An Interview with Editor David Calonne about More Notes of a Dirty Old Man
There are very few people cool enough to work on gathering the long-lost weekly stories of Charles Bukowski, but David Calonne, the editor of More Notes of a Dirty Old Man: The Uncollected Columns is just that cool.
I read the latest posthumous offering by Charles Bukowski, and, as the man himself is no longer with us and therefore could not complete the standard TNB self-interview, Mr. Calonne graciously answered questions about both Buk and this new collection. He did so with humor, verve and amazing scholarship. For technical reasons, and in the name of TNB tradition, we’ll be calling this David Calonne’s “self-interview.” But of course I’m playing my small part in the process, as chief interrogator. It is, as they say, a great honor. -QM
Quenby Moone: You were set with a huge task of editing Bukowski’s columns for the LA Free Press and NOLA Express, unseen for decades. There must have been a huge number to sift through. What was the thread that wove through the ones that ended up in the book? Did you find that there was a “theme,” or did the book arise more organically?
David Calonne: Yes, Bukowski wrote hundreds of the “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” columns for LA Free Press, NOLA, Open City as well as High Times, National Underground Review, and several other periodicals. My only principle of selection was to choose the best ones I could find. I also tried to have a variety of all the different kinds of writing Bukowski included in the “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” series: story, essay, interview, and I even included some of Bukowski’s wonderful aphorisms which he submitted under the humorous title “Ecce Hetero.” Bukowski even published poems and cartoons (what we call “graphic fiction”now) in the “Dirty Old Man” series and if this book does well, I hope to do another and publish some of this material as well. I included an interview a professor did of Bukowski as well as Bukowski’s own interview of Jon Webb of Loujon Press which created his first two great books of poetry, It Catches My Heart In Its Hands and Crucifix in a Deathhand.
This interview with Webb is very interesting, illustrating how involved Bukowski had been from the beginning with the actual production of his books and how excited he was about the whole process of making books. I also included an excellent long short story—almost a novella—entitled “My Friend, The Gambler,” which describes the period during the making of Barfly. That’s the amazing thing I’ve discovered doing these Bukowski anthologies—that there are these fantastic gems which have been not been published in book form because Bukowski was so incredibly prolific. He resembles writers like D.H. Lawrence or Robert Graves or Henry Miller or William Saroyan-these incredibly productive geniuses who seemed incapable of writing a dull line.
When I wrote the “Afterword”, I think I did try to explain what I saw as one underlying “theme” of many of the “Dirty Old Man” series, which is the estrangement and alienation of modern society which Bukowski I think quite deliberately at once exposes, describes and seeks to illuminate. “Sex” or “sexuality” is just the screen for his allegory—I mean his writing is and is not about a “dirty old man.” It’s about human beings seeking authentic selfhood, however corny that may sound.
I’ve been reading a book of interviews with Anthony Burgess recently and he says this about Rabelais: “When Rabelais wrote his great book Gargantua and Pantagruel, he was not really glorifying vomit and defecation and drunkenness; he was telling a symbolic story in which we are all thirsty for the faith, and the wine or beer or drunkenness is a kind of symbol of religious ecstasy” (Conversations with Anthony Burgess, p. 161). Bukowski refers to Rabelais several times in his stories and poems.
And although I don’t think Bukowski was “thirsty for the faith” in the sense of any orthodox religious system, he spoke often of wine as the “blood of the gods,” as the ancient Greek Dionysian connection to ecstasy. And he has many poems which are very close to Li Po, to this Taoist idea of being totally in the moment, totally involved with what one is experiencing at the moment. So too Bukowski is always writing about sex and drinking and vomiting and defecating and also not writing about sex and drinking and vomiting and defecating. As he says in one of his poems, we seek more than flesh, and it is this seeking which is his true subject matter. Gary Snyder caught this about Bukowski. He liked his poems very much and remarked about Bukowski’s celebration of being a human animal. It’s OK to be an animal, to have a body, there’s nothing to be guilty or ashamed about. I think here he is again close to D. H. Lawrence.
That was a long answer.
QM: The book is filed under “fiction,” a designation which confused me when I originally approached City Lights about featuring More Notes. And many of his columns are fictional, though most are not.
Autobiographical writing is taking a huge hit right now because so many “autobiographies” have turned out to be fictionalized. But Bukowski never seemed to worry about the line. Does it make it more acceptable because he didn’t care? How can he help us understand the current climate in “non-fiction?”
DC: Well, the relationship between “fiction” and “autobiography” has always been murky. David Copperfield of course IS Charles Dickens, and is not. The complexity with Bukowski comes because he named his character “Chinaski” or “Chelaski” and sometimes uses “Bukowski” as the name of the “character” in his work and this tended to make people think he was always writing about himself. He was and he wasn’t. See number 1 above. He is a good deal of the time doing caricature, he is exaggerating and playing. He is often closer to Mad magazine, than to making an “accurate description” of his life, or to the German Expressionists. But he is writing stories, and novels.
I don’t see any problem here.
Also, Bukowski tended to make his life into a work of fiction by making up all kinds of stories about himself. For example, that he quit writing for ten years. He did no such thing. In 1952, when he was supposedly on his “ten year drunk,” was submitting poetry to Poetry Chicago. There was a five year period between 1951 and around 1956 when he didn’t publish anything, but he was still writing.
It might be truer to say he “fictionalized” his autobiography often in what he said about himself in interviews and even in his stories and poems. The mask was so tightly fastened on, the myth was so heavily propagated that you have to do some prying and digging to pull off that mask and decode that myth.
I think you also suggest in your question the link between Bukowski and the “New Journalism” as practiced by Mailer and Capote and Hunter S. Thompson and I think Bukowski was indeed doing something very similar. He was writing a newspaper column, which immediately raises the question: what is a story doing in a newspaper which is supposed to be “factual”? Also when he did do “reportage”, as in his account of going to a Rolling Stones concert in L.A. (I included this in Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook), he blurs the lines between writing an account bearing some relationship to verisimilitude and fiction: he makes a lot of stuff up.
Remember that Bukowski had wanted to be a journalist as a young man and he didn’t really get the chance until he was forty-seven years old, in 1967, which was just when all the “New Journalism” stuff was taking off. So yes, journalism, autobiography and fiction get mixed and subtly transformed in his writing. He does this of course also with poems which seem to be stories and letters which suddenly turn into poems and essays which include narrative, autobiographical elements, or interviews which we are not sure are actual interviews or made up by himself, etc.: he is always shape-shifting when it comes to “genre.”
QM: Buk’s greatest complaint is our isolation from each other (he calls Americans a bunch of “potential suicides”), that modern society had torn us apart rather than brought us together. This seems a relevant observation in our time–I’m interviewing you over the internet–and he really despises people who go to work in offices and then come home alone. Yet he seems quite comfortable in his own relatively menial position in the post office, and alone in his crummy apartment. He isolates himself as well.
Sometimes he strikes me as a blue collar Holden Caulfield, protesting the phonies. What would he think of that comparison?
DC: Yes, he discusses the isolation of American life. I included the essay to which you refer in which he describes the women in his apartment coming home from work and retreating into their sterile environments. He had just moved into an apartment on Oxford Avenue in L.A. which he hated. He had been accustomed to living in “courts”, in small bungalows where he could look out his window and see the streets and people and taco stands of East Hollywood.
But yes, also he did “isolate” himself but I think he had little choice in this. From childhood, due to his abuse by his father, his disfiguring skin disease and the prejudice in Los Angeles against German-Americans following WWI, he had little choice but to become a reclusive solitary. Yes, he liked J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (it is said that the title of his novel Ham on Rye is an homage to Salinger) and the phony and the pretentious were things he very much disliked.
Remember that scene in Barfly when Mickey Rourke is in the car with Tully behind the slick Southern California couple: I think the guy has sunglasses and a sweater draped over his shoulder and the girl is a vapid dumb type and Mickey decides to ram their car with his bumper. That’s the classic Bukowski moment. He’s not resentful of these people, he simply is appalled by their soullessness. They have no depth, no passion, no fire, no pain, no tragedy, no creative aliveness—they are like everyone else, Heidegger’s Das Man, and are therefore dead.
He also has a poem in which he describes how Los Angelenos reacted during the earthquake of 1971 and what supreme coddled babies they are. When a real catastrophe strikes, they won’t know what to do. That’s why the last line of the “Ecco Hetero” aphorisms I included is “See you in Dresden.” The Germans had their country flattened, and as a German-American, Bukowski calibrates Californian phoniness in relation to that.
QM: When he helps a man getting beaten up on the beach, Buk makes a point of saying how much he dislikes him: “There was a bird-like thing about him, an inhuman thing. I disliked him.” Further on he refers to him as his friend. But he’s an acquaintance of circumstance, made of this violent event in which Bukowski intervened. There’s something disturbing about this exchange of emotion in Buk; perhaps highlighting his own, or maybe our fickleness.
This really defines a lot of Buk for me: swinging back and forth between dichotomies. Was this an element of the tone which runs through the book?
DC: That’s an interesting moment you mention. That is one of my favorite stories. He has picked up his daughter from his ex-wife and is taking her to the beach. He witnesses this violent episode. I think when he calls him his “friend” the first time, it is perhaps tongue-in-cheek. That one would expect that man to have grateful feelings because he intervened when he was beaten. It is only jarring later if you think he meant he was the “friend” of this man. Remember at the beginning of the story, he describes his dislike of the empty people he sees on the beach.
Yes, Bukowski and his characters can be down, depressed, despairing, cynical. Yet as the story shows, he was also supremely sensitive and “idealistic.” You know Beethoven wrote his “Ode to Joy” based on Schiller’s poem about universal human brotherhood but that apparently didn’t prevent Beethoven from being very unpleasant to his fellow human beings. At the core of Romanticism—and Bukowski is a supreme Romantic—is this seeming dichotomy between the urge for a transcendent vision of human possibility and the horrible truth of what humans are actually like. And Bukowski frequently would say that he finds this loathsome thing within himself as well. You only become cynical and depressed and down if you have high expectations.
I actually don’t think Bukowski was a nihilist. He’s in the line of Beethoven, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky—those tormented mad guys, but tortured because they wanted so much, not because they were satisfied with the little they saw.
QM: He’s a Luddite, though never identifies himself as such. Did reading these criticisms in the age of the internet/permanent entertainment color the editing process? What was your internal monologue as you edited his work?
DC: Why do you say he’s a Luddite? He actually very much enjoyed his word processor which he got in 1990 and marveled over how much writing he was able to accomplish. He worried at the outset that he was “selling his soul” to the new-fangled consumerist stuff, but he got very hooked on the computer. I think if you mean he was a loner, i.e. preferred writing, listening to Sibelius and Stravinsky and Mahler and Shostakovich rather than doing anything else such as going to the movies, that is correct. If he were alive today, he would probably make use of the new gadgets to the extent that they helped his writing, but it is hard to imagine him multi-tasking or creating a Facebook page.
QM: You’re a scholar of Beats and Bukowski. What’s their relationship? Bukowski seems to elude any designation, but seems to fit the profile of a Beat in some ways. How does he fit into literature as a whole? What are his lasting influences upon lit?
DC: My first book was on William Saroyan and I see Bukowski in the line of Walt Whitman and then Saroyan and John Fante. I published a small book in 2010, Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy: Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats with an Introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: Sore Dove) in which I explored these links. Saroyan influenced Kerouac’s style through his jazzy prose in his early stories.
For example, Saroyan has a story from 1936 called “Baby” which has the following passage:
Sang baby. O maybe. Sang motors and wheels till Saturday night in America, and a hundred thousand jazz orchestras sang So come sit by my side if you love me, and the sad-eyed, weary-lipped Mexican girl silenced Manhattan uproar with soft, velvet-petaled singing of darkness and death, O heart there is no end to the river’s flowing. Sang locomotive north through snow to Albany and west to Chicago, O baby maybe.
Well, if you read that to someone they would think it was by Kerouac, but it is Saroyan, 1936. So you hear the influence. The jazzy, hip, fast, Benzedrine, lyrical prose is there. Bukowski loved the early Saroyan, and this high Romantic lyricism is very much in Bukowski’s early poems and stories. Bukowski also wrote a review of Allen Ginsberg’s Empty Mirror, met Gregory Corso (and liked him), was reviewed positively in the New York Times Book Review by Kenneth Rexroth, was published by Ferlinghetti, and appeared in all the same magazines as the Beats so there is definitely a connection.
But the difference is that Bukowski didn’t go to India, didn’t do a lot of drugs (he did a few but preferred alcohol), he was solitary and didn’t like the Beats’ “clubbiness”, loved Mozart and Bach rather than Jefferson Airplane, etc. So I would say he is similar to the Beats in his urge towards transcendence and in his opposition to American militarism, racism, materialism, etc. but he is essentially apolitical; and rather than an Eastern mystic he is close I think to the ancient Gnostics who believed the sacred is within the self. He is close to D.H. Lawrence in this, I think.
And he is closer to the “inhumanism” of Robinson Jeffers than to any patchouli-scented, incense-burning, “love is all you need,” guitar strumming person.
QM: What were the differences between this collection and the other Buk books you’ve edited?
DC: The first Bukowski book I edited was a book of his interviews, Sunlight Here I Am (2003) then came the two volumes I did for City Lights: Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook (2008) and Absence of the Hero (2010). These last two contained stories and essays, but I also included some “Dirty Old Man” columns in both of them.
This time, I floated the idea to Garrett Caples at City Lights of doing an all-Dirty-Old-Man book and he also got very hyped-up with the idea so that’s how this latest one happened. Garrett had the idea of making it a kind of companion volume to the famous first Notes of a Dirty Old Man, first published in 1969 by Essex House and then reprinted in 1973 by City Lights. So the book will be the same approximate size as the original and also is organized like the first one with no titles or breaks between the stories and essays.
It is a very cool book, if I say so myself.
QM: Any final thoughts? Something we, as a bunch of Bukowski readers, need to know?
DC: No, I think that about covers it. I very much enjoyed putting the book together and I hope you enjoy it too.