“Blaming the Victim”: The Posthumous Editing of Burroughs and Bukowski and the Swan Song of the Black Sparrow Collectible

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

I. Editing Bukowski and Burroughs

Side-by-side comparison of Bukowski manuscript and published poem by MJP Blog

Side-by-side comparison of Bukowski manuscript and published poem by Michael Philips. For complete comparison see “The Senseless, Tragic Rape of Charles Bukowski’s Ghost by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press.

I heard whispers that something was rotten in the state of California, rumblings from oppressed subjects that the Houses of Black Sparrow and HarperCollins/Ecco were somehow unclean, rumors that the line of the late King Bukowski had been tainted. Had I not experienced this same unease myself while reading the seemingly endless proclamations the King was not truly dead, that his words lived on? Yet the voice sounded off; it did not ring true. I could not put my finger on what was wrong exactly. There had to be a valid reason why I decided not to purchase any of these books; why I checked them out of the library, a library that did not carry The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, or Love Is A Dog From Hell, but dutifully ordered The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain or Slouching Towards Nirvana as soon as they came out (why this sudden acceptance of Bukowski?, I wondered); why Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way would be the end of the line for me, as far as the recent Bukowski collections went. The Madness seemed sifted away; the Word sounded false; the Line was crooked; the Way had been lost. So I took the easy road in my break-up with Bukowski. Buk, it is not you; it’s me. I have changed; I have outgrown you.

Then there was a flash of lightning behind the mountain and things became clear. Graham Rae sent me a link to a blog piece by Michael Phillips entitled “The senseless, tragic rape of Charles Bukowski’s ghost by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press,” which led me to further posts and to the forum on Bukowski.net. Phillips felt the same unease that I felt. “But as I would read each of the posthumous books I couldn’t help feeling that they were a little off. Reading them could give you the distinct and uneasy feeling that maybe Bukowski had lost it when he had written this stuff.” Unlike me, Phillips was not content with placing the blame on himself or with Bukowski. He felt compelled to get to the bottom of his unease by researching the manuscript poems available on Bukowski.net and came to a horrifying conclusion. Phillips writes, “In the posthumous collections, Black Sparrow publisher John Martin has made changes to the majority of Bukowski’s poems. Damaging changes that run counter to just about everything Bukowski represented. Wholesale removal of references to drinking, drugs, sex and madness. Changes that completely alter the meaning of the manuscripts. Changes that don’t even begin to make sense. It feels like nothing short of gleeful, unrepentant vandalism and destruction.” Phillips and Bukowski.net provide quite a few of these smoking guns, detailing what appears to be Martin’s extensive editorial meddling. The Houses of Black Sparrow and HarperCollins/Ecco were not unclean at all; instead they were agents of sanitation, replacing the musk of Bukowski with “the stink of John Martin’s hand.”

Phillips’ act of whistleblowing left me with a slight sense of déjà vu. Dead writer kept in contact with his obsessive fan base through table-tapping — it is, in some respects, the story of William Burroughs. Since his death in 1997, Junky, Queer, Naked Lunch, The Yage Letters and (soon) the cut-up trilogy have all been reworked. I do not think these new Burroughs editions are necessarily a bad thing — as I note below, they are very much in the Burroughsian spirit — but it has become increasingly difficult to, if not get everybody on the same page, at least have some clarity about what page they are reading. For example, nobody reads the Olympia Press editions of Naked Lunch or the cut-up novels, and I suspect they will no longer read the early Groves either, as is becoming standard operating procedure regarding Naked Lunch. Consider this interview conducted by Oliver Harris with French translator Théophile Aries, as posted on the European Beat Studies Network. Regarding Naked Lunch, Harris asks Aries about “the problems in the 40-year old edition,” and Aries answers in part:

Reading the original text over and over and coming back to the French one, I realised many elements were missing. Take for instance the chapter entitled “Benway”; 570 words are missing in the translation, while the chapter entitled “A.J’s Annual Party” has about 700 words omitted. Some paragraphs are not at the same place in both books, Kahane’s translation ends with a nota bene while the original text does not. On top of that, the “Atrophied Preface” became an “Atrophied Postface” in French. And sometimes sentences or words that are not in Burroughs’ original text appear out of nowhere.

Aries refers repeatedly to an “original text”. The term “original” is used 16 times in the interview. What exactly are we talking about here? Specifically, Aries points out that “Kahane’s translation ends with a nota bene while the original text does not.” The Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch DOES end with a note regarding “C’lom Fliday.” The Grove edition DOES NOT. The Restored Text DOES NOT. Is Aries suggesting that the Grove or the Restored is the “original text?” I would suspect that Kahane’s translation is not missing words at all, but that they were never in the Olympia Press edition in the first place and were added to the Grove edition and largely preserved in The Restored Text. Clearly, Kahane translated from the Olympia edition, which makes all the sense in the world. Eric Kahane, the translator, was the son of Jack Kahane, publisher of Obelisk Press, and brother of Maurice Girodias, who ran Olympia Press.

Needless to say, the state of Burroughs’ texts is fluid, and this takes some getting used to. Even hardcore Burroughs readers are not always comfortable with it (clearly, I am uneasy with it), but the status of Burroughs’ legacy after his death is really not that surprising, given the confusion that surrounded its very conception. As the Bard says, “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.” Or was it, “Confusion hath fuck his masterpiece?” Bukowski fans, confident in Buk’s mastery over his material, might be left scratching their heads.

Naturally confusion reigns regarding the translation of The Yage Letters as well. Aries’ foundation seems to be Oliver Harris’ The Yage Letter Redux. The 1963 City Lights edition (the first edition and the first printing) is no longer the “original text.” Aries states, 

So, when I translated The Yage Letters Redux, I wanted to make sure that I used unusual constructions only when they were present in the original text, and not to add more of them. Whenever Burroughs wrote in a straight linear style, I would translate it exactly the same way.

The Redux now means the “original text”. As Harris’ detailed footnotes and informative introduction suggest, this is a legitimate course of action, but Aries is also an accomplished musician, and hearing Underwires perform in Paris, I just do not understand why he is so against hearing noise when he translates his Burroughs. For me, that noise (Burroughs’ mistakes and missteps, and even the slips of the translator’s tongue or typographer) is what makes the Olympia Press editions the most interesting (and fun) to read of all. I would suggest that what makes the Harris’ editions and The Restored Text interesting and fun to read is their paratexts, particularly the footnotes, introductions, and other commentaries. The “original text” plays second chair. But why does so much Burroughs scholarship cast the stink eye on the Olympia editions? Why this repudiation of, if not the “original text,” the first edition?

Take that nota bene. Aries experiences it as a false note, but to me it is a funky groove. Page 225 of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch, the last page that is numbered, ends: 

“C’lom Fliday” Note
Tanger, 1959.

The phrase “C’lom Fliday” appears earlier on page 139, so Burroughs wanted a note in this precise location. The note is strategically and, oddly, placed between time (Fliday) and space (Tanger), as it transports the reader outside of them both. The reader experiences the physical act of moving through textual space, since to read the C’lom Fliday note, one must turn the page to an unpaginated verso, which contains the footnote and closing “THE END.” In this case, the movement through textual space is particularly pronounced since the unpaginated verso places the reader simultaneously outside, yet still technically inside, the text of Naked Lunch. This is the famous space between about which Burroughs writes in the Talking Asshole routine — a zone of possibility and freedom.  

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, Olympia Press 1959Burroughs came to view silence as the ultimate goal in his writing, but what makes the Olympia novels speak to me are the farts and belches from that space between. The voice of Burroughs is not the sound of purity or perfection, like the music of the spheres. It is noisy, like the pops and crackles emanating from the Paris Bookshop’s Call Me Burroughs LP. For Bukowski fans, this noise may be frightful. Their conception of Bukowski, like Buk’s preference in music, is classical. For example, they champion and cherish the integrity of Bukowski’s strong, hard line. Phillips can speak with a righteous indignation of taint, castration, and rape in connection with Bukowski’s “mostly unmolested and beautiful” poems. Burroughs’ work embraces these fears. Burroughs fans can almost “blame the victim.” Burroughs was asking for it. He would gleefully cut and castrate Bukowski’s line, and Burroughs openly encouraged readers to cut-up his own words. This act of editing, this “molestation,” was precisely the point of the cut-up. Such violence freed Burroughs from the yoke of authorial control.  

Burroughs’ books were always “queer” in their construction, even during his lifetime. Throughout his career, Burroughs indulged in literary couplings and ménages-à-trois, used other’s texts, and extensively rewrote his work. As Harris suggests, Burroughs’ oeuvre was always already molested. If Bukowski is classical, Burroughs is postmodern. To speak of intention, originality and authenticity in connection with Burroughs is downright queer. That is why it bothers me to see today’s translators and editors of Burroughs forced to speak, like ventriloquists’ dummies, of original texts, definitive editions, and restored texts. Such claims are antithetical to the Burroughsian spirit. These “definitive” editions will surely undergo their own revision down the road. Like the now muzzled Olympia edition, they will be found to be just as noisy.

Perhaps Bukowski scholars can learn a thing or two from the example of Burroughs. One commenter to Phillips’ post expresses gratitude that she no longer has to deal with the late Bukowski books for her thesis. In my opinion, the role of editing in relation to Bukowski IS the thesis. There is a persistent myth that Bukowski poems, like Kerouac’s, sprung fully formed from his scruffy brow. This is simply not true. For example, a reading of the early letters highlights that Bukowski was a meticulous craftsman and extensively reworked and culled his output.  

Charles Bukowski, Laugh Literary, vol 1 num 1In addition, it is often forgotten that Bukowski was himself in an editorial position on occasion. How do we respond to Bukowski’s editorial practices at Harlequin and Laugh Literary, for example? According to all his biographers (and Neeli Cherkovski experienced this intimately), Bukowski played rough as an editor. He defaced manuscripts, he berated those submitting poems, and he used his editorial position as a means to power. Could these acts of violence be viewed as a form of revenge stemming from years of submitting manuscripts to hundreds of little magazines? Most definitely. Bukowski, more than anyone, realized that submitting to a little magazine was a masochistic act and the act of editing one of rape. Given Bukowski’s rap sheet as an editor, maybe payback is a bitch.

It would also be interesting to see just how Bukowski was edited by his early mimeo publishers, such as Douglas Blazek. It is taken as gospel that Mimeo Revolution publishers followed a laissez-faire approach to their writers and abstained from using the red pencil. Is that, in fact, true? I know for a fact that Jon Edgar Webb, a figure much beloved on Bukowski.net, was not above allowing the frustrated writer in him to take possession of other’s work. About a decade ago, I corresponded with Dave Moore, a Kerouac scholar, on some Kerouac poems in The Outsider that differed from manuscripts in his possession. Webb apparently needed to re-set the type for a Kerouac poem and decided to make changes in the stick. As a result, variations of the same poem appeared from copy to copy within the run of the same issue. Some commenters to Phillips’ post have pointed out that Webb was merely a less organized and effective Martin. Clearly, Webb’s “typesetting,” if he learned of it, would have infuriated the father of spontaneous prose and “first thought best thought,” but it brings up the vexing question of editing in connection with a host of Mimeo Revolution writers generally, such as the Beats, who prided themselves on a lack of editorial intervention. The question of editing takes on major importance in the study of Burroughs and Bukowski, and such research may shed light on editorial practices during the Mimeo Revolution at large. The comment threads to Phillips’ post and its prequel suggest that this research is looming on the horizon.

II. Collecting Black Sparrow

Phillips’ post also generated a related déjà vu involving the collecting market. I could not help thinking of the Andy Warhol Authentication Board Trial. To make an incredibly convoluted and complex situation simple, a lawsuit was filed challenging the legitimacy of the Andy Warhol Authentication Board, after it denied the authenticity of what all parties agree is a signed and dated Red Self-Portrait from the mid-1960s. Besides asking for a reversal of the Board’s decision, the lawsuit sought to achieve some level of transparency regarding the Board’s policies and operations, which have been kept in strictest confidence and secrecy. Nobody in the art world truly understands how the Board makes its decisions. In fact, there are questions whether the Board can provide valid, “scientific” explanations for its mandates. It seems that the Board knows a Warhol when it sees one, but often this translates to a Warhol being whatever the Board feels should be a Warhol or whatever is in the best interests of the Board. Thus the Board/Foundation sought to devalue Warhol’s Estate after his death for tax purposes (for example one appraiser valued the Estate at around $1 billion; the Board/Foundation posited a tenth of that), while arguing for record-setting prices in the auction house. This creates a Kafkaesque or Orwellian situation for dealers and collectors of Warhol and casts a shadow over the entire art market.  

The state of affairs regarding Warhol parallels the current situation involving Bukowski. The Andy Warhol Board/Foundation maintains a stranglehold upon the legacy of Warhol in a manner similar to Black Sparrow’s (now HarperCollins/Ecco) hold on Bukowski. Nobody has any understanding of just how Bukowski’s line and legacy are being dealt with. For example, one commenter to Phillips’ post wonders what Linda Lee is doing in response to Martin’s alleged molestation of Bukowski? What is her role? Is the captain out to lunch? For all intents and purposes, John Martin is the literary equivalent of a 19th Century robber baron, which makes sense since, for better or worse, he perfected and capitalized on the Bukowski market. And make no mistake, the Bukowski market, like the Warhol market, is built on the trust, faith, and investment of collectors.  

(A question could be raised here whether the majority of this investment is coming from individual or institutional collectors. If institutional then Martin is merely sticking it to the Man. Yet one of the many Bukowski myths goes that Bukowski stands outside the academy and remains an outlaw writer who has eluded institutionalization. Under close examination this myth like many will not hold up, but for my purposes I prefer to be deluded. The benefits associated with delusion keep many a myth alive.)  

Charles Bukowski, True Story, Black Sparrow Broadside, 1966In 1966, the first four publications of Black Sparrow Press were broadsides of Bukowski poems: “True Story,” “On Going Out to Get the Mail,” “To Kiss the Worms Goodnight,” and “The Girls.” From these seemingly humble beginnings, John Martin built one of the most important presses publishing modern poetry in the world. In fact, these beginnings were not really humble, but a rather impressive and savvy example of fine printing and art marketing. Martin produced these broadsides specifically for the rare book market. Nobody but nobody buys a broadside, except a book or art collector. Broadsides, unlike flyers or handbills, serve absolutely no useful function. They are not read or researched, but are all about art for art’s sake and an exercise in design. They belong on the wall or under glass, not stapled to a telephone pole. Working the pole, the handbill solicits communication. The broadside is a merely a conversation starter at a dinner party.  

The first four broadsides were handset poems on expensive, deckle-edged paper signed by Bukowski in a limited edition of 30. The layout was simple, yet elegant. This minimalism was an early Black Sparrow hallmark. This type of care in presentation continued the fine press tradition of more ornate Bukowski publications like It Catches My Heart in Its Hands and Crucifix in a Deathhand by Loujon Press. Increasingly at Black Sparrow, the house design became more pronounced and overshadowed the poems. These initial broadsides were pricy at $10. Yet they became a very good investment as these pieces now fetch four figures on the rare book market, if you happen to find one.

This is not a surprise. Martin knew the rare book market inside and out from personal experience. Martin might be best known as an editor and a publisher, but he is first and foremost a book collector. (It could be argued that his experience as an office manager was the most important element of Black Sparrow’s success. Martin was one of the few small press publisher to run his press as a business.) Martin financed Black Sparrow (and Bukowski personally) by selling his D.H. Lawrence collection to the UCSB library for $50,000. I find it strange that Martin is often viewed simply as a prude, given that Lady Chatterley’s Lover helped pave the way for pornography and obscenity in much of the Western world. Considering his Lawrence collection (which continued after the sale, prompting a further sale), Martin is clearly fascinated with that which is dark and repressed. His fascination with Bukowski comes as no surprise. As Burroughs demonstrates, there is no either/or; all opposites contain elements of each other and define them, such as the police and the pusher. I think Bukowski lovers simplify Martin and his relationship with Bukowski when they label Martin “a straight-laced uptight square” and feel confident they understand who he is. Being a Puritan is more complex than merely turning down a beer. Reading Hawthorne will tell you that, and both Martin and Bukowski read their Hawthorne. Linda King: “[Bukowski] had a puritan streak on him this wide, like a skunk. A puritan streak right down his back.” Bukowski: “I’m just not a dirty guy. There is a lot of Puritan in me.” Bukowski and Martin should not be viewed as alien to each other, but as brothers, like Cain and Abel. Bukowski fans would do themselves a service by reading into Martin (and Bukowski) a little more deeply. Real people are not as flat as characters out of a Bukowski novel. 

It is a book-collecting axiom that collectors ultimately want personal contact with their favorite writers. The value of a book increases the closer it approaches the writer’s hand. First editions, signatures, proofs, annotations, letters, and manuscripts are all about getting in physical touch with the writer, actually shaking his hand in brotherhood. Black Sparrow was, on one level, Martin’s mechanism to collect the writers themselves. Martin knew the mentality of the book collector like few other publishers. A friend of mine told me that he asked Martin why he issued Black Sparrow books with acetates and Martin responded that as a collector it was frustrating and time consuming for him to find collectable dust jackets, so he simplified things for Black Sparrow collectors. Black Sparrow books had no messy dust jacket to maintain, and the acetate further protected the condition of the book. In addition, a damaged acetate could be replaced without anybody being any the wiser. How do you pin down a first-state acetate?  

Black Sparrow is full of these types of book-collecting shortcuts. Its entire business model is based on the concept of the manufactured collectible: the tipped-in Bukowski artwork, the lettered, numbered and signed editions. Martin took Kenneth Patchen’s (and Jargon’s) protest against the emerging conglomerate publishing market and re-packaged it into cookie cutter formats, like Happy Meals. As the press continued beyond its early years, the Barbara Martin designed covers increasingly came to have the same basic look and the books the same format, just as every Big Mac generally tastes and looks the same. Black Sparrow encouraged book collecting in its most digestible and packaged form. This is book collecting returned to the mass market and reunited with the mass consumer. Martin used the same bag of tricks as the marketeers of Pop Art, Andy Warhol in particular, or to take Pop to its lowest common denominator (i.e., straight cash), Peter Max.

(Let take a time out from beating up on the Black Sparrow model and consider the value of the Press’ trade paperbacks. These are great titles by often underappreciated and out-of-print authors in an affordable and widely available format. Do not the paperbacks redeem the entire Black Sparrow enterprise? If you backed me into a corner I would probably say that they do, but Ferlinghetti and City Lights did the same thing without the limited edition bullshit. As a collector, Black Sparrow offends me; as a general reader, the Black Sparrow trades are a godsend. Let’s not forget that Ferlinghetti had/has his detractors too, like Jack Spicer and Charlie Plymell, who rate him a poser and opportunist. When you are the most important and influential small press publishers of the post-WWII era, as Martin and Ferlinghetti clearly are, you cannot please everybody. They are publishing icons. Lots of people think the Beatles were a studio fabrication and that Marilyn Monroe should have gone on diet.) 

Yet the Bukowski collector is not just an idle consumer; he is the menial labor that makes the Black Sparrow Bukowski industry run. Martin preys on his consumers’ bibliographic madness with endless editions and variations portraying Bukowski’s madness. Phillips calls for the boycott of any of the later Bukowski collections, but this challenge to Martin’s dominance, if followed to its logical conclusion, calls for nothing more than a strike against purchasing Black Sparrow Bukowski limited editions. These collectibles, like the late collections, are similarly manipulated and manufactured by Martin.  

Charles Bukowski, At Terror Street and Agony Way, 1968For example, collectors are finding that the Black Sparrow limited editions are really not that limited. For the 1968 At Terror Street and Agony Way, the first hardbound edition by Black Sparrow, there were 15 presentation copies issued and a further 75 numbered and signed copies. All without a dust jacket; all with Bukowski watercolors tipped in. These levels of limitation are the type of thing that Ed Sanders and Ted Berrigan poked fun at in Fuck You and C. They were already a joke in 1965. By 1974, Black Sparrow issued a “limited edition” of 300 signed copies of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame. Can an edition of 300 be considered limited? Every serious Bukowski collector (and book dealer) with the means already has these “rare” books in mint condition. Rare does not mean expensive. For example, the Olympia Press Naked Lunch, with a first edition of 5000 copies, is not rare at all; it just costs a shitload of money. For a Burroughs collector, you are forced to buy the book, but you nearly always lose out in the deal. It is in some respect the most important book in my collection, but increasingly I have a love/hate relationship with it. Like an addict with his drug or obsession of choice.

As time went on, the Black Sparrow limited became like an Olympia Naked Lunch. There was nothing to distinguish an individual collector’s copy to make it truly unique or unusual, except slight refinements or additions. In the world of Black Sparrow that is a Bukowski painting, drawing or signature. Not surprisingly, the market for Bukowski artwork or signatures is also flooded. Not only did Bukowski write too much; he painted too much. And like a Barbara Martin designed book cover, the Bukowski paintings generally look the same. The image of Buk with a bottle is the Nike swoosh of Black Sparrow.  

Yet let’s blame the victim here. Martin, like a drug dealer, is not forcing collectors to buy his wares, and they can just say no. If the knock on Bukowski fans is that they are poetry readers who dislike and cannot appreciate poetry, then it follows that Black Sparrow collectors do not really like or understand book collecting. The Black Sparrow collectible is manufactured and processed, like collecting Franklin Library or Easton Press. Or crack. Such collecting does not take much imagination and serves little to no archival or research purpose. It is a simply a cash transaction granting possession, which might be why Bukowski collectors are either notorious spendthrifts or tightwads. There is no middle ground, because in recent years sound investors would not get involved with Black Sparrow Bukowski collectibles.

Recent auction results have not been kind. In 2007, over 50% (roughly 57%) of Groff’s 228 items failed to sell for the low estimate. This number is not completely out of line with previous counterculture sales at Pacific Book Auctions, but a full 15% failed to sell at all. Unfortunately, only twelve items (or roughly 5%) went over the high estimate. If we focus on Black Sparrow titles specifically at more recent Runfola Auction from 2011, roughly 37 items failed to reach the low estimate, and a further 23 did not sell at all. Considering that the price realized includes a 20% buyer’s premium, these titles grossly under-performed. Roughly 26 Black Sparrow items made their estimates and only four exceeded the high estimate. In a piece I wrote on the Groff sale, I placed much of the blame on PBA Galleries’ high estimates, and the Runfola Auction was no exception in that regard, but maybe the problem lies with the Black Sparrow business model.  

It is a book-collecting law that manuscripts are a safe bet. Phillips’ post makes clear their research value. Yet when you get down to it, Bukowski manuscripts are just not that rare, particularly if they are associated with a Black Sparrow publication. If collecting a Black Sparrow title, associations and annotations are crucial. Anything in the margins, away from the title page or colophon, which narrates a supplemental history to the novel, story or poem residing between Barbara’s covers, seems a good bet. Correspondence with Carl Weissner was the single most consistent over-achiever in the Rufalo auction. This highlights the importance of stepping outside of the kingdom of Black Sparrow into foreign territory.  

Naturally, it makes sense to go back in time to before Bukowski sold his soul to the devil for $100 a month. This is the Bukowski of the Mimeo Revolution and what you are collecting is not a manufactured product, but a comrade-in-arms in a larger fight against corporate publishing and consumerism. Bukowski as writer of protest literature. Bukowski as part of a history and community greater than himself and not simply Bukowski as Horatio Alger performing a monologue. A collection of Bukowski chapbooks and magazines are truly worth something (above and beyond the mere financial) not because of the Bukowski appearance but because they are evidence of an era of publishing that is in danger of fading away. These publications are truly rare, original, and ephemeral and reflect a time when Bukowski was too.

Phillips calls for a Black Sparrow boycott beginning in 1994. For him, Bukowski jumped the shark only when he leapt into the Great Beyond. I am not so sure. I question whether Bukowski was truly “unmolested and beautiful” throughout his lifetime. I take a stand in 1970, and cite an incident involving Bukowski and Martin that reads like a morality play. Sounes deserves to be quoted in full here:

In April, a collection of Bukowski first editions came up for sale at a literary auction in New York, alongside collections of Faulkner and Hemingway. Although the Bukowski books raised only a fraction of the prices commanded by the more famous writers, they sold easily and it became apparent there was a lucrative market in collecting his books, magazine appearances, letters and manuscripts, even his child-like paintings. But Bukowski had only a limited understanding of the value of his artwork, as Martin discovered when he telephoned to arrange the collection of forty new paintings he had buyers for. When he asked what would be a good time to pick them up, Bukowski said he didn’t have the paintings anymore. He didn’t think they were any very good so he’d put them in the bath and pissed all over them. He wasn’t sure why, perhaps he was crazy. And he couldn’t get them back, because he’d dumped the whole mess in the garbage. Martin was aghast at this, and asked if he had any idea how much money they could have made.

For me, this is Bukowski’s last act of innocence, naivety, and insouciance. An act of bravado that highlights his self-destructive excess and excessive vitality. This is Bukowski in all his greatness. The New York auction validated the Black Sparrow business model, and Bukowski proceeded to gloriously piss all over the foundations of Martin’s fledgling empire. Here we have Bukowski’s finest act of defiance. This is the Bukowski that John Martin corrupted. The crux of Puritanism is not censorship or abstinence, but an abhorrence of waste. Promiscuity is despised for wasting seed. Drunkenness threatens to squander one’s talent and intelligence. Here Martin is horrified by Bukowski’s profligacy. Those paintings should have been put to use. It is crucial that this Dionysian act occurred against the backdrop of book collecting. Book collecting as practiced by Martin is an act of Puritanism. He is not a hoarder or archivist, like Walter Benjamin. Martin collects not out of compulsion or obsession, but as an investment. It is not an act of useless expenditure but one of saving for later. As practiced by Martin, book collecting draws its value not from excess, such as Bataille’s potlatch à la Bataille, but as a financial consideration à la Max Weber. As such it is an expression of the Protestant Work Ethic. At his core, Bukowski possessed this same drive and his relationship with Martin brought it to the surface. Bukowski’s deal with Martin did not free him from a job at all; instead it made him a professional writer. Writing became an occupation, not a reckless extravagance, and the source of Bukowski’s greatness was lost. He became not an alcoholic but a workaholic. Falstaff became Prince Hal. From 1970 onward, Bukowski through Martin willingly exploited his excessive gifts. Martin’s eventual betrayal seems an act of sacrifice: the acolyte ripping the Wine God to pieces.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 2 Sept 2013.

7 thoughts on ““Blaming the Victim”: The Posthumous Editing of Burroughs and Bukowski and the Swan Song of the Black Sparrow Collectible

  1. > “It is taken as gospel that Mimeo Revolution publishers followed a laissez-faire approach to their writers and abstained from using the red pencil. Is that, in fact, true?”

    Where Bukowski is concerned, and where we have manuscripts to compare, it is generally true. In relation to the posthumous poetry collections, it is overwhelmingly true. When you compare the earlier publications to the posthumous publications, the earlier work seems nearly pristine. In comparison. Clearly Bukowski was edited throughout his career, and rightfully so (when done by a real editor).

    And that is the crux of the biscuit, as the kids say.

    No one is saying Martin shouldn’t have edited Bukowski. Well, okay, I am, but as Bukowski’s “editor” it was certainly his right to edit. Unfortunately, Martin’s editing seems to be at its best when it is more transcribing than editing.

    As for Webb, we have many examples of his editing of Bukowski’s work, in red pencil, on the manuscript page, rather than in the stick. Marvin Malone at Wormwood Review, on the other hand, appeared to rarely edit Bukowski poetry. What is in Wormwood virtually always matches what is on the manuscripts.

    What we don’t have from Webb or any other early publishers are any examples of editing that has denigrated the work. We do have that where Martin is concerned.

    Now when I say that I realize that it becomes a stylistic issue and an issue of taste and artistry, and we’re well outside the possibility of “proving” anything there. The proof to me, as a reader and a writer is there on the pages of those posthumous collections.

    If the great brains of academia eventually find some proof or explanation that works for them, that’ll be cold comfort as far as I’m concerned. But I understand the need for that.

    > “Phillips calls for the boycott of any of the later Bukowski collections, but this challenge to Martin’s dominance, if followed to its logical conclusion, calls for nothing more than a strike against purchasing Black Sparrow Bukowski limited editions.”

    I have always considered the creation of the endless multitude of Black Sparrow variations (and the titles published under the “Burn Again Press” faux-imprint) to be a cynical move, and have referred to them myself on many occasions as “manufactured rarities,” so I don’t disagree with you there.

    How can the production of numbered and lettered editions of the same book where the only difference is the color of the spine cloth be considered anything other than cynical?

  2. Thanks for commenting. Have you posted manuscript pages from Webb, Blazek, Wormwood etc showing their editorial hand vs. the posthumous Bukowski on ukowski.net? Also it would be interesting to see manuscript pages from the 70s or 80s vs. what appeared in BSP titles. Creating an archive of Bukowski editing might be a cool project.

    Your article and all the related posts are absolutely fascinating and makes me want to compare Burroughs little magazine manuscripts vs mag appearances to see how they deal with the visual aspects of the cut-ups in the 1960s.

    Regarding the Black Sparrow collectibles, what is your take on Bukowski allowing himself to be marketed in this way and his seemingly wholehearted participation in it? Was he an accomplice in Martin cynicism? He produced all the paintings and signatures that Martin asked for. Or did he rebel against that?

    Many people say that Bukowski stopped working in 1970 but in my mind that is when he was really put to work. He became a professional writer working in large part as a house writer for Martin and that is when his work loses its integrity and power.

    The letters are a case in point. The great letters are from the 1960s when he carved out time outside of his job, when it was a sacrifice to write and he wrote in his precious and limited free time. Writing letters is a tremendous waste of productive time for a writer and for Buk to spend so much time and effort on them makes me love those letters all the more. He desperately needs an audience, like the early Burroughs letters. The later letters are like business correspondence from an executive in a company, this holds true for Burroughs as well. I think the same holds true for the poems, but that is a romantic delusion that once a writer goes pro he/she has sold out. I know it is not fair, but I cant help feeling that way.

  3. It is not just submitting work to a little magazine but running one as well. For example reading Paper Dreams, an essay collection published by Atticus Books, you get the impression from many of the personal accounts that everything involved with the little magazine is a Sisyphean task. Editors complain about all the submissions they have to go through and all the work required to get the magazine out. Think Jon Webb’s editoral statements about the sheer amount of labor to put out The Outsider. Why would he put himself through it. Well it is always done we are told out of love and devotion to the arts or the poem or whatever.

    As for the poets and writers, they put their heart and soul into their work. These work become their very bodies and then they “submit” them for judgment, editing (rape??), and possible rejection. These poets and writers submit to this cycle again and again in the hope of acceptance, in the hope their work will be bound among others in a little magazine, that again hopefully will be passionately devoured by readers, but again often is just ignored or even outright despised.

    I think the idea of the little magazine as masochistic is a common theme throughout its history. As is any writing submitted for public review and consumption for that matter.

  4. >> Have you posted manuscript pages from Webb, Blazek, Wormwood etc showing their editorial hand vs. the posthumous Bukowski on bukowski.net?

    Many of the manuscripts from the 70s and 80s on the site come from Wormwood, and there are zero examples of edits that are not in Bukowski’s handwriting. Not to suggest that Malone didn’t ever edit, but it was rare.

    These two are edits in Webb’s handwriting:


    >> Regarding the Black Sparrow collectibles, what is your take on Bukowski allowing himself to be marketed in this way and his seemingly wholehearted participation in it? Was he an accomplice in Martin cynicism? He produced all the paintings and signatures that Martin asked for. Or did he rebel against that?

    He disagreed with Martin on many of the “manufactured rarities,” and eventually stopped making paintings for the Black Sparrow releases because he said the assembly line aspect of it took the joy out of painting. Having said that, he would complain to Martin about certain things, but he rarely said ‘no’ to him outright.

    >> Many people say that Bukowski stopped working in 1970 but in my mind that is when he was really put to work. He became a professional writer working in large part as a house writer for Martin and that is when his work loses its integrity and power.

    What his work lost post-1970 might be more of the desperation – and that may be what a lot of people liked about his 60s poems – than integrity. I don’t think a case could be made that he ever compromised his integrity, as far as writing what he wanted to write. He never wavered from that.

    Financial comfort negates desperation for most people. But you can still see glimpses of it in Bukowski’s work from the 80s. By the 90s he was at the end and more of the work seemed reflective or heaven forbid, nostalgic. But the bite was always there. And the power was always there. You just had to wait for it.

    And in the published posthumous work, the teeth were removed, so we can’t blame him for that.

  5. Martin’s critics are failed writers who could not get published in a Community College bulletin, let alone by a reputable publishing house. Martin had every right to edit Bukowski’s work, and he did so since the mid 60s, when they first began their collaboration. Editors edit. That’s their job. Furthermore, Bukowski rarely cared about what form Black Sparrow published his work. He was just happy to cash the substantial cheques!

  6. Enlightening debate. For which this resident of the Ark Frestonia is truly grateful. As I am for once being under the same roof as William Burroughs. Young James Joyce found himself in that same street (rue Git-le-Coeur). (See ULYSSES.)

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