Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
My Own Mag is a bibliographic nightmare. There is no general consensus on the correct order of the first eight issues of the seventeen issue run. This might be by design. Nuttall, like Ed Sanders, possessed a devilish air and a flair for the bibliographically ridiculous. In an effort to frustrate and confuse collectors as well as parody the numbering of magazines, Sanders altered his bibliographic system at issue five and then continued sequentially from there for eight more issues. In a similar vein, Stan Persky, the editor of Open Space, a San Francisco magazine dedicated to the Jack Spicer circle, made issue nine impossible to obtain thereby making complete runs almost unheard of.
Complete runs of My Own Mag are rare, but not unheard of. In 1986, Nuttall decided he wanted out of Great Britain and planned an exile in Portugal. Nuttall returned to live in England within the year, but in preparation for his trip, he cleared out his papers in Todmorden and summoned Iain Sinclair to remove the archives. Many may know of Sinclair as the author of a slew of books, such as Downriver and London Orbital, detailing the arcane and underworld history of London. Early in his literary career, Sinclair was a poet influenced by the Beats. Sinclair associated with the British avant-garde scene including Jeff Nuttall. (On an interesting side note, Beat Scene Magazine, edited by Kevin Ring, just reissued the cult favorite Kodak Mantra Diaries in December 2006. The diaries are Sinclair’s account of Allen Ginsberg’s adventures in the British underground in the late 1960s). It is less known that he is also a legendary bookman, one of the pioneers in the rare book market for the Beat Generation. Sinclair’s books often deal with the shadowy world of book scouts, like in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. References to the rare book world permeate his novels.
In September 1986, Iain Sinclair Books issued a catalog entitled Jeff Nuttall and the Beats featuring “the bounty from that raid.” The first item in the catalog was a complete run of My Own Mag. Sinclair quotes the Maynard & Miles Burroughs bibliography section on My Own Mag.
Here is the Maynard & Miles explanation of the chronology of My Own Mag in full:
I have used the sequence suggested by Bob Cobbing (who mimeographed the early issues) with the exception of transposing his no. 1 for his no. 2, which order still disagrees with the sequence given to me by the editor in 1968. The sequence here established agrees, however, with the editor’s statements concerning the magazine in his biographical volume Bomb Culture (London, 1968) in which he says that he wrote to WSB only after the first issue was out. However, in the same book he says that issue 8 was the first to contain an issue of Moving Times. This does not agree with Cobbing’s sequence, which shows the first issue of Moving Times as appearing in issue 6. Cobbing’s sequence also shows issue 8 preceding by two issues of The Burrough, which is essentially the same thing as Moving Times (they appear in issues 5 and 7).
The seemingly most helpful entries in the Maynard & Miles bibliography are those dedicated to the haphazard My Own Mag. They are also incorrect as we shall see. The bibliography acknowledges the magazine’s confusing nature. “This magazine is notorious for its lack of numbering and pagination (as well as having pages burned, slashed and stained).” Maynard & Miles’ explanation of their chronology is not that clear either. Jeff Nuttall and Bob Cobbing could not agree on the sequencing of the first eight issues and even Nuttall contradicted himself in various places.
In his catalog, Sinclair provides further comment on the bizarre nature of Nuttall’s bibliographic system: “The note [from Maynard & Miles] produced above gives some idea of the bibliographical complexity of My Own Mag.” Sinclair provides his own chronology in his catalog that differs substantially from that of Maynard & Miles, Nuttall, and Cobbing. Sinclair writes of the rest of the Nuttall material in the catalog, “The rest has either passed through Charing Cross Road like a can of beans, or is locked away from human eyes in a lightless vault known as ‘the 60ies collection.'” Nuttall entrusted Robert Bank with “the 60ies collection” in 1986. Bank met Nuttall in 1980 through Eric Mottram. Mottram taught at King College in London and wrote The Algebra of Need, the first full-length study of Burroughs’ work. Bank writes, “It’s quite a fascinating lot of documents, in fact runs up to the 80s — includes stuff from the British Poetry Revival — but more importantly a manuscript — 3 page cut up, each page signed by Burroughs, together with correspondence from Claude Pelieu and Mary Beach and Carl Weissner…” Bank is scanning the archive, a monumental task, but you can see the fruits of his labor at the Life and Times of Jeff Nuttall web site as well as on RealityStudio.
On the rarity of Nuttall’s magazine, Sinclair writes, “The chances of coming on a complete run of My Own Mag are pretty good: as good as the chances of coming on a piece of the true cross in Brick Lane Market.” But included on the Jeff Nuttall website is yet another complete run of My Own Mag. Bank borrowed this set from Islwyn Watkins, an old friend of Nuttall from the 1960s. Nuttall writes about Watkins in Bomb Culture and immortalized him in the Burroughs-inspired cut-up “Mr. Watkins got drunk and had to be carried home.” Bank scanned the entire contents of My Own Mag. Thank you, Robert!! Bank’s chronology of My Own Mag for the most part recreates Sinclair’s list from the 1986 catalog.
At the 1999 Nelson Lyon auction, a complete run of My Own Mag was lot 155. The Pacific Book Auction catalog describes the lot as “the only complete collection of My Own Mag known to exist.” Clearly, this is an exaggeration, but the fact that each issue is signed and inscribed (in some cases multiple times) by Burroughs with additional signatures by Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg makes Lyon’s set truly unique. The set fetched $3000. Pacific Book Auction relied on the Maynard & Miles entries for its catalog. Interestingly, Lyon purchased this set from a rare book dealer (not Sinclair) and solicited Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso for the signatures later. BeatBooks’s most recent catalog offered a yet another complete set for sale for under $1500. Andrew Sclanders cobbled together the set himself. A rare feat indeed, but not unique. Even so, complete runs of My Own Mag, like the Digit Junkie, are close to the “true cross” for Burroughs collectors.
While a handful of sets of My Own Mag exist, all parties associated with the magazine agree on the confusion surrounding the order of issues. Thankfully, there is a consensus on the numbering of Issues 9 through 17. These issues provide a high degree of bibliographic sanity compared to the earlier issues. As Robert Bank notes in his essay, Burroughs insisted on this change. These magazines are in some cases dated with a month and year making it possible to create a chronology. For example Issue 9 is dated November 1964. Issues 11 and 12 are dated as well. Just so things would not get too simple, Issue 10, the British Special, is not dated or numbered. The Dutch Schultz Special Issue is dated August 1965 and numbered 13. After Issue 13 every magazine is so marked.
On the other hand, issues one through eight give little useful bibliographic information. They are unnumbered and undated. In order to determine their chronology, it is necessary to delve into the history of the magazine’s creation and tell the story of its relationship with Burroughs. What follows are my confusing explorations into Jeff Nuttall’s correspondence, the history of My Own Mag, and published historical accounts. Robert Bank cuts through all the bullshit and lays it out straight.
In my opinion the first issue of My Own Mag corresponds to the published bibliographies of Sinclair and Maynard & Miles. This is contrary to Maynard & Miles’ interview with Nuttall in 1968 and Cobbing’s suggestions but it jives with the events surrounding the beginnings of the magazine. In Bomb Culture, a sociological history of the development of the international Underground, Nuttall blends his personal story with the history of the counterculture. My Own Mag grew out of a stew of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmarment, the scene around Bob Cobbing at Better Books, the work of Cobbing’s Writer’s Forum, and the development of the British Poetry Revival. Allen Fisher described the scene surrounding My Own Mag as follows: Nuttall’s “understanding of Kaprow’s happenings and Burroughs’ fiction, already evident to him in the early 1960s, linked to some aspects of Romanesque sculpture, Ken Colyer jazz and Dylan Thomas, made a unique recipe for My Own Mag and his subsequent poetry and fiction.”
In Bomb Culture, Nuttall writes, “I had just duplicated a book of poems with Keith Musgrove. The possibilities of duplicating (mimeographing) yawned invitingly. I turned out My Own Mag: A Super Absorbent Periodical in November 1963, as an example of the sort of thing we might do.” He continued, “The French teacher at the school where I worked duplicated the first mag for me. He liked it. He said, ‘Do it again.’ His name was Bob Cobbing.”
Bob Cobbing deserves special attention as his influence on My Own Mag cannot be overstated. Cobbing was a sound, concrete and performance poet central to the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s. This page of recollections highlights the power of his talent and personality. In 1963 as an outgrowth of his poetry and performances, he started the Writer’s Forum, a do-it-yourself publishing machine. Cobbing’s output and energy were legendary. In the early 1960s, Cobbing left his teaching position and took a job at Better Books. Better Books on Charing Cross Road became a hotspot for the British Underground. Cobbing began experimenting with the cut-up technique in the 1950s and his interest in concrete poetry and sound experiments paralleled Burroughs’ explorations in the 1960s. Cobbing, as well as Nuttall, is an under-appreciated figure in the history of modern literature and publishing. An essay on Cobbing and the Writer’s Forum appears in A Book of the Book: Some Works and Projections about the Book and Writing. Granary Books, the publisher of the collection, recognizes the importance of Cobbing in the history of the book and publishing as well as the history yet to be written in the years to come. Granary Books should know.
Nuttall distributed the first magazine to roughly twenty people and gave the rest to Better Books to sell for a penny each. Ray Gosling, Anselm Hollo and William Burroughs all responded to the first issue. Given Cobbing and Nuttall’s artistic concerns, not to mention Burroughs’ close ties to and legendary status within the little magazine community, it is not very surprising that the first issue of My Own Mag would land in Burroughs’ hands, and that he would in turn reach out to Nuttall. Clearly, Burroughs received but was not in the first issue despite Cobbing’s claims. Burroughs and Hollo appear in what the bibliography and Sinclair designate as issue two: The Odour Fill Periodical. Sinclair suggested that this issue was published in December 1963 and Maynard & Miles date the issue in January / February 1964. Gosling and Hollo appear in issue three: “newspapers velvet to the touch in super-absorbencies” in February 1964.
This chronology corresponds with Burroughs’ own recollection of My Own Mag. Burroughs inscribed the “Super Absorbency Issue” of My Own Mag from the Lyon set, “this rare item My Own Mag cheered me when I was under siege in Tangier.” In the Odour Fill Periodical, Burroughs added: “My first appearance in this periodical.” In his foreword to his bibliography, Burroughs writes, “1964… No. 4 Calle Larachi, Tangier. My Own Mag… smell of kerosene heaters, hostile neighbors, stones thudding against the door. Jeff Nuttall sent me a copy of My Own Mag and asked me to contribute. I recall the delivery of the first copies to which I had contributed was heralded by a wooden top crashing through the skylight.” These facts support the idea that Burroughs’ first appearance was in the second issue.
Burroughs’s first appearance probably occurred in very late December 1963 or early January 1964. In January 1964, Burroughs sent his son, Billy, back to the United States after a failed attempt to play a more active role in his life. Shortly thereafter, Nuttall and Burroughs met each other. Nuttall writes, “Burroughs sent his first testing letters from Tangier. In the bitter winter of 1964, he came to London.” At their meeting, Nuttall got drunk in a local pub and stumbled home. The Burroughs-inspired Mr. Watkins followed soon after. I would suggest that by the time of their meeting Burroughs already appeared in My Own Mag and that the meeting was something of a planning and / or feeling out session for further collaborations.
After Issue 4, Burroughs took a much more active role in the magazine, editing his own section: alternately entitled The Burrough or The Moving Times. Sinclair and Maynard & Miles disagree on the chronology of Issues 5 through 8. Sinclair follows Nuttall’s recollections in Bomb Culture. Nuttall remembers that the first copy of The Moving Times arrived from Burroughs in May 1964 and was included in the Special Tangier Issue. According to Nuttall, the Tangier Issue was number five. Maynard & Miles place the Tangiers Issue as number Eight after two issues of The Burrough and an issue of The Moving Times. In this case, they misquote Nuttall in Bomb Culture. (See quote from Maynard & Miles above.) In addition, Maynard & Miles side with Bob Cobbing’s memory of events. Cobbing suggested that the first issue of Moving Times was in issue 6 and that two issues of The Burrough preceded the Tangier Issue.
I would side with Sinclair’s suggested list given that he relies on Nuttall’s Bomb Culture written in 1968 near the time of My Own Mag. Cobbing’s recollections seem unreliable. It should be remembered that Cobbing believed that Burroughs appeared in the premier issue. Sinclair’s list also dovetails with the datelines of newpaper articles used by Burroughs in his cut-ups. Given the rapid, timely nature of Burroughs’ three-column works of the period it makes sense that he would incorporate current articles in The Moving Times pieces and then rush them to Nuttall for publication. For example, the dateline in the Tangier issue is February 10, 1964 which is the earliest of the dates mentioned in the disputed issues 5 through 8. This supports Nuttall’s recollection in Bomb Culture and Sinclair’s list.
Correspondence in the possession of Robert Bank seconds Sinclair’s placement of the Tangier Issue and supports Nuttall’s recollection in Bomb Culture. An undated postcard mentions sending material for the Tangier Issue and states that an earlier issue has sold out, probably issue 3 or 4. I suggest that this postcard was from late April / early May 1964. In Bomb Culture, Nuttall remembers that he received his first Moving Times piece in May. The mimeograph was churning out issue 4 by April 1964 (“Glad to hear that the presses are turning” April 6, 1964). Sinclair suggests that issue 4 was printed in March. It would have to be late March or possibly April. On June 18, 1964, Burroughs gave a progress report on the latest My Own Mag in the local bookstores. This was either the Warning Warning Issue (No. 4) or the Tangier Issue (No. 5). Given the mail system, there would be some delay before Burroughs received his copies. I would guess it is the Tangier Issue as Burroughs states he will write in more detail. That would be a letter dated July 8, 1964. In this letter, Burroughs apologizes for the delay in writing and states that the newest issue is selling well (Tangier Issue), and he requests additional copies of a sold-out issue with the burnt edges (issue 4). The date of July dovetails with Sinclair’s chronology for the Tangier issue as does Burroughs’ brief mention of the “newspaper format.” This refers to The Moving Times piece, his first sustained exploration of the three-column format, which appeared in the Tangier Issue. There is no mention of the multicolored cut-up issue at all suggesting it is in the process of publication, has yet to be published, or has yet to be delivered by early July. Who really knows? Not even Nuttall and Cobbing can remember exactly.
Let me throw my hat in the ring and extend this further to suggest my own chronology based on the datelines used in the cut-ups. According to this method, the Edinburgh Festival Issue (featuring a cut-up article from April 1964) would come before the “Over the Last Skyscraper a Silent Kite,” burnt-hole issue (featuring a cut-up article from May 1964). Naturally, this differs from all previous chronologies. It also does not quite fit the available evidence. Sinclair lists the Edinburgh Festival issue as being published in August 1964. This makes perfect sense since the Festival ran from August 16-September 5 that year. (For more on the Edinburgh Festival see its web site.) Focusing on Burroughs’ work in My Own Mag distorts a proper view of the chronology. So much for my listing.
RealityStudio provides links to the Maynard & Miles (with my notes) and Sinclair. As this column proves, the order of My Own Mag seems as clear as mud which may be as Nuttall intended, or as Robert Bank suggests the result of a hectic life. To this day, the magazine has an aura about it, and it is a unique experience to flip through its pages. As book object and as content, My Own Mag captures the spirit of its time, yet remains fresh for today, and eerily relevant for the future.
Robert Bank cuts through the bibliographic nightmare quite nicely in his essay on Perfume Jack, a comic strip by Nuttall that runs throughout the 17 issues of My Own Mag. Bank’s accounting of the chronology is the simplest that I have seen, the most logical, and the most in line with the magazine itself. In addition, Bank places the focus back on Nuttall proving that a detail study of Nuttall and his work is not only necessary but also fruitful. I would argue that it is also a really good time and time well spent.