“Team Bukowski”: 1993 / 2022

Sunday, January 23, 2022 – 9:00 p.m.

The poet Carol Ellis gave me this T-shirt in 1993, shortly after I had read at the University of Redlands one spring afternoon with Fred Voss and Julia Stein. The group reading was a part of a conference on working-class issues. I can’t recall exactly why she gave me this particular T-shirt. Perhaps, in a conversation after the reading, I had mentioned that I had recently received a short letter from him in response to a letter I had sent care of Black Sparrow Press. I had noticed a shift in the tonal focus of his poems at the start of the century’s final decade. It had nothing to do with the quality of his writing, which remained at the same level of consistent candor for which he had become so well known. What I had noticed in particular was how his poems seemed to be taking seriously the idea that one should write every poem as if it were the last one a person might ever be able to write. That wouldn’t mean, of course, that the poem could not be funny or witty, or even amused at the seriousness with which the poem toyed with its impetuous logic; but it had better not entertain dalliances with the trivial. I didn’t know when I got the T-shirt that Bukowski was dying.

Earlier today, Cecilia Woloch teamed up with Pam Ward for a reading on Zoom. About 40 people showed up, half of whom were familiar from dozens of other events back when we gathered in public. Cecilia and Pam, in turn, had decided to pair up Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman in the first half of the program as a way of setting a mood for Pam’s reading from her latest book, BETWEEN GOOD MEN AND NO MAN AT ALL. At one point, either Cecilia or Pam asked people if they had ever met Bukowski. I was surprised at how few people seemed to have encountered him. I had the honor of publishing and meeting him. In fact, I arranged for an evening in the late 1980s in which poets talked about his importance to them. It was an improvised seminar of sorts, in that I didn’t assign topics to people. It was just meant to be a thoughtful celebration of his work. I’m working on a memoir, and I guess I should include my recollections of that evening and how it came about.

I don’t think anyone in the audience knew about David James’s chapter on Bukowski and Coleman in his book, POWER MISSES, nor I do think anyone had read Laurence Goldstein’s exceptional essay on Bukowski in POETRY LOS ANGELES. Far too serious criticism on Bukowski has been undertaken by those most qualified to do so, if he’s ever to break through the kind of dismissal of his work as happened in Camile Paglia’s “Break Blow Burn,” in which she claimed that she couldn’t find a single poem by Bukowski that could match the quality of the other poems she had chosen for commentary. How is possible that she never managed to read “The Souls of Dead Animals”?

I guess here’s another example of an essay that I need to complete before I can retire and let my literary conscience rest easy.

Here are links to help those who would like to get Pam Ward’s latest book, Between Good Men & No Man At All:

between good men & no man at all by Pam Ward (Pre-Order)

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For some context of attitudes about Bukowski’s work after Black Sparrow had made him its best-selling author, here is an exchange between the editor of DURAK magazine and George Hitchcock, the editor of KAYAK magazine, in 1978.

DURAK, The International Magazine of Poetry
No. 1, edited by David Lloyd and D.S. Hoffman (Beverly Lloyd and Deborah Hoffman)

Page 32

Hitchcock: I have tons of poetic enemies. I mean poetry which I don’t care for and which I don’t think is doing anything. We’re getting a lot of that poetry. We’re getting poets who are highly venerated but I don’t care for — Charles Bukowski, for example.

DUrak: You don’t care for Charles Bukowski’s work?
Hitchcok: No. I think he’s terrible, but he has some talent. I was just reading the other day a Robin Skleton article: reading Charls Bukowski, he says, is necessary so people can see what would’ve happened to Henry Miller if he had gone to Paris. It’s easy to be cruel to Bukowski; he laps it up; he specializes in drunken readings and insulting everybody in the audience and all his contemporaries. He does have some talent, though. I just don’t like his taco, race track and whore stuff. I don’t like Ernest Hemingway for the same reasons. Each of us has his own prejudices and the best we can do is be honest about them.

Durak: Bukowski is an a=uthenic, working-class poet —

Hitchcock: Well, it’s authentic. It’s American, but it’s a part of America I do do without, quite easily. And since I was for twenty years a workingman and thus daily in contact with people just like that, it doesn’t thrill me to make that discovery. To the generation of young, middle-class people who are not exposed to working-class culture, Bukowski is a great discovery. I dare say he is, but, to me, he isn’t. He talks with not a great deal more flair than characters I worked with in the shipyard. That’s why he’s authentic, eh represents lumpen-proletarian America. It’s real and it’s true but the whole thing is fatiguing.

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Footnote: After teaching at several other colleges, including UC Modesto, Ellis has retired from the academic road show and now lives in Portland, Oregon. Her first full-length book of poetry, LOST AND LOCAL, won the Beyond Baroque poetry award and was published just a few months before the pandemic broke out. (Her writing, it should be emphasized, is nothing like Bukowski’s.) Fortunately, she was able to celebrate the book with a reading at Beyond Baroque before everything shut down.

Finally, let us hope that Beyond Baroque can resume a reading series by this summer. It would behoove that institution to announce some events to be held, if necessary, in the back patio area in June and July. The community desperately needs to have a sense that at least an occasional scheduled reading that reflects an articulated programming poetics is not that far in the future.

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