Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
None of us obsessed with William Burroughs are fascinated by the same writer. Like the agent / addict’s face in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, our impressions of Burroughs are constantly in flux. When I first fell under Burroughs’ spell, I wanted to learn everything I could about the events surrounding the composition of Naked Lunch. Burroughs was Naked Lunch. The key period was 1954-1959. Tangier, Dr. Dent, the Beat Hotel, Chicago Review and Big Table, the letters to Ginsberg. It was there that I focused my attention.
As time goes on, I find myself re-reading the “Burroughs at Large” chapter in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw. I want to learn more about Burroughs’ time in the Beat Hotel during the writing of Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. The years that matter are now 1962-1966. Increasingly, it seems to me that this is Burroughs at the height of his powers. The creative output is considerable: The Ticket That Exploded, Dead Fingers Talk, Nova Express, APO-33, Time, the My Own Mag collaboration, the sound collages collected in Real English Tea Made Here, experimental films, the Third Mind project, countless little magazine appearances.
It could be argued that this was also Burroughs at the height of his influence. For example, he helped launch a revival in science fiction. With Naked Lunch and the cut-up novels, Burroughs was understood to be at the forefront of experimental writing. He was featured in the Donald Allen and Robert Creeley New American Story anthology, which attempted to map the landscape of new fiction just as the New American Poetry anthology did for verse. In Tangier, Paris, and New York, literary scenes revolved around Burroughs. For example, during his time in New York City in 1964/1965, the New York avant-garde celebrated Burroughs for almost a year with parties, readings, and little magazine attention. Key Lower East Side players like Ted Berrigan and Ed Sanders incorporated Burroughs into their creative operations. Avant-garde film may have been the most vibrant art form of the 1960s, and films, like Towers Open Fire, placed Burroughs’ name and work in discussions on the topic. From 1962-1966, Burroughs’ presence was felt throughout the Western world in the realms of literature, art, and film.
Maybe that is why I am so drawn to Burroughs’ little magazine appearances of this period. If I had to list my Mount Rushmore of little magazines, it would include: Semina (1957-1964), My Own Mag (1963-1966), Fuck You, a magazine of the arts (1962-1965), and Floating Bear (1962-1969). Semina is widely understood to be a work of art, but I consider the three mimeos on that level. They should be approached in the same manner as other artists’ books of the period. To me, My Own Mag is the most interesting thing Burroughs did in the 1960s. But I have lost all objectivity. I can no longer look at these magazines with a clear head and a steady eye. Handling them, my palms sweat, my head spins.
Take Bulletin from Nothing. How do I explain my strong feelings for something as seemingly irrelevant as a publication that maybe only a few hundred people read and that ran for two only issues? Let me try to explain myself.
Burroughs appears in both issues of Bulletin from Nothing. In the first issue, Burroughs contributes “Composite Text.” Issue two features “Palm Sunday Tape.” To be honest, these are not my favorite cut-ups from the period. The Dead Star, APO-33, and Time are not only longer and more complex but I think ultimately more successful. Maybe it is the merging of text and image in these cut-ups that appeal so strongly to me. I also like that Dead Star, APO-33 and Time have a central theme that Burroughs works on multiple levels. In all three cases, Burroughs detourns the very texts from which he is getting his material while challenging various forms of commercial and corporate media. “Composite Text” and “Palm Sunday Tape” are much more modest in form and content.
So my love of Bulletin from Nothing does not stem from Burroughs’ contributions to the magazine. Instead, its power comes from the company Burroughs keeps and the associations I make from the grouping. It is interesting to me that Burroughs appears with Charley Plymell, Claude Pélieu, Mary Beach, Norman O. Mustill, Jeff Nuttall, J.J. Lebel, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Bob Kaufman. Bulletin from Nothing is a time capsule from San Francisco circa 1965. I cannot help but think of that famous shot of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Welch, McClure, Brautigan, and others in front of City Lights taken by Larry Keenan (see the cover of City Lights Journal 3). Like that iconic photo, Bulletin from Nothing provides a snapshot of the scene around City Lights. Beach and Pélieu distributed many of their publications with the assistance of City Lights and were associated with the bookstore. Jan Herman, who was Ferlinghetti’s assistant in the late 1960s, told me that City Lights used a large Midwest offset printer (Edwards Bros.) for City Lights publications. Previously, City Lights sent their books, like Howl, to Villiers in England. The Edwards’ printing rep offered to produce all of Herman’s side projects through an industrial printer in Richmond,CA. That is how Herman got his Nova Broadcasts published. City Lights distributed the Nova Broadcast books. In the mid to the late 1960s, City Lights was one of the home bases for the San Francisco little magazine scene.
Plymell did the actual printing of Bulletin from Nothing on a large press at Ralph Ackerman’s shop on Mission Street in San Francisco. APO-33 (Beach Books) and So Who Owns Death TV (the first printing with the silver ink on black stock) were printed by Plymell. Plymell also printed Herman’s San Francisco Earthquake No. 1 on an offset machine. I have written about Plymell as a publisher before in discussing NOW, another incredible artifact of the San Francisco Scene of the mid-1960 and very similar to Bulletin from Nothing in content. By no means was Plymell a fine printer like Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press who came out of Dave Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press, but he does have a definite sense of graphic design that I find very appealling. NOW NOW NOW defintely stands out among SF little mags. Bulletin was not a mimeo job. Reproducing the collages was beyond the capability of mimeo. In fact, Plymell never printed on a mimeograph although he was a key publisher in the rather nebulous and ill-defined Mimeo Revolution.
Bulletin from Nothing appeals to me as an object. I like that it is oversize, yet short and to the point. In contrast, I love the content of Black Mountain Review, but it is presented in a boring academic journal fashion. Most of my favorite magazines are 8 1/2 by 11 or larger (A-4 or legal). I dislike the professional look of perfect-bound magazines and prefer staples. The “bindings” of Fuck You, My Own Mag, or C are my favorite, even if they are completely impractical and unstable. Three quick hits on the left hand side with an industrial stapler. Stacks of sheets strewn all over an apartment or bookstore filled with cigarette and pot smoke. The community of collating parties. The staple binding of Bulletin from Nothing is more practical and creates a panorama effect. This is typical of Plymell’s magazine work. He has an affinity for offset and the fold. The page really opens out and spreads before you. Lots of space. This is great for open form poetry. I like big margins and blank space. Is anything more beautiful than the big pages of The Jargon Society’s Maximus Poems? Such pages give the feel of a canvas or a gallery wall which works for the collages featured in Bulletin from Nothing. Plus they are easy to scan.
Flipping through Bulletin from Nothing, the Chicago Review from the Spring of 1958 immediately comes to mind. In that issue, Burroughs was listed as a San Francisco Poet. At the time, Burroughs had never been to San Francisco and his work had nothing in common with Renaissance poets like Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, or William Everson. Like that game on Sesame Street, Burroughs was not like the others and he did not belong. He stood apart. Nobody was doing what he was doing. He was a freak. Yet in the pages of Bulletin from Nothing, Burroughs fits in. In less than a decade Burroughs had become a writer of reputation and influence. He was at the forefront of a style of writing and he had followers. Even if he was not there in person, Burroughs had made himself a home in the experimental literary scene in San Francisco.
Yet the Bulletin from Nothing also takes me further back in time to Paris, New York and Berlin / Cologne immediately after World War I. Bulletin from Nothing wears its love of Dada on its sleeve and in its title. Dada is a nonsense word that in German means anything from hobbyhorse to nothing at all. Francis Picabia stated in 1915, “Dada signifies nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing.” Over the years there have been several publications called “bulletin” such as the International Bulletin of Surrealism published in 1935, as well as the obscure, and close to my heart, Birmingham Bulletin that featured Burroughs’ “Unfinished Cigarette” in 1963. Yet the “bulletin” in question here might refer to two specific Dada publications. Bulletin D, an exhibition catalog as magazine was edited by Max Ernst. Bulletin from Nothing functions in a similar manner. Issue six of Dada was entitled Bulletin Dada. Pélieu and Beach’s magazine plays with that title. The collage cover provides a further reference to Bulletin from Nothing‘s Dada roots. The ransom note look comes from Dada collage and the roulette wheel references Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond from 1924, which was reprinted in the Christmas issue of Xxe Siècle in 1938.
I like Bulletin from Nothing because it provides material documentation of Burroughs’ ties to Dada. Cut-up practitioners like Pélieu were inspired by Burroughs but they were also cognizant of the cut-up’s origins in Dada. Burroughs and Gysin make these origins clear in their various manifestos and interviews on the cut-up. In fact, much of Burroughs’ work in the mid-1960s links back to Dada. Sound collages, scrapbooks, cut-up poems and texts all formed a major part of Dada art production. In 1958, Ginsberg and Corso met Tristan Tzara at the Deux Magots. Throughout his life, Ginsberg made an effort to meet his literary idols. He famously sat at Ezra Pound’s feet in Italy in the late 1960s thrusting the work of younger poets under the silent Pound’s nose and forcing him to listen to Dylan and the Beatles. Meeting Tzara at Deux Magots conjures up a host of literary allusions and connections. Dada, Lost Generation, Existentialists. Ginsberg would have been relished all of them. Burroughs and Ginsberg met up with Céline. Around the same time, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso met Duchamp and Man Ray. Lebel set up the meeting which was also attended by André Breton’s wife (Breton himself was sick). For Ginsberg, Duchamp was an legendary figure, like a movie star. Burroughs no doubt knew of Duchamp. Ian Sommerville had a homage (consciously or not is open for debate) to The Bicycle Wheel in his room at the Beat Hotel and the sculpture is featured in several photographs of the period. So the figure of Duchamp in a small sense was a ghost in the Hotel. At Lebel’s party, Ginsberg kissed Duchamp’s feet in a camp show of admiration and respect. In an act of Dada, Corso cut off Duchamp’s tie. Ginsberg encouraged Duchamp to bless Burroughs with a kiss. Duchamp obliged. It was a passing of the torch. Duchamp could be considered el hombre invisible of the Dada scene. Burroughs was the Beats’ Duchamp. Mysterious, fascinating, aloof, cerebral, scientific. Artist as chess master. Art Buchwald wrote up the event for the Herald Tribune. Unlike some people I consider the label Beat to be important. Burroughs is a Beat, but that does not mean I do not also consider him a member of other groupings. Burroughs’ presence in Bulletin from Nothing reminds me that Burroughs was a Neo-Dadaist as well.
A crazed Burt Lancaster graces the cover of Bulletin from Nothing 2. This cover has a Pop Art feel. Taking the cover of issue one into consideration this is not surprising. In the early 1960s when coming to terms with the beginnings of Pop and struggling with how to place and define it, art critics called Pop, Neo-Dada. Artists like Warhol were viewed as warmed-over Duchamp. Interestingly Duchamp exploded back on the art scene in 1963 with his first retrospective showcased at the Pasadena Art Museum. Curated by Walter Hopps, this is one of the most famous and influential retrospectives of the twentieth century and a key moment in modern museum history. For a brief period in the early 1960s, Los Angeles made a play to become the center of American art. So it makes sense that Warhol’s big break came in Los Angeles in the summer of 1962. A one-man show at the Ferus Gallery, also put together by Hopps, featured a room full of Campbell’s Soup Cans. The show closed shortly after the death of Marilyn Monroe, which inspired the Pop Marilyns. Warhol’s transition from commercial artist to artistic genius was assured. He never looked back. The Hollywood glitz and glamour, the seediness of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, the sense of superficiality and the unreal. Los Angeles was tailor-made and ready for Warhol. Pélieu was interested in Pop so that influence is there in Bulletin.
If LA had the Ferus, SF had The Batman Gallery. Charles Plymell had a show of collages at the Batman in 1963. Wallace Berman was a key figure. He famously fled LA, that City of Degenerate Angels, to set up shop in San Francisco. Bulletin from Nothing has that junk art, mail art, assemblage feel to it, but whether it is there or not, I always see Fluxus when I turn its pages. Let me be clear, Fluxus had not arrived in SF by 1965, but like Pop, Fluxus was recycled Dada. Fluxus merged Man Ray with Marshall McLuhan. It took Dada into the electronic age and got it wired up. Unlike many people I love leftovers. In my artistic and literary tastes, I often find myself picking through the cultural refrigerator gnawing on last night’s turkey leg. Fluxus is much to my taste. I like its belatedness, its warmed-over quality. Stripped of the wide-eyed innocence that accompanies a new artistic or literary discovery, they are decadent movements, full of irony and self-knowledge. Yet in an effort to appear new, Fluxus artists have a frenetic energy and humor, which I find contagious. Like a gumbo that has been sitting around for a while, the flavors and themes get more pronounced. I would like to say more complex, but on the flipside, maybe they just get more obvious. More Cagean than Cage. More Duchampian than Duchamp. I cannot help but “get” Fluxus because it is so in-your-face. Fluxus has no shame.
Maybe that is not exactly true. For example, the cut-up has this same sense of belatedness. Gysin made a re-discovery, not a leap forward in artistic creation. Yet I have found Burroughs’ cut-up texts not just tough to read but tough to get my mind around. While most people highlight the cut-up’s ties to Dada, I have recently been interested in linking Burroughs and the cut-up to Fluxus and related groupings. In the pages of Bulletin from Nothing, Norman O. Mustill, Claude Pélieu, J.J. Lebel, and Mary Beach were all on the fringes of Fluxus, if not fellow travelers.
Burroughs’ connections to Fluxus, if you dig around, are definitely there. Paris in the mid-1960s is a good place to look. Emmett Williams provided the liner notes for Burroughs’ first spoken word LP, Call Me Burroughs. The album was produced at and recorded in the English Bookshop run by Gaît Frogé. Williams, a concrete poet, was a major force in Fluxus. Call Me Burroughs is pretty straightforward spoken word, but the sound collages Burroughs was creating at that time (1965) and that are collected in Real English Tea Made Here and elsewhere are truly Fluxus in spirit.
Briefly in Paris, Burroughs was on the fringes of Fluxus. The link is clearly Brion Gysin. Gysin was a founding member of Domaine Poétique along with Williams, Bernard Heidsieck and Henri Chopin. This group paralleled and overlapped with Fluxus. As Barry Miles make clear, both groups were interested in “concrete poetry, electronic music, poésie sonore, machine poetry, happenings and performance art.” George Maciunas, the leading voice of Fluxus, was familiar with Gysin’s work and attended Gysin’s performances. Gysin and Ian Sommerville put on Happenings of their own that included sound recordings, slide projections, and readings. For a period in the 1960s the readings of Burroughs were in fact Happenings. His St. Valentine’s Day Reading of 1965 with its mixture of props, spoken word, and tape recordings is a good example. Burroughs’ artistic concerns of the 1960s were the same as Domaine Poétique and Fluxus and on occasion he entered their circle. On May 18, 21, and 22 at the Centre Americain des Artistes at 261 Blvd Raspail, the largest Domaine Poétique event occurred. Gysin, Francois Dufrene, Robert Filliou, Emmitt Williams, Bernard Heidsieck and others participated. Burroughs’ work was included in the performance. In 1965, Burroughs performed in a multimedia experiment with Brion Gysin at the ICA. Domain Poétique, the Lettrists, Fluxus. In the 1960s Burroughs was actively engaged in exploring the same creative terrain as these groups and in some cases he actively participated with them.
About a year ago I was able to buy the two-volume set of Colloque de Tanger published by Christian Bourgois in 1976. These volumes collected the texts from the conference held in September 1975 in Geneva. Unfortunately they are published in French so I cannot read them. There is precious little information in English on the Colloque de Tanger. It is not mentioned in the index of the two Burroughs biographies. It is briefly mentioned in Ports of Entry, but by and large it has been overlooked. The conference was a celebration of the collaboration of Burroughs and Gysin, and to me, it is far more interesting and important than the Nova Convention of 1978. On one level, I bought the collection because one volume is inscribed by Burroughs to bookseller Burt Britton. Yet the other is inscribed by Bernard Heidsieck to Dick Higgins and has proven over time to be far more interesting to me. Heidsieck, like Burroughs, was a man with familial links to wealth and privilege. You have probably had a sip of Piper Heidsieck champagne. Heidsieck was intoxicated by experimental art and literature and became an important figure in the European avant-garde, particularly in the area of sound poetry. Higgins was a major Fluxus figure who operated Something Else Press. The output of Something Else is impressive and his press is one of the finest of the Mimeo Revolution period from 1945-1980. Something Else published Brion Gysin in 1973, which featured texts by Burroughs. Jan Herman edited the volume. He was SEP’s chief editor at the time, having succeeded Emmett Williams. The presence of Burroughs in the Something Else backlist demonstrates Burroughs’ overlapping interests with Fluxus.
The publishing career of Jan Herman performs a similar service. San Francisco Earthquake and the Nova Broadcasts join Burroughs’ work with Fluxus directly. Wolf Vostell (Miss Vietnam) and Dick Higgins (A Book about Love and War and Death) appear in the Nova Broadcast Series, which also featured Burroughs’ The Dead Star. The Nova Broadcast imprint also published Alison Knowles’ The Journal of the Identical Lunch and Ferdinand Kriwet’s Publit. Nowhere is the Fluxus spirit of Burroughs’ work more clear than in the scarce Fifth Volume of SF Earthquake: VDRSVP. Burroughs appears alongside Fluxus artists’ Alison Knowles and Wolf Vostell. Yet more importantly this issue of the magazine epitomizes Fluxus’ interest in experimenting with mass media forms and turning them to creatively and politically radical ends. VDRSVP is a magazine in a poster format and thus does away with the codex. Burroughs contributed “The Moving Times.” Burroughs’ Third Mind experiments and his more advanced cut-up scrapbooks and newspaper pieces similarly challenged and detourned mass media material. The Dead Star is a case in point.
The Colloque de Tanger celebrated these aspects of Burroughs’ creative career. Work that involved close collaboration with Gysin. Heidsieck signed my copy of Volume Two on page 161 in the middle of his recollection. On that page, Heidsieck circled a passage that mentions the Domaine Poétique events at the Centre Americain des Artistes at 261 Blvd Raspail from 1962. This is the very venue that Burroughs was a part of with Gysin. Higgins and Heidsieck shared an interest in sound poetry. Burroughs’ reading at this venue fits in here as well. The CD Real English Tea Made Here (recorded in the 1965-1966 timeframe) and Burroughs’ readings / Happenings highlight his interest in sound poetry and sound experiments. So even though I cannot read the volume or the inscription, both highlight for me Burroughs’ personal and creative relationship to Fluxus and related movements. An artistic involvement that gets lost in the shuffle, but is in fact a key aspect of what I find the most interesting and influential period of Burroughs’ career.
Bulletin from Nothing does the same thing. The two issues whisk you away to Paris, San Francisco, New York and Berlin ranging in time from just after World War I to the dawn of the Summer of Love. All the great little magazines are paper time machines that transport the reader backwards (and in some cases forwards) in time, throughout space, and across geographies. They function as very ports of entry and points of intersection that Burroughs sought to document and to create with his cut-ups. In each little magazine there is a different William Burroughs and maybe that is why I find him so fascinating. He is like a drop of mercury that refuses to be pinned down. Always one step beyond you, Burroughs eludes your attempts to grasp him. The quest to completely understand Burroughs and his work is doomed to failure but the resulting infinite possibilities, meanings, and applications reward you for the effort.
Come explore Bulletin from Nothing for yourself. The complete run is now on RealityStudio including the elusive Bulletin from Nothing flyer sometimes described as Issue 3.
Bulletin from Nothing Archive
Bulletin from Nothing 1 (view complete issue)
Bulletin from Nothing 2 (view complete issue)
Bulletin from Nothing Flyer (view complete issue)