Interlitq’s Featured Interview:
Oliver Harris, President of EBSN, Professor of American Literature, Keele University
interviewed by David Garyan
PLEASE FIND THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW, WITH PICTURES, ON THE INTERLITQ’S WEBSITE: http://interlitq.org/blog/2023/01/04/oliver-harris-president-of-ebsn-professor-of-american-literature-keele-university-interviewed-by-david-garyan/
DG: Running an organization like the European Beat Studies Network is a challenging yet rewarding task. Fortunately you have a great team to make it all happen. At the same time, you’re all busy individuals with careers and other responsibilities. How do each of your professional activities inform what everyone does for EBSN and vice versa?
OH: Like all the best ideas, we didn’t initially think it through, let alone worry what might happen if the endeavor succeeded, or worked too well …. At times, it has felt like we’ve set ourselves up for limitless commitments. Ultimately, it’s hard to manage expectations, including your own … and so, it was shortly after the 2009 NL@50 events that I helped co-organize in Paris (which succeeded in the most beautiful way) that Polina MacKay suggested we create the EBSN; it sounded like such an obvious idea—so self-evidently necessary—and because nobody had thought of it before, we had to be the ones. In the decade since then, I think everyone involved has had to balance out their level of commitment. We never wanted it to feel like an obligation—something which was getting in the way. The whole point was that we wanted this. Yet there were times when I was putting in at least a day a week—a full day every week—and that wasn’t sustainable, at least not with a busy day job and family commitments, along with the need to sleep every so often. Having said that, the major pinch points are the conferences, which are the heart and soul of the EBSN; they require a ton of work for those directly involved. In that sense, going to Murcia last year was for me a holiday, but I knew from experience just how much effort it had taken, just how hard the organisers had worked to make it feel effortless—to make it enjoyable as well as invaluable.
DG: Since its foundation in 2010, EBSN has organized ten annual conferences, with the most recent, the eleventh—in Murcia, Spain—in September 2022. It would be interesting to hear a little about the organizational process. In other words, how are locations chosen, who reviews papers/topics, and who are the key figures ensuring that things run smoothly on the ground?
OH: The process was a little haphazard to begin with; however, nothing on such a scale happens without planning! Each event has been unique and even though we realized the process and guidelines needed to be clear—along with the frameworks for conferences that we post on our website—the template is deliberately very open. The one thing we’ve insisted upon is that we don’t do standard academic events, where you just have a series of panels with 20-minute papers that people mainly read out-loud, starting at 9 am, typically hosted in massive chain hotels. We have had conferences in such venues—the Hotel Chellah in Tangier—but this was a very special location and had a fabulous atmosphere. We’ve also held conferences in a community arts centre in Manchester, with cabaret-style layout of tables, along with candles and incense. So, in a way, our conferences give new organisers permission to think outside the academic box, just as I hope we’ve also inspired individuals, especially young academics, to sneak out of the Procrustean bed of academia and, well, enjoy their work. And it definitely helps that we’re a multi-national organization. We benefit from not just having so many creative and smart people involved, but people from different language-communities and cultures. I think that might also account for why the atmosphere is not competitive but cooperative. In this way, it adds up to a complex organism—and to keep it healthy we’ve needed intelligent oversight, along with dedicated people at the top. I won’t single any one out, as it’s been a genuine team effort with everyone playing to their strengths and doing it because we want to, not because it goes with The Day Job.
DG: From your perspective, what was the highlight of this year’s conference?
OH: If may speak selfishly, it was a pleasure visiting a lovely city in Spain and being in the company of interesting people. I really needed that; in this sense, the timing and atmosphere were perfect for me. And it was all so nicely organized by Estíblaliz and her colleagues. If I had to pick out one highlight, it would be on the last night when we’d been at a bar having readings and performances. I walked out with Eric Andersen (who has been there from the start of the EBSN—kind of the soundtrack to the organization) when Gerry Nicosia was leaving the bar at the same time. Gerry had been one of the keynotes in Murcia—full of passion and insight as always—but it was late and he wanted to leave. And I was ready to go too. The three of us stood in the street and none of us could stop talking. I have a lovely photograph of Eric and Gerry, each gesticulating and trying to get a word in. Hilarious.
DG: Let’s shift to your own work and talk about Burroughs. You’ve done extensive research on him, including major editorial projects on his letters and journals. Many have said that writers are really two people—the actual person and the myth. As someone who has studied Burroughs closely and read a great deal of his personal writing, to what extent (aside from accidentally shooting his wife) did the excesses contained within his work correspond to the reality of his life?
OH: That’s such a great question! I’m reminded of a telephone interview from the late 1980s when Burroughs was asked how he saw the relationship between his public image, his body of work, and himself, the actual man—and Burroughs replied: “There is no actual man ….” Another way of putting it is that he was acutely aware that identity is fictional, that we make up who we are, that there is no single stable self inside of us—that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, he knew that we have no idea why we behave the way we do—that we seem to have been given a script to play. And yet, as you know, I’m not a biographer, so for me the answers aren’t in the man but in the work, which I prefer. I recall vividly when I first met him out in Lawrence, Kansas, and wondering at the strangeness of it, that I was drawn to someone so utterly different, incomprehensibly different to myself. I projected a lot onto him, and I knew it wasn’t really based on any insights into what made him who he was. That’s why I feel more comfortable interpreting his work, I think. And over the years, I find myself enjoying it more and more. That might sound surprising—it surprises me. It reminds me of Michael De-la-Noy, the biographer of Denton Welch, who would ask each time we met, “Are you still working on Burroughs?” That was 30 years ago! But yes, I am still working on Burroughs. In part because he’s just so endlessly interesting, an inexhaustible cabinet of curiosities to explore, and it has introduced me to so many remarkable people, some of whom I have collaborated with creatively. And in part, it’s because I’ve accepted a certain obligation. When James Grauerholz gave me my first break, nearly 40 years ago now, I knew I wanted to repay that trust. And also because I came to a decision a long time ago that I didn’t really care for “literary studies,” or for the life of an intellectual. It’s just not me. In this sense, it seemed to simplify everything—to stick with Burroughs and occasionally, very occasionally, cheat on him. Actually, the piece of my own scholarship I rate as the best is not on Burroughs but something I researched on Hemingway—his incomparable short story “The Killers.” There are other things like that I’ll write along the way, but I have no regrets about being the bride of Burroughs ….
DG: Let’s talk about the Beats in general. Though the movement originated in the US, many of its most prominent members were very much inspired by European traditions—Ginsberg’s fondness for Blake, for example, or the fact that Burrough’s famous “cut-up” technique can probably be traced back to early 20th century avant-garde movements in Europe. In this age of increasing nationalism, the preference for isolationism (at best), and downright hostility to anything foreign (at worst), why is the Beat aesthetic especially important, and do you think it’s possible, perhaps, we’ll see the resurgence of some movement akin to what the world experienced in the ‘50s and ‘60s?
OH: That’s such an interesting possibility, and of course it goes to the heart of the EBSN—its internationalism. In academic terms, it’s already happened: there’s plenty of work done from European, global, transnational perspectives. The internet has of course facilitated that, albeit mainly on Anglophone terms. More broadly, it’s pretty obvious that the planet is at a tipping point, that a cataclysm is unfolding, and that the only real question is whether we go through the darkness to emerge renewed—whether we transcend the humanity that has got us into this mess—or not. Central to the Beat movement were writers committed to worldviews along these lines, knowing that an end was looming and offering wildly different takes on the future: Burroughs’ apocalypticism is not at all the same as Ginsberg’s, or McClure’s, or Snyder’s, or Anne Waldman’s, and so on.
DG: Apart from Burroughs, who are some Beat writers you particularly enjoy, and who is one writer outside that tradition you would call a big influence?
OH: The one writer I’d single out is Diane di Prima. I especially love her Revolutionary Letters. Her voice is so direct, so tough, so tender, so alive. But as I said, I really don’t read very widely. My time is entirely taken up with Burroughs and my children, my cat, my partner, and the EBSN (not necessarily in that order).
DG: Let’s briefly return to the organization. In true Beat fashion, membership is inclusive, open to all. Members come from all walks of life and may freely choose how much of their time to contribute to the project. Are there any members you’d like to recognize for their involvement/contribution to not only EBSN, but Beat culture in general.
OH: I’ll add that membership is free. That’s something which has seemed fundamental to me. Even a small fee can be off-putting. There were times recently for me when an annual membership fee for something was really hard to justify, so I don’t want money to exclude anyone. As before, I’d rather not name names: I’ve been fortunate to work with such lovely people, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out.
DG: You’ve now concluded the conference in Murcia. What are your projects for the future? Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?
OH: Reading? Mmm. Having just said that I don’t read widely, I realise I must do without realizing it, as I’ve enjoyed several good books this year. I’d single out three: Music For Erotomaniacs by my good friend Keith Seward, and Brainspotting by Andrew Lees, and The Master, by TH White, which is actually teenage fiction, a book I wanted to re-read for pure nostalgia. As for projects, I’m now in the swing of planning the cut-up conference for Paris in September 2023. This is a version of the events cancelled due to Covid in 2020. I doubt I’ll organize another big conference after this one, so I want it to be beautiful. Being held in Paris, how could it not be? And there’ll be such a crowd of interesting people. So the cut-ups@2023 conference is going to keep me busy, and I’m also aiming to finish a new book by the spring to launch at the conference. Alongside that I have other Burroughs projects on the go—a big co-edited critical book, a consultancy on a forthcoming Burroughs film adaptation—I’m not very good at saying “no” to anything, and of course, I know what a privilege it is to be in this position.
About Oliver Harris
Oliver Harris is Professor of American Literature at Keele University, and the editor of The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959 (1993), Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk” (2003), The Yage Letters Redux (2006), Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs (2008), and Queer: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition (2010), and The Soft Machine: The Restored Text (2014), Nova Express: The Restored Text (2014), and The Ticket That Exploded: The Restored Text (2014). See here for a review of the Cut-Up Trilogy. In 2019, he introduced a new edition of Blade Runner, followed by new editions of four cut-up works: Minutes to Go Redux, The Exterminator Redux, BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS and Dead Fingers Talk: The Restored Text (all 2020).
In addition to the book William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination (2003) and the collection Naked Lunch @ 50 (2009), co-edited with Ian MacFadyen, he has published numerous articles on Burroughs, as well as essays on film noir, Hemingway, the epistolary, the exquisite corpse game, and the Beat Generation more broadly. He has been a regular contributor to the Burroughs website Reality Studio and his most recent journal articles include “Minute Particulars of the Counter-Culture: Time, Life, and the Photo-poetics of Allen Ginsberg” in Comparative American Studies (2012) and “Burroughs’ Cut-Ups Lost and Found in Translation” in L’Esprit Créateur (2018)
Oliver has co-organized as well as contributed to numerous conferences, including the 2009 NL@50 events in Paris and New York, and has contributed to several documentary films, including The Beat Hotel (2012) and Paul Bowles: the Cage Door is Always Open (2013).