Charles Bukowski | Interview by Glenn Esterly

This literature criticism consists of approximately 24 pages of analysis & critique of Charles Bukowski.
This section contains 7,067 words
(approx. 24 pages at 300 words per page)
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Interview by Glenn Esterly

SOURCE: "The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski: Notes of a Dirty Old Mankind," in Rolling Stone, June 17, 1976, pp. 28-34.

In the following interview, Esterly and Bukowski discuss topics such as the author's writing, his life, his relationships with women, and other issues.

In preparation for tonight's poetry reading, Charles Bukowski is out in the parking lot, vomiting. He always vomits before readings; crowds give him the jitters. And tonight there's a big crowd. Some 400 noisy students—many of whom have come directly from nearby 49rs tavern—are packed into an antiseptic auditorium at California State University at Long Beach on this fourth night of something called Poetry Week. Not exactly the kind of event calculated to set the campus astir, as evidenced by the sparse audiences for readings by other poets on the first three nights. But Bukowski always attracts a good crowd. He has a reputation here—for his performances as well as his poetry. Last time he was here, he had both an afternoon and an evening reading. In between, he got hold of a bottle and slipped over the edge. Too drunk to read at the evening performance, he decided to entertain the students by exchanging insults with them. It developed into quite a show.

Backstage, Leo Mailman, publisher of a small literary magazine and coordinator of tonight's reading, peeks between the stage curtains for a look at the audience and says: "A lot of these people are repeaters from his last reading. Some of them were disappointed by his drunkenness: they thought they got ripped off. But a lot of others were perfectly satisfied because they felt they got a look at the real Bukowski—you know, the legendary gruff, dirty old man, the drunk who doesn't give a damn and goes around looking for fights. They saw Bukowski in the raw.

"At the other extreme, when I called him to make arrangements for this reading, he was completely sober and fell all over himself apologizing for the way he acted last time. He was very soft-spoken, telling me how sorry he was he got drunk and how he hoped to make it up to us this time. I was amazed. So who's to say which one is the real Bukowski—the hostile drunk who makes a spectacle of himself, or the humble, diffident guy who's worried that he might have let somebody down?"

A few minutes later, Bukowski, clad in an open-necked shirt, tattered charcoal American Graffiti era sport coat and baggy gray pants, shows up backstage, having finished his warmup activities in the parking lot. Pale and nervous, he tells Mailman: "Okay, let's get this travesty over so I can collect my check and get the hell outta here." Then he lumbers out, unannounced, onto the stage. Mailman turns to Bukowski's companion, Linda King, a spirited, full-figured 34-year-old poet and sculptor who has survived a stormy relationship with the poet for five years. "Is he all right?" Mailman asks. "Sure," she says. "He's only had a few beers and he's feeling pretty good. He wants to do well tonight." As the audience begins applauding. Bukowski takes a chair behind a small table on the stage. Hunched over close to the micro-phone, he announces. "I'm Charles Bukowski," then takes a long hit from a thermos bottle filled with vodka and orange juice prompting cheers from several students. He grins a half-shy, half-sly grin. "I just brought a little vitamin C along for my health…. Well, here we are, on the poetry hustle again. Listen, I've decided to read all the serious poems first and get 'em outta the goddamn way so we can enjoy ourselves, okay?"

As he begins reading, a coed in the third row who's seeing the poet for the first time turns to a friend and asks. "Do you think he's as ugly as they say?" Her friend puts her finger tips to her lips in contemplation as she sizes him up. "Yeah, but he's impressive-looking somehow. That face … he looks like he's lived a hundred years. It's kind of tragic and dignified at the same time."

That face. By any conventional standards it is ugly, and for most of Bukowski's 55 years that's exactly what people called it. That's what they called it during all those years when he was working at bone-crushing, mind-stultifying jobs in slaughterhouses and factories, living on the underside of the American Dream. But things have changed. The crude, antisocial alcoholic is earning his living with his typewriter now, nailing the words to the page in intensely personal, rawly sensitive poems and wild, raunchy, anecdotal short stories that have earned him an international reputation with translations into other languages. He writes about what he has experienced: poverty, menial jobs, chronic hangovers, hard women, jails, fighting the system, failing, feeling bad. The impression created is of someone with his foot in a trap who's trying to gnaw himself free at the ankle. Which could make for a lot of drab reading if it weren't for the fact that there's frequent relief in a sardonic humor that sometimes gives one the feeling that W.C. Fields has been reincarnated as a writer.

Bukowski's appeal was summed up before the reading by Gerald Locklin, a burly, bearded poet who teaches literature at Cal State. Locklin, who has been following Bukowski's progress for many years and has known him four years, was drinking beer with a couple students at the 49rs and observing: "I think of him as a survival study. This guy has not only survived problems that would kill most men, he's survived with enough voice and talent left to write about it. You know, you're always running into people in bars who say that if they could only write about their lives, it would make such great reading. Well, they never do, of course. But Bukowski has."

Locklin also believes Bukowski "deserves credit for leading us in a new direction in American poetry with his direct, spontaneous, conversational free-form style. Many poets had been talking for a long time about getting more of a narrative quality into their work, but until Bukowski no one really succeeded. He just did it naturally, without really thinking very much about it. The more traditional poets hate him for it, but I think the trend he started was long overdue. His kind of style has its dangers: it can result in a lot of very ordinary poetry, and Bukowski has written his share. But at his best he's hard to beat, believe me."

Another view has been provided by poet Hal Norse, who had a falling out with Bukowski after being close to him for several years. Writing about their relationship in the Small Press Review, Norse said: "Hateful as he can be—and, God, he can be so detestable you want to shove him up a camel's ass—somehow the warmth and snotty charm of the bastard come through so powerfully that he remains an attractive personality, ugliness and all."

So here the man is, making it at last. Sartre and Genet have volunteered compliments about his poetry. His position as an underground folk hero is secure. Colleges fly him around the country for readings. Some critics have gone so far as to compare his prose stories to those of Miller, Hemingway. The National Endowment for the Arts has blessed him with a grant. A university has established a literary archive in his name. His early out-of-print books are valuable collectors' items. The New York Review of Books, for crying out loud, has reviewed him. Desirable young women keep knocking at his door. And now they call the face things like tragic … dignified … even beautiful. Bukowski appreciates the ironies of it.

The face, no bargain to begin with, has been abused terribly over the years. There was a blood disease that hospitalized him for months as a teenager with boils the size of small apples on his face and back ("It was my hatred for my father coming out through my skin—an emotional thing"), leaving a lifelong imprint of pockmarks. Later, there were the cruel whores who gouged out pieces of flesh with their fingernails when he was too drunk to fight back, leaving more scars. In the middle of these facial road maps of past troubles is a bulbous nose, swollen and lumpy and red in futile protest against the exorbitant amounts of alcohol, and above the nose two small gray eyes set deep into the huge skull stare out warily at the world. An unexpected feature of the Bukowski body are the hands: two quite delicate lands at the ends of muscular arms, the hands of an artist or musician. Beautiful hands, really. ("I tell the women that the face is my experience and the hands are my soul—anything to get those panties down.")

Those beautiful hands reach for his thermos bottle after each poem as he gathers momentum, reading about his women:

    this woman thinks she's a panther
    and sometimes when we are making love
    she'll snarl and spit
    and her hair comes down
    and she looks out from the strands
    and shows me her fangs
    but I kiss her anyhow and continue to love …
 
                —"have you ever kissed a panther?"

hard times:

     … the best one can settle for
     is an afternoon
     with the rent paid, some food in the refrigerator,
     and death something like
     a bad painting by a bad painter
     (that you finally buy because there's not
     anything else
     around).
 
                                —"left with the day"

the race track:

      … There are thoroughbred horses
      and thoroughbred bettors. What you do is
      stay with your plays and let them come to you.
        Loving
      a woman is the same way, or loving life. You've
      got to work a bit for it …
 
                         —"a day at the oak tree meet"

one of his favorite poets:

     … I find a black book by the typer:
     Jeffers' Be Angry at the Sun.
     I think of Jeffers often,
     of his rocks and his hawks and his isolation.
     Jeffers was a real loner.
     yes, he had to write.
     I try to think of loners who don't break out
     at all
     in any fashion,
     and I think, no, that's not strong,
     somehow, that's dead.
     Jeffers was alive and a loner and
     he made his statements.
     his rocks and his hawks and his isolation
     counted.
     he wrote in lonely blood
     a man trapped in a corner
     but what a corner
     fighting down to the last mark …
 
                         —"he wrote in lovely blood"

and life in general:

     … it's not the large things that
     send a man to the
     madhouse, death he's ready for, or
     murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood …
     no, it's the continuing series of small tragedies
     that send a man to the madhouse …
     not the death of his love
     but a shoelace that snaps
     with no time left …
 
                                    —"the shoelace"

The vodka is working; the old man is rolling. Bukowski is in good form, just full enough of booze to bring out the showman in him, and the audience responds enthusiastically. On the humorous lines he reads drolly, stretching out certain syllables for emphasis in his mortician's voice and managing to get the same inflections into the spoken word as he has on paper. Despite his often professed dislike for readings, he seems to be enjoying himself now, and to cap off the performance he surprises his listeners by reading a section from a novel in progress. An uninhibited account of an encounter with a fat, sex-starved middle-aged woman ("I'm sorry to say this actually happened to me"), it keeps the audience roaring with its outrageous exaggeration: "She flung herself upon me, and I was crushed under 220 pounds of something less than an angel. Her mouth was upon mine and it dripped spittle and tasted of onions and stale wine and the sperm of 400 men. Suddenly it emitted saliva, and I gagged and pushed her off…. Before I could move again she was upon me. She gripped my balls in both of her hands. Her mouth opened, her head lowered, she had me; her head bobbed, sucked, whirled. Although I was on the verge of vomiting, my penis kept growing. Then, giving my balls a tremendous yank while almost biting my pecker in half, she forced me to fall upon the floor. Huge sucking sounds fell upon the walls as my radio played Mahler. My pecker became larger, purple, covered with spittle. If I come, I thought, I'll never forgive myself…."

As he ends, most of the students rise to give him an ovation. He takes off his glasses and gives the crowd a little wave. "Now let's all go out and get smashed." He gathers his papers and gets up to leave. The applause continues as he walks away and, obviously pleased, he suddenly turns back and leans over the microphone. For just a moment, his guard comes down. "You're full of love," he says "—ya mothers."

    with one punch at the age of 16 and 1/2,
    I knocked out my father,
    a cruel shiny bastard with bad breath …
 
                                          —"the rat"

Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., poet, novelist, short story writer, megalomaniac, lush, philanderer, living legend recluse, classical music aficionado, scatologist, loving father, sexist, physical wreck, jailbird, pain in the ass, genius, finagling horse player, outcast, antitraditionalist, brawler and excivil servant, is sitting in the small living room of his three-room furnished bungalow, a tacky $105-a-month apartment with worn carpeting, scruffy furniture and frazzled curtains. It's his kind of place, one of eight bungalows in a small court just off Western Avenue in a section of Hollywood heavily populated with massage parlors, pornographic movie theaters and takeout joints. The lady in the bungalow next to his is a stripper and another tenant manages the massage parlor across the street. Bukowski feels at home here. For eight years he had lived in a similar cottage where his writing flourished, despite the fact that the place was, according to all who had been there, the filthiest dwelling they had ever seen (Bukowski personally, however, was, and is, immaculate; he's in the habit of taking four or five baths a day). Then he moved into a much more expensive apartment in a modern complex but he felt out of place and his typewriter fell increasingly silent. So he moved into this bungalow in the hope it would restore the right creative feelings, and so far it has. He hasn't been here long enough for the dust and beer bottles to collect in any appreciable quantities, but he's working on it. The only notable features of the place are two paintings that hang on the walls. They're by Bukowski and they're not bad.

He is guzzling from a 16-ounce can of beer, part of two six-packs I've brought along to help smooth the interview. He doesn't bother to put the six-packs in the refrigerator; it's apparent he figures we'll drink them before the evening is over. Barefooted and dressed in blue jeans and a faded yellow short-sleeved shirt with a button missing at the navel, he looks loose and relaxed. More relaxed, in fact, than I am—that Bukowski countenance is, after all, a little over-whelming in a face-to-face confrontation. Then, too, I've learned enough about the man in talks with people who know him well to know that nothing with Bukowski is predictable. His acquaintances have told me that he'll tolerate me and my questions, but won't go so far as to be cordial. So I'm surprised when he goes out of his way to put me at ease, shoving a beer in my hand and announcing: "I've been drinking beer most of the day, but don't worry, kid—I'm not gonna stick my first through the window or bust up any furniture. I'm a pretty benign beer drinker … most of the time. It's the whiskey that gets me in trouble. When I'm drinking it around people, I tend to get silly or pugnacious or wild, which can cause problems. So when I drink it these days, I try to drink it alone. That's the sign of a good whiskey drinker anyway—drinking it by yourself shows a proper reverence for it. The stuff even makes the lampshades look different. Norman Mailer has uttered a lotta shit, but he said one thing I though was great. He said, 'Most Americans get their spiritual inspiration when they're intoxicated, and I'm one of those Americans.' A statement I'll back up 100%, The Naked and the Dead be damned. Only thing is a man has to be careful how he mixes his alcohol and his sex. The best thing for a wise man is to have his sex before he gets drunk 'cause alcohol takes away from that old stem down there. I've been fairly successful at that so far." Grinning, he also informs me that a female friend had departed shortly before my arrival. "Yeah, I had her on that couch you're sitting on. She was pretty young, maybe 23 or 24. She was all right except she didn't know how to kiss. How come kissing the young ones is like kissing a garden hose? Christ, their mouths won't give, they don't know what to do. Ah, well, I shouldn't complain. That makes three different ladies in the last 36 hours. Man, I'll tell ya, women would rather screw poets than just about anything, even German shepherds. If I had only known about all this earlier, I wouldn't have waited till, was 35 to start writing poetry."

We start talking about his childhood going over the details, most of which are still painful for him: his upbringing in Los Angeles after being born in Andernach, Germany; the terrible plague of boils over his face and back, the constant beatings by his father, a milkman who carried Prussian discipline to extremes, whipping his son almost daily with a razor strop for all sorts of imagined offenses; the feeling, even as a young child, of alienation and isolation, of not belonging, of being somehow inferior and superior to his peers at the same time. "The school idiot always gravitated to me he recalls. "Ya know, the fucked up guy who was cross-eyed and wore the wrong kind of clothes and was always going around stepping in dog shit. If there was a pile of dog shit within ten miles, this guy would manage to step in it. So I sort of disdained him but somehow he'd wind up being my buddy. We'd sit around eating our pitiful peanut-butter sandwiches and watching the other kids play their games." Several other boys at school made a habit of beating up his hapless friend. For some reason, though, they left Bukowski alone. "They understood I was almost like him, almost as fucked up, but they were just a little wary of me," he says. "I seemed to have something extra, something in my demeanor that kept 'em from picking on me Maybe it was a wild look in my eyes, I don't know, but they seemed to sense that if they tried it with me they might be in for some trouble. And I guess they would have been too." His tone is casual, unemotional, but traces of bitterness sneak through. "I got pretty hard from all those beating from my father, ya know. The old man toughened me up got me ready for the world."

When he was 16, he came home drunk one night, got sick and vomited on the living room rug. His father grabbed him by the neck and began pushing his nose, like a dog's into the vomit. The son exploded, swinging from the heels and catching his father squarely on the jaw. Henry Charles Bukowski Sr. went down and stayed down a long time. He never tried to beat his son again.

At about the same time, young Charles started to frequent public libraries. He had decided that being a writer made good sense for a loner; the solitude of it appealed to him. At the libraries he was looking for literary heroes. Browsing through the aisles, he would flip through the books and when he found a page that interested him, he took the book home to read. "I'd find one writer and another," he says, "and after a while I found that I'd discovered the same ones who had pretty much stood up over the years. I liked the Russians, Chekhov and the boys. There were some others, most of 'em going a long way back. One day I noticed a book in the stacks called Bow Down to Wood and Stone by Josephine Lawrence. The title caught my eye, so I paged through it, but just the title was good. Then I picked up a book right next to it and when I looked through it I said, 'Hey, this bastard can write.' It was by D.H. Lawrence. There's a bit of color for ya."

He was badly disappointed in the contemporary American writers of the day. "I kept thinking, 'They're playing it too safe; they're holding back, not dealing with reality.' At least reality as I knew it. Hell, I'd see these people in the libraries with their heads down on the tables, asleep, with the books open in front of 'em and flies buzzing around their heads. That's a pretty good comment on the books, huh? Yeah, I guess that about summed up what I thought of most of the writing. And the poetry—Jesus! When I was growing up, poets were thought of as sissies. It's easy to see why. I mean, ya couldn't figure out what the hell they were up to. The poem could be about somebody getting punched in the mouth, but the poet never would come out and say that somebody got punched in the mouth. The reader was supposed to plod through the fucking thing 18 times to somehow puzzle this out. So when it came to both fiction and poetry, I thought I had a chance to make it 'cause what was being written was so pale and lifeless. It wasn't that I was so good, it was just that they were so goddamn bad."

     … I can't help thinking of the years
     in lonely rooms when the only
     people who knocked were the land-
     ladies asking for the back rent …
     I lived with rats and mice and wine
     and my blood crawled the walls in a
     world I couldn't understand and still
     can't. Rather than live their life,
     I starved: I ran inside my own mind
     and hid. I pulled down all the shades
     and stared at the ceiling …
     I wanted to write but the typer was
     always in hock. I gave it up and drank …
 
                                   —South of No North

As a young man, Bukowski wrote hundreds of short stories, sending them off to the wrong markets, magazines like Harper's and Atlantic Monthly where his style and subjects didn't have a chance. When the manuscripts kept coming back, he figured they weren't any good and threw them away. By the time he was 25 his efforts seemed so futile that he decided to abandon his writing ambitions completely. That's when he hit the road on what turned out to be a ten-year drunk, a period when his life was measured out in six-packs and jugs of cheap wine. Along with the drinking bouts, there were countless odd jobs (he once guarded doors in a Texas whorehouse), a number of nights in jail and a few semiserious attempts at suicide.

There was also a woman named Jane. He met her in a bar and lived with her on and off for several years. They had two things in common: both were alcoholics and both were losers. Jane was bouncing off a shattered marriage to an affluent attorney. She was about ten years older than Bukowski, at the stage of life when, as he puts it, "a woman is still nicely put together, just dangling on the edge of falling apart which is when they look the sexiest to me. "Jane was the first woman who brought him any tenderness and he warmed to it. Up to the age of 22 or 23 he had never even tried to get laid because he was squeamish about his disfigurements and after he did start pursuing women he found they were usually out to hustle him. As a result, he soaked up Jane's affection and stuck with her even after the occasional nights when she allowed herself to be picked up and taken home by other men.

Jane's drinking finally killed her, and a couple of years later, at the age of 35. Bukowski almost died himself from relentless boozing. Eleven pints of blood were pumped into him at L.A. County Hospital to save him from a bleeding ulcer. When he left the hospital, his doctors told him he would be a dead man if he touched alcohol again. It made him so nervous that he walked to the nearest bar and tossed down a few beers—a nice touch for the legend that was to follow. After a period of recuperation, he settled into a routine. At night he worked as a postal clerk at the dreary downtown post office. Then, in the early morning hours, he came home to a dingy apartment turned the radio to a classical music station, sat-down behind a battered old Royal and—energized by a combination' of whiskey, rage and desperation—wrote poems: direct, brutally honest poems tinged with his pain and hostility but stamped as well with a certain compassion and justification for life. He sent the poems out to little magazines and underground publications where, to his surprise, they began to be picked up regularly, Soon small independent publishers were bringing out collections of his work. He quickly earned a reputation as an underground poet of considerable talent and there were signs that it wouldn't end at that. In 1963, in an introduction to Bukowski's It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, writer and critic John William Corrington was moved to speculate that "critics at the end of our century may well claim that Charles Bukowski's work was the watershed that divided 20th-century American poetry between the Pound-Eliot-Auden period and the new time in which the human voice speaking came into its own…. He has replaced the formal, frequently stilted diction of the Pound-Eliot-Auden days with a language devoid of the affectations, devices and mannerisms that have taken over academic verse and packed the university and commercial quarterlies with imitations of imitations of Pound and the others…. What Wordsworth claimed to have done, what Rimbaud actually did do in French, Bukowski has accomplished for the English language."

Heady stuff. Meanwhile, this newly heralded genus continued to expend a sizable portion of his energies sorting mail. It wasn't until 1970, with the encouragement of his primary publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, that he finally summoned the nerve to quit the job. Panicked at giving up his security, he pounded out the first draft of his first novel, Post Office—a kind of M.A.S.H. for civil servants—in three weeks, detailing in it the brain-deadening tedium and bureaucratic insanities that had gone with the job, along with descriptions of his brief, bizarre marriage to an heiress with a Texas fortune ("There went my only chance for millions") and his relationship with the woman who bore his daughter, Marina (whom he loves, visits weekly and helps to support).

Today he earns a comfortable though not gaudy income from royalties, readings and the column "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," which he writes for the L.A. Free Press. The big money may yet be on the way. There's a bit of wonderment in his eyes when he says: "I'll be sitting here trying to get some work done at the typer, and somebody will call about making a movie outta some of my stuff. Then I start talking about the author's cut and two-year options and how I gotta have net, not gross, and I think to myself, Good God, what's happening to me? What the hell's going on here? Now that I've got a little bit of fame, people suddenly are coming to my door. I'm wary of it. I think I can handle it but I'm wary of it."

And what if a great deal of money does arrive?

"I would probably get the fat head and be utterly malicious and stinky. Test me. No, if you want the truth, I don't think it would get to me at this stage. I've been through too much, been toughened up for too long."

Taylor Hackford, producer of a documentary on the poet for KCET-TV, Los Angeles, and holder of the screen rights to Post Office, says Bukowski is filled with ambivalence about the late arrival of success. "Sometimes he feels the recognition he's finally getting is well deserved and long overdue," Hackford says, "Other times he feels like it's all a big joke someone's playing on him, like someone's going to take his typewriter away and tell him they were just kidding. There's constant battle going on inside him between the feeling that he really is one of the best and a feeling of deep insecurity. I think he'll be all right as long as he doesn't get too far away from his typewriter. The one thing that could kill him is if he started doing a lot more readings, running around the country catching planes and staying in Holiday Inns. Readings make him nervous, so he tends to drink heavily before, during and after them, and it takes its toll. I think he recognizes this danger. In fact, he wrote a great story about it called 'This Is What Killed Dylan Thomas.' If he limits the readings and keeps the drinking under reasonable control, we're going to hear a lot more from the man in the future."

     … I suppose a lot of obnoxious characters
     work their way into immortality.
     I'm working on it myself.
 
                          —"the painter"

Bukowski, according to Bukowski, is at his "total peak. I'm writing less but I'm writing much better. There's more care in each line. I have a lot of self-doubt, so I know I'm measuring these things right. Right now everything has come together. I'm on my way. I'm unbeatable. Tomorrow morning is something else. Who knows, it may all fall apart and I'll go mad or raving or rape a goat or something. There's always the chance that I'll end up back on skid row, drinking wine with the boys. I'd never mention that I was a poet or any of that silly-ass shit. I'd just sit there and drink with em and say. 'Well, fellas, I figured it might turn out like this.'"

The beer is disappearing rapidly and his eyes are badly bloodshot back in those deep sockets under the bushy brows. A light on a desk behind him creates a halo effect around the top of his head. The halo just doesn't fit. He looks a little liverish, but seems to he feeling fine.

I ask him how much he feels his physical appearance has affected his life.

"I don't know. I suppose it helped to make a loner out of me, and being a loner isn't a bad thing for a writer. I know the face is helping to sell books now. The shot of me they used on the cover of Erections has done a lot to sell that book. The face on that cover is so horrific and pasty and completely gone beyond the barrier that it makes people stop and wanna find out what the hell kinda madman this guy is. So it was good luck for me to go through a lot of the shit I went through "cause now I have this mug that sells books."

And when it comes to women …

"That's a delicate question—does the face scare them?"

No, aren't there a lot of women who are attracted by it now?

"Yeah, I get all sorts of remarks about it. They say things like. 'You've got a face more beautiful than Christ's' That sounds good at first, but when I think about it, Christ's face wasn't all that beautiful. But I find women like ugly faces. Yeah. I'll make that statement flatly. They wanna mother ya back to heaven. I have no complaints."

A phone call interrupts us, and from the conversation I can tell it's Linda King. "No." he tells her, "I can't come over tonight. I'm being interviewed." Glancing at me, he raises his voice to make sure I can hear him. "Yeah, this guy's here from this wild-ass, perverted publication, but he looks pretty goddamn respectable to me: ten-dollar haircut, tailored clothes, Florsheim boots. What am I telling him? A lotta lies, what the hell else? I think he believes em, too."

After he gets off the phone I suggest to him that his writing recently seems to reflect a softening in his stance toward women and ask if that has something to do with his essentially happy, if rather rocky, relationship with Linda.

He rubs his rat-colored beard. "Well, I guess I might admit to mellowing a little. I've been accused of hating women but it's not true at all. It's just that most of the women I ran into for a long time weren't exactly prizes. I'd sleep with em and when I woke up, they'd be gone with my money. If a man goes into a whorehouse, he's gonna get a whore, that's all there is to it. I met Jane when I was in my 20's and she was the first woman—the first person, for that matter—who brought me any love. It was the first time I discovered the stupid little things that people do that make them care about each other, like lying in bed together on a Sunday morning reading the paper or fixing a meal together. Gentle, corny things like that."

In an attempt to bait him a bit, I recall some contradictory statements he's made in the past about women. Like, on one hand, "women are the world's most marvelous inventions." and, on the other. "I wouldn't recommend getting involved with women to any man."

"Right. Both statements are absolutely true. No contradiction. Next question." He grins and drains his beer, knowing the evasion has succeeded. Then he decides to go on anyway. "Let me tell ya a little story, kid. Before I met Linda I went four years without a woman and I felt pretty good about it. Somehow I just reached a stage where I didn't wanna go through the strain of a relationship. I didn't wanna take the time. Women can be awfully time-consuming. And when you're a poet, they expect ya to go around spouting all-this grand, glorious, profound stuff all the time about the meaning of life. Well, Jesus, I'm not like that. What can I tell em? I wanna fuck em, that's all. So after they're with ya four or five days and the most profound thing you've said is, 'Hey, baby, ya forgot to flush the toilet,' they think to themselves. 'What the hell kinda poet is this?' It takes a lot outta ya putting up with that stuff. During that four-year period I just decided not to join the chase for every cunt in a skirt. I'd come home from the job and I'd have the beer and my symphony music, a place to lay down and my typewriter. I masturbated a lot and got a lotta writing done, so I guess it turned out all right. Writing, after all, is more important than any woman. But I will make this concession: jerking off runs a distant second to the real thing. When you're with a woman ya like and the sex is good, there's something that takes place beyond the act itself. Some sort of exchange of souls that makes all the trouble worthwhile—at least for the rest of the night. I mean, here ya are, masturbating, whacking away at this big ugly purple thing with the veins sticking out and fantasizing about how you're balling the daylights outta some woman, and then ya finish and go lay down on the bed and think. 'Well, that wasn't too bad'—but something's missing. It's that exchange of souls."

It seems like an appropriate time to test out how seriously he takes the image of a great lover he has fostered in his stories. I inform him that Linda had volunteered the information that "he's a very creative lover. I've stayed with him five years, and if he wasn't good I could certainly find someone else."

"Well, I'll plead guilty to that," he says matter-of-factly. "I may as well admit it. I'm a good lover. At least I was the last time I did it, which wasn't long ago. But I think Linda's probably talking about sexual exploration, working down below there with the tongue and also getting in some creative movements ya haven't tried before. It's like writing a story or a poem—ya don't wanna do it the same way every time or it gets boring. It's hard to explain…. It's just an instinctive things to keep things fresh and exciting. Like maybe doing it standing up as a change of pace. I can do that with these goddamn legs of mine. Most of the rest of me is shit, but the legs are dynamite. And my balls. I have genuinely magnificent balls. No shit, if my dick was in direct proportion to my balls. I'd be one of the great all-time champion studs. But my balls aside, imagination is the key. It's a creative act."

Well, uh, Linda also said she had to teach you about oral sex.

"Huh?"

Linda said you had never practiced, uh, cunnilingus before you met her.

"Ummmmmm. Christ, she couldn't let it go at telling ya I'm a great lover, could she?" His fugitive's face registers either a scowl or a smirk, hard to tell which. "All right, that's true. When I met her one of the first things she told me was that she could tell from my stories that I had never done that. Don't ask me how she figured that out. Anyway, she said it was a deficiency in my education. We set about to correct it and we did. I covered her with the reality of my tongue, how's that? Then she told me she was afraid that I'd hafta try out my new techniques on another woman. Well, she was right about that, too. One thing it proves, though, it's never too later for an old man to learn new tricks. Another bit of Bukowski wisdom."

… L.A., the greatest city in the universe. Where each man and woman had a special style and a natural cool. Even the fools had a certain grace. L.A. was the end of a dead culture crawled west to get away from itself. L.A. knew it was rotten and laughed at it. Ask Chicago, ask New York City, they still think they are alive. No good. They are fucked cuckoo. While San Francisco chokes upon the glut of artists, L.A. wheels, stands at the corner of Hollywood and Western, munching a taco and enjoying the bluff and the sun….

"Notes of a Dirty Old Man"

The beer is gone and Bukowski is hungry. He stands up and asks a question that comes out more as an order: "How about getting something to eat? I haven't eaten since I started drinking beer and that was quite some time ago." A few minutes later, we're weaving along Western Avenue in his blue '67 VW ("I'm gonna drive this sonuvabitch till it disintegrates"), headed, he declares, for nothing less than a Pioneer Chicken stand. "Been going there for years when I'm drunk and there's no food in the apartment. Main thing is, I hafta watch out for those red lights in the rear-view mirror. I can't afford to get picked up … might lose my license. Suppose they pull me over? What am I gonna tell 'em, that I'm Charles Bukowski, one of the world's greatest poets? That I have magnificent balls? Ya think the men in blue would buy that?"

A car ahead of us that had stopped for a red light fails to move when the light turns green. Bukowski unleashes a torrent out the window. "Come on, motherfuck! Move it! Get your ass moving!" The driver looks around nervously and finally takes off. "Did ya see that asshole? I'll bet he's a tourist, probably from Chicago…. Yeah, I love this town. Well, I don't love, it, but it's the only place I ever wanna live. I couldn't write anywhere else. I hope I die here. Not right away, maybe when I'm 80. That seems like a reasonable age to die. That gives me another 25 years. I can write a lot of shit in 25 years. Hey, I feel good tonight. Tonight I feel like I might make it to 80. I have some trouble with the stomach, my liver gets overloaded and my hemorrhoids are threatening to take over the world, but what the hell. I'll make it. I'm just ornery enough to make it."

We reach Pioneer Chicken and order two shrimp dinners. Sitting at an outdoor table, eating the shrimp and soggy french fries, Bukowski turns reflective, talking without prompting about his past, speculating about the effects of his father's beatings, reminiscing about the days on the road. Drunk, tired and disheveled, he stares at a young couple walking by and then, in a confessional tone, he says: "Ya know, I've felt kinda unreal and weird all my life. I've always had trouble getting along with people. I've always been the sonuvabitch—the guy who says the wrong thing and makes people feel bad. Sometimes I feel like I'm not really a part of this world." A pause. "I say I don't like people, but really I get kinda charged up when I'm around 'em. I used to sit in my old apartment with the window open, typing and looking out at the sidewalk with people walking by. And I'd incorporate the people into my stuff. Maybe now that I've got a little success I can relax and say something nice to people once in a while instead of always being the prick." He stops, looks at me, starts to go on, then thinks better of it; perhaps he's thinking that he's already said too much. The moment of reflection passes. "Ah, hell, let's eat our shrimp and watch the broads go by."

We drive back and he parks on the street near his bungalow. Out on the sidewalk we shake hands. "Listen, kid," he says. "I don't have friends, but I do have acquaintances. So now you're an acquaintance."

"Bukowski," I say, "you're not a bad guy—for a prick."

He laughs, shakes his head and walks off toward his apartment and his solitude.

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