William S. Burroughs and Mother

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Davee Mac, 

William S. Burroughs, We Called Her Mother Wouldn't You? from Mother 3, 1964Regarding your post to the forum about whether Burroughs fans preferred experiencing cut-ups in the novels or in the little magazines, it is an interesting debate. Please permit me to beat a Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. In the past year, I have read Oliver Harris’ edition of the cut-up trilogy as well as reread the Olympia Press editions of Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. I have to say I enjoyed these reading experiences and got more out of them this time around than, let’s say, reading the Grove titles twenty years ago. So in order to address your question I think one would have to consider or assess the different editions of the cut-up novels. For me, the experience is different with each edition but in all cases — even with a book as weird and wonderful as the Olympia Soft Machine — I find the experience lacking when compared to reading the best of the little magazine appearances, such as “The Last Words of Dutch Schultz” in My Own Mag 13 or “Rex Morgan MD” in Lines 5. I should note that your post does not consider what seems to me the indisputable fact that the best cut-ups are neither novels nor magazine appearances but scrapbooks published in the form of chapbooks. The Dead Star, Time, The Dutch Schultz Edition of My Own Mag, and APO-33, in my opinion, are the most sublime of cut-up reading experiences and the finest published expression of the technique. But for the sake of your debate, I will focus on a magazine appearance that I read just this week: “we called her ‘mother’ wouldn’t you” from David Moberg’s and Jeff Giles’ Mother 3, published out of Northfield, MN in November/December 1964.

The best little magazine appearances, such as the ones mentioned above, are closely related to Burroughs’ greatest chapbook successes. They are all short-form cut-up experiments combining image and text. (I wonder what Burroughs would have done with the possibilities of enhanced ebooks, which would allow him to incorporate moving image and sound as well. It must be remembered that the cut-up technique explored all forms of media such as image, text, film and audio, as well as all forms of technology such as machines.) The cut-up novels are one-dimensional; they are flat, with the exception of the end of The Ticket That Exploded and the various dust jackets of the novels. Again one of the reasons the Olympia titles are superior to the Grove, Calder, and Harris editions is because the dust jackets incorporate the visual concerns of the cut-up in a much more complex and interesting manner.

Isidor Isou, 1964Like the Dream Machine which one does not have to actually see to unlock its wonders, you do not have to read the text of a great cut-up in order to derive some enjoyment from it. Take the cut-up from Mother #3. Visually it is quite arresting; it possesses a level of complexity none of the cut-up novels explore or come close to expressing. Despite consistent criticism to the contrary, the cut-up is not a mechanical process. Burroughs actively selects material to operate on; he edits the results. The best cut-ups prominently display the presence of Burroughs’ hand. The cut-ups express not the monotony and repetition of the machine, but the subtlety and care of the handmade. This interplay of human and machine is clear in the Mother piece. Burroughs interweaves the typewriter font with the handwritten reproduction, which itself transforms into indecipherable calligraphy. This is all very appealing on a visual level and draws attention to issues of legibility vs. illegibility, machine vs handmade. Such concerns fit in with other textually based artwork of the period connected less with Pop than with Lettrism. Here is a piece from Isidore Isou from 1964 that presents affinities with Burroughs’ more ambitious cut-ups such as those published in little magazines, but almost never attempted in the novels.

The best little magazine appearances also have ties to mail art. Such is the case here. Burroughs does not mass-mail submissions to anyone who would receive them; he is directly communicating with the editor and the magazine’s audience. He is attempting to communicate, to have a conversation. With the three-column format, the reader has many options of how to approach the text; there is a sense of freedom and possibility. The reader is an active participant and a producer not a passive receiver. In the words of Roland Barthes, the best magazine cut-ups are writerly. Shocking as it may seem to some, the cut-up novels are readerly. They are more linear and traditional; their meaning is more fixed and predetermined. The return to narrative actually expresses Burroughs’ contempt for his readers. It is a condescending act, an expression of his lack of faith in his readers’ abilities and intelligence. The novels are controlled and restrained, possessed by Ugly Spirits (such as publishing companies, but that is another issue). The writerly cut-up experience is more in the Burroughsian spirit of anti-control. Such pieces are liberating and challenging. Burroughs treats his readers as equals. The cut-ups require a peer-to-peer review.

William S. Burroughs, We Called Her Mother Wouldn't You? from Mother 3, 1964In addition the piece in Mother appears to be tailor-made for Giles and Moberg, the editors of Mother. The hand-drawn ruler at the top suggests the mimeograph stencil, as indicated by the torn-away remnants of a blue stencil sheet. In a similar manner, the cut-up plays on the name of the publication. These touches, whether introduced by Burroughs or the editors, make the “mechanical” cut-up more personal and intimate. The novels on the other hand highlight the machine-like elements of the cut-up, such as repetition, or present monolithic blocks of text in large, standard-format paragraphs that demand to be read in a rigid left to right, top to bottom fashion. In the novels, Burroughs is lecturing; the reader has less input, control or freedom.

Little magazines are also more communal than the novel. The magazine itself is a collection. Burroughs’ piece stands alongside other pieces and interacts with them, plays off them or against them. It is important that Burroughs leads the issue. It suggests Giles and Moberg’s feelings about Burroughs and his writing. They felt Burroughs was famous or important enough, or that his writing was strong enough, to serve as the issue’s opening statement. In addition, there are several other poems playing on the theme or word “mother.” Burroughs’ piece is in conversation with them. For example, I like to think of Emily Dickinson (subject of a John Perreault poem) as another mother figure, the Virgin Mother of American Poetry, alone in a room of her own. Thus, she rhymes with Pantapon Rose, “smoky sun set a room with rose wall paper,” who rhymes, in my mind, with Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which first appeared in The New England Magazine in 1892. The poetry of little magazines and the cut-up is all about such off-rhymes. The cut-up novels obscure such rhymes; they stand alone, are isolated; and ultimately in such a format Burroughs’ best poetry, like the Olympia Soft Machine, threatens to turn prosaic.

The elements of concrete poetry come into play in the best cut-ups. Such is the case in this piece in Mother. This three-column cut-up presents Burroughs reminiscing about three different boarding houses from his past, such as those in Jack Black’s You Can’t Win and his own experiences as a younger man in Chicago and New York City. Each column contains a different story, which serves a separate narrative of a rooming house. The cut-up is a three-story building in form and content. As Olson and Creeley theorized form is never more than an extension of content. The red marker suggests the red brick of Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house. In column three of the first page, there is a smaller compartment drawn in blue marker. Burroughs often describes his writing as a blueprint; here the three-column format suggests an architectural drawing depicting the railcar rooms of a fleabag boarding house.

William S. Burroughs, We Called Her Mother Wouldn't You? from Mother 3, 1964I sometimes get asked how I can read the cut-ups at all. “They make no sense. They do not mean anything.” My reply — as I suggested above in relation to Barthes — is that the cut-ups are what you make of them. The cut-ups are all about juxtapositions and connections. Burroughs encouraged readers to make and find them. Special attention must be paid to what materials, both text and image, Burroughs cut up. They were chosen by Burroughs for a reason. In addition, the cut-ups are often about movement and transport. Brion Gysin from Mother 5: “SHIFT CUT TANGLE / WORD AND IMAGE LINES / YOU WILL TRAVEL NOT / ONLY IN SPACE BUT IN / TIME.” Readers should consider where and when Burroughs composed each cut-up. In many cases, Burroughs reacts to or against the time / space situation he finds himself in, in an effort to comment on his current one or write into being a different one.

That is the case in this cut-up in Mother. The cut-up was composed on September 15, 1964. In my piece on the Tangier Issue of My Own Mag, I demonstrated how that magazine served as a green card for Burroughs’ eventual arrival in New York City in late 1964. This cut-up in Mother operates in a similar fashion. Burroughs knew he was headed to New York and his magazine appearances in 1964, in publications such as C and Fuck You, served to pave the way for his arrival. The cut-up in Mother is a letter of introduction. Although Mother was published in Minnesota, it is a New York School magazine. Burroughs rubs shoulders textually with Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup, Joe Brainard, and Ron Padgett before he meets them in person. The strategy worked. Ted Berrigan was one of the first people to greet Burroughs in New York in December of 1964. Burroughs was quickly admitted into the social and creative life of the Lower East Side, including all the right parties, and received offers to participate in readings and openings.

Given that Burroughs was about to leave Tangier, hotels and rooming houses must have been much on his mind. The Mother cut-up suggests one hotel in the recent past and one of the near future. The Beat Hotel closed in Spring 1963. Madame Rachou followed Pantopon Rose, Mrs. Murphy, and Salt Chunk Mary in a long line of motherly figures associated with boarding houses. The “room 18 on the top floor” of Mrs. Murphy’s “red brick building” on “cobblestone streets” brings to mind Gregory Corso’s writer’s garret or Burroughs’ Room 25 in Paris, where he experimented with colors as an organizing principle for the Olympia Soft Machine. Like Salt Chunk Mary, Madame Rachou used food as a diversionary tactic. Burroughs remembers: “In a room adjacent to the bar and separated by a curtain, Madame gave occasional lunches, usually for local inspectors of police, with whom she always maintained good relations – so her clients were spared searches and harassment.”

Burroughs was also writing his future. Shortly after Mother 3 was issued in late 1964, Burroughs arrived in New York City. This was not a return home, but a return to a life of hotels and boarding rooms. Next in line was the Chelsea Hotel. Burroughs moved in with Harry Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, Mary Beach, and Claude Pélieu. After a brief stay, he headed “home” to St. Louis and stayed in another hotel on a writing assignment for Playboy, later published in the Paris Review. Clearly, Burroughs is using the cut-up here to travel in space and time.

The novels have their time and place but there is something about reading Burroughs in a little magazine from the 1960s that transports me to a time and place in a multitude of ways that the novels just cannot manage. Davee, I hope this does something to address your question regarding the little magazine vs. novel debate.

As ever,


Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 25 Jan 2015.

5 thoughts on “William S. Burroughs and Mother

  1. Wow, quite an article (and i never expected such a thorough reply to my initial query *lol)

    Your passion and insight come through as always. I have to say not having access to the original magazines surely puts most readers of Burroughs into the ‘novel’ camp by default… we can go out and buy the cut up novels but can’t wander into a store and ask for a copy of My Own Mag, for instance… but you’re clearly correct in highlighting the myriad ways the little magazines gave Bill a chance to be more creative even than in the novels.

    Maybe one day they can produce mass market facsimile editions of the chapbooks/little mags pieces….? (hey, if they can publish his Notebook then anything might be possible!!)

    Thanks again for a brillaint piece

  2. Great article, thanks.

    I hadn’t thought of Burroughs return to narrative as him “…expresses(ing) Burroughs’ contempt for his readers. It is a condescending act, an expression of his lack of faith in his readers’ abilities and intelligence” I basically have been of what I guess is the accepted opinion that he felt he had gone as far as he could / wanted to with them. Not sure I am convinced by your angle but it is food for thought!

    Seconded re the facsimilie editions – hopefully dreaming can make it so…

  3. Fascinating.. i’d not thought of this until you and Davee brought it out, but i’d equate the difference between reading a poem on the page and hearing the poem live as matching that difference we have here – Burroughs in a mag and Burroughs in a book. But ((big ‘but’ time)) :::: there are some mediations to negotiate. The book publisher delivers the cut-ups in a sanitised/compressed mode, edited and typeset, compared to the small press mags reproduction of the text as a more direct delivery of the Burroughs typescript. I say more direct because I don’t believe we see here Burroughs’ actual artwork but a “copying” of it – a good copy, yes and not a trite interpretation as presented by the Outsider magazine of Soft Machine cut-ups.
    Am going to stop here because I can hear some french philosopher knocking on the door thinking he can offer me a lifeline to get me out of the hole i just dug myself down into …….

  4. A thoughtful examination of cut-up theory! WSB seemd to have regarded the method as part scrying, part portal and part silver mine of new material. It’s great to see it taken seriously as a potential-laden compass.

  5. Excellent work as always Jed! When I get the time I will cut it up to see what it really says :-)

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