Barely Afloat in New York: Burroughs, di Prima and Floating Bear 31

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg at Grove Press book launch party, 22 December 1964  (photograph by Fred McDarrah)
William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg at Grove Press book launch party, 22 December 1964 (photograph by Fred McDarrah)

When William Burroughs arrived in New York Harbor on the Independence on December 8, 1964, with seven suitcases full of books and manuscripts, customs officials made a big production about treating him like a “gentleman.” After all, the captain of the Independence honored Burroughs with a seat at his table as a celebrated writer. Yet after detaining him for over three hours, customs merely made a fuss about Burroughs’ porn mags and notebooks and treated him like a dirty old man. As the officers said to the waiting Brion Gysin, “Are you a friend of that man in there? He sure writes some filthy stuff.”  

That filthy stuff also made Burroughs a wanted man in the Lower East Side. Burroughs in all probability met with Ted Berrigan on December 11, just days after his arrival. Burroughs inscribed a copy of The Ticket That Exploded to Berrigan, which documented Burroughs’ arrival in New York more than any visa stamp by a customs official. Burroughs was treated by Berrigan and others as a returning hero. I envision the ursine Berrigan giving Burroughs a bear hug as he instructed Burroughs in all the secret handshakes of the New York City underground. With a presence in mimeo mags like C: A Journal of Poetry, Fuck You, a magazine of the arts, Lines, and Mother; publication by mimeo presses, like C Press and Fuck You Press; parties galore rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol; and public appearances at Off-Off Broadway theatres, New York scene warmly embraced Burroughs throughout 1965.  

Floating Bear #31Yet nothing announced not just Burroughs’ arrival in New York City but the possibility that maybe, just maybe this writer of exile finally had found a home in his homeland more than the fact that a copy of Floating Bear #31 found its way into his mailbox at his loft residence at 210 Centre Street. This issue features the work of John Wieners and Robert Duncan. I can think of few writers Burroughs had less in common with and less of a taste for than Robert Duncan. Clearly Burroughs received an issue as a member of the literary community not because of the magazine’s contents. It was a gesture of inclusion on Diane di Prima‘s part. A housewarming gift of sorts. Yet Burroughs was not laying roots. New York City served as merely one more stop in a long line of cultural layovers. Little did underground New York know that by June 1965 Burroughs was already planning his escape not just from the city but also from the mimeo culture based out of the Secret Location on the Lower East Side.

Burroughs is a tough man to categorize and define. A tough man to pin down. One way to do so is to track all his movements. Biographers, like Ted Morgan and Barry Miles, traced Burroughs’ geographic location as a means to provide structure to his sprawling biography. So the trajectory of the biographical narrative arc starts in St. Louis and proceeds to touch down in New York, Mexico, Tangier, Paris, London and New York before ending in Lawrence, Kansas. Another means to ground Burroughs’ biography is to dig into his bibliography. Morgan and Miles incorporate this method as well reading Burroughs’ life by reading “Autobiography of a Wolf” on through to “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” Junkie, Naked Lunch, the cut-up trilogy, and ending with Burroughs’ arrival at The Western Lands.

Floating Bear with its mailing labels joins the geographic and bibliographic in a real material way. What does Issue #31, as sent to Burroughs at 210 Centre Street, tell us about where Burroughs was at not just in New York City, but in terms of his biography and bibliography? Centre Street is not far from New York’s financial district and in 1965 finances were much on Burroughs’ mind. The Beatles’ “Money” provides a soundtrack for Burroughs’ time in New York: “Now give me money (that’s what I want).” In January 1965, Burroughs’ father passed away. The time had come for Burroughs to finally grow up and depend on himself for his livelihood. Earlier the previous year, Burroughs received his first substantial check for the Olympia edition of Naked Lunch. Yet in the Winter and Spring of 1965 more money meant more problems as he attempted to get further royalties for Naked Lunch from Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press. The amount was sizable: $5000. For the first time in Burroughs’ life, financial security seemed within reach as a result of his writing. Burroughs could hear the ringing of the cash register but had difficulty getting his hands in the till.  

Call Me BurroughsOn the heels of Naked Lunch‘s notoriety, if there was not exactly solid financial success, then instead hopes remained high for the Grove edition of Nova Express paying out in the immediate future. Burroughs envisioned it as a bestseller and Grove issued a 10,000 copy first printing in hardcover on November 9, 1964, followed by a further 15,000 copies a year later in softcover. Besides editions of Junkie, these were some of the largest print runs in Burroughs’ bibliography up until that point. Simultaneously, Burroughs felt he could capitalize on his cachet in the art world by issuing a deluxe edition of The Third Mind and a limited edition of Time, his scrapbook publication that detourned the Time-Life empire and was published in an edition of 1,000 for the collectors’ market by Berrigan’s C Press. In addition, the Call Me Burroughs LP provided the opportunity to expand the reach of Burroughs’ voice.

Yet despite Burroughs’ seeming immersion in the New York scene, he remained a loner in the Big Apple, spending time in his loft with his suitcases of books and writing. “As for myself life here is mostly work and very little else. However the work is productive from all points of view” (Letter to Alan Ansen, August 12, 1965). Burroughs missed Ian Sommerville, who was unable to obtain a visa to accompany Burroughs to New York. By July, Burroughs wrote Sommerville about his imminent return (“I have missed you a great deal. Nothing here really, just stay in my loft and work.”) and by early September Burroughs flew the coop. Burroughs’ stay in New York lasted a brief nine months. In that time, Burroughs was definitely “productive from all points of view,” including a flurry of underground publications, which in the case of Time, remain some of his most experimental work in print. Ultimately they would not be financially rewarding. Like 210 Centre Street, Burroughs was close to the money but remained firmly in the Bowery. He was on the borderline of the commercial and the counterculture. Burroughs’ other New York City residences suggest the same. The Chelsea Hotel served as the mainstream culture’s image of the primary address for the commercialization of the counterculture. The temporary home of rock stars like Dylan and Janis Joplin, the tourist trap nature of the Chelsea became even more apparent after Warhol’s Chelsea Girls in 1966 made the hotel a household name. Burroughs also received mail at 80 University Place, the location of Grove Press. Grove was ground zero for the business of the counterculture and at no time was Grove and publisher Barney Rosset more revolutionary and more financially successful than in the mid-1960s.  

William S. Burroughs, Nova Express, Grove Press, 1964As 1965 wound to a close, a full-blown financial windfall failed to materialize for Burroughs. The Third Mind project collapsed due to lack of financing. In addition, Nova Express became mired in a series of poor reviews:  

Reviews of Nova Express almost all bad and stupid beyond anything. I just skimmed through In Cold Blood, my God what a bore! I who can read science fiction just couldn’t make it, the dull victims with their church supper and 4H clubs and the even duller killers, my God who can it be a best seller? I tell you someone presses a button somewhere and people buy any tripe at all. I’d sooner read the Foxes of Harrows or Gone With The Wind.  

As a result, Burroughs became interested in pressing the public’s buttons. Throughout 1966, Burroughs re-worked The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded in an attempt to make them more reader friendly. After years of experimenting in the mimeo press for his own enjoyment and the pleasure of a select group of writers and artists, Burroughs returned to narrative and attempted to reach the general reader.

William S. Burroughs on the cover of Esquire, November 1968“You’re lovin’ gives me a thrill / But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills.” The mimeo press paid Burroughs respect, but not in the paper that mattered with creditors. Where was Burroughs to turn? The underground newspaper provided one viable outlet as did the adult men’s magazine. Burroughs arrived in New York with a spec assignment for Playboy, which eventually fell through, but starting in 1966, a shift began in earnest whereby Burroughs would become ubiquitous in both all the while distancing himself from full-scale participation in the Mimeo Revolution. By 1968, Burroughs would appear in Esquire, Mayfair, Cavalier, Georgia Straight, Rat, and The Village Voice at the same time the revisions of The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded appeared in bookstores.  

By summer 1965, when he received Floating Bear #31, Burroughs’ love affair with mimeo publications, so hot and heavy up until that point, was cooling. It was not just a question of money. Mimeo’s technological limitations — which made the complex interaction of text and image, such as reproduction of scrapbooks, impossible — forced Burroughs to look elsewhere for publication. Burroughs’ relationship with Jeff Nuttall and My Own Mag in late 1965 highlights this transition. Paradoxically the most famous, most collectible issue of My Own Mag, “The Dutch Schultz Special,” published in August 1965, signaled the beginning of the end of the Nuttall / Burroughs partnership. In September 1965 Burroughs arrived at Gatwick Airport for what would prove to be an extended stay in London. The close proximity to Nuttall did not increase their collaboration. Instead the magazine began to appear less frequently and the cohesiveness of the magazine began to unravel. The interplay between Burroughs and Nuttall that made the magazine so special felt played out. Burroughs did not appear in the last two issues and only briefly in issues 14 and 15.

My Own Mag, Issue #13Issue 13, often viewed as the highpoint of My Own Mag, draws attention to the limitations of mimeo. One of the most noticeable aspects of the issue is its size. It is the only one of 17 issues not foolscap. Why is this so? Nuttall was a very scrupulous editor, but he was confined by the foolscap size of the duplicator. He re-typed every article with the most scrupulous care, but it had to fit within the format. So if you compare what’s in Issue 17 — the last — with the Claude Pélieu and Carl Weissner manuscripts this becomes clear. The manuscripts were extended out to foolscap by attaching extra paper to the bottom. In Issue 13, the pages besides The Dead Star are probably cut-down foolscap paper. This means that Nuttall designed the whole issue to Burroughs’ size. The reason The Dead Star is a different size was because Nuttall did not create it himself using the mimeograph. The piece was probably published professionally using offset lithography.

Why offset? The answer is simple. Mimeo could not fully capture the visual complexity of Burroughs’ scrapbooks. Small touches like the grid of the balance sheets on which Burroughs composed The Dead Star were difficult to reproduce on mimeo. Nuttall used every technique at his disposal to comment on and reproduce the scrapbook and the ideology behind it. The meticulous reproduction of a scrapbook page in issue 11 is but one example of this. But in the introductory note to that cut-up, Burroughs demanded that Nuttall date his issues. Clearly, Burroughs was bothered with the lack of order in Nuttall’s editing even though Nuttall stressed clarity in his use of mimeo.

The Fuck You Press edition of APO-33, also printed in 1965, had the same technical problems. From the Maynard & Miles bibliography:

According to Miles a print run of 5,000 copies was projected for this edition. Since mimeo would not print the full width of WSB’s columns before it faded, the columns were typed down the page and a new column was started at the top again, which resulted in the columns changing a bit from WSB’s manuscript. Also the illustrations, done on electrostencil, did not turn out too well and were glued to the finished text at places different from where they were in the original manuscript (one was glued over some text). A copy was sent to WSB and he thought it was a “pasteup dummy,” which disappointed Sanders. Burroughs expressed his nervousness about the column changes, which further disappointed Sanders, making him so embarrassed that he abandoned the project; but the ones he had already collated (Sanders said “maybe as many as ten or twenty”) had been distributed beforehand. 

William S. Burroughs, APO-33, Fuck You Press editionWhat is crucial and important about the Fuck You APO-33 is that Burroughs rejected it. Miles writes in Call Me Burroughs, “Ed had also failed to instruct Elaine [Solow, a volunteer typist,] to keep the columns exactly as Burroughs had composed them, and they got changed during her typing because she was using a different typewriter with a different face.” Even in mimeo productions, Burroughs carefully considered typography, layout, and design. The rejection proves that Burroughs had very specific ideas about how his work should be presented. Burroughs deeply cared about his public appearance, in dress as well as in publishing. Quite simply, mimeography made Burroughs and his cut-up experiments look bad.

Burroughs realized that his scrapbook experiments needed the resources of a larger, more connected publisher. Throughout his stay in NYC in 1965, Burroughs with Brion Gysin worked on the manuscript for The Third Mind. As Burroughs and Gysin envisioned it this treatise / art book on the cut-up method would test the boundaries of traditional publishing in much the same way Nuttall challenged and extended mimeo. Publication stalled as the book proved too expensive. In addition the book proved too difficult for Grove even in a high-end format. The Third Mind was finally published in 1978, but it was a shadow of the project envisioned in the 1960s. By the end of 1965, Burroughs was at a dead end with the mimeo press.

William S. Burroughs, St Valentine's Day Reading programDi Prima was undergoing a shift as well. Around the time Issue #31 was published, she purchased an offset press and concentrated her energies on Poets’ Press. Poets’ Press in all probability published the program for Burroughs’ St. Valentine’s Day Reading in 1965. The silver specks on that publication are like a fingerprint for that press. Despite the fact that the program was mimeo’d, di Prima was moving away from the simple style of Floating Bear. From her memoir: “Owning a press and printing books seemed a natural next step after mimeographing The Floating Bear for so many years, and most recently turning out programs and flyers for the theatre on the Gestetner. It became a kind of obsession. I began to read the ads in the newspapers, and after a while I found myself going out and looking at actual presses.” Her husband, Alan Marlowe, edited Issue #31, and increasingly di Prima relied on guest editors to produce the content for the Bear. Di Prima purchased a Fairchild-Davidson and began publishing chapbooks. Around this time di Prima left Manhattan for upstate New York and a stay with Timothy Leary. By Issue #31, a chapter was closing in di Prima’s life. Her memoir on the New York years ends shortly after the purchase of the offset press and the visit to Leary’s compound. For both her and Burroughs, it was time to move on.

Ted Morgan describes the years from 1962-1965 in his biography as “Burroughs at Large.” Given the frenetic travelling Burroughs did during these years, it would seem impossible to pin him to one single location but Burroughs as his bibliography attests was residing at the Secret Location on the Lower East Side, i.e., within the publications of the Mimeo Revolution. Issue 31 of Floating Bear captures a moment in time when Burroughs was paradoxically most at home within mimeo’s pages and most eager to move on. Hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye. Hello, goodbye. Hello, goodbye. / Why, why, why, why, why, why, do you/Say “Goodbye, goodbye, bye, bye” / Oh no.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 20 November 2016.

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