William Burroughs


The book cover – quite an interesting photo. BURROUGHS: “Now, the photograph, that was a picture taken in black and white of Pima Indians, taken about 1884. Photographer unknown — at least not credited. From the archives of the Colorado Historical Society. We tinted it. It’s a very good picture and I’m surprised it doesn’t have a credit. Whoever it was, the picture is very carefully posed.” [Burroughs quote from Reality Studio, A William S. Burroughs Community ]

In December 1984, the ship I was working on had a brief stopover in Seattle and I received a first edition hardback copy of this book as an early Christmas present.

Soon back at sea again, I was alone in my cabin somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when I read this passage on page 246:

“What’s the date?” Kim asks.

“December 23, 1984”

“I could have sworn it was the twenty-second… So what exactly are we doing here?”

It was that date exactly when I read the words. It was a powerful moment. I was stunned. It was magical.

I wrote a critique of the book and sent it with a photo to be autographed by Burroughs, which he did and returned to me.

This is one of my favorite books by Burroughs. His evocation of place, in little details; his ear for local dialect – particularly the Midwest; his depiction of the everyday interactions of  a real relationship; his combination of straight narrative with the fantastical, science fiction; his sense of humor; his social commentary – this is one of the real heights of his art, for me.

In another passage, Kim sings this little ditty:

“Possum ain’t far

Thar he are, thar….”

This is part of one of Burroughs’ hilarious “routines”, little skits in his  conversation, writing and spoken word performances.

He incorporates his comprehensive knowledge and love of gun lore and creates a new, much more interesting vision of what the Old West was really like. He presaged by many years the sort of realism and humanity that “Brokeback Mountain” brought into the cultural vernacular.

I think Burroughs had started to mellow at this point. The hellish nightmare world of his drug addiction and the stifling mind control of the Fifties were no longer in such heavy play. He was older and wiser. He was starting to settle more comfortably in his achievements –  in the recognition of his revolutionary, groundbreaking body of work. He’d lived through some heavy times and had been one of the most important players.

The playfulness of his routines show the maturing of his art that he’d achieved. Everything was still inevitably gross-out humor. It was just… a little more tolerable, lol. And in reality, life is full of characters whose perversity is merely another facet of their persona, their essence. It’s an honest perverseness – compared to the moneyed class, corporate interests and warmongers that are presently destroying our society.

Recommended reading:

The Letters of William Burroughs: 1945-1959″.  This is the source for those interested in Burroughs’ biography. He urges Ginsberg to accept his queerness; chiding him, almost as you would a child. He writes about the depravity, the hellishness of his addiction – it borders on the unreal.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs“. A good biography. It often draws verbatim from his letters, which were subsequently published.

And do check out this video: William S. Burroughs, A Man Within (2011.) If you’re a Burroughs fan; if you wonder what all the hoopla is about, his place in literature, the arts, sociology, etc, check it out. It was lovingly created by the director with contributions from those that knew him, loved him and have great insight into his psyche, etc. I had to watch it a second time. For me, having had a long time interest, I find that this video is full of epiphanies and insight about the man.

This is a copy of the critique that I sent him. He sent me back the autographed photo I had sent him (below)

Burroughs’ autograph – I cut this picture from a poster advertising the then-named Naropa Institute’s 1984 curriculum. He wrote, “For Joe Hancock, all be best, William S. Burroughs”

the reverse side of photo, showing some of the teachers – quite a faculty!

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all images and artwork © copyright the author 2011. may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without prior arrangement

“3 devil morning” – by amyeighttrack, pencil & watercolor, 1982.           This drawing came straight out of my subconscious. It is somewhat the product of being hung over and shamed.  It's a very scary combination - not a muse I would recommend. Still... this is one of my favorite drawings ever! So what's the lesson, in terms of 'the muse'? I would say: find a way to tap into the subconscious (sans alcohol/other 'substances') in an uninhibited, free-flowing way. Maybe it's about learning to trust yourself; your instincts, your point of view.  Find a way to draw because you have to draw. Let it be your 'diary' or journal.

“3 devil morning” – by amyeighttrack, pencil & watercolor, 1982. This drawing came straight out of my subconscious. It is somewhat the product of being hung over and shamed. It’s a very scary combination – not a muse I would recommend. Still… this is one of my favorite drawings ever! So what’s the lesson, in terms of ‘the muse’? I would say: find a way to tap into the subconscious (sans alcohol/other ‘substances’) in an uninhibited, free-flowing way. Maybe it’s about learning to trust yourself; your instincts, your point of view. Find a way to draw because you have to draw. Let it be your ‘diary’ or journal.

“design exercise – collage”, early ’80’s. Inspired by an art class design exercise. I think I tried to develop some design ideas; then chopped up and combined some of them with random stuff.

“Free” – collage – tempera & pencil, c. 2009. I had the materials available and wanted to try something different from a picture/word collage. You can’t see it in the photo, but I wrote FREE in pencil in the lower right corner

“nuclear” – pencil, felt pen, watercolor, 80’s. I think it was inspired by my art class design exercise and collage work.

“cassette player on ship cabin desk w/ checked tablecloth” – pencil and felt pen. Straight from the subconscious – I probably wanted to express how much music meant to me as a merchant mariner. It was like a splash of color on a grey, endless horizon; it made one feel a bit less isolated. It was a social thing, too; a broadening experience – sharing music.

“russian submarine bird” – ballpoint and felt tip pens, 80’s. Click on photo to see detail. Just doodles. I wish I still had that ability to just tap into/go into my subconscious. Or maybe I decided I didn’t like what I saw there.

“killer whale pod” – ballpoint and felt tip pens, 80’s. Doodles, as above.

“lonesome bird that looks like me” – xerox of original – collage, felt tip pen, c. 1984. Another doodle. Existentially lonely and kept company by a little bird outside my window that told me I’d be okay. Well, anyway – birds seems to resonate to something essential, within my life. This drawing may have been one of the first manifestations of that.

“scribbles” – pencil, crayon and watercolor. c. 1979. My mother and an artist friend were doing a whole bunch of these and invited me to try. I like the simplicity of the technique and its possibilities for spontaneous expression.

See watercolor and crayon art at Google Images here . There’s some schlocky ones, some nice ones, some by children… even some by masters like Camille Pissarro. This one was on page 16, lol  It’s nice to see how refined and beautiful some of them are; the skill; how far you can go with simple elements. Lots of great ideas and links!

“explosion” – collage with newspaper, pencil & pens, 80’s. Art class assignment to represent an explosion.

“Burroughs”  – collage w/ ballpoint and felt pen, 80’s. A doodle. I didn’t set out to draw Burroughs – it’s just what came out. I like the Folgers Instant Coffee label; it seemed to go well with it.

See a brilliant painting of Burroughs here by Roger Shimomura and an excellent article about Roger Shimomura here who did a series of paintings about the racial stereotyping of Asians.

“doll”     –     xerox of a watercolor by my mother. I wish I had more of her artwork, or even photos of it. Mom, you left us too soon… xoxox

One by my sister. My photo is blurred and doesn’t capture the richness & detail.

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Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher

I wrote this poem in 1994 to remember how I felt and what I thought – some impressions – after finishing the “Dharma Lion” biography. I was depressed from chemotherapy. Finishing the book seemed like a victory; recording and writing the poem was cathartic. It was a sort of  journal entry, so I wouldn’t forget all of the good stuff I’d just read.

I resisted the urge to try to send it to Ginsberg, which I had done with an earlier poem in 1976. He kindly replied to that… [See “poem sent to Allen Ginsberg, 1976” on this blog.] 

I saw Ginsberg up close once, standing in the aisle with Anne Waldman, after one of the nights of the Nova Convention honoring William Burroughs, in NYC. (Thursday, Friday and Saturday – Nov 30th , Dec 1st  & 2nd , 1978)

There’s an awesome link!! to the Giorno Poetry Systems recordings from the Nova Convention here.

I wish that I had taken the opportunity to go up to him to shake hands and say hi, but I was shy and didn’t really understand his greatness. Whatever… I met his gaze with admiration and seriousness.

It was quite an event, the Nova Convention. I attended Friday and Saturday nights. I was staying in a drafty dorm room in Brooklyn with a bunch of other guys as we upgraded our Seafarers’ Union status. I got a cold and a nasty cough, partly despatched with some penicillin. My new friend Glen and some of the others showed me how to use the subways in New York.

Anne Waldman read her poem “Skin Meat Bones” [also the title of a collection of her poetry, Coffee House Press, 1985.] It’s a very powerful piece.

From Publishers Weekly:  “The verse in this collection is meant to be read aloud. Alongside the title poem are pitch instructions: ‘skin,’ high soprano register; ‘Meat,’ tenor; ‘bones,’ basso profundo. As if they were notes, Waldman plays with words, with their sounds and rhythms, placing them in various configurations within the poetry…”

There’s a nice trancelike recitation by Waldman with accompaniment by Ambrose Bye here

Ginsberg performed one of his Blake poems set to music – “The Nurse’s Song” from Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” – accompanying himself on the harmonium and with a young man on guitar [Steve Taylor?] as well.  That incredibly rich, deep mellifluous voice of his, rollling out, “All  of  the hillllssss   ech-ooo-edddd!”. What a wonderful memory, probably my favorite from the event.

Frank Zappa was there as a stand-in for Keith Richards, apparently; who was supposed to have been there discussing songwriting. I have a vague recollection of Frank reading Burroughs’ “Talking Asshole” bit, pretty straightforward if not deadpan– truly the perfect guy to do it. Perhaps the occasion was a source of inspiration for some of his later anti-censorship activism…

Certainly Ginsberg and Burroughs used language not for the squeamish, but it didn’t leave that much of an impression on me at the time. Listening back to some of the recordings at the link above, Ginsberg’s performance surprised me – I had only remembered the gentleness and serenity of his soul…

Laurie Anderson’s performance piece was playful, weird – changing her voice into a little girl’s voice, with electronics… I can’t remember if she played her electronic violin… it seems like she did… It was all pretty cool, definitely left an impression.

Patti Smith good-naturedly announced that Keith Richards hadn’t been able to make it, after all. (Did anyone really think he was going to be there? I think most of the crowd was pretty jazzed at the line-up of luminaries, anyway.) She recited a couple of poems with some singing thrown in for good measure, playing clarinet and accompanied by Lenny Kaye on guitar. My most vivid memory is of her screeching abandonedly on her clarinet as a frantic-blonde haired female groupie in a leopard skin top beseeched her from rightinfront of the stage.

Yeah, I think Keith was having problems of his own then. Weird days, my memories of my time in NY… alone yet joyously independent… hazy drugsandsomethingevil in the air, like acrid smoke – stark,  slanted sunlight of winter though not too cold…  Sid Vicious  all over the news everywhere after the murder of Nancy…

Listening to a friend’s copy of the then radical, bonecrushing assault of the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind The Bollocks” – it seemingly made inroads into the musical / cultural lexicon – what did it mean?… Well it was pretty gritty and tight rock and roll, for the times. A real revival.  [Recommended reading: “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain]

Burroughs concluded the event  on Saturday evening. It was just 2 weeks after Jonestown – it was InTheNews. My memories of Burroughs speaking are of his inimitable gross-out droll humor; my own struggle to control a nasty cough as he spoke about “virus infected shits”; and his solemn parting words, “Onward, to Jonestown!”

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Ted Joans, the Beat era poet, organized two vigils in Seattle when Ginsberg passed. I read my Ginsberg poem at both. I got to meet Ted. He gave me a photo of myself reading, when I saw him at the second one. So thoughtful…!

Ted Joans, along with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka , was an important African-American voice in the Beat era. They of course got little of the limelight that their caucasian peers did.  Amiri Baraka went on to help initiate the Black Arts movement.  And the jazz that Kerouac and many others loved was largely played by people of color. His enthusiasm for the music –  very much a muse of and influence on Kerouac, who also wrote about jazz as a critic – I believe helped to serve as an example of greater tolerance within the larger confines of society.

When he spoke at the second vigil he urged us to ”Be kind” and said that our poems etc. were going to be compiled and put in some kind of book. I never heard any more about that, though I think I gave him a copy of my poem.

Ted was in the Seattle phone book at the time; he was living here. I wish that I would’ve taken the opportunity to invite him and his missus to dinner at my home – taken his “kindness ethic” to heart. But I was too uptight. Afraid he would try to mooch some money from me or something. How pathetic of me.

At the second vigil I wore a red chiffon scarf around my neck. I got up to read this poem. I tore off my shirt with a mad gleam in my eye, and asked no one in particular if I should continue to disrobe. I wanted to do something memorable in honor of Ginsberg; which incidentally, was something he was famous for. I’d invited along my sister and a friend. Joans kindly urged me not to, lol.

Some woman spoke about what a lecher Ginsberg was, he’d tried to seduce her or something. We all gasped inwardly; that musta been Ginsberg come back to smile on us…

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That  Long  Allen  Ginsberg  Biography  I  Read
( Dharma  Lion)

************************************************
Allen Ginsberg!
– lover of teeming humanity, your fellow fellow man
man’s actual human being!    …so warm
You’ve  given the world your very humanity
relaxed honest sexuality
Ahhhh, gift of brotherhood –
not weepy, shrinking –
forthright and direct –
Angry World – go love yourself!

Ginsberg –
in love with your persona –  a human fame
Perfect accomplishment!  Remarkable  life!
Energy, and driven –
Remarkable toiler, master of your art and intellect.
Ohhh, very wise one
your typical All-American Jewish success story
Real..  People’s..  Advocate!

In a disposable world,
they were unable to put your can out on the curb
shut you up or shut you down.
a hero to generations
in the void of America, you discovered…
the rest of the world!
Your amazing presence on earth
my poetic muse
Your gift – a gift to us all

Your human love – between all people a bond
warm humanity, in awe as I read.
Did you invent yourself ?
– The millennium of the moments of your life,
colorful, they appear before my eyes
you’ve showed me something
– gave birth to yourself!

O, very wise one
awesome vision, visionary
protector of the earth
observing, commenting on
American  society and its
bareballed naked hairy lies
defrocker of falsehood
and legislated morality

beat generation…

this legacy!…
borne  on  your  poetic  voice, as the wind

raised by it
was the only thing that caught my ear, anyhow
– made good sense
not that rhymey stuff!
Ahh, now I understand – unrhymey stuff!

Read your biography
– it was good!
you know lots about
what’s good about life

I’ve admired you for many years
now I read this  bio
Now I wrote this down so clean
Thanks and Thanks…

…to  the  Author  of  your  life

(1994)

see also:  The Beat Writers