Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Little magazines tend to streak across the literary sky like a comet briefly full of passion, poetry and prose before disappearing out of view. Few little magazines last several issues and fewer make a lasting cultural or artistic impression. For every Paris Review and Evergreen Review (if these magazines can be considered true littles), there are thousands of one-shots. Interest on the part of publisher and reader soon dries up as does the material worth printing. William Burroughs’ appearances in the late fifties and throughout the sixties are astonishing for being in definitive, lasting examples of the medium. Kulchur, Yugen, Big Table, Floating Bear, Black Mountain Review, C Magazine, Fuck You Magazine. Some of these magazines ran for only a handful of issues, like Big Table, but their impact proved far larger than their small print runs and limited audience. Burroughs also hitched his literary star to his share of comets. Yet even these seemingly forgotten magazines made interesting ripples in the artistic community.
Insect Trust Gazette is a case in point. (See Wikipedia.) The Gazette ran for only three issues from 1964 to 1968. Leonard Belasco, Jed Irwin, Robert Basara, and Bill Levy edited the magazine in Philadelphia and later California. The magazine got its name from a line in a Burroughs novel. Not surprisingly, Burroughs appeared in the first two issues. The magazine grew out of a literary scene surrounding Temple University. This fits a pattern shared by several of the magazines of the literary underground. A young student or students read deeply in alternative literature in many cases the work of the Beats. These students correspond with their writer heroes hoping to publish them in University sponsored channels. The powers that be at the University object to the material forcing the students to start their own literary magazine. Variations of this theme lead to the creation of New Departures, Big Table, and Cleft to name only magazines in which Burroughs appeared. I suspect Insect Trust Gazette followed a similar trajectory. In the mid-1960s, Philadelphia must have possessed a small, but vibrant avant garde community. Brown Paper, a one-shot, also appeared in Philadelphia in 1965. This community was influenced and interested in William Burroughs. More information on the literary community in Philadelphia in the 1960s would be appreciated.
In the premier issue of Insect Trust Gazette, Burroughs contributed “Burning Heavens, Idiot” and “Grids” #1 and #2. A photocopied page of the Grid experiment is reproduced as well. These selections are more examples of Burroughs’ fascination with the cut-up technique. In a letter to the editors, Burroughs describes his grid experiment. He writes, “I enclose an experiment in machine writing that anyone can do on his own typewriter. The experiment consists in passing any prose through a grid. The prose I selected for the present example was press criticisms of Naked Lunch and my latest book Dead Fingers Talk. John Wayne, Philip Toynbee, Anthony Quinton (whoever he may be), John Donnelley, some joker from the New Yorker and Time. I selected mostly unfavorable criticisms with a special attention to meaningless machine turned phrases… Then ruled off a grid — Grid 1 and wove the prose into it like start a sentence from J. Wayne in square 1 and continue square 3, 5, 7. Now a sentence from Toynbee in square 2, 4, and 6. The reading of the grid back to straight prose can be done one across and one down. Of course there could be any number of ways in which the grid can be read off.” The magazine included several examples of chance compositions including a computer-generated prose poem, a Brion Gysin permutation, as well as five selections from Jackson Mac Low. The magazine also honored the literary forefathers of the cut up, automatic writing and chance composition: the surrealists. Hans Arp, Antonin Artaud, Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard are all included.
Issue three possessed a more pronounced concrete poetry flavor. I am reminded of Burroughs’ scrapbook experiments as well as the literary magazines of Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, like Bulletin From Nothing. Collages, photographs, and drawings intermingle with poems and prose. The issue is full of visual prose and poetry. Unlike the first issue which is small and perfect bound, like the later issues of Kulchur, the third issue is larger in size and spiral bound. The poems and prose sprawl all over the large pages. Typography and graphic patterns take center stage. Individual pieces experiment with a number of different fonts and font sizes as well as punctuation.
The magazine also left a faint mark in music history. The folk rock band Insect Trust took their name from the Insect Trust Gazette. The band recorded two albums in the late 1960s/early 1970s: Insect Trust and Hoboken Saturday Night. Rolling Stone critic and writer Robert Palmer was a member of the band. Over the years, several bands have taken their names from a line in a Burroughs novel, notably Steely Dan and Soft Machine. Insect Trust proved to be quite a literary band. They recorded a Thomas Pynchon lyric from V: The Eyes of a New York Woman.
Editor Bill Levy left the United States in 1966. He edited or founded other magazines such as Suck and The International Times as well as the European editions of High Times and Penthouse. For several years, Levy hosted Europe’s only regular Doo-Wop program as Dr. Doo-Wop.
On the collectible market, I see issues one and three from time to time. Issue three is the less expensive issue although much more innovative in design. The third issue averages around $30. The premier issue is around $50. Seemingly, the second issue published in the Summer 1965 does not exist. I have been looking for more than five years and I scarcely see mention of the issue, let alone a copy for sale. The only copy I have ever heard of was Nelson Lyon’s signed copy in 1999. Burroughs appeared in the issue supplying “File Ticker Tape.” “File Ticker Tape” is reprinted in The Burroughs File which collects much material from Burroughs’ cut-up experiments of the 1960s. The Burroughs appearance would make the issue desirable on the rare book market. For some reason, the magazine proves to be extremely rare, like the fifth issue of Locus Solus.