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Tough Guys Write Poetry

Charles Bukowski by Sean Penn

Editor's note: Time magazine has called writer Charles Bukowski "the laureate of American lowlife." It is in Europe, however, that the author has found his greatest admirers. He is the most widely read living American writer in translation in the world today. More than 2.2 million copies of his works have been sold in Germany alone.

Now 66 years old, Bukowski has written 32 books of poetry, 5 collections of short stories and 4 novels. His best-known works are Ham on Rye, Women, Hot Water Music, South of No North, Post Office, The Tales of Ordinary Madness, War All the Time and Love Is a Dog From Hell. His latest collection of poems is entitled You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense.

This fall a film made from his first screenplay, Barfly, will open around the country. Starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, directed by Barbet Schroeder and presented by Francis Ford Coppola, the film is an autobiographical account of Bukowski's early years as a writer. Barfly's two main characters, Henry and Wanda, are "immersed in an effort to escape the embalmed method of living which grips most of American society," according to Bukowski. "It is that fearful desire to continue to exist at any cost, their lives or anybody else's. Henry and Wanda refuse to accept the living death of acquiescence. This film is a focus on their brave madness."

We asked actor and poet Sean Penn to visit Bukowski and focus on the brave madness of the great man himself.

Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany, in 1920. At the age of three he was brought to the United States and raised in Los Angeles. He currently resides in San Pedro, California, with his wife, Linda. A notorious boozer, brawler and womanizer, both Genet and Sartre called him "the best poet in America," but his friends call him Hank.

ON BARS:

Don't do too much bar stuff anymore. Got that out of my system. Now when I walk into a bar, I almost gag. I've seen so many of them, it's just too fuckin' much -- that stuff's for when you're younger, you know, and you like to duke it with a guy, you know you play that macho shit -- try to pick up broads -- at my age, I don't need all that. Nowadays, I just go into bars to piss. Too many years in the bar. It just got so bad, that I'd walk into a bar, I'd walk through the door and I'd start to puke.

ON ALCOHOL:

Alcohol is probably one of the greatest things to arrive upon the earth -- alongside of me. Yes...these are two of the greatest arrivals upon the surface of the earth. So...we get along. It is ultimately destructive to most people. I'm just one apart from that. I do all of my creative work while I'm intoxicated. Even with women, you know, I've always been reticent in the love-making act, so alcohol has allowed me, sexually, to be more free. It's a release, because basically I am a shy, withdrawn person, and alcohol allows me to be this hero, striding through space and time, doing all these daring things...So I like it...yeah.

ON SMOKING:

I like to smoke. Smoke and alcohol counterbalance each other. I used to wake up from drinking, you know, and you smoke so much, both your hands are yellow, see, like you've got gloves on...almost brown...and you say, "Oh, shit...what do my lungs look like? Oh Jesus!"

ON FIGHTING:

The best feeling is when you whip a guy you're not supposed to whip. I got into it with a guy one time, he was giving me a lot of lip. I said, "Okay. Let's go." He was no problem at all -- I whipped him easy. He was laying there on the ground. He's got a bloody nose, the whole works. He says, "Jesus, you move slow, man. I thought you'd be easy -- the goddamn fight started -- I couldn't see your hands anymore, you were so fucking fast. What happened?" I said, "I don't know, man. That's just the way it goes." You save it. You save it for the moment.

My cat, Beeker, is a fighter. He gets mauled up a bit sometimes, but he's always the winner. I taught him it all, you know...lead with the left, set up the right.

ON CATS:

Having a bunch of cats around is good. If you're feeling bad, you just look at the cats, you'll feel better, because they know that everything is, just as it is. There's nothing to get excited about. They just know. They're saviors. The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have a hundred cats, you'll live ten times longer than if you have ten. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever. It's truly ridiculous.

ON WOMEN AND SEX:

I call 'em complaining machines. Things are never right with a guy to them. And man, when you throw that hysteria in there...forget it. I gotta get out, get in the car, and go. Anywhere. Get a cup of coffee somewhere. Anywhere. Anything but another woman. I guess they're just built different, right? (He's on a roll now.) The hysteria starts...they're gone. You go to leave, they don't understand. (In a high woman's screech:) "WHERE ARE YOU GOING?" "I'm getting the hell out of here, baby!" They think I'm a woman hater, but I'm not. A lot of it is word of mouth. They just hear "Bukowski's a male-chauvinist pig," but they don't check the source. Sure I make women look bad sometimes, but I make men look bad too. I make myself look bad. If I really think it's bad, I say it's bad -- man, woman, child, dog. The women are so touchy, they think they're being singled out. That's their problem.

THE FIRST ONE:

Fuckin' the first one was the strangest -- I didn't know -- she taught me how to eat pussy and all these fucking things. I didn't know anything. She said, "You know, Hank, you're a great writer, but you don't know a damn thing about women!" "What do you mean? I've fucked a lot of women." "No, you don't know. Let me teach you some things." I said, "Okay." She said, "You're a good student, man. You catch on right away." That's all -- (He got a little embarrassed. Not by the specifics, but rather by the sentimentality of the reminiscence.) But all that eatin' pussy shit can get kinda subservient. I like to please them, but...It's all overrated, man. Sex is only a great thing if you're not getting any.

ON SEX BEFORE AIDS (AND HIS MARRIAGE):

I just used to pop in and out of those sheets. I don't know, it was kind of a trance, a fuck trance. I'd just kinda fuck, and fuck (laughs)... I did! (laughs)

And the women, you know, you'd say a few words, and you just grab 'em by the wrist, "Come on, baby." Lead 'em in the bedroom and fuck 'em. And they'd go with it, man. Once you get in that rhythm, man, you'd just go. There are a lot of lonely women out there, man. They look good, they just don't connect. They're sitting there all alone, going to work, coming home...it's a big thing for 'em to have some guy pop 'em. And if he sits around, drinks and talks, you know, it's entertainment. It was all right...and I was lucky. Modern women...they don't sew your pockets...forget that.

ON WRITING:

I wrote a short story from the viewpoint of a rapist who raped a little girl. So people accused me. I was interviewed. They'd say, "You like to rape little girls?" I said, "Of course not. I'm photographing life." I've gotten in trouble with a lot of my shit. On the other hand, trouble sells some books. But, bottom line, when I write, it's for me. (He draws a deep drag off his cigarette.) It's like this. The "drag" is for me, the ash is for the tray... that's publication.

I never write in the daytime. It's like running through the shopping mall with your clothes off. Everybody can see you. At night...that's when you pull the tricks...magic.

ON POETRY:

I always remember the schoolyards in grammar school, when the word "poet" or "poetry" came up, all the little guys would laugh and mock it. I can see why, because it's a fake product. It's been fake and snobbish and inbred for centuries. It's over-delicate. It's over-precious. It's a bunch of trash. Poetry for the centuries is almost total trash. It's a con, a fake.

There have been a very few good poets, don't mistake me. There's a Chinese poet called Li Po. He could put more feeling, realism, and passion in four or five simple lines than most poets can in the twelve or fourteen pages of their shit. And he drank wine too. He used to set his poems on fire, sail down the river, and drink wine. The emperors loved him, because they could understand what he was saying...but, of course, he only burned his bad poems. (laughs)

What I've tried to do, if you'll pardon me, is bring in the factory-workers aspect of life...the screaming wife when he comes home from work. The basic realities of the everyman existence...something seldom mentioned in the poetry of the centuries. Just put me down as saying that the poetry of the centuries is shit. It's shameful.

ON CELINE:

The first time I read Celine, I went to bed with a big box of Ritz crackers. I started reading him and eating these Ritz crackers, and laughing, and eating the Ritz crackers. I read the whole novel straight through. And the box of Ritz was empty, man. And I got up and drank water, man. You should've seen me. I couldn't move. That's what a good writer will do to you. He'll damn near kill you...a bad writer will too.

ON SHAKESPEARE:

He's unreadable and overrated. But people don't want to hear that. You see, you cannot attack shrines. Shakespeare is embedded through the centuries. You can say "So-and-so is a lousy actor!" But you can't say Shakespeare is shit. The longer something is around, snobs begin to attach themselves to it, like suckerfish. When snobs feel something is safe...they attach. The moment you tell them the truth, they go wild. They can't handle it. It's attacking their own thought process. They disgust me.

ON HIS FAVORITE READING MATERIAL:

I read in The National Enquirer, "Is your husband homosexual?" Linda had said to me, "You have a voice like a fag!" I said, "Oh, yeah. I always wondered." (laughs) This article says, "Does he pull his eyebrows out?" I thought, shit! I do that all the time. Now I know what I am. I pull my eyebrows out...I'm a fag! Okay. It's nice for The National Enquirer to tell me what I am.

ON HUMOR AND DEATH:

There's very little. About the last best humorist was a guy called James Thurber. But his humor was so great, they had to overlook it. Now, this guy was what you call a psychologist/psychiatrist of the ages. He had the man/woman thing -- you know, people seeing things. He was a cure-all. His humor was so real, you almost have to scream out your laughter in a frantic release. Outside of Thurber, I can't think of anybody...I've got a little touch of it...but not like he did. What I've got I don't really call humor. I'd call it..."a comic edge." I'm almost hooked on the comic edge. No matter what happens...it's ludicrous. Almost everything is ludicrous. You know, we shit every day. That's ludicrous. Don't you think? We have to keep pissing, putting food in our mouths, wax comes in our ears, hair? We have to scratch ourselves. Really ugly and dumb, you know? Tits are useless, unless...

You know, we're monstrosities. If we could really see this, we could love ourselves...realize how ridiculous we are, with our intestines wound around, shit slowly running through as we look each other in the eyes and say "I love you," our stuff is carbonizing, turning into shit, and we never fart near each other. It all has a comic edge...

And then we die. But, death has not earned us. It hasn't shown any credentials -- we've shown all the credentials. With birth, have we earned life? Not really, but we're sure caught with the fucker...I resent it. I resent death. I resent life. I resent being caught between the two. You know how many times I've tried suicide? (Linda asks, "Tried?") Give me time, I'm only 66 years old. Still working at it.

When you have a suicide complex, nothing bothers you...except losing at the track. Somehow that bothers you. Why is that?...Because you're using your mind [at the track] not your heart.

I never rode a horse.

I'm not so interested in the horse, as in the process of being right and wrong...selectively.

ON THE TRACK:

I tried to make my living at the track for a while. It's painful. It's exhilarating. Everything is on the line -- the rent -- everything. But, you tend to be too cautious...it's not the same.

One time I was sitting way down at the curve. There were twelve horses in the race and they all got bunched together. It looked like a big charge. All I saw were these big horses' asses going up and down. They looked wild. I looked at those horse asses and I thought, "This is madness, this is total madness!" But then you have other days where you win four or five hundred dollars, you've won eight or nine races in a row, you feel like God, you know everything. It all fits together.

(Then to me:)

CB: All your days aren't good, are they?
SP: No.
CB: Some of them good?
SP: Yeah.
CB: Many of them?
SP: Yeah.
(After a pause, the laughter of surprise)
CB: I thought you were going to say "Just a few..." How disappointing!

ON PEOPLE:

I don't look too much at people. It's disturbing. They say if you look too much at someone, you start to look like them. Poor Linda.

People, mostly, I can do without. They don't fill me, they empty me. I respect no man. I have a problem that way...I'm lying, but believe me, it's true.

The valet at the track is okay. Sometimes, I'm leaving the track and he'll say, "Well, how you doing, man?" I'll say, "Shit, I'm ready to go for the jugular...throw up the white flag, man. I've had it." He'll say, "Oh no! Come on, man! I'll tell you what. Let's go out tonight, get drunk. We'll kick some ass, and suck pussy." I'll say, "Frank, let me consider that." He'll say, "You know, the worse it gets, the wiser I get." I'll say, "You must be a pretty wise man, Frank." He'll say, "You know it's a good thing you and I didn't meet when we were younger." I'll say, "Yeah, I know what you're going to say, Frank. We'd both be in San Quentin." "Right!" he says.

ON BEING RECOGNIZED AT THE TRACK:

The other day I'm sitting there and I feel them staring at me. I know what's coming, so I get up to move, you know? And he says, "Excuse me?" And I say, "Yes, what is it!" He says, "Are you Bukowski?" I say, "No!" He says, "I guess people ask you that all the time, don't they?" And I say, "Yes!" and I walked away. You know, we've discussed this before. There's nothing like privacy. You know, I like people. It's nice that they might like my books and all that...but I'm not the book, see? I'm the guy who wrote it, but I don't want them to come up and throw roses on me or anything. I want them to let me breathe. They wanna hang out with me. They figure I'll bring some whores, wild music, and I'm gonna slug somebody...you know? They read the stories! Shit, these things happened 20 to 30 years ago, baby!

ON FAME:

It's a destructor. It's the whore, the bitch, the destructor of all time. I've got it the sweetest because I'm famous in Europe and unknown here. I'm one of the most fortunate men around. I'm a lucky dog. Fame is really terrible. It is a measure on a scale of the common denominator, minds working on a low level. It's worthless. A select audience is much better.

ON LONELINESS:

I've never been lonely. I've been in a room -- I've felt suicidal. I've been depressed. I've felt awful -- awful beyond all -- but I never felt that one other person could enter that room and cure what was bothering me...or that any number of people could enter that room. In other words, loneliness is something I've never been bothered with because I've always had this terrible itch for solitude. It's being at a party, or at a stadium full of people cheering for something, that I might feel loneliness. I'll quote Ibsen, "The strongest men are the most alone." I've never thought, "Well, some beautiful blonde will come in here and give me a fuck-job, rub my balls, and I'll feel good." No, that won't help. You know the typical crowd, "Wow, it's Friday night, what are you going to do? Just sit there?" Well, yeah. Because there's nothing out there. It's stupidity. Stupid people mingling with stupid people. Let them stupidify themselves. I've never been bothered with the need to rush out into the night. I hid in bars, because I didn't want to hide in factories. That's all. Sorry for all the millions, but I've never been lonely. I like myself. I'm the best form of entertainment I have. Let's drink more wine!

ON LEISURE:

This is very important -- to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you're gonna lose everything. Whether you're an actor, anything, a housewife...there has to be great pauses between highs, where you do nothing at all. You just lay on a bed and stare at the ceiling. This is very, very important...just to do nothing at all, very, very important. And how many people do this in modern society? Very few. That's why they're all totally mad, frustrated, angry and hateful. ln the old days, before I was married, or knew a lot of women, I would just pull down all the shades and go to bed for three or four days. I'd get up to shit. I'd eat a can of beans, go back to bed, just stay there for three or four days. Then I'd put on my clothes and I'd walk outside, and the sunlight was brilliant, and the sounds were great. I felt powerful, like a recharged battery. But you know the first bring-down? The first human face I saw on the sidewalk, I lost half my charge right there. This monstrous, blank, dumb, unfeeling face, charged up with capitalism -- the "grind." And you went "Oooh! That took half away." But it was still worth it, I had half left. So, yeah, leisure. And I don't mean having profound thoughts. I mean having no thoughts at all. Without thoughts of progress, without any self-thoughts of trying to further yourself. Just...like a slug. It's beautiful.

ON BEAUTY:

There is no such thing as beauty, especially in the human face...what we call the physiognomy. It's all a mathematical and imagined alignment of features. Like, if the nose doesn't stick out too much, the sides are in fashion, if the earlobes aren't too large, if the hair is long...It's kind of a mirage of generalization. People think of certain faces as beautiful, but, truly, in the final measure, they are not. It's a mathematical equation of zero. "True beauty" comes, of course, of character. Not through how the eyebrows are shaped. So many women that I'm told are beautiful...hell, it's like looking into a soup bowl.

ON UGLINESS:

There's no such thing as ugliness. There is a thing called deformity, but outward "ugliness" does not exist...I have spoken.

ONCE UPON A TIME:

It was wintertime. I was starving to death trying to be a writer in New York. I hadn't eaten for three or four days. So, I finally said, "I'm gonna have a big bag of popcorn." And God, I hadn't tasted food for so long, it was so good. Each kernel, you know, each one was like a steak! I chewed and it would just drop into my poor stomach. My stomach would say, "THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!" I was in heaven, just walking along, and two guys happened by, and one said to the other, "Jesus Christ!" The other one said, "What was it?" "Did you see that guy eating popcorn? God, it was awful!" And so I couldn't enjoy the rest of the popcorn. I thought; what do you mean, "it was awful?" I'm in heaven here. I guess I was kinda dirty. They can always tell a fucked-up guy.

ON THE PRESS:

I kind of like being attacked. "Bukowski's disgusting!" That makes me smile, you know, I like it. "Oh, he's a horrible writer!" I smile some more. I kind of feed on that. It's when a guy tells me, "Hey, you know, they're teaching you at such and such a university," my mouth drops. I don't know...to be too much accepted is terrifying. You feel you've done something wrong.

I enjoy the bad things that are said about me. It enhances [book] sales and makes me feel evil. I don't like to feel good 'cause I am good. But evil? Yes. It gives me another dimension. (Bringing up the pinky finger of his left hand...) Did you ever see this finger? (The finger seems paralyzed in a downward "L" configuration.) I broke it, drunk one night. Don't know how, but...I guess it just didn't set right. But, it works just fine for the "a" key (on his typewriter) and...what the hell...it adds to my character. See, now I've got character and dimension. (He laughs.)

ON BRAVERY:

Most so-called brave people lack imagination. As though they can't conceive of what would happen if something went wrong. The truly brave overcome their imagination and do what they have to do.

ON FEAR:

I don't know a thing about it. (He laughs)

ON VIOLENCE:

I think violence is often misinterpreted. Certain violence is needed. There is, in all of us, an energy that demands an outlet. I think that if the energy is constrained, we go mad. The ultimate peacefulness we all desire is not a desirable area. Somehow in our construction, it is not meant to be. This is why I like to see boxing matches, and why, in my younger days, I'd like to duke it in back alleys. "Expulsion of energy with honor," is sometimes called violence. There is "interesting madness" and "disgusting madness." There are good and bad forms of violence. So, in fact...it's a loose term. Let it not be too much at the expense of others, and it's okay.

ON PHYSICAL PAIN:

When I was a kid, they used to drill me. I had these big boils. You toughen up to physical pain. When I was in General Hospital they were drilling away, and a guy walked in, and he said, "I never saw anyone go under the needle that cool." That's not bravery -- if you get enough physical pain, you relent -- it's a process, an adjustment.

Mental pain can't be adjusted to. Keep me away from it.

ON PSYCHIATRY:

What do psychiatric patients get? They get a bill.

I think the problem between the psychiatrist and the patient is that the psychiatrist goes by the book, while the patient arrives because of what life has done to him or her. And even though the book may have certain insights, the pages are always the same in the book, and, each patient is a little bit different. There are many more individual problems than pages. Get it? There are too many mad people to do it by saying, "dollars per hour, when this bell rings, you're finished." That alone will drive any near-mad person to madness. They've just started to open up and feel good, when the shrink says, "Nurse, make the next appointment," and they've lost track of the price, which is also abnormal. It's all too stinking worldly. The guy is out to take your ass. He's not out to cure you. He wants his money. When the bell rings, bring in the next "nut." Now the sensitive "nut" will realize when that bell rings, he's being fucked. There's no time limit to curing madness, and there's no bills for it either. Most psychiatrists I've seen look a little close to the edge themselves. But they're too comfortable...I think they're all too comfortable. I think a patient wants to see a little madness, not too much. Ahhhh! (bored) PSYCHIATRISTS ARE TOTALLY USELESS! Next question?

ON FAITH:

Faith is all right for those who have it. Just don't load it on me. I have more faith in my plumber than I do in the eternal being. Plumbers do a good job. They keep the shit flowing.

ON CYNICISM:

I've always been accused of being a cynic. I think cynicism is sour grapes. I think cynicism is a weakness. It's saying "everything is wrong! EVERYTHING IS WRONG!" You know? "This is not right! That is not right!" Cynicism is the weakness that keeps one from being able to adjust to what is occurring at the moment. Yes, cynicism is definiteiy a weakness, just as optimism is. "The sun is shining, the birds are singing -- so smile." That's bullshit too. The truth lies somewhere in between. What is, just is. So you're not ready to handle it...too bad.

ON CONVENTIONAL MORALITY:

There may not be a hell, but those who judge may create one. I think people are over-taught. They are over-taught everything. You have to find out by what happens to you, how you will react. I'll have to use a strange term here..."good." I don't know where it comes from, but I feel that there's an ultimate strain of goodness born in each of us. I don't believe in God, but I believe in this "goodness" like a tube running through our bodies. It can be nurtured. It's always magic, when on a freeway packed with traffic, a stranger makes room for you to change lanes...it gives you hope.

ON BEING INTERVIEWED:

It's almost like being caught in the corner. It's embarrassing. So, I don't always tell the total truth. I like to play around and jest a bit, so I do give out some misinformation just for the sake of entertainment and bullshit. So if you want to know about me, never read an interview. Ignore this one.

Interview magazine, September 1987