What do writers do when they aren't writing? Me, I go to the racetrack. Or in the early days, I starved or worked at gut-wrenching jobs.
I stay away from writers now- or people who call themselves writers. But from 1970 until about 1975 when I just decided to sit in one place and write or die, writers came by, all of them poets. POETS. And I discovered a curious thing: none of them had any visible means of support. If they had books out they didn't sell. And if they gave poetry readings, few attended, say from 4 to 14 other POETS. But they all lived in fairly nice apartments and seemed to have plenty of time to sit on my couch and drink my beer. I had gotten the reputation in town of being the wild one, of having parties where untold things happened and crazy women danced and broke things, or I threw people off my porch or there were police raids or etc. and etc. Much of this was true. But I also had to get the word down for my publisher and for the magazines to get the rent and the booze money, and this meant writing prose. But these ... poets ... only wrote poetry ... I thought it was thin and pretentious stuff ... but they went on with it, dressed themselves in a fairly nice manner, seemed well-fed, and they had all this couch-sitting time and time to talk- about their poetry and themselves. I often asked, "Listen, tell me, how do you make it?" They just sat there and smiled at me and drank my beer and waited for some of my crazy women to arrive, hoping that they might somehow get some of it- sex, admiration, adventure or what the hell.
It was getting clear in my head then that I would have to get rid of these soft toadies. And gradually, I found out their secret, one by one. Most often in the background, well hidden, was the MOTHER. The mother took care of these geniuses, got the rent and the food and the clothing.
I remember once, on a rare sojourn from my place, I was sitting in this POET's apartment. It was quite dull, nothing to drink. He sat speaking of how unfair it was that he wasn't more widely recognized. The editors, everybody was conspiring against him. He pointed his finger at me: "You too, you told Martin not to publish me!" It wasn't true. Then he went to bitching and babbling about other things. Then the phone rang. He picked it up and spoke very guardedly and quietly. He hung up and turned to me.
"It's my mother, she's coming over. You have to leave!"
"It's all right, I'd like to meet your mother."
"No! No! She's horrible! You have to leave! Now! Hurry!"
I took the elevator down and out. And wrote that one off.
There was another one. His mother bought him his food, his car, his insurance, his rent and even wrote some of his stuff. Unbelievable. And it had gone on for decades.
There was another fellow, he always seemed very calm, well-fed. He taught a poetry workshop at a church every Sunday afternoon. He had a nice apartment. He was a member of the communist party. Let's call him Fred. I asked an older lady who attended his workshop and admired him greatly. "Listen, how does Fred make it?" "Oh," she said. "Fred doesn't want anybody to know because he's very private that way but he makes his money by scrubbing food trucks."
"Yes, you know those wagons that go about dispensing coffee and sandwiches at break time and lunch time at work places, well, Fred scrubs those food trucks."
A couple of years went by and then it was discovered that Fred also owned a couple of apartment houses and then lived mainly off the rents. When I found this out I got drunk one night and drove over to Fred's apartment. It was located over a little theatre. Very arty stuff. I jumped out of my car and rang the bell. He wouldn't answer. I knew he was up there. I had seen his shadow moving behind the curtains. I went back to my car and started honking my car and yelling, "Hey, Fred, come on out!" I threw a beer bottle at one of his windows. It bounced off. That got him. He came out on his little balcony and peered down at me. "Bukowski, go away!"
"Fred, come on down here and I'll kick your ass, you communist land owner!"
He ran back inside. I stood there and waited for him. Nothing. Then I got the idea that he was calling the police. I had seen enough of them. I got into my car and drove back to my place.
Another poet lived in this house down by the water-front. Nice house. He never had a job. I kept after him, "How do you make it? How do you make it?" Finally, he gave in. "My parents own property and I collect the rents for them. They pay me a salary." He got a damned good salary, I imagine. Anyhow, at least he told me.
Some never do. There was this other guy. He wrote fair poetry but very little of it. He always had this nice apartment. Or he was going of to Hawaii or somewhere. He was one of the most relaxed of them all. Always in new and freshly pressed clothing, new shoes. Never needed a shave, a haircut; had bright flashing teeth. "Come on, baby, how do you make it?" He never let on. He didn't even smile. He just stood there silently.
Then there's another type that lives on handouts. I wrote a poem about one of them but never sent it out because I finally felt sorry for him. Here is some of it jammed together:
Jack with the hair hanging, Jack demanding money, Jack of the big gut, Jack of the loud, loud voice, Jack of the trade, Jack who prances before the ladies, Jack who thinks he's a genius, Jack who pukes, Jack who badmouths the lucky, Jack getting older and older, Jack still demanding money, Jack sliding down the beanstalk, Jack who talks about it but doesn't do it, Jack who gets away with murder, Jack who jacks, Jack who talks about the old days, Jack who talks and talks, Jack who terrorized the weak, Jack the embittered, Jack screaming for recognition, Jack who never has a job, Jack who totally overrates his potential, Jack who keeps screaming about his unrecognized talent, Jack who blames everybody else.
You know who Jack is, you saw him yesterday, you'll see him tomorrow, you'll see him next time.
Wanting it without doing it, wanting it free.
Wanting fame, wanting women, wanting everything.
A world full of Jacks sliding down the beanstalk.
Now I'm tired of writing about poets. But I will add that they are hurting themselves by living as poets instead of as something else. I worked as a common laborer until I was 50. I was jammed in with the people. I never claimed to be a poet. Now I am not saying that working for a living is a grand thing. In most cases it is a horrible thing. And often you must fight to keep a horrible job because there are 25 guys standing behind you ready to take the same job. Of course, it's senseless, of course it flattens you out. But being in that mess, I think, taught me to lay off the bullshit when I did write. I think you have to get your face in the mud now and then, I think you have to know what a jail is, a hospital is. I think you have to know what it feels like to go without food for 4 or 5 days. I think living with insane women is good for the back-bone. I think you can write with joy and release after you've been in the vise. I only say this because all the poets I have met have been soft jellyfish, sycophants. They have nothing to write about except their selfish non-endurance.
Yes, I stay away from the POETS. Do you blame me?
About the book:
This is a collection of extracts from Buk's journals. Bukowski ruminates on death, love, writing and of course, the racetrack as he prepares himself for the inevitable.
Excerpt from Dark Places
- Gillian Flynn
Excerpt from The Master and Margarita
- Mikhail Bulgakov