Prodigious writers can come in many shapes and take many forms but the shape and form of poet Charles Bukowski was of a dirty old man with a bruised childhood and taste for alcohol. His internationally acclaimed writings are characterized by a shameless bluntness on the subjects of drunkenness, sex and civilised North American poverty. His life and life’s artworks are very much about the simplicity of the human being and the simplicity of life. Whilst anyone can read an artist’s work, one can often neglect to look where the artwork is really coming from.
Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994) grew up in North America, moving there at the age of 2 in 1922, his family were very poor and his father often unemployed. It is postured that due the stress and depression of poverty (during the Great Depression in America) Charles’ father would outlet his feelings as beatings that he gave to his son. In a poor and abusive family environment Charles grew up to be a subdued young man. He has been said to have been dyslexic, at school he generally performed badly in most subjects whilst excelling in the arts subjects. It is often stated that the turning point in all of this was when as a teenager, and with William “Baldy” Mullinax, he discovered alcohol. Alcohol was going to break his inhibitions and open up society in a completely new way.
The question of how to survive is not a new question, it is timeless, and the people who have to deal with this question are not in a particular class, ethnic group, or social group. Everyone must deal with this question of how to live ones life. More often than not people will present artists as the people who live with this question as a novel complication in their lives. There is of course some truth in this because they are set to innovate ways of making money that are perhaps not conventional or linear ( I mean obvious). But ultimately every human being living in a society with a strong tertiary industry and a dependence on trade via a monetary system must find a way to survive. The key word must be emphasized, to survive is what we must do. Bukowski makes this very clear in his life, in his work, and in his words.
“Necessitated by the fact that none of his vocations paid enough for him to survive, he worked as dishwasher, truck driver and loader, mailman, guard, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouseman, shipping clerk, post office clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly, and elevator operator, among other things (Contemporary Authors 109).” (J. Dougherty)
Whilst Bukowski wrote throughout his life, it wasn’t until he was nearing 50 years of age that he decided to dedicate himself to writing. Bukowsk’s longest employment period was at a Los Angeles post office where he was working for eleven years. Then he quit. He had achieved a few successful publications in small magazines and though things were not easy he wanted to make a change in his life.
He was forty-nine and on the verge of emotional collapse; he was paying child-support and living in a rented house. Steady or sufficient income through writing was far from certain. In an unpublished letter to Carl Weissner, dated “sometime nov. 1969,” Bukowski explains that “I have one of two choices–stay in the postoffice and go crazy…or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”
But Bukowski had an opportunity, it was still a gamble, he could not be certain that he would be able to earn enough, that in longer terms he would be financially sustainable. He had an opportunity to work with John Martin, a publisher and the founder of Black Sparrow Press. Black Sparrow Press brought Bukowski to an international audience and in return Bukowski seemed to exhibit and indebtedness to the company for the fame and artistic liberty they granted him. In a fairly poor interview with Jay Dougherty, Bukowski talks flatly about the fact that he left his laborer lifestyle behind and the reasonable social and financial security that he has now is enough for him:
Dougherty: Why do you think Americans have not embraced you so wholly? Is it a matter of circulation, that John Martin, your publisher, doesn’t have the means of, say, a New York publisher to advertise your books and get them out to the most possible outlets?
Bukowski: Yes, Black Sparrow Press has a limited circulation and this tends to hold down being known widely in the U.S. Yet they have published book after book of mine throughout the years, and most of the books are still in print and available . Black Sparrow and I almost began together and it is my hope that we will end together. It would be fitting. If I had gone to a large New York publisher, I might have larger U.S. sales and I might be rich, but I doubt that I would continue writing in a workmanlike and joyful fashion. Also, I doubt that I would have the same uncensored acceptability that I have at Black Sparrow. As a writer I consider myself in the best of worlds: famous elsewhere and working here. The gods have spared me many of the pitfalls of the average American writer. Black Sparrow came to me when nobody else would. This after years of working as a common laborer and a starving writer, being largely ignored by the large presses and most of the major magazines. It would be ungrateful of me to seek a large New York publisher now. In fact, I don’t have the slightest desire to do so.
In the same interview Bukowski mentions that he once had absolutely nothing to his name. His friendships and his interest in life, life as a curiousity, gave him a sense of value. He lived however he could with his alcohol dependency forming parenthesis to his state of depravity:
Dougherty: Your early letters to Carl Weissner, letters which began in about 1961, are characterized by incredible energy and anger and insight. They are some of the most substantive letters by you that I’ve seen. And yet Weissner, at the time the correspondence began, was then but a student, one you had never met or heard of before the correspondence started. What were your motivations at the time for writing him these letters? What was your living situation like, your outlook on life?
Bukowski: I have no idea how it all started with Carl Weissner; that was almost three decades ago. But somehow we got into contact. I believe he saw some of my work in the U.S. little magazines. We began corresponding. His letters were quite incisive, entertaining (lively as hell), and he bucked up my struggle in the darkness, no end. A letter from Carl always was and still is an infusion of life and hope and easy wisdom. I was in the post office at the time and living with a crazy and alcoholic woman and writing anyhow. All our money went for booze. We lived in rags and a rage of despair. I remember I didn’t even have money for shoes. The nails from my old shoes dug into my feet as I walked my routes hungover and mad. We drank all night and I had to get up at 5 a.m. When I wrote, the poems came out of this and the letters from Carl were the only good magic about.
The following interview with Charles Bukowski (CB) is the twenty-sixth in a series of craft interviews with outstanding poets on the general subject of style and prosody and technique in writing. This text has been taken word for word from the 19-25th pages of the 27th volume of the literary magazine New York Quarterly (NYQ) published in 1985. Nothing from the original product has been changed including errors. This reproduction is meant for scholarly purposes only and is property of New York Quarterly. This is a rare piece considering that Bukowski rarely gave interviews.
NYQ: How do you write? In longhand, on the typewriter? Do you revise much? What do you do with worksheets? Your poems sometimes give the impression of coming off the top of your head. Is that only an impression? How much agony and sweat of the human spirit is involved in the writing of one of your poems?
CB: I write right off the typer. I call it my “machinegun.” I hit it hard, usually late at night while drinking wine and listening to classical music on the radio and smoking mangalore ganesh beedies. I revise but not much. The next day I retype the poem and automatically make a change or two, drop out a line, or make two lines into one or one line into two, that sort of thing—to make the poem have more balls, more balance. Yes, the poems come “off the top of my head,” I seldom know what I’m going to write when I sit down. There isn’t much agony and sweat of the human spirit involved in doing it. The writing’s easy, it’s the living that is sometimes difficult.
NYQ: When you’re away from your place do you carry a notebook with you? Do you jot down ideas as they come to you during the day or do you store them in your head for later?
CB: I don’t carry notebooks and I don’t consciously store ideas. I try not to think that I am a writer and I am pretty good at doing that. I don’t like writers, but then I don’t like insurance salesmen either.
NYQ: Do you ever go through dry periods, no writing at all? If so how often? What do you do during these periods? Anything to get you back on the track?
CB: A dry period for me means perhaps going two or three nights without writing. I probably have dry periods but I’m not aware of them and I go on writing, only the writing probably isn’t much good. But sometimes I do get aware that it isn’t going too well. Then I go to the racetrack and bet more money than usual and scream at and abuse my woman. And it’s best that I lose at the track without trying to. I can almost always write a damn near immortal poem if I have lost somewhere between 150 and 200 dollars.
NYQ: Need for isolation? Do you work best alone? Most of your poems concern your going from a state of love/sex to a state of isolation. Does that tie in with the way to have things in order to write?
CB: I love solitude but I don’t need it to the exclusion of somebody I care for in order to get some words down. I figure if I can’t write under all circumstances, then I’m just not good enough to do it. Some of my poems indicate that I am writing while living alone after a split with a woman, and I’ve had many splits with women. I need solitude more often when I’m not writing than when I am. I have written with children running about the room having at me with squirt guns. That often helps rather than hinders the writing: some of the laughter enters. One thing does bother me, though: to overhear somebody’s loud tv, a comedy program with a laugh track.
NYQ: When did you begin writing? How old? What writers did you admire?
CB: The first thing I ever remembered writing was about a German aviator with a steel hand who shot hundreds of Americans out of the sky during World War II. It was in long hand in pen and it covered every page of a huge memo ringed notebook. I was about 13 at the time and I was in bed covered with the worst case of boils the medics ever remembered seeing. There weren’t any writers to admire at the time. Since then there has been John Fante, Knut Hamsun, the Celine of Journey; Dostoesvsky, of course; Jeffers of the long poems only; Conrad Aiken, Catullus…not to many. I sucked mostly at the classical music boys. It was good to come home from the factories at night, take off my clothes, climb on the bed in the dark, get drunk on beer and listen to them.
NYQ: Do you think there’s too much poetry being written today? How would you characterize what you think is really bad poetry? What do you think is good poetry today?
CB: There’s too much bad poetry being written today. People just don’t know how to write down a simple easy line. It’s difficult for them; it’s like trying to keep a hard-on while drowning—not many can do it. Bad poetry is caused by people who sit down and think, Now I am going to write a Poem. And it comes out the way they think a poem should be. Take a cat. He doesn’t think, well, now I’m cat and I’m going to kill this bird. He just does it. Good poetry today? Well, it’s being written by a couple of cats called Gerald Locklin and Ronald Koertge.
NYQ: You’ve read most of the NYQ craft interviews we’ve published. What do you think of our approach, the interviews you’ve read. What interviews have told you something?
CB: I’m sorry you asked that question. I haven’t learned anything from the interviews except that the poets were studious, trained, self-assured and obnoxiously self-important. I don’t think that I was ever able to finish an interview; the print began to blur and the trained seals vanished below the surface. These people lack joy, madness and gamble in their answers just as they do in their work (poems).
NYQ: Although you write strong voice poems, that voice rarely extends beyond the circumference of your own psychosexual concerns. Are you interested in national, international affairs, do you consciously restrict yourself as to what you will and will not write about?
CB: I photograph and record what I see and what happens to me. I am not a guru or leader of any sort. I am not a man who looks for solutions in God or politics. If somebody else wants to do the dirty work and create a better world for us and he can do it, I will accept it. In Europe where my work is having much luck, various groups have put claim on me, revolutionaries, anarchists, so forth, because I have written of the common man of the streets, but in interviews over there I have had to disclaim a conscious working relationship with them because there isn’t any. I have compassion for almost all the individuals of the world; at the same time, they repulse me.
NYQ: What do you think a young poet starting out today needs to learn the most?
CB: He should realize that if he writes something and it bores him it’s going to bore many other people also. There is nothing wrong with a poetry that is entertaining and easy to understand. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way. He should stay the hell out of writing classes and find out what’s happening around the corner. And bad luck for the young poet would be a rich father, an early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything very well.
NYQ: Over the last few decades California has been the residence of many of our most independent voice poets—like Jeffers, Rexroth, Patchen, even Henry Miller. Why is this? What is your attitude towards the East, towards New York?
CB: Well there was a little more space out here, the long run up the coast, all that water, a feeling of Mexico and China and Canada, Hollywood, sunburn, starlets turned to prostitutes. I don’t know, really, I guess if your ass is freezing some of the time it’s harder to be a “voice poet.” Being a voice poet is the big gamble because you’re putting your guts up for view and you’re going to get a lot more reaction than if you’re writing something like your mother’s soul being like a daisy field.
New York, I don’t know. I landed there with $7 and no job and no friends and no occupation except common laborer. I suppose if I had come in from the top instead of the bottom I might have laughed a little more. I stayed 3 months and the buildings scared the shit out of me and the people scared the shit out of me, and I had done a lot of bumming all over the country under the same conditions but New York City was the Inferno, all the way. The way Woody Allen’s intellectuals suffer in N.Y.C. is a lot different than what happens to my type of people. I never got laid in New York, in fact, the women wouldn’t even speak to me. The only way I ever got laid in New York was to come back 3 decades later and bring my own with me, a terrible wench, we stayed at the Chelsea, of course. The New York Quarterly is the only good thing that has happened to me out there.
NYQ: You’ve written short stories, novels. Do they come from the same place your poems come from?
CB: Yes, they do, there’s not much difference—line and line length. The short story helped get the rent and the novel was a way of saying how many different things could happen to the same man on the way to suicide, madness, old age, natural and unnatural death.
NYQ: You have a fairly distinct persona in most of your poems, and your strong voice seems to come out of that persona. It’s the mask of a bored, dirty old man who’s boozing it up in Li Po manner because the straight world isn’t worth taking seriously. Usually there’s an hysterical broad banging your door down while the poem is taking shape. First do you admit to this persona in your poems, and then to what extent do you think it reflects Bukowski the man? In other words are you the person you present to us in your poems?
CB: Things change a bit: what once was is not quite what it is now. I began writing poetry at the age of 35 after coming out of the death ward of the L.A. County General Hospital and not as a visitor. To get somebody to read your poems you have to be noticed, so I got my act up. I wrote vile (but interesting) stuff that made people hate me, that made them curious about this Bukowski. I threw bodies off my court porch into the night. I pissed on police cars, sneered at hippies. After my second reading down at Venice, I grabbed the money, leaped into my car, intoxicated, and drove it about on the sidewalks at 60 m.p.h. I had parties at my place which were interrupted by police raids. A professor from U.C.L.A. invited me to his place for dinner. His wife cooked a nice meal which I ate and then I went over and broke up his China closet. I was in and out of drunktanks. A lady accused me of rape, the whore. Meanwhile, I wrote about most of this, it was my persona, it was me but it wasn’t me. As time wet on, trouble and action arrived by itself and I didn’t have to force it and I wrote about that and this was closer to my real persona. Actually, I am not a tough person and sexually, most of the time, I am almost a prude, but I am often a nasty drunk and many strange things happen to me when I am drunk. I’m not saying this very well and I’m taking too long. What I am trying to say is that the longer I write the closer I am all hell in the stretch run. I am 93 percent the person I present in my poems; the other 7 percent is where art improves upon life, call it background music.
NYQ: You refer to Hemingway a lot, seem to have a love/hate thing for him, what he does in his work. Any comment?
CB: I guess for me Hemingway is a lot like it is for others: he goes down well when we are young. Gertie taught him the line but I think he improved upon it. Hemingway and Saroyan had the line, the magic of it. The problem was that Hemingway didn’t know how to laugh and Saroyan was filled with sugar. John Fante had the line too and he was the first who knew how to let passion enter in, emotion in, without letting it destroy the concept. I speak here of moderns who write the simple line; I am aware that Blake was once around. So when I write about Hemingway it’s sometimes a joke thing but I’m probably more in debt to him than I’d care to admit. His early work was screwed down tight, you couldn’t get your fingers under it. But now I get more out of reading about his life and fuckups, it’s almost as good as reading about D. H. Lawrence.
NYQ: What do you think of this interview and what questions do you wish we’d asked you? Go ahead and ask it of yourself and then answer it.
CB: I think the interview is all right. I suppose that some people will object that the answers lack polish and erudition, then they’ll go out and buy my books. I can’t think of any questions to ask myself. For me to get paid for writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money. I’ll take it. Why don’t we stop here?