Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#18 – Semina 4 . An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
In the Spring of 2003, my wife and I had recently separated and the ink had dried on the sale of our house. Alone, I retreated into a small one-bedroom apartment nestled in the center of a triangle involving all my points of interest: a cigar store, a library and a bar. It was a time to regroup and to collect my thoughts, not to collect Burroughs. Instead, flush with cash, I proceeded to shuttle my way between the aforementioned landmarks and to go on an epic Burroughs buying spree that I have yet to duplicate since. Seemingly every day a package containing some Burroughs rarity arrived in the mailroom. Items I previously never dreamed of being able to add to my library. Items I thought I would only be able to fondle at book fairs and in institutions. Right in the middle of this frenzy, I received a call from a book dealer that only happens to other collectors. Again never somebody like me, especially someone so young and so immature in collecting terms. See, I had only been collecting for about a decade and many of those years were an apprenticeship. At the time of the phone call, I was only thirty-one years old. A mere babe in the woods in the world of rare books. “Hey Jed, you interested in a run of Semina.” I could not believe it, seven of the nine issues of Wallace Berman’s legendary little mag had come to market. This is the type of item that never appears in a catalog, never gets posted online. For a dealer, it is not a question of finding a buyer, but merely of anointing one. I was chosen. I had only to say yes. And, of course, write the check. One proved way easier than the other.
Semina is a little mag presented as an archive or collection. Berman hand-printed his curated items for each issue, in some cases related by theme, on papers of various sizes, usually the size of a postcard or index card, sometimes recycling scrap, and collated them into a sheet of card stock folded once with a Berman designed cover involving his photographs or collages. Berman then delivered these gifts via the post to a handpicked mailing list of artistic friends and peers. Copies were not for sale. Everything about Berman and Semina was about the handmade, the personal touch, the intimate gesture.
Now for a Burroughs collector, Issue 4 is the one that matters. Burroughs’ “Excerpt from Pantapon Rose,” a selection from the then gestating Naked Lunch, appears on a single sheet of paper. I desperately wanted that issue, and, more specifically, that fragile piece of tissue paper, but the prospect of having a near complete run of Semina was very enticing. Nothing to sneeze at to be sure. By 2003, I was mutating into an archivist of the Mimeo Revolution as much as a Burroughs collector and a sizable run of Semina would have immediately become the centerpiece of my entire collection. If I was able to actually complete the run — a difficult, maybe impossible task — my collection would have leapt to another level entirely. Only institutions like MOMA and private collectors on the order of Philip Aarons possess a full run of Wallace Berman’s masterpiece.
As I said, it was tempting, but after two days and nights of agonizing about it and running the numbers in my head, I finally chickened out, as I inevitably knew I would the minute the opportunity presented itself. I had to face facts; I was not in that income bracket. Many men facing a mid-life crisis purchase a sports car; at thirty-two I was a bit young to shell out the price of a Hyundai on a magazine. Yet looking back on it now, over ten years later, that failure of nerve was one of the biggest financial mistakes I have made in all my years of collecting. If book collecting can be considered as an investment (I waver on this point myself), Semina has proven to be not just a great stock in recent years, but a highly visible and sexy one. It is one of the FANGs of the Mimeo Revolution. The Semina Culture exhibit in 2007 raised the profile of Berman and not merely raised the ceiling on Berman’s value, but obliterated it. I had the opportunity to get in on something approaching the ground floor. It is easy to forget that once upon a time collectors and dealers passed on issues of Semina thinking they would always be available. Issue 6, which features David Meltzer’s “The Clown,” could be had for $300. And one was always out there. Such are the fairy tales older dealers recount nowadays with faraway eyes to younger dealers and collectors. In days of yore, they fussed and fretted over condition, turning their noses on copies with slight imperfections. Nowadays few will take issue with a copy that is incomplete or damaged. Anything Semina is highly sought after, and given how rare they are, concessions must be made. All because, since the Semina exhibition and books on artist magazines by Phillip Aarons and Gwen Allen, it is now a collecting cliché that Semina stands apart from other little magazines of the Mimeo Revolution; it should be appreciated and thus speculated on as a work of contemporary art. And again it is art, not books and surely not magazines, which is a sound financial investment; it is art that skyrockets to astronomical sums; it is the art market that matters. The exceptions in the rare book market prove the rule.
Sitting here now and compiling this list, I still need Issue 4 of Semina. Given what my book collection has become — a collection of Burroughs’ participation in the Mimeo Revolution — Semina 4 just might be the biggest hole I have. All when I had within my grasp the opportunity to have not only plugged that hole but filled it to overflowing. One of the cardinal rules of book collecting is that you only regret the books you do not buy. I have no bigger regret than Semina.
William Burroughs is widely acknowledged as the Godfather of Cool. If Burroughs is the Sinatra in the Rat Pack of Cool, then Wallace Berman might be its Dino. In reading, Nick Tosches’ bio, Dean, not Frank, comes across as the real deal. Maybe that is the case with Berman and Burroughs. Berman had Dean’s insouciance. He was careless with his art, its dissemination, and preservation. Of course, he took his creativity seriously, but he distained the art world and its institutional trappings. His audience was friends and family. He shunned the marketplace. Berman turned his back on the public, after the traumatic 1957 Ferus show shut down by the LA police, and walked away from a scene inhabited by degenerate angels. Burroughs, on the other hand, always sought to be popular. He desired desperately to sell out. The charming thing about Burroughs was that he was so wonderfully delusional and out of step with what the public actually wanted. The cut-ups are a case in point. He honestly believed they would be a commercial success. Gloriously wrong, he attempted to make things right once he heard readers complain about their unreadability and obscurity. He addressed such concerns by excising the poetry and incorporating narrative. The cut-up novels demonstrate this process in action. Both men became legendary, as their appearance on the Sgt. Pepper cover proves, but I feel Berman prostituted less of his artistic integrity in doing so.
So to my mind, there is almost nothing cooler in Burroughs’ entire bibliography than the fact that Wallace Berman initiated Burroughs into his intimate, exclusive circle by including him in Semina. More often than not, the presence of Burroughs makes something cooler or more interesting. For example, Burroughs in Chicago Review suddenly makes that university journal relevant and cutting edge. The same goes for other institutional or mainstream publications, such The Harvard Advocate, The Yale Literary Journal, Harper’s or Esquire. I happen to think Burroughs makes Yugen cooler, more hip. Even Floating Bear. The issues with Burroughs, numbers 9 and 24, are the ones that became historically important or legendary. The influence of Burroughs on Jeff Nuttall took Nuttall and My Own Mag to highs never approached again. (And I happen to think that the collaboration benefitted both men much more equally than most do.) The same holds true for a number of second- and third-tier little magazines and journals. Insect Trust Gazette is cool because the editors appreciated and were influenced by Burroughs. Same holds true with Alex Neish and Sidewalk.
Dan Lauffer’s Brown Paper is yet another example. Announced as a run of 243 copies, Lauffer guesses that only 100 were actually assembled. It has become desirable as a Burroughs item, and what an appearance it is. Burroughs and Lauffer corresponded through the mail, cutting up each other’s work. Lauffer published one of Burroughs’ responses. Oliver Harris has shown how important the letter was to the creation of Burroughs’ early novels. It should be remembered that the cut-up was a form of communication as much as a literary technique, a means to get in contact with contemporary texts and with a community of fellow writers directly. Therefore the postal system was crucial to Burroughs’ creative practice and it would be instructive to consider him in terms of mail artists, like Berman and Ray Johnson.
Semina and Berman (as well as Sinking Bear and Johnson) are truly magical, and Burroughs gets a little extra shine by basking in their aura. Berman clearly thought Burroughs was cool and was attracted to his status as an outsider and outlaw. The drug addict as artist was particularly appealing to everybody in the Semina Circle. As the Stones sang, “All my friends are junkies.” And Junkie was a key text for Berman as much as Naked Lunch. It is the cover of the Ace Junkie that appears in Berman’s experimental film The Aleph, which documents Berman’s obsessions. Berman’s totems were society’s taboos.
In particular, Berman gives added luster to Burroughs and the cut-up. Rubbing shoulders with Berman — right as he was about to “rub out the word” in Minutes to Go, The Exterminator and Soft Machine — put Burroughs in the context of junk art, assemblage and collage. It makes perfect sense and rightly links the cut-up method not just with experimental literature of the past but with contemporary art practice. Again remember it is art that matters. Literature that aspires to art is what is truly interesting to me. Berman was among the first to recognize that Burroughs was a poet. And he published Burroughs as one. Semina 4 is entirely a collection of poems. Like with art, poetry is also what matters. Novels that aspire to poetry are something special. I do not care about story, plot, or character development. It is enough to evoke a color, a moment, a mood, a sensation. Capture an impression and you leave one on me. Naked Lunch does that. Junkie does not. That novel’s strength is that it realistically documents a period in the history of heroin. In terms of art, it is figurative not abstract. It is primary source material not poetry. That is why a selection from Naked Lunch, not Junkie, appears in Semina.
Burroughs’ appearance in Black Mountain Review 7 from roughly the same period as Semina 4 is another example of Burroughs receiving more than he gave. In my mind few things are of more interest and fascination than Black Mountain College. I could have easily included the Beat Issue of Black Mountain Review on my list. Editors Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, both master poets, recognized Burroughs as a peer. The Composite City selection is a prose poem in the spirit of Rimbaud. But that little magazine is only a teaser for what I really hoped would have happened. I often fantasize about Burroughs publications that never were and wonder just what these “what ifs” would have looked like. So indulge me. What if Robert Creeley when he published “In Search of Yage” from the still nebulous Naked Lunch issued the episodes published in the Chicago Review and Big Table as a Divers Press title? With a cover by Franz Kline or Robert Rauschenberg, perhaps. The timing does not quite jive, as Creeley shut down his Press in 1955, but he was still involved with Black Mountain Review in late 1957. As Lloyd Christmas says, “So you’re telling me there is a chance!!” I have almost everything ever published by Divers Press and the thought of printer Mossen Alcover putting the text of Naked Lunch on the stick in sun drenched Mallorca just might be my idea of the perfect Burroughs book that never was. The only thing that could top it would be if Creeley invited Burroughs to teach at Black Mountain College and Burroughs discussed Mayan glyphs with Charles Olson with the resulting conversations being published as a follow-up volume to The Mayan Letters.
Only a pipe dream. On the other hand, for a brief moment Burroughs entered the Semina Circle, and gloriously so. To think, I had the chance to get my hands not just Issue 4 but many more. That chance came at just that perfect moment. Both might never coincide again. I will have to live with that. And, oh, how it kills me.