‘Endless Talk’: Beat Writers and the Interview Form
“Talk – endless talk – forms the warp and woof of Beat existence” (Paul O’Neil, “The Only Rebellion Around,” Life, November 30, 1959)1
“a handbook for the new generation” (letter from William S. Burroughs to Brion Gysin, July 1, 1968)2
When journalist Paul O’Neil remarked upon the prevalence of talk in Beat circles, it was meant as a criticism. Part of a larger indictment of Beat poetry, “pads” and persons in an article for the mass-market Life magazine, O’Neil’s comment drew upon talk’s perceived associations with amateurism and gossip to deride the group’s claims to be engaged in more elevated cultural work. Equating talk here with the more specific form of the interview, a genre purporting to publish the account of a conversation between two or more persons, it is certainly true that the Beats and the wider counterculture utilised the interview extensively and for its promotional purposes.3 However, to read this as mere celebrity-garnering or a simple capitulation to the market, becomes problematic when we turn to my second epigraph. The “handbook” to which Burroughs refers is an anthology of his interviews, The Job (1970). For Burroughs, and for his American publisher Grove Press, celebrated for its list of revolutionary manifestoes and avant-garde authors, this volume of interviews had a serious and radical import. Quite how this association could be made, and the import of this for how we value these writers’ “endless talk,” is the focus of my discussion. Drawing extensively on the holdings – manuscript and print – of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Collection, I argue that the interview form becomes not just a means for countercultural writers to cultivate celebrity, but to intervene in contemporary debates around the position of the writer and his or her work in society.
Interviewing (beat) authors
From the mid 1950s onwards the Beats were regularly interviewed; the beatnik phenomenon (often treated pejoratively) and the various associated obscenity trials were popular topics in the mass media and many of the associated poets attained celebrity status.4 While they were not the first authors to be interviewed – originating in the mid nineteenth century, interviews had become a standard promotional tactic for authors by the 1890s, and readers consumed them voraciously – the amount of coverage they received was, at mid-century, unique. Historically, this engagement has been viewed as merely another example of these writers’ non-serious, fame-obsessed, popular status. The interview was frequently associated with publicity – in 1961 Daniel Boorstin characterised the interview as the quintessential “pseudo-event,” or “an event which takes place only for the purposes of being reported”5 – and the Beats were visibly linked to the form, regularly promoting their activities, politics, work and authorial personae.
The underground press and publishers associated with these countercultural writers also used this particular mainstream tactic in their attempts to promote authors, causes and a counterpublic. Specific interviews were often reprinted across a network of titles, with prominent acknowledgement of these in other publications. A 1968 interview with William Burroughs for Rat: Subterranean News (New York), which included discussion of his cut-up methods, politics and techniques of mind control was quickly republished in Georgia Straight (Vancouver), the San Francisco Express Times and Spokane Natural (Washington State and distributed in Britain).6 Geographically dispersed, this circulated interview acted as a touchstone for a community based around shared radical politics.
On a larger scale, Grove Press and its magazine the Evergreen Review had, by the mid-sixties, not only “revolutionized the publishing industry but had also mobilized a cadre of publishers, academics, and artists in a successful effort to transform the cultural field itself by incorporating the literary underground into the mainstream”.7 This mobilisation and transformation was partly achieved through interviews. The inaugural issue of Evergreen Review opened with an interview reprinted from the Paris Express with Jean-Paul Sartre discussing the Russian invasion of Hungary; issue six included Frank O’Hara conversing with the painter Franz Kline, whose work was a major influence on Roy Kuhlmann, the key designer of Grove covers. Later issues included interviews with authors such as Antonin Artaud, Juan Soriano, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and local New York-based writers as a means of introducing their work to a wider public, as well as subjects such as Fidel Castro who spoke to the politically radical ethos Grove promoted.
Significantly, Grove Press also drew on the growing connections between interviewing and interrogation (discussed in more detail below) as part of their legal and marketing strategies. During the obscenity trials of “Howl”, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, Grove used the expert testimony of literary critics as part of its defence. The trial over the American edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had seen Alfred Kazin and Malcolm Cowley testify. Extracts from these cross examinations formed an important element of Rossett’s publicity, printed in Evergreen Review and quoted on book covers. The fourth issue of the periodical featured “Horn on ‘Howl’,” Ferlinghetti’s story of the trial, and included excerpts from cross-examinations.8 Number 36 also printed the interrogations of Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg as they testified in court as expert witnesses during the Boston Naked Lunch trial.9 Grove Press promoted a radical, anti-establishment reputation for itself in part through its use of sensational courtroom interactions that resembled hostile interviews.
As I have already suggested, there is, at the same time, no doubt that countercultural authors and publications deployed interviews for promotional purposes. In a postwar culture increasingly dominated by Madison Avenue and celebrity promotion, this adoption of a form heavily associated with self-publicity is potentially troublesome for critics wishing to claim for these authors, and the postwar avant-garde more generally, a critical and political value.10 Compelling for their opponents is the notable divergence between pre and postwar avant-garde writers in their engagement with the interview. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others acknowledged the influence of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, H.D. and the surrealists on their work, but in their promotional activities they differed quite substantially from the strategies of modernist writers. While interviews with writers were commonplace throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the most notable aspect of modernist engagement with the interview before mid century is its lack.11 Despite the form proliferating hugely in mainstream magazines and newspapers in this period, interviews are rarely published in modernist magazines and, before mid-century, Woolf gave no interviews (in English), Joyce, Pound, Eliot and Breton only a few.
The profound difference between modernist and Beat writers’ engagement with the form might merely be taken to reinforce the latter group’s obsessions with publicity. The dearth of modernist interviews can be partly accounted for through their comparatively obscure public personae and coterie publics, as well as the form’s association before the Second World War with gossip and Hollywood celebrity. As productive work by scholars such as Lawrence Rainey, Jennifer Wicke, Aaron Jaffe, Loren Glass and others has illustrated, however, far from rejecting the marketplace, modernist writers often deployed publicity strategies borrowed directly from the fields of advertising and mass-media.12 So too critics have shown that these writers often engaged far more extensively with Fleet and Grub Street – and retained correspondingly complicated and fluctuating attitudes towards mass-market journalism – than has previously been conceded.13 In the early twenties British Vogue was a haven for avant-garde artistic ideas under the editorship of Dorothy Todd; by the 1930s surrealism was being promoted in American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Clear distinctions between pre and postwar countercultural writers based on their engagement with mass culture or promotional strategies become more difficult to uphold.
There is no doubt that there was a cultural shift after the Second World War in America; commercialism and the publicity interview were defining features of this period, as an older generation (tentatively) joined the younger in tolerating the medium (T. S. Eliot’s 1957 “photo-interview” for the British Daily Express about his love of dance being one of the more ridiculous examples).14 It is also true that publicity and privacy were becoming increasingly contested as literary concerns, as scholars such as Deborah Nelson, reading confessional poetry against contemporaneous legal decisions around the “right to privacy,” demonstrate.15 However, reading Beat and countercultural interviews within an interpretative framework of celebrity and mass-culture is restrictive, reducing their agency to a choice to either self-publicise or not. This ignores the degree to which these writers engaged with the specifics of the interview form itself, and leaves open the question of why exactly writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others were willing to risk being labelled as addicted to their own celebrity.
Jack Kerouac was interviewed for the Paris Review’s prestigious “Art of Fiction” series in 1968. The interviewer was poet Ted Berrigan, accompanied by writers Aram Saroyan and Duncan McNaughton. While it follows the usual Review format – opening with an introduction by the interviewer that describes the circumstances behind the interview, including a facsimile of a manuscript page and an image of the author – this interview is notable for its informality. It begins:
Could we put the footstool over here to put this on?
God, you’re so inadequate there, Berrigan.
Well, I’m no tape-recorder man, Jack. I’m just a big talker, like you. OK, we’re off.16
Less the formal tone of other Review interviews, this reads more as a transcript of a conversation between increasingly intoxicated colleagues.17 Despite the impersonal label, the “Interviewer” quickly moves away from being an objective representative of the absent public, in that Kerouac immediately identifies him by name, locating him as part of a particular coterie setting. Kerouac retains his position as master-artist and interview-subject but Berrigan, Saroyan, McNaughton and Stella Kerouac all participate as they interject, joke, share allusions, opine and swap literary gossip. The casual back-and-forth, the friendly insults and deictic references create an intimate atmosphere and sense of immediacy. While the occasion might have a “serious purpose,” aimed at enlightening a wider public (in this case the Paris Review’s small but influential readership of literary-minded persons in North America and Europe), the interview’s coterie style suppresses this aim, reducing the implied public to the space of a living room. Moreover when Berrigan announces that he is “no tape-recorder man,” his claim to amateurism has specific import: widely associated with the government surveillance of its own citizens that flourished in the aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, this inscription device evoked a very different type of interview environment.
As we have already seen, before mid-century, the interview was largely associated with celebrity promotion and gossip. The quintessential mass-media interview style might be represented by the phenomenally successful radio broadcasts of Mary Margaret McBride: deferential, friendly, and with frequent product placements. As television broadcasting developed in the 1950s, similarly affable interviews or “chats” with celebrities dominated the airwaves, what the New Yorker was later to characterise as “a discreet, milky, brand-selling, hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil style of questioning that veers aside from points of controversy as fast as it races through points of interest”.18 Against the backdrop of the Cold War, however, the disciplinary function of publicity became more overt and the interview itself began to take on threatening associations.19 The televised cross-examinations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities had illustrated not only that gossip and the private life of a subject could be used to devastating effect by interrogators, but that interviewing could also be a form of public interrogation. Welcomed by many as protection against a perceived Communist threat, the surveillance society being erected, and the interview’s place within this society, was profoundly concerning for others.20 As the bestselling book The Naked Society announced in 1964, “Millions of Americans are living in an atmosphere in which peering electronic eyes, undercover agents, lie detectors, hidden tape recorders, bureaucratic investigators, and outrageously intrusive questionnaires are becoming commonplace, if only suspected, facts of life”.21 Not only was interviewing in its various forms a highly publicised strategy of interrogation utilised by the state, but it was increasingly deployed by businesses and researchers to scrutinise the individual. The ideologically-charged renegotiations of the boundaries between public and private in this era were frequently tethered to the interview itself.
How then do we read Kerouac’s interview? As a retreat into the gossipy pre-war celebrity chat? To do so risks capitulating to those wishing to dismiss the interview as the quintessential form of the culture industry and the Beats as celebrity-mongers; it also denies the counterculture a role in offering an effective oppositional stance. Crucially, this reading also fails to account for the Beats’ willingness to engage in – and undermine – more hostile interviewing experiences.
A decade before the Review interview, the journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Kerouac for his national newspaper column. A pioneer of interrogative interviewing in the media, Wallace had garnered attention for his television programme Night Beat (later the Mike Wallace Interview) in 1956. The press hailed this as “antithesis of the conventional interview show,” with its carefully researched brief, lengthy discussion, tough questions and “attempts to nail the subject to the wall with inconsistencies from his past”; a style “with a strong flavor of committee hearings in it” as one commentator noted.22 His preparatory notes for interviewing Kerouac, part of the Mike Wallace Papers held at the University of Michigan, indicate a hostile approach:
Q. The main figure in your book, Dean Moriarty, is an ex-juvenile delinquent, a lover of women, a drug-taker, a thief, a seeker of “kicks.” Why do you refer to him as almost a saint? What is he supposed to represent?
Q. Do you feel, that in order to live life to the fullest, that one has to indulge in violent, anti-social, delinquent activities?
Q. A critic has accused you and your group of being filled with self-pity and self-admiration. He says that “we are entitled to despair or howl for rebellion only after much harder than anyone (of you) has bothered to do.” Are you howling or whining?23
These rapid-fire or sudden questions mirror the interrogative techniques of the security services or committee hearings, positioning the subject as an outsider, intimidating him, and giving him little time to reflect before being pressured for an answer. In a common move, a third party – here an anonymous critic – is quoted, granting immediate authority to the specific enquiry and to Wallace’s status within the interaction. Wallace situates himself, not as an individual engaged on a personal level with the subject (as we see, for example, in the Berrigan interview), but as a conduit for the interests of an absent and antagonising public. The interview is a model for the critical public sphere. These questions, then, enact a double movement, attempting on the one hand to emphasise the conflict that Kerouac’s values supposedly represent to those of the reading public, in effect ostracising him, whilst simultaneously promoting Wallace’s position as dispassionate public prosecutor, representative of the wider community. Such questions aim for a very different ambiance than that promoted in the Review interview. Claustrophobia rather than intimacy marks the atmosphere and the absent public’s norms are discernible in the shape of the questions.
More interesting than these stylistic differences is what Kerouac does with his answers, and it is here that we can begin to identify a recognisably “Beat” response to the form. When Wallace did sit down to tape-record Kerouac, the interview differed quite dramatically from Wallace’s intended direction – and from the majority of Wallace’s broadcasting and print interviews. Take the moment he introduces the anonymous critic:
Q. you’ve been accused – of being filled with self pity and self admiration. some critic – I don’t know XXXXXXX which critic this is…
A. in the book?
A. oh – Charles Rollo?
Q. It might be – he says – he apparently talks of the whole group including you and he says – “We are entitled to dispair or howl [illegible redaction] for rebellion only after much harder work than any one of you XXX has bothered to do…” Are you desperate – are you howling in rebellion?
A. that’s not me – that’s Allen Ginsberg – he’s talking about Allen Ginsberg – the author of Howl – a poem that was banned in San Francisco –
Q. that poem – well – he’s referring to the whole group – he says it’s true of all of you – you don’t sound to me as XX if you’re howling – XX.
A. not me – happy
Q.but you don’t sound [illegible redaction] happy. You sound – you look but you do sound possibly as if such despair has overcome you that you have been driven out of reality..
A.I’m tremendously [illegible redaction] sad – I’m in great despair..24
An emended transcript of the tape-recording, the conversation inevitably includes more repetition, false-starts and overlaps than a published interview. With the possibility of editing – unlike his televised interviews, this is not live – Wallace can afford to be less intimidating in procuring his material. However, the degree to which Kerouac is an active partner in this conversation is noticeable: he questions and corrects Wallace, he even supplies the identity of the anonymous critic, and he rejects outright the application of the quotation to himself, explaining who Ginsberg is to Wallace. This is not a conversation between members of a coterie but between individuals belonging to very different communities – they cannot assume they share the same references. If anything, it is Wallace who is the outsider. His tentatively delivered questions are frequently brushed aside by Kerouac, who instead enthusiastically expands on points of interest, offering explanations and clarifications. Clearly enjoying the discussion, Kerouac resists all of Wallace’s attempts to position him as a subject on trial.25 No confession is forthcoming.
While this cross-examination proved unsuccessful – in the published version the above interaction is excised, and Kerouac is presented not as a social menace or worthy interlocutor but as a naive mystic26 – such experiences made a significant impression on writers. As the interview’s associations became more severe, more interrogative and less gossipy, authors such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Berrigan began to endorse an alternative model of the interview. In doing so they scrutinised the form more closely and perceived in the interviewing process a productive model for countercultural creative practice.
During the Paris Review interview, Berrigan asks Kerouac about the influence of Ginsberg and Burroughs. Kerouac responds:
The influence we exerted on one another has been written about over and over again [. . .] You can find a lot of the details in Vanity [of Duluoz]… in On the Road, where Burroughs is Bull Lee and Ginsberg is Carlo Marx [. . .] I am so busy interviewing myself in my novels, and have been so busy writing down these self-interviews, that I don’t see why I should draw breath in pain every year for the last ten years to repeat and repeat to everybody who interviews me (hundreds of journalists, thousands of students) what I’ve already explained in the books themselves. [. . .] Notoriety and public confession in the literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.27
While complaining about being the target of so many interviews, Kerouac’s description of novel writing as self-interviewing is noteworthy. Although writers have habitually expressed concern that interviews compete with their fictional output, here Kerouac uses the interview as a model for creativity. In doing so he departs from the more familiar argument that interviews are mere promotional content and of inconsequential aesthetic value, arguing instead for a kind of equivalence between creative work and the interview. His novel here becomes an assemblage of interviews. This is a curiously diminishing statement, even taking into account the Beats’ frequent inclusion of auto/biographical details in their work. Placing the interviewing process as central to his creative practice, Kerouac leaves us wondering whether his novels resemble the interview on the earlier generation’s model – that is, whether the literary works themselves merely serve to promote celebrity, “Notoriety and public confession.”
Certainly the Beats’ reliance on the tape recorder implicitly reinforces this impression. The sheer number of extant recordings, whether personal talk between colleagues, formal interviews, or poetry readings, does seem to give credence to O’Neil’s complaint: endlessly recording talk smacks of hubris and celebrity garnering. As I have already begun to show, however, it was not the promotional possibilities offered by the technology that held the Beats and their associates, but its creative possibilities, and as we shall see more specifically, the new methods of textual composition it enabled. Crucially, these methods bear a noticeable relation to interviewing. Take Kerouac’s Visions of Cody (1972). Composed in the early fifties, the work was made up in part of transcripts from the tape-recorded dialogue between the writer and Neal Cassady.28 Like many recordings made by Beat and countercultural writers, these dialogues were not recorded for the purpose of immediate publication but as stimulants to (collaborative) creativity and the raw material of published works. By archiving the conversation, the tape-recorder offers the possibility of a split interview, in which publication is temporarily deferred. The composition process is envisaged as an intimate private discussion, taking place in a realm temporarily outside of public space. This process seems to offer the possibility, so frequently imagined elsewhere in these writers’ works,29 that the coterie experience of composition could be expanded to create not the antagonistic, atomistic society fostered by Cold War paranoia, but an audience of intimates (the ambiance we see promoted in the Paris Review interview). Such a composition experience is enabled, moreover, precisely through deployment of the quintessential tool of exposure. Like the interview, in this model of composition the realm of public space, with its spectre of publicity, structures and delineates the (supposedly) private space constituted here as its opposite. Kerouac’s claim for the parity between interviewing and writing begins to seem less strange.
Yet, for all his – and other countercultural writers’ – interest in collaboration and dialogue between artists, Kerouac explicitly talks of “self-interviews”. This is a curiously autonomous form that discounts the emphasis on cooperative practice and multiple-authorship, practices that the interview is reliant upon and yet suppresses in favour of foregrounding the single interview subject.30 Kerouac’s term seems to want to dispense entirely with interlocutors while retaining other elements of the interviewing process. Instead, it bifurcates the single interview subject, who experiences events, friendships and, indeed, the influence of literary colleagues, from the writer who analyses, archives and creates. Kerouac thus seems to want to mobilise a type of creativity associated with collaborative working and dialogue in a purely private, solitary form.
He was not alone in exploring this possibility. Ginsberg, in discussing his use of the tape-recorder to compose “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” expresses a similar desire:
when transcribing, I pay attention to the clicking on and off of the machine, which is literally the pauses [. . .] Like if you’re talking aloud, if you’re talking—composing aloud or talking aloud to yourself. Actually I was in the back of a bus, talking to myself, except with a tape recorder. So everytime [sic] I said something interesting to myself I put it on tape.31
The tape-recorder becomes a kind of technological-interlocutor for Ginsberg. Regurgitating an individual’s speech in playback, the recorder defamiliarises those words, adding in its own clicks and background noise. Situated uneasily between creative agent and transcription machine, the tape-recorder seems to offer an opportunity to invoke those aspects of intimate dialogic creativity deemed beneficial in the absence of a human interlocutor. In contrast to Ginsberg, Kerouac dispenses with the technological agent, attempting to create this sense of alterity within himself. In this reading, self-interviewing becomes a kind of writerly introspection, occurring in the private realm of one, simultaneously modelling itself on a community of two, and explicitly tied to publication.32
This notion of self-scrutiny in dialogue was also used to extraordinary effect by others in the counterculture for the specific purpose of fostering resistance to state ideology. While we don’t tend to think of William Burroughs in terms of his engagement with the interview, in fact the form underpins much of his (and his collaborators’) work from the 1960s forwards, including the cut-up. Taking the Beat concept of self-interviewing to its extreme conclusion, Burroughs and frequent collaborator Gysin, turn the form’s interrogative function on the artist and the artwork. In doing so they highlight the interview’s potential to be a critically engaged, radical form.
Interviews and cut-ups
William Burroughs dated the invention of the cut-up – the splicing together of different texts – to October 1, 1959. This was also the day that he was interviewed by Paris-based Life journalists David Snell and Loomis Dean for Paul O’Neil’s article. More than a pleasing coincidence, for Burroughs and Gysin the cut-up and the interview text share a vital interrogative function. Not that the Snell-Dean interview simply epitomised the cross-examination, as Burroughs acknowledged himself. In a letter to Ginsberg, he described the pair as “2 far out cats with real appreciation for my work that can’t be faked. Of course they have nothing to do with the final form of the story”.33 The distinction that Burroughs identifies between the circumstances of a conversation and the published “final form” was something that he and Gysin exploited in their cut-up experiments; while an interview might be an affirmative experience produced by like-minded individuals, the resultant dialogue could also be turned against the speaker. The letter continues, “Police and beatniks Gould level are ventriloquist dummies for each other in nasty and stupid love affair”.34 Alluding to Joe Gould, an eccentric writer profiled by the New Yorker in 1942 for his efforts to write an expansive “Oral History of Our Time,” supposedly comprising of upwards of 20,000 conversations, Burroughs links the Beatnik phenomenon firmly with the interview and the interview with police surveillance.35 This string of associations was to form the centre of Gysin and Burroughs’ experiments with the cut-up.
One of the earliest published products of this technique was Minutes to Go (Paris, 1960).36 A collaboration between Burroughs, Gysin, Sinclair Beiles and Gregory Corso, the volume collected a series of poetry cut-ups and simultaneously promoted the form:
Pick up a book any book cut it up
[. . .]
chop in some bible pour on some Madison Avenue
prose [. . .]
shuffle like cards
[. . .]
here is the system according to us37
Advocating the juxtaposition of different found texts,38 for the authors the cut-up performs a kind of cross-examination on these texts: “as if the words themselves had been interrogated and forced to reveal their hidden meanings”.39 Shuffling, cutting up, chopping in, pouring on: generating a productive form of exposure and scrutiny, the cut-up method inflicts a very active form of self-interviewing upon the found text.
Such activity does not necessarily result in the publication of poems in the form of an interview; more frequently the generative structure is subsumed within the work. One of the less concealed examples is seen in Minutes to Go; Burroughs and Gysin respond directly to O’Neil’s article, and “Open Letter to Life [sic] Magazine” is labelled as a “Cut-up of ‘Beat Generation’ Life [sic] Magazine Dec 5 1959.” Less than a week after O’Neil’s article was published, the pair created a prose-poem interrogating the journalist’s words, transforming hostile mass-media publicity into a critically engaged, creative work. O’Neil’s words are transformed into a lyrical protest work reminiscent of “Howl” and Naked Lunch: “Exhibitionists abused Burroughs. ‘A Pale’ they said, and plunged aint-dancers wit unfortunate malfunct molotov last seen wait on Varso-message-knives-costume in hort 22. Sample a drug called heavy commitments.”40 The “Open Letter” adopts the favourite techniques of Senator McCarthy and Mike Wallace: quoting the (textual) subject’s own words back at him or her.
The cut-up also enacts a kind of textual self-interviewing in two other respects. First, as numerous contemporary and subsequent commentators have observed, the cut-up and textual assemblage was not new but had its origins in the experiments of the continental avant-garde. As Gregory Corso announced in an afterword to Minutes to Go, “Tzara did it all before”.41 By pointing out as much, the volume enacts a dialogue with itself about its own relationship with its predecessors. Published by Jean Fanchette, editor of little magazine Two Cities (publisher of Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Richard Aldington and others) the volume positioned itself as a continuation of the interwar avant-garde.42 Gysin meanwhile, a one-time surrealist painter expelled from the group in the thirties, used the opportunity to distance himself from previous colleagues and influences:
Tristan Tzara, the Man from Nowhere, divined Dada, out of a dictionary with a knife, pulled words out of a hat and [. . .] might well have burned the Louvre if he hadn’t diverted into the Communist Panic by the Art Wing of the Freudian Conspiracy calling itself Surrealism under André Breton.43
The distinct opinions held by the various collaborators are articulated within the volume at large. Far from an autonomous and unified work, this multiple-authored anthology is a split-subject of a book, in permanent hostile conversation with itself.
The second aspect derives from the particular inheritances exhibited in the first. Less concerned than their peers with maintaining a realm of compositional intimacy, Burroughs and Gysin were more interested in exploring how self-interviewing could be used to undermine authority – whether of the state, the text, or the subject. In pursuing these interests, they drew on their predecessors’ experiments in unconscious creativity, even as they derided the “Freudian conspiracy” of surrealism. While interviews were not a common feature of continental surrealist publications,44 occasional articles such as “Le Dialogue en 1928” articulated the belief held by André Breton and collaborators that the question/answer technique could facilitate a form of creativity that bypassed individual or conscious intent.45 Their frequent experiments with “exquisite corpses,”46 automatic writing and dream analysis further explored the possibilities inherent in unconscious authorships.47
Burroughs and Gysin’s own use of the interview marked less a departure from prewar avant-garde energies and more an update of this same constellation of interests for radical interrogative purposes. While rejecting psychoanalysis, Burroughs was an enthusiastic proponent of Scientology’s “auditing process,” interested in how it might work to break down the subject. As part of the process, the “auditor” asks the subject questions, occasionally issues directives and creates a file on the subject’s responses (permanently inaccessible to the subject). The auditor also often utilises an E-Meter, a machine purporting to combine the functions of an electroshock device and a lie-detector. Similar to Freud’s talking cure, auditing associates therapeutic dialogue with interrogation of the unconscious. For Burroughs this seems to offer the ideal model of the interview as cut-up. He makes frequent reference to it and other interrogative forms across his fiction and essays; his so-called “cut-up trilogy,” comprised of The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, unites courtroom cross-examinations, futuristic technology-police questioning, mind control strategies and even Mayan social control techniques within a formal strategy of self-interviewing.48
Burroughs and his collaborators also adopt a more interrogative understanding of the technology of the interviewer. While Ginsberg portrayed the tape recorder as promoting a beneficial degree of alterity within the writer, for Burroughs, this technology is to be championed for its ability to break down the sovereignty of the subject to a much greater extent. If the interviewer, before the advent of the tape recorder, was a disconcerting “inscription technology” (to borrow a term from Lisa Gitelman49) amalgamating recording device and human agent, with the introduction of the tape recorder, machine and human interviewer were comfortably separated. Nevertheless, the same technology also rendered the subject and his or her voice detachable. A short sound piece by Burroughs and his lover Ian Somerville illustrates this.50 A tape recording of the pair’s conversation has been cut-up, sections spliced together and cut-in with different material. In parts, two versions of Burroughs’ speech are layered together, one running backwards. “Inoculation,” “exposure,” “weapon” and other distinct utterances punctuate the listener’s right ear as “billy,” “will,” “smoke of dreams,” while other partial words and ungrammatical clauses filter through the left.51 It’s an isolating experience, as the listener is left straining to make narrative links across the disjointed material and maintain a sense of a coherent speaker through the vocal fragmentation. The interview might be used to promote the individual authorial self, but it could also break it down.
While the journalistic interview might connote interviewing’s most extreme practice, torture, for some authors, for Burroughs and some others, therein also lay the form’s strength: it could be used to break down not just the sovereign subject, but the sovereign state. Burroughs and Gysin pursued this explicitly in other works; promoting the revolutionary possibilities inherent in wielding a tape recorder. Well before the Watergate scandal, Burroughs emphasised the controlling associations of the technology in his 1968 Rat interview with the “bourgeois middle class” described as “walking tape recorders” and tools of state control.52 In “Playback from Eden to Watergate” (1973), however, Burroughs exhorted young people to use the tape recorder against the state. The most famous “playback” episode in American political history demonstrated that the techniques of the surveillance state could be turned against even its most powerful players.
This possibility was not confined to the tape recorder; print interviews and interviewing could also be harnessed on behalf of the revolution. Both Burroughs and Gysin produced cut-up interview anthologies. In Here to Go: Planet R-101 (1982), a collaboration with Terry Wilson, Gysin’s art and photographs were juxtaposed with excerpts of dialogue captured on tape and rendered in print through typographic experimentation.53 The interviews were broken up, re-ordered and infiltrated with quotations of Gysin’s own speech from other texts; enacting their own interrogation. So too The Job, a collaboration between Burroughs and Daniel Odier, consisted of interviews cut up with materials the former had previously published elsewhere. In the foreword to The Job Burroughs states that the book was originally conceived of as a series of impromptu interviews, but he found that in many cases he had already answered the question better in a previous text. Instead of paraphrasing, therefore, he and Odier inserted that material into the volume, in effect replaying it: “The result is interview form presented as a film with fade-outs and flash-back illustrating the answers.”54
Consisting of their statements on politics and art, specifically the cut-up technique, these volumes also exposed to scrutiny the very autonomy of such pronouncements. These texts don’t promote intimacy between writer and reader, and they don’t liken writing to a process of self-interviewing; instead they undermine the very autonomy of the text, encouraging the reader to replicate the role they themselves adopt towards their materials: interrogation. The reader’s role, in other words, should not stop with the text. Writing to Gysin in this context, Burroughs declared that The Job “should be a handbook for the new generation”.
In a sense it would be. While Beats and associated publishing ventures often worked in different ways to resist the new disciplinary and publicity aspects of the form, as we have seen, in doing so they imbued it with serious and radical associations. The impact of this in more mainstream venues is clearly visible by the 1970s: aside from Interview, mass-market publications such as Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone and New York magazine began to experiment with interviews.55 New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and others drew heavily on the interview form when experimenting with participant journalism. While not a revolution on the international political scale that Burroughs and Gysin might have hoped for, these writers’ “endless talk” was far from the capitulation to the marketplace it is often taken to be. Within the interview writers of the counterculture found a significant source of inspiration and oppositional poetics.