Black Mountain ReviewTags: Robert Creeley, William Burroughs
Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
First impressions. Some people take their cue from a handshake, the eyes, a bank statement, or the shine of one’s shoes. I make a beeline for the bookshelves. Forget reading palms. One’s library is a window into one’s soul. Go through my books and I stand naked before you. So I was excited to get a series of e-mails from Steve Clay of Granary Books attaching selections from the library of Robert Creeley. The institutions had first crack at the lot and, if there were no takers, the doors were thrown open to the collectors. Naturally I was curious to see what Burroughs books Creeley had. From the looks of it, Creeley seems like my type of guy. Naked Lunch, The Exterminator, Nova Express, The Third Mind, Letters to Ginsberg 1953-1957, The Yage Letters, Paris Review No. 35, some lectures and notes by Allen De Loach on The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. Heavy on Burroughs from 1962-1965. Not surprising really, as Creeley wrote one of the first reviews of Naked Lunch in 1961, which was published in Outburst #1, a little magazine out of England edited by Tom Raworth. Creeley also included Burroughs in the anthology he co-edited with Donald Allen, the prose follow-up to New American Poetry, entitled The New American Story (published by Grove Press in 1965).
This is my Burroughs as well. The experimental Burroughs, the cut-up Burroughs, or, as Ted Morgan describes him in Literary Outlaw, Burroughs at large. For me, this is when Burroughs was at his best and at his most relevant. Much is made of the importance of Naked Lunch, and rightly so, but do not forget about the publication of Nova Express in 1964 (in hardcover) and quickly reprinted in paperback the following year. The hardcover had a print run of 10,000 as opposed to the 3,500 for Naked Lunch in 1962, although I doubt many people actually read Nova Express. No question, Naked Lunch has been more widely read and named bands, but Nova Express inspired and influenced the creative process. It is popular culture versus cult. It is kind of like the albums of the Velvet Underground. Not a lot of people bought and listened to the music but everybody who did started a band. Such is the case with Nova Express, the rest of the cut-up novels, and the contemporary little magazine appearances. From J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and the new science fiction to Second Generation NY Poets to the Language Poets to the cut-up brigade of Claude Pélieu, Carl Weissner, Jan Herman, and Jürgen Ploog to say nothing of later writers such as Kathy Acker and Stewart Home, musicians such as David Bowie or Genesis P-Orridge, or artists such as Tom Phillips, Burroughs of the mid-1960s is Burroughs at his most viral in that other artists were infected with his techniques and style. Naked Lunch or Nova Express. It is a lifestyle versus a way of writing. I privilege writing and reading over experience. That is my weakness, my failing, and it is all laid out for view in my library.
Creeley’s relationship with Burroughs goes back to the beginnings of Burroughs’ literary career, and Creeley played a major role in the launching of Burroughs as a serious writer. The key book of Creeley’s library in this regard is Letters to Ginsberg 1953-1957. These letters contain the genesis of Naked Lunch, and Creeley along with Ginsberg served as the midwives who gave birth to Naked Lunch in print. Naked Lunch first appeared before a limited public in the landmark Black Mountain Review 7. The Maynard & Miles bibliography states that this issue of Black Mountain Review was not available until the spring of 1958. I think this is wrong. In his essay on Black Mountain Review, “The Grinding Down,” published in Kulchur 10, Paul Blackburn, a contributor to and primary distributor of the Review, states that Issue Seven was available in New York in the autumn of 1957. In January of 1958, Ginsberg writes in a letter that issues were on sale in New York bookstores (thanks to Blackburn), and Ginsberg requested a copy. This would put the first appearance of Naked Lunch right smack dab during the height of the hype around the Beats: the Howl trial, the Evergreen Review San Francisco Scene issue, Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay and the publication of On the Road. It should be noted that this Naked Lunch was not the novel as we know it today, but an early hybrid of Queer, The Yage Letters, and Naked Lunch and that Burroughs hid behind the name of William Lee. In any case, a small selection of the embryonic Naked Lunch was available in print, much to Burroughs’ surprise and excitement. In 1957, Burroughs was still wrestling with the form of Naked Lunch, and he never thought it would be published. The appearance in Black Mountain Review must have been a tremendous boost to his confidence.
Founded by progressive educator John Rice in 1933 near Asheville, North Carolina, by the late 1940s, Black Mountain College attracted key figures (or soon to be) in the experimental arts: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef and Anni Albers, David Tudor, Clement Greenberg, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Buckminster Fuller. By 1954, the College was on its last legs. In fact, the winter of 1953/1954 was arguably the lowest point in the College’s history. Out of this winter of discontent grew the idea of a literary magazine. Olson had turned Black Mountain into his own classroom and writers like Ed Dorn, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners, and Fielding Dawson attended the college. Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley along with Olson would teach at the College in its closing years. Olson saw a review as a means to draw students to North Carolina in addition to serving as a means to disseminate his own work in the event Cid Corman’s Origin collapsed. Much to his surprise, Creeley found himself in the position of editor of the Review. From his first correspondence with Olson in 1950, Creeley flirted with the idea of publishing his own magazine (with instruction from Ezra Pound) and now he had to shit or get off the pot.
At the time, Creeley was living in Mallorca off the coast of Spain. The island had a tradition of independent publishing due to Robert Graves, Laura Riding, and their Seizen Press. Printing was cheap in Mallorca and the first issue of the review was printed in roughly 500 copies (print runs for the seven issues ranged from 500-750 of which Creeley believes only 200 of each run were actually distributed) by local printer Mossen Alcover on equipment acquired from Graves. Simultaneously, Creeley established Divers Press which published the work of Olson (The Mayan Letters, In Cold Hell, In Thicket), Blackburn (The Dissolving Fabric), Duncan (Caesar’s Gate), Creeley (The Gold Diggers) and others. Please read Kyle Schlesinger’s excellent essay on Creeley’s typography for more in-depth information on Creeley as a publisher. The first four issues of Black Mountain Review appeared quarterly in 1954 at about 64 pages and then annually thereafter in 1955-1957 at more than 200 pages.
Jonathan Williams published the seventh and last issue in North Carolina. By this point, Williams and his Jargon Society were well-established publishers of experimental poetry. Olson (The Maximus Poems 1-10 and 11-22), Creeley (The Immoral Proposition), Louis Zukofsky (Some Time), and Duncan (Letters) were all published by Jargon. See Jacket Issue 38 for the Jonathan Williams retrospective edited by Richard Owens for more information on Williams as a publisher. Williams honed his craft as a publisher and a photographer at Black Mountain and he was not alone. Joel Oppenheimer along with Jonathan Williams ran the printer at Black Mountain, producing Oppenheimer’s The Dancer with a cover drawing by Rauschenberg. Nicholas Cernovich printed Robert Duncan’s The Song of the Border Guard with a cover by Cy Twombly in the Black Mountain Graphic Workshop. A copy of this was up at the New York Book Fair signed by Twombly to Jonathan Williams. Cernovich also printed Charles Olson’s This with Cernovich designing the cover in 1951. That same year Olson’s Letter to Melville was printed at Black Mountain.
Black Mountain Review remains one of the greatest little magazines of all time. The Review published key critical and creative work by Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, and Duncan in addition to reproductions of work by Franz Kline, Aaron Suskind, and Harry Callahan (Creeley’s collection of Callahan’s photographs are available from Granary Books). The cover art of Black Mountain Review is striking. The first four issues were done by Katue Kitasono whose Black Rain was published by Divers Press. John Altoon provided the artwork for Issue Five, Dan Rice Issue Six and Ed Corbett Issue Seven. Each Issue of the Review captured the melting pot of literature, music, art, dance, and photography that made the College famous. The Review in form and content is an experiment in the arts.
Number Seven is the most influential issue of all. The editorship, like the College itself, was in disarray with Creeley and Allen Ginsberg each having a hand in it. The magazine appeared well after the College had closed in 1956. The range of work in Number Seven is much more diverse than previous issues with Ginsberg’s influence playing a major role in its contents. In 1956, Creeley and Ginsberg were in San Francisco and at the center of that city’s poetic renaissance. Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Ginsberg (as well as Michael Rumaker’s tough love review of Howl), and Jack Kerouac all appear in the issue, giving it a Beat feel. Like in the San Francisco issue of Chicago Review in 1958, Burroughs was thrown in by Ginsberg as part of his heroic effort to disseminate and promote Burroughs’ work.
To a certain extent, as in the Chicago Review San Francisco issue, Burroughs did not fit in. Burroughs himself felt the Black Mountain crowd to be rather pretentious and doctrinaire. They were just another political faction like the Senders or Divisionists, as described in Naked Lunch. Yet Burroughs’ inclusion in Black Mountain Review is crucial as it placed Naked Lunch in the context of experimental fiction, not pulp or pornography like the Ace Junkie, the Olympia Naked Lunch or Man’s Wildcat Adventures (which excerpted Junkie). In addition, Naked Lunch was not a medical curiosity like Burroughs’ “Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs” published in the British Journal of Addiction in January 1957. Burroughs and his work mingled with the work and ideas of Robert Rauschenberg, Olson, Zukofsky, John Cage, and others, i.e., experimental art, poetry, and music of the 1950s. For me such links provide much of the power and lasting legacy of Naked Lunch and foreshadow Burroughs’ literary obsessions of the next decade. Unfortunately the pressing need to defend Naked Lunch against obscenity charges would bring back into play questions of morality, which would link the novel to Jonathan Swift, Dante, and medical case studies. The process of returning Burroughs to his roots in the experimentalism of the 1950s is just now being undertaken. Those links are strong as Burroughs’ later collaboration with Rauschenberg makes clear. Thankfully Burroughs added black humor, underworld and hipster culture, and a unique intensely personal writing style into the mix, which enlivens what can, for my taste, be overly serious and sterile in Cage, Olson, and Zukofsky.
To be honest where else could Naked Lunch have appeared in the Silent Decade? The literary landscape of the mid-1950s was a wasteland for experimental literature. Black Mountain Review was an oasis in the desert. There was Cid Corman’s Origin, the fledgling Evergreen Review, Semina, and little to nothing else. Evergreen Review and Semina would follow in Black Mountain Review‘s footsteps and publish Burroughs in the coming years. Yugen, Big Table, Floating Bear, and New Departures did not yet exist and, in fact, grew out of the thawing soil in which the Black Mountain Review 7 and Evergreen Review 2 planted the first seeds. Donald Allen’s landmark New American Poetry anthology of 1960 made clear that poetry in the United States was in full bloom. Through the pages of Black Mountain Review, Burroughs and Naked Lunch first entered into print and the experimental arts, and in Big Table, they began to enter into the popular consciousness. Big Table and its huge print run of ten thousand copies would blow the door off the jambs that the Black Mountain Review had merely unlocked.