Sinclair Beiles was a friend of the Beats, lived at the beat Hotel when it was all happening, had a hand in editing William Burroughs’ seminal novel "Naked Lunch," was a prolific poet and led an eventful life. Yet strangely, he remains largely unknown. "Who Was Sinclair Beiles?" attempts to address this matter.
This volume may be slim, but plugs a very big gap in the coverage given to the criminally underrated poet Sinclair Beiles. Despite being heavily into the works of the Beat Generation – by which I mean specifically William Burroughs and the broader circles of beat poets and writers, many of whom produced experimental work that’s far more interesting and holds up far better than the rather indulgent works of Ginsberg and Kerouac – Beiles is someone about whom I know very little. There is little doubt that this is something of an oversight. After all, Beiles was one of the four authors who contributed to the ground-breaking Minutes to Go in 1960. A collection of the first cut-ups, produced at the legendary Beat Hotel, Minutes to Go featured texts by Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Beiles and Gregory Corso. Still, it seems I’m far from alone in this oversight. Of the four, while the credit Gysin was due has been slow in coming, fair coverage has been given to all but Beiles, who essentially slipped under the radar of readers, biographers and scholars alike. Moreover, if Beiles’ profile is low amongst Beat circles in Europe and the US, it appears he remains in almost complete obscurity in his native South Africa.
Noting this, Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska set out to make some small contribution toward redressing the balance. Who Was Sinclair Beiles doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or anything approximating a complete biography, and nor does it feature any of his poems or play scripts. Of these, there are many, a large quantity of which remain unpublished to this day. In fact, the first thing that this collection of essays, interviews and recollections by a range of people who knew or met him, reveals is just how prolific the man was. Insanely prolific, it might be said. Beiles’ mental condition is the other central theme of the pieces collected here. From the outset, it is clear that Sinclair Beiles was not a well man, and spent almost countless spells in psychiatric care. Yet despite his extremely erratic, aberrant behaviour – there are some truly eye-opening anecdotes within the various essays here – one thing that also shines through is the fact that Sinclair Beiles had many friends, and that his warmth and spirit was more than adequate compensation for the fact that maintaining friendship with him was often extremely difficult and trying. In this way, through a series of pen-portraits and interviews, we gain some insight into who Sinclair Beiles was.
That the interviews were all conducted within close proximity to one another – in the mid 1990s – does mean that there is a degree of overlap and repetition, and all capture Beiles at a certain point (fairly late) in his life. Nevertheless, they do reveal Beiles to be a complex and extremely creative, if perhaps rather awkward, individual, willing to freely criticise just about anyone, regardless of the effect it may have on his career. His sniping comments about Allen Ginsberg are particularly amusing, if unexpected, although he presents a more accommodating stance on Burroughs. In the interviews, he recalls the preparation of the manuscript of Naked Lunch for publication (Beiles was an editor at Olympia Press at this time), and recounts a number of fabled events from a previously unseen perspective. As such, fans and students of Burroughs and the Beats will find this book fascinating. Sinclair’s association with the Beats (discussed in detail in Kowalska’s essay ‘Beiles the Beat’) and his residence at the Beat Hotel (strangely omitted from Barry Miles’ book) may be his main claim to fame, bur represents just one chapter in a varied, if troubled, life, and Who Was Sinclair Beiles? sets out to address this.
Cummiskey acknowledges that it’s likely to be an uphill battle to bring Beiles to the awareness of the masses. The main problem lies in the availability of Belies’ work, in that much of it is out of print. Apart from a collected works, A South African Abroad (which Beiles complains is by no means representative of his best work), there’s very little of it that’s readily available. Many of his later works were published in the smallest of runs, with copies numbering twenty or so, or even as few as four.
In all of this, it may appear curious just how little is said of Beiles’ poetry. Cummisky, in his introduction, notes that his output was unquestionably erratic (a point reinforced by Alan Finlay, who does quote quite liberally in his piece), and the style, contents and inspiration behind his fevered output remains largely undiscussed in favour of biographical vignettes. However, the reasons for this soon become clear. In the first instance, the purpose of this book is not to analyse the work, but to give some insight into the man, of whom almost nothing is known and whose life remains essentially undocumented. Secondly, and by no means less significantly, it’s plainly apparent that to pin down his output would be an immense, if not near impossible undertaking, and not only because so much of his published work appeared in tiny underground press publications and little zines. One gets the strong impression that Beiles’ inspiration was, it seems, anything and everything. Wildly creative and irrepressible, he could seemingly draw inspiration from the air, from anything and everything.
A friend of the Beats, acquainted with Picasso and myriad other luminaries of the worlds of art and literature, Beiles lived the life of the artist and travelled extensively, moving in many circles. However erratic his output and his behaviour, it is clear from this book that Beiles was a remarkable and eccentric individual, and that there is no question that he deserves more attention, especially given the intensity and volume of coverage that has been granted to the leading exponents of Beatness in recent years. Beiles is by no means the only unfairly neglected member of the broader beat family tree: John Giorno, Claude Pélieu, Carl Weissner, Jan Herman, Jürgen Ploog, Mary Beach, Liam O’Gallagher… there are many others who have quite undeservedly slipped beneath the radar, allowed to slip into varying degrees of obscurity or otherwise eclipsed by the legends of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and, to a lesser extent, Ferlinghetti, et al. I’d like to think that in time, this will be remedied. Who Was Sinclair Bailes? makes a brave and very necessary start.