Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
In my piece on Eric Mottram, I wrote that I first came into contact with d.a. levy while browsing through the stacks at the University of London Library. Looking back on it, it is weird that I had to go overseas in order to discover this most American of poets. levy is American in a sense that is increasingly in peril in these troubled times. He is a figure of protest, dissent, independence and self-reliance. levy might be a counterculture poet of the 1960s, but I can see him fitting in with Thoreau who refused to pay his taxes and went native (even if only half way) as well as with firebrands like Thomas Paine who took to their printing presses in protest against British tyranny. Reading levy in 1992 much closer in age to levy than I am now, I do not think I appreciated what a special poet and person he was. Fascinated with the Beats, I placed levy in that tradition and bought into the myth of a man suicided by society. I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by the poetry in comparison with the myth.
Much has changed in me and the world at large since I first read levy. Many of these personal changes, such as my newly sparked interest in mimeo, printing techniques and the small press; my obsession with creative communities; and my fascination with literature’s role in popular and political culture play right into the obsessions that drove levy. I also require a sense of tradition and literary history as background to fully appreciate a writer, and a dedicated group of scholars and artists are constructing the critical edifice necessary to build up the reputation of this largely misunderstood poet. I think the internet has really helped establish this home base. Several wonderful websites have grown up around the Cleveland mimeo scene and levy in general. Deep Cleveland is a case in point, as is the d.a. levy page. The Cleveland State library possesses a tremendous collection of levy’s work, as does Kent State. The library has been very active in scanning and making available the contents of their collection. From what I can tell they are at the forefront of this trend to make library holdings available on the internet. The power of the Cleveland scene in the 1960s cannot be separated from the vitality of public spaces like bookstores, coffeehouses, theaters, revolving door apartments, and crash pads. In my opinion, it is not a coincidence that the rebirth of Cleveland parallels the city’s efforts to reclaim and examine its rich history. The Rock and Roll Museum is the most obvious (and maybe controversial) example of the role of history in the rebuilding of Cleveland, but institutions like the library are crucial as well. levy realized the value of a well-stocked library when he donated alternative books and magazines to the public institutions of Cleveland. As Ed Sanders suggests, the Rock and Roll Museum would benefit from an exhibit dealing with levy and the Cleveland scene. The Cleveland mimeo scene is certainly intertwined with the rebellious spirit of the popular music of the 1960s.
A reluctance to take old anecdotes at face value seems to be the order of the day in the academic community dedicated to the writers of the immediate post-WWII era. Kerouac, Bukowski, and Burroughs are the Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink and Pecos Bill of American Literature. The tall tales surrounding these writers have obscured their true legacy. The veneer of myth covering these writers and making them so shiny and glossy for short-sighted fans is being rubbed away. Critics are getting at the bedrock surface below. The documentary on Bukowski, Born into This, takes the old, seldom seen footage and lets it speak for itself. The Bukowski letters continue this process. The result is a much more literary and, even in some ways, more sensitive Bukowski. The book Kerouac’s Wild Form (among others) reveals the radicalism of Kerouac by demonstrating his intellectual side and by laying bare his roots in the creative cross-currents of the Post-WWII avant-garde. James Grauerholz examined “the” Beat Myth, the William Tell shooting of Joan Vollmer by William Burroughs, in an effort to get to the bottom of this mystery that lies at the heart of Burroughs’ creative life and of his “secret of fascination.”
The valiant efforts of librarians, collectors and archivists who have saved the ephemera of the Cleveland scene from destruction are beginning to bear fruit. The levyfest in Cleveland is part party and part symposium. The word is getting out about levy beyond a handful of academics and collectors interested in the relics of the mimeo revolution. One proof of this is a recent publication by Bottom Dog Press: d.a. levy and the mimeograph revolution. The book, edited by Larry Smith and Ingrid Swanberg, delves deep into the life and work of levy far beyond the usual mythmaking.
This is most obvious in the treatment of levy’s suicide. For years, I believed that levy was hounded to death by a fascistic Cleveland. Besieged by legal troubles, levy took his own life to escape the oppressive police state atmosphere. This is an important element of the story but it is not the whole tale. At the time of his death, the light at the end of the legal tunnel was in sight. levy, had he held out, would have been cleared in Cleveland. He could have sought out more hospitable pastures like California or New York, and as the book states, such plans were contemplated and were in the works. The circumstances around levy’s death are much more complex: a combination of police-state hounding, a fragile state of mental health, relationship problems, and confusion about his creative future and role. What is clear is that levy was a figure out of Ginsberg’s Howl or Artaud’s essay on Van Gogh. That is if you get to the radical and political center of those works. levy was persecuted by society but it was not for his drug use or use of dirty words. They were the pretext. levy was a wanted man for the critical, questioning, and contrary nature of his thought. levy was an enemy of the state because he challenged the unassailable myths of the United States and the Western world head-on. As the recent essays make clear, levy, like Olson, was a historian. He found out for himself, and the powers that be did not like what he uncovered.
I think the comparison with Olson is instructive, and a major source of my ongoing and growing interest in levy. Like Olson, levy is an archeologist of the morning. levy explores beginnings, roots, and foundations in order to understand where things stand in the Now and in the Future. His interest in Egyptian history and script was one aspect of this digging in the past as was his excavation of the history of Cleveland. Like Olson with Gloucester and William Carlos Williams with Paterson, levy initiated an intense relationship with the city of Cleveland. I can think of few writers so active in community building outside of the major metropolitan areas on the two coasts. Surely, Olson and Williams explored their home bases in depth, but they did not attempt to construct an alternative community outside of the pages of Paterson and The Maximus Poems. Cleveland in many ways was levy’s muse and his major creative project. The city on the lake lies at the heart of his poetry. For example see Cleveland Undercover.
Olson also comes into play with his ideas of composition by field in the essay Projective Verse. A look at levy’s mimeo work reveals a poet greatly concerned with the appearance of the poem on the page. levy’s work recognizes the page as space. Swanberg and Smith’s book is wonderful in this respect, solidifying levy as a concrete / experimental / visual poet. The book also explores how the means of production dovetailed with levy’s literary concerns. This placement of levy in the forefront of the poetic avant-garde is extremely interesting and does justice to levy’s poetic project.
The focus of the levy book may be the mimeo revolution, but the essays in the collection greatly expand the range of levy’s work. The levy presented here is a deeply intellectual poet who was intimately in touch with the political, social, and literary crosscurrents of his time as well as time gone by. levy’s reach extended far beyond Cleveland in inspiration and influence. The levy presented here is less a stereotypical hippie, counterculture poet and more the experimental, avant-garde poet and publisher.
In this line, I found particularly interesting the treatment of levy as an artist. The most obvious example of this is his work with the mimeograph machine. I have read precious little on the actual mimeo process and its effect on and relationship with the creative process. Smith and Swanberg’s book provides many insights here. The book ties together the importance of the typewriter in poem-making as demonstrated by Olson in Projective Verse. The poet could become his own typesetter and lay out the poem on the page. Stencil cutting continues this process in the act of do-it-yourself reproduction. levy mastered the mimeograph, manipulating it for complex visual and typographical affects. I had never heard of the distinction between clean and dirty mimeo until reading this book. I always assumed that smudgy, inky pages were unintentional. Not true. Such effects were harnessed by levy in his concrete works to bring up issues of illegibility, obscurity, censorship, and incomprehensibility. levy incorporated blots and smudges as a typographical form of noise, static or feedback. Karl Young writes,
Taking a cue from blurs and set-off, levy began overprinting texts, sometimes for visual effects alone, sometimes as a technique to obscure some words while leaving others visible, creating a new text out of an old. A number of other mimeographers had reversed stencils, printing texts backwards. This was invariably done to produce results that were merely cute. levy worked reversed stencils in conjunction with other print runs to produce meaningful interactions of directions. His most resourceful use of mimeography came from over-inking stencils. Slight overinks were one of the perennial annoyances for veteran mimeographers. In a number of late works levy achieved a surprising range of text alteration and abstract graphics through various degrees of over-inking and cylinder impression. The initial results of these prints were often single sheets which he then had reprinted offset so as not to disturb the imbalance he had set up. In this process, he had completely jumped over the standard limitations of mimeo, turning it from one of the most tediously restricted forms of letter reproduction into the tool for one of the most dramatic forms of visual poetry of the era.
levy was not incompetent with the mimeo, but a savvy manipulator of the medium who sought to further his interests in concrete / experimental / visual poetry.
The argument is made that levy was one of the foremost practitioners of the mimeograph. His work is very impressive. I am much taken with the work of Jeff Nuttall in My Own Mag. I would characterize Nuttall’s work as clean. Nuttall strives for clarity in his inking and chooses to add the element of disruption with the use of scissors, the razor, fire or collage. The visuals in My Own Mag must have been difficult to create with a stencil, and the painter and draftsman in Nuttall comes to the fore. The visuals, like the comic strips and covers in My Own Mag, are more traditional, more conventional, maybe an example of what could be called classical mimeo. levy’s work with its blobs, its acknowledgement of the physical nature of ink, its superimpositions, and its fading reminds me of Abstract Expressionist and Pop techniques. I am thinking of levy’s Scarab Poems and “AGAIn? Yur primer cord is showing.” The solid band of ink of “AGAIn?” reminds me of a mimeo Rothko, if Rothko incorporated text in his painting. There are splashes of ink and blots like in the work of Jackson Pollock. The superimpositions, fading of text and image, and the failure to reink calls to mind Warhol’s Marilyn paintings of the early 1960s where such effects bring to mind mortality, impermanence, transitoriness. Nuttall stained his magazine (Issue 9) but I do not get the same flashes from his work. The fading and illegibility of the text in My Own Mag I take to be “the standard limitations of mimeo” and not an intended and manipulated affect.
Like Nuttall, levy was also a painter and illustrator. Russell Salamon points out this aspect of levy’s creative endeavor providing color images of the Cleveland Prints. levy created two sets of prints depicting a “used inked condom” in collages. Salamon points out “the free speech element” of these prints. I found these collages very compelling, and I did not know why until I read Karl Young’s essay: “At the Corner of Euclid Ave and Blvd St Germain: d.a. levy’s Parables of Local Necessity and Universal Decentralism.” Young recounts, “Jokes about the difficulties [of mimeo], such as that drawing on a mimeo stencil being comparable to writing with the claw of a hammer on a used condom, made up a sub genre of its own.” It was then that I saw the prints as a comment on the mimeo process. The prints also comment on free speech and communication in another way. In “Intro to the Cement Fuck,” levy writes, “as for obscenity… which is more obscene jacking off into a wastebasket becauz nobody wants to make love, or getting a bayonet in the guts.” In an interview with Andrew Curry of Dust, levy speaks of his work in relation to masturbation. levy was aware of the tie between excess, waste, and obscenity in a capitalist society. The mimeos of Cleveland bypassed normal distribution channels, ignored the mainstream publishing industry, and flooded the limited market with a baffling array of editions, limited editions, and reprints. The theories of Georges Bataille on potlatch and excess production come to mind. In a similar vein, levy states, “Why Concrete? What can be more obscene than refusing to communicate?” levy’s poetry with its failure to communicate its message clearly and simply is obscene. Again his poetry becomes and celebrates wasteful exercise like masturbating in a wastebasket or condom. levy was drawn to concrete poetry in part because of these intellectual, political and philosophical underpinnings. Many of the essays in d.a. levy and the mimeograph revolution make clear the capitalist critique that is implicit in not only his poetry and art, but also in his means of production and distribution.