Sliced Bardo: On Burroughs by Robert Creeley

A few days after William S. Burroughs died, I sent poet Robert Creeley an email asking if he had any memories of Burroughs to share. He sent this back the next day.

The photo of Burroughs’ famous orgone box, inspired by the Orgone Energy Accumulator designed by alternative psychologist Wilhelm Reich, is by Lee Ranaldo.

— Levi Asher

Here’s a brief sense of what I quickly remember apropos Bill Burroughs. I can’t now recall just who had told me — like peripheral gossip — but sometime in the early ’50s I heard of someone who’d written a 1000 plus page ms with the only objective action being a neon sign going off/on over a store one could see (in the novel) across the street, etc, and of someone else who had killed his wife acidentally, attempting to shoot a glass off her head with gun he said later characteristically undershot. That was Kerouac and Bill Burroughs respectively, though for a time I reversed them not yet knowing either. In SF in the mid-fifties, and meeting (though he said we’d met briefly in ’49) Allen, he gave me the Yage ms to read, which fascinated me —
and you’ll know I printed “from Naked Lunch, Book III” in the Black Mountain Review No. 7 (last issue with Allen a contributing editor and stuff from Jack, Edward Marshall’s great poem “Leave the Word Alone.” Cubby Selby, Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, Mike McClure, Joel Oppenheimer, WC Williams, Ed Dorn, Edward Dahlberg, Zukofsky, Denise Levertov — etc.) I was also fellow contributor for the Big Table business — and I remember writing a statement in support when Naked Lunch was to be
published by Grove.

We didn’t meet, however, untl some years later, must have been at least the mid-sixties, when he was living in London and I was there for something or other, and John and Bettina Calder had a party variously honoring various writers, particularly Burroughs. We were both John’s “authors” at that point and I was staying with the Calders. Alex Trocchi was a good friend and he too was much involved. Anyhow I remember making the classic gauche comment when we’re introduced, saying I was stunned with the pleasure of being able to say how much I respected his work etc etc, and then stumbling on to ask whether or not he was thinking to stay in London, etc etc — to all of which he replied briefly, dryly, yes, no — etc. In confusion I grabbed Ed Dorn who was there, and pulled him over to introduce him. Instantly Burroughs brightened, asking Ed about a recent piece of Ed’s in the Paris Review — and how he’d managed the montage, etc. In short, this was work and had substance — not just banal social blather.

Thankfully I saw him again quite frequently over the years, and got past my school boy admiration (though never entirely). Anyhow we’d meet most frequently on the road and I liked his droll humor and clarity, call it, always. One time after a talk at Naropa wherein he had recounted his experiences with a device he’d assembled permitting one to track by thought “traces” or manifests of the physical entiry itself (he said he’d found one of his cats who’d got lost), he was bemused that none of the young had asked afterwards how to actually make the device, despite he had emphasized that all the necessary components could be got at any place like Radio Shack. Where’s their curiosity, was the question. Another time, when mutual friends were sitting around him in sad depression over fact of an impending death much affecting him, as I came in, I am convinced he looked up and winked at me — certainly a communication, like they say.

I’ve always thought of him as a literalist, as I think I was — saying what he felt, understood, recognized, respected, abhorred, in very literal terms, including the fantasies. Thinking of an early common interest in Korzybski, the non-Aristotelian sense of “meaning” and syntax, his use of cut-up was very practical and effective. It broke the classic “order” or narative as simply a “cause and effect,””historically” ordered sequence. I’d already connected with Celine, for example, and Burroughs was the solid next step.

I’d get occasional Xmas cards I am sure James Grauerholz helped get in the mail — I am grateful Bill Burroughs knew I cared, like they say. He was the impeccable “lone telegraph operator,” as he put it. He got a lot done for us all.

On to Part Three

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!