Zora Burden: How did you first learn of Burroughs and which of his works meant the most to you at the time? How has your appreciation of him grown throughout your life?
JACK SARGEANT: I had older friends – only a couple of years older, but that’s enough when you’re a teenager. I would have been, maybe twelve or thirteen, hanging out with fifteen—maybe sixteen-year-olds. One in particular was very interested in music and literature, and by the time I was in my mid-teens I had been exposed to various forms of experimental music and culture through this friendship.
This era – the very end of the seventies and early eighties – was the great period for post-punk bands making literary references and cultural links in their artworks or statements or interviews. You’d pore over details for hints of things, read interviews with bands, look at references in liner notes and so on.
So, invariably I was fairly young when I first heard of Burroughs, and I guess I read The Naked Lunch early on. From the ages of, say, thirteen or fourteen till eighteen I read a lot of things—especially modern literature and cult novels.
But from the age of, maybe ten or so, I remember reading all the time. I was always one of those kids who read a lot; especially pulp horror novels, science-fiction books, and so on—I remember as a kid reading all those mid-seventies horror books like James Herbert’s The Rats and Lair. And as I got older the stuff I read just expanded and expanded as I followed ideas and links and inspirations. I mean, I am sure this was fairly common amongst people I knew, and I imagine your youth was the same.
I think that I was also very lucky that I had those opportunities and came from a very literary subculture. There were so many bookshops and, even better, you would discover what I guess you could call “alternative bookshops.” These would stock all manner of left-field books: beat stuff, punk stuff, political books, philosophy, fanzines, sex books, occult literature and so on… a fantastic opportunity to search out the unusual, chance upon hidden gems and uncover new works. Of course, alongside these there was also science-fiction bookstores too, so a lot of very good literature was just so readily available. My weekends consisted of walking around bookstores and record stores and browsing for whatever looked interesting.
In relation to William Burroughs in particular, as time has gone on, I think I’ve started to appreciate the ideas behind the works more, and, returning to read these supposedly “difficult” books periodically, they seem easier to read and get things from. Reading them now is like engaging with old friends.
ZB: What about his work personally resonated with you, and how did this affect your own writing or personal views on society? Had you already held the same philosophies/ideals he articulated in his books?
JS: I’m not really sure what resonated with me as a youth. I think, primarily, the idea of this figure of the visionary… the black humor… really mattered. When you heard those recordings of him reading, which I guess were around the same period that I first read the books, and that deadpan drawl, that helped make sense of the work, I think. As to the ideas he advocated, I think the emphasis on The Outsider resonated with me a lot. But there was always what I guess you could call the industrial-culture fascination with sound and image and mutated technologies. But when I was a youth, Burroughs was part of a much wider literary culture – it wasn’t, and isn’t, just Burroughs. I read De Sade, Flannery O’Connor, J.G. Ballard, Kathy Acker—you know, a lot of different things.
ZB: Which medium of his work did you appreciate the most? Do you feel one form of his work best represented who he was as a whole?
JS: I don’t think anyone can be really represented with one or two aspects of their work. All aspects of somebody’s work reveal different parts of their personality, I guess. For me: I dip into the books frequently, I listen to the recordings. I am sure that they all reflect different parts of him as a person, while simultaneously, in some way, perhaps not reflecting him at all. I mean, we read into things—we project our own ideas and so on into the work of others.
It is also, to me, very important to remember that people change throughout their lives, so in my thinking the notion of “who he was” is not a fixed thing but a developing process. Most obviously, if you read his volumes of letters you can see him change in some way as a person. But I believe that all of us change throughout our lives, whether through learning and experience, developing greater self-knowledge—whatever. I think as soon as people stop developing, or stop thinking, or stop learning, they stop truly living.
ZB: Which of his works do you feel had the most impact on society and how do you feel his audience has changed over time?
JS: In terms of having an influence on society, without a doubt, Naked Lunch. Primarily because it was one of those books that challenged so many of the existing censorship laws and it helped lead the way to a greater freedom in literature. The correspondence around it in the Times Literary Supplement is great, just to see the various people taking sides, arguing for or against this novel… that was included in the edition I first read, if memory serves, and offered some kind of context.
Of course, the cut-up trilogy [The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express] also challenged the ideas of what literature was, but that was part of a longer history of experimental textuality that helped re-define the nature of the written word. However, Burroughs also explored cut-up recordings and so on, which engaged in recorded sound in a new way… similarly the film-collaborations… especially The Cut-Ups which was directed by Antony Balch, with Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville, explored new potentials in editing and structure.
It would be impossible to say which areas of the many counter-cultures he influenced most because there are so many… I mean it’s safe to say that aspects of queer literature, industrial culture, satire – all were influenced by Burroughs in various ways. But then, things he did as a collaborator with Brion Gysin, Antony Balch and Ian Sommerville—to my mind the R&D wing of the Burroughs universe—things like the Dreamachine, cut-up tapes, movies, photographs and so on—have had an influence on the arts. too.
So, I think his work had an impact on society in cultural and political terms in relation to censorship but also in terms of influencing ideas around creativity and creative practice.
As to his audience changing, I’m not sure I’m not old enough to comment. I entered into William Burroughs through ideas from post-punk and industrial culture so that is, I think, the audience I am a part of. But of course, there’s also the counter-culture Burroughs that preceded that, the “Beat” Burroughs, then there’s the literary-academic audience, the queer audience, and so on. I think, like any good writer, there would be a hopefully limitless number of audiences and readings.
ZB: When did you start writing about Burroughs or create your own work inspired by him?
JS: I think, in the public eye, with my book Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, which Creation Books published and which has subsequently been republished by Soft Skull. But a few years prior to writing that I was loosely involved in contributing as part of a larger collective who organized an evening of readings and performances that happened around Burroughs’s 80th Birthday. This event took place in Brighton, England, and brought together local artists, writers and performers.
I did various cut-up experiments and so on as a youth. Coming of age listening to first wave industrial music—Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and so on—there was a sense of a very particular Burroughs, which was the author of Electronic Revolution, sound experimenter and so on. This was a reading that was filtered through books like Vale’s RE/Search books on Burroughs, Gysin and Throbbing Gristle, and the volume on Industrial Culture. So, perhaps that was the influence on my work. I return to these key, central works often.
ZB: What do you feel was the real catalyst or underlying motivation that compelled Burroughs himself to start writing?
JS: I think that’s more of a biographical reading, and I’m not a biographer, or at least I don’t consider myself to be one. I’m much more interested by his ideas, or those ideas that emerge from his work. I like reading biographies, and periodically will sit down and devour a small pile of biographies (for example, recently I read Edgewise, the excellent Cookie Muller biography which I really enjoyed) but I don’t think I could write a biography, so much as periodically suture a biographical anecdote into something because it makes sense at that moment.
ZB: Do you feel his freedom from financial constraints due to his trust fund played a large part in his ability to create his work? Do you think he would have had the same opinions and lifestyle had he been confined to menial employment?
JS: I don’t know, I think that’s all open for debate… I mean, I’m sure that helped to an extent, but then other writers and artists have also pushed aesthetic or cultural boundaries while working full-time jobs—look at Charles Bukowski working at the post office
ZB: Even though Burroughs was more of a literary ‘”lone wolf” how much of his work do you think was created as a result of collaboration, or from the urging from his peers?
JS: As I said, I am not a biographer but I do think that he was encouraged by his friends and to me that’s wonderful, having people around who can support you intellectually. That support network may be more important than anything else.
ZB: Since Burroughs sought to break all forms of restrictive conventions and boundaries on every level—metaphysical, personal, societal—do you believe his goal in his work was ultimately to document his explorations and experiments seeking this autonomy, or was he genuinely desiring to establish himself within the literary world?
JS: He was out there pushing boundaries of what was considered acceptable content and he was challenging the very notion of the written text. So, I think that any sense of “marketability” must have been fairly limited. I think that’s perhaps the true sign of a genuine, fearless thinker: a person who will pursue their passions and interests rather than think of pleasing markets and audiences.
ZB: Given Burroughs’s concerns with control, and his fear and vulnerabilities by possession of various entities, leading to his extensive work with the esoteric, do you feel his work in itself was a form of magick? If so which of his works?
JS: When he writes about various forms of cut-ups as magic and so on, I think that could be seen as a form of chaos magic. I think that his work has probably influenced some aspects of chaos magic. The writer Matthew Levi Stevens has recently had a book published on this subject – The Magical Universe of William Burroughs, which is worth investigating for those interested in the specifics of that area.
ZB: I’ve always wanted to know what is your writing process like and how do you research your subjects?
JS: My writing process seems to be almost organic. I spent less time writing than I’d like, which I imagine is a common thing for writers to say, but I spent a lot of time thinking about ideas. I keep notebooks, and will spend a day scrawling notes or ideas down, gluing in pictures that are interesting to me, and so on, but whether these are part of my process or not I don’t know. I look through them, but they are more just a part of a creative thinking process, that somehow ends up in a written work, rather than obvious drafts of the text. Although sometimes there can be drafts of paragraphs in these notes.
When I actually write, I sit down and write at the computer. Then – normally – print it out and re-write on the manuscript, then edit in those changes. Then I sit and worry that it’s terrible. Then I revisit it and maybe change it again. Sometimes I can write, say, two thousand words in a couple of hours; sometimes it’s like a slow and painful crawl. I tend to have certain ideas I want to articulate, and if I am lucky then they come easily, but other times I can spend an entire week on a paragraph. Even if I do something else, that paragraph remains in my mind until I have spat it forth onto the paper. Of course, the reader sees none of this, and would probably care less, but the very arrangement of words in a sentence can cause me hours of an almost physical discomfort.
ZB: What was involved in the creation of your book Against Control?
JS: Against Control was a different process, because the pieces included are from lectures or essays that have – in one form or another – been written or published, so the process was more trying to tidy up things, chase up better references, re-introduce, edit or move around paragraphs that may have been excised originally, and so on. It was still gruelling for me, because that idea of looking at your own work is, for me, quite hard. I guess it took a couple of months to get everything in there sorted out, and try and keep the original tone of each piece, to respect my original intentions, and my original motivation.
ZB: For those who don’t know, what other books, essays or lectures have you done on Burroughs?
JS: Well, I already mentioned Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, but I have also written an introduction for Michael Spann’s essay on Burroughs in Mexico, or rather the Mexico Burroughs found himself moving in, which was published with a related Burroughs piece. The book is called William S Burroughs’ Unforgettable Characters, and is published by Inkblot. They’ve published some really interesting books relating to the Burroughs and Gysin world and are well worth checking out.
Last year [Feb 5-9, 2014] I appeared at The Burroughs Century in Bloomington, Indiana. I gave the closing session, where I talked for an hour or so about all the Burroughs stuff that fascinates me; Dreamachines, sound cut-ups and so on. I was talking in front of a huge cinema screen that I had tuned to static fuzz, so when I started talking about the flicker effect I turned on the projector and the whole audience had the quasi-flicker of static playing behind me, which I thought was quite enjoyable. That was a wonderful weekend. Oliver Harris was there and gave a great talk of course, Mark Hosler from Negativland was there and was performing, so I got to meet him and talk, and Lydia Lunch was there doing a spoken word performance and a talk at the event, so we got to catch-up. The whole experience was pretty much perfect, Charles Cannon who organized it did a great job. I believe it was the first event of the year-long Burroughs Century, and on his 100th birthday – which was the day the event started – they had a brilliant Naked Lunch-inspired birthday cake. It was also insanely cold, which meant I sampled local whiskeys and trampled through snowdrifts.
I’m also inspired a lot by my perception of lack: if something I want to see isn’t happening, I tend to try and make it happen. One time I was talking with my good friend Holiday about literature and culture and so on, and it dawned on the two of us that there was a real need for a space to disseminate some of these ideas. So, the two of us founded what we first described as a decadent reading group, which somehow became known as the Decadent Society. For a couple of years, from around late 2010 onwards, we held a series of fairly exciting public talks, readings and lectures on a variety of subjects. The idea was that I would give a talk and then somebody else would the following month, you know? What happened is that about four or five people gave some wonderful talks, and some genuinely exciting information and ideas were discussed and celebrated, but basically I gave about eighty percent of the talks over, maybe, two-and-a-half-years.
So, I was giving monthly talks on subjects as diverse as Harry Crosby, car crash pop songs, and, of course, William Burroughs to a small but dedicated audience. We held these talks in two different bookshops, a nightclub, and at a local art gallery, and they were always very enjoyable. We incorporated some performance elements too – we had the guitarist Mike Cooper perform – that was incredible; we had a naked woman as a human food platter which certainly challenged some people in the audience, and Holiday performed music. All ways of stimulating the imagination of our audience.
But with Burroughs in particular, for a while I would give an annual talk. I did one – which is included in Against Control – celebrating fifty years since the publication of Naked Lunch, I did one on the Dreamachine and flicker which subsequently inspired an essay, which again is in the book. I did a lecture on Burroughs and cut-ups. Many of these lectures were given in an underground art space in Sydney called the Mu-Meson Archives.
And I did one in Brighton, in the UK, early on, and we went to the fetish club the Torture Garden afterwards. And there were girls who had been at the talk hanging out half-naked in rubber and fetish wear. It felt good to see that there were these two communities overlapping, this intellectual book reading crowd and this sexy party crowd. I love that.
Of course as a result of Naked Lens: Beat Cinema over the years I’ve done many talks on Burroughs’s film collaborations with Balch, Gysin and Sommerville, and curated many related film screenings. I’ve also attended the European Beat Studies Network annual conference and given a paper there. I’m sure I’ll do others; I’m not done with Burroughs yet, although as an aside I recently gave a talk on JG Ballard.
ZB: Will you talk about the many ways Burroughs broke the limitations of language and thought, and how you have utilized this in your own work? Can you advise others on how they can apply Burroughs techniques for their writing or any form of artistic self-expression?
JS: I think for Burroughs he worked with language, and through the cut-ups he totally engaged with pushing the very idea of written language to its limits. I think that demands a high level of concentration and focus, I recall that I read a quote somewhere, perhaps from Gysin, that Burroughs possessed a gimlet-like mind – which I guess is an ability to just focus on a point and focus down on it. If I’ve applied anything to my own writing, it’s to try and maintain a focus. Burroughs was also interested in semantics, and obviously addressed the failure of the binary either / or universe, and that’s something I’ve always applied to my own thinking. Whether I got that from Burroughs or from the “either / or / or” of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus I am not sure. But more than all of this, an absolute dedication to freedom of speech and self-expression is crucial to me. People like Burroughs fought for those rights, and as writers and artists we should never forget that. I could stand up in a room and talk to the power and influence of Burroughs’s techniques and ideas, and the ideas of Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville and so on. But people come to the work themselves. I’m not sure about the context of advising people, I mean I wouldn’t advise somebody on how to apply Burroughs to their artistic practice if they didn’t ask, but then if they did ask then they’d already know. But generally, I would say to anyone: go read the books and the cut-up texts, go and try that process, go and f*ck around with writing and see what happens. Not just cut-ups but permutations, stream-of-consciousness, and so on. I would also say things such as: keep notes of ideas, dream diaries; doodle, take pictures, record sounds that you like. Never stop thinking about your creative practice, read widely, search for what you need, pursue your obsessions. The lesson, if there is one, is to doggedly pursue your creative practice and do not give up. For me personally, Burroughs, and also those around him were all great innovators, and that’s inspirational, but I think that it’s an inaugural moment not a finale or closure. In terms of specific writing exercises, I recently wrote a series of texts every night as the last thing before I went to sleep, for ten nights – this is after a day of working or writing or whatever already, and it didn’t matter if I was sober or drunk, tired or still energized – the fundamental idea was utterly simple: they had to be obscene. It was an interesting experiment and experience. Just trying to get my thinking into a different space, you know!
ZB: What period of his life do you think was most productive in regards to output or quality of his work, and did the demographics play a part in this? How did his work, in the different countries he lived in, vary?
JS: I’m not sure you can measure productivity or quality, and I don’t really recognise these as actual criteria. For example, I love the volumes of Burroughs’s letters, and these were written simply as personal communication to his friends and they were published posthumously, so can they be included in his output? What about his photographs, which as far as I know were only recently exhibited—can we count those? His recordings are incredible, and to me a CD like his Real English Tea is essential, yet it wasn’t necessarily created as art to be released, nor was it released in his lifetime, so can we count that in his output? And as to quality, I have revisited various artworks and get more from them the second time around… does that mean that the quality wasn’t there originally? Or does it mean that I found something else that spoke to me the second time? With many artists the way things are interpreted changes over time. The ability of many people to decode or read the work changes. Look at Van Gogh: here was a painter who was a total outsider and he had nothing, but he relentlessly pursued his aesthetic vision. Now he’s popularly recognized as supposedly one of the greatest painters of all time and you can buy copies of his works on postcards. The work didn’t change, the audience did.
ZB: How did his work with “Orgone” [theory] aid him during his life, with illnesses or his addictions? What made him so fascinated with Wilhelm Reich? Do you believe or use “orgone” yourself?
JS: I think William Burroughs had an incredible ability to search out neglected ideas, unusual science and so on. I write in the book of how he went searching for Yage. Nowadays it may be more common for people to travel, but the world is a different place today; now people travel with credit cards and the limitless ability to contact people via cybercafés. But to decide to go and search for a psychotropic plant way off the beaten track in 1953—that strikes me as an incredible thing to do.
I think in the case of Reich, Burroughs had this fascination with the possibilities of orgone that Reich described, and decided to pursue it. If you look at Burroughs’s letters and so on, you can see an openness to possibilities and ideas; whether in the cut-ups, film, the literary value of scatological routines, Yage, Dreamachines and the orgone box. He was a man who seems to me to have been very interested in the possibility of the worlds that existed around and within him. As far as I can see, he was at various times as focused on scrying techniques as he was on target practice. So, I think orgone was part of this continuum of searching out ideas that were unique, that perhaps challenge prevailing orthodoxies and so on. As to my own experiences with orgone, I have a friend who has been documenting experiments growing plants with orgonite, but I haven’t spent time sitting in boxes or whatever. I was recently at the Wellcome Trust, one of the best museums in London, and they had an exhibition on Sexology with an orgone box and people were able to sit in it, although the time people were spending in it and the number waiting prohibited my taking part.
ZB: What facts about Burroughs have you discovered that many might not know about him during your research? About either him or any unpublished works?
JS: I think I have certain specific obsessions, and they have developed over the years. My readings are probably informed by those obsessions and I think my writing would probably reflect that. As I said, I am not a biographer, so I don’t approach projects as a way to search for specific new biographical facts, but as a writer I like to share my ideas and my understandings and in this case my interests, readings, obsessions and ideas. This all said, I think few have made all the connections that I do or read in the way I do, so I think there’s new things in my work, new connections, new ways to consider things, but there’s not any new stories of his life or anything like that.
ZB: Will you talk about how certain subcultures and their creative output like TOPY [Temple of Psychic Youth] was inspired by Burroughs?
JS: In part coming of age listening to Throbbing Gristle, Monte Cazazza and so on… basically industrial music and No Wave defined my tastes. So, I really entered Burroughs via post-punk… and to me his ideas of sound, cut-ups, infrasound, and so on, all informed the mise-en-scène of first wave industrial music. The fact that he really found an audience in post-punk and punk showed some aesthetic lineage. In Against Control – when I look at the records released around Burroughs – I mention the releases by Giorno Poetry Systems, and I think you can really see some shared ideas about the nature of communication amongst the artists there. It’s telling to me that so many of the musicians and bands that are on those records emerged from punk and industrial music.
ZB: How do you hope your book will inspire or affect its readers?
JS: That is a really intriguing question, and I am really unsure how to answer it. I suppose that I would like people to read it and enjoy it, but also that they get something from it, whether an urge to listen to a Burroughs recording or the desire to explore some of the areas I touch upon more fully. I’m a writer, so I hope people may appreciate a turn of phrase or a line in the book, but I also deal primarily in nonfiction so I hope people will be stimulated by my interpretations of things and my own—for want of a better term—intellectual ideas. But this book—indeed perhaps any published work—is also a group activity in some way, and I hope that people like the artwork and the whole look of the book. Physical books really matter to me, and this book is very physical, it’s not a damned e-book, you know? So, I find Dan Wininger’s beautiful cover to be absolutely stunning, and I am incredibly flattered that he let the publisher use the picture. So I hope people will read the book and then go and search out his artwork. Likewise I hope readers like the photographs in the book by Lee Ranaldo, Mark Bennett, Barry Hale and Herman Vanaerschot, all of whom provided images that really bring the book to life. There was a very limited edition version of the book too, and that featured a stunning and beautiful print by Belinda Sinclair, and again, I hope people get turned on to her work. I like it when people come up to me and say they enjoyed something I wrote and how it nailed something for them, or affected them profoundly. Of course, maybe that is also insane and probably a little arrogant. Really, I’m just hoping somebody looks at it. Ordering info: From Publisher: http://eightmillimetres.bigcartel.com/product/against-control From Last Gasp: http://www.lastgasp.com/publisher/Eight+Millimitres/