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Abel Debritto, a former Fulbright and Marie Curie scholar, works in the digital humanities and is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. He is the author of Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground, and the editor of the Bukowski collections On Writing, On Cats, On Love, Essential Bukowski, Storm for the Living and the Dead, and On Drinking.
You speak and write analytically about Bukowski in a way that deftly explains his literary genius. What is it that detractors of Bukowski always seem to miss?
That writing was his crutch, his disease. He couldn’t help but writing almost daily. Sure, some of it was dross, it was an exercise of sorts to get the good stuff going, but when he got good, he got really good. Few writers can touch Bukowski at his very best. Academics usually dismiss Bukowski because they think he was a drunk lecher who couldn’t write shit. “Well, fuck off,” Bukowski would tell them. It’s true that Bukowski didn’t have time for metaphors, synecdoches, and iambic pentameters, and thankfully so. He wrote a few rhyming poems—”rhymers,” as he called them—but they were mere exercises in fun. All he cared about was the next line, and for the most part his lines were clear, spare, and as straightforward as you can get. And, many times, funny as hell. Bukowski used to say he simply recorded what he saw, and that’s precisely what he did: he gave us beautiful, unadorned snapshots in time tinged with laughter and passion.
Academics despise this kind of poetry because they have a hard time relating to it. They’re in their ivory towers, boring everyone to death for the umpteenth time with their smart-ass linguistic games that no one understands, and to them Bukowski is just a poor, foul-mouthed peasant who will never enter their kingdom.
Conversely, his diehard fans will never fault Bukowski, blindly championing the crappiest lines he wrote drunk out of his mind. They don’t care if Bukowski himself said more than once that he wrote tons of shit—and who wouldn’t, with a baggage in excess of 5,000 poems?
What are some of the biggest misconceptions or surprises about Bukowski that you have uncovered during your exhaustive research?
The most obvious one is that a great deal of—mainly female—readers believe he’s a male-chauvinist pig, but that misconception largely stems from reading only the novel Women (1978) and the poetry collection Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977). That’s a tiny portion of Bukowski’s actual output. And in those two collections there’s a lot of self-deprecating humor; Bukowski happily depicts himself as a poor fool in the hands of some very smart women. If you read other poetry collections, novels and short-stories, that misconception crumbles down in no time.
Myth-making was one of Bukowski’s fortes. He came up with several myths about his life and work—like he didn’t write at all during his infamous ten-year binge in 1945-55—and some of those myths have been taken for granted by some scholars, biographers and readers alike, causing a snowball effect of sorts that’s not easy to undo. I can hear Bukowski rolling in his grave.
Another misconception, happily perpetuated by the man himself, is that he was an ignorant drunk. Well, maybe he was not Umberto Eco nor Noam Chomsky, but he was very well-read and famously devoured dozens and dozens of books at the Los Angeles Public Library in his early days. There’s this long, beautiful poem called “the burning of a dream” that Bukowski wrote in his old age after hearing about the fire that burned that library to the ground. It’s a moving piece that makes it very clear that he was a literature buff, and he poignantly revealed as much in yet another poem, “the first love.”
His passion for literature was only comparable to his passion for classical music; poems such as “a radio with guts” and “classical music and me” are a testimony to that, showing that Bukowski was anything but a dumbass boozer. In the latter, he says:
“my tastes were strange.
I liked Beethoven but
preferred Brahms and
Borodin didn’t work.
Chopin was only good
Mozart was only good
when I was feeling
good and I seldom
Smetana I found
obvious and Sibelius
Ives was too self-comfortable.
Goldmark, I felt, was very
Wagner was a roaring miracle
of dark energy.
Haydn was love turned loose
Handel created things that
took your head and lifted it
to the ceiling.
Eric Coates was unbelievably
cute and astute.
and if you listened to Bach
you didn’t want to listen to
I see you mention Bukowski’s love for classical music. Did he, in turn, influence contemporary musicians?
He sure did! The list is quite long, but the more well-known bands or rock stars who look up at to Bukowski are Bono, Tom Waits, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the late Kurt Cobain and Lester Bangs, among many others—not all musicians love Bukowski, though. Nick Cave called him a “jerk” in “We Call Upon the Author.” In the documentary Born Into This, you can see both Bono and Waits reading Bukowski’s poetry, and Waits even put music to a Bukowski poem called “nirvana.” Believe it or not, Bukowski attended a U2 show in 1992, and he even wrote a journal entry about it: “After a while, the leader said, ‘This concert is dedicated to Linda and Charles Bukowski!’ 25,000 people cheered as if they knew who we were. It is to laugh […] It’s great that the rock stars read my work but I’ve heard from men in jails and madhouses who do too”—you can read the full story in The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship. Later that same year, he wrote an uncollected poem titled “U2” which goes like this:
my wife called me to the phone.
“it’s Bono, from Ireland,”
I picked up the receiver,
“hey, Sonny, you still with
Cher?” we didn’t talk long
Despite the adulation, most modern music didn’t work for Bukowski. He famously dismissed the Rolling Stones in a Creem review, and he put Bob Dylan down several times. He did like Randy Newman, though, calling him his “favorite singer” in Women, Jim Croce, the early Bob Lind—Bukowski would later mock Lind in a “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column and in Women—and, hold on to your hat, Stevie Wonder, claiming “it’s like a symphony when he sings.” Truth be told, he was a genuine classical music lover and he didn’t pay much attention to contemporary music. Once, he heard some background music that he liked, and he asked, “who’s that?” It was Bob Marley!
Q: What is it about Bukowski’s first novel Post Office that makes it so great? Any interesting trivia or back-story related to Post Office?
A: After the unfinished A Place to Sleep the Night (1956) and The Way the Dead Love (1966), Post Office was Bukowski’s first full-length novel. As it turns, it was his longtime publisher John Martin who persuaded Bukowski into writing Post Office: “I had mentioned to Hank that if he ever thought he could write a novel, that would make our success more likely. And the story is true that he began writing Post Office on January 2, 1970 without saying anything to me about it.” After quitting his post office job, and as intoxicated as he could get, Bukowski wrote furiously during the following weeks, typing between 10 and 20 pages daily. Sober, the morning after he would keep the best parts, trashing the drunken gibberish.
As Martin recalls, at the end of January, Bukowski called him and said,
“It’s done. Come and get it.”
Martin asked him what he was talking about. And he said,
“You told me to write a novel, and it’s done.”
Martin said, “What enabled you to write a novel in less than a month?”
He replied, “Fear.”
Although in interviews, poems, and stories, Bukowski always said he wrote Post Office in about 3 weeks, it actually took him almost 6 weeks to complete it, as the correspondence from that period reveals. Still, fear probably urged Bukowski to take his new job as a full-time writer seriously enough as to complete his first novel in record time.
Did Bukowski in his correspondence ever discuss what books that he wrote that he was most proud of? Least?
I don’t think he did so. When asked that question, he would say that all he cared about was “the next line.” In his correspondence, he would say, as most writers do, that his latest book was the best one, but that was about it. Occasionally, he would say something nice about an old piece. After reading “the tragedy of the leaves” in The Bukowski Tapes, he says, “good poem, even if it’s an oldie. But I write much better shit now.”
One of the reasons many poets and academics dislike Bukowski is because he didn’t remember his poems. To them, it’s heresy a poet doesn’t remember his own poetry. To Bukowski, that was a burden. He wrote the poems and then pretty much forgot them; in his correspondence, he claimed he didn’t even remember having written some of his classics, such as “beans and garlic” and “something for the touts, the nuns, the grocery clerks and you.” While poets like Ginsberg embraced the holiness of poetry and sanctified every single line they wrote, Bukowski found it an exercise in futility. His no-bullshit attitude permeated his notion of poetry, making it as ungodly as possible.
How important was John Martin and Black Sparrow to Bukowski’s success?
Again, let Bukowski do the talking:
I’ve stuck with you. I’ve had offers from New York publishers. I’ve had offers from competitors. I’ve stayed with you. People have told me that I was stupid, many people. That hasn’t bothered me. I make up my own mind for my own reasons. You were there when nobody else was, you helped me get money through archives. You bought me a good typewriter. Nobody was knocking at my door. I have loyalty. I guess it comes from my German blood. But I ask you to leave my mind clear for my writing; all I want to do is type and drink my wine and do some small things. Letters like this area waste of energy. Just let me write and mail my shit out like any other writer. Don’t be too much of a mother hen.
This is an excerpt from a 1978 letter to Martin published in On Writing. Martin was a shrewd businessman, and his instinct told him that Bukowski would become a successful writer in the hands of the right publisher. Early on, Martin said that Bukowski would be the new Walt Whitman, and he did all he could to pave the way for Bukowski’s popularity: Martin helped Bukowski to quit his job at the post office to become a full-time writer by promising him a monthly $100 check for life, whether Bukowski wrote or not; he persuaded Bukowski to write his first novel, which would earn him more money and popularity than all his previous small press poetry projects combined; he put out gorgeous editions of his books and kept them all in print over the years; and he championed Bukowski’s work against all odds, especially in the early days.
But there were a number of things Bukowski didn’t like about Martin, and he voiced them in his correspondence and interviews. I have recently discussed them in Literary Hub and in Los Angeles Review of Books. The edits that mar the posthumous collections are infuriating, and I truly hope Bukowski’s genuine voice and style are restored before long. .
How important were the little magazines that he submitted to?
Together with the underground newspapers, the littles were instrumental in both enhancing Bukowski’s reputation as a writer and helping him become the most published author of the 60s. They were crucial in his pursuit of fame, too. Had it not been for his regular appearances in those publications, Bukowski might not have achieved such a popular status by the late 60s, when he was hailed as “an American Legend” and the “King of the Underground.”
By the early 70s, little magazine editors saw him as a spiritual leader and they published pretty much everything Bukowski submitted to them. But it was not an overnight success. Actually, it took Bukowski almost three decades of unrelenting submissions for him to finally achieve the success he longed for. Endurance was definitely in Bukowski’s dictionary, and he talked about it in rather funny terms in the late poem “the secret of my endurance,” which ends with a triumphant statement, “I’m 59 years old now and the critics say / my stuff is getting better than ever.”
Your favorite Bukowski “discovery.”
A: Probably too many to list, but I fondly recall the day I was at the State University of New York at Buffalo in July 2008 and I came across “I saw a tramp last night,” a poem unrecorded in Bukowski’s bibliographies and checklists. It’s always exciting to find rare material, more so if it’s really good. This poem was first rejected by The Fiddlehead in 1957 and it was printed three years later in Scimitar and Song, an obscure little magazine with limited circulation. After uncovering the poem at SUNY, it was reprinted as a broadside by Bottle of Smoke Press in December 2008, and it was finally published by Ecco in The Continual Condition in 2009. I think there’s a parallel between Bukowski’s long journey through the little magazine scene, before being accepted as an important author in the late 60s, and the many rejections, reprints, and acceptances some of his poems and short stories experienced before earning a most deserved book publication. Here’s the poem in full:
“I saw an old tramp last night”
the way the old dog walked
with clotted, tired fur
down nobody’s alley
being nobody’s dog . . .
past the empty vodka bottles
past the peanut butter jars,
with wires full of electricity
and the birds asleep somewhere,
down the alley he went—
moving through it all,
brave as any army.
How does a literary scholar like yourself separate the cult of personality that surrounds Bukowski from his writing? Does the legend of Bukowski inform the writing or detract from it?
Distance, I guess. When you love a writer, there’s this natural inclination to revere everything they do. It comes with the territory. And although it’s not always easy to keep writers at a distance, it’s the best medicine there is to prevent biased projects.
In Bukowski’s case, it’s even harder because he deliberately blurred facts and fiction, and he also came up with a number of myths about his life and work that further complicate things. Not only that, he used the “Bukowski” persona quite a bit to win audiences over. His drunken performances and exchanges with hecklers became almost legendary in the poetry reading circuits in the 70s, making him quite popular, especially in Europe, where he was seen as a rock star of sorts. Audiences expected that wild Bukowski persona, and he delivered the goods, always happy to comply.
Luckily, his writing was not ruined by his onstage antics. Disciplined and industrious, he continued to pump first-rate material out of his typewriter, undaunted by those crazy times. If anything, Women and Love Is a Dog from Hell, written during that period, attest to his endurance and sense of humor when his love life was repeatedly falling apart.
Did Bukowski really like cats more than people? What was the reaction to Bukowski’s On Cats?
Cats were not that prominent in Bukowski’s work in the early days; I had a hard time finding good cat poems written in the 50 and 60s, although one of my favorite cat quotes is from the mid-50s: “a cat walks by and shakes Shakespeare / off his back.” You can read many things into these two lines, but I like to think he’s saying something like, “Fuck Shakespeare. Fuck immortal literature. Cats know better.” And what a brilliant line break.
Later on, especially after he moved to San Pedro with Linda Lee, his relationship with cats became more obvious. One of his greatest poems ever, “the history of a tough motherfucker,” is a tender story about survival. To me, the final stanzas say it all: interviewers want to know the secret to great literature, and Bukowski simply holds up his cat and says, “this is it!”, and they look at him genuinely puzzled, not understanding anything.
Not surprisingly, On Cats has received more media attention than any of the other Bukowski books I have edited. It has been favorably reviewed in most outlets. Perhaps that explains why it’s the best-seller of all the recent Bukowski collections, closely followed by Essential Bukowski—although I believe that Essential will eventually top On Cats.
Your Bukowski book On Writing is a must-have gem for any writer or book-shelf. Which writers made the greatest impact on Bukowski’s own writing style?
Bukowski put it better than anyone in a 1983 letter to editor Loss Pequeño Glazier:
I’m not all that isolated. I’ve had my crutches: F. Dos, Turgenev, some of Céline, some of Hamsun, most of John Fante, a great deal of Sherwood Anderson, very early Hemingway, all of Carson McCullers, the longer poems of Jeffers; Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; the style of Saroyan without the content; Mozart, Mahler, Bach, Wagner, Eric Coates; Mondrian; e. e. cummings and the whores of east Hollywood; Jack Nicholson; Jackie Gleason; Charlie Chaplin, early; Baron Manfred von Richthofen; Leslie Howard; Bette Davis; Max Schmeling; Hitler . . . D. H. Lawrence, A. Huxley and the old bartender with the cadmium red face in Philly. . .
Ezra Pound is missing here. Bukowski looked up to him, and liked to quote Pound’s “do your work” in interviews. He wasn’t very much into the Cantos, and he affectionately mocked them in several poems, but he did like the Imagist Pound, the Vorticist Pound, the Ernest Fenollosa influenced Pound who translated Chinese poetry. Some of Bukowski’s early poems are genuinely Imagist: he records reality and conveys it without comment, like a long haiku of sorts. Which takes us to Li Po, another major influence on Bukowski which is missing in the list above. His tribute poems to Li Po are quite heartfelt and candid—an oddity given Bukowski’s inclination to openly disparage most writers.
What was your criteria for Essential Bukowski?
Like most anthologies, Essential Bukowski could be seen as a crowd-pleaser. First, I came up with my own selection, and then I asked editors, fans, and literati for their top 10 list. Most of their picks were in my list, but a few first-rate poems had slipped under my radar: in August 2015, I went to Hamburg to give a talk on my new Bukowski projects, and shortly before my talk, David Calonne discussed very movingly “an almost made-up poem,” which was not in my initial list. What an oversight! I made sure that it made it to the final selection.
Once I had Bukowski’s “greatest hits” on file—”the laughing heart,” “the bluebird,” “the crunch,” “the genius of the crowd,” “if we take,” and so on—there was room for some relatively obscure gems such as “hell is a lonely place,” “the loser,” and the previously uncollected “swastika star buttoned to my ass,” which I was very happy to include, not only because it’s a strong, apparently obscene poem but also because it turned Bukowski’s German agent and friend Carl Weissner into a lifelong fan.
I feel it’s a comprehensive collection that covers all Bukowski’s voices and styles. I could have made an entirely different selection and I think it would have been equally valid. That’s what happens when you try to put together a short Bukowski anthology: he wrote some 5,000 poems and many of them—hundreds—are truly essential. Potentially, there are several Essential Bukowski collections.
Like most fans, I’ve always enjoyed Bukowski and his poetry and prose as being very readable, unpretentious, resonant, honest and beautiful. But I was completely shocked by the power of some of the poems you selected to include in your most recent book, Storm for the Living and the Dead. What has the response been to this collection?
As good as it gets, at least in my view. Some people love it, some people hate it. Reviewers have said that it “might be remembered as the single work that best represents the full range—the unmasking, as it were—of Charles Bukowski’s oeuvre.” At the other end of the spectrum, they have said that it “may represent the nadir of Bukowski’s posthumous publications,” partly because it features experimental poems such as “kuv stuff mox out,” which the same reviewer calls “drunken drivel.” For the most part, the reception has been pretty good, although some readers have voiced their objection to poems they find too shocking, obscene, and politically incorrect.
Perhaps my only regret is that I included too many experimental poems in Storm. Bukowski didn’t experiment that much, and most experimental poems were left in the editing room over the years. Using half-a-dozen or so experimental poems in the same collection might be a tad too much when you’re talking about Bukowski! Still, I believe Storm is my best editing effort to date, however flawed it might be.
Now, you have to take into account that I was working with the leftovers, so to speak. For the most part, Bukowski’s best poems were published in his lifetime. Coming up with a collection as strong as Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, Dangling in the Tournefortia, and The Last Night of the Earth Poems is next to impossible. Luckily, many first-rate poems were unused or they had been sitting in on library shelves and private collections for years, waiting to be unearthed. Take “song for this softly-sweeping sorrow,” “poem for Dante,” “he went for the windmills, yes,” “the glory days,” “in this,” and “29 chilled grapes,” among many others. They all are top-notch Bukowski poems. And in “I was shit” he says, “animals love me as if I were a child crayoning / the edges of the world.” I think Crayoning the Edges of the World would be a brilliant title to sum up this collection and, quite possibly, Bukowski’s entire opus.
Any more old poems, short stories or previously unpublished Bukowski material due out or has the vault been completely emptied?
There’s a lot of unpublished material, especially poetry. I’d say there are some 1,500-2,000 unpublished/uncollected poems on file. While gathering material for Storm for the Living and the Dead, I re-read everything available and I put together a long list with all the poems I found strong enough to be published. There were some 400 poems in that list, and I do hope they are published over the next few years. On Drinking, due early next year, will feature unpublished and uncollected poetry and prose.
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All excerpts and poems are reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins