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Hanging with Bukowski at the Gotlieb Center

He’s in there, among seven miles of collections

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Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Charles Bukowski spent a lot of his life in bars, at the track, too. Far as we know no horses are named after him, but there are a couple of watering holes around town sporting his name. He never owned them, never started a fight in one of their booths, but the mention of his name still encourages a deep thirst among some.

“Hank” as he’s known to some fans, “Buk” to others, has been a cult literary figure for decades, decorating T-shirts and bumper stickers, the epitome of hard-drinking, blunt-writing, brawling no-compromise. But what really matters are his words; his former publisher compares him to Walt Whitman, and French existentialist Albert Camus called him America’s greatest writer of the time. Hank, who died in 1994, was the street’s answer to The New Yorker and academe — the poet laureate of skid row.

So when I saw Bukowski listed among the 2,000 or so collections at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, my eyes lit up. He was a presence for me in college, but of greater significance in sobriety. Bukowski marches fierce and poignant observations naked onto the page, propped against the abyss with only a period. I still tape his poems to my computer. One of my favorites, “Art,” is just seven words long: As the spirit wanes, the form appears.

I have it tattooed on my chest.

Now I come to find that more than 100 of his personal letters, both typewritten and handwritten, many of them illustrated with his whimsical sketches, are stored at Mugar Memorial Library. With a little notice, anyone can sit down and read them.

So I made an appointment with Ryan Hendrickson, HGARC assistant director of manuscripts. That morning, I took the steps two at a time to the fifth floor, heart pumping with anticipation — or was it exertion? After signing in and surrendering my ID, I met the young, bearded archivist, who brought me to a reading room with a couple of leather couches and six wide tables. Hendrickson locked my coat and bag in a cabinet. No cameras, no large pockets. Pencils only. “It’s policy,” he said with a firm but pleasant smile.

Hendrickson told me the Bukowski material was originally purchased by Boston-based manuscript dealer and collector Paul Richards, a good friend of the late Howard Gotlieb (Hon.’88), who began collecting the memorabilia of contemporary figures, many not yet well-known, for the University in 1963. When Richards retired, he donated his unsold stock to the HGARC.

“The letters have been used quite a bit,” Hendrickson said, “at least one person a year, maybe more, which doesn’t sound like much, but for a manuscript collection it’s actually pretty significant.”

Hendrickson left to get the material. HGARC stores most of its goodies in secure, alarmed vaults on various floors throughout the library — seven miles of linear shelf space, one reason the center staff asks for two days’ notice, in case a collection lives in a far corner or in off-library vault space.

While I waited, I strolled the room, stopping at display cases. Behind the glass, an original Alfred Tennyson poem, a handwritten letter by Edgar Allan Poe, and manuscript pages from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) collection is one of HGARC’s crown jewels, but the center has collections ranging from musician Franz Liszt to poet Robert Frost (Hon.’61) to newsman Dan Rather (Hon.’83). In this fifth-floor world, there’s not much separating you from a handwritten note by Abraham Lincoln questioning the Emancipation Proclamation, a pad scrawled with free verse by Allen Ginsberg, or the dog tags Willem Dafoe wore in Platoon. And that just scratches the surface. For students, there are some serious extra-credit points lurking in here.

I popped my laptop at a table and within a few minutes Hendrickson returned with the goods — and a pair of white gloves, to prevent oil and dirt from compromising the pages, he explained. Then he set down a hardcover green cloth binder with Bukowski’s name printed in gold letters on the spine.

As I slipped on the cotton gloves, I felt a bit like a manservant ready to pour tea for m’lady. I wondered what Hank might have thought about such precious treatment, the poet who so beautifully and unapologetically sang the song of the diseased, the downtrodden, and the outcast — his people, himself. But I forgot all that, because in front of me was four years’ worth of letters from Bukowski to Doug Blazek, a California poet and driving force in the “mimeograph revolution,” an underground publishing movement in the 1960s that paved the way for nonestablishment poets.

Holding the first letter was, appropriately, intoxicating. Slightly wrinkled in places, smudged in others. Dried beer drops? Cigarette ash? I fought the urge to slip a finger out of my glove and run it over the imprints of the letters hammered onto the typewritten page — to transport myself to Bukowski’s desk, to touch what he touched. Hank had filled the margins with sketches: a man standing in a birdcage, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a toilet behind him, and a dish on the floor. A giant bird stands on the outside watching. Elsewhere, he had collaged magazine cutouts. The page was alive, the Bukowski version of an illuminated manuscript. You couldn’t do this with e-mail.

Here was a struggling poet at 45 years old, still working backbreaking shifts at the U.S. Post Office (the setting for his first novel), grappling with the birth of his daughter, Marina, trying to find time to write and pick up a typewriter ribbon, all while drinking copious amounts of liquor and betting on ponies. His life was, everywhere but in front of the typewriter, a mess. On December 4, 1965, he writes: “Frances and I have split. she and the little girl are over in a place on Carlton. it costs me something, but hell, I blow every paycheck anyhow, so what’s the difference? I see the little girl every day so she’ll remember me, I am soft in the head for her, Marina …”

“God, sounds like you have an interesting window,” he writes to Blazek. “It’s important, I always type looking out the window and whatever walks by or flys by, it gets into the poem.” Looking out those windows, Bukowski managed to pen more than 60 books of poetry and prose.

His sign-offs made me cringe at my bland and rote use of “Best, Caleb.” Here are few Bukowski versions:

“Men without eyes Multiply like flies, Buk.”

“Alabaster, Buk.”

“Slug on, Buk.”

“Hold, Buk.”

And my favorite: “Grab the faucets when it feels bad or try to imagine you are a tree trunk, and hold, baby.”

I grew wistful. In handwritten correspondence, even banged out on a typewriter, you could sense the anticipation, the hope, the suspense of a conversation that took years to conduct. Today, a comparable exchange might take a week to play out online, but who wants to read a stack of printouts? At the HGARC, they house things that last, that matter, handwrought things. It is comforting to know that this piece of Bukowski will not be lost to time, or technology.

So the other night, I pulled out some paper, a pen, and began writing a letter. Just to remember how it feels. And I knew exactly how to start:

“Hey, Buk …”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

Click on the clip above to hear Harry Dean Stanton read "Bluebird," an excerpt from Bukowski: Born into This.


16 Comments

16 Comments on Hanging with Bukowski at the Gotlieb Center

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 5:24 am

    Fantastic article. And yes, i do think Bukie might cringe a bit knowing his letters are being handled with white gloves.

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 7:32 am

    Great story!

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 8:02 am

    Bukowski at the Gotlieb

    Caleb, thanks for so compellingly singing the value of pen on paper. After the apocalypse, when all the electronic devices has been fried and all our electronic files are gone, it will be our history on paper, stored in the vaults, that lets us rebuild and tells those who come after us who we were.

  • Dan Burke on 03.26.2009 at 10:15 am

    First B.U. Today article I've read in its entirety

    This was a very good article, Mr. Daniloff. I like how you combined some of Charles Bukowski’s biographical tid bits with your experience at the Research Center. It all tied together really well. Admittedly, I haven’t read any of Mr. Bukowski’s books, although I have seen the movie “Factotum” with Matt Dillon playing his alter ego. After reading this article, I will definitely pick up one of Mr. Bukowski’s books.

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 2:46 pm

    Like this one, the best articles in BU Today are human and not PR. PR is drowning us. Thanks, Caleb.

  • amlaskow on 03.26.2009 at 3:08 pm

    Hi Caleb, I wanted to thank

    Hi Caleb,

    I wanted to thank you for your article “Hanging with Bukowski at the Gotlieb Center” and for visiting the archives. The HGARC truly appreciates you sharing your candid thoughts on your trip there and your coverage of the center. I will keep you updated on any benchmarks they make towards digitizing the archives over the next year.

    Thanks again!

    Lauren

    Lauren E. Domingos
    Media Relations
    Boston University

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 8:39 pm

    I too have had my life changed by Bukowski, how do we make an appointment??

  • cdanilof on 03.26.2009 at 8:58 pm

    The legend...(and your article...)

    Caleb,
    My name is Chelsea Bednarski, and I am a junior english education major at BU…and I really wanted to tell you how much i loved your article. Buk has been one of my favorite authors since my 10th grade english teacher gave me Post Office (off the record of course, due to content, and only with permission from my mom, who also digs on bukowski), and he was also the teacher who singlehandedly inspired my direction in life. So anyway. Go Bukowski, go you. :) Thanks for the amazing read.
    And here’s some advice from our man that I have found profoundly helpful…

    "What is your advice to young writers?"
    "Drink, fuck, and smoke plenty of cigarettes."
    "What is your advice for older writers?"
    "If you’re still alive, you don’t need any advice."

    -("The Great Poet",Hot Water Music)
    -Chelsea Bednarski

  • cdanilof on 03.28.2009 at 4:16 pm

    Bach-Bukowski

    Dear Mr. Daniloff,
    On the internet I read your enthusiastic article about hanging out with Bukowski at the Gotlieb Center. Very nice to read! Because of what I read and also the text of the bluebird I thought you might also be interested in the Bach-Bukowski project (concerts and CDs) by Willem van Ekeren (Holland). Bach-Bukowski is an extraordinary mixture of singing and piano. He actually made a Bach-Bukowski song of the poem the bluebird as well. 22 of the poems of Bukowski’s ˜The last night of the earth poems’ are woven together with 22 parts of the ˜Well-tempered Clavier’ of Bach.
    The lyrics are sung blues/jazz style in combination with authentic Bach music on the piano.

    On YouTube you can find some videomaterial of live concerts under:
    http://nl.youtube.com/user/bachbukowski (including the bluebird)
    Of course you can find this and much more info also on our website as well as more audio and video fragments. It is also possible to order the cd.
    http://www.bach-bukowski.nl/en/

    Thought you might want to know!

    Best regards,

    Marguerite van de Poll

    Pearl Productions

    spark@bach-bukowski.nl

    http://www.bach-bukowski.nl

  • Ben on 03.29.2009 at 8:14 pm

    “i know you there, so dont be sad.”

    its so unbearably tragic.
    the way we are, and the way we should be.

  • Anonymous on 03.30.2009 at 9:30 am

    Great article

    Caleb,
    I really enjoyed your article on Bukowski. I have no personal experience with his writing, but if I can fit him in to my own crazy life, I plan to. Your article is inspiring and well written.
    Thanks!

  • cdanilof on 03.31.2009 at 4:00 pm

    Bukowski

    An outstanding piece of writing. All dimensions. Great description of your experience, insights. Motivating as well. I just put a number of Bukowski-related items in my library queue. I’m working on another volume of
    poems at the moment and am more in the mood for video. Going to start with a documentary on the man.

  • Raya on 07.27.2009 at 8:36 am

    A wonderful article!

  • Andrew Eglinton on 05.16.2010 at 5:28 am

    With thanks from London, UK.

    As someone who spends a great deal of time working with archival material, I could certainly relate to your sense of anticipation in the motions that you go through before being granted access. Though, I often find the experience of anticipation outweighs the actual experience of viewing the objects themselves – on a purely emotional level that is.

    Bukowski gets a good deal of bad press as a writer. People are quick to dismiss him as something you grow out of in your teens. I’ve never felt that way, and I’ve never understood the impetus behind the will to compartmentalise poets, writers and playwrights.

    If the words speak to you here and now, then that is enough.

  • SP on 02.21.2011 at 12:52 am

    from a true Buk fan

    awesome article! Daniloff really knows his stuff.

  • Anonymous on 04.14.2011 at 7:00 pm

    I saw those letters in the late 1980s

    I worked in the library at the time and I was involved in small press publishing. I wrote a letter to Bukowski (his poems often appeared in literary magazines I published) asking him if I could publish the letters as a book. He wrote back telling me that John Martin had the rights to his work and told me to write to John. John wrote back (no email in those days) letting me know they were going to be published by his press. Archives received a letter shortly after that asking for a copy of the letters.

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