost the end.

BVL: What’s your most meaningful memory of him?

JMB: I can’t answer that question; too many memories. The most meaningful memory is the memory that comes up whenever I remember!

BVL: What are ways you used to collaborate with Ackerman?

JMB: Alternating lines or stanzas in poems, “hacking” poems, messing with drawings, writing in each others’ names (many names, many names) (don’t ask; I couldn’t answer accurately even if I wanted to, which I don’t, as that would be telling, wouldn’t it?), mail art stunts, collaborative “jams” with other writers/artists, and doubtless other games and ruses. I recall writing in, and translating texts into, the famous “Cricket Language,” possibly invented by the master himself.

BVL: Of course, nobody writes like Ackerman, but if people are interested in getting into writing/art of the same vein, where would you suggest they look? What are some other names people should check out if they’re wanting to learn more about this world?

JMB: Google “Mail Art” and you’ll find lots of mail art sites; and start sending mail to people and addresses you find there. There are many mail art sub-cultures; you’re sure to find some you like.

BVL: Final question: Can we expect other posthumous Ackerman stuff in the future? From LBP or elsewhere?

JMB: Yes, indeed; there are several projects people have in the works right now, in fact. No specific plans for anything from LBP at the moment, but it could very well happen. There’s plenty of material!

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