A quick study of who they were: Joan Vollmer Adams-Burroughs was born near Albany, New York on February 4, 1924. A student at Barnard College in Manhattan, New York, she was shared an apartment with Edie Parker. Their apartment was a place for beat poets to gather during their formative days in the nineteen forties. Edie Parker would go on to marry Jack Kerouac, Joan Vollmer married William S. Burroughs.
The Beat counterculture movement coalesced first in California-places like Venice Beach-as well as on the East Coast in Greenwich Village. Writers, visual artists, musicians formed under the auspices of feeling “beat” by the culture and atmosphere of the early fifties, sanitized America. These young artists followed in the footsteps of the “Lost Generation” of writers, notably Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck, only this time, psychedelic and opiate use enters as major themes of many works. Unlike Steinbeck who was lifted along with the rest of the country during the New Deal, on the heels of the Federal Writer’s Project; after the buffeting taken by World War II, the beats were disillusioned by modernization, retreating into folk wisdom, and the allure of the road.
William Seward Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914. He was born into money, raised in St. Louis, Missouri. He studied English at Harvard, and developed a drug addiction after being turned down for military service. It’s commonly believed that if not starting it, he popularized paranoid fiction writing in 1959 with the publication of Naked Lunch. A fuzzy and confused fever dream diary of a drug-addled sex tourist, the transgressive nature of the novel inspired entire genres of fiction, music, and counterculture thought. His first two books, Junky, and Queer, were hard boiled, street smart books about drug culture and life as a homosexual man in the forties. These books highlight Burroughs dual nature of shaman-technological evangelist, or a gritty, salt of the earth type, Burt Lancaster by way of the Midwest.
Joan Vollmer was not a writer, but someone who talked to them, spurred their imaginations further, and was highly regarded by the many beats who visited the salon that their apartment had become. Vollmer was aware of Burroughs’ homosexuality, but they built a bond around their confrontational demeanor, and quick wits. The two began their common law marriage after Joan suffered a nervous break, most likely stemming from her Benzedrine addiction. Following trouble with the law, they moved to Texas, where they sharecropped vegetables, and grew fields of drugs. This was where Burroughs’s first developed his hobby shooting guns. This is also where they conceived their only son, William S. Burroughs Jr. born in 1947.
The couple left Texas after being caught having sex in public, and a sheriff had his eye on the farm that brought in so many shaggy, sunken eyed men and women to visit. They lived in New Orleans for a short period before moving to Mexico. Bill found cheap heroin and boys in Mexico. Joan was forced to switch her drug of choice from Benzedrine to tequila, causing more stress to her health. On more than one occasion, she told her friends she thought her days were numbered. At a party and after much gin, William Burroughs announced it was “time for the William Tell act.” Joan, placing the glass on her head, turned around saying she “couldn’t stand the sight of blood.” Taking the shot from six feet away, he missed, shooting Joan, who died instantly.†
I was asked by Marcia Epstein to read for William S. Burroughs’ one-hundred-and-second birthday celebration on February 5th, 2016. This event happened in Burroughs’ and my own adopted hometown of Lawrence, KS, at the Percolator community art space. Before reading my poetry, I sat on a panel of locals and talked at length about his work’s influence on our lives. This was not recorded, I will distill it here for the sake of making sense of why I was eager for the opportunity to speak. I was a lover of anything “cult” since I was a very young child. I saw The Shining, Suburbia, and The Wall, before I was twelve years old. I got my first copy of Naked Lunch at age fifteen. A closeted trans girl in Oklahoma, my interests deviated far, far away from the norm. I won’t admit to understanding what I was reading at that age. It took many years for Burroughs’ work to sink in. I was interested in the town he settled in, Lawrence, from a very young age also. I heard stories about “The Outhouse,” a brick shack of a club in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. Regrettably, I moved to Lawrence too late, years after Burroughs’ death. I have since the time of this reading met poet, Jim McCrary, whose earthy poetry speaks to me as someone who has live on the great plains their entire life.
In the first section of “The Man Who Was A Bomb,” I wrote entirely in my own voice, it is in the freewrite technique I’ve always felt most comfortable using. The second section of the poem “The Man Who Wasn’t,” was used taking Burroughs’ own words mixed with my own to paint a fuller picture of the complex man. It was necessary, especially in the role I was asked to play, to mention his faults, his misogyny, anti-semitism, and general misanthropic behavior that some that I know label as “spoiled rich guy.” In “The Bomb Awakens,” I used the cut-up technique with only words from the novel Burroughs’ wrote with Kerouac, inspired by the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, who confessed to both Burroughs and Kerouac, the murder occurring at the time Joan had her apartment on the Upper West Side. In the last installment, “Finally The Anecdote,” inserted myself into the story, not in order to try to frame Burroughs as innocent in the death of Joan Vollmer, I only hope that in highlighting the fragility of our lives, combined with the tightrope walk of living on the margins, we’ll try to ease ourselves of animus, and live the best we can in the present. I wasn’t there when Joan Vollmer’s life was cut tragically short. Not to diminish her importance, she transformed a movement which reverberates to this day, mostly I want to remind people that as ugly a truth as it might be, the world is overrun with tragic moments, and everyone holds many shades of guilt. Remembering those who were in the line of fire, whether by fate, accident, or cold blooded murder; memorializing the humanity of those who make the worst possible decisions is still a key to knowledge. The violence, the mess, none of it can completely take away the only true gift of life, as long as we survive.
† Knight, Brenda “Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs: Calypso Stranded (1924-1951).” Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, pp. 49-56. Berkeley, CA, Conan Press, 1996.
The Man Who Was A Bomb
He walked with a limp. They sneered in Texas. He sneered right back. They liked it that way. Growing a life that men quietly respect. Tough soil, needy of the love only Mother Nature can give. Pistols are handy on the farm. Leaving Bellevue for a sexual romp to growing weed, and poppies. Next stop Voodoo City, then America’s capitol, Mexico City, no return service. Women crave life. Joan didn’t want to be regarded as simply a woman any more than a man would only be remember a junky queer with no contribution to the world besides some carrots, and peas. Sometimes in the service of killing vermin. A fascist with a gun is a fascist with a gun. The aristocracy was showing it’s cracks in the old world, the phone was a new invention, while a young boy was innocently opening Christmas presents, unaware of his future kicks. A junkie alley, friend of transgressive, apocalyptic, Nazi sympathizing writers, and filmmakers. Artists of all ugly stripes, only aware of the crushing society. Their outlandish preening now normal. Trembling with a grave look on his face, he dreams of a simple farming life. Glimpse of a future of enormous crushing gravity. The government men appeared for the first time, war with women. I’m the bullet. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Life is a game, and you’re a good shot.
The Man Who Wasn’t
Everybody sneered in Texas. That was alright. They talked slow. That was fine too. Their hearts were dry like the soil. Things grew with no help from God. Just the hands that pushed the earth. Some need a life, some need to exit life. The old William Tell routine, the guns come out, he shoots. Reality returns suddenly, with a bang! There is only time for fear. Fear is a powerful animal, it is the dog’s jaw, clamped on your wrist. You aren’t going anywhere, buddy. She isn’t going anywhere, pal. The most prominent of female beats, she is famous for dying young, shot by her husband. What is her name? Joan Vollmer. Joan wanted to fly, Billy knew how to fly. Be a man, he said. Then he called the Jew wicked. There was never an angel on the wing. Some kill themselves. Some kill others. That machine that shoots the man, the man is a tiny bomb. No rabbit meat for this man, only the extract of flowers. A modern man doesn’t kill what he eats. Bill wouldn’t be another queer in shorts. A man works the hole until the light peals through in bloody ribbons. Finally, reality caves in on itself. Stomach first, it’s empty now, empty except for the shame. Another villain, a stereotype, a murderous queer. It’s a new century, a nightmare, a roller coaster, a fever dream. You were, you were a cool motherfucker, goddamned.
The Bomb Awakens
The naked God-machine sidled up to Fate. “I’m out of Lucky Strikes, you got a fag?” The bellowing ghost needs sacred murder. Cursing like a trust fund changeling, Fate cuts another string early, to satisfy his churlish whims. “Toilet-stench-cults are ulcers. Get the drop by running in secreting effluvium all over them.” God snarls. The stolen stories dispossess her of intuition. Famished mania waved trembling, dressed, and went home. Never finished, or disposed of, a mainline sewer. Poetry is arbitrary. Secrets are feathers of gilded ribbon. Synapses sense a garbled, introspective brain death, spells of rank terror, an unpleasant dripping sewer juice. Hands up as the noose tightens, the last ten seconds of breathing. This body is an old jukebox. The young blood they bought was suffocating flowers, sunrise pigeons. Touch is addicting, stripped, pulsing with life. He shrank stupidly in his chair. Burning old money on beautiful queens, the darling queers. “Pay the proprietor.” She is laid out thin, and purple. Caution does not see their escape. Bullets baked inside loaves of bread, anything knocked them out. Last thing I see is his loud tie. Ideal behavior for reptiles. Man was always the bullet. Terrible empty, hungry eye sockets, crawling with bugs, pulling women down. Gravely, yet ecstatic, she yearns to reject the boyish mess, likewise sold to the intoxicating medicine. Abruptly he shouts “BOTTLE IT!” We can sell ten to any young moron clothed in shreds of shame and tattered dignity.
Finally: The Anecdote
There was a man named Robert, who had USDA PRIME MEAT tattooed on his face. I knew him for a week. You wonder why someone has that tattoo. You might safely assume he got it in prison. It didn’t matter at all. He was a nice fellow, and we overlook things about everybody, every single day. Like the day I left Austin. I had no idea in the next room, laid an acquaintance. She was dead from heroin overdose. Her friends said they had no idea she was using. This is where her story ends. I’ve known quite a few junkies in my day. I preferred alcohol, it obliterated consciousness in a manner far suited to my fiery temperament. We came to Kansas together on New Years Day. Robert was clearly running from something. I was a ghost who wanted to live. He decided Lawrence didn’t suit him, and went back to Oklahoma City. We had stopped on the trip through and saw an old friend. Inexplicably, he liked it. Robert had made a quick, and strong bond with my old band mate. We were happy. Until we got the call. My old friend had a nasty, mean wife. She shot Robert in the back of the head. She claimed she was aiming at the ceiling as some sort of warning shot. Warning for what? Buggery, camaraderie, what was it? She walked free. I wasn’t there, I can’t know what happened. I have strong doubts to her innocence, but I’m the reborn not the judge. Lawrence is a good home for reborn spirits. Dying is easy, but living?