Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
My job ain’t a job
it’s a damn good time
library to archive I’m running my rhymes
Standing in line early in the morning at the Dunkin Donuts located at the service area on Route 128 North heading into Gloucester, I thought to myself that this “mole” brought into town, not just the tourists, businessmen, and developers so feared and despised by Charles Olson as bringing ashore the downfall of his Tyre on the Atlantic. No, for slightly more than half a century, artists, activists, writers, and scholars used this causeway to visit Olson, and these intellectual and cultural tourists sought to open up Gloucester Harbor to all manner of new currents in art, literature, and culture. I guess I could be considered just another in a long line of such tourists. In 2007 I came up here to check out 28 Fort Square, the Mecca of Maximus. Olson’s humble squat by the sea, just a short swim away from Ten Pound Island. Almost a decade later, 108 East Main Street became my port of call, just down the road from my digs at the Gloucester Writer’s Center on 126 East Main, the former home of poet Vincent Ferrini, who published Four Winds and received some of the first Maximus Poems in the post. Technically, I arrived as a Writer-in-Residence, in order to work on my nebulous Floating Bear book project, the idea for which has been gestating since well before my last visit here, as well as to give a presentation on the William Burroughs archive, but in reality what got me on the road was the opportunity to lock myself in the two small rooms housing the Ralph Maud/Charles Olson Library.
A little background on this treasure chest chock full of bibliographic booty. Ralph Maud was a scholar and academic, who served as the Boswell to Olson’s Johnson. For me Maud is best known as the author of Olson’s Reading: A Biography, which listed the books Olson read and lived with, arguing that books were the driving passion of Olson’s life. It is an incredible example of making the bibliographic biographical. This is a road not travelled as extensively by Michael Stevens in his The Road to Interzone: Reading William S. Burroughs’ Reading. Such is the future of Burroughs studies. Maud’s book is superlative, but the crowning achievement of his career proves to be his material replication of Olson’s library by collecting versions of all the books Olson may have come into contact with. Over the years even after his study of Olson’s reading was published, Maud’s collection kept growing and growing, a bibliographic Mad Ludwig’s Castle that could never be completed even if it must have had a finite end. I remember hearing that Milton was the last person to read every book published; this must be a myth since even by Milton’s time I believe there were many thousands, if not millions, of publications. Likewise, Olson did not read everything. But there always seemed to be something for Maud to add. A book, which, for example, Olson may have, or, even, should have, read found a place in Maud’s facsimile library. The collection ended only with Maud’s death, by which point it approached 5000 volumes.
What was I hoping to find in Maud’s library? My own personal interests drew me to the alternative press and little magazines that Olson read, a chapter on which appeared in Maud’s book. Subcategories and mini-archives multiply endlessly, and a collection of little mags is surely one of these. Here are a few that jumped out at me from my browsing of the shelves: Tish, Fuck You, Duende, Wild Dog, The World, Evergreen Review, Beloit Poetry Review, Rivoli Review, Coyote’s Journal, Origin, and Intrepid. I found it cool to know that Olson possessed the Mad Motherfucker Issue of Fuck You and even cooler to find that Maud went through the effort of getting a copy with Warhol’s “couch” cover attached.
Naturally I looked through the index of Olson’s Reading in order to find out what of Burroughs might be lurking on the shelves. The answer is nothing. And Maud’s collection seems to back that up. But again as with my article on John Wieners’ Measure, even Burroughs’ absence can be interesting. Olson definitely knew of Burroughs’ work and owned anthologies and magazines with Burroughs appearances, such as some of the mags I listed above. In connection with The New American Story anthology, edited by Robert Creeley and Donald Allen, Olson wrote in a letter that what most interested him in the collection was “Burroughs on bureaus.” In a letter to Ed Dorn, Olson admitted that he did not feel he was cool enough to read Burroughs, and the closest thing to a Burroughs title in Olson’s library was Fuzz Against Junk, published by Olympia Press in 1959 under the pseudonym Akbar del Piombo. For years many readers, puzzled by the pseudonym, clued in by the publisher (the same as Naked Lunch), and given the subject matter, thought Burroughs wrote it. Norman Rubington actually did. Thus, the presence of Burroughs in Olson’s library is a case of mistaken identity and a false tip.
Burroughs is largely missing in another sense, in that the Burroughsian seldom appears on Olson’s shelves. By that I mean books on lemurs, science fiction or other pulp material, scientology — all those books that make Burroughs’ library such a fun, weird, and wonderful place. In part Burroughs’ library is that of a crank. Or an eccentric genius depending on how you look at it. Olson’s library is a more serious type. It is the library of an academic, such as one Maud himself might possess in his office on campus. There is little to no leisure reading there.
That said there are some intriguing overlaps with Burroughs’ interests. Most notable to my eyes were on the topics of drugs and the Mayans. Regarding drugs, Olson was as big a proponent of psychedelics as Burroughs was wary of them. Timothy Leary invited both men to Harvard as part of his program to dose the best and the brightest. Turning on with the Boston crowd turned Burroughs off. Olson became a supporter for the rest of his life. As a result it is no surprise to see R. Gordon Wasson‘s books on mushrooms in Olson’s library and I for one was a bit surprised that Burroughs’ The Yage Letters did not make it on the shelves. Hallucinogenic vines seemed to me to be a topic that Olson would be interested in. In any case, the Mayans fascinated both men. Olson possessed several books on the subject. In fact Olson and Burroughs studied the Mayans in Mexico at the same time in the early 1950s — Burroughs at the University in Mexico City and Olson in the Yucatan. Robert Creeley at his Divers Press published Olson’s letters to him from the period as The Mayan Letters in 1953. I absolutely adore Divers Press and The Mayan Letters is one of my favorite books from Creeley’s press. It is a biblio-fantasy of mine that Burroughs and Olson might somehow have gotten in contact with each other at the time and that Creeley would have printed their correspondence as a Divers Press title. If it would have happened the results just may supplant The Descriptive Catalogue of the William S. Burroughs Archive as my most interesting Burroughs collectible.
The Maud collection also includes Maud’s correspondence with various literary and academic figures over the years relating to Olson issues. Some of this stuff is run of the mill business correspondence but some of it is of scholarly interest or just plain gossip. Recently I have been thinking about Donald Allen and his editorship of the New American Poetry Anthology a lot. The Maud correspondence contains a large folder related to Allen. Maud edited the correspondence between Olson and Allen, entitled Poet to Publisher, which was crucial to the development of the Anthology. Just as Olson directed Creeley on the editing of Black Mountain Review or Cid Corman on Origin, he instructed and inspired Allen in his work. In preparing the introduction for the Allen/Olson letters, Allen writes Maud about his recollections of how he and Olson first met. In addition Maud picked Allen’s brain or I should say pickpocketed Allen’s archives for gems for Maud’s collection of Olson’s selected letters. In one envelope, Allen enclosed six photographs he took from a pilgrimage to Gloucester made by himself, LeRoi Jones, David Cummings, and Michael McClure.
Now you might think, “What an incredible collection!!” But as they say on late-night TV infomercials, “Wait, there’s more!!!” The gathering of 5000 volumes Olson may have read is not the most interesting, or should I say, most obsessive part of the library. Maud followed in Olson’s footsteps in gathering Olson’s library in more ways than one. You see, when Olson was a young man he had the intention of being an academic and in that pursuit gathered together the fragments of Herman Melville’s library by tracking down Melville’s relatives. Olson’s collection of Melville’s books went to Harvard where Olson studied as a graduate student in the newly formed American Studies department. Just in his 20s, Olson already made his mark in Melville studies. The revitalization in Melville studies would rely in part on the books Olson located. Olson himself relied on the Melville’s library for his book, Call Me Ishmael, which analyzed Melville’s annotations in King Lear as one means to unlock Moby Dick‘s mysteries. Call Me Ishmael is far from a boring dissertation; it is creative criticism from the heart, mind, and soul of a newly emerging poet, a poet who found his source material in his wide-ranging reading and whose poems became a form of annotation and marginalia.
So Maud understood just how important annotations were to Olson and to his work. Therefore it is natural that Maud attempted to not just recreate Olson’s library but that he painstakingly transcribed in hundreds of books Olson’s in some cases extensive annotations from Olson’s original library now maintained at the University of Connecticut Special Collection in Storrs. Perfectly natural. And perfectly insane. I took several pictures so you can get an idea of what I am talking about. Each book has Maud’s book plate which briefly sets out the reason for the book’s inclusion and the nature of the annotations. You can use Maud’s Olson’s Reading as a Baedeker for going through the collection. As a result, I knew that Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality and Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato contained heavy annotations so I took a few pictures of those books to give some sense of the extent of the annotations on Olson’s part and the job it took to transcribe them. These two books have hundreds of annotations that reflect years of reading and serious thinking on Olson’s part and hours of transcription on Maud’s.
Olson was a legendary conversationalist and talker. Everybody who came into contact with him mentioned the sheer endurance and breadth of knowledge it took to engage him in conversation. More often than not these talks lasted until sunrise. By all accounts a simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating experience. Very little recorded evidence of Olson in conversation survived. Nobody caught on tape Olson in the wild at Black Mountain College in the Winter of 1954 railing as his backwoods empire fell around him. Olson is a bit like Bigfoot. Many claim to have experienced his presence but scant material evidence exists. Yet by browsing Maud’s reconstructed library you can get a sense of it, because by turning the pages of Process and Reality or Preface to Plato, you can catch a glimpse of Olson in conversation with his books and with their authors. This conversation is wide-ranging and lively. One page might show Olson deeply processing Whitehead’s process; the next might feature Olson calling Havelock a prick.
Or you can catch Olson napping. Maud purchased a 1962 Sentry reprint edition of Brooke Adams’ The Emancipation of Massachusetts, which Olson read and annotated. Olson also recorded “Some fuck dream seen Feb 13th ” on the title page and back endpapers which go as follows:
She’d suck your — his — soft cock your soft cock and swallow every spoonful how many spoonfuls of my cereal-cold cereal milk
And her raven blackness soft soft knees her mouth was to dance with her ladle to between the legs the pussy like her that
So what you might say? Olson was just another horny guy. But the bibliographic ties in here to the biographical. Olson clearly had sex on the brain and in 1966 sexual drama overtook Olson as he hooked up with patron and poet collector Panna Grady, who the previous year tried to marry William Burroughs when he was living in New York. Sweet, sweet Panna appeared to love a challenge. She moved on from Burroughs to John Wieners, which led to Olson and resulted in messy and tragic complications involving an abortion, a broken heart, and a mental breakdown. Wieners went into a downward spiral and Olson and Panna absconded to England.
Maud’s system of organization keeps the conversation lively in another manner. The technologically challenged Maud possessed no database or devised no complex organizational structure. Maud simply organized the books alphabetically by author or editor and then numbered A1, A2, A3 until all the As were done and then so on down the alphabet. So the books are not arranged relationally by subject or chronologically as they were in Olson’s Reading. On the surface this may seem unfortunate but Maud’s system creates some fascinating juxtapositions, which really suggested to me that this library was not merely the work of an academic or biographer but instead the work of an artist. A form of installation or performance. I thought immediately of the work of Buzz Spector, who stacks and arranges books like sculptures. For example, Spector gathered Robert Creeley’s copies of Olson books, which captures the essence of Creeley’s conception of Olson. Maud’s organizing principle manages to demonstrate just how vast and wide-ranging Olson’s mind and interests were. So Freud can perform a reach-around on Sanders’ Fuck You. Or a history of Gloucester sits between Preface to Plato and an account of prehistoric Europe. In just those three books, you have a microcosm of Olson’s intellectual macrocosm. Browsing through the library, connections like these can be made wherever you look. There is a method to Maud’s madness.
Coming to see the Maud/Olson Library I thought I was going to get into contact with Olson like never before. No doubt that happened but what really touched me what just how touched Maud was — not by bibliography but by bibliomania. I like to think I am normal in my collecting. Sure, I get into it pretty deep, but I have not lost perspective. If an outsider looked at my collection, I like to think he would understand and appreciate it and not think I am crazy. As an obsessive book collector, I always like to think that I am not THAT GUY. There is always somebody worse out there. Well, let me say that Ralph Maud is THAT GUY as well as being THE MAN. Quite simply, the Maud/Olson library is the most remarkable and interesting book collection I have ever seen in person. (BTW: You might wonder who Maud bought his books from. I sure did. I am sure there were several dealers involved but one stood out: Richard Aaron. I have written about Richard before but you might remember that he helped broker the sale of the William Burroughs archive in 1973 and issued what I think is the most interesting Burroughs collectible. The Maud correspondence contains several invoices from Aaron to Maud. In some cases, Maud bought almost 50 items from one Aaron catalog. Yes, Maud had it bad, which meant that certain lucky book dealers definitely had it good.).
Without a doubt, the collection gives you a unique insight into Olson, but more fascinating is the glimpse into the mind of Maud. And how much for me that was a look in the mirror. The Maud/Olson archive should not just be written up in academic literary journals; it also deserves a place in journals of psychology as a case study on the pathology of book collecting. I have never thought so much about what I am doing as a book collector as when I sat for hours soaking in the Maud/Olson library. Sitting at Olson’s table with the sunlight coming in through the windows overlooking the harbor, you are surrounded by ghosts and spirits. Forces of fascination, obsession, and compulsion are everywhere. At one point I pulled a copy of A Controversy of Poets from the bookshelves, a book I have written about in terms of my own relationship to Olson and collecting, and turned it over in my hands, all the while turning over in my mind — a mind blown open — my relationship with Maud.
Besides immersing myself within the Maud/Olson Library, I arrived in Gloucester on October 29th eager to hear Hettie Jones deliver the Charles Olson Lecture at the Cape Ann Museum. Around 90 people showed up in the lower level of the museum to hear Hettie talk about her years with Leroi Jones, her experiences as a woman in the “boy town” of the New American Poetry scene, and her decades-long correspondence with Helene Dorn, Ed Dorn’s first wife, who eventually settled in Gloucester. A few days after the talk I bumped into Wendy at the Maud/Olson library, where she spends time reading through the holdings. I recognized her from Hettie’s lecture and we got to talking about what is so interesting and important about Hettie Jones. Quite simply I told her, Hettie wrote one of the best and most insightful books into the Beat Generation around. One of the most valuable things I was introduced to at college, when taking Ronna Johnson’s class on the Beats, was the complex and complicated role of women in that circle. Professor Johnson assigned How I Became Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. Later with these books in mind, I read Diane di Prima’s Reflections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years and Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road. I cannot emphasize enough just how crucial, informative, and insightful these books were and remain to this day. You cannot get a full picture of the Beat Generation without them. And not just about gender issues, but about the nuts and bolts of the publishing process during the Mimeo Revolution. Jones and di Prima provide detailed accounts of how magazines like Yugen and Floating Bear got published, edited, and distributed.
Looking through Maud’s correspondence at the Library I saw a folder labeled “DORN” and inside were a couple of letters to Helene asking her when she was going to write her memoirs. The answer was not right now, maybe someday. Without a doubt, Helene’s book would have taken its rightful place alongside those of Jones, Johnson, Cassady, and di Prima. As far as I know that day never arrived, so the publication of Love, H: The Letters of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones, serves, in a way, as that memoir, which never came to be, but was so much anticipated by the likes of Maud and others. Hettie read selections from the letters and they reveal Helene to be an insightful and introspective woman, the traits of a gifted memoirist. The letters give insight on the day-to-day trials and tribulations of artists and writers of the period as well as women within that circle. I was excited to hear letters from Helene from Pocatello, Idaho (home of the mimeo mag Wild Dog) and Colchester England from the days Ed Dorn taught in England, but the later letters from Gloucester, Massachusetts, were really moving as were Hettie’s photographs of Helene’s mosaics made of beach glass and other recycled materials. Hettie and Helene in their lives and art make clear that that which is discarded maintains a dignity and beauty and despite what one might think a creative utility as well.
After reading Hettie’s memoir in college several questions bubbled in my brain for years and Hettie’s lecture provided the perfect opportunity to corner her and ask them all, but I have to admit public readings really intimidate me and make me feel like a sycophant, especially the Q and A sessions, which did not bode well for my own talk on Wednesday November 2nd at the Writer’s Center. So instead of asking my questions, like a coward, I walked down the street to The Topside Grill and fantasized about sitting in this cozy bar off Main Street with Hettie and a small group of friends shooting the shit over a few beers.
Some questions not directed to Hettie Jones (for whatever that is worth):
Q: Can you speak to the role of women in the publications of the Mimeo Revolution and little mags?
This was my primary reason for going to the lecture. Was it too hard to ask this simple question? Not asking Hettie about this aspect of her life is my biggest regret of the entire trip. Now Hettie talked a little bit in this regard when she read some letters from around 1966 and discussed her working relationship with Lita Hornick of Kulchur Press. Hornick hired Hettie to edit an anthology of poetry for the press. According to Hettie, the whole deal fell through and her letters of the period to Helene are great in capturing the rollercoaster ride of excitement and disappointment regarding the project. Eventually the project did happen. A few days later when I was in the Maud Library I saw a copy of Poetry Now on the shelves. It would have been nice to tell Hettie that Olson had her work in hand and read it, since Hettie stated how important and inspiring it was when Olson mentioned to her at a party that he admired her language. So sitting at The Topside with my pint of Fisherman’s Ale, I thought of what it would be like to talk to Hettie about the putting together of Yugen, her role in Totem Press, the different kinds of women who were attracted to the alternative press such as patrons like Hornick and Panna Grady or creative writers like herself. So instead of talking with Hettie, I will have to go back and reread her memoir. A not so poor a substitute, but an eternal reminder of how pathetic I am.
Q: You mentioned that if you did not become Hettie Jones you would have literally died. But can you speak to just how dangerous that life was for women? I am thinking of all the casualties like Elise Cowen and Natalie Jackson.
This was a real fascinating part of Hettie’s talk and she mentioned several times throughout that she would have died if she did not make the choices she did to live her life as a Bohemian woman and writer. She insisted that she would have literally died. I took the “literally” as the death of her creative self, her literary self — that is, her full potential as a woman would have died if she did not make certain life choices. There were clearly real issues of life and death in that decision. Several women made the same choice Hettie did and their lives became tragedies and footnotes. Not the subject of triumphant, life-affirming memoirs. Suicide, exploitation, and addiction were very real for women living in bohemia. Why couldn’t I have asked her if she felt that danger personally? What was it about her personality that made her safe from such a threat? Maybe it was the life she left behind, the traditional domestic life of her childhood, which in some paradoxical way prepared her for her life underground. Again this is not a question I wanted to ask Hettie so much as a conversation I wanted to have with her. I knew there was a get-together after her talk. As a Writer-in-Residence maybe I could have crashed the party. Having no balls on my part prevented me from learning more about women and the Beat Generation.
Q: Do you think the most important, most mind-expanding drug of the 1960s was the Pill?
This question ties into the one on the dangers of living the Bohemian lifestyle as a woman. I would guess that in answering that question she might address this one as well. At the time having sex on one’s own terms meant in some cases having an abortion, taking a risk with your well-being, both physical and mental. Diane di Prima’s memoir addresses these issues in detail. In interviewing Dr. Andrew Lees on what made the 60s happen, he answered the Pill. I suspect that this answer would be even more obvious for a woman. There is a lot of focus on the events that shifted the 1950s into the 1960s. Lots of talk about 1963 as a pivot point with the coming of The Beatles and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I do not hear as much about the spread of the Pill to the general public in the years after FDA approval in 1960-1961. I wonder how many women were using the Pill in 1963/1964 when the decade shifted. One million users as early as 1961. Maybe not as many as I think since court cases about the Pill’s legality continued into the 1970s. I should know this stuff if I claim to know my stuff about the 1960s. Again I am not talking to the right people. Time to read a history on the Pill. I have read all the books out there on LSD. Maybe I am focusing on the wrong drug. All the more reason to crash a party with Hettie. In any case, I am sure she would tell me that Enovid was no picnic either, with the first blood clots and other health defects appearing in users almost immediately.
Unlike Hettie’s lecture, the setting for my conversation with Gerrit Lansing was more to my liking: lunch at Halibut Point on Main Street in Gloucester. Greg Gibson set up the lunch and we walked into the restaurant together to find Gerrit at a back table waiting with a glass of white wine. I ordered a pint of Guinness and the waitress arrived without a word from Greg with a Ballantine Ale in a bottle. Membership has its privileges. Or I should say being a regular. I immediately felt comfortable and within seconds Gerrit, Greg, and I got deep into conversation. I should say there was a brief introductory period where Greg told Gerrit where I was coming from biographically and bibliographically. I should do the same regarding Gerrit on behalf of readers out there listening in on the conversation without knowing who Gerrit is.
I first knew of Gerrit through his little magazine Set, which ran for two issues in the early 60s out of Gloucester. Like Vincent Ferrini’s Four Winds before it, it put Gloucester on the map as a literary polis. Set captured the dying embers of the Boston Renaissance, a group of poets centered in Boston in the mid-to-late 1950s including Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer (who was living there at the time), and John Wieners. Olson loomed large in this group from a distance at his roost on 28 Fort Square in Gloucester. Gregory Corso ran in and out from his unofficial writer’s-in-residence at Harvard. Harvard students took a liking to Gregory and put up the money for the publication of his first book The Vestal Lady of the Brattle. Over the years, Stephen Jonas proved to be the poet who caught my eye and ear. Gerrit is the literary executor of the Jonas estate and planned on travelling down to Harvard the very next day for a reading in honor of Jonas. A minor poet in his lifetime, a poet who wrote from the margins, and who after his death remained in obscurity, Jonas is in the midst of a bit of a revival. An African-American, gay, junkie, outlaw poet in the tradition of Pound hits many of the trigger points in today’s academic scene. Maybe Jonas’ time has come. In our conversation Gerrit wondered what took so long. I think Pound is to blame. Jonas took the Poundian idiom into the world of drugs and madness but Pound’s own paranoia, such as his economic conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, rubbed off on Jonas as well. I suspect that the negative aspects of Pound in Jonas’ poetry stunted the spread of Jonas’ work. As Gerrit suggested, it probably halted publication of the Spicer/Jonas letters. In any case, as the Harvard reading proves, word is getting out on Jonas and Gerrit is part of the reason.
The 86-year-old Gerrit still gets around quite a bit himself. He looked dapper in a green shirt under a sport coat. His was face bright with color and lit up with a smile. In his long life, Gerrit has always mingled with an interesting crowd. In the 1950s, he hung out in New York City with the circle around John La Touche, a lyricist who died of a heart attack at 41 in Vermont. Paul and Jane Bowles married in La Touche’s apartment. Around that same time, Gerrit rubbed shoulders with Kerouac and others at the San Remo and other famous New York watering holes for writers and artists. Gerrit’s interest in the occult and mysticism brought him into contact with numerous exotic texts and equally exotic characters, like Harry Smith, the polymath who lived by his wits and the generosity of others at the Chelsea Hotel, collecting everything from paper airplanes to early folk and blues recordings. Living in Gloucester, Gerrit was good friends with Olson and Gerard Malanga stayed with Gerrit when he came up to Gloucester to interview Olson in the late 1960s. Gerrit knows where all the bodies are buried and specializes in subterranean history: everywhere from the Village in New York to Hammond’s Castle in Gloucester.
Greg told me after our lunch that he enjoyed just sitting there listening to two book geeks completely geek out together over the full breadth of New American writing. To be honest I do not remember saying all that much because Gerrit had so much to say. Somebody should be following Gerrit around with a tape recorder capturing everything he remembers from days gone by as well as his statements on the current literary scene. On the topic of the occult, we talked briefly about Ira Cohen, and I was reminded that one of my great regrets was not interviewing Cohen when I had the chance. I had the contacts and the opportunity but I always pushed it off to another day until it was too late. I often wonder what stories Cohen could have told about Burroughs and Tangier as well as the publication of Gnaoua magazine and the circle around it. Ouija boards and séances are the only recourses now.
Gerrit and I talked about Burroughs for a bit and he placed the first issue of Set on the table because rumor had it that the Dorn poem in the issue was about Burroughs. Here is the poem in its entirety:
SOME, MAN, ON THE STREET
Have a Habit? (No Art?)
Walkin up when there is
no up? (the inclined level)
That cradle of What? effort
not civilization, puke, it must be
his back is bent and the hat
how are hats? Romantic
they always conjure always
better places we have been
walkin with an effort up
the down street a grinning adam
smith in his hip pocket where
he thought his pay was, Modern Times:
The habit of blue or brown shirts
goddamn his dressing man had a big
arm. You name it give him
what habit you want, but not
him there, yess, la la
And tell him what a clod he is
or how simple (beautiful or otherwise)
how he belabours you and lets the wrong
people rule him.
Have you, has yours, his song
has ended. That’s true, Si
Wow, oh yes, Why not, what a clod
Catch him quickly, before he hits
the hay, whisper in his ear more exhaustion
as he sleeps, about some dream you had of him
and his lot, how he look back
and was made the salt of the earth (disinherited?)
about his sex, fantasies which through you
reached a great perversion, a great starkness
But man, not inflation, Newsweek does that dance
drugs? that’s goodly, but he can’t get ’em, you
oughta be in Morocco for that OK
tell him about Morocco, be his
bullshitter National Geographic
with a couple of fucks and cunts
thrown in just to keep it going
and esoteric to him (not erotic
Or that bit about Bureacrasy how
you and H. Hoover and Rickover
and Bar Goldwater and whoever agree
it’s gotta go (leave out how you’d all
be dead without it)
Naw, you’d be bored as usual and this man
is just tired, first of all of you and them
and three centuries of penny mayhem, of his
burden which was called white, the color
being the mistake he was stuck with. . .
So come back in the night to cornhole him
tell him he wanted it when he yawns
make it right with a corkscrew motion
I mean leave no room for an incognizance
On his part tell him when he farts it is
because hypothalmouse kicked him
beans have nothing to do with it, (Si)
and from what’s the source he derives
his incomparable stink, which you feed upon
like a vulture a like deadman’s body
who may have breathed I dare say for
a grace of only such food-love’s lost
of what it is, was once for that man
and you too
will come one day to such an end (that meaning
is intended) as a man’s whose foot was truly
upon the earth the ankle grabbed by Ernest Jones
and will have made it simply that way, unyielding
as an opinion.
Throw in a fuck, and a cunt or two,
and that old tale about the best fuck is
a chicken with its neck snapped, the one
he heard when he was 9 years old but
what he didn’t hear leave out what you might
have told him
but you were in Morocco
living off one of the very fortunes that put him down.
Gerrit said that the Burroughs connection was much debated back in the day and many thought it may have been about John Cooke, another junkie expat in Tangier at the time. Cooke is definitely a possibility, as he walked with difficulty down the street (as mentioned in the poem) after being paralyzed mysteriously, possibly by a curse, in Tangier in 1956. Such a line does not appear to apply to Burroughs. That said I told Gerrit that Burroughs was much on Dorn’s mind at the time the poem appeared in Set in the winter of 1961/1962. In autumn 1962, “Notes More or Less Relevant to Burroughs and Trocchi” appeared in Kulchur 7. In the introduction, Dorn writes that the notes were accumulated over the past year. So the set and setting are definitely right. Dorn definitely interrogates Burroughs and questions Burroughs’ place in New American Writing, his hipster stance, and ideas behind Naked Lunch as a novel. At our lunch, Gerrit and I never reached a definitive conclusion on the subject of the poem but rereading both the poem and “Notes” afterwards, Burroughs is clearly one of the subjects of the poem, if not the primary and only subject. Many lines are unmistakably about Burroughs. Here are just two examples compared to Dorn’s “Notes”:
From the poem:
Or that bit about Bureacrasy how
you and H. Hoover and Rickover
and Bar Goldwater and whoever agree
it’s gotta go (leave out how you’d all
be dead without it)
Bureaucracy as virus is so close to the objections to bureaucracy by Herbert Hoover, Robert Welch, and Barry Goldwater as to make me wonder if he means it that way or is this one of the jokes I don’t get. This again is a spot in which he chooses to object to people who don’t like addicts.
From the poem:
Throw in a fuck, and a cunt or two,
and that old tale about the best fuck is
a chicken with its neck snapped,
From the Notes:
Certain parts of T.N.L. involved that quality of hesitant curiosity in men. But even these props — the recurring act of breaking the neck, snapping the spine or neck in the midst of anal-sodomy — is straight from the farm, in the form of an anecdotal joke. An old farm joke, usually involving chickens because chickens wiggle so when their necks are snapped, not very important; but then neither are rubes not are those jokes. That all comes through anthropology. Edgar Anderson says anthropologists should pay more attention to the midwestern farm. The Burroughs machine is I believe now located in Indianapolis. Cornhole is a word for sodomy with animals in the midwest. Sodomy is very strong in the midwest, the fantasy of sodomy at least, or should I say was; to a large extent, I understand, animals have been isolated on the present farms for various reasons — sanitation, confined quarters to insure “thriftiness,” etc.
Dorn’s working class roots and his homophobia come out in his criticism. Dorn no doubt disliked Burroughs’ privileged status as well as his reliance on a trust fund to live his hipster lifestyle. The poem and the Notes make this clear. In addition, the hanged chicken, think gay slang and chicken hawks, references Burroughs’ fascination with hanging boys with spurting cocks. Without a doubt, Dorn spent considerable time thinking about the work of Burroughs in this period, it seems clear that “Some, Man, on the Streets” transforms his “Notes” into poetry. What do you think?
In any case listen to the question and answer section of my talk in order to get a sense of how sharp Gerrit is and what a good listener. As an extra bonus, he weighs in on a book from my collection that has been puzzling and fascinating me for years. No spoilers here. Listen to the audio of my talk.
Coming to Gloucester I planned on having lunch with Gerrit but one of the wonderful things about this city by the sea is that you never know who you will strike up a conversation with hanging out in restaurants and bars. What I love about Gloucester is its mix of blue collar and artist types. The Writer’s Center is halfway between The Crow’s Nest, the dive bar featured in The Perfect Storm and the Rocky Neck artist colony. So one afternoon I stopped in the Nest to down some Miller High Lifes and to soak in the local conversation and then I got up and walked down into Rocky Neck to clear my head with some sea air as the sun went down.
The night of my talk I sat down at a bistro just down the street and ordered a hanger steak with mashed potatoes and braised carrots with a glass of tap water to wash it down. No beers from me; I take my speaking obligations very seriously. Natch! As I was eating an older gentleman sat next to me at the bar and ordered the ubiquitous salad and a glass of wine. He found out I was at the Writer’s Center, which as was par for the course during my time I was in Gloucester, initiated a conversation.
A rough transcription:
Carl: You a poet?
Jed: No, actually I am a book collector.
Carl: Well, I was friends with an obscure poet back in the day. You probably never heard of him.
Now, I love a challenge like that. I consider myself pretty well read and I like to think that I have heard of just about everybody. More likely than not, I am humbled when whoever I am talking to drops a name that has slipped past my nets and has yet to land in my library. Gerrit consistently dropped names of that nature. “Jed, have you read [insert writer of the occult]?” And I would have to mumble, “That one seems to have escaped me.” Happily, Gerrit would proceed to fill me in with an engrossing story, making me wish I had cast my nets further afield. So when Carl laid down the gauntlet, I felt that delicious feeling of anticipation. What poet could he possibly have known?
Jed: Try me.
Carl: Ted Berrigan. I was friends with Ted in New York City.
I literally dropped my fork. My mouth dropped open. Unfortunately, it was full of hanger steak. Now my first thought was that Carl was putting me on. He was playing around with me. Ted Berrigan??!!! At the Writer’s Center, I was writing about William Burroughs and Floating Bear #31, and the meeting of Ted and Burroughs was much on my mind the entire time. So coming into the bistro my head was full of thoughts of Berrigan. Was this guy reading my mind? I tried to play it cool.
Jed: You are kidding, right? Of course I know about him. Berrigan is a fucking god.
So much for playing it cool. The dribbles of hanger steak made that tough to do in any case. I filled in the disbelieving Carl on the cult status of Ted. He listened shaking his head.
Carl: I knew Ted when I was attending NYU for graduate school. I lived on 6th Street down in the Lower East Side. Ted and I walked around together. I remember one time we were in one of the local parks and a guy was playing fetch with his dog. Ted leaned over and said to me, “Look, Carl. He is teaching his dog to kill.” Ted had a weird way of looking at things.
Jed: When was this?
Carl: Around 1963.
So before the publication of The Sonnets. Ron Padgett was still a student up at Columbia University. As Carl rightly remembered, at the time, Berrigan was an unknown poet.
Jed: You ever hear of C: A Journal of Poetry or The Sonnets?
Carl: No. I really was not into that kind of stuff. I wonder why we were friends. I remember Ted becoming very excited about one thing I showed him. I had an old Superman comic, which struck me as really funny when you just looked at the illustrations without the blurbs. So Ted and I whited out the balloons and wrote in our own captions. Ted thought this was fantastic. I wish I still had that Superman comic. Maybe I do.
I think I stared at Carl for about a full minute. Again you have to be fucking kidding me.
Jed: That is incredible. You ever hear of C Comics? Ted played around with the comic form throughout the 1960s, doing just what you guys did with the Superman comic. Ted would get Joe Brainard, ever meet him? [Shake of the head]. Well, Brainard would draw these comics and the poets, like Ted and Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, would write the text. They are really funny.
Carl: Never saw C Comics. Ted was always talking about Frank O’Hara. Ted asked me one time about O’Hara and I thought he was talking about this novelist.
Jed: John O’Hara?
Carl: Yes, and I felt embarrassed for knowing the wrong O’Hara. I did not hang out with Ted long after that. I went to his new apartment around then and they had painted it entirely black and painted pornographic drawings all over the walls. That was it. Ted was getting too weird for me.
The conversation went on for a little bit. He knew Sandy Berrigan but was not aware of the collection of letters between Ted and Sandy although he knew a little bit about the story of their early relationship, with Sandy’s parents’ disapproval of their marriage and their placing of Sandy in a mental hospital to cure her of her ill-advised love of Ted. The conversation then turned.
Carl: You ever hear of a book called Beside the Shadblow Tree?
Yes!!! Two for two.
Jed: Hayden Carruth’s memoir of James Laughlin.
Carl: Right, I knew Carruth when he lived up in Vermont. A remarkable poet.
Mind blown yet again, which led to a conversation about Carruth and his time in Vermont. Meanwhile time ticked away and the hour of my talk approached. Sadly, I pulled myself away from the bar.
Jed: Really great talking to you. Incredible.
Proof positive that you never know who is going to sit next to you at a bar. Especially in Gloucester.
Here is yet another example. Now to be honest only about seven people showed up for my reading. It was the night of game seven of the World Series. Fifty million people watched the game on television. Almost 75% of Chicago watched and apparently a good portion of Gloucester as well. Oh well, I was happy anybody showed up, as long as Greg, Henry, and Gerrit were there it seemed like a full house to me. Henry arrived at my reading with a guy that reminded me of Samuel Beckett. All angles with a silvery, spiked haircut. He stood out in a Burroughsian way. Had that el hombre invisible feel about him. You know what I mean, invisible yet with an incredible presence simultaneously. Who the fuck is this guy? Turns out it was Willie “Loco” Alexander. I must admit I had to look him up later. Turns out Alexander is a Boston punk rock legend. His song “At the Rat,” for example, captured the essence of the Boston punk scene in the 1970s. He toured with The Velvet Underground in 1971, when they made a go of it without Lou Reed. What was he doing in Gloucester and most of all what the hell was he doing intellectually slumming it by listening to me? I suspected that the Burroughs angle was the draw, but nowadays Alexander is obsessed with Gloucester, where he grew up as a child and which has by now attached itself like a barnacle onto his poetic imagination. Alexander worked with Henry and Gerrit on various projects. The Writer’s Center may not be The Rat but with people like Alexander in the audience I felt like a rock star. Okay, maybe not a rock star exactly, but at least a punk rocker with a cult following, because as the Velvet Underground and the publications of the underground press demonstrate that is the audience that really matters. I love you Gloucester; you’re the Rock and Roll Capital of the World!!! If you have a mind to, put my talk on the listening devices of your choosing and put it up to eleven. Raise your lighters high and smoke ’em if you got ’em.