Frank Rynne interviews Oliver Harris in advance of the European Beat Studies Network's Third Annual Conference which takes place in Tangier, Morocco, 16-19 November 2014.
Terry Wilson introduced me to Oliver Harris in August 1993 just after the publication of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945-1959 which, he edited and introduced, had been published. A second volume of Burroughs’s letters has since emerged, but Oliver Harris’s work set a bar fairly untouchable when it comes to annotation and detail. Oliver Harris is now Professor of American Literature at Keele University and the president of the European Beat Studies Network.
In 2009 he and Ian MacFadyen organised the Naked Lunch@50 events in Paris which included a conference, musical events and the unveiling of a plaque on the former Beat Hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur commemorating former residents Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ian Sommerville and William S. Burroughs. It was Beat Hotel that Gysin and Sommerville made the first Dreamachine and Burroughs finished Naked Lunch.
On 16th November 2014 the third annual EBSN Conference kicks off in Tangier with a three day series of papers and musical events.
A separate event which I am organising with The Master Musicians of Joujouka in advance of the conference is Boujeloud for Burroughs 100 in the village of Joujouka/Jajouka where the Master Musicians introduced WSB to Boujeloud his Great God Pan and the “panic music” and rituals which feature in The Ticket That Exploded published in 1962.
In advance of the conference I asked Oliver a few questions about his life in the Burroughs world and academia.
Frank Rynne: When did you first get interested in William Burroughs's writing?
Oliver Harris: My interest in Burroughs dates back to the Manchester music scene of the early 1970s when I was a kid brother hanging around with various bands. The coolest people always referenced Burroughs, and Chris C.P. Lee, (the brains behind the comedy satire band Alberto y lost trios paranoias) gave me a couple of home-made cassettes of Burroughs reading from Naked Lunch and Nova Express. They blew my head off. I didn't know what to make of it, but I knew I wanted to know.
FR: When you were studying at university was your interest in Burroughs encouraged or frowned upon?
OH: I read English Lit at Oxford in the early 1980s, when Burroughs was just not on the radar for most academics. I decided I would rather stay on and do a PhD than get a job, and planned to research the poetry and politics of Shelley. Everyone seemed happy with the idea, but I got cold feet at the thought of spending my life in dusty archives poring over the manuscripts of dead writers. So I asked my Professor what he thought of Burroughs. The answer was so categorical - No, no, no! - that I realized he could square the circle of my ambivalence towards academia. I realized that if I did a PhD I would actually be paid to go to the US and meet him. So, although nobody in Oxford wanted anything to do with it, I went ahead...
FR: When we first met your volume of Burroughs’s letters 1946-1959 had just been published, how did that project come about?
OH: Yes, that was 1993 and my luck back then was unbelievable. A matter of timing. You see, because nobody took Burroughs seriously from a scholarly point of view, I had the field to myself. I had collected a great deal of archival material (ironically, working with manuscripts after all...) in trips to the US, including unpublished letters. I built my thesis out of these materials and when it was done sent it off to James in Lawrence, Kansas for his OK. He wrote straight back inviting me to edit a volume of letters. I suppose my work was rigorous and original - and yet, I really knew very little. So James took a gamble, and I worked incredibly hard to reward his trust in me. In a sense, I've been doing that ever since.
FR: There are many independent scholars working on Burroughs who tend to feel that the academic approach is either alien or too academic. Would it be fair to say that this view has some merits despite the potential of throwing the baby out with the bath water?
OH: Academia is in a mess, but there's still something to say for it. My position keeps me in touch with new generations of young people, so I have a very clear sense of how, for example, they respond to Burroughs. And the stability of my job allows me to take on research projects that aren't commercially viable. And while much academic work is written for too small an audience, I've been fortunate to apply scholarly rigor to work that reaches a real readership.
FR: What are your abiding memories of WSB?
OH: I was humbled by his generosity when we first met, in November 1984. He gave me his time and took me seriously. I was also astonished to find myself emotionally moved by a man so routinely described as somehow inhuman. But my strongest memories are details: the way he pursed his lips when smoking a joint; the way he called to his cats; his smile.
FR: You researched Burroughs in Tangier and the writing of Naked Lunch. Can you share some anecdotes regarding the people who helped you and the places, people and scenes that it led you to?
OH: I visited Tangier for several years in the 1980s and early '90s, mainly wondering around the medina trying to make a map of it. I went to see Paul Bowles a couple of times, and out there met up with Ira Cohen and Terry Wilson. I had a letter from Heinemann (who were going to publish a novel I was working on) and used it shamelessly to get introductions to all sorts of interesting people, like Gavin Lambert, who shared their memories of Tangier. For a week or so I went around the city with Iain Finlayson, a charming man who was writing a literary biography of Tangier. He had a terrible stammer--really terrible--and it was hilarious to see how he turned it to his advantage when interviewing people. They were so embarrassed for him that they talked and talked and talked....
FR: The European Beat Studies Network is now holding its third annual conference in Tangier from 16-19 Nov. How did the Network get established and what is the philosophy that drives the organisation?
OH: The Network was an idea really hatched by a Beat Studies colleague, Polina Mackay, in 2010. She's come to the events I helped organise in Paris for the 50th anniversary of Naked Lunch --which were wonderful - and saw the need to bring people together in the field; she said I would make a good figurehead to do that. Unfortunately, I like to be hands on with everything I do, so the Network has turned into quite a lot of work for me, but the idea is a great one. Across Europe there's so much interest in the Beats--broadly defined--and the EBSN has a mission to put them in touch with one another. I'm especially keen to break down the usual academic groupings and the Anglo-American divide from non-English speakers, although the barriers are so longstanding it's not easy. It's also hard because the EBSN is free and open to all. No fees - but also no income, so it's literally a labour of love.
FR: As a professor of American Literature you add an academic respectability to Burroughs. What are the issues re Burroughs that students raise or highlight?
OH: The most refreshing aspect of being a Professor of American Literature is every year to absolutely scandalize at least one student who picks up Naked Lunch and can't believe they can actually study it. Like, wow...
FR: Why is Burroughs's work so important to modern academics?
OH: Burroughs remains a barometer, so in some ways he's quite divisive. In a sense, nothing has changed: if you don't dig him, you're a square (and of course most people are squares!). But Burroughs is important to such a wide range of people for such different angles - Burroughs the writer, the photographer, the collage artist, the performer, the drug addict. In what other field would I be contacted by a Professor of Neurology with an interest in Burroughs (working on the treatment of Alzheimer's using Apomorphine)?
FR: Do you think Burroughs's work is as important as say Chaucer or Shakespeare or is it in another category.
OH: I think Burroughs brings the categories into question. I don't mean there aren't any--that everything is on one level--but I do definitely think that one of the great challenges of his work is due to its baffling fusion of the brilliant and the highly dubious...
FR: In this centenary year Burroughs is remembered with global events and conferences. Do you think his work will be remembered in 100 years?
OH: Remembering Burroughs is important, but I think the mission of the centenary has really been to show that his work can no more be remembered than forgotten because it's still happening. Although you can look back on his work in its historical context, the work itself seems so contemporary, so alive, so urgent - and so unlike anything else.
FR: James Grauerholz has taken Burroughs into many new areas; in the 1970s he stabilized his career and also effected his move to Kansas. The move from New York, many people were unhappy with. Do you think people misjudge James Grauerholz and negate Burroughs having free will?
OH: James was given a terrible press for years, but the people with axes to grind should have put themselves in his shoes and thought again. I've known James now for 30 years and although you couldn't find two people more different in so many ways, we share a passion for Burroughs that makes me feel like he's my brother.
FR: What is the most important Burroughs novel in your opinion and why?
OH: The question makes me laugh, because I would almost certainly answer it with whatever book I last worked on. So right now, I'd say: Nova Express.
FR: Do you think Burroughs should be on high school and secondary school curriculums?
OH: Burroughs is not for everybody. But those for whom he is intended, will find him one way or another.
FR: What would Burroughs make of the world today with the USA fighting Islamic militants as though they were the Axis powers of WWII?
OH: To be frank, the opinions of Burroughs the man don't especially interest me. I've always felt that his work was where his originality and terrible genius thrived.
The European Beat Studies Networks Third Annual Conference takes place at Hotel Chellah, Tangier, 16-19 November 2014. (Editor's note: The EBSN site is down for maintenance you will find a PDF of the draft program below for download).
The Master Musicians of Joujouka host Boujeloud for Burroughs 100 on 15 November in their village in the Ahl Srif Mountains. They will also be holding their 8th Annual Festival in the village 5-7 June 2015 :
Frank Rynne is a co-founder of the Burroughs 100 online network and manages the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
(Editors note: For more on Naked Lunch@50 see http://barrymiles.co.uk/journal/ and http://nakedlunch.org/).
The Draft program for the ESBN Conference is Below as a PDF
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