An Interview with Charles BukowskiBy Jay Dougherty
Bukowski on his reception in (West) Germany, his friendship with German translator Carl Weissner, his relative popularity in the United States, and on letter writing.
Dougherty: Your books have sold over 2.5 million copies in West Germany. They're in every department store, every train station, and of course every book store. As Carl Weissner, your German translator, has said, at this point they sell by themselves; they need no advertising. To what do you attribute your phenomenal success there?
Bukowski: I believe that the German public is more open to gamble and new ways of presentation. Why this is, I don't know. Here in the U.S. a more staid and safe literature seems preferred. Here people don't want to be shaken or awakened. They prefer to sleep through their lives. To them,what is safe and old seems good.
Dougherty: But what do you feel the German reading public sees in your work? Do you really feel that, as you say in some of your poems, the success is solely attributable to the work of your translators?
Bukowski: With the German public, I do believe it does help that I was born there. It doesn't help in the sale of millions of copies. Maybe 100,000. I am a curiosity. My translators? Well, they are probably pretty damned good. The books seem to go well in France, Italy, and Spain. England, no. Who knows why? I don't know why. You know, I try to keep my wordage and my line structure simple and bare. This doesn't mean I don't say anything. It means that I say it rather directly without a smokescreen. The English and the Americans are used to the old literary bullshit--that is, being lulled to sleep by the same old crap. If they read something and find that it isn't interesting or that they can't understand it, they oftentimes presume it to be profound. Or so I tend to believe.
Dougherty: Why do you think Americans have not embraced you so wholly? Is it a matter of circulation, that John Martin, your publisher, doesn't have the means of, say, a New York publisher to advertise your books and get them out to the most possible outlets?
Bukowski: Yes, Black Sparrow Press has a limited circulation and this tends to hold down being known widely in the U.S. Yet they have published book after book of mine throughout the years, and most of the books are still in print and available . Black Sparrow and I almost began together and it is my hope that we will end together. It would be fitting. If I had gone to a large New York publisher, I might have larger U.S. sales and I might be rich, but I doubt that I would continue writing in a workmanlike and joyful fashion. Also, I doubt that I would have the same uncensored acceptability that I have at Black Sparrow. As a writer I consider myself in the best of worlds: famous elsewhere and working here. The gods have spared me many of the pitfalls of the average American writer. Black Sparrow came to me when nobody else would. This after years of working as a common laborer and a starving writer, being largely ignored by the large presses and most of the major magazines. It would be ungrateful of me to seek a large New York publisher now. In fact, I don't have the slightest desire to do so.
Dougherty: Your early letters to Carl Weissner, letters which began in about 1961, are characterized by incredible energy and anger and insight. They are some of the most substantive letters by you that I've seen. And yet Weissner, at the time the correspondence began, was then but a student, one you had never met or heard of before the correspondence started. What were your motivations at the time for writing him these letters? What was your living situation like, your outlook on life?
Bukowski: I have no idea how it all started with Carl Weissner; that was almost three decades ago. But somehow we got into contact. I believe he saw some of my work in the U.S. little magazines. We began corresponding. His letters were quite incisive, entertaining (lively as hell), and he bucked up my struggle in the darkness, no end. A letter from Carl always was and still is an infusion of life and hope and easy wisdom. I was in the post office at the time and living with a crazy and alcoholic woman and writing anyhow. All our money went for booze. We lived in rags and a rage of despair. I remember I didn't even have money for shoes. The nails from my old shoes dug into my feet as I walked my routes hungover and mad. We drank all night and I had to get up at 5 a.m. When I wrote, the poems came out of this and the letters from Carl were the only good magic about.
Dougherty: How did you picture Weissner?
Bukowski: How did I picture him? Exactly as he looked and acted when I met him. One hell of a hell of an amazing human.
Dougherty: What would you say has been the most important and substantial correspondence that you've been engaged in?
Bukowski: Letters to Carl Weissner. I felt that with Carl I could say anything I wanted to, and I often did.
Dougherty: Is there anyone today to whom you write letters of comparable length or energy?
Dougherty: Did you see the letters that you wrote to Weissner or anyone else as a kind of practice ground, a testing ground for your writing or ideas?
Bukowski: No, I never tested my writing abilities in letter writing. For instance, I read that Hemingway often wrote letters when he couldn't write anything else. To me, this would be a betrayal of the person you were writing to. I wrote letters because they just came out. They were a need. A scream. A laugh. Something. I don't keep carbons.
Dougherty: Did poems or stories ever evolve out of your letters?
Bukowski: Few stories or poems came out of the letters. If they did, it was afterwards. A small thought: shit, maybe I ought to use that line or that idea elsewhere. But not too often, hardly at all. The letter came first. The letter was the letter as the letter.
Dougherty: Carl Weissner has characterized your early letters to him as "soul food." Whom have you most enjoyed receiving letters from and why?
Bukowski: As I said, Carl's letters were the best. They kept me going for weeks. I even wrote him at times to say something like, "God damn, man, you've saved my life." And it was true. Without Carl I would be dead or near dead or mad or near mad, or driveling into a slop pail somewhere, mouthing gibberish.
Dougherty: You've always been fairly meticulous about dating your letters, and a lot of energy has gone into at least the Weissner letters. Did you ever at any point--before, that is, you sold the letters to Santa Barbara--sense an audience outside of the person to whom you were writing? That is, do you think you wrote, consciously or unconsciously, with posterity in mind?
Bukowski: Carl's letters were sold to Santa Barbara along with other things because that was survival. I didn't even have the letters. I asked Carl for them and he popped them over. Like that. No, I never thought of an audience outside of Carl in the letters. If I had, they would have beenshitty letters. I was writing to Carl because I felt he knew what I was saying and that his answers would be joyous, crazy, brave and on the mark. I've read too many literary letters, published, that the famed writers have written. They do seem to write to more than one person, and that's their business unless they write to me.
Dougherty: What do you enjoy most about writing letters? When do you write them?
Bukowski: Writing letters, like writing poems, stories, novels, helps to keep me from going crazy or from quitting. I write letters at night when I am drinking, just as I write my other stuff.
(c) 1987 by Jay Dougherty.
This work may not be reprinted in whole or in part without prior written consent.
An Interview with Charles Bukowski
Part of the PoetryCircle Showcase series.
Probably better to click the "discussion" tab. Otherwise, I can't respond.
Kailashana, the interview was an outgrowth of my earlier interest in Bukowski as a poet. His work influenced me greatly, yes, in that it was just about the only thing I felt was really a gem back then...and I still see very few poets that strike the same chord in me. I keep looking, though, because Bukowski's work is finite, and I'm still here.
Enjoyed, Jay. I got a kick of how Bukowski was just dug in thru the whole interview: he loved Carl's letters, period, wasn't going to say a word about any other letters, or make more or less of Carls than they he loved them, no matter what you asked him.
I have a couple of questions for you, Jay. Do you think Buk's interview had any lasting impression in/on your poetry? As a younger man, do you think the interview gave you a sense of *be your own man*? Something poets struggle with more often than not....