Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
You know you have run out of ideas when you write a column about what you received in the mail. But I will scrape the bottom of the inspiration bucket in order to tell you about a few items that came over my transom by snail mail. This printed matter highlights the fact that the small network of bookstores, little magazines, and small presses that sustained Burroughs throughout his literary life is still going strong today despite all the reports of its demise in the digital age.
A few weeks ago I received an email from Jon Beacham attaching images of his latest publication. As you may remember, Beacham runs Hermitage Books in Beacon, NY. I raved about his store, and this email only reinforced my enthusiasm. Take a look at these images of Beacham’s latest work: Process Number Two printed in an edition of 20 copies of which only 14 are for sale ($200). Process Number One was produced in an edition of just eight copies, and he was able to sell them all. I hear that MOMA purchased one for their collection. That is a big deal. As MOMA’s interest shows, the book arts are exploding right now. Book dealers are specializing in this area with work of days gone by as well as the latest experiments in the field. Museums and galleries are featuring exhibits and exhibitions in increasing numbers. This rise in interest touches on the Beat Generation. Currently at Columbia College in Chicago, there is an exhibit that focuses on that relationship between artists’ books and experimental literature that takes the On the Road manuscript as its point of departure. This exhibit includes an article I wrote for Beat Scene, “On the Road Scroll as Art.” Please contact Kevin Ring to purchase a copy if you are interested. In addition, Issue 24 of The Journal of Artists’ Books (also known as JAB), edited by Craig Dworkin and Kyle Schlesinger, will examine experimental literature and Artists’ Books. Kyle Schlesinger is the co-editor of Mimeo Mimeo. By the way, the second issue of Mimeo Mimeo with an essay on TISH and its imprints, an article on the early literary magazines of Robert Duncan, an interview with fine press publisher Alan Loney, and an essay by book artist Emily McVarish on her Flicker project, is at the printers. Copies should be available soon.
One of the key concerns of the Bibliographic Bunker is establishing the fact that Burroughs was intensely concerned with the concept of the book. Works like Time, APO-33, Ah Puch (with Malcolm Mc Neill), The Dead Star, and My Own Mag challenged the restrictions of books and magazines as a technology. Even the Olympia Press Naked Lunch, although traditional in format, turned topsy-turvy the idea of how manuscripts are constructed, edited, and put to press. Likewise, Beacham explores the concept of the book with great interest, creativity, and intelligence. Talking briefly with Beacham and scanning his bookshelf of core texts, I know that Wallace Berman is a major source of inspiration. Beacham’s latest printing effort brought Semina to mind. In an email, Beacham writes, “The journal consists of 7 items laid into a manila printed folder. The work is poems, printed works, and one original collage for each copy. All items are on individual sheets.” Any time I see a folder / pamphlet format with individually printed pieces I cannot help but think of the full run of Semina that I saw at the Grey Gallery in New York City. The way Beacham presents Process Number Two at the Hermitage provides a direct parallel, though Beacham (unlike Berman) did not solicit work from fellow writers — he is the sole author and artist. I am particularly excited by the collage work. There is an element here of Burroughs’ scrapbook work, especially in “down low with sentiment like snow.” Burroughs utilized a typewriter instead of a letterpress. Given the success of Beacham’s first project, I would suspect that 14 copies will not last long and that in purchasing one you will be following the lead of the collecting vanguard in the realm of the book arts.
Shortly after receiving Beacham’s email, imagine my surprise when I opened a manila envelope (sent via the good old-fashioned post office) and saw a series of Berman’s hand-held transistor radios staring back at me. A closer look revealed that the radios were really iPods, and the cover was digitally generated not Verifax. This twist of Berman’s iconic image served as the cover for the fourth issue of Richard Owens’ little mag Damn the Caesars. The cover announces the presence of an editor with humor and intelligence.
The contents of the magazine do not disappoint. Damn the Caesars 4 places center stage 50+ pages (pp 75-126) of Kyle Schlesinger’s “The Family.” Michael Cross’ introduction to this literary experiment reminded me of Burroughs’ introduction / instructions to his cut-ups of the 1960s. “Grid #1” and “Grid #2” in Insect Trust Gazette 1 jump to mind. To me, the process of “The Family”‘s construction is a major part of the poem’s pleasure. Just as Burroughs cut up Time in order to examine and exorcise the power of its text and images, Schlesinger cuts up Sidney Lumet’s Serpico in order to explore the concept of the family. Schlesinger deftly repeats and juxtaposes key phrases to unlock hidden meanings. I could not help but think of Brion Gysin’s permutation poems that appeared with Burroughs’ poetic work in Minutes to Go and The Exterminator.
The introduction to “The Family” comments on the influence of the work of Louis Zukofsky. Talking with Schlesinger I know that he is intensely interested in the shorter work of Zukofsky, and “The Family” demonstrates the fact that Schlesinger has read Zukofsky’s work to great benefit. To my mind, the poems in “The Family” participate in a conversation with Zukofsky’s “A”-11. Many critics consider “A-11” to be one of Zukofsky’s finest achievements. This lyric rondo purports to address Zukofsky’s wife and son after his death. Just as “The Family” incorporates Serpico, “A”-11 reinvents a work by Cavalcanti. Both Schlesinger and Zukofsky translate original works for their own purposes. Schlesinger reads Zukofsky as well in that the poems of “The Family” echo the music of the rondo used in “A”-11. The typical Baroque rondo pattern is ABACADA. The poems in “The Family” open in a similar pattern that weaves throughout. I must admit that I approached “The Family” for the first time with some skepticism but the work bears re-reading. New juxtapositions and associations keep coming to light. I would love to hear this work performed at a reading.
One of the things that surprised me about “The Family” is how different the poems are from the work in Hello Helicopter (BlazeVOX Books 2007), which led to my hesitation in approaching Schlesinger’s work in Damn the Caesars. “The Family” explores the compacted form of Zukofsky. Hello Helicopter delves deeply into the open forms of poets like Ted Berrigan (“Tussle”), George Oppen (“Mantle with Thom Donovan”), or, again, the versatile Zukofsky. Schlesinger has strong feelings on the topic of the materiality of the poem. Typography, the margins, the layout on the page, spacing between words, the method of printing. The poem as an object. Check out his essay on The Typography of Robert Creeley. It is how I first learned of Schlesinger’s work, and it is a great window into his obsessions. Schlesinger studied with Creeley at the University of Buffalo. If Schlesinger is concerned with feel of the poem, he does not neglect the sound. As “The Family” shows, Schlesinger pays close attention rhythm and repetition. Hello Helicopter also demonstrates an ear fine-tuned to sound and a concern with how words can juxtapose and play with and off each other.
Along with the copy of Damn the Caesars, I received Richard Owens’ new book of poetry, Delaware Memoranda (BlazeVOX Books 2008). Schlesinger’s “The Family” explores a cinematic genealogy of quotation while Delaware Memoranda explores the relationship between history and memory by working the open fields of Pound, Williams, and, most interesting for me, Charles Olson who quoting John Smith wrote “my memory is / the history of time.” On one level, the poem attempts to capture the underlying history of the Delaware River and its environs. I am somewhat familiar with this area since I drove through the Poconos numerous times to get to college in Boston. The Tom Quick Inn, which is featured in Delaware Memoranda, was a major landmark of the trip designating the point of no return in the journey. Take a right turn towards Port Jervis onward to Route 84 up to Massachusetts, and I was truly leaving my home state of Pennsylvania. On the way back from college, a dinner at the Tom Quick Inn was a homecoming of sorts. Owens’ poem made me see this area in a whole new light. There are shades of Williams’ Paterson or Olson’s Gloucester. Pound’s concept of a poem containing history is everywhere in evidence.
Delaware Memoranda also spoke to me on a personal level since I had ties to the area since childhood. Milford and the Tom Quick Inn were also a rest stop on the journey to my father’s house and office in Connecticut. Section VI of Delaware Memoranda, which incorporates letters from Owens’ father, resonated strongly with me. After closing the book, I realized that I do not have a single letter from my father. It was a sobering revelation.
This section of the book deals with biological and literary fathers. In “Dear Ric,” Owens announces the presence of Olson by referring to The Maximus Poems, particularly Letter 41. Olson utilized the form of the letter to great effect in his creative life as evidenced in his magnum opus and in his voluminous correspondence. More importantly, I was also reminded of Olson’s memoir “The Post Office.” There, Olson attempted to capture his memories of his father, a postal carrier. The story Olson tells of the wronging of his father by the postal bureaucracy, which parallels the letters Owens includes from his father working at Reynolds Metal Company. The complex interweaving of pride and disappointment in one’s father was powerful for me. This section also includes a typewritten note card outlining the conceptions of reality of Owens’ other literary fathers: Whitman, Pound, and Williams. The poem ends with echoes of Olson’s famous line from “Maximus, to Himself”: “I have had to learn the simplest things / last.” Weaved throughout section VI (and the entire book) is the trope of the fishing story. As Owens notes at the end of section II quoting a letter from I.H. Finlay to J.F. Henry: “I see it is now possible to make any kind of story a fishing story.” Some quick associations on that idea: the traditional bonding of father and son, casting back one’s memory or lines of poetry, and literary antecedents like Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, MacLean’s A River Runs Through It, Old Man and the Sea, and, of course, Moby Dick (with a nod to Olson’s Call Me Ishmael and the swordfishermen of Gloucester). As I sat with the closed book on my lap, another line from “Maximus, to Himself” came to mind: “I stood estranged from that which was most familiar.” It was and is a haunting thought.
I found this section of Delaware Memoranda masterfully constructed. Again the image of Olson, particularly his work table in the kitchen of 128 Fort Square piled high with notes, maps, and books, came to mind. Owens seems to work in the same way. The poet as a builder, as maker using the materials at hand (his son, Charles, still lives in Gloucester and makes a living as a builder). The Kingfisher. I see Burroughs of the cut-up period in exactly this manner. A typewriter and scissors lying on a desk covered with letters, manuscripts, popular magazines, photographs, and other ephemera. The raw matter of Burroughs’ creative inspiration awaiting use.
Previously I wrote about the post office’s role in censorship. Hopefully this column will show the other side of the story. The mailbox and the electronic inbox are a source of incredible inspiration. I never know what is going to come through the mail, be it an insightful comment, a request for information, or an interesting little mag. Likewise, communication and correspondence were the keys to Burroughs’ creativity. Throughout the 1950s, the mailman served both as Burroughs’ connection and his distributor obtaining and dispersing the junk mail he needed to construct his books of the period. Later on, the letters from Allen Ginsberg were replaced with letters from Carl Weissner or Brion Gysin. By this time, letters were no longer for sending routines; they were fodder to be run through the cut-up machine. By the 1990s, there existed Burroughs Communications stationery. As Oliver Harris has shown, in many respects, the history of Burroughs as an author lies in his relationship with his mail.