William Burroughs’ cut-up technique has directly influenced so much of contemporary culture that it’s hard imagine that there was long a history of literary cut-ups before him. (It reminds me of Brian Eno’s line: “Naming something is the same as inventing it.”) Here’s how Burroughs explained it:
The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different–(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise) — in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Heresay, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like.
I remember reading Burroughs’ (amazing) Paris Review interview, and discovering that he actually found out about the technique from his pal Brion Gysin. It sent me on a search for other precursors, which I detailed in the history section of Newspaper Blackout. Here’s the excerpt on Tristan Tzara, who was making cut-ups 30 years before Gysin:
I kept digging, and upon reading Paul Collins’ 2004 Believer piece “The Lost Symphony,” I found out about Caleb Whitefoord, a neighbor and best friend of Benjamin Franklin, who was doing a form of cut-ups in the late eighteenth century:
It was Whitefoord’s genius to notice that when you took a broadsheet newspaper of tightly set columns, and started reading across the paper’s columns—rather than reading down to the column’s next line—you could achieve what he described as “coupled persons and things most heterogeneous, things so opposite in the nature and qualities, that no man alive would ever have thought of joining them together.” Whitefoord called this cross-reading, and he was so amused by it that he would publish sheets of his favorite specimens and hand them out to friends in Fleet Street coffeehouses:
Dr. Salamander will, by her Majesty’s command, undertake a voyage round—
The head-dress of the present month.
Wanted to take care of an elderly gentlewoman—
An active young man just come from the country.
Yesterday the new Lord Mayor was sworn in,
and afterwards toss’d and gored several Persons.
Removed to Marylebone, for the benefit of the air—
The City and Liberties of Westminster.
Notice is hereby given—
And no notice taken.
It seems like I keep filling in little bits here and there over time. Just this week I learned about Lewis Carroll’s “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (a reversal of the Latin adage, poeta nascitur non fit, or, “a poet is born, not made”) which answered the question of “How do I be a poet?” in 1883:
For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.
I tried to keep as many “poems about making poems” out of the book as possible, and so this one got cut. Done from an article about another Midwesterner using collage to make his art, Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk).
In the late 1950s, Brion Gysin, originator of the cut-up technique, and his buddy William Burroughs who ran with it, had this idea: writing is fifty years behind painting. And so, they looked to collage.
Having worked at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and then in New York for two art-world figures at a magazine covering the arts, Barthelme naturally looked to what was going on in painting for a way to get back to the spirit of Joyce and Beckett without merely copying Joyce and Beckett. The method he struck on was collage.
Barthelme, at a symposium on fiction in 1975, said:
The principle of collage is one of the central principles of art in this century and it seems also to me to be one of the central principles of literature.
Which is echoed by Jonathan Lethem in his remarkable plagiarism, “The Ecstacy of Influence“: “collage…might be called the art form of the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first.” (Lethem writes that he heard filmmaker Craig Baldwin say that, in defense of sampling, in the trailer for his documentary, Copyright Criminals.)
But When it comes to the use of collage, there’s a big difference between visual artists and writers. Menand:
The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals with only one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, [is] to treat sentences as though they were found objects.
And just as Caleb Whitefoord, the first writer to make poetry from the newspaper, noted almost 250 years ago, Menand writes that we are already bombarded with juxtapositions of nonsense every day in the daily newspaper:
The illogic, the apparent absurdity, of a Rauschenberg collage or a Barthelme story makes people impatient, because it seems to violate ordinary habits of perception and understanding. But we experience the arbitrary juxtaposition of radically disparate materials every day, when we look at the front page of a newspaper.
Our goal then, with blackout poems, is to treat words, phrases, and sentences as “found objects” and to capture Barthelme’s “faculty of ‘not-knowing'” and to have “faith that, by an intuition operating below the threshold of consciousness…the juxtaposition of unlike to unlike [can] trigger a new kind of awareness…”
In 1965, the writer William Burroughs was interviewed by the Paris Review. He was 50, living in a hotel in his hometown of St. Louis. A short time later, across the pond, an artist named Tom Phillips read the interview, and decided to play with Burroughs’ cut-up method by doing “column-edge” poems with the New Statesman. He decided to take the method a bit further. He walked to a bookshop, and grabbed the first book he could find for 3 pence. He started blacking out the words, first with just a pen. It was beginning of a 40-year project now known as A Humument.
It’s easy to see how Phillips was inspired: this interview presents a brilliant mind at work, thinking about images and words and writing and how they go together. Burroughs claimed he was most interested in “dreams” and the “juxtaposition of word and image”: “precisely how word and image get around on very, very complex association lines.” He was an avid user of scrapbooks, kept files of newspaper clippings and photographs for character studies, and always wrote down his dreams. He also had a really interesting method of journaling: in three parallel columns, he would record the day’s events, his memories and what he was thinking at the time, and quotes from what he was reading. He called all this “taking coordinates”—a kind of “time travel” to see if he could “project” himself into one single point in time.
Combine this interview with the terrific Beat exhibit I saw earlier this year, and consider me impressed. (I confess that I’ve never made it through any of his books—first up on my list is his collaboration with Brion Gysin [the man who REALLY deserves most of the credit for the cut-up technique…more on that later], The Third Mind.)
Some of my favorite bits:
Most people don’t see what’s going on around them. That’s my principal message to writers: For Godsake, keep your *eyes* open. Notice what’s going on around you. I mean, I walk down the street with friends. I ask, “Did you see him, that person who just walked by?” No, they didn’t notice him.
Writers and technology
I think that words are an around-the-world, oxcart way of doing things, awkward instruments, and they will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think. This is something that will happen in the space age. Most serious writers refuse to make themselves available to the things that technology is doing. I’ve never been able to understand this sort of fear. Many of them are afraid of tape recorders and the idea of using any mechanical means for literary purposes seems to them some sort of a sacrilege.
The origins of the cut-up technique
A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, Minutes to Go, was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in ‘The Camera Eye’ sequences in USA. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.
Objections to the cut-up technique
There’s been a lot of [objections to the cut-ups], a sort of a superstitious reverence for the word. My God, they say, you can’t cut up these words. Why can’t I? I find it much easier to get interest in the cut-ups from people who are not writers—doctors, lawyers, or engineers, any open-minded, fairly intelligent person—than from those who are….People say to me, “Oh, this is all very good, but you got it by cutting up.” I say that has nothing to do with it, how I got it. What is any writing but a cut-up? Somebody has to…*do* the cutting up. Remember that I first made selections. Out of hundreds of possible sentences that I might have used, I chose one.
You know, they ask me if I were on a desert island would I go on writing. My answer is most emphatically yes. I would go on writing for company. Because I’m creating an imaginary—it’s always imaginary—world in which I would like to live.
Any fans of Gysin or Burroughs out there? What texts would you recommend?