Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
A-well-a don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody knows that the bird is a word
— “Surfin’ Bird,” The Trashmen (1963)
Albatross. Dublin, December 1963
Eds. M.L. Lowes & Iain Sinclair
Well, it turns out that not everybody, including the world’s most esteemed ornithologist, knows about the most elusive bird in the Burroughs bibliography. A cockatrice à la Sanders? A siren (with the head of a woman that lures men to their deaths)? An alicanto of the luminescent feathers that feeds on gold and silver? Yes, this bird costs a pretty penny but it is no mythic creature although due to its rarity it may seem like one. A rare bird, but it is not an Amsterdam Albatross, with its wingspan of over three meters, its identifying leg band, and an isolated breeding ground, not in Continental Europe, but on a small speck of an island in the remote South Indian Ocean; no, this is the Dublin Albatross, which is just as rare and rarely seen as the Amsterdam. It merits a mere sidebar in Maynard & Miles. A bibliographic curiosity. Iain Sinclair, editor, commenting on the bird: “Albatross never saw the light of day. A small number of the proof version, maybe fifty copies, appeared. Then disappeared.” Rare as hen’s teeth, as Sinclair described a complete run of My Own Mag elsewhere. Almost all specimens are housed in the bibliographic zoos of “copyright libraries” with only a few in private hands. But friends, your dedicated birder at the Bunker has not just caught sight of and taken a picture of the Dublin Albatross, I captured one for my own birdcage.
Pa pa ooh mau mau. So if you haven’t heard Iain Sinclair drop the word in The Face on the Fork: A William Burroughs Triptych (No. 33 in the Beat Scene Press Pocket Book Series) or in his highly informative and all-around good time American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light (look for me on pg. 59), let me tell you about the bird.
Breeding Ground: “Dublin. Winter. 1962.” Students at the University of Dublin – Trinity College, including Iain Sinclair, Tony Lowes, and Christopher Bamford, besotted with Beckett and Kerouac, and reading Olympia Press titles that crossed the channel hidden in carry-on luggage, decided like those before them — think Chicago Review / Big Table, New Departures, Jabberwock / Sidewalk — to “float a magazine. And its name, glorying in failure, elective obscurity, would be Albatross.” In their enthusiasm. In their naivety. In their drunkenness sucking on the goatskin of Hemingway. They sent flyers from Winton House, 53 Strand Road, Dublin 4, Eire, “to everybody: TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Paul Bowles, Djuna Barnes, Jean Genet, Groucho Marx.” The list sounds vaguely familiar. Perhaps an echo of the list compiled by Allen Ginsberg for the distribution of Howl. The Beats were no doubt an inspiration. William Burroughs was on Albatross‘ hit list and as was often the case — as documented by Dan Lauffer of Brown Paper and others — Burroughs was the only one who responded to their call for manuscripts a/k/a their call to arms. 1957-1965. This is the stuff. The sweet spot for Burroughs. There he was alone in hotel rooms and cheap apartments writing for writing’s sake. A pure poet. A true romantic looking not for love, but for new lines of communication, collaboration, and distribution. Or maybe it is me who is the romantic, dreaming up this Burroughs, but this is the Burroughs I love. The Burroughs of the little mags. The Burroughs who responded to love letters in the post with “three thin sheets” of text sent in an “blue airmail envelope.” Oh, to have started a magazine in 1962 and to have published a text by this Burroughs. My Burroughs. Fantastic and a fantasy.
The text Burroughs sent the editors of Albatross, “A Short Piece”, came with a note: “This is an experiment — one of many possible — in altering the conventional page format and drawing lines of narrative off the page.” I do not want step on the wonderful Beat Scene No. 33, now out of print, I believe, which reprinted “A Short Piece” in full along with Sinclair’s memories of his points of entry and intersection with Burroughs, but here is a taste of the opening section:
“He took some room with another gentleman. It was a long time ago. My brother he went crazy.” “The medics will look after your brother. We are interested in the other gentleman. Could you describe him?” “Well, Inspector, remember a young cop whistling ‘Annie Laurie’ down cobblestone streets eating an apple twirling his club? One very calm October. Then he sat down on a bench which he shouldn’t have done really being on duty. You look across the playground with a telescope you can watch. It was a long time ago but not too far to walk Mrs. Murphy’s rooming house remember? There it is on a corner just ahead red brick house and from the attic window you look across the playground of the orphanage with a telescope you can watch the boys at tall black windows of the dormitory. Ah yes here we are. Rooms
For lovers of Burroughs the poet, this piece is as familiar as “Annie Laurie.” This is just one experiment of the period. Burroughs seemingly wrote thousands. Sinclair describes “A Short Piece” as “Spinal theatre anticipating David Lynch, recalling Edgar Allan Poe. Bottled yellow smoke. Cobbles. Irish migrants in dockside New York. Morphine sick. Spasms of French Romantic poetry. Another sea town imported into this one, into Dublin. Secondhand bookshops near the cemetery, boarding house run by albinos. A black overcoat on a butcher’s hook. Language made from fading pictures.” There would never be enough magazines to handle them all. Burroughs wanted the text read across and down. Read every which way. Albatross was too primitive a laboratory in which to conduct such experiments. Nuttall’s My Own Mag would come closest in terms of the mimeo mag. But try as he might (read MOM Issue 12 for the best mimeo had to offer Burroughs) Nuttall could not answer the call. APO-33, My Own Mag 13 (The Dutch Schultz Special), The Dead Star and Time are noble efforts. The best examples we have of Burroughs at his most experimental. Burroughs would never really find the proper space to fully realize his work of this period. Maybe they were always meant to be thought experiments. Not of and for this world. Or maybe the time is now to dig into the archive and experiment with page, typography, and format anew. The magazine is dead. Long live the magazine.
If Albatross is remembered at all today it is because of the presence of Burroughs and Sinclair. But there were others. “What happened to him, to them?”
Expanded Table of Contents to Albatross
Mullus (Christopher Bamford)
Gasman for me (John Arden)
Three Sonnets (D.R. Geraint Jones)
“The Light of Day is Cold and Grey”
“Where once you laughing Loveliness”
“Let Me Not See Old Age”
Derelicts (Arnold Saland)
Six Short Poems
laydown (Brian Patten)
on first pulling a drey down Cabra Road (Ivan Pawle)
ILLAUNSLEA (J.W. Purser)
On the occasion of the marriage an uncle to his sister (Sartit Kridakara)
Dream Drug (Annabel Hadman)
hello hello all delight (Israel Kaplan)
A Short Piece (William Burroughs)
From the author bio: “William Burroughs. Controversial author of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and several compilation works including Dead Fingers Talk. Wrote and appeared in the film Towers Open Fire.”
Three Poems (Iain Sinclair)
man & acrobat
Stasis of Moon
The Edge of the Cup
Bi-Centennial (Russell Mead)
Bi-Centennial Anniversary Poem (for the State of Vermont)
Autobiography of a Peacetime Private (M.L. Lowes)
Things are not what they seem to be on the blue guitar: An Autobiography of a Peacetime Private
Sinclair nipping at the heels of Burroughs. Following in the master’s footsteps. That is why you become an editor in the first place, right? To rub shoulders with giants. Maybe some of that old magic will rub off on a young poet and aspiring novelist. I do not think Sinclair turned out too badly. No Albatross around his neck. He took wings and flew the nest.
For Burroughs collectors, there is also M&M C125. Icarus 46 includes Burroughs’ “A Short Piece”. Icarus was the literary magazine for the University of Dublin – Trinity College, which Iain Sinclair, took over in May 1965. The contents of Icarus 46 consisted largely of the contents of Albatross, which due to University regulations was never mentioned in the pages of Icarus. This mag is quite rare in itself. I have seen only a couple copies over the years and I always seem to arrive as the mag has come crashing down into the hands of another collector.
As for Albatross, I know of only one other in the wild and strangely it was also sighted in the last year. Have you been following the catalogues of Test Centre Books? If not you should. The catalogues have been getting stronger and stronger and the one on Iain Sinclair was a classic. The bibliographic descriptions are detailed and nerd-heaven. So it was no big deal (??!!) that the catalog had Sinclair’s copy of Albatross. To be expected of a book dealer on the come, right? Albeit with wings a bit clipped. A little worse for the wear. “About Very Good, all things considered, the front cover with historical creasing (faint now), the blank back cover with three paint marks and a few scuffs, and only the middle of the three staples still penetrating throughout (the whole secure nonetheless). Toning to the first page and final few pages, without much impact, and trivially to some edges, but contents generally clean. Notoriously rare.” A cool thousand pounds. As well as a small run of Icarus from Sinclair’s years at Trinity College (Issues 40-42, 44-50, roughly September 1962 to May 1966). Issue 46 was signed by Sinclair as well as by twice, once on the front cover and once on the first page), Tim Booth (on the front cover), Ivan Pawle, and Christopher Bamford. Double the Albatross: 2000 pounds for the lot. Per usual, I missed out. They were the first items to fly the coop from the catalogue.
So how did I get my copy of Albatross if copies were only test-run for “copyright libraries?” Well, copies were also run off for contributors and I got a hold Arnold Saland’s copy, writer of “Derelicts”. Here is the story of how his copy got stateside. From Dan Lauffer of Brown Paper:
Re: the history, CCNY may not have been Harvard, but there were a number of bright and talented writers-to-be and teachers who were useful influences. In my time I took classes from Paul Blackburn and Denise Levertov. The connections helped get contributions to Brown Paper. WSB reportedly taught during his time in NY. Equally as important was the comradeship of the group who met in the South Campus Cafeteria. While not as well known as the Cedars or the White Horse it kept a foment of gossip, comradeship, information, and envy — all without access to alcohol. (There were excursions into recreational drugs.)
Much of the activity revolved around the school literary magazine, The Promethean. I only have the Fall 1966 issue. Contributors included novelist and poet Ross Feld, George DiCaprio, Robert David Cohen, who went on to El Corno Emplumado, and Charles Kutcher, who was president of the ABA. Other writers around included Lewis Warsh, who was active in the New York School of poets and had Mulch Press with Harry Lewis and Bradford Stark. We briefly collaborated on a one shot called Andruil. (I got George Macunias to help with the typesetting and design.) Arnold Saland was among the writers and was in another issue of Promethean.
Arnold got a scholarship for a year in Dublin, I believe at Trinity. When he returned he brought Albatross and chose to give me a copy. He corrected typos which had snuck in and signed his contribution. I read Burroughs’ contribution and saw that some of the materials that he had sent me as cut-ups of Samuel Beckett were included. (I will look for a contemporary interview with Burroughs from the New York Post. The cut-up method is antithetical to Beckett’s finely crafted language. )
Arnie spoke of the hard-drinking pub culture of the other Irish students. He also brought back a brogue which eventually faded. I lost track of him when I went on to grad school for psychology. When I tried to locate him on the internet the only reference that came up was from another then student named Malcom Redfern. He had a blog in which he said, “and Arnold Saland educated us all in the right view of American politics.” Knowing Arnie, this was actually a leftist orientation.
So I bought Lauffer’s copy of Saland’s copy. Saland inscribed to Lauffer: “To my dearly beloved brother in Xrist + MarX.” Saland’s author bio reads: “Arnold Saland. American. Published in several small magazines. Now in Dublin working on a doct[o]rate.” “Derelicts” is a long story, dedicated to “Serge Ravich, poet, socialist, genius, madman, and by rumour junkie” and opens:
I met a man once, a philosopher
Who told me, loneliness must be realized
I have realized loneliness,
Now I must begin to understand it
Which as Saland annotates in thick black felt pen should be in all caps; the misspelling of doctorate corrected as well. Like Lauffer, Sinclair wonders what happened to Saland. Saland, like Albatross, has become an “[i]nky ghost in soft rain.” Maybe he will reach out and share his experiences of “[n]ew people exploring an old town.” In any case, his copy of Albatross has survived over the years. In fact, the copy is as near mint as can be expected (although those staples are still an issue; they barely hold the thick issue). Lovingly preserved by collectors, the trashmen of the book world. Let’s close with Burroughs on Albatross: Rub out the bird.
3 thoughts on “Albatross”
Cool, Jed, I enjoyed this. Yes, you are a lucky guy indeed to have copped this rare bird.! Shame you missed out on the Test Center one, Iain ‘s own copy. Double Yikes! I haven’t seen all of their catalogues, but yes, Test Center is doing some interesting stuff. Thanks for reminding me about them so now I will go back and look at or try and secure some of their more recent or even not so recent catalogues.
What can one say about Iain Sinclair? I still lament the fact that I missed him when he was at The Gloucester Writer’s Center a few years ago, but made up for it last year when I heard him read from his newest book on buildings at the Wanstead Tap in London, hosted by none other than his friend John Rogers ( This Other London ). Can you imagine the stuff that went through his hands when he was a book dealer/scout in London back in the day! One shuddders to think!
Your story of acquiring Saland’s copy of Albatross was quite intriguing and entertaining. Good catch, man!
I kinda buried the lead as Test Centre did indeed have Sinclair’s copies of Albatross and Icarus. I am a bit of s dope. Anyway it begs the old question of association/signature vs condition. With something like Albatross I will take whatever comes. For my Olympia Naked Lunch I wanted the best condition I could afford. But for my Olympia Soft Machine I went the association route. I am generally an association guy which goes against general collecting wisdom which prizes condition above all else.
Thanks for publishing the story of Albatross. Also thanks for the nod to the idea of having published Burroughs in a little mag. My publication of WSB was a few years later than Albatross.
On reflection, so much was possible because of the generosity and openness of writers like Burroughs, Ginsberg and my erstwhile buddy, Arnold Saland. Burroughs sent me several packets of mss pages which arrived with exotic stamps from Tangiers. He signed and did a cut-up of my parody of his cut-ups. He then gave permission for me to publish them. At any point in the process he could have walked away from the project.
Similarly, Allen Ginsberg always carried a folder with his manuscripts and works by other authors who he wanted to see published. A look at their bibliographies shows how much they contributed to the growth of the mimeo revolution by being committed to helping the amateur publisher.
I am glad that Albatross has finally landed in the bunker.