Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
In the 15 years since I began collecting William Burroughs seriously, I have read a ton of books on Burroughs, post-WWII literature, the book, book collecting, and related topics. I find that five books stand apart in that they completely revolutionized my thinking about my obsessions and that I return to them repeatedly. At the top of the list are Clay and Philips’ A Secret Location on the Lower East Side and Oliver Harris’ William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination. These books are a bottomless well of information and delight. Close on their heels are Reva Wolf’s Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s; Clay and Jerome Rothenberg’s The Book of the Book; and Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome. There are two books on this list published by Granary Books, and I could mention the essays of Johanna Drucker in Figuring the Word if only for her essay on offset printing. In time, I will probably get a hold of most of the Granary Books catalog. Is there anybody else documenting the theory and history of the book and print in such a fascinating way?
A new release by any of these authors or publishers is a major event in my little world. So when I received an email from Daniel Kane several months ago suggesting that I might be interested in his new book on New York-based poetry of the 1960s and 1970s entitled Don’t Ever Get Famous, I put money away in anticipation. In the past month, I purchased the book and read it with great pleasure. Like All Poets Welcome, Kane’s latest effort will be dipped into repeatedly for years to come.
My top five list could also mention Silliman’s Blog as a crucial reading and learning experience as well. The task of tackling that blog entry by entry (it began in 2002) was a marathon test but always enjoyable and a definite education. Reading the blog prepared me to some extent for Don’t Ever Get Famous. The book is about New York writing but do not come to the volume expecting the usual suspects. John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schyuler, and Frank O’Hara make brief appearances. For those expecting a treatment of the Tulsa wing of the school, there are essays on C Journal and Ron Padgett, but Kane and his contributors dig much deeper and explore the later generations of the New York School and those on the periphery of that School. Kane’s book is about complicating established definitions and canons. The book espouses a spirit of openness, a move towards expansion and inclusion. The book examines race, gender, sexual orientation, little magazines, and neglectrinos (to use a term from Silliman’s Blog describing those unfairly out of print or otherwise missing from the major anthologies).
The opening essay on Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka is a case study in the strategies of the entire collection. Baraka is not often labeled as a New York School poet, but from 1957-1965, he was a pivotal figure in the New York scene particularly in the avant-garde circle around the Village. In “‘Against the Speech of Friends’: Amari Baraka Sings the ‘White Friend Blues,'” Andrew Epstein argues that Baraka’s tenure as one of the centers of New American Poetry was possibly his most fruitful and poetically successful period and not one to be explained away as a youthful mistake or a necessary stage to a greater awareness. I have always felt an affinity for Baraka’s work of this time as editor, poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist. It was a remarkable outpouring of creative energy. Epstein demonstrates that Baraka benefitted both personally and creatively from the white avant-garde world of the Village. Baraka always had a conflicted, anxiety ridden relationship to this world but this uncertainty about his position fuels what I feel is his greatest writing. When Baraka left this scene for Harlem and later Newark, he abandoned a whirl of activity that energized his writing. The embrace of Black Nationalism and Marxism stymied his theorical range and limited his creative vision. Epstein writes:
Since the 1960s, [Baraka’s] reputation as a very public, radical political figure, as a fiercely ideological writer, has often obscured the experimental poet who loathed conformity, doctrinaire positions, and all forms of definitive closure, who embraced uncertainty and flux, and who declared “a position/for myself to move.”
As Epstein shows to reach his “home” creatively and ideologically, “Baraka had abandon much, had to turn away once and for all from that which had moved him.” For me, the price was too high. I prefer the experimental poet of the 1950s and early 1960s who wrestled with Olson (Projective Verse), O’Hara (Personism), Kerouac (spontaneous prose), as well as issues of sexuality and censorship. Of course, the issue of race was always present, but Baraka’s unstable and conflicted position within the New American scene generated a complex and constantly questioning and evolving stance on that central issue. Epstein’s reading of Baraka’s play The Toilet is wonderful stuff that gets to the heart of Baraka’s conflicted relationship with the white New American Poetics, particularly his much speculated upon interaction both personally and poetically with Frank O’Hara.
Jon Panish’s “‘As Radical as Society Demands the Truth to Be’: Umbra‘s Radical Politics and Poetics” approaches Umbra in a similar manner as Epstein’s essay on Baraka. Panish opens up and complicates the view of Umbra by stressing the magazine’s experimental and avant-garde nature and how that stance intermeshed with black awareness. Panish writes, “Though race is obviously central to Umbra’s mission…Umbra’s approach to race is plural and flexible in ways that the development of mid-1960s nationalism did not allow.” This is reflected in the inclusion of white counterculture writers and interestingly in a wide range of black writers who approached race from a variety of viewpoints and not a single ideological position.
Panish’s essay is detailed and clear. It opens up a section in Kane’s book on the little magazine. Essays on C: Journal, Angel Hair and 0-9 follow. I will treat Harry Thorne’s essay on C in more detail later, but Daniel Kane’s essay on Angel Hair and Linda Russo’s piece on 0-9 were revelations. Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh have documented the history of Angel Hair in essays and introductions over the years, but Kane’s reading greatly added to my knowledge of Angel Hair and the Second Generation New York School in general. Kane highlights the multi-faceted element of sociability: resistance to the academy and established poetic communities, the building of a new creative community with a decentralization of power, the collaborative nature of the creative act and the assault on authorial control, and the establishment of new traditions and canons. Granary Book’s Angel Hair Anthology is now a must. I knew little about 0-9, but Russo’s essay demands that I pick up the collection that is currently available documenting its history. In addition Bernadette Mayer and Hannah Weiner have been added to the future reading list if Silliman’s Blog didn’t put them there already. A recent conversation with Jan Herman and Carl Weissner on German performance art as well as reading about Happenings in a book on LA Pop dovetailed nicely with the conceptional nature of Mayer and Weiner’s work. I have shied away from conceptional and performative aspects of post-WWII poetry. It can be ignored no longer.
Kane warned me that Don’t Ever Get Famous was a more academic effort than the social history of All Poets Welcome. This is without a doubt true, but I only felt out of my depth twice. I found Lytle Shaw’s essay on Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ piece on Anne Waldman tough going. I definitely left those essays feeling that I would have to return to them again after I had read more deeply in the relevant work and had a more solid theorical foundation. I have mentioned Mayer earlier but Coolidge and Waldman also demand a closer look. Both writers seem to turn up on a daily basis in email conversations and internet surfing on experimental poetry.
The opening of a new world of poets and poetry could be the greatest aspect of Kane’s book. Essays on Charles North, Lee Harwood, Joe Ceravolo, Lewis Warsh, John Wieners, and Ron Padgett sparked into a full blaze my smoldering interest in their work. I am particularly eager to explore Wieners’ work after reading bits and pieces in anthologies and in Floating Bear. As I said before, Don’t Ever Get Famous deserves numerous re-readings after I get more familiar with the work in question. As a true beginner in these aspects of New York writing, I got plenty out of these essays but I was left with the sense that I was only scratching the surface. I was more familiar with Baraka’s work, and I found that essay particularly rewarding and insightful.
I was also somewhat more in my element with the essay on C Journal. I found this essay to be the weakest of the collection. It was also the most anticipated which may have to be factored into my reaction to the piece. Entitled “‘The New York School is a Joke:’ The Disruptive Poetics of C: A Journal of Poetry,” Harry Thorne’s essay continues the spirit of inclusiveness and openness. One of Thorne’s major arguments is that C is more than a New York School magazine or a careerist move on the part of Berrigan. I am not so sure. I tend to agree more with Libbie Rifkin’s thoughts expressed in various essays and in Career Moves that argues the opposite. Thorne acknowledges that C was started as a magazine of coterie promoting the Tulsa wing of the New York School. The first issue featured their sonnets, particularly Berrigan’s. It could be argued that Berrigan’s interest in C Press and C Journal was entirely fueled by his desire to establish himself as a poet, publish his work, and establish himself in the New York School and larger avant-garde canon. This seems obvious to me. It is the reason little magazines and small presses have been established throughout their entire history. Why shy away from that fact? It is one of their great strengths and pleasures. Thorne admits that Berrigan drifted away from C by the 10th issue. It is no coincidence that this was close on the heels of the success of the self-published The Sonnets. The activity of C Press greatly diminished after the Grove Press publication of The Sonnets in 1967. Clearly, the press and the magazine had served its purpose. The first three issues support a rather closed New York School reading.
The Edwin Denby issue (Number 4) is really the lynchpin of Thorne’s argument that C is not merely a New York School magazine and that Berrigan possessed a “deliberately disorganized editorial stance.” While this issue may expand the boundaries of the New York School, it is one of the most inside and exclusive of the entire run. A reader has to be intimately involved with the personal and creative history of the New York School to fully understand the contents. I get the sense that readers and contributors had to flash their credentials as New York School scenesters in order to be admitted past a velvet rope of surface understanding. Berrigan might be complicating the definition of the New York School, but his frame of reference and audience is within that small circle all the way. Reva Wolf reads this issue of C in great detail in her book and demonstrates how Warhol used C as an opportunity to rub shoulders with (or rub the wrong way) the New York School, particularly O’Hara. Berrigan’s editing of this issue seems hardly “deliberately disorganized” to me, but instead meticulously planned. Berrigan appears to be far from disorganized as the cover and the placement and selection of Berrigan’s poem is highly stylized and loaded with meaning. The motive behind these editorial choices seems far from mere desire to complicate or include others. Berrigan’s desire to complicate the established avant-garde scene seems closely tied to his own poetic ambitions rather than any personally disinterested desire to shake things up. How much is the inclusion of Warhol a hedging of bets on the hot new star (Pop Art) in New York against the old regime of O’Hara who championed Abstract Expressionism, particularly its second generation. The main intention may be the inclusion and expansion of Berrigan himself rather than the challenging of established boundaries.
Again I see nothing scandalous or horrible about this. It is what little magazines and small presses are all about. I am conflicted about one aspect of Don’t Ever Get Famous as it relates to little magazines. Kane’s book stresses multiplicity, inclusion, complexity, openness as forces of creative power, particularly in magazines like Angel Hair, Umbra, and C. Yet are these really the strengths of a great little magazine? Some of my personal favorites are Black Mountain Review, Fuck You Magazine, My Own Mag, and C Journal. Is not what makes these magazines great their focus, their cohesive content, their strong editorial personality, their exclusivity? Call me old fashioned but I firmly believe in the Ezra Pound / William Carlos Williams / Robert Creeley theory of a little magazine. A steady core of writers joined together by their common creative beliefs. The editors and contributors usually react in concert against an established tradition. The editorial stance is not about inclusion but about confrontation. Great little magazines publish a consistent stable of writers and have a definitive editorial voice. Of course the direction and focus can change over time.
Thorne (as does Kane’s book with other little magazines) argues that the exact opposite is the strength of C Journal. Thorne suggests that Issue 10 is one of the strongest of the series. The narrow focus of the early issues of C is under debate but the later issues drift away from the magazine’s early exclusive nature. Issue 10 is larger in size, broader in content, lacks a strong editorial hand, and prefers inclusion rather than discrimination. Is this a good thing and a source of power? Or the sign of a magazine in decline with an editor who has drifted away to other interests and pursuits?
Take the later issues of C as physical objects. They fall apart. The bindings do not hold together due to the increased size. They burst at the seams. The magazine is bulky, even more cumbersome than the early issue due to the increased thickness. This is symbolic of the problem with the later issues as a whole. There is less direction; more of a kitchen sink mentality. The stress is on quantity. Bigger is better. I would suggest that the editors (Berrigan and later Padgett) realized this change as a joke, possibly a critical joke designed to pop the uptight definition of establish schools as Thorne suggests. I believe Thorne missed a major opportunity to bring this point home. Thorne accepts the common assumption that there are thirteen issues of C. As an “intrepid reader” who has tried “to track down every issue,” I know this is not really the case. Issue 11 announces the content for issue 12. Try finding it. I have never seen it. I do not think it exists. Instead as Ron Padgett told me in response to my inquiry about this issue, C Comics #1 was issued instead. Berrigan viewed C Comics as Issue 12. Issue 13 came out and then C Comics #2. As a result, C runs for anywhere from 12 to 14 issues. C Comics could be an editorial comment in line with Thorne’s argument of Berrigan’s lack of seriousness in respecting the laws of the New York School. I would argue that this confusion surrounding the later issues reflects the lack of direction and focus of the magazine and lead to its discontinuance. The magazine is rudderless and meaningless as a literary statement and largely irrelevant to Berrigan’s interests at the time. Truly C becomes a joke. C Comics is the editors’ comment on and admission of that fact. As Thorne states, this could have been Berrigan’s intention all along, but is this lack of focus, editorial direction, and exclusivity a positive? Given the fate of C, I wonder. I find every issue of C to have its charms, but as a little magazine the early issues, including Issue 4, are the most powerful statements. I prefer my little magazines little, capable of being consumed in a single sitting and in the Williams / Pound tradition. Many of the magazines I see at bookstores go, like the later issues of C, in another direction. These 300+ page behemoths may have size, but they lack the roar and editorial voice of a true monster that is terrifying to the establishment and awe-inspiring to the reader.
Finishing Don’t Ever Get Famous, I have a lot to chew over. On one level I felt strongly that the desire to include, to complicate and to diversify expressed in these essays is a necessary corrective to the commonly held views of New York writing. Yet another side of me believes that the exact opposite desires are necessary for a strong creative community, like a little magazine, and are a source of great power to draw from. Maybe the multiplicity of New York writing of the 1960s and 1970s contributes to its neglected and misunderstood nature. This is all complicated by my views as a collector where I value focus and discrimination as highly as I value that golden rule of collecting: Condition, Condition, Condition. As I said I will be returning to this book again and I am sure my views of the book will change just as my approach to my book collection has altered over 15 years. A strong sense of focus does not necessarily mean close-mindedness and an unwillingness to change. The key is to not stare too long in one direction. Keeping your focus sharp requires refocusing. Kane’s book has initiated that process. It is an important book.