by Gary Cummiskey
The following is an excerpt from Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska, Who Was Sinclair Beiles?, published in 2009 by Dye Hard Press. The book contains interviews and essays that create a portrait of Sinclair Beiles, the South African poet who worked for Olympia Press, helped to edit Naked Lunch, and collaborated with William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Gregory Corso on the first cut-up book, Minutes to Go.
I first came across Sinclair Beiles’s name one drunken night in 1991 outside a bookshop in Yeoville’s Rockey Street. A newspaper clipping reviewing Sinclair’s selected poems A South African Abroad, published by Lapis Press in California, was pinned up in the bookshop window with a handwritten message ‘Soon available in South Africa’ scrawled at the bottom. In a few short paragraphs I learned that Beiles had mixed with the Beat poets, collaborated with William Burroughs on Minutes to Go, was influenced by surrealism and was virtually ignored in South Africa.
I was immediately excited by what seemed akin to the surrealist marvellous exploding into my dull mediocre existence of restricted and frustrated desires. I couldn’t believe that a South African poet had been out there in the avant-garde European literary scene.
I formed a picture of Sinclair in my mind that was to prove worlds apart from what he actually was. I saw him as a lean, calm pipe-smoking poet who had lounged around on placid Greek beaches contemplating sunsets and occasionally churning out fragile yet fascinating poetry.
Over the next year or two I picked up more information and hints about what Sinclair was really all about. I borrowed a copy of A South African Abroad and apart from the selection from his initial collection — Ashes of Experience — I found most of the poems weak. This I found was almost a trademark of Sinclair — flashes of excellent poetry punctuated by collections of dubious quality, some of which seemed no better than doggerel. A young man in a bookshop told me that the handful of collections sampled for the selected volume were misleading. Sinclair was in fact a prolific writer, churning out masses of poems and plays in frantic bursts of activity. He was also, a woman informed me, ‘not well in the head’. He roamed the streets of Yeoville — where he lived — in a similar fashion to how he had roamed the streets of Paris. An article about him in the Mail & Guardian at the time referred to him as ‘The Wandering Poet of Paris and Yeoville’.
Two years later I read that Sinclair’s play about Lorca, My Brother Federico, was being performed at the experimental Black Sun Theatre. Shortly after that, I obtained Sinclair’s home telephone number from poet Roy Blumenthal, who had until recently been quite close with him. Roy had endured enough of Sinclair’s paranoid behaviour, and had suffered the displeasure of having Sinclair yelling at him in the street, threatening to ram his typewriter down Roy’s throat and challenging him to a boxing match.
A few weeks later I had succeeded in setting up a meeting with Sinclair at his house. I was stunned to find that his house looked onto the back of a block of flats that I had been staying in only a couple of years previously. On arriving at his door — he had invited me round for Sunday afternoon tea — I was greeted by his wife, Marta Proctor.
Sinclair wasn’t home; he had gone down to a Rockey Street cafe. Marta was busy changing her granddaughter’s nappy at the time, and in my naivety I had extreme difficulty in placing an international Beat poet within this scene of mundane domestic activity.
About fifteen minutes later, Marta sighed and suggested that I go down and look for Sinclair. It wouldn’t be difficult to mistake him, she said. He was tall, with a slight stoop, grey hair and a beard. I began to dread that he’d forgotten about our meeting.
After searching one or two bars, I found him sitting at a table drinking tequila and sharing jokes with a couple of people. Sinclair hadn’t forgotten our meeting at all, he was just running late, he assured me, as we got up to leave. After taking a couple of steps out the door, we bumped into two young girls who seemed to know him very well. As we left the girls, Sinclair remarked: ‘They used to be waitresses at that dump we just left. The owner fired them because they were doing such a good job. They showed up his lack of professionalism.’ Then we bumped into someone else and it was another exchange of greetings. Sinclair was evidently a well-known figure in this area where I had once lived and socialised yet never encountered him.
I mentioned his Lorca play to him and said that I regretted not seeing the production.
‘Oh, the production was terrible,’ Sinclair shot back. ‘The director messed it up and the actress was clueless. The reviews were atrociously bad, written by inexperienced theatre critics.’
‘But I read two very good reviews,’ I protested.
‘Ah,’ said Sinclair. ‘They were exceptions and the reviewers only said it was good because they didn’t understand it and couldn’t bear to reveal their ignorance.’ This all sounded like a bit of a contradiction but I didn’t say anything. I had been warned about Sinclair’s paranoia and I was getting a taste of it firsthand.
But who was Sinclair Beiles? In my conversations with him, as well as in various articles and interviews, Sinclair painted an eventful past for himself. Often these stories contradicted each other, raising the question of whether some/all/none of them were true. Yet Sinclair’s name has cropped up in some unusual places. Charles Bukowski mentions receiving a letter from him in one of his short stories, and Allen Ginsberg refers to him in his Indian Journals. However, in a world where dreams and life freely intermingle and where distinctions between reality and myth are increasingly blurred, I have often wondered whether it is really important to establish the ‘truth’ or ‘definitive facts’ about Sinclair’s life.
Still, here they are.
Sinclair Beiles was born to English parents in Kampala, Uganda in 1930. He told me his father was an army doctor but told others that he was an industrial chemist.
Educated at King Edward VII School in Johannesburg and obtaining a degree in Literature and Anthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Sinclair went to London in the early 1950s, ostensibly to study languages, but found himself in Paris. It was here that he met with such literary luminaries as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, Arthur Adamov and, on one occasion, Pablo Picasso.
Back in Johannesburg by the mid-fifties, Sinclair could not resist the pull of Paris and the end of the decade found him back in Europe, working as an editor for the notorious Olympia Press and mixing with, among others, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. He also met with Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac during a short stay in Tangiers.
But there were also push factors that sent Sinclair out of South Africa. He often claimed that he had fallen foul of the government for writing an article on the Dutch Reformed Church and apartheid. He also, however, claimed that it was his affair with a married woman that drove his scandalised family to send him packing on the first ship out of Cape Town harbour.
It was this second period in Paris that saw Sinclair’s initial publications. His erotic novel, Houses of Joy, was published by Olympia Press under the pseudonym of Wu Wu Ming. He also collaborated on the now legendary book of cut-up writing, Minutes to Go, with Burroughs, Corso and Brion Gysin. In conversation with me, Sinclair claimed that his first publication was a novel called The White-Hearted Nigger, but I have not been able to trace it and he never included it in his list of publications.
It was also this period that saw Sinclair taking part in a happening called Space Flight with the Greek sculptor Takis, which involved the use of electro-magnets. It was this experiment that Sinclair claimed was the cause of the manic-depression which was to plague him from then on, causing him to spend a substantial part of the next decade in clinics and hospitals. Sinclair’s behaviour had certainly become eccentric. In his biography of Burroughs, Literary Outlaw, Ted Morgan recounts how one day, in the company of Burroughs and Corso, Sinclair dropped his pants in the middle of the street and stuck a finger up his arse. Burroughs was disgusted and Corso called him a social climber.
Apart from psychiatric treatment, the 1960s also witnessed Sinclair spending quite a few years in Greece and it was during this time he wrote the poems that were to form the back-bone of his first collection, Ashes of Experience, which, after publication in 1969, was to be the first winner of the Ingrid Jonker poetry prize.
Other publications followed, such as Deliria and his collection of poems and plays, Sacred Fix, which had been written while in psychiatric care in London. His work appeared in an anthology published in London called Monsieur Dada, alongside Andrei Codrescu, Brian Patten and Nanos Valaoritis. There was also Luna Park, with Cathedral of Angels by George Dillon Slater, published in Athens in 1976. The early 1970s also saw the publication of his first book of rhyming poems, Tales, with woodcuts by Cecil Skotnes.
Sinclair’s rhyming poems, of which many were to follow, are in my opinion inferior to his blank-verse works. Sinclair told me that he employed rhyme as a means of drawing together images that are not usually associative, thereby creating stronger, more startling images, very much in the way that the surrealists worked. This can, however, also be employed with blank verse, or with the cut-up methods that he had used for his early poetry.
Sinclair returned to South Africa in the late 1970s and a flurry of small limited editions followed within a very short period: Ballets?, Illuminations in White Tobacco Smoke, Dowsings, 20 Poems, Poems Under Suspicion (with Poems on Bits of Paper by Marta Proctor) The Crucifixion and Death Notice.
But Sinclair’s reputation remained very much underground and while he had been published in important South African literary journals such as Quarry and Ophir, the anthologies generally ignored him. A South African Abroad was published in 1991 and the excellent collection Khakiweeds in 1994, followed shortly by On Stage.
When I met up with him on that sleepy Sunday afternoon in Yeoville, Sinclair was sitting with two book-length narrative poems, The Golden Years and Aardvark City.
Interview with Sinclair Beiles, Yeoville, 1994
Gary Cummiskey [GC]: When did you first become interested in writing?
Sinclair Beiles [SB]: I first became interested in writing when I felt, or rather realised, that I could write down things that I’d dreamt about. This must have been when I was about three of four.
GC: What led you to venture to Paris in the 1950s, and how did you become involved in the expatriate scene?
SB: Well, I was born in Uganda, and the first very interesting culture that I was introduced to was French, as a result of my friendship with The White Fathers, who were French missionaries, living near Lake Victoria. They looked after lepers, on a place called Leper Island. They taught me all the French fables. So I had, at an early age, a strong French cultural background. Later, in South Africa, I was introduced to a publication called transition, a French underground magazine. Somehow copies arrived here, and this put me in touch with France. Also, I have always been very interested in architecture, and particularly medieval architecture, as well as medieval writers, whom at that stage I didn’t read in medieval French, or Old French. People like Rabelais and very many other medieval writers. At that time I also became interested in the witty, political writers, like Voltaire, who at the same time were quite surreal. There was also French painting, which I saw in reproductions. There used to be more French paintings at the Johannesburg Art Gallery than there are now. There were also sculptures. There was, and still is, a wonderful Utrillo, which gave me a tremendous impression of a part of Paris, which I wanted to see. In Paris I also discovered sculptures, like those of Tinguely, with his Absurd Machine, and his Writing Machine. I discovered Tristan Tzara, whom I came to know personally. I discovered Picasso, whom I also came to know personally. We lived quite near to each other, and we would use the same bookshops, where he was always buying political books. I was also present at a reading of his play Desire Caught By The Tail, at his studio. I became friendly with Camus and Adamov, but I wasn’t particularly into Sartre. I used to see him often, but I never went near him really. I was friendly with Giacometti. There was also a number of Americans I was friendly with, particuarly Richard Wright, who wrote Black Boy. I was familiar with Jimmy Baldwin, but not as friendly with him as I was with Richard Wright. I also met the English poet Christopher Logue. This was during the early fifties, but then I left, returning again in 1957.
GC: Could you share with us a few recollections of people such as Burroughs, Corso and Ginsberg, as they were back then?
SB: Burroughs was very interested in primitive religions, and this influenced his writing a lot. For instance, when he was writing a book of cut-ups, he refused to alter the arrangement at all, because it read like an incantation. He is very, very learned. He speaks German, French, Italian and Spanish — apart from English. Corso was agitated, eager, writing very quickly and brilliantly. I remember him lying on the floor of his room in Paris, composing his poem ‘Bomb’. He was also difficult, however, and very moody. Nevertheless, I still regard him as the greatest American poet of the 20th century. As for Ginsberg … you know, we’ve just been through three hundred years of strife, and if you take Ginsberg’s latest book — or any of his books about politics — all you have to do is change the names, and the situations are just the same as the ones we’ve been through here. I personally don’t like to be reminded of Ginsberg, and also don’t want to become involved in any crusade, as Ginsberg tends to encourage one to do these days. He just sent me his latest book the other day, and of course, although he didn’t mean to insult me, I found it a fucking insult. Here we are relaxed, after this long period of shit, and someone comes along with their preaching about shit elsewhere. I really don’t think this book will go down well here, and it isn’t good poetry either.
GC: Some writers, such as Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso, have used drugs as a springboard to creativity — could you comment on this?
SB: The only poet who really used drugs as a springboard to creativity was Ginsberg. It’s true that Burroughs had been a junkie, but that was before he started writing. Corso was also into drugs, but not constantly. I can remember when Corso and I shared a room in Athens, and I would have to go out to the chemist at 3am to get something or other for him, in order to keep him going. Corso couldn’t go to the chemist himself, he looked too wrecked!
GC: Your first published book was Houses of Joy, a novel, and then you worked with Burroughs, Corso and Gysin on Minutes to Go. Could you tell us about this early phase of your literary career?
SB: Actually, my first published book was a novel entitled The White-Hearted Nigger, which was published in England by The English Literary Review. Why did I publish novels? Because I was very impressionable of course, and at the time I was very impressed by the writer Elias Canetti who wrote the novel Auto-Da-Fe. I was friendly with him, and as he was urging me, and everyone else, to write novels, we all wrote novels! As for Houses of Joy, the reason why I wrote a novel based on a Chinese tale, was because at that time most people in Paris were down on the Chinese. I thought I would take this tale, and make it a better novel, especially from the view of erotica. It was published under a Chinese pseudonym, Wu Wu Ming.
GC: The story behind Minutes to Go has now become somewhat of a legend. What are your personal recollections of the collaboration?
SB: Well, there have actually been quite a few distortions, particularly in Burroughs’s biography, and also in one on Ginsberg. At the time, not only was I in a senior position at the Beat Hotel, but I was also on the editorial staff of Two Cities. When Jean Fanchette heard that there was a book of cut-ups being produced, he wanted to have it published. It appeared with a cover by Gysin, and then there was all kinds of shit. Gysin was an appropriative person. Like with Ian Sommerville’s Dream Machine. Gysin patented it and made a lot of money out of it. He also appropriated Minutes to Go, and maintained he had created the book. It doesn’t really matter I suppose, but … at the beginning, the book had no influence on literature, but did on music and pseudo-philosophy. One day, a young doctor, Edward de Bono, came by to learn about it, and then formulated the concept of Lateral Thinking.