D.A. Levy and William S. Burroughs

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

A Secret Location on the Lower East Side is one of my bibles, but the failure to document the Cleveland mimeo scene in any detail seems a major hole. Granted Clay and Phillips’ book could not cover everything, and Cleveland was briefly mentioned in the introduction, but levy would have been a nice corrective to the book’s largely coastal vision. By building on the framework of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology many diverse voices get silenced. The Marrahwannah Quarterly or the Third Class Buddhist Oracle by levy or even Douglas Blazek’s Ole provide a much more vibrant view of Midwest little mags than that most discussed of little magazines, the Chicago-based, Big Table. A look at the mimeo tradition in the Midwest supports the idea that Main Street was much less sleepy and complacent artistically and politically than commonly believed.

This snub got me thinking about what I consider an interesting omission in levy’s publishing efforts. Given William Burroughs’ willingness to publish anywhere in the 1960s, why did he not appear in Cleveland? Burroughs and levy would seem to be a natural fit. In late 1964, levy journeyed to New York City and immersed himself in the poetry reading scene of the Lower East Side. The chronology complied by Smith and Swanberg states that levy went to readings at Le Metro, The Cellar, and The Paradox. Burroughs read at Les Deux Megots Coffeehouse in 1963 / 1964 as recounted by Daniel Kane in All Poets Welcome, and levy attended the reading. levy stayed in New York for a month performing and immersing himself in the New York scene. This experience was instrumental in levy’s decision to initiate a coffeehouse scene and reading series in Cleveland.

levy met Ed Sanders in 1965 and received copies of The Marijuana Newsletter issued by Fuck You Press. levy may also have received Roosevelt After Inauguration or even the aborted APO-33: A Metabolic Regulator. Burroughs appeared in both issues of The Marijuana Newsletter. Soon after his correspondence with Sanders, levy began The Marrahwannah Quarterly. Burroughs’ stance on drugs would have fit right in with that mimeo, but as we will see later on levy was critical of Burroughs’ drug-induced philosophy and writing (“rug scribbles”). Like levy, Burroughs was personally familiar with censorship and obscenity trials. In addition, Burroughs’ cut-up experiments paralleled levy’s concerns with concrete and visual poetry. Both writers also experimented in a visual manner with collages and incorporated textual and typographical elements from the typewriter and newspaper unlike many other collagists of the time. levy and Burroughs would seem to be two peas in a pod.

I always assumed that Burroughs’ absence was based on his social class and established literary reputation. My cue for this assumption was Charles Bukowski and his supporters. Reading through Bukowski’s letters of the 1960s (a fun and worthwhile exercise by the way), it is clear that Buk resented the Beats, particularly Ginsberg, as fakes and poseurs. In a questionnaire complied by Anthony Linick for a dissertation, Bukowski listed Gregory Corso and Robert Creeley as his least favorite poets. Corso would represent the dislike of the Beats. Creeley stands for the established and successful avant poet, particularly of the Black Mountain variety. Before he was 40, Creeley had made it as a poet and was a leading light to succeeding generations of poets. Bukowski regularly blasted all manner of counterculture and established poets in his letters, Dirty Old Man columns, poems, and in his little mag, Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns.

Given his outsider / underdog status, it seems natural that levy would harbor a similar resentment to established avant-garde figures. In a letter to dr wagner from 1966, levy describes Burroughs as “the adding machine addict.” The reference to the Burroughs Corporation suggests levy’s awareness of the corporate and privileged status of Burroughs. Granted Burroughs clearly benefited from his family connections (nowhere more so than in Mexico after the shooting of Joan), but the myth of his wealth was greatly exaggerated. Kerouac perpetuated the rumor that Burroughs was a millionaire. He was not. Yet he was connected to wealth and privilege. More important and probably more grating on younger writers, Burroughs was connected to the international avant-garde, including major avant publishers like John Calder and Grove Press. By the mid-1960s, “the adding machine addict” had rise from drug-addled obscurity to become a Delphic oracle of sorts who prophesized on all topics of the day. Burroughs was something to measure up to and react against.

This levy clearly did and he is conflicted on Burroughs as an influence. Take Allen Ginsberg for example. I would suspect a bit of jealousy and resentment against the Beat guru who so ruffled Bukowski’s feathers. levy hosted Ginsberg in 1966 at a benefit reading in Cleveland. Ginsberg was in the process of crossing the United States for his Fall of America collection. This was the “Wichita Vortex Sutra” period, a poem that has aged well given today’s current events with its look at war, the media, and Middle America. Reading over Ginsberg’s biography and Smith and Swanberg’s book, it appears to be that the two poets used each other for their own purposes, rather than there being mutual admiration and cross pollination. At least that is the sense I get. Ginsberg kind of blew into town, created a fuss, raised some money, and annoyed the police and the squares. Did he help or hurt levy’s cause? Connections with levy definitely added a feather to Ginsberg’s cap given what levy had come to represent in the counterculture. Clearly, levy has a complicated and conflicted relationship to the Beats.

In August 1968, levy wrote “Suburban Monastery Death Poem.” Written near the end of his life and at the end of his rope, this is a devastating poem that shows the potential and power of levy. levy died at 26, an accomplished poet, but still learning and developing. As mentioned in d.a. levy and the mimeograph revolution, Ginsberg did not write Howl until the age of 30. Who knows what heights levy could have attained? In this poem, levy cries for help: “I don’t want to die in Ohio anymore.” Burroughs is one to whom levy reaches out. levy writes, “William Burroughs — rescue me! / forget that!” The line highlights the attraction / repulsion levy felt for Burroughs. As mentioned before by 1968, Burroughs was viewed as a prophet and a savior to many in the counterculture. With his appearances on album covers, underground newspapers, men’s magazines, and other alternative outlets, Burroughs transformed from a voice in the wildness to a talking head. levy’s line reminds me of “The Seeker” by The Who with the lyric: “I asked Timothy Leary and he couldn’t help me either. They call me the Seeker.” levy and the Who yearn for answers and a guru but at the same time fail to find the guidance they so desperately desire. levy and The Who are also cynical regarding the ability of the counterculture’s leading figures, like the Beatles, to provide answers at all. Timothy Leary and the Beatles are merely media projections and creations. There are no answers. There is only hype. Burroughs represents another media creation of the avant-garde.

Given levy’s interest in concrete and visual poetry, his experimentation with collage, his familiarity with the little mag community, his relationship with the Beat Generation, and his interest in drug and alternative cultures, I believe wholeheartedly that the figure of Burroughs had to be confronted and overcome by levy. levy viewed Burroughs as an important yet ultimately oppressive and, as we will see, inadequate influence. Clearly, levy wrestled with Burroughs.

In a remarkable passage included in a packet of ephemera sent by levy to Marvin Malone of Wormwood Review in the days leading up to his suicide, levy discusses Burroughs as a writer and his relation to his own poetics. The letters and other artifacts he mailed to intimates around the country represent levy’s legacy. They form part of the picture of how levy wanted to be remembered. Michael Basinski in his introduction to the letters mentions that some of the letters discuss the modern poetics of Creeley, Ginsberg and Olson. What is revealed is an intellectual poet deeply involved with the poetics of his time.

In a letter to dr wagner from 1966, levy writes:

I sit down 10-20 times a day and glans equinox dropping thru may STONE hinges sighted on syrian frontier the eglyphian stroboscope study course & its been occuring to me that the STROBE is; when assembled a form less jumble & a master piece of chaos that should even jolt ole Budge out of his gravey TRAINing center — the strobe codex cannot be broken — we have discovered an absolute means of time-warp-jump-the-rope communication that may surpass burroughsian lucidity — or the Rug scribble of the adding machine addict is to easily ascribed to rug scribble — while the strobe is primarily a non-rug scribble — perhaps anti-acid? Rug scene — if you stare at the strobe long enough the obvious patterns vanish — the problem is how can we get passed the censors & get the thing on ToVo (TOVO) as in demi-tovo-western version of TASS which is another version of Ouspenskian political mysticism

In this brief passage, it is clear that levy held many of the same obsessions and concerns as Burroughs. levy’s excitement over discovering “an absolute means of time-warp-jump-the-rope communication” echoes Burroughs’ fervor over the cut-up and yage expressed in various letters and interviews. In The Yage Letters, Burroughs writes, “Yage is space time travel.” In The Job, Burroughs states, “I would say that my most interesting experience with the earlier techniques was the realization that when you make cut-ups you do not get simply random juxtapositions of words, they do mean something, and often that these meanings refer to some future event… Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines the future leaks out.”

The concern with passing the censor reminds me of a similar line from Naked Lunch in the Talking Asshole routine. Burroughs writes, “That’s the sex that passes the censor, squeezes through between the bureaus, because there is always a space between, in popular songs and Grade B movies, giving away the basic American rottenness…” Both levy and Burroughs sought a literary form merging high and popular culture techniques that would allow them to explore and maneuver in those spaces in between, the little gaps of freedom in the monolith of the dominant culture and in the controlling aspects of language. levy also expresses his knowledge of Western media control of information and its close ties to Soviet oppression. Both realized the United States and the Soviet Union are heavily invested in stifling freedom of speech and free thought. The manipulation of media outlets is a key element in that process.

levy’s letter to wagner suggests that Burroughs did not appear in levy’s publications because levy was critical of Burroughs’ work. levy writes, “we have discovered an absolute means of time-warp-jump-the-rope communication that may surpass burroughsian lucidity — or the Rug scribble of the adding machine addict is to easily ascribed to rug scribble — while the strobe is primarily a non-rug scribble — perhaps anti-acid? Rug scene…” Burroughs in levy’s opinion was too lucid. levy describes Burroughs’ work as “rug scribbles.” This refers to “drug scribbles” with the “D” removed. Similarly, I also misread this as “rag scribbles” thinking of the British slang for heroin and a prostitute, an “oily rag.” The use of British slang in my mind refers to the fact that in 1966 Burroughs was living in London. In this light, levy felt Burroughs writing was merely drug centered and drug induced rambling whereas his work “anti-acid” and a breakthrough beyond drug-speak. By the mid-1960s, drug jargon and philosophy were becoming old hat, cliché and a straitjacket to open expression. Burroughs, and even Ginsberg and Kesey, were talking of going beyond drugs as a means toward heightened perception.

levy is using “rug” in this manner, but “rug” is also British slang for trite, tired, cliché, obvious. This would tie in with Burroughs’ lucidity. As I have written above, levy prized obscurity and noise in communication. levy states, “Why concrete? What can be more obscene than refusing to communicate.” levy felt quite rightly that his problem with the censor had less to do with four-letter words than his failure to express himself clearly and directly in a manner the common reader could understand. Obscurity equals obscenity. I have pointed out this element of pornography in connection with Burroughs in a previous Bunker column, but levy felt Burroughs did not go far enough with his cut-up and maintained ties to open communication, narrative, and discernable pattern.

levy writes, “if you stare at the strobe long enough the obvious patterns vanish.” Compare the stroboscope to the Dream Machine. levy lays down the problem with Burroughs’ cut-up experiments; they do not abandon “obvious patterns” despite his desire to obliterate word lines, destroy the tyranny of the sentence, and topple the blocks of meaning conveyed by syllabic language. In short they are too lucid. Brion Gysin, the guru to Burroughs, saw Jungian archetypes and visual patterns in the Dream Machine. In an essay on the Dream Machine published in Olympia Magazine, the Olympia Press’ response to Grove’s Evergreen Review (republished in Brion Gysin Let The Mice In, Something Else Press as well as in the Brion Gysin Reader), Gysin writes quoting Ian Sommerville…. “After a while the visions were permanently behind my eyes and I was in the middle of the whole scene with limitless patterns being generated around me.” He writes about “patterns of color” and “elements seen in endless repetition.” On the other hand, the stroboscope as envisioned by levy wants to break and complicate patterns. In an essay on the Tibetan Stroboscope, Karl Young writes, “Technically a stroboscope is an instrument used for industrial and scientific procedures that call for the intermittent flashing of beams of light… Strobe light can seem like a mild means of questioning the nature of perception. Still the strobe light can make what people usually take for granted as perception seem much less certain. Under a strobe, light and darkness constantly alternate, which can be seen in terms of existence and nothingness, or in the dualism of many occult traditions…The news is changes in perception.” Burroughs and Gysin claim to pursue a similar interest in deranging and challenging perception but they continually return to pattern and endless repetition. Take for example Gysin’s permutation poems or his artwork. Pattern and repetition are privileged over plurality of meanings and multiplicity of perception. Karl Young in connection with the stroboscope as envisioned by levy: “The images abound in contradictions, paradoxes, oppositions, and kinds of flipping polarities that at times attract and repel each other.” The Dream Machine moves away from this frantic motion and “flipping” to “limitless patterns” and “endless repetition.” The Dream Machine quickly becomes boring and too lucid.

Perhaps, levy’s literary form of the strobe is a reaction to Burroughs’ writing. Before reading the letter quoted above, I viewed Ed Sander’s Egyptian influenced poems as a major influence on levy’s work in this line and they were, but Burroughs might also play an important role. I think the focus here is in part on the cut-up experiments of the 1960s that appeared in seemingly every major little magazine of the time. Yet I want to narrow down to one magazine in particular and suggest that levy’s comments and his development of the stroboscope provide an interesting critique to a particular experiment of Burroughs’. The magazine in question is C: A Journal of Poetry and Burroughs contribution to Issue 9: “Giver of Winds is My Name.” Here, Burroughs experiments with glyphs accompanying a cut-up. Burroughs also contributes “Intersection Shifts and Scanning from Literary Days by Tom Veitch.” These works are Burroughs at his most poetic. In 1966, Ginsberg stated in a Paris Review interview that Burroughs was really a poet. It is easy to think that Ginsberg had the work from C Journal in mind. I believe levy must have seen Burroughs’ piece in C as well. Given his intimate knowledge of the little magazine scene, particularly in the Lower East Side due to a friendship with Ed Sanders, it is likely levy saw a copy of this issue. C 9 was published in the Summer of 1964 before levy’s stroboscope poem and his letter to dr wagner. As I have mentioned earlier, levy travelled to New York City in late 1964 where he saw Burroughs reading and just as likely read a copy of C 9.

Like in the Egyptian Stroboscope, Burroughs utilizes hieroglyphics in his cut-up in C 9. In The Job, Burroughs states, “The study of hieroglyphic languages shows us that word is an image… the written word is an image. However, there is an important difference between a hieroglyphic and syllabic language. If I hold up a sign with the word ‘ROSE’ written on it, and you read that sign, you will be forced to repeat the word ‘ROSE’ to yourself. If I show you a picture of a rose you do not have to repeat the word. You can register the image in silence. A syllabic language forces you to verbalize in auditory patterns. A hieroglyphic language does not. I think that anyone who is interested to find out the precise relationship between word and image show study a simplified hieroglyphic script. Such a study would tend to break down automatic verbal reaction to a word. It is precisely these automatic reactions to words themselves that enable those who manipulate words to control thought on a mass scale.” Burroughs talks the talk here but his cut-up work fails to satisfactorily break the urge to “repeat the word” or “verbalize in auditory patterns.” The hieroglyphics are mere window dressing. levy realizes that the cut-up experiment, like the Dream Machine, is built on repetition of words and images that construct a pattern despite the desire to break free into silence such as the figure of Lady Sutton Smith appears in My Own Mag and other publications of the period. On one level this goes down to the source material of the cut-ups. Burroughs utilizes the same basic material for many of his cut-ups: recycled bits and pieces from the word horde of Naked Lunch. As Davis Schneiderman demonstrates in an unpublished essay, Burroughs repeatedly cuts-up the same front page of the September 17, 1899 New York Times. In addition, levy feels that Burroughs lays down the same old con. He writes like he speaks, in a monotone, due to his recycling of old material that relies on chance and the scissors for a fresh perception. levy sees that Burroughs is addicted to a static word and image bank and thus condemned to parrot the same old phrases despite the cut-up. Burroughs cannot cut his ties to the forces of control imbedded in “obvious patterns” and word lines. He cannot keep out the echoes of his recycled writing out of his “new” material and thus never truly risks obscurity, silence, or miscommunication. As quoted earlier, Burroughs stated on the cut-up: “I would say that my most interesting experience with the earlier techniques was the realization that when you make cut-ups you do not get simply random juxtapositions of words, they do mean something…” The most interesting aspect of the cut-up to Burroughs is their “lucidity,” their clarity of meaning. Burroughs shys away from “simply random juxtapositions of words.” levy embraces this aspect in the stroboscope at the textual and visual level.

This analysis is at a textual level and says nothing of the visual elements that deeply interested both authors. In this case I would say that Burroughs preferred clean mimeo. Compare his Time and APO-33 to levy’s Tibetan Stroboscope. Both writers utilize elements of typewritten text and collage, but levy deliberately makes his text illegible. I suggest that Burroughs did not manipulate dirty mimeo in order to further his creative ideas. Proof of this is his reaction to Ed Sanders’ work on APO-33. Burroughs objected to the imperfections of this production and felt they were not appropriate. This says much about Burroughs as an established and commercial writer. Imperfect mimeo and poor layout reflected poorly on Burroughs’ reputation as a professional. levy on the other hand embraced this seeming lack of skill in order to challenge reader’s expectations and to suggest elements of censorship and miscommunication. This is another example of the lucidity that levy saw as a failing in Burroughs’ work.

As I have written before, Burroughs always remained aware of the reader and sought clear communication above all. levy sought to challenge that relationship more confrontationally through “destructive writing.” The strobe as literary form is a “master-piece of chaos.” Burroughs made gestures in this direction but by the late 1960s he would come “back now to write purely conventional straightforward narrative” as he would state in The Job. Burroughs found that purely experimental writing was something of a trap. Perhaps had he lived levy would have felt a similar pull away from the more experimental concrete work of his late career.

d.a. levy and the mimeograph revolution is a revelation for anybody interested in the Cleveland scene, the little magazine, and the alternative poetics of the 1960s. The book centers levy in Cleveland yet succeeds in showing how he searched beyond the city limits for inspiration and how his influence rippled outward from Euclid Avenue. For years, there has been a valuable base of raw material, original and reprint publications, letters, and artwork, on which to build the critical reputation of this misunderstood poet. Smith, Swanberg, and their contributors provide several bricks to that structure. Hopefully critics and writers will seek out levy’s work as there is much to learn from and about him. levy is an inspiration as a poet, a publisher and as a community builder. The project he began in Cleveland has yet to be completed in that city and beyond. The positive benefits of such an effort were sorely needed then and maybe even more so today.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 13 July 2007. See also Part 1: D.A. Levy.

3 thoughts on “D.A. Levy and William S. Burroughs

  1. Jed, thanks for your articles on d.a. levy. While I don’t know his work well, I’ve always thought Gary Snyder’s essay, “The Dharma Eye of d.a. levy”, originally published in Snyder’s book of essays, “The Old Ways”, (City Lights Books, 1977), was a good introduction. I notice the essay is now on the net at http://www.thing.net. Also, a good site for viewing some beautiful d.a. levy broadsides, and books, is Verdant Press; http://www.verdantpress.com. These are books and broadsides made recently by Jason Davis at Verdant. Most seem out of print but a quick search of abebooks.com shows some are available from booksellers. Jeff Maser, the Berkeley bookseller who’s well connected with Verdant Press, just gave me a recent d.a. levy broadside from Bottle of Smoke Press. Folks are out there keeping d.a. levy’s work moving about in the world. Thanks again.

  2. As I recall, levy was not anti-Burroughs at all. He admired the work and spoke warmly of him. I know we were both influenced by the cut up stuff because we were working on the edges of communication -the end or near end of words.

  3. nicely written. those of us here in cleveland keeping levy’s memory alive appreciate your nicely nuanced piece on levy by way of burroughs.

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