The Evolution of the Cut-Up Technique in My Own Mag

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

In late 1963, Jeff Nuttall sent William Burroughs the first issue of My Own Mag. In an editorial note on the cover, Nuttall writes tongue firmly in cheek, My Own Mag “will appear every now and then… will be devoted to creations of unparalleled nobility… morals of unquestionable soundness high literary standards of traditional finesse. No dirty pitchers.” “The Super Absorbant periodical” appealed to Burroughs and he responded enthusiastically, thus initiating a fruitful and influential partnership between the two writers.

The impetus and spirit behind My Own Mag must have sounded very familiar to Burroughs, since in 1958 he and Gregory Corso flirted with the idea of starting their own magazine called Interpol. Contributions to Interpol would include “Bowles (his most disgusting); Tennessee Williams (his most); and your [Ginsberg] bubbling, gooey cocaine writing; and [Jacques] Stern’s most humiliating, and Kerouac’s most maudlin, etc.” Corso continued, “I will tell you what we plan for our format: first an editorial, by either Bill or me or both. In it we will inform our readers that the thing this week is Palfium, or that one needs a prescription now for Diosan in Spain — kind of junk news, etc. Also we will review books, books written by junkies, fiends, cross-eyed imbeciles, huge-footed oafs, etc. We will praise and hail and laud all kinds of bile, and put down, pan, condemn all kinds of respectability and whiteness.” Both Interpol and My Own Mag share a concern with the irreverent and the obscene.

In Bomb Culture, Nuttall adds, “The magazine, even those first three pages, used nausea and flagrant scatology as a violent means of presentation. I wanted to make the fundamental condition of living unavoidable by nausea. You can’t pretend it’s not there if you are throwing up as a result.” Sounds very much like the spirit behind Naked Lunch. I am reminded of the Ginsberg poem “On Naked Lunch,” that warns “Don’t hide the madness.” Kerouac viewed Burroughs’ novel as a similar glimpse into hidden truths thus leading Kerouac to name Burroughs’ work. Burroughs’ “long newspaper spoon” comes into play here as well.

In isolation in Tangier, Burroughs longed for literary contact and viewed Nuttall as a kindred soul. My Own Mag revived Burroughs’ interest in starting his own magazine and Nuttall, like Ed Sanders at Fuck You Press, possessed a very liberal publishing policy. Yet the interests of Burroughs in 1964 were no longer those of Burroughs in 1958. The Beat Hotel and Brion Gysin introduced Burroughs to the cut-up in the late summer of 1959 and his work and working methods would never be the same. The cut-up technique was not a static method either.

Thanks to the generosity of Robert Bank and Peter Collier coupled with my own collection, the development of the cut-up technique as well as Burroughs and Nuttall’s editing relationship can be explored. Burroughs first appears in issue 2. “From H.B. William Burroughs” is a cut-up in line with Burroughs’ explorations of the technique from Minutes to Go and The Exterminator. Works of this kind appear in little magazines throughout the 1960s: The Outsider, Rhinozeros, Floating Bear, Cleft. By 1964, these exercises represented something of a dead end and Burroughs sought to extend the cut-up into new territories.

In the winter of 1964, Burroughs and Nuttall met in England. Nuttall describes the meeting in Bomb Culture as a bit of a missed opportunity as Burroughs was not talkative and Nuttall in his nervousness got drunk. Yet I suspect the meeting was instrumental in both men deciding to up the ante in their editorial relationship and to fully explore the possibilities of My Own Mag. Not surprisingly, Burroughs appeared regularly in the magazine after this meeting. In addition, the nature of his role in the magazine changed as well.

In Issue 4, Burroughs submitted “Warning Warning Warning Warning,” a cut-up presented as a 32-space grid. The piece was “to be read any which way.” The first issue of Insect Trust Gazette from 1964 featured the grid experiments with “Heavens Burning Idiot” and “Grid 1 and 2” along with instructions of how the cut-up was created. Nuttall responded to Burroughs’ grid experiments in issue 6, the cut-up issue. The format of the magazine, like “Warning Warning Warning Warning,” is a grid. Ports of Entry, Robert Sobieszek’s book on William Burroughs and his achievement as an artist, mentions “Warning Warning Warning Warning” and My Own Mag in its opening chapter. This chapter situates the cut-up in a poetic tradition including Mallarmé, the surrealists and Dadaists, Fluxus and concrete poetry. The book provides a picture of Burroughs’ grid cut-up that was a manuscript page from The Third Mind that Burroughs and Gysin began work on in New York City in 1965. Jackson MacLow and composer John Cage worked with grids in the mid-1960s. The grid allowed the element of chance into composition and created complex guidelines for reading or writing a poem that decreased authorial control. The appeal to Burroughs is obvious.

The Special Tangier Issue (No. 5) ushered in a major development in the cut-up technique. As Barry Miles discusses in the final chapter of El Hombre Invisible, Burroughs began experimenting with the three-column format in February 1964. This development cannot be separated from Burroughs’ evolving relationship with My Own Mag and Nuttall. Miles writes, “At the same time as working on the photographic collages, Bill began to develop the three-column technique he had begun to experiment with in New York in the sixties. He began to produce texts which explored this fact and, as usual, did a great number of them. He started to keep a diary in February 1964 which exploited the three-column technique. If he were to take a trip to Gibraltar, which he did frequently, he would write an account of the trip in one column, just like a normal diary: what was said by the officials, what he overheard on the airplane. The next column would present his memories… The third column would be his reading column, quoting from the books he had with him.”

Numerous postcards in Robert Bank’s possession are postmarked from Gibraltar and feature scenes from the area. As Miles points out, Gibraltar was an area of fascination for Burroughs. One postcard in particular makes reference to the Southport Gates inscribed with the date 1899 and the cut-up experiment The Coldspring News (Nov 21, 1964: “Old arch there with The Coldspring News. [Date on the arch is 1899]”). As Davis Schneiderman explores in a draft research paper, the three column experiments (for example, The Coldspring News, Moving Times) featured in the My Own Mag and other places, like The Spero, all utilized the same front page of the New York Times from 1899. Possibly, Burroughs chose that year due to the date inscription in Gibraltar. Such coincidences spoke to the power of the cut-up to cross time and even predict the future.

In “Moving Times” in issue 5, the three-column format is simple in layout. There are no images and the layout mimics the front page of a daily paper like the New York Times it cannibalizes. In Bomb Culture, Nuttall spends a few pages describing this new phase in Burroughs’ development. Clearly, Nuttall realized that the material Burroughs sent for the Tangier Issue marked a new path creatively for Burroughs. Not surprisingly, Burroughs and Nuttall received responses from Carl Weissner after this issue. This relationship along with Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach would form the closest thing to a movement or school relating to the cut-up.

The “Moving Times” first appeared as a three-column cut-up. Burroughs then expanded it to a supplement to My Own Mag that he edited. “The Burrough” and “Apomorphine Times” (similar supplements in My Own Mag) are other examples of this editorial page by Burroughs. The idea of a Burroughs supplement did not fully develop until issue 7 with Burroughs cut-ups appearing under a Moving Times faux newspaper format. It is at this point that Burroughs explores in detail the possibilities of the newspaper as a form to be complicated and parodied. In 1965, Burroughs lent the name “The Moving Times” to a poster for Alexander Trocchi’s The Sigma Project. The poster was designed to be hung in the London subway and serve as a sounding board for the Project. Here the broadside goes back to its early roots as a means to disseminate information on the side of barns and the like. What is clear is that Burroughs developed and expanded the three-column format at a rapid rate. The development of “The Moving Times” from a simple three column cut-up to a supplement to My Own Mag to a broadside disseminating information for a proposed international movement testifies to Burroughs’ increasing ambition for the cut-up technique.

In Issue 11, My Own Mag and Burroughs change direction yet again. In his developing article, Schneiderman writes about the practice of Grangerization or extra-illustration that was a British fad at the turn of the 20th Century. In issue 11, Nuttall begins stapling old magazine articles and illustration to My Own Mag. As early as Issue 4, Nuttall tipped in additions to the magazine, but only in the later issues does the scrapbook feel of Burroughs’ writing find a parallel in the format of My Own Mag. At the same time, Burroughs added another layer to the three-column format. Miles writes, “It was in March 1964, when Bill and Ian were living at the rue Delacroix, that Bill began work on the scrapbooks. As usual, this was yet another extension of the cut-up technique.” Throughout the 1950s, Burroughs created scrapbooks that verged on book art. Ports of Entry provides some pictures and commentary on this aspect of Burroughs’ art career. Like the Gibraltar scrapbook above, this new direction merged the older scrapbook format with the new three-column format. “The Dutch Schultz Special’ (Issue 13) is a prime example of this new work. Time and APO-33 are others. As you can see, the three-column format now includes images that comment on the text. The feel is more of a magazine than a newspaper. Possibly, Nuttall’s extra-illustrations comment on Burroughs’ new look.

As the correspondence shows, Burroughs was allowed free reign and basically submitted to Nuttall his latest cut-up works straight from the typewriter. Nuttall was open to anything. Burroughs’ editorial comments were short and not very detailed so Nuttall had a lot of leeway in how he wanted to present the manuscript. In some cases, Burroughs allowed Nuttall to insert images as he saw fit. (April 6, 1964: “By all means, put your drawings in ‘any picture’ spaces.”) In issue 7, Nuttall drew the images that accompany Burroughs’ cut-up. In addition, Nuttall may have drawn the image for the grid / scrapbook / three-column experiment of issue 11. This highlights the collaborative nature of Burroughs’ working method as well as his desire to subvert authorial control. A further examination of the nature of this collaboration remains to be attempted. A close examination of manuscript material would reveal much about the give and take between Burroughs and Nuttall.

For example, in issue 15, we can see the transformation of Burroughs’ manuscript to the pages of My Own Mag. “WB Talking” and “Gas Girls” show that Nuttall possessed a very light editorial hand. I have not done a word-by-word analysis but the basic format of the piece is unaltered and I would suspect the text to be unchanged as well. Yet as these manuscript pages show, Burroughs incorporated color into his manuscripts. The New York Times archives have a page from the “Dutch Schultz” cut-up that appeared in Issue 13. Burroughs painted on the manuscript pages. The color and the brushwork on these pieces remind me of the later artwork painted on manila folders. These items appear every so often on eBay. In any case, the manuscripts for the later My Own Mags merge the three-column cut-up with abstract painting. Burroughs’ scrapbooks of the period are full of these experiments joining the visual and the textual. Given the limits of mimeo, Nuttall could not faithfully reproduce the full visual nature of Burroughs’ work of this period, yet the effort to recreate all the elements of the manuscript is admirable. The later issues of My Own Mag provide as detailed a look into Burroughs’ exploration of the visual implications of the cut-up as was available for years until Burroughs’ artwork was revisited in exhibitions and catalogs, like Ports of Entry.

As I mentioned before, Nuttall, like Ed Sanders, felt free to print anything. Their value as editors was not to shape material but to have the bravery and the foresight to provide an outlet for writing that could not be printed anywhere else. I do not want to downplay the editorial genius of Nuttall. The presence of Nuttall is all over My Own Mag. Burroughs’ cut-ups speak on matters and in a manner that Nuttall clearly agrees with. But Nuttall’s worldview comes out as clearly in My Own Mag as Burroughs’. As Robert Bank has shown, Perfume Jack links the entire magazine together into a unified whole. My Own Mag is Nuttall’s magazine first and foremost.

Nuttall’s manipulation of stencils and the mimeograph deserve special mention here. One of the pleasures of My Own Mag is its physical appearance. Nuttall is wholly responsible for that. His artwork is intricate, funny, and extremely skillful given the limitations of the technology. Hopefully in the future, RealityStudio will have a column on Jeff Nuttall as mimeograph artist providing a closer examination of his mastery of this difficult and stubborn medium.

Issue 15 demonstrates another direction of Burroughs’ thought: the tape recorder. The “Subliminal Kid” piece, like the longer “Invisible Generation,” shows Burroughs’ high hopes for the latest in recording technology to again subvert control and authority. Burroughs’ movement in this direction probably had something to do with the feedback and correspondence he was having with Carl Weissner. As I mentioned earlier after the Tangier Issue, Burroughs began to get some response from around the world in the persons of Weissner, Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach. This had the makings of a cut-up movement. Weissner would publish Burroughs’ tape experiments in Klacto. In the later issues, “The Moving Times” begins to function like a magazine within the magazine. Material comes not just from Burroughs. Burroughs began incorporating his correspondence into “Moving Times.” Likewise, Weissner cut up Burroughs’ work and letters to form new material. A handwritten note by Burroughs provides evidence of his excitement over this new correspondence. Burroughs encouraged Nuttall to contact Weissner and publish him. Nuttall followed Burroughs’ advice, and My Own Mag published Weissner in the late issues. See Robert Bank’s index of contributors.

My Own Mag functioned like a laboratory for Burroughs where he was free to experiment. Like Charles Olson’s experience with Floating Bear, Burroughs could get feedback from a receptive audience immediately since the turnaround time on the mimeo machine was so rapid. It had to be because Burroughs’ approach to the cut-up was changing quickly at this time. My Own Mag documents in detail Burroughs’ cut-up experiments. Yet we should never forget that the magazine also memorializes the brilliance of Jeff Nuttall as an editor, writer and artist. To fully appreciate My Own Mag, it must be approached and read in all its complexity. The attentive reader will be rewarded with a truly special experience. Thanks must go to Islwyn Watkins for making available for electronic reproduction his rare complete set of My Own Mag. Due to his generosity, the experience of reading and enjoying this legendary magazine can be yours. Enjoy!!!

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 6 March 2007.

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