Interview by John Wisniewski
“Yes, he could be a misanthrope, a nihilist, a vindictive dirty old man, an opinionated, vicious writer, but that was just part of the picture.”
AMFM Magazine: You have written extensively about the writings of Charles Bukowski, what interests you about his life and work?
Abel DeBritto: I think I could write a dissertation to answer this question! Long story short, I’m more interested in his work than in his life. His work was largely autobiographical, though, and it’s not always easy to know what’s real and what’s made up. Sometimes facts and fiction are deliberately blurred.
Bukowski was a genius, no doubt about that, and I hardly ever use the word “genius.” He knew what he was doing all along. Although there is a conservative side to Bukowski –especially when it comes to money and, early on, women– he was politically incorrect from day one and, against all odds, he succeeded in becoming a major author in American letters. He didn’t mind kicking the Establishment in the balls –actually, he enjoyed doing that– and he always stuck to his guns, no matter what. That takes endurance and will power.
Yes, he could be a misanthrope, a nihilist, a vindictive dirty old man, an opinionated, vicious writer, but that was just part of the picture. I think he always had the bigger picture in mind. While most people only see a few strokes of what’s going on in their lives, Bukowski had this beautiful clarity, this ability to see his own work, his own picture, from a distance, no matter how close he was to what he was talking about. He probably wouldn’t admit it, but I think he felt like this all along. He always was Bukowski, which might seem a stupid thing to say, but it’s actually quite a feat. Of course, he changed over the years and his words seemed to mellow out in his final days, but I believe the bum who was roaming the USA in the 1940s was essentially the same guy who had a jacuzzi, a swimming pool, and a big house in San Pedro. All he cared about was writing, and that’s what he did. And his I-don’t-give-a-shit-about-your-preconceptions attitude was there until the very end. Perseverance is one of the words that could define Bukowski.
He was unafraid, and I love that. There’s way too much fear instilled in us as we grow up. We are afraid of pretty much everything and anything, and when someone comes along singing a song or writing a poem or painting a picture that is truly free, unafraid of all the bullshit that we have to endure on a daily basis, to me that’s a victory for everyone. You just can’t beat that.
And when you’re unafraid, you gamble. Bukowski gambled all the way through, both in his life and his work. He didn’t mind losing or being rejected, that toughened him up. He was a lone wolf, an outsider who just needed a typewriter to get by. As the song goes, he needed a crowd of people, but he couldn’t face them day to day. He created in solitude and pretty much told everyone to fuck off.
This tough persona didn’t turn him into a hopeless nihilist. The-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel cliché was as real as you can get for him. Take “the crunch,” “the laughing heart,” “song for this softly-sweeping sorrow,” and many other strong poems where Bukowski says there’s a chance for us all.
AMFM Magazine: Could you tell us about editing the Poems of Bukowski collection? How did the project come about?
Abel DeBritto: This is the collection I wanted to edit in the first place, but I had to edit On Writing, On Cats, On Love, and Essential Bukowski to be able to put together Storm for the Living and the Dead. Sometimes you just have to be patient.
This is my most personal project by far. Whereas you could say the previous collections were kind of crowd-pleasers, Storm shows Bukowski in the raw, so to speak. Unlike previous posthumous collections, the poems in Storm have not been doctored at all. They are reproduced the way Bukowski wrote them. Not only that, I included a number of poems that had been previously discarded because they were considered too wild, graphic or obscene. Take “love song”, “tough luck”, “take me out to the ball game,” “fuck,” and “warm water bubbles,” to name a few. It’s obvious that Bukowski wrote some of them for their shock value, and he probably had a kick out of them. But I don’t find them obscene or troubling at all. If anything, they show what a funny writer Bukowski could be. Black humor was of one Bukowski’s fortes.
In this collection, we also find a number of different Bukowskis. The Dirty Old Man embraces the sweet, loving Bukowski. The drunk lecher goes hand in hand with the sober philosopher. Bukowski’s trademark clear lines are interspersed with his more experimental stuff. Take “kuv stuff mox out.” The original manuscript runs for 10 pages, and it’s quite straightforward. The reworked version that Bukowski sent to a little magazine is a hard-to-follow stream of consciousness, and that’s the version featured in Storm. Take “the solar mass: soul: / genesis and geotropism”. What the fuck was Bukowski trying to prove there? If he was kicking academia in the ass with what he called “dictionary words,” the outcome is certainly hilarious and scathing. Take “poem to myself”, “something for the action,” and “stomping at the Savoy.” All these poems are on the experimental side, and I knew quite a few readers wouldn’t like them at all, but I deliberately took that chance.
The eclectic nature of Storm makes it a unique collection in the Bukowski canon. Some readers would have liked more sex poems, some people would have loved more poems about drinking, back alley fights, and whores. Some readers would have liked to see more narrative poems telling stories, some people would have liked more late, philosophical poems. But if editing has taught me anything at all is that you just can’t please everyone. It would have been quite easy to put together a more predictable collection of poems, but then it wouldn’t have been my most personal project. I truly believe Storm is my best editing effort, flaws and all.
AMFM Magazine: How are Bukowski’s poems perhaps different than his prose? Do the poems show a different side to him?
Abel DeBritto: I don’t think there was much of a difference for Bukowski in terms of creation. It was just art. Take some of his long, narrative poems. If you remove all the line breaks and put all the lines together, all of a sudden you a have a well-paced short-story.
Now, in his correspondence and interviews he always said that he needed to feel good to write prose, whereas he could write poems no matter how he felt. He also thought pain didn’t help to write better, that was just a Romantic notion to him, he would rather write when feeling happy. That’s why I think there’s generally more humor in his prose than in his poetry. Not only that, Bukowski said a few times that writing poetry when he was drunk was fairly easy, but prose was harder to write in that state of mind. I know it’s kind of odd to imagine a sober, happy Bukowski pumping out tons of short-stories, but there you go.
I believe that in his poetry we get to see all his different voices and styles, all his moods and emotions, while in his prose you could say that, for the most part, he wore this kind of tough, funny guy mask that made it harder to nail him down.
AMFM Magazine: Did you get to meet Bukowski?
Abel DeBritto:No, he was gone by the time I began researching into his work.
Abel Debritto, a former Fulbright scholar and current Marie Curie scholar, works in the digital humanities. He is the author of “Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground,” and the editor of the Bukowski collections “On Writing,” “On Cats,” and “On Love” as well as the poetry collection “Essential Bukowski.”