they say that hell is crowded, yet,
when you’re in hell,
you always seem to be alone.
& you can’t tell anyone when you’re in hell
or they’ll think you’re crazy
& being crazy is being in hell
& being sane is hellish too.
those who escape hell, however,
never talk about it
& nothing much bothers them after that.
I mean, things like missing a meal,
going to jail, wrecking your car,
or even the idea of death itself.
when you ask them,
"how are things?"
they’ll always answer, “fine, just fine…”
once you’ve been to hell and back,
it’s the greatest satisfaction known to man.
once you’ve been to hell and back,
you don’t look behind you when the floor creaks
and the sun is always up at midnight
and things like the eyes of mice
or an abandoned tire in a vacant lot
can make you smile
once you’ve been to hell and back.
~ from Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame
A new boy gives me a worn copy of On the Road and thinks he’s being original. “We should explore the road together. Would you like that, baby?” I take a sip of my water and look away. Yes, I’d like that, I think. But he’s drunk and imagining himself sixty years earlier, in the back of a bar, sweating to the sound of live bop. Still, I prefer him to the hungry boy that devoured my shirt and said, “You have a tattoo? What’s it say?” ‘mad to live?’ What, are you angry about living? Aw, I’m just kidding, come here, let me take off that bra.”
The next boy I kiss doesn’t read. I ask him to come to a bookstore with me and he stays outside, sighing. He has no interest in words. He has no interest in me. I am thankful for him. For a few weeks, I am able to shed my habit of thinking obsessively and become a duller, rougher version of myself. I dump him when my fingers start turning imaginary pages in my sleep.
I go on a date with a boy who knows I like to write. He calls himself a fan of mine and swears he’s read every word I’ve put down. “You’ve got this voice that’s very modern, but also so classic.” I choke on my water as he says, “I read you to fall asleep.” At night, I listen to him pant metaphors and compare my mouth to the sea. One day, he stumbles across my journal and finds nothing about himself in it. “You don’t really love me, do you?” I shake my head. There is no use pretending anymore. He has read my poems about the boys I want to drown in me. His goodbye leaves my hands covers in ink. He wanted me so badly to be the sea, when all I am is a girl who writes poetry.
I try my best to become poetry. I take a bath and stain the water with black ink. I cut my hair in a motel sink. I cry for people I have never met. I start smoking cigarettes. I use words like “presumptuously” and talk about “post-modernist new wave.” I walk the streets at 4 a.m. and smile at people coming home from a rave. I wear sunglasses indoors. I carry a 500 page volume of poems wherever I go. I drink coffee instead of water. I talk about the “advantages of using film and listening to records.” But no matter how hard I try, I am not the sea. I am a sunken ship that has drowned in everyone who touched me.”
Fans and friends gather at one of Charles Bukowksi’s haunts to toast the famous (and infamous) L.A. wordsmith and barfly.
By Samantha Schaefer
10 March 2014, 8:13 p.m.
Los Angeles Times
Charles Bukowski was known for his drinking as much as his poetry.
So maybe, the man Time magazine once described as “the laureate of lowlife,” would have approved of a 20th-anniversary memorial held in his honor at the dimly lighted King Eddy Saloon on the edge of skid row.
The dive bar, said to be a favorite haunt of the poet and his own idol, novelist John Fante, was filled with Bukowski fans Sunday, spilling out onto the street in a night of poetry, toasts and vulgarity.
"How many writers and artists weren’t alcoholics or drug addicts or sex fiends?" said poet and actor S.A. Griffin, who read a selection of the author’s work for the crowd.
"He makes something very ordinary or very ugly, very beautiful."
Bukowski, who died March 9, 1994, at 73, helped drag Los Angeles onto the literary map, and his literary papers — boozy poetry, manuscripts and his screenplay for “Barfly” — are housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, not far from a more stately collection of Shakespeare’s work.
The poet had a tenacious, bullheaded approach to life, but somehow it worked and his writing proved that, said Richard Schave, founder of the Los Angeles Visionaries Assn., which staged the event.
Patrons stood shoulder to shoulder around the bar, crowding the walkways and lining the walls to hear snippets of poetry about the raw and elemental L.A. that Bukowski wrote about — the drunks, the prostitutes and the tragedy that came with it all.
Fans swapped stories of chance meetings with Bukowski or the visceral, deep reaction the first time they read his work.
He resurrected Fante’s “Ask the Dust,” a Depression-era novel about life in Los Angeles, recalled Dan Fante, the author’s son, before reading a selection of poems inspired by Bukowski and written for his father.
A few months back, a woman told saxophone player Reginald Scott to read Bukowski. You sound like him, you’d like him, she told him. Scott said he picked up a book and was hooked on the feelings and the way the author lived his life.
The words, Scott said, feel like his music, things he tries to evoke in people when he plays.
Bars, the racetrack, the gridlocked traffic and of course the alcohol — banal things came alive in Bukowski’s writing, said Vincent Destefano of Pasadena, who attended with his wife, Karen.
"It’s a perfect picture of L.A. then, now and tomorrow," Destefano said. "When I think about Bukowski and John Fante, I think about my home."
Bukowski wrote about the “wild side of life,” unpolished or mundane as it could be, and encouraged others to do the same, said poet Joan Jobe Smith, who found a mentor in Bukowski after he urged her to write about her years working as a go-go dancer.
"He had to write to survive. His childhood was brutal, it was a nightmare. You read about his early days and you don’t know how he even survived," said poet Suzanne Lummis, who read at the event.
"He didn’t worry about which poem was golden, it was left for everyone else to figure out which were the stunning ones."
JR Phillips recalled sitting with the author at the racetrack after spotting him in the corner alone one afternoon. They started making bets, then drinking, then talking about women and other things, but never poetry, said Phillips.
"I didn’t tell him I was into poetry," Phillips recalled. "I didn’t want him to associate me as a groupie."
Charles Bukowski, circa 1980, whom Time magazine once described as “the laureate of lowlife.” (Huntington Library / December 31, 1969)