We begin in Guadalajara, Mexico, with a moment of unexpected passion, a skirmish in the civil wars of poetry.
We can imagine the instigator, the man with the beer in his hand, as one of the literary guerrillas off the pages of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a visceral realist brought to life from the ashes of the infrarealist movement of poets that Bolaño helped start in the 1970s. The man sweeps into the curtained-off room, deep inside the massive convention hall, too late to grab one of the fifty or sixty chairs provided for a panel discussion on poet and novelist Charles Bukowski at the International Book Fair. And so he sits cross legged on the carpeted floor, one more body between the dais and the sound-proofed translator’s booth.
Many in the room clutch battered copies of Love Is a Dog from Hell, Women, and other Bukowski volumes. But only the man with the beer thought to bring his own alcohol. It gives him a certain authority.
At first, the man listens quietly as the interpreter’s soft Spanish words seep through his headphones when the afternoon’s moderator, Jon Peede of the National Endowment for the Arts, introduces the panel of Los Angeles poets and writers.
The man nods in agreement when novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl says of Bukowski, “I love that rich, bourgeois Hollywood had to kiss his ass.”
But when poet Marisela Norte admits that she hasn’t read Bukowski in years and had to skim through some of his books on the flight over, the man with the beer in his hand hisses. Norte looks out at the crowd, where few seem older than twenty-five, and says, “I’m troubled by Bukowski’s influence on young writers.”
The conversation veers in a direction that the man with the beer hears only as a call to arms. These provocations, captured in a reporter’s notebook, have him shaking so violently he nearly spills his beer:
“He was the first Paris Hilton—famous for being famous.”
“If you’ve read a Bukowski poem ten times, you’re probably on methadone.”
“He was a drunken minor poet for teenagers—who was against women.”
“He’s for the walking wounded.”
“If you’re reading him at fifty, you know, it’s a little sad.”
“Among poets, he might have been the Cheetos to filet mignon.”
The words are a declaration of war to the man with the beer. He arrived today expecting … what? Validation? Illumination? A discussion of Bukowski as the godfather of dirty realism and what he did or did not have in common with Bolaño’s infrarealists? Instead he’s being told how “Bukowski is just something you’ll probably outgrow.”
The problem is not just Bukowski, suggests poet B. H. Fairchild, but also followers who try to imitate him. “Bukowski made it seem as if writing could be easy,” Norte adds, before noting the tendency of some Bukowski fans to believe drunkenness begets genius.
Poet Suzanne Lummis attempts a defense of Bukowski, confessing how thrilled she was when he smiled at her during one of his readings, only to discover later that it might have been her badly smeared mascara that caught his eye. She recites one of her favorite Bukowski poems, “The Secret” (… there are no strong men, there are no beautiful women …), but the damage is done.
The man with the beer will no longer hold his fury. It’s time for audience questions … and the battle is joined.
He waves frantically for the microphone. The crowd is with him. He stumbles to his feet, juggling the mic and his tall boy. At last, he unleashes his rage and the panelists fumble for their headphones, hoping the interpreter can make sense of his angry words.
“Why did you put this panel here in this too-small room?” the man begins. “Bukowski transcends this room and this panel.” His voice cracks as he rails against the panelists’ spotty knowledge of Bukowski’s work, about their ignorance of his place in the world of literature, about their lack of respect.
“Don’t you know Bukowski is a legend?” he shouts, clutching his beer can like a hand grenade.
Tears form in the man’s eyes, and then, propelled either by the spirit of his own words or the alcohol, he tells the panelists to go to hell. He doesn’t lob the beer, but instead collapses to the floor, sobbing and sipping, and embracing the sympathetic-looking stranger beside him. The man does not know that he is crying on the shoulder of a notorious experimental novelist, nor that the novelist understands few of his Spanish words. But this stranger, Mark Z. Danielewski, is moved by the beer drinker’s passion and gently pats his back. A literary insurrection is averted with a hug and a whimper.
A famous writer’s legacy is shaped not only by those who legacy is shaped not only by those who were closest to him, but also by readers who come to the author’s work through their own histories and ideas about what is worth preserving.
In Los Angeles, one of those readers has emerged with a tour bus as his artillery tank in the battle to keep Charles Bukowski’s legacy alive, not only in books but through the physical spaces he inhabited. Richard Schave, with his wife, Kim Cooper, runs Esotouric, guided day trips through Los Angeles literary, true-crime, music, and architectural sites. Schave had a controversial stint as head of the nonprofit group behind the Downtown Art Walk. And in 2008, at the prompting of Lauren Everett, a twenty-six-year-old photographer and temp worker at the time, Schave helped persuade the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission to grant Bukowski’s longtime De Longpre Avenue bungalow historic landmark status—an honor that the author’s widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, says would have made him snort.
On this Saturday afternoon, Schave is in his comfort zone. With the front of the Esotouric bus as his stage, he dispenses bits of local history (“Did you know the serial killer Richard Ramirez lived on the fourteenth floor of the Hotel Cecil?”), lamenting the demise of cult landmarks (“Craby Joe’s on Main and Seventh is gone now”), and introducing the uninitiated to the glories of Clifton’s Cafeteria (“Kim and I are having Thanksgiving dinner there”).
“How we doing, Cesar?” Schave asks his longtime driver. “Everybody, this is Cesar, aka Neal Cassady. Of
course,” Schave adds with a talk-show host’s rhythm, “Cesar doesn’t know who that is.”
Only Schave’s wife laughs, in an oh, honey sort of way, while her ninetyish grandma, Barbara “Cutie” C., checks in the last arrivals. When Cesar shoots Schave a deadpan look, you start to wonder: is this Fawlty Towers on wheels?
The four-hour tour of Charles Bukowski’s L.A. has begun and Schave, wearing a pinstriped suit jacket, suspenders, and rumpled white shirt, is on a roll. Among the stops: downtown’s Terminal Annex, where Bukowski worked ten-hour shifts as a mail sorter (“He was already a major underground figure when he quit the post office,” Schave says); the Central Library, where Bukowski first read John Fante waiting for him to come home from the post office,” adds Cooper); and the former Royal Palms hotel where Bukowski was evicted with his longtime girlfriend Jane Cooney Baker (“Ah, Jane,” Schave says, “she taught him how to look at a woman properly, and how to pimp”); and always Clifton’s, in part because Bukowski ate there, but also because Schave tries to fit it into every tour (“I love this place!”).
“Is this a slightly different route that I detect, Cesar?” Schave asks his patient driver halfway through the tour.
“Oh, good,” he says when he realizes that the bus is on course for its scheduled beer break. “Cesar keeps it lively.”
The bus slows as it cruises up Western Avenue, and Cesar parks in front of the Pink Elephant liquor store—walking distance from Bukowski’s last Hollywood address, on Carlton Way, before he moved to San Pedro in 1978. Everyone gets out to stretch, buy refreshments, and take pictures of each other in front of the cartoonish pink elephants painted on the liquor store’s outside walls.
On the sidewalk, a rockabilly couple from Long Beach sip Blue Nun straight from the bottle. A Kojak-bald man takes a doughnut from the makeshift table Cooper has set up beside the bus. A man named Rich wears a T-shirt bearing the words “Bukowski Goes Belfast” above an image of one of the author’s black-pen self-portraits as the character Buk—picture Ziggy debauched.
“You just turned twenty-one?” shouts a woman in French-starlet sunglasses as she climbs back onboard the bus. “Fuckin’ A! You can drink on the bus!”
“Yeah!” says the birthday girl. “I’ll have a beer.”
Watching the members of the group begin to bond as they pass around some rare chap books of Bukowski’s poetry, Schave gets a little emotional.
“You know, I like to give my tours themes. The Bukowski tour is explicitly about finding your voice,” he says as Cesar pulls away from the curb. “It’s almost a spiritual journey.”
Another panel discussion, another beer in Bukowski’s honor. This time, we are in Pasadena, at Vroman’s Bookstore. Once again, the chairs fill fast. Somebody has thoughtfully placed a cooler of cheap beer toward the back of the space, and the hospitality is gratefully received.
The event is billed “An Evening with Bukowski’s Friends,” and Linda Bukowski chose the speakers herself. No one will compare the poet to Cheetos. The woman at the podium, though, does not look like the usual Bukowski connoisseur.
“I’m a square-cornered library archivist,” says Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library. Hodson has sensible short hair, comfortable shoes, a mauve tweed jacket, and glasses that frame her forthright expression. Hodson admits that she hadn’t given Bukowski’s work serious thought until Linda showed her around the couple’s home in San Pedro. There, Hodson went through a treasure trove of Bukowski letters, photographs, rare first editions, and limited-run books lovingly maintained in a temperature-controlled archive room. And when she takes the Vroman’s audience through a brief history of Bukowski’s life, it’s clear that Hodson has absorbed a lot from her research.
“Motherfucker,” she says from the podium.
There’s no way around the word. Hodson is reading one of her favorite Bukowski poems and it’s right there in the title: “The History of One Tough Motherfucker.”
Bukowski turning respectable librarians into potty mouths is only a modest anomaly in his unlikely afterlife. More impressive is that with the institutional backing of San Marino’s Huntington Library, home of fifteenth-century Chaucer manuscripts and a Gutenberg Bible, this scholar is standing before a beer-swigging crowd, advocating for a poet who was posthumously accused before the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission of being a Nazi sympathizer and person “of low moral character,” charges that the commission dismissed. Even more unlikely, Hodson has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to Bukowski: manuscripts, photos, correspondence, rare Black Sparrow Press editions of his work, and a large collection of ephemera, much of it from Linda Bukowski’s personal archives.
Among critics and readers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Bukowski’s reputation is strong (Camus, Genet, and Sartre were all advocates). And he has many famous partisans—Tom Waits, Sean Penn, Bono, Barbet Schroeder, Taylor Hackford, and Mickey Rourke among them. But his Hollywood following earns him no credit among certain literati, even in his hometown. Many Los Angeles writers are still embarrassed by Bukowski’s status in local letters. They view him as a drunken, untalented misogynist, or else they dismiss him as an artifact of Boho 101, a writer to put aside once you graduate to “real” literature.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Bukowski fanatics, who sometimes pay homage with their livers, adopting his Barfly persona. Hodson is a bridge between the extremes. In her audio introduction to the Huntington exhibition, she calls Bukowski “one of the most original voices in twentieth-century English-language literature.” Yes, she says, “he wrote about the pimps, the prostitutes, the gamblers, the scam artists, the drunks, the layabouts on the edges of society. But he also wrote about blue-collar workers, the common people who simply struggle to live, to survive.”
Hodson knows that Bukowski would protest that he couldn’t have cared less that a place like the Huntington finds his doodles and scribbled notes significant enough to put in a museum display case. This may be one reason why she chose to read “The History of One Tough Motherfucker” at Vroman’s. The poem, about survival and friendship, describes “a white cross-eyed tailless cat” that is beaten, shot at, and run over but survives anyway. It’s also a big fuck-you to the literary establishment.
… and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say, “look, look
but they don’t understand, they say something like, “you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up, “by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows …
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photographed together.
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.
Inside the Huntington, beyond the wood-paneled lobby and past the Renaissance tapestry that hangs in the stairwell on the way to Hodson’s office, a metal book cart is stacked with folders containing some of the letters, photos, and marked-up manuscripts waiting to be mounted for the Bukowski exhibition (on display through February 14, 2011). On the wall across from Hodson’s nearby desk is a huge black-and-white image of Jack London on horseback at his Glen Ellen ranch. It’s a souvenir that Hodson kept from an earlier Huntington exhibition. Recently, she coauthored a book titled Jack London: Photographer. Bukowski is not the first sex-obsessed alcoholic she’s spent time with.
Hodson rolls the Bukowski cart into a research room crammed with bookshelves and carefully opens one of the folders. Inside is a thin, elegant book of poetry, which she places on a burnished-wood display podium.
“This is a very, very important piece,” she says, a jolt of excitement in her voice. “It’s an extremely limited edition of At Terror Street and Agony Way. A small number were done with different fabric covers and an original piece of Bukowski art for every one. Each illustration is different. Each volume is unique.”
She pauses to admire Bukowski’s surprisingly lovely brush strokes, then gently turns the pages. “Look at the type, and the paper, the thick paper. It’s beautifully printed. This is a quintessential Black Sparrow production,” she says. “John Martin [Black Sparrow Press founder and longtime Bukowski patron and publisher] was just brilliant. You know, just for the heck of doing it, they made a little piece of art.”
Hodson isn’t finished. She holds up a page of the Black Sparrow book so that the light falls upon it, revealing a secret.
“Look at this, right here,” she instructs. “This was the backing page behind the manuscript in his typewriter. You see? Can you see it?” Her eyes are bright, her smile wide and her face flushes as she strokes the indentations left behind by Bukowski’s manual typer. A moment of spontaneous passion here in the staid recesses of the Huntington Library.
Coming out of her reverie, she adds, “This really is a very sophisticated item.”
As odd as it might seem, the Huntington makes a good home for Bukowski’s legacy.
“We are so formal and conservative, really spiffed up to the max,” Hodson says, “and Bukowski is so out on the edge, so rough and raw and raunchy at times. Linda Bukowski and I joke about this a lot. It’s almost disjunctive. Like we are all going to rub off on each other. But there is a healthy respect on both sides.”
Hodson knew from the beginning that the Bukowski collection would be controversial.
“I have a friend, a very fine librarian, who still cannot imagine why I wanted the Bukowski papers here, how I could stand to read them, and how on Earth I could stand to work on the exhibition,” she says. “To that librarian, he is not a poet. … She wants to read more beautiful thoughts. And for Bukowski, the beautiful thoughts of poetry, well, that wasn’t for him. He used to say he liked his poetry ‘raw, easy, and simple.’ And, boy, that captures him.
“People either love him or hate him. There’s not much in between. A lot of people, a lot of poets don’t like him at all. And, of course, he didn’t like what they were doing.
“But an archivist that I am acquainted with told me he was at a crossroads in his life, working on a loading dock just to make money, when one of his co-workers handed him some Bukowski poems and said, ‘Have you ever read this guy?’ So he started reading, and to hear him tell it, Bukowski saved him. He started clipping poems, and soon realized that he could do something more with his life. He ended up going back to school, getting his degree, and is now a very fine archivist.
“This is why I enjoy a variety of voices. I love Henry James. I love Ernest Hemingway. I love Emily Dickinson. I love Charles Bukowski. I love that there are so many different ways to speak to all of us.”
We turn our attention to a series of postcards made in the Netherlands from photos of the author. On the back of one is a Bukowski quote that always makes Hodson laugh: “Two of man’s greatest accomplishments are plumbing and the creation of the hydrogen bomb. We need somebody who can keep our shit flowing until we blow it away.”
There was a time, however, when Hodson might not have thought that line was hilarious.
“My first encounter with Charles Bukowski had to have been in the 1970s, reading a long profile on him in the L.A. Times,” she says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Good heavens! Why does someone need to write like that?’ Truly. I more or less forgot about him until this opportunity came up. As soon as I set up that first meeting with Linda, I started reading him—and enjoying him. I like to think that I grew into this. That I matured into liking Bukowski.”
The man with the beer in his hand understands.
Photo by Anne Fishbein
A Rose Grows on De Longpre
Jan 23, 06:11 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
All rights reserved, Laurie Ochoa and Slake Media.
Do not reproduce without permission.