A Conversation With William S. Burroughs

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By Simone Lazzeri Ellis

(Originally Appeared in Contemporanea, 1990)

To set the stage for this interview, which was originally published in 1990, Ms. Ellis kindly responded to some questions from RealityStudio.

When I did this interview, I was the chief art critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican, which William knew because he’d been to Santa Fe, I believe the year before, in 1989. I wrote for national and European art magazines as well. An Italian / US magazine, Contemporanea, approached me for a report on Santa Fe’s art scene (which I did regularly after that until the magazine folded) and I took the opportunity to pitch William’s visual art work to the editors.

I’d known William for many years, dating back to 1975 at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. (I lived in Boulder and was going to law school when Naropa started.)

In fact I picked up William from the airport on his first teaching / outing to Naropa on the invite of his old friend, Allen Ginsberg. He was fresh back from Tangier and that summer I began doing cut-ups. I didn’t miss a single class of his after that.

I was a teaching assistant for Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman and the various visiting poets (for nearly 10 years as well as teaching a writing workshop for three of those years), and spent many afternoons and evenings with William at his apartment in Boulder.

We shared numerous dinners over the next five years (usually with a group of his young protégés including James), and went shooting together at my place up Boulder Canyon. We both lived in the Boulderado Hotel at one time and saw a lot of each other then. I believe he was writing Cites of the Red Night at that time.

He was my mentor — I prefer prose to poetry and he was the only prose teacher at Naropa. He became a close friend.

After leaving Naropa in 1980, I arranged to have William come for a reading in San Francisco where I was going to film school at the Art Institute. He told me at the time that he hadn’t been to San Francisco for 25 years because he didn’t like it. However, we all had a great time and I believe William came back twice more in the 1980s, performing to capacity crowds each time. The first reading was with Allen Ginsberg and the next two were with Laurie Anderson.

The Contemporanea interview was done in Lawrence. I traveled there with my editor from the New Mexican, she dropped me off, I stayed for a week and took the train back to Santa Fe.

William and I had a terrific time. He took me shooting and we hung out and talked about everything under the sun till three in the morning most nights. Though we were supposed to be addressing art, we used the time to catch up on our always quirky and often funny conversations about mutual acquaintances, aliens, suicide, animals, the Johnsons of the world, history, futurism, cyberpunks, etc. I have three disks of that material, most of which has not been published.

We often talked about aesthetics and art. William had given me a target that he’d bullseyed (now in the possession of a friend) and I said “that looks like an abstract expressionist painting.” After that, we talked a lot about the possibilities there. Of course it was his idea immediately to blow up a paint can — maybe he’d even done that before. Not sure.

Later, in 1983 or 1984, I had a vivid dream about William and called him. I told him that in the dream there was a beet field next to him and it was a beautiful red purple color, like a painting. Then I realized, in the dream, that William was making paintings! that he was a visual artist now.

“Very interesting Simone, I do live next to a beet field and I am making art.”

Ever since William taught a small class one fall, training a handful of us to be more observant by using the technique of first-spotting (like one does with game when hunting), I’d written to him or called him to tell him dreams in which he appeared. He always thanked me for that. It was part of our friendship — I was sort of an “agent” (to use WSB’s terminology) of the dream world for him at these times. Sometimes the dreams were helpful to him and sometimes they weren’t.

So when the opportunity came to write about his work in a helpful way, I jumped at the chance. Needless to say, it was a memorable week.

The Conversation

Simone Ellis: Of course, you’ve been known as a writer since the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959. Then in the early eighties you worked with Robert Rauschenberg on his series of lithographs, American Pewter with Burroughs. Was this the beginning of your working with images instead of words?

William S. Burroughs: Not exactly. It actually goes back to the sixties. I was experimenting with scrapbooks with Brion Gysin, who was living in Paris at the time. We used actual pictures from newspapers, and the scrapbooks were a really weird mixture of painting, writing, and collage. We were trying to break down the barrier between painting and writing. Of course, you must remember that writing arose from painting via pictographs, and then there were Egyptian hieroglyphs. There’s no doubt in my mind that the pictographs were created as magic.

Ellis: Yes, and I know that you have always viewed writing as making magic. Is painting the same sort of magical act for you?

Seven Deadly Sins 1, Painting, William S. BurroughsBurroughs: Well, not entirely. When I am painting, I see with my hands. When you write, you can’t help but see what is right in front of you. This is not true with painting — your hands do all sorts of things. For example, I read a book called Bad Medicine by C.Q. Yarbro, and in it someone had overdosed on anticoagulants, so that blood was coming out of his nose, through his skin, everywhere. And the drug was disguised in orange juice, because it had an acidic taste. Well, in one of my paintings, you can see the guy drinking the orange juice, which is odd because I wasn’t necessarily thinking about that at the time. In other words, what I am doing is automatic painting.

Ellis: When did you recognize it?

Burroughs: As soon as I painted it, I looked at it and said, this is that scene. I have had several experiences like that, recognizing events in my paintings after they have been completed.

Ellis: Do you think symbols come out of your unconscious mind onto the paper through your hands?

Burroughs: I would never use the term “unconscious,” because if it were completely unconscious, no one would be aware of it. Usually it is partially conscious.

Ellis: So when you have your materials in front of you, what sort of state of mind do you get into?

Burroughs: I try my best to make my mind a blank, but there is no such thing as making the mind a blank. The whole idea is that I try to let my hands go and paint whatever my so-called unconscious mind is aware of. I try to get my pictures to move. A face comes into focus, almost smiles, snarls, speaks. There are green monkeys, a green man, very serene. But I looked at the anticoagulant one afterwards and there was the man drinking orange. Horrible death, horrible. One time I saw a bicycle accident happen at the same time I was painting the picture. I have seen many things in my paintings.

Ellis: Do your paintings serve as oracles?

Burroughs: It isn’t really a question of oracles, it is a matter of the future and the past being laid out, so that you can see both the future and the past from the present. There is a very interesting book by John Dunne called An Experiment With Time, written in 1925. He started writing down his dreams and found that they very often referred to future events. I dream about earthquakes, and he had a very interesting point to make about that. He said that if you dream about an earthquake, you are not foreseeing the actual event. What you are seeing is the moment when you will become aware of it. That is, the moment you will see it in a newspaper or hear about it on the news. In other words, you are moving forward on your own time track to a moment of your own future awareness.

Ellis: You have spoken before about the clairvoyance of writing and art. Why do you think making art is a clairvoyant act any more than, say, laying a brick or driving a cab?

Seven Deadly Sins 6, Painting, William S. BurroughsBurroughs: Well, art is a creative act. Paul Klee said that art does not simply render nature, it renders it visible. The artist sees something that others do not see, and by seeing it and putting it on canvas, he makes it visible to others. Recognition art. A particle physicist at the University of Texas named John Wheeler has developed something that he calls “recognition physics.” Wheeler says that nothing exists until it is observed. Well, the artist as observer is like that. The observer creates by observing, and the observer observes by creating. In other words, observation is a creative act. By observing something and putting it onto canvas, the artist makes something visible to others that did not exist until he observed it.

Ellis: And by observing it, he takes part in its coming into being.

Burroughs: Exactly.

Ellis: You have called your artistic process “nagual art,” after Carlos Castaneda’s books, referring to the concepts of the tonal (predictable) and the nagual (unknown) universes. So, by extension of recognition physics, is it the nagual that you are observing?

Burroughs: Yeah, the unknown, precisely. I am observing the unknown.

Ellis: And that is not the kind of art that paints the cow in the field?

Burroughs: Well, no. The cow on the grass is another sort of painting, and it is terrific. But now it can be done so much better with the camera. The next step was collage, which introduced the element of time. Someone walks around the block, comes back, and puts down on canvas what he is seeing. He is seeing a medley of fragments, which is much closer to the actual facts of perception. He is seeing someone’s face in a shop window, a dog, a cyclist, but it’s going to be a medley, and it will be much more real than sitting down and painting that static moment of the cow in the grass.

Ellis: There is no such thing as that frozen moment in time.

Burroughs: There is no such thing.

Ellis: Furthermore, unlike the cow painters, you are not looking at the outer landscape.

Burroughs: No, I am looking into an inner landscape and, to the best of my ability, rendering it.

Ellis: And somehow these figures continue to rise out of the ink.

Burroughs: Yes, through my hands.

Ellis: Have you ever considered yourself an expressionist, or do you think in those terms at all?

Burroughs: I never think in those terms. I just follow my hands. Sometimes they do not do anything interesting at all, but sometimes they do.

Ellis: And then there are the gunshot paintings. You have always been known to experiment with random selection, such as the cut-up method of writing. How do the gunshot paintings fit into that aesthetic?

Burroughs: When I make the shotgun-blast paintings, I am usually not thinking about the painting but about hitting the can. I line it up, and you get this explosion of color. Then the gun whams against your shoulder, but not hard at all.

Ellis: And that is the split-second of creation?

Burroughs: Yes, it happens only once. If you miss it, it is gone.

Ellis: Like the burning-out of a star.

Burroughs: Exactly.

Ellis: Do you get a rush out of this moment of creation? Out of creating these works of art and then having them look back at you?

Burroughs: Yes, absolutely.

Ellis: How does painting affect your emotions, your state of mind? Do you take it seriously enough to get depressed by a painting that does not turn out?

Burroughs: I take it completely seriously, but it is something absorbed and realized into yourself, for god’s sake.

Ellis: It allows you to exist on another level? In another dimension?

Burroughs: Exactly.

Ellis: You went through an obscenity trial over Naked Lunch in the sixties. Do you think that we are entering a new age of censorship?

Burroughs: Yes. It has not reached the written word in the United States yet, but it has definitely reared its head in the visual arts. I have very few overtly sexual pictures. I have one collage painting with pictures of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delight, but I do not think that anyone will be bothered by that. For one thing, it is protected by age. As Henry Miller pointed out, if it is old, then it is all right. Something that is perfectly acceptable in a museum may meet with opposition when it appears in new work.

Ellis: Do you think that the rise of censorship could in fact further the evolution of freedom by inspiring the artist to stretch boundaries, to make more cutting-edge art?

Burroughs: Well, that is the whole idea of opposition giving impetus. I say that it does. But any new school of art always comes about as an opposition to something that has been petrified.

Ellis: So along those lines, censorship in the United States may further the cause of creative art, however backhandedly?

Burroughs: Yes, but I do not see where it could go along those lines. There is nothing new about sexually explicit content.

Ellis: So where do you go from here?

Burroughs: Well, I have been working with gunshot paintings, and with India inks and watercolors on slick paper. I have also been making Rorschach monoprints that have produced some interesting results, but I think I will try oil on canvas next. I have not done that yet. And, of course, I will continue to let the picture see me. If you try this method, you will always notice that some little detail in the picture is looking back at you — seeing you, coming alive in your presence. For instance, look at this one, which I did with my suction-cup method — dipping a rubber suction cup into ink and then sticking it to the paper and moving it across it.

Ellis: These look like aliens.

Burroughs: They are. They are supposed to be aliens. Here’s one that I like very much — they are the Root People. I recognized them the moment that the painting was finished.

Ellis: Do you feel that you have checked into the unknown — the nagual — and come back out again?

Burroughs: I do indeed, at least sometimes. You know the story about the Zen master who appeared before the emperor with his painting, bowed three times and then disappeared into it?

Ellis: Will that ever happen to you?

Burroughs: I hope so.

Published by RealityStudio in January 2007. The interview originally appeared in Contemporanea, 1990. It also appears in the collections Conversations with William S. Burroughs and Burroughs Live. Many thanks to Simone Lazzeri Ellis for the interview and her recollections.

8 thoughts on “A Conversation With William S. Burroughs

  1. Dear Ms Ellis,

    Thanks for sharing this article and your reflections Ms Ellis. I don’t suppose there is any chance you may consider transcribing any more of your discussions with Mr B, from those three disks that you mention? I am sure Mr Reality Studio would be delighted to publish some more of your discussion if he had the chance, and it seems rather a shame that it is just sitting there on those disks of yours if it is interesting material.

    Mr Lightfoot

  2. Thank you so much for the comment. I am glad I stopped in this morning to see it and apologize for how long it took me to respond. Yes. I would very much like to transcribe more of that material. If I had an editor working with me, it would be very helpful. We’ll see, eh? I will make certain that they are safely archived otherwise and eventually, someone will transcribe and get them out there, no doubt.
    all the best,
    simone ellis

  3. Simone: Susan Lowe here….loved your work and
    always love you…need to get in touch with you.
    Have some very bad news….Steven died. I have all of his Beat Collection and it’s a lot!!!
    Considering options for it.Would like to talk with you about it.

  4. willy his ideas about art are to the point in my heart the exact way ive always felt about my art so when i found burroughs books my art had a reason to exist he reminds me of my mothers father in manner and in looks kerouac said he was the most intelligent man in america. wherever you are willy I love you and respet you with all my heart

  5. Artistic conception is the objectification of subjectivity. It is the realization of the unattainable and inexpressible through the medium of language in ambiguity.

  6. I am trying to find a Simone Ellis who did a story about a country band called Montana, who sadly died in a plane crash. Can you help me out with an e-mail address or some way of contacting her if this is the same Simone Ellis who wrote that piece.
    Jim Lyle

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