Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
If the letterpress represents the magazine or book as high art, the mimeograph machine epitomizes lo-fi production. The master of the mimeograph machine must first of all be a master of the stencil. The stencil is a floppy wax sheet backed by carbon paper and a stiff card, bound together at the top. Text and illustrations were either typed into the stencil with a typewriter or cut with a stylus. In Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Diane Di Prima remembered the frustrations of the stenciling process. She writes, “After the editing was over and done with, the rest of the work was chiefly in my hands. I typed the material onto green Gestetner mimeograph stencils with my ancient, heavy IBM typewriter… Correcting mimeograph stencils was painful and painstaking. You applied a liquid plastic, also green, which closed over the typing as it dried, making a new plastic ‘skin.’ You had to make sure the schmear of fluid didn’t adhere to the stencil’s backing sheet, or it would tear off again leaving a big hole in the stencil just when you were ready to print. Then, too, the correction fluid needed to be neither too thin (wouldn’t cover the previous typing) or too thick (you wouldn’t be able to get the new word to “show through” when you typed in the correction). Painful and nerve-wracking, it was the worst part of the process and makes it clear to me that computers came none too soon.” (For more on the mechanics and history of the mimeo, see Wikipedia and alteich.com).
Unlike the letterpress, the mimeograph machine was portable and cheap (to own and to use). In the post World War II era, it seemed that every writer crammed a Gestetner or an A.B. Dick machine into their small, book lined apartments. Any poet could possess the means of their own literary production. Despite the time and effort it took to stencil an issue, the key to the mimeo was speed. Rapid communication to the literary community of up to the minute work by one’s peers was essential.
Floating Bear embodied this element to the fullest. In terms of format, the Bear was no frills. The layout is simple. It is all typewritten text with no illustrations. It looks like a community newsletter than you see for a present day condo complex, except Floating Bear‘s community was the literary circles of New York and California in the 1960s. What counted was the material in the magazine and in some cases it was fine indeed. (See my old website for a description of Burroughs’ role in Floating Bear.) Several writers expressed their gratitude for having this ear to the ground outlet, especially Charles Olson. Poets in the heat of battle could get feedback immediately. Poets at Le Metro took this sense of immediacy to an extreme. At the Les Deux Magots and Café Le Metro, Dan Saxon collected the manuscripts of poems read on the premises on a certain night. Handwritten or typed copies of just performed work were quickly mimeoed. In some cases, poems were stenciled on the spot. The results were distributed to an audience of writers who commented on and incorporated the contents into their own work. Like Floating Bear, the layout and presentation of the poems was simple and direct. Yet some pages read like holograph sheets straight from the poet’s notebook. To own a copy of Le Metro now, it feels like owning the manuscript to a live performance. The cigarette smoke rises from the coffee stained pages.
Not all mimeos were so bare bones. Clay’s book mentions Jack Spicer’s J Magazine as pushing the boundaries of what was possible with the mimeo in terms of design. Ted Berrigan’s C Magazine is another example. I hate to mention it again but Fuck You Magazine demonstrates how the mimeograph could be manipulated to present interesting visuals. Ed Sanders’ interest in Egyptian Culture and hieroglyphics dovetailed nicely with the tools of the mimeo trade. The cheap construction paper (papyrus) and stenciling stylus (Sanders owned one of the few electronic stencil cutters at the time) links the modern mimeo printer with the ancient scribe. I view mimeo publishers as hopped up monks locked in one room apartments slaving over their stencils documenting the soon to be forgotten knowledge of their scene. I feel that the mimeos preserved a fleeting community as well as a poetry that was produced with passion but not with a care for posterity. The poetic practices of Bob Kaufman (Beatitude Magazine) or Frank O’Hara (countless New York mimeos) cared little for cataloging or preserving the work. For example, many of Kaufman’s poems would never have been saved if his wife did not write them down.
I admire the beauty and high quality of the letterpress publications, like The Cat Inside with its fine paper and illustrations. I especially prize the pieces that challenge the form and definition of the magazine like Folder and Semina. I love the craft and dedication that went into printing The Outsider. These publications appeal to my eye and mind, but my heart goes out to the mimeo publications. I get the sense that I could have published The Floating Bear. Although the work behind creating the magazines was difficult, they look so simple. They invite one to try his/her hand at a similar project. I love the fragility and disposability of the mimeo. As a collector, I feel that I am preserving an important and neglected piece of literary history. The print smudges. The staples rust and bleed into the paper. The paper is poor. It yellows or oxidizes. These magazines can not stand against the elements. The magazines have the beauty of a junk sculpture piece, like the husk of an automobile rusting in George Herms’ backyard. Much of the poetry included is forgotten and will not stand the test of time. They are rough, crude, like some of the poetry inside them. Yet the magazines as object are timeless mementos of the era when poetry and poets mattered a larger stage for the last time. In 1967, Ed Sanders found himself on the cover of Life magazine as the face of the New York underground. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were looked upon as leaders and spokesmen for American youth. David Lehman calls the New York School the last avant-garde poetry movement. The mimeo serves as a ticket to the literary underworld of the 1960s. Looking at them, holding them, I am transported back to Topanga Canyon or the Lower East Side and I feel that I am privy to an intimate and secret conversation.
I have always associated the mimeo magazines with amphetamines. Speed was the drug of choice for many of the publishers and poets. The drug allowed them to talk, write, and work around the clock. In addition, the mind was sharpened and the hands quickened for the laborious task of stenciling, printing, correcting, collating, and stapling hundreds of issues. Jon Webb describes the arduous work surrounding the publication of The Outsider but that press seems fueled by alcohol and cigarettes. Maybe that is because of the magazines association with Charles Bukowski, but I always felt that The Outsider was in a long line of hard drinking editor/publishers like the tradition of the daily newspaperman. There is considerable writing on the effects of heroin on jazz, LSD on writers of the 1960s or alcohol on the Lost Generation, but I have seen little on the amphetamine boom that occurred in New York in the late 1950s until the psychedelic summers of the mid 1960s. I would be interested in seeing some writing on speed and the role it plays in the introduction of the long line in poetry or repetition in art. Speed was essential in the creative process of Andy Warhol and Jack Kerouac and I think it molded their artistic production.