Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
For background, be sure to read Jed Birmingham’s overview of the Insect Trust Gazette.
Was there a literary or artistic scene in Philadelphia out of which Insect Trust Gazette grew?
Bill Levy and I shared an apartment in 1963-64. Bill was studying General Semantics at Temple and was suffering from a tremendous psychological block to his academic productivity. I was at Tyler Art School, having previously dropped out of English at the University of Rochester and spent a bit of time at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. Bob Basara (now Bassara) was a year ahead of me at Tyler. Lenny Belasco was in some Education program at Temple. Bill met him and introduced him to me and Bob.
There was an English instructor at Tyler named Jerry (Gerald) Stern, who wrote poetry and fraternized with students; he was especially supportive of me and Bob. Lenny introduced us to Sol Leon, who was a librarian in the Philadelphia library system and — we thought — a most serious and highly evolved poet. That was the extent of the Philly literary scene as far as I was aware. I was not seeking a scene, nor were my three partners as far as I recall. To the contrary: I think we made much of our mysteriously sui generis identity. Most pointedly when we rejected a manuscript submitted by a recognized member of the Fluxus group, we sent a small calling card that read: “you have been sentenced to death in absentia. The Insect Trust.” There was a backlash.
How did the Insect Trust Gazette get started?
One night the four of us were sitting around my new apartment smoking dope. We did a lot of that in those days. This was my own place on Germantown Avenue, where I moved from the place I shared with Bill over the wallpaper store at Broad and Wyoming (opposite Harry’s greasy spoon and a funeral parlor — Bill moved out too — to somewhere…)
We got onto the topic of literary hoaxing: sending up, or putting on the literary community with a bunch of ads promoting a nonexistent publication, soliciting manuscripts, articulating critical positions, etc. We thought this all very funny, and ramifications were tossed about such as sending irate letters to the editors of real magazines complaining about the intolerable esthetics, language, design, etc of the nonexistent one. We got the title, Insect Trust Gazette, somehow through this silly process. At last, after what must have been a couple hours of this, someone stopped it and said, essentially, “If we’re going to go to all this trouble, why not really go ahead and make the magazine?”
I always assumed the title of the magazine came from Naked Lunch.
Yes, “Insect Trust” did come from a Burroughs novel; “Gazette” was our choice. I assume “Insect Trust” came from Naked Lunch. I think we had all read that one by ’64; I had read Junkie also, and maybe Soft Machine if it had been published by then. (Ed. Note: The Olympia Press version of Soft Machine was published in 1961 so it is possible. The first American Edition was not published until 1966 by Grove Press)
Can’t remember precisely how I came across Burroughs’ work. Before I came to Philadelphia I’d spent some time in Greenwich Village and hung around with some local “coffeehouse” poets such as Bob Lubin, Ray Bremser, Jack Micheline, etc. And my older cousin Bret Rohmer had his own little mag for awhile and knew Diane DiPrima, etc… also some really crazy speedfreak painters called George Gastin and Jim Kolb. They knew Burroughs’ work somehow.
I really liked Naked Lunch — very impressed with it. In fact, I think it might be his best. Those that followed seemed rather tedious repetitions. I was interested in the cut-ups insofar as they paralleled visual collages; but they also became tedious quickly. A neat party trick, but who would really want to sit and read through a bunch of that stuff? No more than the chance operations-generated works of Dick Higgins or MacLow’s Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Thought the Dream Machine was kinda cool. Maybe that wasn’t Burroughs’ idea alone; I think Ian Sommerville had a hand in that.
So, I never really was a great Burroughs fan. I thought his persona — junkie, queer, murder suspect — an outlaw on many levels — perhaps trumped his literary work. So it seemed to me his late efforts, public readings, collaborations with Laurie Anderson etc, were a justifiable synthesis of persona and product, maybe somewhat along the lines of Leonard Cohen. I was probably more a fan of Brion Gysin, partly because he did visual work but also because his poetics showed a more formalist (concrete?) sensitivity.
Influence? On me, or the work I was doing, very little. My own writing was already being overshadowed by a mysterious interest in becoming a painter. On Bill, I say not much either because he was more wrapped up in aspects of philosophy and religion. On Lenny and Bob, probably more because they both tried their hands at some technical exercises related to cut-up.
What do you remember about how Burroughs got into the first issue?
Burroughs in the ITG? Only vague memory here. I think maybe Bill took the initiative and wrote Burroughs inviting him to submit something. By the way, I believe it was Bob who ended up keeping all the ITG correspondence, mss, etc. No idea if he has it still or sold it…
Why was the magazine dedicated to Sinclair Beiles?
Beiles. No great significance that I can remember. I think Basara wanted the dedication because of some of Beiles work that he really liked.
In your answer to question three, you downplay the work of Jackson MacLow and previously you mentioned a combative letter with the Fluxus Group, yet the first issue and second issue contain numerous concrete / visual poems by Burroughs, Gysin, MacLow and others. What was the editors’ stance on concrete / visual poetry?
ITG #2 had a large section specifically devoted to “concrete, Kinetic and Phonetic poetry”. As I recall, our stance was somewhat ambivalent. We had come across it, thought it was interesting and should be better known, so we published it. That did not mean that we endorsed it, or wanted to champion it, or even that we liked it. In the same issue, but separate from the concrete section, we had MacLow’s “Alarm Clock,” which was a performance piece. I did not mean to belittle all of MacLow’s work; my comment was meant to express my personal distaste for work that seems completely random or devoid of meaningful structure.
The computer-generated poem in Insect Trust 1 has always struck me. Pretty early for this type of thing? Or maybe not. How did that piece come about?
Conral A. Belano was Lenny Belasco; he did it.
I think I can explain the scarcity of ITG #2. Bill Levy had moved to London by the time #2 was ready. We shipped many (that is, a large proportion of what must have been a small press run) over to Bill. They never reached him because they were confiscated by Scotland Yard and never released. I don’t recall whether the Yard ever gave any specific reasons for their action.
Issue #2, dated summer, 1965, is 8-1/2 x 11 like #3, but only folded and stapled, 88 pages, the last blank. Cover stock as in ITG #1, with cover by Bill Levy… says price $1. Picture of Benjamin Rush’s tranquillizing chair, and in large caps : LEAN, TENDER, FRESH HAMS. All contents printed AS RECEIVED, that is the original mss reproduced by some early photocopy process with corrections, annotations, underlinings etc with varying fonts and faces; some pages of the Burroughs and Leon pieces reproduced sideways on the page… The contents as follows:
- a collage by me
- Brion Gysin “Let the Mice In” pp 3-14. Handwritten on top of first page, above the title: “Recorded and played at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, 1960, as I painted a picture 6×6 feet and quietly disappeared Dec. 1960” (I have a very high opinion of this piece.)
- Lew Brown, “Proprietary Articles” — 7 short poems
- Burroughs, “File Ticker Tape Tuesday July 7 (St.Aubierge [sic]) 1964 Tangier” 6 page reproduction of original ms.
- The section of “Concrete, Kinetic and Phonetic Poetry” pp 23-40. Opens with a “Memo from the Editors” : In Hebrew! (to the Concrete poets) asterisked as follows:
*507. I am not merely saying this, I mean something by it. –Wittgenstein, Investigations. ##
- D.S. Houedard, notes and examples: an historical sketch and explanation of the genre
- Eugen Gomringer
- Edwin Morgan (he also did all the translations from the Spanish)
- Edgard Braga
- Augusto de Campos and Philip Ward, Frank Kuenstler, Ian H Finlay, ds Houedard, Jose Lino Grunewald.
- Drawings By Stewart Paley (now lives in Vancouver). These printed on a heavier, glossy stock…
- Jackson MacLow, “Alarm Clock,” dated Feb 1963, with Performance Directions
- Clark Coolidge, “Bond Sonnets,” 1-18. Pretty major piece of work.
- Christopher Middleton, “Three from Pataxanadu,” prose pieces
- Jess Collins (S.F. collage artist Jess) “Osap’s Faebles,” prose
- Sinclair Beiles, “All Creatures…”
- S.J. (Sol) Leon: “Portrait of a Lady,” pp 70-81 — long poem, clearly indebted to Joyce, a major work of his (Lenny Belasco made the contact with Sol and his wife Sylvia; he had been really under the radar to that point…)
- Conral A. Belano, “Computer Pupil Poem #5” (Lenny)
- Mel Clay and Ira Cohen, “The Majoun Traveler”
[Issue 2] bears the unmistakable stamp of Bill Levy, who was into Jewish mysticism and Wittgenstein at the same time as he was into Ezra Pound. I think this whole issue was somewhat dominated by Bill, just as #3 was somewhat dominated by Bob Basara. #1 was as I recall the most balanced collaboration.
Can you give some details regarding the Burroughs contribution to Issue 2?
Sorry, but I don’t remember. I’m not stonewalling, I simply have no recollection at all. Sorry to disappoint you here. I do have a perhaps significant anecdote about the relationship between Burroughs and Bill Levy, if you can fit it in somewhere… and Bill would probably have answers to these questions, and possibly correspondence / other documents… anyhow…
Some time after Bill moved to London — and, I think, before he moved on to Amsterdam — he published two pieces in a magazine called The Fanatic. In one, he claimed actual magical power for words / language, a concept derived from his studies in Jewish mysticism; he said “words can kill”. In a second piece, a review or bit of criticism, he referred with extreme negativity to some work by Burroughs acolyte / collaborator Ian Sommerville (involved I believe with the creation of the “Dream Machine”). Bill essentially wrote that Sommerville was a worthless piece of shit and did not deserve to live.
The night before this issue of the Fanatic was to hit the street, Bill received a phone call informing him that Ian Sommerville had been killed in a car crash somewhere in Europe. Burroughs was reported to have sworn a vendetta against Bill and to have urged his colleagues to ally themselves. I am not sure of the chronology here; but it could explain why there is no Burroughs in ITG #3.
(Ed. Note: Some details of this story are recounted in Literary Outlaw, pp 491-492. Sommerville died in 1976 several years after the publication of Insect Trust Gazette 3. That said Levy’s article did greatly upset Burroughs and the details regarding the timing of the article and the car crash are correct. Burroughs did blame Levy for Ian’s death.)
Was there a change in editorial intent or focus from the first issue to the second?
Only a vague general recollection: #1 had begun as a hoax (hyping a nonexistent product) and I think we were all surprised to see it actualized — also quite impressed with the quality. That is, we realized that we had set the bar quite high to begin with, and if we were to continue we had bloody well better make it good. There was a sense that we had come out of nowhere and pulled off a coup; we were independent, sui generis, not beholden. Repetition of #1 would be the biggest trap to avoid. I don’t really remember anything about responses from readers. We were pretty much our own judge and jury.
You alluded to some readers’ references to ITG as “mysterious” — wonder whether they meant the obscure origins or the content — but I think we picked up on that sense of mystery — and mysticism — and consciously or otherwise it became a leitmotif of #2. As I remarked before, #2 seems to bear the personal stamp of Bill Levy more that the rest of us, whereas #1 was more evenly balanced and #3 bears Bob’s personal touch (and, looking at it now, seems to most deliberately dissolve comprehensibility; maybe this, coupled with our personal dispersion — three of us leaving Philadelphia — was why there never was a #4).
There was a three year gap between Issue 2 and Issue 3. What was the reason for the delay?
We dispersed. I think Bill left first — to England and ultimately to Amsterdam, where he still lives, and became very involved with other publications there. I went to the west coast to grad school, in 64, first in Eugene and then in Oakland (Mills College). Bob left about the same time, went to work on the freighters on the Great Lakes, and later also came to the East Bay area where we reconnected. Only Lenny stayed in Philadelphia…
It seems that Bob assumed the central decision-making role with the magazine. Since he was first and foremost a visual artist with little literary background, this would pretty much explain the increased emphasis on visual materials in #3.
I don’t think there was a conscious, articulated, formal decision to disband after #3; it just seemed obvious that there was insufficient commonality, cohesion and communications to carry on. I think Lenny was teaching fulltime and raising his young family; Bill was active and engaged up to his eyeballs in Europe (International Times, Suck, etc); I was deepening my commitment to painting; Bob was roaming and getting into music. An ITG #4 just wasn’t in the cards…
On a related note, the format of Issue three differs from the previous issues — the spiral binding, the larger page size and many more pages. More visual work like collages, much more typographical diversity and experimentation, more play with the page as a field. Did you plan this merging of format and content?
More pages yes, but page size was the same as #2. Looking at them all now, from the perspective of distance and my own personal biases, I’d say that #3 was the most playful (frivolous?) and unconsidered: mostly just in-your-face take-this-and-stick-it-in-your-ear stance; fuck art. None of this was collectively planned… we were no longer a cohesive collective.
What are you most proud of with Insect Trust Gazette?
Hard to know how to answer this one. In retrospect, I’m sure I must have been quite proud the first day I got a copy of ITG #1 in my hand; at the other end of the time scale, I suppose I feel some pride right now, knowing the magazine after all these years still has relevance for some students / practitioners. That’s also most strongly applicable to #1; with #2 & 3 any pride is leavened with a dose of embarrassment at the inclusion of so much silliness. Maybe this sounds curmudgeonly, but so be it.
Are you surprised that the magazine is still relevant to the experimental poetry community today? For example, the publication of the Bond Sonnets in Issue 2 really interests a group of writers that are very active now. The poetry in the magazine had an influence on the LANGUAGE poets of the early 1970s and their successors.
Yes, I’m surprised. But then, I’ve already intimated that I really haven’t sustained an interest in experimental poetics or little magazines over the intervening decades. In my ignorance I can’t help but wonder, if our little production of the 1960s is still relevant and exciting to some people today, how far can experimental poetics have progressed?
Are you aware that a band from the late 60s / early 70s called Insect Trust took their name from your magazine? Apparently a friend of the band knew Bill Levy. Does this somehow speak to the nature of the magazine and how it was created?
I’m aware. Can’t recall hearing the music. And I’m not sure the band named itself after the magazine… or simply came across the phrase “Insect Trust” in Burroughs, as we did. To suggest that the band or its name “speaks to the nature of the magazine” is a reach. No back story here.
Can you fill us in on your interests since Insect Trust Gazette?
I completed my MFA in Painting at Mills College in 1966. Did curatorial work for several years before starting to teach. A bit of experimental film work. Travels. Emigration to Canada 1969. Founded Central Island Arts Alliance (grassroots multidisciplinary arts center) in Courtenay BC. Taught at University of Calgary Dept of Art 1984-2003. Actively pursued establishment of an international artists’ residential work centre in Turkey (it failed). Painting exhibitions in Turkey, Czech Republic. Major involvement with oriental tribal textiles as collector/dealer/educator over 20 years. Later interest in African tribal arts; recent sojourns in Mexico and studies of Mexican indigenous arts, e.g. Huichol yarn paintings. Continuing my own studio practice of painting; hope to have a website up soon…
Is there anything you would like to add? A point you would like to stress?
A friend recently reported (his interest in ITG curiously synchronous with yours) that he’d found lots of stuff about ITG on the internet, including actual recordings of public readings from ITG done by some of the editors, including myself and Basara — one at City LIghts in SF. I asked him to provide me with the exact links to the site where he’d found this stuff; but he said when he went to find it again it had disappeared. This within the last 2 months. He could only speculate that it may have been some student project which was given only limited time to be up on some academic site… maybe you’d want to try and track it down somehow… (Ed. Note: RealityStudio was unable to locate a site with ITG audio.)