Join San Pedro Film Festival’s celebration of Charles Bukowki’s 95 Birthday. Information here.
I interviewed Charles Bukowski and photographed him in his home in San Pedro, the port city of Los Angeles, in 1981.
Bukowski was the writer of many books of poems, short stories and novels, famous for his controversial best seller Women, also Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Shakespeare Never Did This, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. From this book of short stories, an Italian movie had been made by Marco Ferreri, with Ornella Muti and Ben Gazzarra, that premiered at the Venice Film Festival that summer: Tales of Ordinary Madness.
Q. You asked us to call you Hank, isn’t your name Charles?
A. Hank is short for Henry which is really my first name. Charles is my middle name. My mother and father would always call me: “Hennryy! Dinner is ready!” so I go out to get dinner and they beat the shit out of me, after I ate or before I ate. They were bad news. So when I first decided to write I said: I’ve got to get rid of Henry, it’s bad luck. So I got Charles, Charles Bukowski sounds better. As Henry Bukowski I’d never make it, I’d still be starving. There are too many loops, Henry goes up and down. Charles is straight, and Bukowski loops, so it makes for a good name.
Q. Bukowski is a Polish name, you were born in Germany, but you are an American writer. How did it happen?
A. Bukowski is a Polish name, evidently some Polack came over to Germany around 1780. As far back as I can trace my whole family is German. My father was born in Pasadena, California from German parents. He was an American soldier with the army of occupation in Germany during World War I; there he met my mother and I was born. I came over to the United States in 1923 when I was 3 years old and I’ve been here ever since. So I’m American, I live here, but I have German blood. When I went back to Europe I felt it, maybe it was only my imagination.
Q. Why do you live in this house in San Pedro?
A. Well it’s a quiet place and nobody bothers you. I had to buy a house as a tax write-off. See, after many years of poverty the royalties from Europe pounced on me all at once. In America you either spend your money or the government takes it away from you. And nobody likes to just get money and burn it, especially if they’ve never had it before. So I bought a home, and a BMW, I make the payments and I get a tax write-off. I had to change my style. I was used to living in one room apartments in East Hollywood. So these surroundings are very new to me. At first I thought they would destroy me, because I’m not used to space. So I thought, well if it gets to me I’m not a very good writer. But it didn’t and I’m still writing every night.
Q. How did you become a writer?
A. I first started writing when I was 13 years old. I was in a hospital at the time getting drilled with these drills, because I had an extreme case of acne vulgaris, huge boils that come out and nothing can be done about it. I guess that made me do some thinking that a person at that age doesn’t think too much about, about the pain and brutality of reality. I got a good education early. I never had a college education. I’ve had hundreds of jobs, the worst jobs. When I was 35 and I had been drinking heavily for many many years, finally I had hemorrhages, the blood came out of my mouth and my ass and I was just about dead. They took me to the charity ward and they waited for me to die. But I didn’t die. I got out of the hospital, I got a job driving a truck and I started writing poems. I had never written before, in fact I hadn’t written for 10 years. So I wrote all these poems and I didn’t know where to send them. So I picked out blindly a magazine in Texas and I sent them the poems. I thought: I’ll make some old woman angry and she’ll send them back. Instead I get this huge letter back from this woman calling me a genius. One thing led to another. She came out to visit me, we got to know each other, we got married. Then it turned out that she was a millionairess, and that was bad. After two years she divorced me and I was glad of it. Later I met another woman somewhere, Francis, we got together and we had a child. My daughter is now 16, she is a genius, just graduated from high school.
Q. You have the reputation of a woman chaser and a male chauvinist, because of your best seller, Women. What do you think?
A. I’m not a great fucker. I don’t go around fucking women by the dozens. But when I started writing this novel called Women, I had to do some research. I figured I had to meet more women. So I almost did it deliberately, I knocked on doors, I hopped into beds and I fucked when I didn’t feel like fucking. I’m not really a great fucker. I’m not too interested in that kind of thing. It’s kind of drab. It’s hard work. The people that call me male chauvinist don’t know all my works, they’ve just heard rumors. If they had read the total body of my work they would know that I love women almost as much as I love myself. They are nice to have around.
Q. The Italian director Marco Ferreri has just finished a movie based on some of your short stories, called Tales of Ordinary Madness. How did that come about?
A. I don’t really know, it happened quite suddenly. We signed a contract and the next thing I knew I was drinking with Marco Ferreri and Ben Gazzarra and we were talking to each other like we had known each other for years. I guess this is the way things happen, people just meet and say, Well let’s do it, what the hell, it’s no big thing, it’s all right. I have faith in Ferreri because he is a totally human person, he is warm. I haven’t seen any of his films; I just liked him when I met him.
Q. You’ve been drinking constantly, California Burgundy and beer, ever since we got here, and in your books, like in your life, you drink all the time. Why all this drinking?
A. Oh, drinking! Listen, I’ve been a poor working stiff all my life, no job or nothing. You know, when you don’t have any money at all, the women aren’t going to bother you, so there’d be moments when you are just looking at four walls, you are wondering how to pay the rent or where your next meal is coming from. When things are very very bad, a drink is the only magic cheap thing left to give you the dream, to make you feel good for a moment. Now that I am not poor anymore, things haven’t changed, because the human race is no good. In one of my poems I say: Humanity, you’ve never had it from the beginning. It’s just a feeling I have that everything is being wasted. It’s not life, it’s humanity that bothers me. The trees don’t bother me, the cats don’t bother me, the sun doesn’t bother me. It’s humanity that has failed, that bothers me. Humanity is going to go down the same dumb ignorant path forever. But I’ll get out of it because I’ll kick off and I will be out. This companionship I’m living with now, they don’t thrill me at all.
Q. It sounds very pessimistic. So if humanity is hopeless what do you hope to accomplish with your writing?
A. I’m not an accomplisher. I’m like a spider spinning my web. It’s all I can do. What we do we do out of a natural instinct. We don’t even know why we are doing it, if we did we couldn’t do it. Striving is destructive. I don’t believe in control, in studying, in learning. I just believe that what occurs occurs, and I go with it. To sum it all up in two words, “don’t try,” for me that works. I still find a great deal of joy in spite of everything, I don’t know why, but often times I wake up in the morning and I feel damn good. It’s just a feeling inside.
Q. Is it true that you are more famous in Europe than in the U.S.?
A. Definitely, 60 times more. Why? I would like to think that European civilization is at least 300 years ahead of this one in culture, knowledge, instinct, wines, graciousness, all those things. Because things began over there, they got the taste for real things. Here in America, we are still flashy, we are blunt, we don’t quite know where the hell we are. So I think over there the seed took in ground that was ready, here the seed was dropped but the ground was sterile.
Q. Which one of your books do you prefer?
A. I don’t know, usually the last one I wrote, Which is it? I can’t remember. I’m all involved in my new one, it’s called Ham on Rye. It begins with my first memory up to WWII. All my books are autobiographical. I put a little bit of fiction to liven it up, make it more interesting than life, but not much. My style is very simple and direct, just like your photography, it records what occurs, it doesn’t make any speeches. It says what it says, and it’s all there is to it. My poems are a little more emotional, I let myself go a little more. But in prose I’m pretty straight.
Photo by Elisa Leonelli. Copyright (c) Elisa Leonelli 1981.
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