Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” focuses on acquisition; it dares not speak of the dispersal of books, which must have accompanied Benjamin’s initial packing. Benjamin, an exile and a suicide, knew intimately of things left behind. For a book collector, such decisions, such discussions are much too painful to contemplate. Yet in the world of books, these decisions are made every day. “Deaccessioning, the deliberate culling, disposing, or selling of book from a collection is one of the most controversial aspects of the collection development function of the library.” This statement comes from Gary P. Radford’s article, “Alternative Libraries As Discursive Formations: Reclaiming the Voice of the Deaccessioned Book,” which got me thinking about how deaccessioning played a pivotal role in one of the great Burroughs collections of the last 25 years.
As the Radford article demonstrates with its account of The Reanimation Library and The Public Library of American Public Library Deaccession, one institution’s trash can get recycled into another’s treasure trove. This was precisely the case in the most important Burroughs auction I ever personally experienced: The Nelson Lyon Collection of William Burroughs auction at PBA Galleries on November 18, 1999. Library trash became cold hard cash in Lyon’s (and PBA’s) pocket in a historically significant fashion. Sprinkled throughout the 168 lots of the Lyon Sale were a few deaccessioned books from the University of New Mexico Library: eight issues of Mayfair that accompanied a copy of the Mayfair Acadamy More or Less ($450), Between Worlds #1 ($75), Rhinozeros #7 ($50), Film #37 ($25), Insect Trust Gazette #2 ($50), Grist #10 ($35), and Glebe #2 ($25). The Lyon Collection also offered The Spero #1, formerly of the University of California, Berkeley ($140) and the Calder Ah Pook Is Here formerly of the Intercontinental Literary Agency in London ($75). The prices realized, which looking back were modest, was not the big story. The finances that matter here are the libraries’ bottom line that forced such deaccessions to be made in the first place.
Given a library’s responsibility to preserve, such decisions cannot be made lightly. According to Radford, to deaccession is a “profound decision.” I am sure once placed in these “to be or not to be” situations, librarians waver and waffle in their institutional Denmarks. UNM, Berkeley and the ILA, all thought deeply about whether these books and magazines deserved a place in their collections. Yet these publications did not make the cut, or should I say, they were cut. There must be a reason for such decisions, a rational explanation, because deaccession calls into question a library’s entire reason for being. In most cases, the motive for this crime is pragmatic. The libraries needed money. Maybe they needed space. Perhaps these publications were duplicates or had condition issues. Yet such decisions can also be more theoretical and conceptual. Deaccession implies that the books and magazines were no longer important or worthy of discussion. They served no use for society. They no longer had a place in our cultural memory. And here we get into Foucault’s wheelhouse of discourse analysis and formation. Radford: “The institution of the library has a key role to play in the maintenance and legitimation of particular discourses at the expense of others . . . and deaccession is one particular material process which enables the library to do this.”
To be more precise about it, the deaccession of Rhinozeros, Grist, or Insect Trust Gazette by UNM library highlights not so much that they had no place in our cultural discourse, but the fact that such a discourse had not yet fully developed beyond a small group of visionary obsessives. Given the current robust market in the Mimeo Revolution as a material object and as a conceptual framework, the fact that libraries in the 1980s could consider such publications disposable may seem hard to believe. Yet it must be remembered that Lyon acquired almost all of these publications in the pre-Secret Location era. The New York Public Library exhibition on the Mimeo Revolution happened in 1998, which remains the Big Bang that generated the present explosion of discussion around all things mimeo. Although the publications of the Mimeo Revolution had been collectible for decades — hell, as the Ed Sanders Catalogues prove, they were instantaneously collectible — it can be argued that Clay and Phillips’ Secret Location initiated the discourse on the Mimeo Revolution. This one book correctly or incorrectly defined the field, created a language and grammar for discussion, and provided the historical and cultural context. Before Secret Location, the Mimeo Revolution was not considered worthy of discussion or exhibition in the academic and art market. Secret Location taught these markets how to talk the talk.
It is no mistake that the Nelson Lyon Sale occurred shortly after the NYPL exhibition. The Lyon Collection aptly demonstrated that a comprehensive Burroughs collection was also inherently quite a remarkable little magazine collection. If Burroughs’ output from the 1950s can only be understood by analyzing his letters of the period, Burroughs of the 1960s must be approached in light of his little magazine appearances. Like Bukowski, Burroughs was a major figure of the Mimeo Revolution and even more so than Buk, Burroughs used the little magazine not merely as an outlet, but as a laboratory to experiment with writing technique, i.e. the cut-up method. The Lyon collection made this clear and suggested that a little magazine archive could be built using Burroughs as a foundation, which would have import for the study of Burroughs. Secret Location further suggested that this collection would also prove useful for studying alternative publishing. The Lyon Sale solidified little mags as a focus in Burroughs collecting, placing them on par with the A-titles. Secret Location and the accompanying exhibition placed these forgotten — and in some cases deaccessioned — magazines back into public consciousness and conversation. Secret Location and the Lyon Sale justified the Mimeo Revolution’s existence and made its publications collectible to a larger public.
If UNM, Berkeley and ILA no longer had a use for Burroughs’ Mimeo Revolution publications, Lyon should deserve credit not only for seeing their value but also adding to it. Lyon’s collection created an alternative library as described by Radford. As a collector, Lyon must have been less than thrilled about acquiring library stamped copies of these items, but this compromise is a testament to just how rare these items were before the Internet made everything instantly available. Finding a copy of Insect Trust Gazette #2 in the pre-Internet market was a considerable effort in terms of time. One had to actually dig through bookstores, contact book dealers directly through the postal system, subscribe for book catalogs, attend book fairs, issue want lists and ads in trade periodicals. One had to be dedicated and driven. Obsessed. Lyon found a shortcut through deaccession, but then he went the extra mile by getting all these tainted publications signed. Signed little mags are much rarer than signed books. For example, most fans and collectors approached Burroughs with a copy of Naked Lunch or Junkie, not Fuck You or Insect Trust Gazette. So a Burroughs signature washed away some of the stain and shame of the library stamp. Burroughs’ hand blessed and redeemed them, just as Secret Location was making these magazines legitimate.
I purchased Rhinozeros #7 from the Lyon Sale. At the time, the signature overshadowed the library stamp. I am sure that the UNM library would love to have this title back. With the publication of In Numbers and Gwen Allen’s book on artist magazines, publications like Rhinozeros are the center of conversation and have never been more collectible. Historically, one of the biggest reasons for deaccessioning little magazines and newspapers was their availability on microfiche. Nicholson Baker exposes the errors of this approach in his typically obsessive and fascinating detail in The Double Fold. Of all the publications the UNM library chose to discard, Rhinozeros stands out from the rest. It seems to me to highlight the limitations of microfiche and, today’s version of microfiche, digital reproduction. Make no mistake, the first thing I did when I gathered a complete run of Rhinozeros was to scan it and post the results on RealityStudio. But if anything that process convinced me of the importance and pleasure of Rhinozeros as a material object. Rhinozeros is not a crystal goblet. It is ornate and noisy. Although less than ideal from a condition standpoint, the wrinkled paper on my slightly damp stained Issue 5 possesses a distinct feel that is part of Rhinozeros‘ seduction. The signatures of Burroughs and Gregory Corso provide the caress of the author’s hand. Rhinozeros‘ genii, which is related to Benjamin’s aura and makes an appearance in “Unpacking My Library,” is only released as the magazines pass through my fingers in the scanning process. It was my wish to share Rhinozeros with others. Digital does makes that possible. Sharing is the seductive spell of the digital. Reading as group sex. The material object provides more solitary, tactile pleasures.
The Library and Access
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the University of New Mexico library is the Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo. Operating in the Rust Belt and constrained by that region’s economic realities, UB invested in its future by aggressively mining the Mimeo Revolution as it was happening. While others considered deaccessioning their little magazine holdings, UB aggressively subscribed to any and every mag available. UB proudly and persistently maintained an open-door policy in this regard. If a little magazine publisher sent his/her publication to UB, it was automatically accepted. No matter how small, fringe or DIY, magazines were considered a crucial component of literary discourse. Given their massive holdings, over 9000 magazines alone, it is clear they struck gold. Scholars from around the globe come to UB’s Poetry Collection to conduct their research. The Poetry Collection has become one of UB’s most important and valuable assets.
On November 12-13, 2013, I was lucky enough to be able to do some prospecting of my own in the Poetry Collection’s stacks in connection with a presentation I gave on the Mimeo Revolution. I requested over 30 titles as visual aids for my discussion, and UB came through on all but one request. UB’s Modernist holdings, particularly for James Joyce, have been attracting scholarly attention for decades. I would expect the requests for their post-Modernist holdings to explode in the near future. These holdings include not just runs of magazines but full archives, such as for Jonathan Williams and Jargon Society, as well as author libraries, such as Robert Duncan’s. The Poetry Collection firmly believes a library’s archiving function is not restricted to printed matter and paper. Paintings, typewriters, desks, and even a piano are all collected, curated, and cared for. Anything connected or related to 20th-century poetry has a place in UB’s Poetry Collection.
Here are a few items related to William Burroughs that I happened to come across in preparing for my presentation. Incredible to think what I would have found if I was actually looking.
A nearly full run of Wallace Berman’s Semina
I have seen Semina behind glass at the Grey Gallery for the Semina Culture exhibition; I have seen Semina in books and rare book catalogs, I have seen scores of digital reproductions but nothing prepares you for the pure pleasure of actually handling and reading it. Semina, like Berman’s iconic transistor radio, feels great in the hand. It is incredibly tactile. Reading Semina is a sensual experience. It is something you feel deeply. Not just in the hand, but in the head, in the heart. Not just a magazine but an archive or an exhibition, Semina has become the very definition of the magazine as art. Burroughs’ “Pantapon Rose” appears in Issue 4 on a single sheet of white paper, printed letterpress. Berman realized before Oliver Harris, maybe even before Ginsberg, that Burroughs was a poet. “Pantapon Rose” is pure nostalgia, and Berman’s delicate and ephemeral rendering of Burroughs’ prose poem suggests the whiff of opium smoke, the blush of blood in the dropper, the faint sound of train whistles in the distance that symbolize a fetishized past for Burroughs. Yet “Pantapon Rose” does not vanish before your eyes or slip through your fingers; it is decidedly there and remains so after you put it down. Like a ghost, it sticks in your memory, crawls under your skin. Semina is truly haunting.
Klactoveedsedsteen No. 0 and 1
I can honestly say that before encountering one at UB, I did not know Klactoveedsedsteen No. 0 existed. Yet beginning his magazine at ground zero is pure Weissner. Klactoveedsedsteen is hyper-aware of its own materiality and bibliography. The magazine shifts format and means of production throughout its run. Issue 2, which UB did not own, was a scroll. I believe Issue 3 was printed on a spirit duplicator not a mimeograph. The issue has the distinctive blue ink and a multicolored cover that suggest the rexograph, not to mention that Weissner makes reference on the title page to the magazine’s smell, a feature of spirit duplication not mimeo. I remember mentioning to Carl that I owned Issue 3, and he jokingly called it a failure, because he fully intended the magazine to fade away over time to a blank page due to the type of ink he used. Klactoveedsedsteen approaches art. Digital reproduction does not do these magazines justice. How can pixels capture the spirit of Klactoveedsedsteen #3, a magazine that was designed to smell and disappear? Like Rrose Sélavy’s perfume. Or her farts.
Issue 1 reveals the influence of Jeff Nuttall, who was co-editor, and reminds one that Klactoveedsedsteen developed in response to My Own Mag. I would argue that My Own Mag and Klactoveedsedsteen are two of the most important and innovative magazines of the entire Mimeo Revolution. Yet they are not part of the discourse in Secret Location, In Numbers or Allen’s Artists Magazines. Burroughs is the major influence and inspiration for both mags. There are few writers of the 1960s who had more of an impact on the little magazine than Burroughs. For example, the little magazine exploded into public awareness not only because of the hype surrounding the San Francisco Scene issue of Evergreen Review but also because of the controversy that erupted around Burroughs in Chicago Review and Big Table. Is it my personal bias or did Burroughs help inspire the creation of more magazines than any other writer? Sidewalk, Cleft, Big Table, and New Departures are a few that come to mind. Delusion or not, Burroughs was consistently a headliner in any magazine he appeared in. For example, Floating Bear did not exist to publish Burroughs but its two most infamous issues, Nos. 9 and 24, feature him. Kulchur Nos. 1 and 3 differ from all other the issues of that mag’s run. Similarly, My Own Mag and Klactoveedsedsteen are merely little mags without Burroughs; with him they loom large and pack a punch.
Subscription Cards to Chicago Review and Big Table
Flipping through the Autumn 1958 issue of Chicago Review and Big Table No. 1, I came across some subscription cards for these magazines. It is a well-known story how the University of Chicago censored the editorial board of the Review for its decision to publish Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. The suppressed Winter issue became Big Table #1, which had its own problems with censorship at the hands of the United States Post Office.
For most people, these subscription cards are a nuisance and quickly tossed in the garbage. In this case, the cards ask some interesting questions and tell an equally interesting story. The question revolves around subscription rates for Chicago Review and Big Table. It is easy to assume, given the controversy swirling around Burroughs in Chicago Review, that many people cancelled their subscriptions, but it would be interesting to find out how many people actually bought a subscription in support of the editorial board’s daring new direction. Subscription cards become a means to assess public opinion. Jack Mabley in his article “Filthy Writing on the Midway,” seems to feel he has his finger on the pulse of Chicagoans, but is that really the case? Did readers subscribe to Mabley’s opinion by canceling the Review? Similarly, it would be interesting to see subscription numbers for Big Table. There were 10,000 copies in the initial print run of Issue #1, which is massive. How many of those copies were for pre-subscribers? Did Big Table sell over the counter to the merely curious or was its readership comprised of more serious and invested readers who bought into the Big Table revolution?
The presence of subscription cards also separate Chicago Review and Big Table from consideration as Mimeo Revolution publications. First of all, subscription cards suggest a level of financial backing that mimeo magazines just did not have. Mimeographers struggled to afford postage for mailing the magazines themselves, let alone hundreds or thousands of subscription cards. In addition, many mimeos, like Floating Bear, could not be subscribed to at all. They were not for sale, but provided on a need-to-know basis. Per post office rules and regulations, mimeo publications did not get the types of mailing privileges necessary for subscription cards. Mimeos were not considered magazines by the Post Office bureaucracy due the simple fact they were mimeographed. They were not legitimate enterprises or forms of discourse in the eyes of postal authorities. The larger question becomes did Chicago Review and Big Table more profoundly alter poetic discourse by working within the confines of the system (postal, academic or literary)? Or did a mimeo, like Floating Bear or Fuck You, have a more powerful effect working outside the system? Tallying subscription cards, if possible, would be one way to approach this question.
My Own Mag #5, inscribed to Jonathan Williams of Jargon Society
Sometimes a library leads you to something completely new; sometimes it supports what you already suspected. As I mentioned before, UB has an impressive archive of material relating to Jonathan Williams and Jargon Society. For the most part, this resource remains unexplored by researchers, with the exception of Rich Owens, who edited a Jonathan Williams issue of the online magazine Jacket. I contributed a piece on William Burroughs and Jonathan Williams for that issue, which detailed a dinner between Williams and Burroughs. UB happens to have an issue of My Own Mag #5, inscribed from Burroughs to Williams:
c/o American Consulate 1964 April 20
This issue showing the newspaper format in operation. Will you be visiting England this summer?
Williams and Burroughs would not meet until the summer of 1965 in London. This issue of My Own Mag would have been a nice detail to throw into my Jacket piece.
It also would have bolstered a piece I wrote on My Own Mag #5, for Rote Fabrik, a free newspaper in Zurich. Just a couple of weeks ago, they published a Tangier Issue. My Own Mag #5, itself a Special Tangier Issue, fit right in. In that article, I suggested that My Own Mag #5 was pivotal in Burroughs’ development of the newspaper format, which the inscription to Williams supports. I also argued that the magazine was instrumental in introducing this work to interested parties in Europe and the United States and, in essence, served as Burroughs’ green card for establishing himself as a writer-in-residence in New York City in 1965. It was gratifying to see Burroughs using the Tangier Issue in just this manner, yet not only as a green card, but also as a business card and a dinner invitation. I would have loved to include an image of this inscription in my article.
The UB Poetry Collection is in a sense an alternative library as described by Radford. UB took in the authors deaccessioned by more conservative academies: the outlaws, the outsiders, and the obscene. From Joyce to Jess. As time passes and academic discourse catches up with these writers, who were not so much outside but ahead of the game, the UB Poetry Collection shifts from an alternative library to a definitive one. Can it be that in a time of extreme hardship for institutional libraries, the UB Poetry Collection’s most productive years are yet to come? Possibly. Its holdings are indeed rich. Go North, young scholar, and stake your claim.