Blog of Pulitzer Prize Nominated Author, Jory Sherman. Get the latest information on his books, appearances and his candid reflections on writing.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Charles Bukowski has been on my mind the past couple of days. Why, I don't know. He is often on my mind because we were friends for over 20 years, the hard years. And, August is a month of significant birthdays for me. My mother was born on August, 3rd, my first wife, Remy Montes, was born on August 13th, and Hank Bukowski was born on August 16th, I think, in Andernach, Germany.

I'm not going to rehash Bukowski's life here. I covered some aspects of our friendship in a chapbook published by Blue Horse, FRIENDSHIP, FAME, AND BESTIAL MYTH, and there have been two significant biographies written about him by my friend Neeli Cherkovski, and London-based writer Howard Soames.

I have been thinking about those times before he became famous when we talked about poetry and life in his apartment on Mariposa Street, in Los Angeles. He lived a solitary life, so when he asked me to come over, I knew he was in some kind of pain, mental pain. He was usually in the kitchen when I got to his place, the little radio on, playing Borodin, or Berlioz, Mozart or Beethoven. The sink was full of dirty dishes, the counter littered with empty beer bottles, clothes lying everywhere. There would be a sheet of paper in his old upright typewriter, a Remington, I believe, with the latest poem, the strikeovers made with the # key, some finished poems on the small table. He'd tell me to get a beer and we'd go in the cluttered living room. There was a small dining room, but as far as I know he never ate in there. He did have his mock postal bin there, along with cards bearing zip codes. He worked at the Annex, a postal worker, and every so often he would have to throw "the schemes" as he called them. They tested workers with these cards, checking for speed and accuracy. Hank was good at it and sailed through every scheme.

He'd show me the latest poetry journals and I read his published poems. We talked about these and about poetry in general. We talked about the literary magazines, certain poets we knew or read, which little magazines we liked, which ones postured, who the academic poets were, and who were outlaws, like ourselves, who bucked the mainstream, ventured far from pedantic iambic pentameter. Sometimes we talked about Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins because of the kind of poetry I was writing, making consonants jump through hoops, using oblique rhymes and unusual orthography. We discussed his hero, Robinson Jeffers, a lot, and I often talked of Federico Garcia Lorca, one of my heroes, some of whose poems I had translated and published, after getting permission from Lorca's brother, Francisco Garcia Lorca, who was then teaching at Columbia University.

Sometimes, during the latter years of our friendship, Hank bought a tape recorder and would turn it on when we talked. I don't know what he did with the tapes. He may have burned them or pissed on them for all I know. To me, the tape recorder was a distraction and I hated it.

The point is that we talked about things he could not talk about at the post office, or in the bars, or at the race track. Things I could not discuss with my wife, Felicia, or anyone else in what passed for our social circle. I've had many such conversations with other writers over the years, and I treasure them, am always starved for them after long days of writing in a virtual vacuum.

We may not have solved all the issues of the day regarding poetry, but we also discussed music, the women in his life, the horses he bet on, how well he did at the track that week, or the week before, the drunks he had gone on, why he had been reprimanded and warned about his job at the post office. We covered a lot of ground and I still remember many snatches of our long conversations that often lasted into the wee small hours of the morning.

The radio was always turned off after my arrival at Mariposa Street. But, it was always on when I went to see Hank and we'd often wait until the composition was finished and then talk about the composer. We never had any awkward silences; never ran out of things to say to each other.

It was always difficult for me to write about those years when Bukowski and I were friends. I did not want to write the chapbook for Blue Horse, in fact. I later learned, from Michael Montfort, a photographer who documented some of Bukowski's life in his remaining years, that Hank did not disparage the small book. He did not ever mind what people said about him in print, nor did he ever defend himself against false accusations or decry those who attacked his poetry. In fact, I think he exulted in all the negative criticism, because he knew who he was and he never claimed to be anything or anyone else.

Bukowski had great courage and determination. He was never daunted by what the critics said about his poetry or his short stories. He gave of himself and his work without flinching and he didn't give a damn that he was laying himself open like an animal in an abbatoir. All of the boils and scars and wounds showed in his work, and few saw the tenderness that was in the man, or sensed his humanity. His world was populated by pimps, whores and drunks, the very dregs of L.A. society, yet he had a quiet dignity about himself and those few of that group who read his poetry, thought he nailed them just right and were proud of him.

Bukowski's radio is silent now, the old upright with its pocked platen, long gone. But, I still have those long conversations playing back in my mind. Like Hemingway, Hank was always looking for the one true line. I think he wrote many of them, over the years and none of us will ever know how he did it.

I think his life and work was the one true line.

Happy Birthday, Hank, and say hello to Jeffers for me, will you?



Blogger Bill said...

Great post, Jory. You really do need to write your autobiography.

9:33 AM  

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