Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Over the years, the history of William Burroughs’ rendezvous with Tangier has taken on elements of the folk tale. Like the 1001 Arabian Nights, there is an initial framing story, i.e. the exiled Burroughs fleeing his past arrives in Tangier to find an exotic atmosphere of permissiveness, mystery and freedom, which inspires and permits him to write his future as the world-famous author of Naked Lunch. Yet Burroughs’ journey through Tangier and into notoriety was never simply a straight line through the Grand Socco. Instead, Burroughs’ Tangier trek twists and turns on itself, much like the blind alleyways of the Medina. Within this labyrinth, Burroughs was just as likely to wander aimlessly into an encounter with a Minotaur of anxiety and self-doubt, which threatened to rip his consciousness to pieces, as turn a corner and suddenly come to terms with his identity and experience satori. For Burroughs, Tangier was simultaneously a place of intense ecstasy and agony.
Gnaoua, a little magazine published by Ira Cohen in 1964, provides the Dream Baedeker to the ecstatic Tangier. For many collectors and historians, it is a key primary source, which documents and preserves the expatriate experience of Tangier as well as Burroughs’ place within it. From the very moment of its publication, Gnaoua emanated an aura of lived experience and authenticity. Bobby Dylan brought a copy back home and proudly displayed it on his mantelpiece as evidence that he had taken the road to excess (although that road never actually winded through Tangier) and returned to tell the tale.
Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag #5 (the Special Tangier issue) is less celebrated and sought after, but it serves as a map which navigates a road less travelled in the Burroughsian universe: the agony of Tangiers as a locale of loneliness, isolation, despair, anxiety, and fragmentation. In late 1963 and into the winter of 1964, Burroughs stood at a crossroads in his life. In the foreword to his bibliography compiled by Joe Maynard and Barry Miles, Burroughs writes,
1964… No. 4 Calle Larachi, Tangier. My Own Mag… smell of kerosene heaters, hostile neighbors, stones thudding against the door. Jeff Nuttall sent me a copy of My Own Mag and asked me to contribute. I recall the delivery of the first copies to which I had contributed was heralded by a wooden top crashing through the skylight.
The activities at No. 4 Calle Larachi (drug use, homosexuality, the constant comings and goings of British and American expats) raised the ire of Burroughs’ Arab neighbors, who proceeded to harass him on a daily basis. In addition, Burroughs’ attempt to connect with his son, Billy, in Tangier was an obvious failure by late 1963. In December, Burroughs sent his son back to the States to live with his grandparents. The experience left Burroughs exhausted.
Things did not improve after Billy left. In a letter to Brion Gysin from April 10, 1964, Burroughs writes, “You can’t imagine or can you what Tangier is like now since The Voice of America did a job here, worse than Paris or any place I have experienced, the whole town solid cunt territory and everyone knocks him or herself out to show you how worthless they can be.” The sky was literally falling; Burroughs’ world in Tangier threatened to crash around him. Burroughs wanted to escape from this desperate and potentially dangerous situation. The first issue of My Own Mag provided some much needed comic relief, which Burroughs would remember decades later. In Nelson Lyon’s copy of the first issue, which was put up for auction in 1999, Burroughs inscribed, “this rare item My Own Mag cheered me when I was under siege in Tangier.”
Creatively, Burroughs needed a little cheering as well. Grove Press slated to publish the final cut-up novel, Nova Express, in hardcover, in the summer of 1964. By this point, Burroughs realized that the cut-up as novel was something of a dead end, but maybe even more distressing was the fact that he had run out of usable source material. The seemingly endless Word Horde of notes, manuscripts, and drafts that resulted from the writing and editing of Naked Lunch was exhausted. The Yage Letters, published by City Lights in 1963, mined Burroughs’ usable correspondence. Most of the letters to Allen Ginsberg from the Tangier period were still too painful and too personal to publish. Similarly, Queer, Burroughs’ other manuscript from the 1950s, cut too close to the bone for Burroughs to think of bringing it before the public eye. Burroughs needed a new direction for his writing.
Shortly after the publication of the second issue of My Own Mag in December 1963, Nuttall and Burroughs met in England. In Bomb Culture, Nuttall writes, “Burroughs sent his first testing letters from Tangier. In the bitter winter of 1964, he came to London.” Nuttall downplays this meeting and highlights the awkwardness of it. As Nuttall describes it, he got drunk at the local pub with Burroughs and Tony Balch. Conversation faltered with Nuttall feeling left out. Nuttall stumbled home somewhat embarrassed and disappointed. Yet the meeting between Nuttall and Burroughs must have made more of an impression on both men than Nuttall lets on. It served as a fruitful feeling-out session for further collaborations. The face-to-face solidified the meeting of the minds that previously had occurred only through the mail.
The Special Tangier issue of My Own Mag came out in May 1964, spurred on by that winter meeting. In this issue, My Own Mag hit its stride and the Burroughs / Nuttall collaboration hit the ground running. It features Burroughs on the cover thus announcing the fact that Burroughs was the focus of and major contributor to the magazine. Likewise, Burroughs becomes a character in the “Perfume Jack” comic strip that runs through every issue of My Own Mag. Clearly, Burroughs made an impression on Nuttall.
Yet I would argue that the meeting with Nuttall ultimately proved much more pivotal for Burroughs because it provided him with the inspiration and means to escape his dreadful situation in Tangier. By May 1964, it was Minutes to Go as far as Burroughs was concerned. The Tangier Issue serves as a how-to manual on escaping a state of siege, i.e. being stuck in time and space. “Auntie Homosap,” a Dear Abby-style parody, opens the issue. The first question reads in part, “I keep bumping my head on brick walls. Is it possible to avoid brick walls?” These questions apply directly to Burroughs. On one level, the brick wall represents the blocks of standard prose that Burroughs was forcing his cut-up work into. A later question reads, “I am continuously encased in an airtight, watertight, claustrophobic, windowless box.” Nova Express with its paragraphs designed to be read left to right, bottom to top, straight on through, is an example of just one of the boxes in which Burroughs found himself enclosed in 1964.
Nuttall provided a breath of fresh air and My Own Mag provided space to grow creatively. This new publishing opportunity coincided with a new phase in Burroughs’ writing that developed in the winter of 1964, around the time Nuttall and Burroughs met in person. As Barry Miles discusses in the final chapter of El Hombre Invisible, Burroughs began experimenting with the three-column format in February 1964. Miles writes,
At the same time as working on the photographic collages, Bill began to develop the three-column technique he had begun to experiment with in New York in the sixties. He began to produce texts which explored this fact and, as usual, did a great number of them. He started to keep a diary in February 1964 which exploited the three-column technique. If he were to take a trip to Gibraltar, which he did frequently, he would write an account of the trip in one column, just like a normal diary: what was said by the officials, what he overheard on the airplane. The next column would present his memories… The third column would be his reading column, quoting from the books he had with him.
In Issue 2 of My Own Mag, Nuttall presented his own text in a three-column format. This may have inspired Burroughs to explore the format in earnest himself. In the Tangier Issue, “The Moving Times,” a three-column newspaper cut-up, appears. In its simplest form, the newspaper is a variation of the grid. In “The Moving Times,” Burroughs gives directions on how to read the piece, guiding readers from column to column. The piece could also be read across the three columns. This crisscross and crossover effect represents a derivation of the “read any which way” grid of “Warning Warning Warning Warning,” which appeared in the previous issue. With these experiments, we see Burroughs fighting against the confines of literary boxes and brick walls. As Burroughs writes to Peter Michelson of the Chicago Review on February 16, 1964, “I am attempting to get beyond the limitations of the book page left to right and down and over.” Unlike the process of reading Nova Express, the three column cut-ups challenged linear paragraph structure. These experiments are all about multi-directional movement, and they mimicked the multi-faceted flow of perception in everyday life.
In an interview published in Paris Review in 1965, Burroughs states, “[C]ut-ups make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time anyway. Somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the column in the proper Aristotelian manner, one idea and sentence at a time. But subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting next to him. That’s a cut-up.” “The Moving Times” provided a new direction that Burroughs would explore for over a year. In “The Moving Times,” the mock newspaper is simple in layout. There are no images and the format mimics the front page of a daily paper like the New York Times. This would be further explored in later issues of My Own Mag. In Bomb Culture, Nuttall spends a few pages describing “The Moving Times” in terms of Burroughs’ development. Clearly, Nuttall realized that the material Burroughs sent for the Tangier Issue marked an exciting new path.
Burroughs’ entrenched living situation in Tangier was also a major impetus for My Own Mag #5. Once again the problems addressed in the “Auntie Homosap” section mirrored Burroughs’ own: “I have an overwhelming urge to escape from the present” and “I have been stranded on the eternal plain for days now.” Burroughs was “under siege” in Tangier being assaulted by angry neighbors and “The Moving Times” piece in My Own Mag #5 deals with this siege explicitly. Column two speaks of “paralyzing immobility,” “a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchanging pattern,” and “Baby, it’s foreign outside has the general meaning of alien or hostile. So return to your trap by taxi and write what you have just seen and heard.” It should be noted that Burroughs references the Tangier Gazette as a source for this column and as such it represents Burroughs’ present situation.
Taken as a whole, “The Moving Times” provides Burroughs with a means of escape. In a research paper, Davis Schneiderman explores Burroughs’ three-column experiments, such as “The Moving Times”. Schneiderman notes that Burroughs often utilized the same front page of the New York Times from September 17, 1899. Numerous postcards mailed to Nuttall from this time of siege may reveal why. The postcards are postmarked from Gibraltar and feature scenes from the area. As Miles points out, Gibraltar was an area of fascination for Burroughs and a key source for the new direction the cut-ups were taking. One postcard in particular makes reference to the Southport Gates inscribed with the date 1899 and the cut-up experiment “The Coldspring News” (Nov 21, 1964: “Old arch there with The Coldspring News. [Date on the arch is 1899]”). Burroughs viewed Gibraltar as a magical place, a portal allowing travel in time and space. The Southport Gates symbolized this point of intersection. In part, Burroughs chose an edition of the New York Times from 1899 due to the date inscription on the Southport Gates in Gibraltar.
Given Burroughs’ desperation to escape Tangier, Gibraltar was literally and symbolically the way out. Tomasz Stompor in “Larval Entities – William S. Burroughs’ Concept of Time” (presented at the EBSN Conference in 2012) explores the three-column experiments in My Own Mag in terms of space-time travel, focusing on Burroughs’ use of arches in St. Louis, New York City and Gibraltar as portals for such imaginary travel. Stompor writes, “one might say that these three arches can be regarded as time portals, just like the open grids in Burroughs’ layouts, making possible the contemplation of the contingency of temporal flow, and the contingency of remembering the passage of and in time.”
“The Moving Times” obsessively rehearses such movement. The following examples are from the first column, which outlines how to read the experiment: “move back in time,” “Move forward in time,” “there are many hints of your so-called future,” “reading the future” and so on. In “The Moving Times,” Burroughs is quite simply performing magic in an attempt to alter his stagnant and dangerous present and write himself into a more mobile and creative future. Burroughs believed the cut-ups possessed this power to predict and alter the future. In The Job, Burroughs states, “I would say that my most interesting experience with the earlier techniques was the realization that when you make cut-ups you do not get simply random juxtapositions of words, that they mean something, and often that these meanings refer to some future event.”
“The Moving Times” would indeed prove magical. The piece ends with a plea from Burroughs for contact from the outside world. He requests readers to “send along a column of your times,” and he lists his address in Tangier. As Burroughs wrote Alex Trocchi: “Response has exceeded our expectations.” Burroughs and Nuttall heard from Carl Weissner, Claude Pélieu, and Mary Beach, and attracted the notice of Ted Berrigan and Ed Sanders. In a letter to Alex Trocchi from May 12, 1964, Burroughs enthuses about the response to “The Moving Times” and leaving Tangier: “I will let you know when I get my travel orders. Like I say we have had an unexpectedly good response to The Moving Times which has put me in touch with a number of people . . .” The ensuing correspondence and resulting collaborations would form the closest thing to a full-scale movement or school relating to the cut-up method that Burroughs would experience.
As suggested by “The Moving Times” with its references to boyhood homes and New York, Burroughs left Tangier behind in late 1964 and briefly returned home to St. Louis as part of a writing assignment for Playboy. The ensuing piece, “St. Louis Return,” appeared in Paris Review 35 (1965). After visiting his birthplace, Burroughs established residency in Lower Manhattan and became immersed in the literary and art scene there, such as in the Mimeo Revolution that developed around Ed Sanders of Fuck You, a magazine of the arts and Ted Berrigan of C Press and C: A Journal of Poetry. Both poets published Burroughs extensively in 1964/1965, including cut-up classics like APO-33 and Time. For all intents and purposes, Tangier would remain a place of the past for the rest of Burroughs’ life.
The Tangier Issue cover is green with a mimeo’d image of Burroughs wearing a fez and smoking a cigarette. This cover conjures up images of marijuana and kif, which seemingly plays in perfectly with the oft-told story of Burroughs’ excesses in Tangier. Ira Cohen and Gnaoua are part of this story. On the other hand, My Own Mag is far from a celebration of Tangier. Instead, it serves as Burroughs’ goodbye to Tangier’s expatriate community. As such, the Tangier Issue of My Own Mag should ultimately be viewed as Burroughs’ green card, which enabled his return home and established his residency within a new literary community centered upon cut-up experimentation and publication.