I was twenty-six when I purchased the book that introduced me to William Burroughs’s cut-up tape experiments. I rarely bought new books in my twenties. Mostly, I would pick up inexpensive second-hand copies of poetry books and visit St. Mark’s Bookshop to browse but, in 1997, I left with a copy of Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (1992) edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. I carried the book around for a period of time and read certain chapters more closely than others. The one I read in its entirety was “Sound Identity Fading Out: William Burroughs’ Tape Experiments,” by Robin Lyndenberg.
Flash forward to 1999; I find myself enrolled in a graduate course taught by John Szwed, a professor of Anthropology and African American Studies in the division of Sociocultural Anthropology. I don’t remember much about the class except that one of the editors of Wireless Imagination was mentioned in the course readings, which prompted me to enroll. Something else happened in 1999: Douglas Kahn published his book Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, dedicating another chapter to Burroughs’s sound work.
Between my purchases of Kahn’s two books, Giorno Poetry Systems released the four-disc box set The Best of William Burroughs (1998). The collection made it possible for me to hear the tape experiments I had been reading about and to write about them for Szwed’s class. Giorno describes the collection as a “voice portrait”—recordings of readings and performances compiled over thirty-five years. Burroughs was thirty-eight years old in 1959 when the project began, and eighty-one years old in 1995 when the last recording was made, just two years prior to his death. That’s a pretty rich voice history. “Wisdom is his voice” is the name of Giorno’s text in the booklet accompanying the box set and, revisiting this material now, I am struck by the generosity of the project. It cast Giorno in a system that is multi-part: part author, part archivist, part producer, part impresario, part witness, part muse, part cohort, part lover, part friend, and so on.
This brings me to John Giorno the poet. I used to love seeing him read in the ‘90s at the annual New Year’s Day Marathon reading that the Poetry Project hosted at St. Mark’s Church. One year, Giorno read a poem—arms and body flailing about the stage—while telling of a young man who kissed him in a subway station bathroom. It was an anonymous hookup; one of many, but what made the encounter different was the kisser’s passion. The young man was going at it with John as if he was in love with him, as if it was something other than what it was—but how could it be? The man was a stranger to Giorno, the poem alleges. It also outs the identity of the kisser: Keith Haring before he was Keith Haring. I will venture to guess that Haring did love John Giorno, loved him for as long as that kiss lasted.
LOVE? WHAT IS IT?
MOST NATURAL PAIN —
KILLER. WHAT THERE IS.
(William Burroughs’s last written words, August 1, 1997)
SHANNON EBNER is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.