Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series on the The Greatest Burroughs Collectors. #7 is Jed Birmingham.
It does not matter if you have five books or five thousand, one’s own book collection is inherently the most important and most interesting. These are the books that mean the most to you personally otherwise you would not have taken the trouble of collecting them. Book collecting is egotistical and narcissistic. Book collectors are also envious and competitive. So, I must look on the collections of Luzius Martin and Jim Pennington with grudging admiration. It is Martin’s collection that Jeff Ball views as inspiring and threatening. When Martin posts images of his collection on Facebook, which is rarely, Ball feels not so much Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence, as much as performance anxiety. If Facebook is a bathroom (and it is), Ball stands next to Martin at the urinal and wonders if he will measure up. Martin humbles Ball, and Martin is extremely humble about his collection. He is not ostentatious. In the age of social media, this is a sin. This is prudery. That said, with the publication of Soft Need #23, Martin (and Udo Breger) looks to have created one of the great Burroughs-related collectibles of the past decade. I also believe he supports museum and gallery exhibitions with his collection. I was going to say that Martin does this discreetly, but I am not sure that is correct. He does it in Europe, which may be why his activities are not more well known in the States. So, I am not merely egotistical and narcissistic; I am also nationalist and xenophobic. Geez.
Envy, narcissism, and xenophobia all might play a part in why Jim Pennington is not on my list. If I put Pennington on it, I would have to remove myself. Or I could just expand my list to make Pennington the Eighth Wonder of the Burroughs Collecting World, but like many collectors I am obsessed with numbers, like limited editions and print runs. It must be a list of the Magnificent Seven and in the current climate you must shamelessly self-promote in order to be magnificent. But for Mike Stevens, Jeff Ball, and me, Pennington is a major Burroughs collector, who generates a degree of that dreaded performance anxiety. With Stevens, Pennington owns the single most important and interesting book from Burroughs’ personal library: Edmund White’s biography of Jean Genet. The book is the most heavily annotated book in that library and arguably the most important book to Burroughs. I know Stevens covets it. The question of whether Stevens would trade his entire Burroughs collection for the single book that captures the essence of his collection is interesting barroom conversation. There is some talk that Pennington is planning on doing something with the book. Let’s hope so.
Ball acknowledges that Pennington has great stuff, but in terms of Facebook, Pennington, unlike Ball, is a great contextualizer. As I mentioned, Facebook does not allow for much depth, but Pennington’s posts always provide quite a bit extra. He is always informative and entertaining. His takes on Burroughs are always insightful and innovative. When commenting on a Facebook post, he always raises the conversation to a higher level, and he is quick to answer questions of other posters. Quite simply, Pennington is the best presence on the Burroughs Facebook along with Richard Aaron.
As for myself, Pennington inspires an anxiety of influence and performance anxiety as well. His White Subway, a collection of Burroughs’ magazine appearances, served as an archive well before RealityStudio came along. His Aloes Press, along with his brother Roy’s Urgency Press, blazed the trail of bootlegging and creating a press based on collecting and Burroughs. They were the inspirations for my own press, but I don’t like to talk about my press and the press, like Fuck You Press, operates at a secret location, so, for all intents and purposes, it does not exist. Forget I even mentioned it. Jim and Roy published for the people. They were out and they were proud. True revolutionaries of publishing. I collect the publications of the Mimeo Revolution, and I even have a couple mimeograph machines, but Jim knows how to operate one and has lectured on the subject. I am a mere gentleman farmer; Jim performs actual manual labor and his labors bear fruit. His publication related to the Hardiment Suitcase made my list of top 23 collectibles. That publication all comes out of Pennington’s greatness as an archivist and collector.
But enough about Martin and Pennington, let’s talk about me. So sure, one collects another person’s work, but what you are ultimately doing is building a monument to yourself, you are expressing yourself. This is especially true of my Burroughs collection. I started out collecting Burroughs’ A-items from 1953-1965 preferably with a signature. The signature was important. Burroughs touched my books and in turn I got in touch with Burroughs. But as time went on, I cared less about Burroughs, the real Burroughs, Burroughs as he actually was (if there is such a thing) and sought to get in touch with Burroughs as I wanted him to be. I began collecting My Burroughs. And that was the Burroughs as presented in the publications of the Mimeo Revolution. Burroughs as poet, as artist, as experimentalist, as archivist, as collector, and as DIY publisher. My Burroughs collection was aspirational. This was not just who I wanted Burroughs to be; this was who I wanted to be. To be honest, who I wanted to be was a combination of the Penningtons. Ultimately my collection made that possible on a small, intimate level.
It was not just enough that I felt that My Burroughs was the true Burroughs, the most important and interesting Burroughs. I felt compelled to preach my gospel like a street corner evangelist. Others had to be converted to seeing Burroughs in the same way and with the same fervent passion. Others have collected Burroughs in little magazines and alternative publications, usually they collected Burroughs appearances. Burroughs appeared in Floating Bear #5, 9, and #24 so they sought those issues. Think Demi Shaft Raven on the Burroughs Facebook. Nelson Lyon is another good example, and he was the collector who inspired me to collect publications of the Mimeo Revolution. Pennington essentially did the same thing in White Subway.
My innovation was to collect not just the Burroughs-related issues, but the entire run of magazines that Burroughs appeared in, and in the case of little magazines that morphed into presses, like Fuck You, a magazine of the arts into Fuck You Press, I attempted to collect everything that press put out, so not just Roosevelt After Inauguration but everything Ed Sanders zapped out at the secret location. My collection is not the most comprehensive, but it is the most contextualized. This is where I furthered the pioneering work of Pennington in White Subway most comprehensively. I took an underappreciated and forgotten element of Burroughs’ bibliography and I argued on RealityStudio, in Beat Scene, in Mimeo Mimeo, that this niche, this little collection that I built, was the most important and most interesting element of Burroughs’ entire bibliography. This was Burroughs at his most revolutionary and his most experimental. This is the Burroughs who mattered not just to me, but to literary history.
It is an interesting exercise, but the extra wrinkle was that I took the spirit that drove the Mimeo Revolution, the idea of writers taking control of the means of production and distribution away from the mainstream, the academic, the corporate, of writers doing it themselves, the idea of creating an alternative network, and made it central to how I presented my collection. In addition this was not just central to the ethos of the Mimeo Revolution; it was central to the most revolutionary and radical of Burroughs’ philosophies: Storm the RealityStudio. Again, the Penningtons were the inspiration. I took what they did and updated it for the Electronic Revolution. RealityStudio.org provided an alternative community of Burroughs studies and my collection provided the basis for an alternative archive separate from institutional libraries, what has become known as a rogue archive. This had not been done with Burroughs before. In a time when institutions, like the NYPL, were not digitizing their holdings and were making access to them difficult and restrictive (which they still are, by the way), I attempt to create an atmosphere of open access and easy availability. If you don’t believe me, the academics say so to. Alex Werner-Colan from Cutting Up the Century:
Independent scholar Jed Birmingham has worked steadily over the last decade to resurrect the substantial number of texts Burroughs circulated outside mainstream publishing venues, especially his cutting-edge contributions to mimeo magazines, such as early experiments with comics for Jeff Nuttall’s issues of My Own Mag in the early 1960s. Birmingham’s work since 2005 . . . on RealityStudio.org exemplifies what Abigail De Kosnik in Rogue Archives (2016) hails as a “rogue archive” that explores “the potential of digital technologies to democratize cultural memory.” While RealityStudio.org showcases work by a constellation of authors orbiting Burroughs from 1950-1973, Birmingham’s blog posts on RealityStudio.org constitutes a collector’s diary and book history that chronicles Burroughs’ early cut-up experiments, from 1959 to 1965, at the vanguard of the small press revolution as documented in Secret Location on the Lower East Side Adventures in Writing (1960-1980).
All well and good, but Werner-Colan buries the lead in that RealityStudio, like many rogue archives I would guess, is free and entirely self-financed. Such sites may become obsolete. The recent trend in subscription newsletters, like in Substack, Twitter, and Facebook, is moving to placing content like that on RealityStudio behind paywalls. As Rick James told us, “Cocaine is a hell of a drug.” But for artists and content creators generally, money is the most powerful drug of all. Like junk, the addict will crawl through the gutter to get it. Or scrape the bottom of the barrel. Would Burroughs ever have written the Introduction to Queer if it was not for the book contract hanging over his head with the pressure to sensationalize and sell books? Nobody is immune. Patti Smith recently announced her partnership with Substack. Free Money, indeed.
On RealityStudio, there are no ad banners; the site sells nothing; all the content is available for free with no strings attached and no paywalls. The site in addition, unlike institutions like the NYPL or university libraries or museum archives like the MOMA, accepts no donations, applies for no grants, and receives no endowments, despite the considerable expense of storing and hosting the site’s massive amount of content. The contributors are not paid; the community is built entirely on the concept of sharing. Again, this reflects the nature of much of the site’s content: William Burroughs’ publications in the Mimeo Revolution from 1957-1965. Before the Mimeo Revolution was overcome and destroyed by bureaucratization and the pursuit of government assistance, roughly beginning in 1967, it was independently financed by the publishers themselves, who were often writers and/or artists, all outside of the influence of corporate publishing, academic institutions and the government. RealityStudio is in essence a waste of money. It is a form of potlatch; collecting should operate in the same manner. Robert Jackson be damned.
Like Jeff Ball, I am a pornographer, but I like to think that my images are tastefully done. It is not enough to focus on mint dust jackets and cool inscriptions; I wanted my collection to speak for itself in that I wanted to scan an entire magazine or the entire run of a magazine not just the Burroughs appearance. A magazine is a conversation, Burroughs rubs elbows and interacts with other writers and artists when he appears in its pages, I wanted that conversation to be heard. The books in my collection were not just porn. No you read them for the articles. They were living, breathing beings who had things to say and teach us. I have been lucky enough in that others have listened to what I have said and to what my collection says. Burroughs’ magazine appearances are no longer viewed as secondary items, they might be C-items in the bibliography, but they are not C-list.
As a pornographer, I am also an influencer. Because of RealityStudio, its articles and its archives, more people are collecting and writing about little magazines, those with Burroughs appearances and otherwise, than ever before. The market for little magazines, again Burroughs-related and otherwise, has gone up dramatically. As I wrote in “The Great Mimeo Revolution” essay on the Between the Covers catalog that revolutionized the market, the increases in Floating Bear, Fuck You, and My Own Mag can be directly attributable to the essays on RealityStudio and their digitization. And collectors seem to be buying them. Robert Jackson would be proud. More interestingly, as Alex Werner-Colan states, my rogue archive has served Burroughs scholars and literary scholars generally as a source of primary materials as an alternative to institutions like the NYPL with their restrictions and protocols. For example, Oliver Harris utilized RealityStudio and my collection for his research into little magazines and Mimeo Revolution publications in his Restored Editions. Other scholars have relied on RealityStudio for research into Floating Bear, Fuck You magazine and Press, C Magazine and Press, Yugen, and My Own Mag. This extends to the RealityStudio community of scholars. Casey Rae’s book on rock and roll draws heavily on the site’s research into Kurt Cobain and Joy Division as well as James Adams’ research into Bob Dylan. Chris Kelso’s book on Burroughs and Scotland benefits greatly from the research, insight, and interviews of Graham Rae. Through his relationship with RealityStudio, Rae has become something of a Burroughs collector himself. What this all proves is that if you talk about yourself long enough and loud enough somebody will eventually listen. And then maybe talk about you. Ok, I will shut up now.