It was while burdened with my usual load of literary LA baggage that I tripped over a particularly bold pronouncement that protruded from a Time Magazine article this week.
The piece told of a local effort to preserve author and poet Charles Bukowski's bungalow at 5124 De Longpre Avenue in East Hollywood [just a block from the intersection of W. Sunset Blvd and N. Normandie Ave]. The bit of the story that made me stumble was in the lead paragraph, the part that said Bukowski's residence is "... the epicenter of a cultural earthquake that continues to rock Los Angeles's literary landscape."
Really? A place in which Bukowski flopped and farted on a regular basis is the epicenter of a cultural quake that continues to rock LA's literary landscape? What magnitude are we talking? Wait, I have to read that again.
"... the epicenter of a cultural earthquake that continues to rock Los Angeles's literary landscape."
Where's this rocking going on and did the TV guys get footage of whatever might have been shaken from the shelves of the nearest Barnes & Noble?
Like I said, I've got literary baggage. In addition to having been one of the many LA writers who regularly attended poetry readings in the late 1990s, I used to be the co-host of the now-defunct Midnight Special Bookstore's open-mic night, and, without a doubt, I can confirm that Bukowski's work influenced many young LA writers from all parts of the world.
Friday after Friday, both washed and unwashed poets squeezed into Santa Monica's literary Mecca and claimed five minutes at the mike to relate with hard words and sloppy details their own antisocial attributes and exploits. Some provided not only tales of ugly one-night stands gone sober, but the residential addresses of each louse and a few suggestions about what to shout [or throw] at a particular window or door after 3 AM. Spittle-laced profanities often flew from the back of the store to the front, and helped gather standing-room-only crowds of onlookers who slowed down to gawk at our messy lives as they might an accident on the 405. It was the sort of thing you don't see at today's chain-store readings (many of which have been sanitized for your protection). Of course, the chains that censor their readings are the same booksellers that put special places like the Midnight Special out of business, and subdued anything close to the cultural earthquake of which Bukowski may, or may not, have been a part. But, what's done is done.
So what would Bukowski say about this cultural earthquake thing nowadays, I mean, say if he were offered an opportunity to read at a corporately cleansed bookstore? WWBD? [What would Bukowski do?] To answer that we need only calculate how many carefully chosen curse words and lewd acts could fit through a whiskey-soaked microphone before the manager was able to wrestle the power cord from the amp.
Corporate bookstores aren't about cultural earthquakes. Nor do they seem interested in airing the unfettered self-expression of today's would-be Bukowskis. It’s too much for our all-too-sensitive consumers, the type of folks, I guess, who are more offended by Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction than by a brutal sport that writer George Will once described as "a mistake" that "combines the two worst elements of American life. Violence and committee meetings." It's not my intent to bash football, but rather to defend it with enthusiasm equal to my defense of a wardrobe snafu that sent TIVO recorders into overdrive for weeks. Are we all expected to be as kind and gentle, as, um, Sally Field? Er, maybe not after her Emmy snafu. [She's lucky she wasn't tasered.]
LA's poetry scene has deteriorated more with each death of an independent bookstore (as well as the demise of many independent coffee shops) during the past 10 years. And LA has lost something vital as a result. The city is lucky to have the many fine poets who continue to seek out venues, and especially the mom-and-pops that continue to allow uncensored performances. But they're still fewer and farther between.
Nonetheless, attend any reading in LA and you'll find what I did a decade ago — talented and typical Los Angelenos, but typical only in that most of them are from somewhere else, like New York, Minnesota, Louisiana, Texas, etc... They may be here now, but they read Bukowski back there. My first Bukowski book was a gift from a girl I dated in Kentucky, long before I ever imagined that I'd end up in Los Angeles. She copied one of his shorter poems on the inside cover: "As the spirit wanes the form appears."
This landscape is waning.
Maybe the cultural earthquake referenced in Time is the one that started up north with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. If so, it's in error, for Bukowski never would have counted himself, or his readers, among the masses of "angel-headed hipsters." He was something different, physically and emotionally older than the others; drunker, perhaps, with no interest in the experimentation, the guitar, or the patchouli.
If Bukowski was part of any cultural rumble it was one of his own making. He wrote for no one but Charles, endured rejection after rejection, educated himself along the way and rebuilt himself into a bullheaded bastard who knew his work was better than much of the trash chosen for publication instead of his. He was tenacious, like a stewbum with a bottle of wine and no corkscrew. He knew what many young writers seem to have trouble learning in this Internet age when anyone can stick a poem in a Web site and call it publication. Bukowski knew that a writer writes and writes and writes and damns the rejections all to hell. Bukowski wrote because writing was a form of pleasure.
Let's say Charles Bukowski continues to rock LA's literary landscape. Then what in God's name have poetic giants like Maya Angelou done to it, and why hasn't the literary arm of FEMA responded to help pull us from the rubble?
Perhaps this is just another unfortunate example of East-coast bias. Maybe assigning Bukowski the stature of "a cultural earthquake" is a way to rationalize that an important writer actually emerged from the depths of this burbalicious conurbation instead of someplace more literary, like New York, or Paris. Maybe some minds flash "LOL and OMG" when confronted with the notion that people in Los Angeles might actually be writers, not to mention readers. Readers in LA? WTF?
LA has been and continues to be the home of many great writers and poets, some of whom are from here, and some of whom are not. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich said so well in a 1997 column that's often misattributed as a commencement speech by author Kurt Vonnegut, everyone should move around in life.
Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft. Travel.
Writers like and unlike Bukowski rock the literary landscape of many places. Thus the cliché "But I'm big in Japan."
And let's not forget the local poets and writers who've done their own share of rocking, artists like Michele Serros, whose recorded performance poetry from the late 1990s remains a cherished part of my collection.
As for the bungalow, Curbed LA blogs it has yet to be swayed by the effort to preserve it, and Time says Bukowski himself might not have cared much about the place. The conclusion of the Time story says "... it's definitely a lot of effort for a man whose gravestone reads simply, 'Don't Try.'"
Then again ... maybe Bukowski meant "don't try" but rather shut your mouth and go do what you love simply for the joy of it. If something good happens, by God, enjoy that. Drink to it even. Have a sandwich!
That appears to be what he meant when he reportedly said this:
"What do you do? How do you write, create? You don't, I told them. You don't try. That's very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it."
So maybe this particular issue of Time is good for something after all — the next ugly bug that comes to me.
* RELATED: An Incomplete List Of LA Writers, with links to their Web sites.
** RELATED UPDATE: CBS 2 LOS ANGELES reported on its Web site that LA's Cultural Heritage Commission decided Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007, to tour the Hollywood bungalow before making a final determination about whether to designate it as a historic-cultural monument.
*** RELATED LA TIMES EDITORIAL: The Los Angeles Times argued in favor of preservation in an editorial that appeared in the print edition, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007.