Last night I itched to write something and had nothing to say. I’d fallen behind, not writing much of anything last month, set aside usually for National Poetry Writing. What I did do though, was rescue and edit work I’d paused on. Word Camera is a webpage that converts photographs into text. I had three word camera documents on my computer based on three found photographs. Last night I opened them and began re-editing, re-assembling the text in collage form. Like William S. Burroughs Cut Up method, though not as random with multiple sources. It was more myself in conversation with old, found text. I combed through the blocks of computerized text, randomly broke lines, then changed nouns and verbs, cutting entire sections, moving things around, adding an original line beneath the computer’s line. I mailed all that stuff to myself this morning to print at work where I plan to do more shuffling and editing and conversing.
William S. Burroughs was one of my earliest inspirations, one of the first writers I respected because of his voice.
I became introduced to Burroughs sometime in the mid 80’s through performance artist Laurie Anderson. Bill had a cameo in her film Home of the Brave which, due to good reviews, I saw on the big screen in Berkeley at an Old Repertory House. (I probably saw it on a double bill with the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense) Her music was white girl funky– curious and fun to my ear. Burroughs popped up briefly on her album Mister Heartbreak, doing vocals on Sharkey’s Night.
Eventually, during my digs through cd stacks at Rasputin and Amoeba I discovered an album, Dead City Radio. Burroughs had a hung over mid-western drawl that rattled and purred through reading his weird sexual sci-fi work. His writing was fun and dangerous and twisted. Though I’ve owned Naked Lunch for years, eventually saw Cronenberg’s film adaptation and listened to readings, I can’t read it cover to cover nor, really, any of his work. It comforts me having his books around, in the way I’m comforted by James Joyce’s Ulysses on my shelf, equally admired and mostly unread (Kate Bush once helped me eventually revisit the final Molly Bloom chapter, as did a BBC dramatization where an actress skipped through that meandering monologue while mid-way memorably squatting over a chamber pot). What connects me to him, what interests and draws me, is his voice and the sleepy confidence with which he reads. It is effortless and conversational. He is no orator. He is a philosopher with, as my former classmate once said, “the voice of them old junkies”. His was a voice I wanted to share with people, as if it were a song I liked. His being queer (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That) didn’t bother me: “(The Mugwumps) secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” I’ve never seen him photographed with, speak of, acknowledge, nor even take any photos with any artists or writers of color and I’m okay with having never heard or known his thoughts on race. But I still adored the way he constructed sentences and told stories. And his voice. His voice simmers. His manner, his spoken word tempo, paired equally nice with producer Hal Wilner’s NBC Orchestra needle drop samples on Dead City Radio as it did with crunchy electronic hip hop from the brothers behind The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy for the album Spare Ass Annie. Dub him via reggae, put a Kurt Cobain guitar solo beneath him, it all works.
What did I learn from him? How language can be a toy– a building block. A Lego. That, and the motor of voice. His voice made me better appreciate words, language. In reading for audiences or recordings, he was never nervously rushed or panicked to get out his work. He never sounded eager to please anybody– he let the work and images speak for themselves. Yet one could hear a sly pride in his reading of his often disturbed and challenging work. He read slowly hypnotizing audiences following his dream-imagery and surreal juxtapositions.
Burroughs was a superb reader. There are not many writers who do their own work justice. Dylan Thomas was certainly a master. Even Sylvia Plath’s stately manner in her recorded versions of Daddy or Lady Lazarus for example, she reads poems with the precision and form of a runway model. You can nearly hear her shoulders being pushed back and her chin lifted as she reads. She sounds like a 1950’s movie star, falling between Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwick. Burroughs in turn sounds as if he’s seated at a kitchen table haloed in smoke with an eternal shot of gold liquid within reach. He sounds sleepy, slouched, slightly aggravated and familiar with evil. A wicked grandfather who might slip you some extra rock candy if you place nice and pull your pants down.
I’ve rarely written or spoken of writers who’ve inspired me. Perhaps I’ll do more of these. But while working last night, I thought of Burroughs Cutting up blocks of text to get new fresh meanings and lines, or to cull weird word pairings and find new ways of saying things. He might have really dug that word camera page. It was greatly helpful to me last night while feeling anxious but stuck and uninspired, stoned and slightly drunk.
Follow up on more regarding Burroughs Cut Up Method here.