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Bukowski At 100: Remembering A Literary Icon


Years ago, a friend showed me poetry of Charles Bukowski. In one poem, the writer described taking all the little rejection slips that he received when publishers turned down his work and taping them on the wall as a kind of bitter motivation. I wanted to be a writer, so I did that.

Bukowski in the end was not rejected. His books sold millions of copies. He was born 100 years ago this weekend. Here's Tom Vitale.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Charles Bukowski was annoyed and amused by the world around him. So in 1981, when a young reporter showed up at his home in San Pedro, Calif., the 60-year-old author read a poem about the stupid questions interviewers ask. It's called "Do You Use A Notebook."

CHARLES BUKOWSKI: I turn on my radio and light a cigarette. What am I doing with this leisure? Where did the factories go and the horrors and the drunk tanks?

VITALE: The factories, the horrors and the drunk tanks were a big part of Bukowski's success, which came relatively late. He wrote his first novel when he was 49 called "Post Office." It featured his fictional alter ego, Henry Chinaski.

CASSANDRA BAIM: Henry Chinaski mistreats and sexually assaults and belittles and insults women. Of course, I think he's a misogynist.

VITALE: Cassandra Baim is a 29-year-old writer living in Brooklyn. Her boyfriend has a tattoo of the cover art from one of Bukowski's poetry collections, so she decided to read the author's 1978 novel, "Women," and write an online essay about it. Baim says she knows Bukowski was writing in a different era.

BAIM: But contextualizing it doesn't make him a misogynist who knows better. It just makes him a misogynist who is a misogynist because he is the product of his time.

VITALE: For whatever reason, Bukowski's writing clicked. His debut novel is still in print. Seven years after "Post Office" came out, he moved with his partner Linda to a big house in San Pedro.

BUKOWSKI: People always expect me to keep writing about prostitutes and getting drunk and puking on the rug. I'm no longer doing this, so I just can't write about it.

VITALE: It's not like he actually became respectable. Still, he made the town a literary tourist destination.

ANGELA ROMERO: We wanted to honor the legacy of the work that he created here with a statue.

VITALE: Angela Romero is president of the San Pedro Heritage Museum, who's raising funds for a bronze statue of the writer. She says there were two Bukowskis.

ROMERO: Hollywood Bukowski was the dirty old man. He's the drunkard - this bigger-than-life persona that everyone fell in love with. And he was the dirty old man in Hollywood. And in San Pedro, we just got the old man - the old man who had work to do before he was heading out.

VITALE: Bukowski did plenty of work in San Pedro - seven or eight poems a night, he said - some of them not so good because of the wine.

BUKOWSKI: I have caught myself at the end, you know, really drinking. I really think I'm pouring it home. You know, I'm writing great, immortal stuff. And when I see that poem in the morning, it's an utter idiotic, gibberish thing of a madman.

VITALE: Bukowski said he never consciously looked for things to write about.

BUKOWSKI: I'll give an example. I went out to eat, and here it was this guy who just hired a new waitress, and he was really brutalizing her. She was mopping the floor. He was screaming at her. And she came by me with her mop, and she says help me, help me. And I laughed. I said, oh, yeah.

VITALE: Bukowski said two nights later, the poem came to him about the waitress and his indifference to her plight. As for interviewers, he said the only reason he talked to me was because I was from out of town.

BUKOWSKI: You pack up, you'll be gone, right? You've got to go back to New York. Some people interview you, they're living around, you're going to see them, you know, three times a week - going to bring their little sheaf of poetry and their girlfriend and their six-pack. Distance is great.

VITALE: Charles Bukowski told me his acquaintances called him Hank. He said he didn't have any friends. He died in San Pedro of leukemia in 1994 at the age of 73.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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