ALLEN GINSBERG and WILLIAM BURROUGHS – TWO INTERVIEWS
These two interviews both appear in the volume The Collected Interviews of William S Burroughs – Burroughs Live 1960-1997.
The first is dated 1980, with the location given as New York City. The second, also recorded in New York, a year later (and, in the Interviews book, with a title given to it, “Having To Put Out”), first appeared in Boulder’s Daily Camera.
James Grauerholz, William Burroughs’ secretary (and now heir and executor for the estate) appears in the first one. An unidentified Daily Camera reporter, in the second.
AG: On February 5 1959, we arranged to have a reading at Columbia (University), our alma mater. We were hoping to have (Jack) Kerouac there but he was still in Northport. He’d had a bad time at Hunter College during a public forum with Kingsley Amis, Ashley Montague and James Wexler. He delivered his great speech on the origins of the “beat generation”, which everybody mocked. Wexler got mad and thought he was a boor, saying “We have to fight for peace”. Kerouac raised his eyebrows, put Wexler’s hat on his head, went home, and wouldn’t come out for any more public ceremonies. You were in Paris.
WSB: I was in Paris, yes.
AG: You were worried about being captured by the media. Time magazine had a photo of us and quoted ridiculous funny sentences, so we were at the time doing a tightrope walk between being public and doing things publicly, including the Columbia reading.
WSB: What did you read?
AG: I read “Howl” for the first time to a large audience in New York and a poem called “The Lion For Real”, which is in Kaddish. Gregory Corso read “Marriage”, “Police”, “Army”, “Bomb“, and some brief poems. Peter Orlovsky didn’t read much – “First Poem” and “Second Poem”. The place was over-crowded and people were banging on the doors to get in. That was a celebrated moment in New York, when they had to call the police to keep the crowds down for a poetry reading. I don’t remember too much about the question-and-answer perod after the reading, but someone in the balcony asked Gregory, “Where are we now?”, and he said, “In heaven”. Then came the long controversy in Partisan Review because Diana Trilling had written an article, “The Other Night At Columbia”. I wrote a reply of one line, “The Universe is a new flower’ – that was over 20 years ago [editorial note – now over 50 years ago]
James Grauerholz: At what point did you first become aware that the media were picking up on what your friends, Allen, Gregory, Peter and Jack, were doing?
WSB: It was later in the year, 1959. I know there was an issue of Life magazine
AG: Gregory told me that you saw our picture in Time magazine and said, “Oh, oh, they’ve been captured. They got our souls” – like savages photographed by anthropologists.
WSB: Gregory may have exaggerated a bit. I think you were in less danger than Time! [Burroughs laughs]
AG: Bill, as I recall, you received commendation because you were a gentleman! We were coming on like beatniks. Also you weren’t on the scene and exposed, and so reporters who came to see you in Paris were probably a lot more worldly than the local ones.
WSB: Yes, they were rather strange, off-beat people, who had been deliberately chosen.
AG: The article in Life said that I attributed a vast conspiracy in the upper reaches of the government as a cause in the increase in heroin addiction and the corruption of the police.
I said that, somewhere at the top, there was a working relationship between organized crime and the Narcotics Bureau
WSB: Oh, you said that way back then. All my early statements about conspiracies, the fact that the Institute for Cultural Freedom [the Congress for Cultural Freedom] was an adjunct of the CIA and so forth, were treated in the same way. I think the phrase was, he achieves “the irrelevant history of hysteria”.
AG: Yes, their complaint was they thought that we were without any tradition
WSB: You stem from the troubadours, really
AG: The readings have the traditional imprimatur of the tradition of Milarepa, the 11th Century yogi-poet whose methods were similar to Kerouac’s. I was talking about “spontaneous bop prosody”, as a catch-phrase to describe Kerouac’s rapid transcription of his thought and images on to the page, which I learned from, and which was very much on my mind when we gave the early readings. We were trying to get Kerouac to be a strong leader and prophet. Kerouac proclaimed: “Speak now or forever hold your peace. Speak as if this were the last moment of existence. What you had to say was your mortal, ultimate yelp, and rely on the movement of the mind to provide the structure for the art work”. The older tradition and what we were doing intuitively, out of our common sense, had joined forces.
WSB: Yes, that’s a very good point.
AG: By spontaneous mind, I mean total frankness, as far as it is possible, and the use of accident to trap yourself, even in public, to tip your mitt, so to speak, and be passionate, if passion’s there, and not to be attached to the last thought that you had but to move on to the next thought. Not to fill out a thought in order to justify it, but to jump ahead as the mind moves forward; that is the basis for both prose and poetry. That is, to a great extent, your method.
WSB: Not altogether so, Allen. You see, I had many discussions with Jack on this point. He says the first version is always the best. Well, it may work for him, but it doesn’t work for me. I have to do three. With the first version I get the picture; it’s a sort of a sketch. The second, I fill it in, and the third, I fill it in still further.
AG: I think that the point Jack was making about the first version was he felt he could reveal himsel best at first, and any revisions he did would tend to hide what embarrassed him. The ultimate point is to reveal the moment of the mind, your primary method I seem to remember from Tangier. I remember that you’d always said that your imagination was primarily visual, whereas mine was always auditory. You thought in pictures rather than words. So, I asked you then what you were thinking about just when your fingers were hovering over the typewriter, and you said, “Hands pulling in nets from the sea.” I said, “Where did that come from?” and you said, “In the morning you go down to the beach in Tangier and the fishermen are pulling in their nets; hands pulling in nets from the sea in the darkness before dawn.” So actually it was a naturalistic picture.
WSB: Yes, what I essentially see when I’m writing is a moving film
AG: In silence?
WSB: No, not anymore than a film is in total silence; it has sound-effects, it has dialogue – but I have to see it. If I can’t see it, I can’t write it.
AG: So to what do you credit this capacity for projection of a visual image in your mind?
WSB: I’ve always thought that way. And many of my characters come from dreams. A dream is actually a film.
AG: You’ve said that since 1945, when we first began talking about this, and I was astounded then because I never did achieve a purely visual image.
WSB: Sometimes I’ll get a whole chapter in a dream, and I just have to sit down and transcribe.
AG: I remember one passage about vaparettos in Venice, and all the green, fish-like, metallic boys diving, which was so visual.
WSB: Yes. That was based on a dream.
AG: You don’t have to work at your own mind since it’s there in the dream, or as pictures in a dream, while you’re writing. It’s a question of accurate transcription.
AG: There is a phrase which recurs in Naked Lunch. Two boys are sitting on a park bench eyeing each other, one with his hand resting on the back of the bench, the fuzz of his cheek seen against the leaves, “Time jumps like a broken typewriter” – the boys are old men, they startle back from each other with a skull-like grin discovered in their horrible lust, and suddenly they turn to bones. “Time jumps like a broken typewriter”. That’s a crucial image in your work. It’s a funny phrase, it’s so simple,
James Grauerholz: It’s like a jump-cut in film-editing. It seems to explain a little bit the cut-ups you use.
WSB: Cut-ups is the collage-montage technique put forward by Brion Gysin in 1959 when he applied the montage method to writing.
James Grauerholz: Do you distinguish between collage and montage?
WSB: Well, I don’t think there s all that much difference. The collage was, as the word meant, glued on and the montage is similar; in other words, it’s a construction of images in random juxtaposition. Now there are many elements which go into a particular cut-up. In the Cobblestone Gardens piece, some of the texts are from (Arthur) Rimbaud.
James Grauerholz: That’s the piece dedicated to the memory of your parents.
WSB: I should mention that Cobblestone Gardens was an antique, art, gift shop run by my parents in St Louis and then later in Palm Beach from which they sent me $200 dollars a month during the period when I was not able to make a living as a writer, and really made it possible for me to go on writing.
AG: I think Jack and I probably had a hypertrophic auditory sensibility – Kerouac particularly. We were using that “Okie, black, Kerouacky bop sound, the extra-special super hygobble one sixty nine bellflounder in down to Kilroy”. that sound that’s got rhythm and vowels, and comes out of black music, and comes out of his attention to the vowel sounds, and means coming to the end of a sentence with an upward emphasis.
James Grauerholz: His ear is very good. He had a good voice for pitch and jazz singing.
AG: He always said he was a great musician. I never believed him until I began doing some jazz singing myself. It affected his prose. Jack always thought Burroughs arrived at great music. His favorite early line was, “Motel, motel, motel, loneliness moans across still oily tidal waters..” You remember that? How does that conclude?
WSB: “East Texas Swamp”
AG: He repeated it over and over – “Motel, motel, motel, loneliness moans across still oily tidal waters..” That’s what turned him on to your prose, that one sentence, as music in his own ear.
WSB: I see it before I hear it, as it were. Normally, I will see the character before I hear him. Then there’s the point of what would this character I see say, and how would he say it.
AG: You’re seeing as strongly now , as you’ve ever seen, I gather, from Cities of the Red Night”
AG: At this point in your life, why do you keep writing, what purpose does it serve for you?
WSB: Well, for one thing, it’s my way of making a living,
Daily Camera Reporter: But beyond your need to make a living…
WSB: You can’t separate it. Show me a great rich writer… Suppose my father had not been persuaded that the whole idea of an adding machine was impractical and sold the stock in Burroughs Corp. at the current price , I would have had about $10 million in the bank. I’d hazard a guess that I’d never would have written anything. If I had written, I wouldn’t have written what I wrote because I never would have had the experiences. If yuo can insulate yourself from unpleasantness, you will. The only thing that gets Homo Sap up off his ass is having to put out.
Daily Camera Reporter: Would you novel Naked Lunch be marketable today?
WSB: Would The Great Gatsby be marketable today? The answer is no because it never could be written now. And neither could Naked Lunch. The context of the writer in his times is critical. On The Road was the same way. Kerouac didn’t know it at the time, but he was lucky he was having all those difficulties getting On The Road published. If it had come out earlier I don’t think it would have been a hit.
Daily Camera Reporter: Can you teach people how to write?
WSB: I don’t think so. Can you teach people to feel or teach people to think? I think you can come closer to teaching people how to read than to write.
Daily Camera Reporter: Were you a born writer?
WSB: A writer writes long before he puts pen to paper
Daily Camera Reporter: Your soon-to-be-published novel, Queer, was written more than 30 years ago [editorial note – now more than 50 years ago] when you were living in New York with (Allen) Ginsberg.
AG: How come we didn’t publish Queer back then?
WSB: There were no takers. They said I’d be in jail if I published it.
AG: Did you censor it at all, cut anything from the way you left it in 1953?
WSB: No, there’s nothing changed.
AG: I like the novel. I thought it was easy reading. It’s the best kind of writing you were doing before Naked Lunch – “top-notch Burroughs”. What did you think when you read it again? Were you embarrassed by it?
WSB: My first reaction was – it’s absolutely appalling. I couldn’t bear to read it. How could I have acted in such a ridiculous manner?
AG: How did you act?
WSB: Going around sticking a gun into some cop’s guts… If that’s not a silly way to act.
Daily Camera Reporter: If you were so appalled, what made you to resurrect it, write a preface and publish it?
WSB: My agent seemed to think it was a very saleable manuscript. I’ve written a commentary on it almost as long as the novel, and I decided it was worthwhile.
AG: Aren’t you working on a big book on cats now?
WSB: It’s a small book. It uses cats to represent people. I was thinking of the nuclear situation… The only way something comes home is if it affects their personal circumstances. When people think about war, they think: what’ll happen to my orchids, my cats, my Chippendale? The point of the book is animal contact, not communication. Communication and contact are two very different things. Contact is identification and can be very painful. Communication can be forced, contact cannot. You cannot force someone to feel.
AG: So what is (Ronald) Reagan practicing in Nicaragua , communication or contact?
WSB: There’s certainly no contact, but there is lots of communication. Communication is designed to avoid contact…Remember, lying comes as naturally as breathing to a politician and is just about as essential to life…Just listen to them. There’s lies oozing and slithering out of them.
A third (and by the far the most substantial Ginsberg-Burroughs interview, recorded in Lawrence, Kansas in 1992, and also included in The Collected Interviews of William S Burroughs – Burroughs Live 1960-1997, under the title, “The Ugly Spirit”, transcribed and edited by Steven Taylor and Allen Ginsberg and first published in The San Francisco Review of Books, was recently published (alongside photographs by Ruby Ray and drawings by David West) in Sensitive Skin and is available on-line.