Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I find Patti Smith’s adoration of William Burroughs to be over-the-top and quite frankly the mark of a scenster and a poseur. It is high-school type shit. The unpopular girl in the theater club straining with every inch of her personality to become friends with the quarterback of the football team. Smith’s pursuit of Burroughs’ affection is not like Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe, which as documented in Just Kids, was as real as a friendship could get. You cannot will this stuff into reality.
Now waaaiiiittt a minute. You make me wanna shout that you’ve been unfair and harsh here. Jed, aren’t you just the bully in said high school? Well, I have been hearing this a lot regarding my take on Smith’s relationship with Burroughs so maybe this is a me problem. For example, what makes my sense of fascination for Burroughs à la Oliver Harris any different from or superior to Smith’s adoration? Why do I embrace the Burroughs of the cut-ups? Burroughs the experimental poet and intellectual. Is it possible that what I see as Smith’s weakness, her submission, is really a sign of her strength? Maybe she is so confident in her genius that she does not need to assert herself over Burroughs. Maybe she is also expressing genuine love and affection. Why must I instead direct tough love towards Burroughs? Or be fascinated rather than adoring? Why can I not embrace the impulse to humanize Burroughs? Is this symptomatic of some weakness, some lack of confidence on my part? Hmmm.
Smith has unique flair and style. Yes, she is no doubt theatrical in her relationship with Burroughs. But sometimes wonderfully so. Take the copy of Smith’s Witt (1973) offered for sale by James Musser’s Skyline Books for a cool $2000. On the plus side it is published by the Gotham Book Mart. Think Minutes to Go. Books by bookshops always have potential. In the case of Witt here, I am not thrilled by the limitation of lettered signed copies in hardcovers (hardcovers are always shit and not worth collecting) but I get it. You have to gouge the hardcore collectors, the regulars, in order to cover the costs of the rest of the printing. But why, oh why, is that so? If you are a regular at the Five Spot or McSorley’s they do not charge you more. No, they charge you less or not at all. The issuance of limited edition copies is a good indication that the publisher looks upon the collector as an ATM machine.
But if you are going to go the lettered edition route, do what Smith did here with this copy of Witt and personalize the book and make it truly special. It is not enough to handwrite a letter “A” and then merely sign your name. What that tells me is that you are just looking for me, the collector, to sign my name to a check. No, go the extra mile and personalize it. Make the transaction more on the level of a friendly exchange, a gift. Make it intimate.
Patti, bless her heart (yes, her heart, which is as much as source of her genius as her mind), does that with flair and style with this copy. With lettered copy B of a book dedicated to Burroughs (as well as Rimbaud and Allen Lanier — cue the Sesame Street music, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things does not belong”), Smith writes an inscription that is nothing less than a poem: “B — Double Bill — 2 dreams of Wm Burroughs in Mex. movie dark sun glasses. bird peck. dilating eye of needle.” This is the stuff. This is seductive and an expression of adoration. This is the way to one’s heart. Did Smith whisper lines like this to Bill when her head was on his lap? Erotica like this will make a collector smitten (did not Burroughs feel it too?) and not feel cheapened by the exchange. As Musser states, this copy of Witt is truly desirable.