Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
While attending a cigar event, a map collector friend informed me that the Walters Museum houses quite an extensive collection of manuscript material. One of the most publicized of their holdings is the Archimedes Palimpsest containing seven separate treatises by Archimedes. Despite all his achievements, Archimedes is probably best known for exclaiming “Eureka!” after realizing a key concept in hydrostatics while sitting in a bathtub. True or not, this scene ranks up there with the assassination of the French Revolutionary Marat as one of the most famous events to occur in the bath. See Wallechinsky and Wallace’s Book of Lists for 13 others. The manuscripts of Archimedes’ work were copied in the 10th Century in Constantinople. They were discovered when the prayer book was laser-imaged to see what was underneath. The treatises were written over by the work of later scribes, as is not uncommon with old parchment. The book contains the only surviving copy of Archimedes’ On Floating Bodies. Eureka, for sure.
Although I was not in the bathtub, I had a “Eureka!” moment about a week ago. After a search of over three years, I finally tracked down a copy of the elusive Locus Solus V to complete my set. (So long as we are speaking of French Revolutionaries, Georges Danton’s severed head features in Raymond Roussel’s proto-surrealist classic that was the source for the name of the little mag.) In fact, during those three years, only one copy presented itself. It was on eBay, and I lost out in the bidding even after making what I thought was a very aggressive bid. Of course, copies are available as parts of a complete set, but stand alone copies of Locus Solus V, like Insect Trust Gazette 2 or Floating Bear 24, are just hard to come by.
The other three volumes of Locus Solus (note: Issue III-IV was a double issue) are just not that difficult to get a hold of. For Burroughs collectors, the key issue is Locus Solus II: The Collaboration Issue and for reasons I discussed elsewhere it is a very interesting, if brief, appearance for Burroughs. As Daniel Kane points out in All Poets Welcome, Locus Solus is interesting for the inclusion of Ted Berrigan. In his diary for December 4, 1962, Berrigan writes, “Locus Solus V came out yesterday, and to my complete surprise and delight it had a poem by me in it. How good that my first major publication was in the magazine edited by Koch + Ashberry (sic), with poems by them + O’Hara.” For a magazine that was edited in France, published in Switzerland, and infused with European sensibility, the mag’s influence on the Lower East Side was far-reaching. The five issues of Locus Solus were revered by the Second Generation New York School, and the content and appearance of mimeo productions of Berrigan, Bill Berkson, and others could be viewed as a response to the “squat and plain” issues of Locus Solus. In Secret Location on the Lower East Side, Clay and Phillips describe Locus Solus as “definitely ‘no-nonsense’ from the beginning, presenting no manifestos or editorial statements, just high-quality literature — simply and elegantly presented with care and respect.” C Press would definitely add an element of nonsense as well as a more comic and grungy look to the publications of the Second Generation.
In many cases, the early issues of a little magazine are the toughest to find due to the fact of small, less ambitious print runs and a smaller reading audience for a new publication. Interested readers, if they could get a copy, probably read them and disposed of them thinking the magazine was just another one-shot destined for the dustbin of history. In some cases, it takes a few issues for a little mag to gather together its stable of authors and establish its personality and reputation. This is certainly true for magazines like Yugen, My Own Mag and Floating Bear. Finding copies of the early issues of these magazines, particularly My Own Mag, are extremely difficult.
This is not true of Locus Solus (or Kulchur for that matter). Locus Solus, like Athena from Zeus, emerged from the heads of the first generation New York Poets (John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch as well as Oulipo member, Harry Mathews) fully formed in format and content. In The Last Avant Garde, David Lehman’s account of the genesis of the New York School Poets, Lehman writes, “Perhaps no better introduction to the poetry of the New York School Poets exists than [the first two] issues of Locus Solus.” The early issues are the most commonly collectible, particularly issue 2, but it is the last issue that is the toughest to find. The reason for this is the simple result of a small print run. For most issues of Locus Solus, the print run of the magazine was rather large: 1000-2000 copies, but Harry Mathews and James Schulyer, the publisher / patron and editor, respectively, of the final issue, only contracted for a print run of 500. I would suspect that libraries got a hold of a fair number of these issues given the academic cachet of the New York School poets (Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Harry Mathews) who edited it. Of all the New America Poets in the Allen Anthology, the New York School received the most attention from the establishment.
Take John Ashbery’s other magazine effort: Art and Literature (1964-1967). Like Locus Solus, Art and Literature was deemed important by establishment institutions and academies who would gather them for collections. The mag was described as “very high style, intense and European.” The establishment more quickly acknowledges what is perceived as serious and intellectual art. It also attempts to incorporate it much more readily than seemingly low-brow art (read as the Beats). For example, Art and Literature received a standalone review in the New York Times. Very unusual treatment for a little magazine, a format generally outside of the mainstream media and created in reaction to mainstream publishing. Beat dominated mags escaped notice or received passing (and largely negative) treatment. Art and Literature ran for twelve issues. Again very usual given the short life of many little mags. Interestingly, a complete run of Art and Literature just sold on eBay. Despite the condition problems (age toning, a detached cover, none of the extremely fragile tissue paper jackets present), I thought the run was a deal at $152. It is a fantastic magazine and Burroughs appears in Issue 2. Further proof of Burroughs’ place in the 1960s avant garde both New York and European in origin. The transformation of Burroughs from a “Know Nothing Bohemian” to an international intellectual was in motion.
Despite all my pieces about the personal touch and the joys of the book fair and catalog, I found Locus Solus V through the internet search engines. Generally, I search every day on eBay, Addall, and Abebooks for new Burroughs titles, and I perform more detailed searches for must-have items like Locus Solus V at least once a week. A good number of the books and magazines in my collection were located on the internet. This is especially true of the less interesting but essential parts of my collection. Almost all the Grove and Calder titles in my collection were acquired through internet searching. While these titles, particularly signed, are becoming harder to come by, they are almost always available online.
Not much of my collection has been acquired through want lists, but the most special pieces of my collection have been acquired through the type of personal relationships that I have been describing for the past year. Catalogs, book fairs, brick-and-mortar stores, auctions and the building of personal relationships. In some cases, like the complete run of Fuck You Magazine or the Digit Junkie, building a line of communication over time proved absolutely essential. The real interesting stuff rarely gets on Abebooks or eBay at all. Collections are built much the same way they have been for decades if not centuries: through the means I listed above.
In fact, what makes a special book collection is a lot like what makes Burroughs’ most successful cut-ups so fascinating. Building a collection solely through the internet reminds me of some of the less noteworthy passages in the cut-up trilogy. In both there is a lack of a personal touch and personality. The enterprise has a sense of monotony and repetition, a lack of passionate involvement. No spark. Yet the finest cut-ups are full of personal touches despite critics’ attempts to state that the technique is a weapon in the assault on personality and on the control of the author. Burroughs always stressed that not everyone could create a successful cut-up, and he expressed the importance of editorial selection and control. Take a Berrigan cut-up from The Sonnets, an Ashbery from The Tennis Court Oath, Gysin’s work from The Exterminator or Minutes to Go or Corso or Sinclair Beiles work for that matter. Throw in Carl Weissner’s cut-ups as well as Claude Pelieu’s work with the technique. They are all vastly different, and the personality and passions of the respective authors show through. Time, APO-33, The Dead Star or the newspaper cut-ups are hardly one-trick ponies of cut and paste. In these works, Burroughs experiments with different sources (medical journals, newspapers, magazines, book reviews, a gangster’s dying words), different formats (three column both newspaper and magazine, grids, broadside, free verse poetry) different media (photographs, typewritten text, handwriting, tape recording, film, the novel, the magazine, comic strip), different subject matters, different literary styles and techniques (composition by field, enjambment, concrete poetry, academic article, letter to the editor, advice column). In addition, Burroughs personal obsessions and quirks show through. The number 23, gangsters, apomorphine, William Randolph Hearst and his word / image empire. The cut-up was never intended to be a stagnant, impersonal or one-dimensional process. They threaten to become just that in the low points of the cut-up trilogy.
Similarly, gathering books from the internet threatens to become a stagnant, impersonal, or one-dimensional process. Catalogs, book fairs, brick and mortar stores, want lists, and auctions make a collection multi-faceted. The establishment of friendships and the joining of communities are an important aspect of book collecting that point and click sales do not fully recreate, although as I have written that is in the process of changing. Like Burroughs with the cut-up, there should be a kitchen-sink mentality in building a book collection. The internet is only one option among many. In my opinion a collector should be focused in his choice of subject matter or author, but diversified in obtaining material in that area. Don’t dabble in everything. Do collect obsessively in your microcosm and, as Sartre and Malcolm X advised, by any means necessary. The guidelines for determining the source of a book for your collection, be it Abebooks, auction, catalog et al, should be in what some take to be the the immortal words of Hassan i Sabbah despite Burroughs’ spin on the maxim: Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permitted.