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Burroughs and Ginsberg at the sweat lodge

By Harriet Staff

Jacket Copy has tipped us off to this long interview at Sensitive Skin (art, literature and music by and for neer-do-wells, black sheep, blackguards, scoundrels, scalliwags and wastrels) with William S. Burroughs, conducted by fellow neer-do-well Allen Ginsberg. David L. Ulin gives us a little background on the interview:

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, was living at the time in Lawrence, Kan., where he settled in the 1980s; Ginsberg had come to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to exorcise “the ugly spirit,” a possessing force Burroughs felt had influenced, among other tragedies, the accidental shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.

According to a note by editor B. Kold, the interview came to him in 1995 by way of Ginsberg himself; it was mislaid when Sensitive Skin went on a long hiatus, and subsequently rediscovered after the magazine was revived in 2010. It is accompanied by a suite of Ruby Ray photographs, originally shot for RE/Search, which ran a special Burroughs issue in 1981.

If all of this sounds like ancient history, that’s true in its way, I suppose. But reading the interview, a couple of impressions linger. First is just how prescient both Burroughs and Ginsberg were, talking about politics and advertising as a virus, a decade before viral marketing. Even more, there’s Burroughs’ diffidence, his taciturnity, even around a lifelong friend. In fact, one of the secret joys of the interview is seeing how it unfolds: Ginsberg asking questions in long paragraphs, which Burroughs often answers in a word or two.

Ulin goes on to describe his own “efforts” to interview Burroughs in 1996:

I flew in from Los Angeles for the weekend, only to find myself in the company of someone who didn’t care whether I was there or not. As he had been with [Charles] Platt, Burroughs was polite, cordial even, with a Midwestern formality and social grace. But although we spent several hours together over the two days I was in Kansas, it would be a stretch to say that we connected, or that I made any particular impression on Burroughs at all.

Partly, I suppose, that’s as it should be; the interviewer is, or ought to be, the least important part of any interview. But I was also struck then, and remain so, by the fact that Burroughs had been interviewed so often he must have wondered what else he had to say.

Check out the rest of Ulin’s reflections, and be sure to find your way to Sensitive Skin to get your Burroughs fix!

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.