This is Bukowski's first published interview. At the time it was conducted and published, he was known only to a very small audience who read his work in a handful of literary magazines. He had been published as early as 1944, and sporadically in the five years that followed, but then came a period of seven years during which he did little or no writing, but a great deal of living. Then in 1956 he sat down at the typewriter and began his systematic assault on "the littles," which he would continue for almost 40 years. But at the time of this interview he still had seven years in front of him at the post office before he would be free to write for a living.
In 1963 he had three chapbooks under his belt, but they were small runs with slapdash distribution - Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail (12 pages, 200 copies), Longshot Pomes for Broke Players (22 pages, 200 copies), Run With the Hunted (32 pages, 300 copies). His first substantial book, It Catches My Heart In Its Hands, was in the early stages of printing by Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb, and would be released later in the year. His first book for Black Sparrow Press, AT TERROR STREET AND AGONY WAY, was still five years away.
By Arnold L. Kaye, Los Angeles Correspondent to the Chicago Literary Times.
Published March, 1963
To the interviewer, Charles Bukowski is as the yeti to the Himalayan explorer. He's hard to find and when you've found him, life becomes exceedingly dangerous. It has been said by some, that there is no Charles Bukowski. A persistent rumor for many years declared that those gusty poems signed with his name were actually written by a nasty old lady with hairy armpits.
But yes, there is a Charles Bukowski, existing solitarily in a one-room, murphy-bed (yes, cold water) apartment in the heart of Hollywood, shadowed on one side by the Bureau of Public Assistance, Old Age Security Office, and on the other by the Kaiser Foundation Hospital. Poor Charles Bukowski, looking like a retired junkie, seems to belong there.
When he answered the door his sad eyes, weary voice and silk dressing gown told me that here was, in more ways than one, a tired man. We sat and talked, drank beer and scotch, and Charles finally, like a surrendering virgin, gave in to his first interview. From the window, if you stick your head out far enough, you can see the lights in Aldous Huxley's house up the hill, where the successful live.
Kaye: Does it bother you that Huxley is in a position to spit on you?
Bukowski: Oh, that is a good question. [He dived into the recess behind the murphy-bed and came out with a couple of pictures of himself]
Kaye: Who took these?
Bukowski: My girlfriend. She died last year. What was the question?
Kaye: Does it bother you that Huxley is in a position to spit on you?
Bukowski: I haven't even thought of Huxley, but now that you mention it, no, it doesn't bother me.
Kaye: When did you start to write?
Bukowski: When I was 35. Figuring the average poet starts at 16, I am 23.
Kaye: It has been observed by a number of critics that your work is frankly autobiographical. Would you care to comment on that?
Bukowski: Almost all. Ninety-nine out of a hundred, if I have written a hundred. The other one was dreamed up. I was never in the Belgian Congo.
Kaye: I would like to make reference to a particular poem in your most recent book, Run With the Hunted. Would you happen to have the name and present whereabouts of the girl you mentioned in 'A Minor Impulse to Complain'?
Bukowski: No. This is no particular girl; this is a composite girl, beautiful, nylon leg, not-quite-whore, creature of the half-drunken night. But she really exists, though not by single name.
Kaye: Isn't that ungrammatical? There seems to be a tendency to classify you as the elder statesman of poet-recluses.
Bukowski: I can't think of any poet-recluses outside of one dead Jeffers. [Robinson Jeffers] The rest of them want to slobber over each other and hug each other. It appears to me that I am the last of the poet-recluses.
Kaye: Why don't you like people?
Bukowski: Who does like people? You show me him and I'll show you why I don't like people. Period. Meanwhile, I have got to have another beer. [He slouched off into the tiny kitchen and I yelled my next question to him].
Kaye: This is a corny question. Who is the greatest living poet?
Bukowski: That is not corny. That is tough. Well, we have Ezra...Pound, and we have T.S.,[Eliot] but they've both stopped writing. Of the producing poets, I would say...Oh, Larry Eigner.
Bukowski: Yeah. I know no one has ever said that. That is about all I can come up with.
Kaye: What do you think of homosexual poets?
Bukowski: Homosexuals are delicate and bad poetry is delicate and Ginsberg turned the tables by making homosexual poetry strong poetry, almost manly poetry; but in the long run, the homo will remain the homo and not the poet.
Kaye: To get down to more serious matters, what influence do you feel Mickey Mouse has had on the American imagination?
Bukowski: Tough. Tough, indeed. I would say that Mickey Mouse had a greater influence on the American public than Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Rabelais, Shostakovich, Lenin, and/or Van Gogh. Which say "What?" about the American public. Disneyland remains the central attraction of Southern California, but the graveyard remains our reality.
Kaye: How do you like writing in Los Angeles?
Bukowski: It doesn't matter where you write so long as you have the walls, typewriter, paper, beer. You can write out of a volcano pit. Say, do you think I could get 20 poets to chip in a buck a week to keep me out of jail?
Kaye: How many times have you been arrested?
Bukowski: How do I know? Not too many; 14-15 maybe. I thought I was tougher than that but each time they put me in it tears my gut, I don't know why.
Kaye: Bukowski, what do you see for the future now that everybody wants to publish Bukowski?
Bukowski: I used to lay drunk in alleys and I probably will again. Bukowski, who is he? I read about Bukowski and it doesn't seem like anything to do with me. Do you understand?
Kaye: What influence has alcohol had on your work?
Bukowski: Hmm, I don't think I have written a poem when I was completely sober. But I have written a few good ones or a few bad ones under the hammer of a black hangover when I didn't know whether another drink or a blade would be the best thing.
Kaye: You look a bit under the weather today.
Bukowski: I am, yes. This is Sunday evening. It was a tough eight race card. I was 103 ahead at the end of 7. Fifty to win on the eighth. Beaten half a length by a 60-1 shot who should have been canned for cat food years ago, the dog. Anyway, a day of minor profit or prophet led to a night of drunkenness. Awaked by this interviewer. And I'm really going to have to get drunk after you leave, and I'm serious.
Kaye: Mr Bukowski, do you think we'll all be blown up soon?
Bukowski: Yes, I think we will. It is a simple case of mathematics. You get the potential, and then you get the human mind. Somewhere down the line eventually there is going to be a damn fool or madman in power who is simply going to blow us all quite to hell. That's all, it figures.
Kaye: And what do you think is the role of the poet in this world-mess?
Bukowski: I don't like the way that question is phrased. The role of the poet is almost nothing...drearily nothing. And when he steps outside of his boots and tries to get tough as our dear Ezra [Pound] did, he will get his pink little ass slapped. The poet, as a rule, is a half-man - a sissy, not a real person, and he is in no shape to lead real men in matters of blood, or courage. I know these things are anti to you, but I have got to tell you what I think. If you ask questions you have got to get answers.
Kaye: Do you?
Bukowski: Well, I don't know...
Kaye: I mean in a more universal sense. Do you have to get answers?
Bukowski: No, of course not. In a more universal sense, we only get one thing. You know...a head stone if we're lucky; if not, green grass.
Kaye: So do we abandon ship or hope altogether?
Bukowski: Why these cliches, platitudes? OK, well, I would say no. We do not abandon ship. I say, as corny as it may sound, through the strength and spirit and fire and dare and gamble of a few men in a few ways we can save the carcass of humanity from drowning. No light goes out until it goes out. Let's fight as men, not rats. Period. No further addition.
Appears in Sunlight Here I Am: Interviews