Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
For background, be sure to read Jed Birmingham’s overview of Nomad.
What was the literary landscape at the time Nomad 1 came out in the Winter of 1959?
Poetry was emerging from a period in which formal and academic values dominated the literary scene. My co-editor Don Factor and I were particularly excited by the emergence of the Beat poets and other figures who drew on the inspiration of their own lives, however chaotic, rather than on their knowledge of the classics.
What was your background that lead you to get interested in literature and eventually a little magazine?
I had both a scholarly and an aesthetic interest in the little magazine genre. I had purchased a used copy of Hoffman, Allen and Ulrich’s The Little Magazine, a pioneering study of American little magazines (Princeton University Press, 1946), and at U.C.L.A. (where I was a history major) I wrote my senior thesis on the history of transition, the famous little magazine of the Parisian avant-garde of the Twenties. Donald was studying at U.S.C., where my mother was taking an advanced degree. When she heard that he was also interested in modern poetry she put us together.
Don had a collection of recordings by contemporary poets and I remember we were very stimulated by these. Also there was a revival of interest in poetry readings in Los Angeles at about this time. Peter Yates, who had founded the famous concert series Evenings on the Roof (originally on the roof of his own home) now collaborated with the violinist Sol Babitz to present poetry readings on this site and at the Babitz home (where the teen-aged Eve Babitz, future L.A. confessional novelist, was an undoubted ornament). Don and I and a number of our friends attended these readings on a regular basis — without being particularly drawn to any of the poets on offer. Our closest association with an established poet was with Tom McGrath, who invited us to his house for more evenings devoted to discussions of poetry — our feeble attempts and his own more accomplished ones.
Los Angeles could boast of only one significant little magazine at the time, Coastlines, and from our perspective the tenor of this publication was still too formal and too wedded to old-fashioned left-wing politics. (Its setting is the subject of Estelle Gershgoren Novak’s anthology, Poets of the Non-Existent City, Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era, University of New Mexico Press, 2002.) We were charmed by the scandalous rumor that Ginsberg, who had been invited to read by the Coastlines editors, responded by taking off all his clothes. So we decided to take the clothes off poetry by starting our own little magazine.
Nomad looks a lot like Yugen in appearance. How did the design of the magazine come about? You used the same printer as City Lights. How did you decide on a printer?
We did not consciously base our format on any other magazine. At an early stage in our plans we were introduced to James Boyer May, who not only had his own magazine, Trace, but served as the U.S. representative for Villiers Publications Ltd., a London firm that was already publishing Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poet Series. Boyer May went over the technical particulars involved in typography and layout and helped with the format of the first issue. Soon thereafter we obtained the services of Richard Langendorf, a student of architecture (he later designed a house for Don in Beverly Hills). Dick served as a kind of design editor for us, gathering illustrations, designing the cover of our second issue, and assisting in layouts. I did most of the layouts for later issues. The cover illustration for the first issue was drawn by my childhood friend, Leigh Peffer — later long-time proprietor of Wilshire Books in Santa Monica.
Quite possibly Nomad is best known for having published Charles Bukowski at an early date. In fact before his first book, Flower Fist and Bestial Wail, in 1960. How did Bukowski come to open the first issue of Nomad?
Bukowski was just beginning to publish his work and we were happy to serve as a vehicle for his heretofore unrecognized talents. I think we could sense, from the outset, that here we had a poet who possessed the imagination, the fluency and the freedom in his choice of subject matter that heretofore we had experienced only in the Beats. I suppose, as well, we were happy to include an L.A. poet who could rank with the best of the avant-garde.
Curiously, given his later celebrity, it has to be noted that during the Nomad era Bukowski self-consciously took no part in the public poetry scene. When our branch of the Pacifica network, KPFK, wanted to present a reading of his work on public radio, he asked me to read his work for him. This I did. He told me he enjoyed my reading, and I hope he wasn’t just being polite — though that doesn’t sound like Bukowski. We continued to publish his work whenever possible. I would say that his poem “So Much For The Knifers, So Much For The Bellowing Dawns,” which we used as a prologue to our “Manifesto” Issue, epitomized the anti-academic tone we were keen to sponsor.
The early issues feature Judson Crews of Naked Ear and James Boyer May of Trace. Can you discuss the importance of those two editors in the little magazine scene of the fifties?
Crews was one of those inexhaustible whirlwinds of the little magazine publishing scene, but we never met and he had no influence on our efforts. Boyer May, as the representative of our publisher in London, had a lot to do with the success of our magazine and he served as an unofficial advisor in a number of ways. He was a splendid chap who knew many figures in the little magazine world and I always enjoyed my visits to his home in the Silverlake district — where some visiting editor or poet was often on display.
How did you go about soliciting material for the new magazine?
Contributions came from many of the L.A. poets we knew, and we also placed an entry in Trace, describing our efforts. I rented a post office box in Culver City, not far from where my family lived — but a major nuisance as a collection point, it turned out, when we moved to Beechwood Canyon in Hollywood in the summer of 1958. Don and I now sat back and waited for the flood of literary genius to overtake us. What we got instead was sincere but staid, a swamp of clichés and posturing with (not to be too unkind) endless entries by little old ladies with three names. We soon realized that if we wanted to produce an avant-garde magazine we would have to write to poets whose work we admired. And so we did. I also began to make almost annual summer pilgrimages to New York, where I met a number of the poets later featured in our final edition.
The “Manifesto” issue is just a fantastic example of the value of a little magazine. You seem to have gotten responses from all corners of the literary landscape.
Some of these contributions were unsolicited — we announced publication of this project in Nomad 4 and there may have been a mention in Trace. But again we wrote to poets whose work excited us at the time. We did have an eclectic taste when it came to modern poetry, and we were always willing to include contemporary poetry written under a variety of styles and purposes.
Can you give some details on William Burroughs’ contribution to the “Manifesto” issue? The selection is from Minutes to Go. What was your familiarity with Burroughs’ work such as Minutes to Go, Naked Lunch or even Junkie?
I cannot recall how the Burroughs’ contribution came about, but we certainly had read some of his fiction by this point. Perhaps we had written to Gregory Corso — with our letter catching up to him while he was in Paris — and the collective entry may have been produced there. Under any circumstances we were delighted to receive this response.
I was surprised to see Louis Zukofsky in the issue. Why was his work back in demand in the 1960s after his initial splash in the Objectivist collection of 1931?
If I recall correctly, Zukofsky was one of Allen Ginsberg’s mentors. Zukofsky continued to write poetry long after his heyday and to send it out to editors, and his contribution may have been unsolicited. Incidentally, we also got regular submissions from Ginsberg’s father — but we never published any of his poems.
For me as a collector I first became aware of Nomad because of the Bukowski and Burroughs contribution. Who are some of the lesser known or unjustly forgotten writers that you were proud to publish in Nomad?
None of them have been forgotten by us, but I suppose that many of our authors have slipped from the pages of notoriety — that’s inevitable. One of the poets we were happiest to see in print for the first time was Paul Raboff, a close friend and a former classmate of Don’s at Beverly Hills High. His imaginative and rhythmic work appears in a number of our issues — and he is still writing today. He moved to Israel in the Sixties and has published a number of books, still writing in English. He sent me a new poem last week.
Describe the influence and importance of the New American Poetry anthology of Donald Allen?
The Allen anthology appeared in the mid-course of our efforts, 1960, and we were tremendously excited to see a successor to some of the more academic anthologies that had represented American poetry before this. The collection also introduced us to a number of poets whose work we did not know, but whom we would now try to include in our own publication. I don’t believe that we deliberately set out to alter or improve on Allen’s categories and divisions. But particularly when it came to the New York scene we encountered a new set of affinities and associations and, given the eclectic nature of our editorial philosophy, we set out to represent them.
How did you gather materials for Nomad / New York?
As I have mentioned earlier I was a frequent summertime visitor to New York and by 1960 I had met a number of the authors who would later appear in what turned out to be our final issue. I spent most of the summer months in New York that year and in the three subsequent years as well. In 1962 I sublet the flat of Mitchell Goodman and Denise Levertov in a building later destroyed to make way for the construction of the Twin Towers. I had lots of good advice on which New York poets to include from my friend Michael Benedikt and from Robert Kelly, who was a proprietor of the Blue Yak bookstore in the East Village, a wonderful poet’s hangout. Kelly belonged to a group that called themselves the “Deep Image” poets, and I met them all. John Bernard Myers of the Tibor di Nagy gallery was a friend of Don’s and he agreed to put together a selection of the work of a number of poets, many of whom had a foot in the art world: Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kenward Elmslie, and Bill Berkson. Incidentally, the reference to this group as the “School of New York” in this issue was evidently, but almost by accident, one of the very first uses of this phrase to describe these poets.
What was your sense of the New York Scene in the early 1960s?
New York was a tremendously exciting place during these years and there were undoubtedly many changes under way, not just in the literary scene, but in all the arts, in popular music, and even in public radio. I loved the café and bar scene (I believe I first met Joel Oppenheimer in the men’s room of the famous Cedar Tavern). I revelled in the bookstores and the poetry readings. Don was drawn to the art scene and his essay on Pop Art in our last issue was one of the first to delineate some of the characteristics and contributions of this style.
In the last issue of Nomad you announce a new magazine called Movement that was more critical and political in nature. What lead you to go in that direction? I don’t think Movement ever appeared. What happened there?
As a historian-in-training I had always maintained one foot in the world of politics and society, but there were no divided loyalties in my mind here: today we can see how the attitudes toward government and culture first visible in avant-garde literature soon spilled over into the wider hippie movement and, of course, the anti-war effort. So I thought it might be nice to launch a non-literary magazine at this time — but there were immediate problems with fund-raising, and the fact that my new co-editor, Barbara Corradini, lived in New York, while I lived in L.A., didn’t help matters. Movement remained only an idea.
What happened that caused Nomad to end?
There were just so many other things in our lives at this time that the energy wasn’t there any more. I was completing my doctoral dissertation, I got married in 1964, and that fall I was appointed an instructor in the History Department at U.C.L.A. I was overwhelmed with course preparation, Historiography and 20th Century U.S. History here, and then Western Civilization at Michigan State University — where I took up an appointment in the Humanities Department in 1965. Don began to concentrate ever more on the art scene (he compiled a fabulous collection of contemporary art at one time) and then moved into motion pictures (he produced Robert Altman’s second film, That Cold Day in the Park, in 1969). We actually compiled an issue twelve. I remember that it was to contain some poetry by Andy Warhol’s protégé Gerard Malanga and some of Michael Benedikt’s “Litanies.” But Nomad 12 never appeared.
Reading through Nomad, I feel that the magazine really had its pulse on what was new. Early publications of Bukowski and Burroughs; Pop Art; a supplement to the Allen anthology; a political direction before the merging of poetry and politics in the late 1960s. To what do you attribute the forward nature of Nomad?
It was perhaps a conscious decision not only to print creative work by our poets but also to offer them a format for statements of literary philosophy, such as those provided in our “Manifesto” issue by Robert Creeley, Charles Bukowksi and Joel Oppenheimer or those submitted by many poets in our New York issue. In addition we began to publish transcribed interviews on poetic matters conducted by David Ossman at WBAI: Kenneth Rexroth in our ninth issue, LeRoi Jones (as he was then called) in our New York issue.
What are you most proud of in the publication of Nomad?
I think that we hoped we were working toward the widening of poetic horizons — to include both new styles and a broader range of acceptable subject matter. I think we were proud of the fact that we succeeded in presenting a wide variety of schools and literary cultures — so that in addition to all of the New York poets already mentioned we could also include work by Bay Area figures like Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Michael McClure, and dozens of poets who belonged to no school or tendency but their own. You can see our desire to widen the net of literary activity in the appointment, in our last year, of Anselm Hollo as our European Correspondent.
A year after our last publication I was undoubtedly pleased that, in my survey of the avant-garde writers for my doctoral dissertation, where over seventy-five magazines were listed by sixty-six respondents, Nomad made it into the top ten (sharing this position with Trobar) in response to the question, “In your opinion, which have been the most significant little or literary magazines published since the Second World War?” The other front-runners, incidentally, began with The Black Mountain Review and then included Evergreen Review, Origin, Yugen, Big Table, Floating Bear, Kulchur, Measure, and El Corno Emplumado.
What is the role and future of the little magazine in the digital age?
This is a really good question because life on the World Wide Web can be very evanescent and, though it’s nice to look things up on your computer, there is nothing like the pleasure of holding something worth reading in your own hand. Perhaps publication on demand, an intermediate step, might be useful in the production of some magazines in the future. I am still wedded to the era of print and this year I plan to publish three books — one on the dogs and their owners in our local park here in London, then a biography of my step-father, the composer Ingolf Dahl, and finally an introduction to long-distance footpath walking in Britain. Perhaps we are being unduly pessimistic about the fate of the little magazine in the digital age; after all, we still have concerts in the age of the compact disc.
How did your background in little magazine publication affect your subsequent academic career?
My mentor at U.C.L.A., George Mowry, knowing of my involvement in the world of avant-garde literature, suggested that I choose this very world as the topic for my doctoral dissertation, mentioned above. I set out in the summer of 1963, therefore, to do my research, visiting a number of libraries and returning to New York for more first-hand interviews. My Nomad reputation stood me in good stead in my approach to a large number of avant-garde figures.
In the fall I undertook a similar trip to San Francisco, where I interviewed Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who had given an L.A. poetry reading sponsored by our magazine), Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and Allen Ginsberg (whose “American Change” we had published in Nomad 9). I will never forget the day I set out to interview Rexroth and Ginsberg — nor will any other American alive on November 22, 1963. I first heard of the Kennedy assassination as I was on the bus at the outset of my research day. I spent hours on Ginsberg’s sofa, watching the television coverage of the day’s tragedy. I remember that Allen was worried that the event might be blamed on Fidel Castro, whose revolution he supported.
A History of the American Literary Avant-garde Since World War II was completed at the end of the summer of 1964. I never published the volume, partly because the dates of the study were so open-ended, literally never ending, and so many of the figures I had included were still active. The work is still available on microfilm, however, and I know that it has been consulted by a number of scholars, even recently.
Since your Nomad days, have you had any connection with the world of avant-garde literature?
Only indirectly. At Michigan State University I twice taught courses on avant-garde literature for undergraduates and to adult education students as well. At the American School in London, where I began work in 1982, I included avant-garde literary materials in my courses on contemporary American literature in the English Department, whose chairmanship I held from 1994 to 2002, when I retired. My wife Dorothy, who was the special projects coordinator at ASL, invited Billy Collins to serve as a teacher in residence in 2002. By the time he arrived for his week with us, he had been named America’s Poet Laureate. We spent a lot of time with him and, naturally, I shared with him copies of Nomad. He was instantly able to recognize our position in the movement (small “m”) just by looking at a list of our contributors but, beyond that, I would say that Billy, in his own work, is very much the inheritor of the stylistic revolution we had sponsored forty years earlier.
For many years I lost track of Don Factor, but about ten years ago I suddenly received an e-mail. He and I were both living in London, as it turned out, and, in fact, there is only about a thirty minute walk between our place in Maida Vale and that of Don and Anna in Notting Hill. Our friendship was revived, with frequent visits to one another’s homes and on joint ventures which the four of us subsequently undertook in India, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Venice, Bilbao, New York, L.A., and Palm Springs, where the Factors spend much of the year now. Don and I share a melancholy moment whenever we learn of the passing of one of our contributors, but we enjoy many a happy moment whenever we stop to recall our Nomadic days.