Conversations with William S. Burroughs
(review is copyright by Mary Sands)
Conversations with William S. Burroughs
Edited by Allen Hibbard
Paperback - 256 pages (March 2000)
Published by the University Press of Mississippi
Allen Hibbard presents an interesting profusion of interviews with William Burroughs that took place between 1961 (Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg) and 1996 (L.A. Weekly). These dialogs span Burroughs' Beat Hotel and Tangier years and his later return to the United States to become a cultural hero, one who influenced individuals in the worlds of heavy metal, punk rock, and other popular media.
Sometimes a quiet fellow, Burroughs did not lack ideas or things to say in these conversations. He saw interviews as a performance art, wherein both subjects formed a third object of sorts: an accordant shape. Burroughs indeed was a collaborator, having worked with people like Ian Sommerville, Brion Gysin, Patti Smith, and Allen Ginsberg on many of his projects, including Naked Lunch, the Dreamachine, and cut-up techniques--so it's no wonder that he easily allied with friends, biographers, peers, and journalists in many interviews.
Hibbard explains Burroughs' partnership with others like this:
"The body of Burroughs's work, given the circumstances of its production, along the lines theorized by poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida, Barthes, and Foucalt, challenges the very notion of autonomous authorship."
Hibbard has anthologized 22 interviews with Burroughs, as well as a chronology and a well-written introduction to the phenomenon of Burroughs as a conversationalist, recipient, and co-conspirator. Included in the lineup are the following interviewers: Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, Ann Morrissett, Eric Mottram, Jeff Shero, Graham Masterton and Andrew Rossabi, Rolling Stone and Robert Palmer, Philippe Mikriammos, William Bates, J.E. Rivers, Laura Delp, Jennie Skerl, Edmund White, Vale, Uri Hertz, Barry Alfonso, Peter Von Ziegesar, Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin, Michele Corriel, Simone Ellis, Regina Weinreich, Lynn Snowden, and the L.A. Weekly.
The content of these dialogs ranges from Egyptian hieroglyphs to telepathic bodyguards to Huxley's Divine Tautology to the "black smokers" at the bottom of the ocean. Burroughs discusses his projects, music, politics, and space. His logic is divine, a misaligned planet that manages to stay in orbit with the way we think, but it also wobbles outward past little truths that normal humans assimilate with blind acceptance. His gravity turns everything around, but it all makes sense (and reading things he spoke of years ago turns the temperature down in my body--his enlightened bounds past well-regarded definitions makes my bones tingle). In a 1986 interview with Peter Von Ziegesar, Burroughs spoke of impossibilities:
We think of life as being something exactly like us. Don Juan speaks of the possibility of inorganic beings. And now we find that down at the bottom of the ocean are what's known as "Black Smokers" where hot gases bubble up. Now, this is two miles down, there's no light and no oxygen. And according to all our definitions, life couldn't exist there. But very plentiful life exists, the big clams and crabs and worms. And they eat minerals and sulfur dioxide. So there we have creatures living under what would seem to be impossible conditions.
Reading these interviews makes me think that Burroughs was possibly ahead of our times, or at least above them. It seems that most brilliant minds do not think in terms of definitions that have been confirmed for our convenience, but think beyond those accredited claims. I already had a clue about Burroughs' genius, after having read his novels, biographies, and essays. But these conversations comprise an added bonus: coordinated efforts of Burroughs contemplating in unison with something or someone other than Yage or Brion Gysin or mirrors or lights. Yet his individuality is usually at the top of the see-saw; the "other" can divulge by sitting heavily on one end while Burroughs goes up on the other. Without that weight, that avenue to express, perhaps Burroughs would have levitated himself (probably so) and given us a dual-edged monologue anyway.
Excerpt of an interview with Regina Weinreich in 1991
WSB: I like them. They're different from my concept because they are bigger and they have a much more benevolent aspect than mine. They certainly are extraordinary: They have these beautiful blue eyes. They look helpless and slow-moving. They don't look menacing. Their lips move. They can breathe. They don't look like anything human. I have one. They sent me one. It's huge.
RW: How did it arrive?
WSB: In a box.
After delving into this book for several nights, I began to have recurring dreams. William Burroughs was an old man, and I had to take care of him. In one dream, his legs were transparent and rubber-like. They were so thin that it seemed impossible he could walk on them, but he did. In another dream, he was being snide to a group of people who were making fun of him. But deep down I could tell that he was hurt by their taunts. It made me angry. I was on a save-Burroughs-from-harm campaign, as if he were my grandfather. My protective nature seemed funny to me the morning after, but was still there.
I'm not saying that reading Conversations with William S. Burroughs will provide you with nightly caretaking responsibilities and strange dreams, but there are phrasings in this book that will bring you to some introspections that otherwise will not occur. Too, if you care to be very pragmatic, you can read the book chronologically and see how the world around Burroughs changed--and how his writing evolved (he admits to it himself when discussing Queer with Peter Von Ziegesar). But perhaps the most interesting thing, as Hibbard points out in his introduction, is Burroughs' collusions with others--which makes this book possible, briskly provoking, and seriously moonlit.