Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Let’s start with Literary Days. Can you describe that book?
Literary Days is a 25-page 8.5×11 pamphlet edited by Ted Berrigan from two longer works — a novel called WHATS that I wrote in 1963 and a novel called Malgmo’s End that Ted and I wrote together. We wrote alternate chapters of Malgmo’s End, and what he did was put some of my chapters into Literary Days. Joe Brainard did the cover of Literary Days and also one or two illustrations, depending on which edition you find. As for WHATS, that was what I called a “psychic novel”, meaning it had a day-to-day psychological continuity, although the chapters featured different characters and settings. It was much like a series of dreams in that respect.
How did the book come to be published by Ted Berrigan and C Press?
For some reason, Ted liked my writing. The first thing he saw by me was a first-person novel called The Transfigured, which Lorenz Gude showed him in late 1961 or early 1962. He loved it, and we immediately became friends. In fact, I was welcomed into the “Tulsa circle”, so to speak, which at that time was headquartered in Ted’s apartment near Columbia University.
By the time Ted started C Magazine, I was living in Vermont, and he wrote me saying I ought to come back to New York and join the fun. I did, and we immediately began Malgmo’s End. After he had published C Magazine for a while he wanted to do chapbooks and pamphlets, and so he put together Literary Days, which was the first C Press publication as I recall.
What did C Press mean to you as a young writer? How did C, a journal of poetry, relate to the other mimeos of the time, like Elephant, Fuck You or Lines?
It is hard to say. I remember those times as mostly being about freedom and having fun. As Lorenz Gude (who was the New York Poets’ unofficial photographer) has said, “you could be walking home at four in the morning having had an experience that at seven o’clock in the evening you had no idea you were going to have, and that happened regularly.” For Ted poetry was very much a social thing, a literal meeting of minds and hearts. For Ed Sanders it was a revolutionary thing, sticking it to the establishment, and so forth. Aram Saroyan came along later, with Lines. He moved down from Cambridge, as I recall. Lines was about the poetry itself. One could say a lot more about those days, of course, and people have. As young men, we were really trying to find out who we were and what was our mission in life. Ted knew what his mission was, and so he became a mentor to us.
Somehow William Burroughs got a copy of Literary Days. Were the two of you corresponding? Burroughs was corresponding with Ted Berrigan by 1963-1964. How did Burroughs get in the pages of C, a journal of poetry?
Ted put together a mailing list and sent out lots and lots of copies of C, free of charge. He probably got Burroughs’ address from Ginsberg, or maybe from Bob Wilson (Phoenix Bookshop). Burroughs loved to get stuff like that in the mail. He would read it thoroughly and get into correspondence with the people who sent him these mags and books. Apparently when he read Literary Days, something about it turned him on, for he immediately did a cut-up / intersection piece, combining it with his own work, and send that to Ted, who published it in C Magazine 9.
Can you briefly describe “Intersection Shifts and Scanning from Literary Days by Tom Veitch?”
Better than describe it, I can include it with this Q&A, because Ron Padgett just sent me a copy of it! [You can read “Intersection Shifts and Scanning from Literary Days by Tom Veitch” here. — Ed.]
What was Burroughs’ reputation in New York at the time?
Wow. Burroughs was a god, of course. We were reading the Olympia Press editions of his works — Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded. These works were supposedly “banned in Boston,” but Ted discovered you could order copies by mail direct from Paris at a bookseller’s discount.
Reading The Soft Machine (which is a cut-up work) we got that Bill had discovered a key to breaking the mental patterns that imprison most of us. Beyond that, I had a kind of mystical experience when I first read Naked Lunch. That is to say, I read the whole book in one afternoon and evening, and when I went to bed the book kept going, all night long! So I guess the version I “read” — including the dreams — was about three times longer than the published version!
By late 1964, Burroughs was in New York City. Berrigan met Burroughs shortly thereafter. What was the reaction in literary circles to Burroughs’ return to the US?
Well, as you probably know, Burroughs was greeted as the returning hero. He was a celebrated figure at that point, and as I recall Nova Express came out around that time and knocked everybody for a loop. We loved it.
When Burroughs returned to America, he was first staying at the Chelsea Hotel, and people would make a pilgrimage to meet him there. Ted and I went to the Chelsea together, to meet Bill for the first time. As we entered the hotel, we ran into Terry Southern, who was just leaving. Terry had a glazed transported look on his face, as if he had just had an audience with the Pope… or maybe Jesus himself.
What was your interaction with Burroughs at this time? I have heard there was a planned illustrated Naked Lunch.
My idea of illustrating Naked Lunch came much later, around 1971 or 72. My interaction with Burroughs at that time (1964-65) was as a kid who looked up to him and found him extremely fascinating. He was a teacher.
I hear you have a draft memoir of your experiences with Burroughs. What is the status of that project?
Yes, it is going to be a short book, about 150 pages. I have written quite a bit of it, but I won’t do any more until I find somebody such as a publisher who will pay me some money to finish it.
Joe Brainard was working with Burroughs for an illustration for “St. Louis Return.” Have you seen that illustration? Were there any other collaborations with Burroughs going on at the time?
I hadn’t heard of the Brainard illustration. I asked Ron Padgett, and he hasn’t heard of it either. We would love to know more.
I don’t know what collaborations Burroughs was doing — he had so many friends, you know. I will tell you this, though, that in person he was a very strange man. I couldn’t imagine sitting with him in a room and working together on a literary piece. He was also using various drugs at that time, although not like his old heroin days. One day we went to visit him and he started ranting about some LSD that some hipsters had given him the day before. “I felt like my whole body was on fire!” he said. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life!” Burroughs told us he had taken apomorphine to bring himself back from the experience.
Can you describe The Naked Express? Who would have run off the single sheet copy that I have?
The Naked Express was a collage I did for Lines magazine. It is a tribute to Bill Burroughs, but there is nothing by him in it, unless there’s something I lifted. It wasn’t a collaboration…. Which reminds me of another story. One time I was having dinner with Burroughs and he was going on about how “your words don’t belong to you,” and things like that. So I said to him, “You mean I could publish an edition of Naked Lunch and put my name on the cover.” He snorted. “Of course! Barney Rosset would have a problem with it, but it would be o.k. with me!”
Did you attend Burroughs’ St. Valentine’s Day Reading? C 10 was issued that night. Was it distributed at the reading? Run off after the reading or in celebration of the reading?
No, I wasn’t at that reading. I think I was not even in New York at that time, so I can’t answer your question about C 10.
Same question for the other events of 1965. Whether you attended or not, what effect did Wynn Chamberlain’s party on April 23, 1965 (Burroughs read with Mack Thomas), Lester Persky’s 50 Beautiful People Party, Panna Grady’s party for Burroughs have on your circle?
I was at the Wynn Chamberlain event, and it was great. Bill had all these props that he was arranging for his reading. He had a hand-rolled cigar that he meant to light up and smoke til it got that great cone of ash that he liked, but he didn’t have anything with which to cut the tip off the cigar. So I whipped out a pocket knife I always carried and handed it over to him. He immediately made some dry crack about “you can always depend on a boy to carry a pocketknife,” or something like that. Unfortunately the pocketknife was quite dull and made a mess of his cigar, alas. It made me feel bad to disappoint “Uncle Bill” as we sometimes called him.
Did you read Burroughs’ interview with Conrad Knickerbocker in Paris Review 35? How did that change your impressions of Burroughs?
I didn’t read it at the time, but I read it many years later. It gives one the feeling of deja vu, because it is a compilation of things he was saying in conversation in 1964 and 1965. It is almost as if he is playing back a series of tapes of dinner conversations, word for word.
How did Time come about? Ron Padgett told me that he recreated an identical copy of the original manuscript (he even tracked down the same model of Burroughs’ typewriter) and the copies were offset from that.
Ted asked Burroughs for something he could publish as a chapbook, and Bill handed him the Time manuscript, which was already completed. Ron became the editor of the project, so I am sure Ron can tell you more about how it all came about than I can. But I do remember visiting Burroughs with Ron at Bill’s Canal Street loft. Some of that is in my book, including the time Bill tried to hypnotize me with Moroccan music so that he could get me into bed… But I’m not at all gay, so it was no-go. He didn’t seem to mind that I gave him the brush off. We just went on being friends, and when I entered a cloistered monastery a few months later, he used to send me postcards and Christmas cards.
Let me ask you something. What did you feel when you heard Burroughs’ voice opening the sixth season of The Sopranos?
Tom Veitch Magazine
Covers of issues 1-4 of Tom Veitch Magazine, produced in San Francisco in 1970-1971.