Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
shoring up, fragments of better days,
against these our so
Floating Bear 35
The weekend before St. Pat’s, I rode the Chinatown bus up to New York City and then hopped in a taxi to NYU’s Grey Art Gallery to take in the Semina Culture exhibit. The opportunity to view a complete run of Semina drew me there initially, but the rest of the exhibit (the photographs, the artwork, the scrapbooks, the films, the sculpture) kept me entranced for hours.
Yet I have to begin with Semina. The magazine provides the exhibit’s name as well as the glue that holds it together. Berman’s act of love did not disappoint. Encased under glass, Semina is one of the first things one encounters in the gallery. The lack of a true binding allowed the curators to spread out and arrange the contents of all nine issues a full six feet or so. I was first struck by how small and delicate the magazine is. Issue 9 is barely the size of a postcard. Issue 4, the one Burroughs appears in, is the largest in format but the content is again the essence of ephemera. Burroughs’ “Pantopon Rose” is a fragmentary prose poem printed on tissue-like paper. Most of the contents are on single-sided index-card-sized broadsides. On the one hand, Semina given its size and fragile nature suggests an ethereal, spiritual quality, yet it is also very material. Its physicality is readily apparent. I believe the letterpress (a very physical process) was used for most of the printing, but the presence of the artist’s hand struck me most in the folding, the cutting, the pasting, the collating. These procedures are utilized on a textual and visual level in the cut-up technique as well. Gysin rediscovered the cut-up in the physical process of preparing a painting, and of course Burroughs experimented with fold-ins, grids, cutting, pasting, and collating throughout his literary career.
In a conversation on Sunday, Jan Herman mentioned all the work and care that went into the folding of the Nova Broadcast publications. Semina magazine, and in fact much of the work of the Semina Circle (I think of Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose”), forces the viewer to recognize the element of manual labor necessary for the creation of a work of art. Produced during an age of mass market printing, the mechanical reproduction of offset, and the development of the large publishing conglomerates, Semina wears the mark of the handmade proudly. For example in Issue 2, Alexander Trocchi’s contribution is a delicate reproduction of a holograph manuscript. Trocchi’s original hung above the glass case as did several other manuscript pieces.
Semina casts a huge shadow over the exhibit, but I also found myself thinking about Floating Bear. I tend to place Floating Bear with Yugen and Kulchur. I consider it New York based and a product of Leroi Jones’ editorial hand. Not true. Luckily right before attending the Semina exhibit, I read the complete run of Floating Bear in the Laurence McGilvery reprint of 1973. Like Semina, Floating Bear captures in print (again in a fragile, ephemeral way) the Wallace Berman circle. Berman, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, John Wieners, David Meltzer, Robert Duncan, Diane Di Prima, Lew Welch, George Herms, Kirby Doyle, Ray Johnson, Jack Smith, Jess, Sharon Morrill, John Reed, Philip Lamantia, Bobby Driscoll, Stuart Perkoff. Like Semina, Floating Bear cannot be confined to a single geography. Boston, Southern and Northern California, New York all served as centers at various times. Floating Bear extended far beyond Jones’ editorial reach as Diane Di Prima embraced any and all creative impulses that came into her far-ranging path. This is more noticeable after Jones’ resignation from the magazine in Issue 26, but it is present from the beginning to anyone who looks closely.
I have to mention Issue 33 of Floating Bear in more detail. Going through the exhibit, I felt that issue captured the spirit of Berman’s circle as well as Semina did. One of Di Prima’s great innovations in Floating Bear, besides the change in format, was the use of guest editors. John Wieners edited Issue 33. The poem by Stephen Jonas comes into play here. Jonas, like Wieners, was a Boston poet much influenced by Olson, Creeley and Black Mountain as well as immersed in a skid-row environment of drugs, promiscuity and madness. Walking through the exhibit and reading the brief biographies brought home the high price of pursuing and maintaining one’s creative demons and impulses. Many lives endured or ended in the tragedies of suicide, accidental death, madness, drug addiction or homelessness. Robert Alexander (drug addiction), Wallace Berman (killed by drunk driver), Ray Bremser (drug addiction), Joan Brown (accidental death), Kirby Doyle (drug addiction/mental illness), Bobby Driscoll (died homeless/unidentified), Joe Dunn (drug addiction), Loree Foxx (died in police custody), Dennis Hopper (drug addiction), Didi Morrill (drug addiction), Billy Jahrmarkt (accidental shooting), Bob Kaufman (mental illness), Stuart Perkoff (drug addiction), John Reed (homelessness), Arthur Richer (drug overdose), Jack Smith (AIDS), Ben Talbert (drug overdose), Alexander Trocchi (drug addiction), Lew Welch (suicide), John Wieners (mental illness), Zack Walsh (drug addiction).
Jonas’ lines capture one of the essential elements that drove the Semina Circle in their acts of creation. Their art serves as an existential act documenting the lives of men and women that the mainstream would like to ignore, incarcerate, or destroy. The act of writing leaves a record, a trace of these “fragmentary lives” and outlaw lifestyles. Mark-making grounds these writers in the human, the individual, as well as the communal. It asserts their physical presence. In the Silent Decade, the Semina Circle demanded to be heard if only amongst themselves and in their own language. Like Semina, Floating Bear 33 locks in time a largely forgotten band of junkie poets and artists destined in many cases to fall victim to their destructive tendencies. This linkage between intense creativity with self-destruction, particularly persistent in the 20th Century, has always interested me. The Semina Circle could provide an interesting case study in this phenomenon. In the introduction to the Floating Bear collection, Di Prima writes, “Some of the work that [Wieners] used when he edited Number 33 came from as far back as 1951. The issue was predominately a street / junkie issue: beautiful, wasted chicks and hustlers that John had known in Boston, in San Francisco and New York. It’s a very beautiful issue, I think.” I have to agree.
Just as Burroughs lurks throughout Floating Bear including in two of the most legendary issues, Number 9 and 24, the gentleman junky hovers on the fringes of the Semina show. Burroughs appears in Semina 4. Burroughs contributes a text called “Pantopon Rose.” This piece is a slightly edited fragment that eventually appeared as the opening to the “Have you seen Pantopon Rose?” section of Naked Lunch. As I have mentioned before, Semina was a very important early publication for Burroughs giving him confidence that Naked Lunch would find a printer and a larger audience. The presentation in Semina give “Pantopon Rose” the look and feel of a prose poem. Given Burroughs’ interest in Rimbaud and his poetic cut-ups of Minutes to Go and The Exterminator, this aspect of Burroughs’ work deserves closer attention. I view much of Naked Lunch as a prose poem re-writing of Junky. Such an approach to Naked Lunch gains credence in sections like “Have you seen Pantopon Rose?” with the return of characters and locations from Junky. I also see elements of On the Road in Junky and the early sections of Naked Lunch. Junky is something of a road novel told straight and the opening sections of Naked Lunch re-envision the road aspect in a fragmentary and poetic manner. Kerouac’s Visions of Cody performs the same form of rewriting as Kerouac retells On the Road in light of the technique of spontaneous prose and sketching.
The excerpt “Pantopon Rose” in Semina should not be confused with the much later fine-press publication from West Virginia. This broadside reprints a holograph poem written by Burroughs in 1995 called “Pantopon Rose.” In real life Pantopon Rose was a prostitute who sold junk on the side in 1940s New York City. In an act of nostalgia, Burroughs creates less a poem than a little song. Again the poetic aspect of Burroughs’ work comes to the surface in this late work. In a 1966 interview with Paris Review, Allen Ginsberg was one of the first to remark that Burroughs was in essence a poet. More obvious with sections of Naked Lunch as well as Minutes to Go and The Exterminator, this observation could be extended to the cut-up trilogy of Soft Machine, Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. Some of the cut-up experiments of the 1960s are examples of visual / concrete / experimental poetry as much as prose.
Semina 4, like much of Semina, was a drug-themed issue. Of course, Burroughs comes to mind given all the images of heroin, including a fetish-like treatment of the act of shooting up. I am thinking of the photograph of Philip Lamantia as well as the footage of Robert Alexander in Wallace Berman’s film The Aleph. In The Aleph, you have to pay close attention but the pulp fiction cover of the Ace Junkie appears in the film in Berman’s trademark transistor radio. Interestingly, the picture of Junkie is the only color image in the entire film.
The Ginsberg section of the exhibit features a photograph of Burroughs from 1953, a monumental year for the friendship of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac. In addition much of the artwork, particularly the scrapbooks and collages, parallels Burroughs’ work of the 1950s and 1960s. Flipping through the pages of Ports of Entry alongside a copy of Semina Culture bears this out. This was most noticeable to me in the various scrapbooks in the exhibit such as Diane Di Prima’s three books on loan from The University of North Carolina. I also found the collages of Jess very similar to Burroughs’ work as well.
One reason for this similarity could be the fact that Burroughs and the Semina Circle found similar inspiration in the textual and visual experiments of the Dadaists. I was lucky enough to see the Dada exhibit in Washington DC. Again opening the pages of that catalog with the Ports of Entry and Semina books proves instructive. The parallels with German Dada, particularly Hannover and Kurt Schwitters, are very strong. Schwitters’ Merz material as well as his collages join photomontage and juxtapositions of various typographies, much like Burroughs’ work of the fifties and sixties. Unlike Schwitters, Burroughs and the Semina Circle utilize the typewriter and handwriting in their scrapbooks and collage pieces. Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch’s works are also instructive. Ports of Entry makes all these Dada connections readily apparent. No finer discussion of Burroughs as a visual artist exists to my knowledge.
It is interesting to me that Beats Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg are considered part of the Semina Circle, but Burroughs is not. Both McClure and Ginsberg had considerable contact with Berman through face-to-face meetings or correspondence. A physical encounter with Burroughs was largely impossible due to the fact that Burroughs lived abroad during much of Berman’s creative career and rarely went to California. I have found no evidence that Berman and Burroughs met or corresponded. Berman is not mentioned in the two major Burroughs biographies. In all probability, the closest Berman and Burroughs ever got was rubbing shoulders on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album.
Age might also be a factor as Burroughs seems more a source of inspiration and a father figure than a peer. The treatment of Junkie in The Aleph suggests that this is the case. Burroughs serves as an iconic figure, an underground legend who trailblazed the road to excess, like Artaud, Charlie Parker, or Rimbaud.
I found myself focusing on the textual material at the show. Obviously, Semina grabbed my attention, but I thought the placement of 20 odd pieces of mail art directly across from the magazine was very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Semina was truly a form of mail art, and some of the mail art was really a magazine of sorts; one with a print run of a single copy. The scrapbooks were wonderful as were the manuscripts both typed and handwritten. I must mention Kirby Doyle’s scroll version of Happiness Bastard as well as the holograph manuscript of Bob Kaufman’s Blues for Hal Winter. According to legend, Kaufman never recorded his poems in written form. His wife documented them from performances given around North Beach, so a written manuscript is amazing as are the inscribed copies of Kaufman’s signature works from City Lights: Abominist Manifesto and Second April.
The little magazine and the small press played an important role in disseminating the work of these artists wary of and shunned by the mainstream publishing industry. I was happy to see copies of work by Dave Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press, Joe Dunn’s White Rabbit Press, and Diane Di Prima’s Poets Press. In many cases, every aspect of the books’ production from text to printing to book design (layout, photography and artwork) was completed by the artists themselves. The results are some wonderful examples of book as art object in the 20th Century.
Eight films were also shown. I mentioned Berman’s The Aleph, but all the films were a pleasure to watch. Given the montage effects, the films served as a cinematic counterpart to the collage works throughout the exhibit. This was most apparent in an untitled animated film by Russel Tamblyn. “The stop action film built around an image of a group of soldiers posed to have a group portrait taken before an open window; the film explodes with a barrage of colorful imagery-much of it hand drawn by Tamblyn-which passes through that open window.” Berman’s treatment of the hand holding a transistor radio functions in much the same way. Inside the radio, Berman places several images of personal importance as well as ones iconic in pop culture.
Toni Basil of “Oh, Mickey” fame edited four of the eight films shown. Much could (and probably has) be made of the intersection of Semina and the notion of celebrity. Many members of the circle had ties to the fringes of the entertainment industry, particularly as child stars. Basil, Dennis Hopper and Russel Tamblyn are still active in Hollywood and the music / dance scene. Berman is an interesting study as he was clearly fascinated by celebrities and the mechanics of fame, but he personally stayed out of the spotlight. Semina was available only by invitation, and Berman never showed his work publicly after a run-in with authorities for obscenity at a 1957 show at the Fergus Gallery. I do not know what to make exactly of this interplay of fear and fascination of the mainstream exhibited by Berman and his Circle. Any comments or thoughts would be appreciated.
The majority of Basil’s films show the Berman Circle at play. For example, Our Trip documents Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Marshall’s adventures in London in 1967. The Ping Pong Match (1967-1968) features Dean Stockwell and Billy Gray battling it out at an outdoor table. “Ping Pong is an impressive, masterfully edited first film that moves at lightning speed, transforming sport into found choreography.” My last experience at the Grey Gallery was Basil’s film Game of the Week. This film captures an afternoon softball game in the summer of 1969 at Topanga Canyon. Knowing all the death and madness surrounding these artists, several of whom wandered alone in the dark deserts of California or other urban wastelands, it was nice to leave the exhibit with a scene of light and happiness. The film suggests that the art exhibited was in many cases made possible by a community of great love, support and togetherness, and not just the expression of a solitary artist’s sense of alienation and mad vision. The film has a surprise ending that I will not spoil, but given the events surrounding the Fergus Gallery show of Berman’s work in 1957, it is nice to see Berman get the last laugh at the Grey.
Beginning of Burroughs’ “Have You Seen Pantopon Rose” from Naked Lunch
A “slightly edited” version of this section of Naked Lunch appears in Semina 4. It is presented as a “prose poem,” which demonstrates the poetic re-rendering Burroughs gave to nearly the same material originally presented more prosaically in Junky.
Stay away from Queens Plaza, son… Evil spot haunted by dicks scream for dope fiend lover… Too many levels… Heat flares out from the broom closest high on ammonia… like burning lions…. fall on poor old lush worker scare her veins right down to the bone… Her skin-pop a week or do that five-twenty-nine kick handed out free and gratis by NYC to jostling junkies….
So Fag, Beagle, Irish, Sailor beware….Look down, look down along that line before you travail there…