Neeli Cherkovski Interview
Wills, D., ‘Neeli Cherkovski Interview’ in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 2, (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2008)
We all know you and Bukowski worked together, but how close were you as friends?
I don’t know how close anyone could really be with Hank. The best times we had were one on one, drinking bouts at his De Longpre Avenue apartment in East Hollywood. There was no end to the bantering, mostly about the literary life. He liked to spar and was happiest when we were in disagreement. His wife, Linda Lee, tells me “You and Hank were closer than anyone but me.” Well, I don’t know if that is true. I spent so much time with him in the late 60s, on into the very early 70s. There was something there — the “old man” and the kid. He was nearing fifty and I was in early to mid twenties during that period. Thinking back, I remember how open he was with his feelings. I also understood that he held a lot in. I guess we all do. He had a wily and calculating side. This man was so dedicated to the writing. Many things were left for the page. Hank had a way of pacing himself. What many think of as a chaotic life, was actually well regulated. He had time for the writing and time for his friends. There was time for the race track and time to write letters. Etc. In retrospect, I wish we had been correspondents. He kept encouraging me to write letters, so that we could build up a conversation in that manner. Alas. It felt so much better being in his presence.
The wild man was there, but only in the late night, when drink got the best of him. it is clear that he was, despite raw edges, a true gentleman. My partner, Jesse, liked him very much. He is a psychiatrist. After spending just a little time with Hank (late 80s) he remarked to me, Your friend Bukowski would have been a great therapist, He has empathy and he knows how to listen.” How close were we? Probably as close as you could get t him — Push the friendship hard and he will burn you, Writing a bio of “my friend” certainly changed the relationship. That is another story. I suggest the introduction to my rewrite of the bio as an overview of our friendship.
One of my favorite Bukowski memories is when the two of us went to NORM’S restaurant on Sunset Blvd. in the easternmost end of Hollywood for the early morning steak and eggs breakfast. I felt the bond then more than at any other time. We would sit for two hours or more, beginning at four a m and staying until the first hint of dawn, making up stories about the waitresses and commenting on articles in the newspaper. We were kids at play, and people would turn their heads to watch us giggle. I wish I had written down some of our fantasies.
Then there were the nights just bopping round town, a six pack in the back seat, greasy chicken in a box between us, two fallen angels in the L.A night, or is that a bit corny? We had the city down to a science, for sure. One night we went into a bar Hank had known in the 50s. He talked about his old love, Jane, the woman he later wrote into the movie BARFLY. I recall how somber he became, thinking back, beer in hand. “She was odd,” he said, ‘but, then, so was I.”
Could you offer a little insight into Charles Bukowski, the man, and not the character he would portray through Hank Chinaski?
Sure. He believed in the American work ethic and held enormous sympathy for working people. He saw them as trapped in their jobs, trapped in ownership, trapped in the instalment plan, all of that. Remember all those “landlord” poems,” he wrote, and those “personnel manager” poems. He wanted to show ordinary people another way, he really did. His inner character called for that. His character Henry Chinaski was a tough guy with a touch of the fall guy in him, right? Bukowski was no fall guy. He knew exactly where he was going, bet on it. His heroes were E. Hemingway and R. Jeffers, primarily, and they were as hard working at the art and craft of writing as he was. One of his refrains was that a writer had to writer, “Don;t be lazy. Believe in what you are doing.”
Hank could be a difficult friend. He sensed betrayal and jealousy in even the slightest criticism. An element of cruelty might suddenly emerge from this largely gentle man with the cool demeanor. If he saw you getting too close, he would push you away. He wanted a certain distance.
Hank never said, “I am not Chinaski,” but he could easily have done so. I know he spun Chinaski out of his own soul, as a kind of gift. He had distance from that character. It was Chinaski/ Bukowksi who bought a house, luxury automobiles, built a swimming pool, etc
What was it like working with such a notorious – shall we say – grumpy character?
Like I said, he could be cruel — the piercing comment — the barbed aside that rang true because the “master” said it. He was twenty five years older than I was — I respected that. Yet, we had enough equilibrium between us to maintain a friendship. He could go on for hours talking about the literary scene, touching on his past, hashing out his problems with his parents,, an endless subject, actually, and keep the conversation largely dignified, as I would. Drunk he could be silly. Super-drunk, he might turn mean. Then, of course, there was the stage character. Get a few people together and he was sure to eventually turn bellicose and create a scene. Sometimes it wasn’t an act. Many a party was ruined in this manner. He would be jealous of the attentions others gave to his then girl friend (early 70s) Linda King, and edge toward violence, never quite getting there, just positing the threat and then, often, storming out of the party and driving home, leaving Linda adrift.
Did you ever have the chance to visit 5124 De Longpre Ave. in Bukowski’s lifetime?
I was there maybe two three hundred times through the sixties and early seventies. It was a reliable port. He would either invite me over, late in the evening, and I’d stay for a two or three day drunk, or I would drop in during the afternoon (he slept late), armed with a six pack. He often had the classical music station on. One of his favorite lines was, ‘Do you know who the composer is?” If I didn’t he surely did. Once it was Beethoven, the sixth symphony. I caught Hank humming. He was embarrassed.
Were you aware of Bukowski’s feelings towards his residence during his life?
He celebrated that funky court. Bet on it. And he got a kick out of Peter Crate, the tough landlord who looked like a Sherman tank with his broad shoulders and hefty torso. Crate and his wife, equally “down home,” often drank with us. As is well known, our man was a great celebrant of L.A. life. he played himself off against the sleaze,the smog, the insane traffic, the drab strip malls, etc. The De Longpre Street apartment served him well. Imagine him sitting in the cramped living room, hard against the kitchen, writing POST OFFICE in less than a month. Now, the De Longpre place had a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room. He had this ridiculously shabby couch and that wondrous old Underwood typewriter. What a deal it was to be standing on the porch waiting to knock, feeling a bit guilty because I heard the keys, tap tap tap.
As friend and collaborator, what have you to say about the possibility of destruction surrounding the birthplace of Bukowski the published writer?
It looks as if the City of Los Angeles, known for its wrecking crew mentality, will save the property and\ make it a shrine to my old friend.
What is you opinion of the work done by Lauren and Richard in regard to saving the bungalow?
I salute them. They are as solid as the palm trees. Their work to put Bukowski on the map (literally) with an historical landmark designation for his old De Lonpre apt. is admirable and a civic duty well performed.
(Aside from the discounts you must get at his wonderful City Lights bookstore)What’s it like working with Lawrence Ferlinghetti?
Well, I don’t work with El Magnifico. We were once good pals. He gave me the keys to his cabin in Big Sur (Bixby Canyon) and I spent a lot of time there. Ferlinghetti is a force of nature. Now, my soon to be released new book of poems is called THE BIXBY CANYON MEDITATIONS. I Thank Lawrence for the gift of a place to flee to when the city got too much for me. He is still a visible presence at City Lights, although much of the work is done by a younger generation and he often hangs out at the Caffe Trieste, one of the last of the city’s old-time espresso spots.
It seems to two of you have adopted the joint role of guardian of San Fran’s position as a creative centre, keeping alive the memories from past generations and continuing an outpouring of new and Frisco-centric art. Am I right?
Really, our recent poet laureate, Jack Hirschman, who I first met back in my L.A. days when he lived in Venice, has done much to keep the poetic light lit up here. I give a lot of readings and am busily at work on a memoir, AMONG OTHERS, which documents the North beach scene of the 1970s, and even delves back to L.A. travelling with Bukowski. San Francisco’s poetry life is alive and well. Some of our best poets keep a low local profile.
Much of your recent work blends Spanish and English language. Is this something you consider of significance to your poetry in representing your city?
Well, I come from Los Angeles and have lived in San Francisco for thirty three years. They have Spanish place names, right? A recent collection of my work, FRONTERAS ROTAS, is bilingual, and was published in Mexico City by a wild band of poets and cultural crusaders. I draw a lot of inspiration from the forms of Mexico, its rich past, its deep culture with indigenous and Spanish roots. Just getting to know the incredible variety of Pre-Columbian art is interesting enough. Two years ago I visited the pyramids of Teotichuacan, outside of Mexico City, monolithic structures over 1500 years old. From the top of the highest pyramid I saw the rooftop of Wal-Mex, the Walmart of Mexico.
Whitman’s Wild Children is a collection of your essays about friends of yours whom are considered heirs of Walt Whitman. What qualities would you say the Beats inherited from Whitman?
Whitman instructed poets to speak with “perfect personal candor” and the Beats and their fellow travelers have been pretty good at doing just that. Also, breaking thru the new forms and/ore renewing elder forms is another quality the Beats drew form Whitman. His writing in “Song of Myself” speaks of the individual, unabashed, and gave weight to writing of, and out of, personal experience of things close at hand. “Song of the Open Road,” one of Whitman;s greatest poems, resonates, of course with Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD. Bukowski once wrote (early 60s in an essay for the poetry journal OLE) words to the effect that Allen Ginsberg has been the most awakening force in American poetry since Walt Whitman. He was writing specifically of Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Like Bukowski, and seemingly inherited from Whitman, your poetry appears to embrace the common speech, thought infused with lyricism. Is such a style necessary to document and explore the people and places around you?
I am a lyrical poet. The song in the poem intrigues me. The only thing necessary is language itself. I have no program with the language. In truth, I run from the common speech — it sees me running away and grabs hold of me. With that in mind, I enjoy rescuing old words, thrown out words, and leading them into my writing. A critic (writing in Exquisite Corpse, Andrei Codrescu’s magazine) said that I wrote like a polite Bukowski. I like that. My ear is attuned to many influences. Federico Garcia Lorca, is, perhaps, the poet I think of more often than others when I sit down to write. I like him to be there, at my side, even as I do my best to keep to my own vision. In the past year, I have gone often to Robert Duncan’s great opus — It has given me such strength to find new openings. Sometimes he gets a bit grandiose, but talk about a lyrical gift.
Does the North Beach area still vibrate with the energy documented by Beat writers?
There is a Beat museum on the Broadway Strip, the area known for its girlie joints. It gives local poets a place to read and find a new audience. That helps. The Caffe Triese founded in 1956, not as a beat cafe but as a traditional Italian espresso bar that quickly became an outsider’s haven, remains a vibrant meeting place for poets, and local readings and art shows take place frequently in the neighborhood. The North Beach library has a reading series that draws a large crowd. But there is diversity throughout the city, many voices with as many roots. Many talented younger poets find their roots beyond the Beat Generation and the North Beach community. Latino poetry, asian american poetry, poetry coming from more academic roots or from gay and lesbian strains is what I am talking about. Much of it is strong, some of it draws on Beat power. In other words, I cannot cul de sac the emerging poetry of this new century as having a deeply rooted connection with the beats. The influences are too wide and varied for that.,
You’ve known Beats, worked with Beats, written biographies of and eulogies for Beats, documented the North Beach area… So what makes a Beat Generation writer?
Aargh. What have I done? Go and read William Blake. Go and read Arthur Rimbaud. Pick up a translation of Li Po. Buy the poems of Milarepa. The Beats were always with us. I think Homer is a Beat poet, seriously, as was Jeramiah. Finally, the Beat moment becomes a heavy hand, altho a useful one. It is best to move on now and invite a new rebellion into our presence.
I’m not going to ask you if you are a second generation Beat, but who would you consider carrying the tradition of Beat writing today?
The best poet draws form many traditions, the Beat included. I send younger writers to Homer and Sappho, to old Chinese avatars musing on the moon, to the words of Vachel Lidsayy on the Midwestern plains, to the great poems of H. D. and to the writings of Emerson and Thoreau.
“I cry for American words/ that slip out of pure street lingo gone wild/ they were sweet in the farmland, clearheaded/ when Jack Kerouac crossed the Rockies” – Do you believe that some innocence has been lost in the past fifty something years?
Yes and no. We probably remain pretty much the same in our deep hearts. One way of knowing that is to look at Palaeolithic cave art and see how forcibly it speaks to us.
Could you tell us a little about your relationship with Bob Kaufman?
Well, we were close,, and we were roommates for a time in the late 70s. We shared a love for Lorca, or T. S Eliot, and for Wallace Stevens. At my Harwood Alley apartment in North Beach, we would sit and recite those the bardic words of those gentlemen back and forth, Bob with his big eyes in flames and me with cup of coffee in hand. I leaned a lot from him. He carried jazz into poetry with humility and great dignity. My book ELEGY FOR BOB KAUFMAN document our relationship.