Harry Calhoun

 

 

Harry Calhoun 's articles, literary essays, book reviews and poems have been published in magazines including Writer’s Digest and The National Enquirer. Recently, his online chapbook Dogwalking Poems and his trade paperback, I knew Bukowski like you knew a rare leaf, were published. The latter is now available from Trace Publications and on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers. He has had recent publications in Chiron Review, Still Crazy, SNReview, Orange Room Review, Bird’s Eye review, Abbey, Monongahela Review and many others. Recently, he was one of 12 poets invited to LiteraryMary’s anthology, Outstanding Men of the Small Press.

 

Charles Bukowski and me (non-fiction)

Three Poems (Issue 10.)

 

Charles Bukowski and me (October 20, 2009. Issue 10.)

Forgive me in advance if I sound like an old man. As I write this, I’ve just turned 56, and things were different back in the days when I read, contacted and eventually published Charles Bukowski. For one thing, when I first encountered Bukowski’s work around 1975 or 1976, he was not the popular writer and cult hero he is now. Today, you can go to bukowski.net and you’ll find around 1,500 members, including me. And most of them are totally rabid about all things Bukowski, including his rare books or videos, his life and his work in general.

Back in the mid-seventies, I was working as a bartender and going to school at Penn State. I was good friends with a fellow named Dave Dodd, who was the drummer for a group called the Keystone Rhythm Band. The band was fronted by blues legend Billy Price and they were popular at local clubs in State College, Pennsylvania. I think I first heard about Bukowski when Chuck Roethel, the band’s lead guitarist, told me about him. I will always remember one of Chuck’s descriptions of Bukowski. He said, “All his stories and poems are the same — I got drunk, I fucked the whore, I threw up.” While that isn’t exactly true, it does capture the visceral appeal (or, to his detractors, visceral dislike) that Bukowski evokes.

I remember going to the library and checking out a few Bukowski books. Of course, there wasn’t much to choose from. He hadn’t yet written classics such as the short story collection South of No North or novels like Women. But I was able to read Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, Notes of a Dirty Old Man and a few books of poems, and I was hooked. Erections was the first Bukowski book I bought but it certainly wasn’t the last.

Bukowski, Hemingway and Miller

At the time I encountered Bukowski, my literary heroes were Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I think a lot of writers of that era can say the same. There are similarities between Hemingway and Bukowski. Both were heavy drinkers; both were attractive to women on some level, although Bukowski never had Hem’s good looks. And both had distinctive, although very different, writing styles. Today, 14 years after Bukowski’s death, a generation of young writers idolize him. When I encountered Bukowski in the mid-seventies, it would also have been around 14 years since Hemingway’s death in 1962. In both cases, I think that writers’ attitudes toward Buk and Hem go beyond worship of the dead. They also admire and try to emulate the style.

Miller also has similarities to Bukowski. While he wasn’t much of a drinker, he and Bukowski both write frankly about sexual matters — so much so in Miller’s case that his books were banned. . While I read and enjoyed Miller, Hemingway’s beautifully stark prose interested me most. I have fond memories, when I began writing in the late 70s, of sitting in an upscale lounge called The Allen Room, reading Hemingway and sipping cognac by candlelight.

But Bukowski’s writing style is not the neat, precise prose of Hemingway. It is littered with sometimes sloppy prose and literary fat. Yet it keeps the reader interested and reading on. It’s like listening to some of the ragged Big Star songs of the ‘70s that seem on the verge of falling apart, yet they keep moving and keep you fascinated.

And Buk’s life not like Hem’s, although they both shared the tough-guy image. Bukowski talks of homelessness and living in cheap rooming houses, writing poems on the margins of newspapers, drinking and womanizing. Hemingway’s stories are more polished, less rough around the edges and his lifestyle was certainly one of privilege, not of deprivation. But in their own ways, they were heroes and role models for my writing if not my lifestyle.

How Bukowski entered my life

My brush with Bukowski came in 1985. I started my little magazine, Pig in a Poke, in 1982 and squeezed out two issues before it became too much a burden on my income as a bartender and freelance writer. But like many in the small press, I was resourceful and determined to keep going, so I changed format. Rather than lay out the copy myself and have it printed, which was time-consuming and expensive, I stole an idea from something called This is Important, which published poetry in a little fold-out pamphlet resembling a religious tract. I started putting poems into an 8½ by 11 format, cutting that in half and folding it over. I usually photocopied it wherever I was working at the time and so it cost me nothing but my time. And it made me feel like a rebel! I called these little efforts Pig in a Pamphlet.

Eventually, I got the resume job and that gave me enough money — barely — to occasionally expand the format to a half-size version of Pig in a Poke. I published one of these featuring poet Paul Fischer, another featuring Judson Crews and another with several poets. And of course, I published the Bukowski booklet. Pig in a Poke gave a last gasp as one of these booklets, with Pig in a Poke #3 also featuring some Bukowski poems.Even without the Internet, the small press flourished and correspondence between editor and writer — and between the editors themselves — was fast and furious. I don’t remember when or where I saw Bukowski’s work published in another little magazine, but by then he had been a legend to many of us for years. I remember wondering how this little magazine got Bukowski to send them some poems.

It turns out that Bukowski apparently felt warmly toward the small presses where he had gotten his start. In a move exemplary of the small press in those days — try anything — I contacted several editors that I knew and one of them gave me his address. I think it was Ron Androla, who put out a little mag called Northern Pleasure. So I sent Bukowski a letter asking if he would be interested in submitting some poems to my little magazine.

When Bukowski wrote back, he sent several poems with his letter. I liked the poems that he sent so much that I kept four of them. Today, the fact that I rejected some of his work still amazes me, but not even the legends get accepted all the time. And with his lifestyle, Bukowski was no stranger to rejection of all kinds. What was he like? Honestly, he seemed like a decent fellow, genuinely grateful that someone would want to publish his work. He had a good sense of humor and would frequently use it in his letters.

The pamphlet of Bukowski poems, titled then I gave up and started drinking heavily after a line from a poem in the collection, came out in 1985 and sold well by my modest standards. John Martin from Black Sparrow Press bought 200 — about half of the press run — at a discount and had Bukowski sign them. So the pamphlets that I sold him at less than 50 cents a copy are now bringing $200 and upwards each at rare booksellers now.

I had some trouble, by the way, with John Martin. I had mentioned to Bukowski that I wanted to do another pamphlet of his work, and Bukowski apparently told Martin. I got a nasty letter from Martin, telling me to back off and that he had the rights to Bukowski’s stuff. I wrote back assuring him that I had no bad intentions. When he replied he was much more pleasant than he had been before. He said he realized that I didn’t mean any harm but that he had to protect his turf. He called me “a decent and honest person” (I still have the letter). And he also enclosed a checklist of Black Sparrow Press books and told me to “check off everything you’d like for yourself and let me send you the books.” I took him up on that. I still have the books — by Paul Bowles, John Fante, Bukowski and others — to this day.

A final footnote to my relationship with Bukowski: I stopped publishing Pig in a Pamphlet around 1989 or 1990. In 1993 I left Pittsburgh for Key West, and somehow lost my signed copy. I wrote to Bukowski asking him if he would send another. Soon after, the signed copy showed up in my mailbox, but not the chatty letter that he usually sent. This was at the end of August, and a little over six months later he passed away. He must have been very sick when he got my letter but he still signed the copy and sent it back to me.

Table of Contents

Three Poems (October 20, 2009. Issue 10.)

In the presence of death (Bukowski Contest Honorable Mention)

the photos of my father
after my mother died
the photos of Charles Bukowski
knowing not to bet
against the leukemia horse

there is something that drains
the soul from the eyes
there is a hollowness
like death itself

like a scream stomped down
suppressed and forever stored
in the iris
a dark certainty
instead of the lifelong suspicion

that this too will happen to me.

An insomniac thinks of Bukowski

fear of not falling asleep
fear of dreams
without local anaesthetic

a not-so-mythical Prometheus
with doses of alcohol
perpetually eating the liver

as Bukowski said
“Try not to think of the liver,
and maybe the liver will not
think of you.”

And Bukowski’s end was leukemia
so the alcohol vulture
was cheated of its eternal meal

Variations on a theme of Bukowski

Go to the park.
Suck off a seeing-eye dog.
Cut off a monkey’s paw and shove it up your butt.
Tickle her ass with a feather.
Curse particularly nasty weather.
Lick your own balls or die trying.
Cohabit with a transvestite pirate with a peg leg.
Have all your teeth pulled
and change your name to Ginger Vitus.

Shoot a turd and take a bite of the cat.
Save the whales for breakfast.
Eat someone’s shorts while they’re wearing them.
Stand on one leg and say “forsythia” repeatedly.
Rub poison ivy on your pecker.
Start a campaign to have VapoRub outlawed.
Find a cure for lysdexia.
Go read something beside this crap.
Go fuck yourself.

But don’t try to write like Bukowski.

Table of Contents