Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#2: My Own Mag No. 12 (1965). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
In early 2015, I was asked to contribute to a proposed essay collection on Jeff Nuttall to do be issued in conjunction with an exhibition on Nuttall and the International Avant Garde in Manchester, England, in 2016. I was very excited at the prospect of finally being able to participate in a conversation about the greatness of My Own Mag possibly at the exhibition itself and even more importantly at the surrounding informal events and gatherings. In terms of academia, I have always felt like Grendel lurking outside the mead hall. I desperately want to be a part of that community and equally want to destroy it. As an outsider, what I am most envious of in academics is the sense of community, the opportunity, not so much to work with but to mix and mingle with similarly obsessed individuals. I often wonder what goes on in the teacher’s lounge. In a matter of hours, I dashed off an abstract for consideration. Here is it is:
Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag is the greatest mimeo of all time. Such claims are the stuff of pub boasting, a pastime fueled by flowing pints and a steady supply of cigarettes. In a boy’s club that features its share of party animals, like Jack Spicer‘s J, Ed Sanders’ Fuck You, a magazine of the arts, or Ted Berrigan’s C: A Journal of Poetry, My Own Mag does more than hold its own; it is the ultimate hellraiser of the Mimeo Revolution. Fittingly, My Own Mag came into its own after a seemingly inauspicious meeting between Nuttall and William Burroughs in an English pub, after which Mr. Nuttall came home drunk inspired to provide an alternative space for Burroughs’ cut-up academy. From that point, My Own Mag served as the local for an international literary, artistic and political community. Unlike any other mimeo, My Own Mag served as the garage where one of the major writers of the 20th century woodshedded his most radical literary experiments. Nuttall provided collaboration, encouragement and competition at a pivotal and influential creative moment, while simultaneously exploring the benefits and challenging the limits of mimeography as a medium, taking it to heights rarely if ever achieved before or since. Under Nuttall’s editorship, My Own Mag entered the world of underground comix and artists’ magazines, but when those histories are told in the Studio 54s of critical reception, Nuttall and My Own Mag rarely make it past the velvet rope. Yet as this conference suggests, the long delayed critical reception might be at hand. My Own Mag is too original to ignore. Far from being a wallflower in the Mimeo Revolution, Nuttall’s boisterous and inspired magazine was the life of the party. The time has come to acknowledge and celebrate it. Raise your pints; all hail the GOAT.
Like most things with the potential to be cool and outside the box in academia, Nuttall studies is not tenure track. If you want to sabotage your academic career, get involved with Nuttall or Burroughs. Not surprisingly, I was instructed to put the pen down on the Nuttall piece, which was probably for the best. To be honest I was somewhat dreading writing the piece, not because I felt that there was nothing to say but merely because I feared I could not do Nuttall’s masterwork justice. I think this is a common fear for those attempting to share their passions with the uninitiated. Nobody quite appreciates a favorite restaurant, song or film as much as you do. Plus my love for My Own Mag borders on the irrational. Maybe it is an affliction. You see the belief that My Own Mag is the greatest little mag of all-time is considered by many as delusional.
Immediately after I sent in my abstract, I decided to get the conversation started early and dashed out several group emails to various individuals involved or interested in little mags. I basically made the claim for My Own Mag‘s greatness and waited to see what would happen. Nothing is quite as satisfying as throwing a stink bomb into a crowd.
Here was the initial email:
Imagine we are all sitting in a bar having a few beers, or better yet have had a few too many.
For a piece I am writing for a conference regarding Jeff Nuttall, I am making the argument that My Own Mag is the greatest mimeo of all-time. I am considering true mimeos or as close as that gets. So Le Metro might be spirit duplicator but it fits. The celebrated covers of C and Fuck You are not mimeo but by and large the magazine is true mimeo. Lines looks mimeo but is not; Kulchur is offset; Semina is letterpress. They do not fit into the conversation. Pass me a chicken wing.
To start things off, I put together a rough list of contenders. Here is a sweet 16 for our tournament. Please add any you feel need to be included. I know there are omissions. I have never seen an issue of Grist for example. I know little about 1970s mimeo and love the period from 1964-1966. If something has claim to the greatest, make an argument.
0 to 9
C: A Journal of Poetry
Fuck You, a magazine of the arts
Marrahwannah Quarterly/Silver Cesspool
My Own Mag
Poems Collected at Les Deux Megots/Poets at Le Metro
Let’s just say there was some resistance. I got a nice response suggesting some other contenders from United Artists to The Untide Press. Brian Cassidy, a rare bookseller, wisely suggested Sinking Bear and made arguments for Fuck You (for cultural significance) and Floating Bear (for importance to writers). Brian believed levy was the greatest mimeographer of all time: “levy used the mimeo like Eno used the studio, as an instrument in and of itself. ” Boy, did I like that line. I felt like stealing it. By quoting it here at RealityStudio, I am sampling it like a good bass line to set the foundation for a funky riff. It was also brought to my attention that Wormwood Review was not a mimeo mag, although Alan Kaufman has considered it the greatest little mag of all-time. Similarly Silver Cesspool was letterpress.
Undeterred I pressed forward and decided to go even further. I posited that My Own Mag No. 12 was the greatest single mimeo issue of all-time:
One of my arguments about MOM is that it is not punk or proto-punk like the MC5 or the Stooges or the Velvets but like the great garage bands from the 1960s. Sloppy, dirty, and DIY all the way. Like Louie Louie or Psychotic Reaction. Lester Bangs’ take on things fits in here. MOM has that look but what is remarkable about it is just how difficult that look is to create in mimeo. It actually requires great and intricate artistic skill.
Can you comment on how difficult it would have been to create MOM, I am thinking of Issue 12 in particular with “The Last Days of Dutch Schultz” comic? You just tried to mimeo something recently. No other mimeo mag ever done was as visually intricate as MOM. The stenciling must have been incredibly painstaking for Nuttall. He was a master draftsman and one of the best mimeo artists I know of. Brainard in C and C Comics is the only competition for artistry. (I should include C Comics in a discussion of C, which greatly increases the stock of C and makes it maybe the #1 contender for GOAT). da levy is competition as an experimenter with mimeography but not sure that translated to the actual magazines.
Fair enough right, well I went further. As Creeley would say, Onward:
I had completely forgotten about Sinking Bear. Good call. Particularly in taking into consideration meta. (Do not forget that MOM inspired its own Sinking Bear in the Moving Times parody). I was also reminded of The Untide, the Waldport newsletter. It deserves serious consideration because I think it is the Big Bang of the Mimeo Revolution. It all starts there and many of the themes and concerns of the Mimeo Revolution are expressed at the very beginning, plus I like that idea of The Untide taking back mimeo from the military.
Regarding MOM’s influence, it kicked off larger exploration of the cut-up by people like Pélieu, Beach, Herman, Weissner, Ploog, and Breger. It also plays into Writer’s Forum, Trocchi, Sigma, and the Situationists. Jim Pennington can maybe comment on MOM’s influence in the UK and Europe. Or maybe Nuttall states the case best in Bomb Culture.
The greatest mimeo mag of all-time would address and incorporate all the reframings mentioned below to some degree. I think MOM touches on all the reframings. I would focus on two that really interest me that are related: technological POV and meta. Off the top of my head I cannot think of a magazine that challenged and explored the limits of mimeography like MOM, that provided a means for two artists to play off each other and challenge each other within that medium and that comments/detourns/parodies on the history of mags, zines, and newspapers in general. In addition, I think you will find that MOM led to punk in the UK (again Jim, what do you say?) as well as underground comics and assembling, see Issue 12. I would also direct people to Issue 12 of My Own Mag which I would argue is the greatest single mimeo issue of all time and ultimately demonstrates mimeo’s limits and for someone like Burroughs its failures as well. To deal with Burroughs’ increasingly complex visual textual compositions, Nuttall would have to abandon mimeo (as would Ed Sanders in APO-33) for offset in Issue 13 and My Own Mag would never have the same energy again. Issue 12 was its height.
Winning this argument is not what’s important; I just wanted My Own Mag and Nuttall to be included in the conversation. As Secret Location, Gwen Allen’s Artists Magazines and Philip Aarons’ In Numbers, as well as the fate of the Nuttall Conference prove, they apparently are not part of the conversation amongst those with opinions that supposedly matter.
Well, My Own Mag and Nuttall clearly mattered to Burroughs. In the foreword to his bibliography and in his inscription to Nelson Lyon’s run of My Own Mag, Burroughs stressed just how important both were at a time of complete isolation. As Oliver Harris demonstrated in The Secret of Fascination, few writers depended as heavily on conversation as fuel to creativity as Burroughs. My Own Mag put Burroughs in touch with a literary community and allowed him to participate in fevered conversation with other writers and like-minded individuals. Burroughs repeatedly commented that My Own Mag got out there, got in the right hands, and, most importantly, got a response. For a brief time in the mid-1960s, My Own Mag was Burroughs’ calling card and an ice breaker. “I asked young Nuttall to send you a copy of My Magasine with The Moving Times. Did you receive it? Response has exceeded our expectations. You should keep in touch with J.N. This experiment in reader participation is very much along the Sigma line.” (Letter to Trocchi May 12, 1964) “[My Own Mag] put out by a friend in London J. Nuttall an interesting and seemingly successful experiment in applying newspaper format and reader participation. This issue a sell out and many contributions received” (Letter to Ginsberg May 20, 1964). “The success of My Magazine has been amazing” (Letter to Gysin June 22, 1964). There is little in the world as stimulating as good conversation. Well okay, maybe drugs. My Own Mag certainly stimulated Burroughs to heights of creativity and community interaction he struggled to reach again or chose to abandon as the years dragged on.
Amassing a book collection is also an attempt to participate in a conversation with great minds and great personalities across time and space. When I met Carl Weissner for the first time on a Sunday morning in New York City at a downtown bakery, I brought several issues of My Own Mag to which he had contributed. Just as they were used by Burroughs decades before, these mags were my calling card and an ice breaker. They would give me some common ground with Carl; they would suggest that I knew what I was talking about and that hopefully I had something to say. As always, the My Own Mags worked their magic. Carl lit up when he saw them; the conversation and the friendship flowed from the pages of Nuttall’s mimeo. I had Carl sign the issues and he inscribed on Issue 15, “not even a shot of the green and ready could keep it afloat.” The green and ready is, of course, apomorphine, but Carl is also referring to young, eager writers like himself who flocked to Burroughs and My Own Mag in its declining last few issues. Sitting with a cup of coffee and coffee cake in a hip downtown bakery and talking about Burroughs must have amused Carl. I am sure he must have thought things have come a long way from Burroughs dunking poundcake with Huncke at Bickford’s waiting for the Man. I know I was wondering what it must have been like for Carl to talk with Burroughs in Germany in 1966. For Burroughs to seek him out for conversation and collaboration never ceases to amaze me. I asked Carl about it and he was, decades later, still in wonder about it all. It was a meeting that changed his life while at the same time validating all that he was doing at the time. It got me thinking what I would do if Burroughs ever stopped by my house. I would not know what to say. So naturally, I would go to my bookshelf and pull out the My Own Mags. Let the mags speak for and about me. The Burroughs I love, the Burroughs I want to converse with, and, if I may be presumptuous, the Burroughs I know personally, are in those mags.
In an ideal world, one would gather a complete run of My Own Mag, but that is easier said than done. I am struggling to do it myself. I understand that compromises must be made, so I urge you to pick up any copy of My Own Mag, particularly Issue 12. I could go into more detail about why this issue is the greatest little mag of all-time, but Burroughs and Nuttall speak for themselves. To read this issue is to listen in on Burroughs and Nuttall at their most brilliant. Make no mistake; they are having an incredible conversation in this issue. Like an exhilarating back and forth or give and take that occurs on rare and magical occasions at a bar, when you are talking shit and solving the world’s problems at the same time. After this issue the two men largely said all they had to say to each other. More importantly for me, Burroughs would never speak with the same urgency, energy and desperation in little mags again. All from an intense desire for contact. In short order, Burroughs had more pressing, and lucrative, speaking engagements.
Looking at a set of bookshelves is also to converse with the collector. Books speak volumes about those who collect them. If I ever see a copy of My Own Mag #12 on a bookshelf, I know the owner is speaking my language. It makes me want to grab a beer and shoot the shit. This beer is on me. What’s on your mind?
1 thought on “#2: My Own Mag No. 12”
This remark of Nuttall’s, although not about my own mag, captures what he thought in his own nutshell:
“Dadaists, absurdists, surrealists had always believed that by striking an alternative aesthetic, by taking alternative pleasures, or by undermining the classical mode of representational painting, or establishing harmonic structures in music, by this you could change the face of society. What happened with the beats was that by merging this transformation of standards and aesthetic pleasure with an actual attack on political structures you effect a sort of non-specific revolution, which was not programmed, which was not dictated and didn’t have an alternative set of rules. You’d scrapped the old rules and now, hopefully, a new set of rules would evolve from a way of life that had been established according to human pleasure and generosity. It erupted, I would say, with Allen Ginbserg’s “Howl.”
— Jeff Nuttall (from “Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground, 1961-71,” an invaluable oral history of the era collected and edited by Jonathan Green)