Saturday, October 2, 2010

PSN: Sharing the raw and gritty world of Charles Bukowski

Amplify’d from

Sharing the raw and gritty world of Charles Bukowski

By Michelle J. Mills, Staff Writer
Postcard featuring Charles Bukowski at his typewriter in 1988. Photo
by Joan Levine Gannij, published by Island International Bookstore,
Amsterdam. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and
Botanical Gardens. (Courtesy Photo)

Charles Bukowski as a literary figure - and as a man - inspires extremes. Love him, or hate him, Bukowski is a link to life in Los Angeles none can discount, whether it is his raw and often raunchy writings or the stories told about him and the places he visited.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino will explore our mixed feelings in a new exhibit, "Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge," which opens Oct. 9.

"Bukowski is one of the most unusual and original voices in 20th century American literature," said Sara "Sue" Hodson, the Huntington's curator of literary manuscripts. "He was not one of the establishment. He was out on the edge."

Hodson has pulled together the show about

Bukowski from materials the Huntington has received from his widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, over the past four years. Other items are on loan.

Bukowski was born Aug. 16, 1920 and died in 1994. His works spoke to the downtrodden and those on the fringes of society. His writing explored the gritty side of life, an approach shared by notables in classic literature, such as Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" and Shakespeare's use of fools who spew bawdy jokes, Hodson said.

"Great writers, great artists, they capture a place in time," said John Dullaghan, the director of "Born Into This," a documentary on Bukowski and an expert on the writer. He assisted Hodson with some of her research.

Bukowski's poetry was somewhat free

form; he wrote about common everyday life in common language, which made it accessible to a range of readers, Dullaghan said. Bukowski wrote about the Los Angeles in which he lived, which connected with people then, as it does now.

Bukowski's early life was painful. He had a physically and verbally abusive father and a passive mother. As a teen, he suffered from acne vulgaris, which resulted in boils on his face and torso and severe scarring. This caused him to withdraw from others. He

drowned his misery in alcohol; his writing served as a sort of therapy.

"He took the challenges and problems and the dramas in his life and, through his writing, turned them around in a way that helps others who have gone through the same thing reflect and feel less alone for being who they are," Dullaghan said.

In his early writing days, Bukowski traveled extensively.

"He loved to get off the Greyhound bus at night" in a city he didn't know, Hodson said. "He would walk until he found a rooming house. He would rent a cheap room and try to write. He would almost always have to take on some menial dead-end job to pay the rent and, if he was lucky, there was enough to buy food."

Bukowski submitted his stories to all

the big magazines - New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's - but his work was consistently rejected. He started writing for the "little magazines," publications that were often cranked out on a mimeograph machine in someone's garage. They didn't make much money and the writers were poorly paid, if at all. But little by little, Bukowski was making a name for himself.

"People who were real aficionados of edgy stuff recognized this amazing voice and wanted to be a part of it," Hodson said. "He developed a small cult following that grew and grew."

Bukowski took a job at the post office in downtown Los Angeles and worked there for 12 years. It was a physically demanding job, which he said later killed his spirit.

One day

during this period, John Martin, founder of Black Sparrow Press in Santa Barbara, arrived on his doorstep. He offered the writer $100 per month for the rest of his life if he would devote himself to his craft. Bukowski accepted with a little trepidation and produced the book, "Post Office." It wasn't all roses after that, as Bukowski had to make ends meet by writing for skin magazines; but he was well on his way.

The biggest success for Bukowski was seeing his work, "Barfly," turned into a film starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. He wasn't entirely pleased with his experience in the movie industry, nor with the film, but it put his work firmly in the spotlight, adding to his recognition and fan base.

In "Charles Bukowski:

Poet on the Edge" are childhood photos of the author and his family, early printings of his work and some of his drawings. There is a first edition of "Ham on Rye," the autobiographical novel recounting Bukowski's early years.

"It's one of the finest books that he wrote," Hodson said. "It tells you so much about where he came from and a little bit of how he got to be the Bukowski that we know."

He wrote that work late in his life; it wasn't published until 1982. Linda Lee Bukowski said he put it off because it was too hard a story to tell.

Another highlight of the display is an issue of Oui magazine bearing one of his stories. This is the first time a pornographic publication has been put on exhibit at the venue, Hodson said.

There also are letters and photographs from his fans around the world, including some from women who hoped to get to know Bukowski personally.

"He had a charisma," Hodson said. "He also had that sense of self that is, I am who I am, take me or leave me; if you're interested, then come at me. He was a little aloof, and I think that pulled some people in. But there was a charisma, a raw sensuality, a real macho attitude as well."

One of Hodson's favorite pieces in the show is the last manual typewriter Bukowski owned. The writer loved typewriters and computer keyboards.

"He never wrote by hand, absolutely never," Hodson said. "He would correct and make changes by hand, but he always wrote on a keyboard," Hodson said.

It is thought that Bukowski needed the noise of typing to bring his thoughts to paper.

Since the announcement of "Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge," Hodson has been flooded with phone calls and e-mails from people sharing how the author has touched their lives.

"His writings have a remarkable ability to reach out to people who are troubled, who are not happy, who are at a crossroads in their lives and they don't know what they're going to do next," Hodson said.

Bukowski strived to be a great writer. In his day, the recognition of his talent would have been akin to the attention we give to celebrities today. Dullaghan said the writer would have been pleased with the exhibit.

"He didn't like academia," Dullaghan said. "He resented it, he didn't feel like they embraced him. He wasn't the typical Huntington type of person, but to be included in this, he would have just been tickled."

The Huntington will be offering free readings and film screenings in conjunction with "Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge." You can also get a daily dose of Bukowski at

(626) 962-8811 Ext. 2128


Noon-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday and 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays, Saturday, Oct. 9 through Feb. 14, Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

$15 weekdays, and $20 weekends. There are discounts for seniors and students. Admission is free the first Thursday of the month, but tickets must be acquired in advance.


Noon-4 p.m. Nov. 13
The tour departs from Philippe's the Original, 1001 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles
$58; reservations are required

Esotouric offers a range of crime, literary and architectural tours, including “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man: Charles Bukowski's Los Angeles.” The outing was developed by company owner and tour guide Richard Shave with the assistance of John Dullaghan.

“The thesis of the Bukowski tour is to show the process by which Charles Bukowski — or anyone who's a writer— finds the voice within him that is great,” Shave said.

Among its stops, “Haunts” visits the Los Angeles Central Library, where Bukowski discovered John Fante's “Ask the Dusk.” He identified with the book's main character, Arturo Bandini, and brought about a Fante revival by mentioning him in his own writings.

Another stop is the Postal Terminal Annex, where Bukowski worked for 12 years, and his former bungalow on De Longpre, which is now an official cultural-historic landmark.

Shave's favorite part of the tour is the stop at Royal Palms. Built in the 1920s as a Jewish social club, the structure was an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel during Bukowski's time. In the early ‘50s, the author lived there with his girlfriend, Jane Cooney Baker. This is recounted in the film, “Barfly,” in which Baker is called Wanda.

“Jane is probably the biggest person in his emotional half acre,” Shave said. “She was this older woman who taught him how to have sex, taught him how to drink, taught him how to be poorly behaved. She took him by the hand and led him down the road to all the things he desperately wanted.”

A few years after Bukowski and Baker were evicted from the Royal Palms, it became a Mary Lind Recovery Center, providing residential substance abuse recovery service to homeless men and women. It seems ironic to Shave that a place so linked with Bukowski's drunken debauchery has helped substance abusers regain their lives for more than 50 years.

Structurally, though, the Royal Palms has remained unchanged and is a great example of old Los Angeles.
“The first half of the tour really looks at a part of his life that is poorly documented because he doesn't write about it very much,” Shave said. "It's before he became famous.”

Bukowski's life downtown was integral to his career;  it primed and prodded him and provided fodder for the writing that made him a vital part of American literature.


No comments: