William Burroughs – 1976 – 5

William Burroughs at Naropa – continuing from here

WSB: Someone asked at the last session what the (Raudive) tape voices had to do with poetics? – Well, everything.. Writers work with words and voices as painters work with colors. An important point here is the misconception that a writer creates in a vacuum using only his very own words. Was he blind, deaf and illiterate from birth? A writer does not own words any more than a painter owns colors. So let’s dispense with this “originality” fetish. Is a painter committing plagiarism if he paints a mountain or a landscape that other painters have painted? Writers work with words and voices and where do these words and voices come from? Well, they come from many sources: – conversations heard and overheard, movies, television, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, yes, and other writers

A phrase comes into a writer’s mind from an old Western story in a pulp magazine he read years ago, can’t remember where or when – here’s an example – “He looked at her, trying to read her mind. But her eyes were old, unbluffed, unreadable”. Well, there’s a phrase that I lifted. All writers are plagiarists, steal anything in sight. Or, perhaps, a phrase comes to him and he doesn’t even remember that he read it somewhere, or heard it somewhere. Now, as I said in the last class, the County Clerk sequence in Naked Lunch 

You’ve all met the ad man, who’s going to get himself out of the rat-race, shut himself up in a cabin and write the Great American Novel. I always tell him, “Don’t cut your in-put, B.J., you might need it”. So many times I’ve been stuck on a story-line, I can’t see where it will go from here, and then someone drops around and tells me about fruit-eating fish in Brazil. I got a chapter out of that. Or I buy a book to read on the plane and there is the answer, and there’s a nice phrase too – “sweetly in human voices” . I had a dream about such voices before I read The Big Jump by Leigh Brackett. in my next novel, I will, as far as my memory serves, in an appendix, identify all the sources, just to show what a patchwork of bits and pieces a novel is.

So what you pick up – and don’t be afraid to boost right and left from reading and conversation – is one source. Another source is dreams, Now I get about forty percent of my sets an characters from dreams. Sometimes, just a phrase, a voice, a glimpse, and sometimes I will get a whole story or chapter. All I have to do is sit down and transcribe the dream. An example is a story in Exterminator! called “They Do Not Always Remember” And, sometimes in dreams I find a book or a magazine and read a story. So perhaps writers don’t write, perhaps they just read and transcribe.

Now what are dreams made of? – Much the same material as a novel – pieces of old movies, newspapers, magazines, novels, sensory in-put. The line between subjective and objective experience is purely arbitrary. No objective reality could be experienced without somebody there to experience it subjectively, and no subjective experience could exist without something to experience.

Another source of material for the writer is the voices (the kind of voices that Raudive recorded on tape) which he is hearing all the time whether he knows it or not. He may think he is hearing his very own words. Well, if the tape recorder picks up the voices, so do you. A tape recorder is just a model of one function of the human nervous system. So, consider the voices as a source of material for writing. You ask yourself, “Who would have said that?”, “What does he look like?”, “What is the context?”. As the voices say, “Get out of the defensive position”. Look, listen and transcribe, and forget about being

I’ve spoken of the stylistic similarity between the voices recorded by Raudive and certain phrases heard in dreams, and perhaps the dream voices may have the same source. Just a few points about dreams here – Recent experiments have demonstrated that if an animal is prevented from dreaming, by waking it whenever rapid eye movements and characteristic brainwaves indicate that the animal is dreaming, he will soon show all the symptoms of sleeplessness, no matter how much dreamless sleep he is allowed. He becomes irritable, anxious and disoriented, and ten days of dream deprivation leads to convulsions and death. One of the most important facts to have been established about REM sleep and dreams is that they appear to be essential to our health and well-being (so vital in fact that dreams obstinately resist elimination. When eight volunteers were prevented from dreaming, for six successive nights, by waking them as soon as the EEG machine showed the onset of REM sleep, they had to be roused, only five times the first night, but by the fifth night, it became twenty or thirty times, The longer the dreams were kept out, the more they would try to force themselves in, and when uninterrupted sleep was permitted, the subjects dreamed thirty percent more than usual during these recovery nights. The conclusion is unavoidable – dreaming is a biological necessity for all warn-blooded animals.

And dreams can be seen as the prototype for artistic expression and creative thought. The part played by dreams in writing and painting is well documented. And mathematicians and chemists have found the solutions to formula in dreams. I think we may extrapolate and say that art is an elaboration of the dream process, and, far from being a superfluous luxury, is necessary for the continuation of human life. No people so far contacted are without some form of artistic expression. When Plato banned poets from his Republic, he may have been, unwittingly, advocating a program of extermination.

Now, probably, the dream process goes on all the time but is not always perceptible in the waking state, owing to sensory in-put and the necessity of orienting yourself in an apparently objective context (avoiding cars, caching buses, and so forth). And, as I say, the dream voices (which may well have the same sources as the voices Raudive has recorded) can be contacted at any time. It is simply necessary to put aside defensive mechanisms. The best writing is achieved in an egoless state. The writer’s defensive, limited ego, his “very own words”, is his least interesting source.

Now, the assignment that I’m going to give (and those of you who are not registered can do it or not, as you please) is to put together a page or two (or as many as you like) using no words of your own. This can come from any source, passages or dialogue, books, tv, films, anything that anybody else said. You can cut it up or rearrange it any way you like. And you can use any dream phrases from your own or anybody else’s dream, or any voices that you may have heard. Any material that presents itself is objective. You can cut up material on a tape recorder and transcribe it (and I would recommend this procedure for any of you who have tape recorders available, it gives you an idea of what happens when you stir material around on a tape.

Then (starting at approximately ten-and-three-quarter minutes in, through to seventeen-and-a-half minutes in) Burroughs presents “a cut-up tape made of Raudive’s voices, some dream voices, some cut-ups from Minutes To Go, and Dutch Schultz’s last words.” “And these phrases have been cut-in with some passages from this lecture.” [tape cut-ups conclude at approximaely seventeen-and-a-half minutes in]

continuing tomorrow – here

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the start of tape and concluding at approximately seventeen-and-a-half minutes in]

An earlier and slightly altered version of this transcript appeared in Talking Poetics From Naropa Institute – Annals of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – Volume 1 – (edited by Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb), Shambhala, 1978

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