Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
When I began collecting William Burroughs in 1993, the junk that fed my book habit was the signed titles derived from and relating to the Naked Lunch Word Horde. The Olympia Press Naked Lunch was the ideal fix, and I would have crawled through a gutter to get one. Then came the Nelson Lyon Auction at PBA Galleries in 1999, and my entire focus changed. The Lyon Sale showed me the wonders of literary magazines and opened up a whole new world to me. What made the Lyon Sale special was the fact that his rare magazines were all signed. Lyon, as producer on a Burroughs spoken word album and as the man responsible for Burroughs’ Saturday Night Live appearance, had special access that I could never hope to have. Burroughs’ death in 1997 assured that. In an effort to do Lyon one better, I decided to collect complete runs of all the little magazines with a Burroughs appearance from the mimeo revolution period (roughly 1945-1970).
Thankfully, most of the magazines from this time had short life spans. The number of issues rarely climbed out of the single digits and in some cases comprised only a single issue. The exceptions like Evergreen Review (96 issues in its initial run from 1957-1973) and Floating Bear (38 issues) loom large. I always feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction whenever I successfully put together a complete run of a magazine, particularly if I do it in pieces and not as a bulk purchase in one fell swoop.
So my stomach dropped when I saw a copy of Issue One of Charles Plymell’s NOW magazine for sale on Abebooks. NOW ran for three issues in the mid-1960s. Burroughs appeared in Issue Two and Three, and I tracked down those issues without too much trouble in recent years. William Reese currently has a copy of issue three for $35. The description states that copies of this issue are getting harder to find. This assessment might be spot on. I always remember a copy or two of the later issues of NOW as being available, but these appear to be drying up. Reese has the only copy currently. Issue One has always been tough. In the last three years, I had never seen a copy until, well, NOW. The first issue proved as elusive as Insect Trust Gazette 2. Yet in the digital age, most bookstores, as well as everybody’s garage and basement, are within reach. The Gazette turned up in Germany, the NOW surfaced in San Francisco.
San Francisco makes sense, because the first issue of NOW is a time capsule of the pre-Summer of Love era by the Bay. Plymell printed the premier issue of NOW in 1963 when he was living at 1403 Gough Street. Beat fans might recognize this address. In 1954, Allen Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky there. At the time, Orlovsky lived with painter Robert La Vigne. La Vigne painted a portrait of a naked Orlovsky that hung on the wall of La Vigne’s apartment. Ginsberg was smitten with the painting and fell in love with the subject.
Flash forward almost ten years and Charles Plymell moved in. Plymell was one of several Kansas natives who shook up the counterculture scene, particularly in San Francisco. Bruce Conner, Michael McClure, Bob Brannaman were some others. In the summer of 1963, 1403 Gough Street became the epicenter of a scene: counterculture San Francisco before the hype and paranoia of the Summer of Love. Plymell has mined this period for a series of essays that appeared in Kevin Ring’s Transit and in Grist, a mag published out of Kansas. Ring recently printed a reworked essay entitled “Neal and Anne at 1403 Gough Street” for his chapbook series.
For sure, proto-hippies (called heads at the time) hung out at Plymell’s residence, but so did writers and poets associated with Auerhahn Press (Dave Haselwood, Andrew Hoyem), members of Wallace Berman’s Semina Circle (Bruce Conner, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell), left coast Beats (Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Michael McClure and Lew Welch), and soon-to-be-celebrity drug dealers, like Owsley. In the summer of 1963, Plymell shared the seven rooms with Neal Cassady and his girlfriend, Anne Murphy. Allen Ginsberg blew into town coming down from the legendary Vancouver Poetry Conference of that summer after an extended stay in India and the Far East.
My copy of NOW documents this magic time in a special way. The mag bears the library stamp of Ben Talbert. Talbert was an artist associated with the Semina Circle. His works are perfect examples of funk assemblage, like the work of George Herms or Bruce Conner that was coming out of California at the time right before Warhol exhibited in LA and brought in Pop. Talbert contributes a woodcut drawing to Issue two of NOW. Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure appear in Issue One, and each poet signed, and in some cases, inscribed their contributions. Whalen signs and dates his poem, October 20, 1963. It just so happens that this was the date of Whalen’s 40th birthday. Ginsberg inscribed his poem to celebrate this event with a drawing of a vagina and a cock and balls. McClure provided a snippet of beast language in honor of Rimbaud’s birthday. Rimbaud shared Whalen’s birthday albeit almost 70 years earlier: October 20, 1854. McClure sketched what I take to be a profile of Rimbaud along the gutter of the magazine. This mag may have been signed at a birthday party for Whalen at 1403 Gough Street. Quite a remarkable document that captures a special moment in SF literary history.
Whalen’s work of this period deserves some extra attention. I first read Whalen’s work in the basic Beat anthologies and inevitably these volumes excerpt the Six Gallery era stuff, like “Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” This is basic Zen Beat material in content. The form of these poems is rather traditional as well: left margins for the most part; initial caps at the start of lines. Unfortunately, I did not dig further until recently. I have only dabbled in Whalen’s work, but the publication of the collected Whalen really opened my eyes. Yet the more radical Whalen was always there in the magazines on my shelf like NOW. Whalen’s poetry of the 1960s is a wonderful combination of Eastern thought / American West Frontier (called “Cowboy Zen” by Ron Silliman), O’Hara (and later Ted Berrigan) I do this, I do that notation, calligraphy (like Gary Snyder), and composition by field / projective verse à la Charles Olson. For anyone who thinks of Whalen only as the poet of “Sourdough Mountain,” I encourage them to dig deeper in order to find out why Kerouac considered Whalen 180 pounds of poetmeat.
Roughly a month after Whalen’s birthday, the curtain closed on the scene at 1403 Gough Street. John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 ushered in the revolutionary / psychedelicized / overhyped 1960s. Ginsberg captured this watershed moment in “Nov. 23, 1963 Alone.” Ginsberg was anything but alone on the day of the assassination. Ginsberg, Cassady, Anne Murphy and Plymell (and his girlfriend Ann) were all together at Gough Street. The poem provides not only a eulogy of Kennedy but also of a moment in time for San Francisco and the rest of the United States. The innocence of Camelot was over, and the spirit of the Kennedy era was about to get much darker and more violent. Issue One of NOW was of that earlier moment before the decade officially became the SIXTIES. Ginsberg writes of being alone “with Now, with Fuck You, with Wild Dog Burning Bush Poetry Evergreen C Thieves Journal Soft Machine Genesis Renaissance Contact Kill Roy etc.” These magazines represent the underground before the counterculture went mainstream.
Shortly after November 1963, Plymell began to disassociate himself from rock and roll / emerging hippie SF and align himself with William Burroughs and the cut-up. This becomes clearer in the second issue of NOW entitled NOW NOW published in 1965. NOW NOW is much more ambitious in form and content than the previous issue. The first thing that jumps out at you is the presence of color and artwork. Color is unusual in the mimeo revolution. Plymell features Burroughs on the back cover with a color-coded selection from Nova Express. The idea of Burroughs organizing his fiction based on color is nothing new. He tinkered with this idea in the Olympia Soft Machine. I would suspect that this use of color tied back to Rimbaud and his poem linking vowels to colors. Another cut-up appears in NOW NOW under the name of William Lee: “Where cumith Bozo the Clown, frum the start to a nevr endin.” According to Maynard and Miles, this is not Burroughs but a taxi driver of the same name. (If you do not have a copy of this bibliography, let alone Goodman or Shoaf’s, get at least one immediately. They are wonderful sources of information.) As for Bozo, it is no doubt a weird piece and I am sure Plymell and readers in the know appreciated the confusion that ensued, but Burroughs generally cut-up sentences and phrases. He did not go down to the individual word or syllable. He experimented with word blocks, more than words.
NOW NOW NOW, the third and final issue of NOW, is one step beyond the previous two issues. It is oversized, almost poster size, and presents some difficulty in sending it through the mail. It is an art piece. By this time, Plymell was intimately involved with Claude Pelieu and Mary Beach, two of the most dedicated followers and practitioners of the cut-up technique. NOW NOW NOW reminds me of another little mag of the period: Bulletin from Nothing. Both mags incorporate the visual as much as the textual. Both introduce collage into the mag in terms of content and in the patchwork way the mags are put together. Plymell worked as an artist as well as a writer. In 1963, he exhibited a show of collages at the Batman Gallery. Like the Ferus Gallery, the Batman had ties to the Semina Circle.
Burroughs appears in NOW NOW NOW: “Afterbirth of Dream Now.” Like Bozo, it is a standalone effort that in an interview Plymell states was created from an article that he sent to Burroughs. Burroughs received the article and sent it back cut-up. Several other magazine editors of the period tell a similar story. Daniel Lauffer of Brown Paper is one example.
The visual elements of NOW NOW NOW remind me of the collage / mixed-media work that the Fluxus artists might do. Maybe NOW NOW NOW seems like Fluxus in the shared influence of Dada. Norman Mustill contributes a collage. Cut-ups in the form of telegrams come from Claude Pelieu. I have not seen Burroughs described as a fully fledged member of Fluxus, but his radical experiments with text, image, art, film and audio tape in the 1965-1970 period seem to have much in common with that group that goes beyond merely being published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press.
The changing title of NOW over its run is instructive. What I like best about the magazine is that it changed from issue to issue and always attempted to expand and to do itself one better. Issue one is a simple chapbook, not much different from a host of other little mags of the time. I am thinking of Trace, Yugen, or Nomad. The Whalen poem suggests an interest in typography and the page as canvas, but this is largely unexplored. Not so in NOW NOW. Visual art is a major component of the second issue; in the presence of reproductions, in the use of different typographies (as expressed in the interlocking bodies that form the title or in McClure’s poster-like beast poem), and in the layout of work on the page (for example, McClure’s poem is landscaped and utilizes the whole page). NOW NOW also has an expanded format in the number of pages and page size.
NOW NOW NOW makes the link between page and canvas explicit. The large format with the string binding suggests an artist’s portfolio or a collection of posters. NOW NOW NOW is slight in number of pages but it challenges what a literary magazine can be in form and content. The final issue is a logical progression from Plymell’s work with collage: artwork described as “sadistic” by Jeff Nuttall. Plymell surely plays rough with the reader’s expectations of a literary magazine in this issue.
After the final issue of NOW, Plymell continued to experiment with writing. He published Apocalypse Rose with Auerhahn Press in 1967 and The Last of the Moccasins with City Lights in 1971. In 1968, Plymell continued to explore the merging of the textual with the visual. The first issue of Zap Comix, printed by Plymell, introduced early work by R. Crumb. This roughly produced publication helped usher in the underground comix and presaged the graphic novel in terms of introducing adult themes to the comic. Zap Comix #1 is a legendary rarity and a highly prized collectible — the equivalent of Action Comics #1 that introduced Superman in April 1938.
In the 1970s, Plymell continued on as a publisher manning a xerox machine for a series of publications under the Cherry Valley Editions imprint. Cherry Valley was Ginsberg’s retreat / sanctuary / sanitarium for poets and writers in distress in rural New York. Ray Bremser and Gregory Corso landed there as did Plymell. By this time, Plymell married Mary Beach’s daughter, Pamela, and started Coldspring Journal (possibly a reference to Coldspring, Texas, a locale that appeared in Burroughs writing over the years based on his time near the Texas-Mexico border in the late 1940s). A Burroughs piece titled “Coldspring News” appeared in Spero 1, a one-shot from 1965. Spero is a cool item, and they have been turning up online recently for those interested. Four issues of Plymell’s journal appeared in the mid-1970s. Some other publications include Ray Bremser’s Blowing Mouth (1978), Joshua Norton’s The Blue and the Gray Poems (1975), Maureen Owen’s The No-Travels Journals (1975) and Dan Raphael’s Energumen (1976). Plymell brought out Burroughs’ Cobblestone Gardens in a Cherry Valley Edition in 1976; it was followed up years later with Tornado Alley. Burroughs wrote the foreword to Mary Beach’s Electric Banana and provided a blurb for Pelieu’s Coca Neon/Polaroid Rainbow collection; both books were printed by Cherry Valley. Cherry Valley Editions soldiers on in the present publishing new work by Plymell and others.
Plymell is something of a forgotten figure. Currently he is best known as a gadfly commenting on the Beat Generation and the poetry scene generally taking on the role of the departed Gregory Corso. Plymell lays low the sacred cows of the post-WWII counterculture. In my opinion, his work as a publisher deserves a second glance. NOW stands out visually from the mass of 1960s little mags. In Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall singled out NOW and Plymell as contributing factors that helped build the counterculture and helped form an alternative network of information and contacts. Nuttall also comments on the important role that Kansas played in providing energetic individuals as well as an element of funkiness and grit into the scenes on both coasts. This Kansas connection is well documented on the Beats in Kansas website, and Plymell is a major figure in that group.
Over the years, Plymell had ties to Burroughs in Lawrence. Despite being critical of the Beats, Plymell speaks highly of Burroughs. In return, Burroughs blurbed Last of the Moccasins. More importantly, but less known, is the fact that Plymell introduced a young James Grauerholz to the work of Burroughs in a Kansas bookstore. The recommendation struck a chord, because soon after Grauerholz went to New York and became Burroughs’ right hand man. The rest is history. When the counterculture gathered, like at 1403 Gough Street, Plymell was usually in the room, and in many cases, he had something interesting (and controversial) to contribute to the conversation. His publications, like NOW, are testament to that. Check them out if you get the chance.
Charles Plymell: Outlaw Poet
PDF of feature article that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Rain Taxi.
NOW NOW NOW
Poems by Charles Plymell and Philip Whalen, “Afterbirth of Dream Now” by William S. Burroughs
NOW NOW NOW
Poems by Roxie Powell, Sculpture of Bob Branaman by Dion Wright, Drawing by “Manny Lipshitz” aka Dean Stockwell
NOW ARCHIVAL MATERIALS
William S. Burroughs
Afterbirth of Dream Now
Manuscript of cut-up collaboration with Charles Plymell published in NOW NOW NOW.
William S. Burroughs
Now the Judgement of Things to Come
Manuscript of cut-up collaboration with Charles Plymell published in NOW NOW NOW.
William S. Burroughs
“Long Lost Cut-Up”
Manuscript of cut-up sent to Charles Plymell for use in NOW NOW NOW.
“Poem by Paul Lungrund, the mad bookstore owner in Wichita who was in WW2 intelligence” — Note by Charles Plymell