(Since his death in 1994, there has been a growing appreciation of poet and novelist Charles Bukowski. It would be difficult to label this a “resurgence” since Bukowski’s work was always on the fringe. He’s often lumped as a Beat writer, but that’s a disservice to the Beats and Bukowski. Bukowski’s move from cult writer to cultural icon made a huge step in 2005 with the movie adaption of his novel “Factotum” starring Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor. Dark Party reached out to Michael Phillips of Bukowski.net (http://www.bukowski.net/) to learn more about the enigmatic Bukowski. The Bukowski web site grew out of a smaller Bukowski section on the old smog.net when Michael spun off Bukowski.net in January of 2006. Michael is the brains behind the site, but the heart and soul are the forums filled with Bukowski fans from all over the world. It has become one of the top destinations for anyone interested in the poetry and prose of Charles Bukowski (who fans affectionately call Buk).
Michael lives in San Pedro and has worked Web hosting companies for more than a decade. Previously, he was a printer for 15 years. He’s also a poet and a short story writer. Aside from Bukowski, he’s also a voracious reader of Hunter Thompson, Mark Twain, John Fante, John Kennedy Toole, Herman Hesse, and Theodore Geisel.)
Dark Party: The image portrayed of Bukowski of of a hyper-macho, uber-porn writer -- a bum who became a writer. Is this a fair assessment of Bukowski? How would you define him as an artist?
Michael Phillips: Bukowski fostered the "bum who became a writer" persona, so it's understandable that many have that impression of his work. He also wrote a lot of titillating stories for adult magazines in the 1970's, but for the most part he wrote those pieces for the paycheck. If you look at his work as a whole, the macho/porn/bum pieces are far outweighed by the work that falls decidedly outside of that narrow range.
His sensitivity was often on display in his work, and if one were to read only the more introspective pieces they would come away with a completely different impression. But the sensitive poet doesn't sell as many books as the two-fisted, brawling womanizer, so he played up that angle in public. There is a scene in the documentary "Born Into This" where he can barely finish reading a poem about Linda King (Bukowski’s girlfriend) because he keeps breaking into tears. If that doesn't blow the macho image out of the water, I don't know what does.
DP: Bukowski the man seemed in constant battle with convention. Part of him seemed to want to settle down (thus his jobs with the LA Post Office), but another part of him wanted to howl at the moon. How much do you think Bukowski struggled with his dual desires?
Michael: He wanted to be left alone, I suppose that could be seen as a desire to settle down. He had a fear of poverty, and was always frugal and careful with the money that he had. The post office represented security, but his true nature was in opposition to a scheduled 9 to 5 life, so he did struggle constantly with that, right up through 1970 when he quit the post office to write full time. His employee records at the post office are littered with warnings and threats of suspension for missing work due to "illness." He was not a model government employee by any stretch.
He was a realist, above all else, and he knew that he could not make a living as a poet alone. Remember that when he quit the post office for the last time it was to write a novel. A novelist has a much better shot at a living wage than a poet. I have noticed that many people discovering Bukowski for the first time do so through the novels, so there is something to that. He started at least three novels before “Post Office,” (Bukowski's first novel) but never completed any of them. The loss of the regular job seemed to give him the motivation he needed to finish a novel.
His poem and short story output also skyrocketed after leaving the post office. He wrote a lot when he was working, but nowhere near what he wrote when he was writing to survive. As for howling at the moon, he did that all his life, even after he was safely ensconced in his house in San Pedro, living a relatively quiet and stable life with Linda. His demons never left him. Linda says that shortly before his death he took up the practice of meditation, but for most of his life he was an angry man. The seeds of that anger are all in his book, “Ham On Rye.”
DP: How would you define the relationship between Bukowski and his primary prose character Henry Chinaski? How closely do the two resemble each other?
Michael: Bukowski said Chinaski was mostly autobiographical, with 5 percent or so (depending on when he was asked the question) being fiction. That would seem to be part of his myth though, as a good deal of what he wrote was exaggerated, fabricated or adapted from the experiences of those around him. He had a large circle of acquaintances, a smaller circle of friends, and a never ending flow of total strangers in his life. Yet at his core he was a solitary man.
Part of me thinks he kept people around for inspiration and even source material. He did live an edgy life in many ways, and he did experience most of the things that he wrote about frequently - his main repeating themes. Though the period of his life when he was unemployed and living hand to mouth is much shorter than the Bukowski myth would have you believe.
His "ten year drunk" was more like a couple of years on the road, fresh out of college (two years at LA City College, he did not graduate). He was rarely unemployed for an extended period of time. His work ethic when it came to writing was not far removed from his work ethic in general. He disliked the jobs he had, but he usually had a job.
DP: One could argue that Bukowski's writing reflects hostility toward women and homosexuals. Some critics slam him as a sexist and a bigot. What is your opinion?
Michael: He definitely had prejudices common to many people of his generation. I think homosexuality was not something he had any experience with until he began to travel in 'literary' circles. He had no frame of reference, so fell back on prejudice and cliche. Though he did have friendships with, and respect for, several gay writers, he eventually tore them down, sometimes using their homosexuality as a method of attack. But he tore down virtually every friendship he had, the reasons as varied as the people.
I don't see him as a bigot because he was not intolerant on those levels. He was intolerant of people as humans, but not because of their sexual leanings or race. This is a sticky subject to sort out, again, because of when he was born. It is difficult for us to understand how many prejudices were taken for granted in the early part of the twentieth century. Most people didn't question these things until the civil rights movement in the 60's. Not to dismiss prejudice, but it is important to put it in context. I'm sure many of us have parents or grandparents who say things that make us cringe. They are not necessarily intolerant, they just came from an ignorant generation.
I never understood the sexist label. I have tried to understand where people are getting it, but I really can't find any basis for it in his work. In his persona, perhaps, but not in the work itself. He could be brutal and abrasive, but it was applied evenly across the board; women, men, homosexuals, bus drivers...
DP: Bukowski's poetry is raw and often an uncompromising looks at the life of the working man. What two or three poems do you think capture the essence of Bukowski?
Michael: Interesting question, because the handful of poems that are the essence of Bukowski to me have nothing to do with the plight of the ordinary working man, but rather with the pain of living in this world. “The Bluebird,” “The Crunch,” “Dinosauria” “We” - those come from a raw soul who can't come to grips with why the world is set up the way it is. Someone who feels the things in these poems has to have a defense, and I believe that's why the Bukowski persona was born. As a defense mechanism.
Read our interview with Linda King, Buk's former girlfriend, here
Read our interview about Jane Austen here
Labels: 5 Questions, Bukowski, Michael Phillips
I don't see misogyny in his writing any more than I do in that of Mingus Tourette (who writes of a suicidal desire to be smothered to death under a large prostitute with some reverence). Loathing for society, with all its hoops and hurdles, yes, and for the people who are only too willing to run the obstacle course without question, but Bukowski can write lovingly when the mood strikes him. I enjoy his writing, but at the same time, I guess I feel sorry for the guy because he was so disconnected from most people, and he was so unhappy.
Coincidentally, Born Into This, a documentary on Bukowski, just arrived at the library for me. It'll be interesting to watch it with that little extra hit of perspective.