Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I was digging through some boxes of magazines recently and time and again I was reminded of the primary rule of book collecting: You cannot collect everything. Given the depth and breadth of William Burroughs’ output, even the goal of collecting William Burroughs material is not really much of a focus. Burroughs was very promiscuous; he flirted with every medium out there and as a collector you cannot fuck around gathering up everything. You are going to end up with an empty wallet and a bookshelf full of empty spaces. An anti-Burroughsian thought for the aspiring Burroughs collector: everything is not possible; everything is not permitted.
Decades ago I threw up my hands and threw in my hat with Burroughs’ magazine appearances from the 1960s. And decades later I am still plugging away at it. With each acquisition I get one piece closer to seemingly completing the puzzle, but new pieces keep finding their way into the box, such as previously uncatalogued appearances or pieces from other puzzles that seem to fit into Burroughs’. For me the tangents have become as interesting as the central theme. I do not just want the magazines Burroughs appeared in; I want the complete run, or, to press the obsession further, I want everything the magazine’s press put out. So if Burroughs appeared in Black Mountain Review 7, I naturally want the other six issues. That seems rational enough. If so, then why not everything Robert Creeley published under the Divers Press imprint? You still with me? Okay, then why not titles, like Cid Corman’s The Precisions or Irving Layton’s The Blue Propeller, which were run off by Creeley’s printer Mossen Alcover in the manner of the Divers Press design. Make sense? Sure, so let’s get a copy of Elena Fearn’s Poems issued by Roebuck Press, a false start involving Creeley in Mallorca, just before Divers Press. Wouldn’t you? You should not. If you knew what was good for you and your collection, that is. Stay faithful to your focus; do not let Burroughs’ promiscuous ways sway you.
So right in the middle of a box of yawn-inducing Brit mags of the Ambit and London Magazine variety, a seductive Bikini Girl winked back at me. The fourth issue of legendary zine-maker Lisa Baumgardner’s zine after Modern Girlz, in fact. Yes, you know the one. It features a review of a Burroughs reading less than 100 words long, which is so slight and inconspicuous that some people struggle to find the Burroughs reference in the issue at all, despite the fact that his name appears prominently on the issue’s cover. Does this really qualify as a Burroughs item? For those slightly touched, the slightest touch of Burroughs is all it takes to make you want to get your hands on it. And then a few boxes later I came across some Search and Destroys. In the movie version of my book collecting escapades, this would be a major plot point. A moment of crisis and (in)decision. Would our culture hero head down the mean streets of Alphabet City into the world of punk zines, which would lead to queer zines, and, who knows, maybe science fiction fanzines because Burroughs was a cult science fiction writer, right? You can see where this is leading: me broke with a collection full of holes in it. Collecting is all about establishing order; I could not introduce the disorder of zines into my collecting life.
So I made a compromise. I pulled back from the abyss by making a deal with myself to stop looking for the Search & Destroys and instead put the Bikini Girl on my purchase pile. Here is issue four of Bikini Girl. It is all I can do; it is as far as I want to go. But the hope is that some other poor saps out there were completely seduced by the siren song of punk and queer zines and would be willing to share their finds, maybe help compile a Burroughs-related zine bibliography, maybe write articles and reviews on the topic. We would love to see what people come up with. Search & Destroy, Double Bill, anyone? Don’t leave us hanging on the telephone.
- Bikini Girl, Vol 1, No 4 (Complete Issue)