Yesterday, we received the sad news that Neeli Cherkovski had passed away. He was the only person Beatdom interviewed twice – way back in 2008 and then again in 2023. As a celebration of his life, we will reprint last year’s extensive interview.

Poet, political activist, biographer, and memoirist, Neeli Cherkovski has published 14 books of poetry, including Animal (1996), Elegy for Bob Kaufman (1996), and Elegy for My Beat Generation (2018). He has written biographies on his friends Charles Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, taught literature and philosophy at the New College of California, and produced the first San Francisco Poetry Festival. In 1989, he published Whitman’s Wild Children, a collection of essays on the poets he has known, including Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, and Harold Norse. In 2005, Neeli won the Pen Oakland / Josephine Miles Literary award for Leaning Against Time and in 2017 was awarded the Jack Mueller Poetry Prize. Gerald Nicosia said of his work: “In the end, what stamps Cherkovski’s poetry as unique is its unbounded lyricism, a lyrical gift easily greater than that of any other poet of his generation.”  

Hello, Neeli, how are you? How’s life in San Francisco?

I’m in my studio surrounded by books and manuscripts and paintings. Outside it is just getting dark and cold. I love this city, although it has replaced bookstores with nail salons and has an inadequate library system. A lot of artists and writers have left S.F. due to the high cost of living. I think the technology boom is coming to an end, with a whimper, not a bang.

I’m only too aware that I have a mythological view of San Francisco—to me it’s like a modern day Athens—garnered from On the Road, City Lights Bookstore and, well… from Dirty Harry movies. How does that mythology compare to the reality?

Leon, good question. I arrived in S.F. late 1974. It was a working-class city, by and large, and had a European character. Housing was unbelievably inexpensive and there were plenty of bookstores with their own unique character. The wharf was still an active port. Not so much today. I don’t mean to romanticise, just to give the idea that S.F. is much different now, and very expensive. The influx of technology broke the old tone. Yet City Lights holds on. We have an active poetry scene and good art museums.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just had a book published in translation in Albania and two more are coming out in Greece and a new one in Italy. Plus, my Selected Poems, 1959-2021 are almost readyit is a lot of work, a lot of hard work, a record of where I was and where I was headed. 

You were born in Santa Monica in 1945, only son of Sam and Clare Cherry, and grew up in the city of San Bernardino in California. What was your childhood like?

The bare bones of memorywhat can I say? I was born Nelson Innes Cherry, July 1 1945, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, a city surrounded by Los Angeles, which is a sprawling mass of banal and beautiful terrain and culture. I love the sounds of itfrom the La Brea Tar Pits where dinosaurs were trapped to the pink stucco facades of Bel Air. L.A. is a crude town in many ways, but the hamburgers are juicy and the old palm trees hang on over decades of auto exhaust. L.A. was Yaanga to the natives and El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles to the Spaniards who came north from Mexico. It was an adobe town, a cattle town, and as corrupt as possible. There I learned how to survive.

How was your relationship with your parents?

I had good parents who struggled to make a living, but took my sister and myself all over the western states to camp out, hike, and tackle nature. Everywhere we pitched a tent my father had a story of his hobo days during the Great Depression. He must have ridden the freights for several years, hopping on and off. He had the temperament of a hobo, a man of the open road, as if he should have kept wandering and not settled down. One memory I cherish is my father swinging an axe to chop wood for a fire. He lived to 97a deeply moral man without trying to be. Much of the social consciousness in my writing is inspired by Sam Cherry’s life. My mother, Clare, was the same, an early childhood educator. They lived in San Francisco’s North Beach in pre-Pearl Harbor Days, early or pre-Beats. My father was a choreographer who documented the Black Cat Café, a bohemian hangout in San Francisco. 

Were you a precocious child?

Yes and no. I was hyper-active. I could not see the blackboard at the front of the class. By the time I had glasses it was late in the game. At first, I was a slow learner until my mother taught me to read using Styrofoam cut-outs of each letter, which we identified phonetically. She also brought poetry my way by reading Humpty Dumpty. A few weeks after that I fell off a banister and broke my headthe scar is still there. 

Did you enjoy school?

I despised school, especially in my teenage years. I had zero interest in math or grammar and no interest in learning any profession other than poetry. I gave myself high honours for writing poems. No one stood over me and I could chart a course of my own making. When I read the poems of Arthur Rimbaud in a small, illustrated edition I was sold on poetry as a means of expression. His insolence was a quality to admire. Enter Walt Whitman with his sprawling visionary chants. He turned me around and I began sensing a restless world“out there”open to interpretation. Kenneth Patchen remains one of my favourite 20th-century poets. His work helped me travel through high school and on into my twenties. Often, however, I challenged the authorities. One of my science teachers gave me As for my poetry. He said I should ignore the science lessons and just write. What a rare and blessed man. John Carver. I like to think of him as still alive, but he would be so old.

There are terrors in childhood, of course, under the bed and over the brow of the hill. Do you remember when you first realised the world was a dangerous place?

I think the world is not describable in that way. It just is what it is, yet another accident of creation. Demons were in abundance, however, when I was a kid and they still are, alongside of angels. I am 77 and am in grave danger of being lost in childhood again, fraught with emotion. Good and evil are fashions, furniture of the soul.

Your father ran a bookstore for a time, a palace of varieties for a young would-be writer…

We owned a bookstore for a while and I had plenty of access. While other kids played sports, I read books, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Older literary friends pointed out Lorca’s Poet in New York and the haiku masters Basho, Issa, Buson, etc. I had the four-volume R.H. Blyth study of haiku. Libraries were endlessly fascinating, bookstores even better. I was lucky with that bookstore. They put me in charge of mass-market paperbacks. Man, I read everything. John Steinbeck. Hemingway. Kazantzakis. We also had an art gallery and ran several poetry events and political forums. The only problem was that we did not do enough business. The store lasted seven years and died in the late ‘60s.

Who were your literary influences?

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg for their candour and embracing of “world culture.” Allen sensed the divine in things; he was celebratory, even in his condemnations. I loved Edgar Allen Poe for his lyrical genius and the same with William Blake. His Songs of Innocence and of Experience were among the first poems I put to memory. I also loved Shakespeare from A to Zthe clarity, the madness, the lunar landscapes, the last words of A Midsummer’s Night Dreamand T.S Eliot’s poems; later, Ezra Pound. I first encountered his powerful presence on a Caedmon recording. He was a singularly imposing figure with a lyrical grace beyond compare. There was always Emily Dickinson to astound and delight. Dylan Thomas another bright lantern in the darkness who valued editing and trimming. And there is Li Po forever.

When did you realise you were a poet and how would you describe your first attempts at poetry?

In 1957, I took on that appellation. It has worked. Let me emphasise: becoming a poet was not an intellectual decision; it just happened. I took it on and stayed with it against muteness, mean-heartedness, and out-and-out stupidity. I knew I had chosen the right path. I was a gentle anarchist, largely hiding my problems. The poetry? Good. Awkward. Good. Up and down. Naïve. Promising, though some astound me by what I hear and that is pleasing. I love my own poems the best of all. I know how that sounds, but it is true and seems quite natural. The poetry would help trim me down to “fighting” weight. It has taken decades and I am now a precocious old man. The feeling I had as a child or young man is what I have now. The poems from 1959 through 1967 have the same tone as I am writing more than 60 years later. It’s as if by age 12 my life was determinedI’d be an outsider forever, looking in on basic American values, but not sharing them. You might easily pick up that sensibility in the writing of Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Miller was a seer at one point in my life, a true Anarchist.

This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #23.

Assuming Allen Ginsberg was right when he proclaimed, “All these books are published in Heaven,” which of your works would you like to see in the library eternal?

You know, when people ask me about my poetry, I try to turn it around so that I can learn something about it. I have a bag of tricks and I have my own language, but I owe it all to the great river of words set down by others over time and in many cultures. So I take what I can from that and make my poetry, but I don’t need to explain it, or let us say I do not wish to explain it. I’d rather talk about the poetry of other people. Just as an example, I hope to someday write an essay on Ezra Pound. I may owe the greatest debt of gratitude to him for his deeply lyrical sensibility and his ability to cobble so many threads together to make a coherent whole of his masterwork, The Cantos. What I can say is that there was a change in my rhythms as I grew into my sixties and seventies. I became more focused and more appreciative at what words can do if you let them lead you through your mind down to your fingertips and onto a page of print.

When did you first perform your work?

My first public reading was at a small coffee house one block off the Venice Beach Boardwalk. That was in 1959. The first poem in my Selected Poems begins “Once I read in Venice at the stone shop Mortuary and kissed my audience…” In North Beach, San Francisco I produced many poetry evenings, often with the Beat poets to help get an audience. The venues either cost nothing or a minimal fee. Jack Hirschman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were very much involved in generating enthusiasm.  

Do you get nervous before a public reading?

Indeed I do, worried over being able to deliver the goods. It seems to be natural, but I am a ham and once on stage I’m fine. It is an inner rhythm that guides me. Before a public reading I listen to myself. I can listen to Ezra Pound forever, or to Dylan Thomas. Check out a recording of Ezra Pound at Spoleto (1967)it’s absolutely spellbinding, every word so impeccably brought forward by the elder-voiced poet.

Performance poetry is as old as Homer, but was it necessary in the 1960s for a poet to stand up and be heard? This was at the height of the mimeograph revolution, all the small underground magazines and publishers, City Lights, etc. Could a poet not make it purely on the page? Not all poets are in the oral tradition. 

Good point here. Yes, the page is where it counts, even in this age in which books are devalued. I never worshipped at the shrine of public performance. I never think of poetry as entertainment per se. I don’t disparage a poet belting out a poem, but I am mostly a page poet. Go to PENN Sound on the web and under my name you will find a reading from 1969 of me and Bukowski.[1] I was 24 at the time.

You once stated you’d like to do an interview where Charles Bukowski isn’t mentioned. My apologies but this isn’t it. You met in 1960 when you were just 15. Was it love at first sight? He must have seemed a terrifying figure to a teenager…

Jory Sherman, a poet who had been living in San Francisco, met Bukowski on a visit to L.A. They took to one another. Jory moved to San Bernardino and told me of this little-known L.A. poet who worked at the post office and frequented the race-track. He showed me this little-known poet’s writing and I was blown away! It read like my father talkeda gutsy lingo. I’d say we recognized one another. Is that love? He did not terrify me. I felt this man was a soul mate who knew things I knew. He had a restless mind, a determined imagination. He was under the big tent with Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, Thomas Wolfe, and all those other heavyweights, He spent years writing prose, but turned to poetry and built his “tough guy” persona” all through the 1950s. He returned to prose later.  

I was going to ask if you saw Bukowski as a father figure, which strikes me as a pretty dumb question all of a sudden. I’ll rephrase it. Did Bukowski see you as a surrogate son?

Yes, I think he did. I appreciated his openness. He was a playmate. How often we drank to excess and smoked cheap cigars through long nights of conversation in his cramped apartment. 

From 1969 to ‘71 you and Bukowski published the mimeographed zine Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns. How did the idea come about? Was there a discernible style or theme to Los Angeles poetry at that time? Did you find any serious talent?

He had it on his mind we would edit a magazine. After all, he was “King of the Little Magazines” and it seemed natural. I think a lot of isolation due to the oversized nature of the city made for independence. Paul Vangelisti is a great L.A. poet. Jack Hirschman is another major figure, but moved to San Francisco as I did in the mid-1970s. Another “big” voice is the overlooked Leland Hickman, a gay poet. I think Bukowski’s talent took a dive once he became a famous writer. The early poems are majestic. In those words from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s you feel the song and dance of the Los Angeles Basin. He held to an innate lyricism later abandoned. But enough said. He is gone and I am here. 

You made a pilgrimage to Delphi in 1970. Did that affect your development as a poet?

It had a profound effect and truly was a sacred journey. Delphi cannot be ruined by tourism, too much history and magnificent ruins. I spent a week there. Unfortunately, I lost my Delphi notebooks. I remember them as being quite lyrical. I have two books of poetry coming out in Greece and hope to return there. To be honest, there is no building on earth as beautiful as is the Parthenon.

You moved to San Francisco in 1974, where you quickly became involved with the publishing and poetry scenes…

I moved north to work on a political campaign but dropped out and found a café table in North Beach at the fabled Caffe Trieste, founded by an immigrant from Italy, Johnny Giotto. We could stay there from morning until late in the evening and not be hassled. Jack Hirschman, that incredible word-slinger, used it as a living room. Harold Norse, Ferlinghetti, and scores of younger poets and vagabond souls camped there as well. We brought Beatitude [a beat poetry journal founded by Bob Kaufman in1959] back to life in 1975 and published a few books. It was one hell of a Left Bank scene.

How did it differ from Los Angeles?

Space made the difference. In L.A. all was spread-out, but in San Francisco we were crammed onto a peninsula. You could not help bumping into other poets in S.F. Ferlinghetti called the neighbourhood “the Casbah.” It is a village of sorts and has no high rises.

Were your adventures with Harold Norse in the Castro District as salacious as they sound?

I wish they had been a bit more salacious. Norse and I revelled in the mystery of it all. We would compare notes after striking out alone in the Castro or elsewhere. I read Norse in 1964 in The Outsider, a little mag published in New Orleans. We became close when we met up in S.F. He was a phenomenal figure, a true expat who spent much of his life in Europe. In his early years he palled around with James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and other soon-to-be luminaries. Harold Norse was outspoken, super smart, and good hearted. He lived simply, the true bohemian.

The 1970s were evidently a very productive time for you—correct me if I’m wrong, but you published six volumes of poetry, you were working as a staff writer for City Magazine, writing for the Haight Literary Journal, and finally, in 1979, you published your biography on Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There’s nothing unusual about a poet writing a biog of another poet, but what first drew you to him?

I became friendly with Lawrence and spent a lot of time at his cabin in Big Sur. We often went to the movies and out for dinner. What I admire about him is an inborn humility and regard for others. Remember, Ferlinghetti commanded a landing craft at Normandy and was on the clean-up crew at Nagasaki following the atomic bomb attack. Then, of course, he was on trial for obscenity in the Howl case. The man really stepped into history. Poet, publisher, painter, bookstore owner, social activist, he did it all.  

You revised and updated the biography as Ferlinghetti: A Life in 2022. Weren’t you happy with the original? 

I pretty much love everything I’ve done. That bio saved my ass financially. At first, I was reluctant to do a revised edition. It seemed like too much work. Once I’d started it proved easy to do. I did a little research on the decades following my first effort and came up with numerous stories. 

There is a moment in the book where you turn up at Lawrence’s home on the spike of a bad acid trip. Have drugs played any kind of role in your life and in your writing?

Drugs? Only acid. The other stuff bored me to death. I have little interest in drug culture. There is nothing good about heroin addiction or cocaine.  

Let’s talk about Bob Kaufman for a moment. You first met in 1975, four years later you organised a benefit reading for him and he moved in with you for six months…

He may be the best of them all. He reminds me not just of Rimbaud, but also how I imagine some of the ancient Chinese poets might have been. What is that? Knowing when to speak and when to keep quiet. I find myself speaking to him oftenhe is an oracle far back in my heart. Read the indictment of capital punishment in Golden Sardine. Kaufman shines as he tears our hypocrisy apart.

You shared a mutual love for T. S. Eliot. Did you see yourselves as The Hollow Men?

Fuck, no. We were the anti Hollow Men. Bob would belt out lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and then recite Federico Garcia Lorca and Wallace Stevens. His favourite Stevens line was “Music then is feeling not sound.” I can hear his raspy voice now.

Much later you would publish Elegy for Bob Kaufman (1996) and co-edit, with Raymond Foye and Tate Swindell, the Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (2019) for City Lights. You’ve played a significant role in keeping Bob’s name and his surrealist, saxophonic poetry alive. What is it about his work that engages you so?

He addressed so many basic values and remained in focus. I was devastated by his death. His girlfriend called one morning and said, “The poet Bob Kaufman is gone.” I picked up his poems Second April and read it to an invisible audience in my small kitchen, the very place where he would sit and chain-smoke when he lived with me.

Your relationship with Allen Ginsberg was… well, tricky doesn’t quite cover it. He was rude to you when you first met (when was that, 1977?) and quite often afterwards. “A grumpy uncle,” you called him. You readily admit that on some level you were actively seeking his approbation. Why was that so important to you?

He was a sort of lord of the manor. I guess I needed his approval. We can keep it at that. Yet, at the same time, he had a professorial tone I found annoying. That aside, he wrote “Howl” and “Kaddish”two major poems. In truth, he could be extremely generous. He was a good friend to many old bohemian souls. Allen took care of people.

In 1988, you published Whitman’s Wild Children, a remarkable collection of personal essays, really a memoir, on 12 poets who have left an indelible mark on your life. Bukowski, Norse, and Ferlinghetti are all there, alongside Jack Micheline, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia… What prompted you to write the book?

It is a memoir. You know, we bleed into one another. How different are we? What is an individual? Maybe we are one entity divided into billions of parts. My memoir is of these other poets and of my relationship to them. All of it wrapped up in the figure of Walt Whitman.  

I’m aware of Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself” and its appeal for “a new identity” but what is it about Whitman that speaks to modern American poets? 

Walt Whitman is the lion of American poetry. The poems are really accessible. To a great many other poets, he became a father figure / older brother. “Song of Myself” underscores the idea of what Whitman called “perfect personal candour.” I have a sizeable Whitman library, which includes the letters, the conversations, and many interesting studies. Some revisionists criticise him for his often-conservative views, but he must be seen in the context of 19th-century values.

I have one slight concern about those feral kids: they are all male. Was that a conscious decision? 

Whitman’s Wild Children is a study of male poets, those who I knew best, bit by bit and by happenstance. In a book yet to be published, I write about several women poets.

Your 1991 biography Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski (revised and updated as Bukowski: A Life in 2020) was described by The Washington Post as “one of those rare biographies that is both academically satisfying and full of life,” and by The Los Angeles Times as “a serious appraisal… a treasure trove for Bukowski fans.” What did Bukowski make of it? I can’t imagine he held back from telling you.

Bukowski was not gracious about my book. It must be difficult having a biography written about you while you’re still alive. I am happy with the revised version. It’s what he wanted me to write in the first place. I hope someone comes along to write the definitive book on Buk.

You taught philosophy and literature at the New College of California until it closed in 2008. How do you think you fared as a teacher? Are we talking Dead Poets Society?

Teaching was ok when I had undergraduate students. I enjoyed talking about Homer and Dante, etc. Some of the kids actually wanted to learn, but teaching took too much out of me in the end. I was sorry to lose my paycheque, however, when it was over.

With Elegy for My Beat Generation (2018) you returned once again to those “angel-headed hipsters.” One of my favourites is “Elegy for Gregory Corso,” with the opening stanza “when Gregory dies / there is a white butterfly / in the yard taking notes / and talking to the lemon tree / in a low and antique voice.” I love the lyrical beauty of those words. Was your friendship with mercurial Mr Corso beautiful?

To be with Gregory Corso on any given day in North Beach or elsewhere could be a very exciting experience. He might appear sullen and uncommunicative but he was aware of everything that was going on. It was quite phenomenal. He might be sitting at the table, his eyes cast downward, you talking to somebody about one subject or another. Corso could appear disinterested… then all of a sudden come awake and make a point. I wrote a story once about how he spent other people’s money. He had a knack of draining their pocketbooks. I witnessed him do this to a middle-aged Beat sycophant who showed up at the Caffe Trieste. Gregory and I spent 12 hours with him as he took us out to a fancy dinner and bought drinks in various cocktail lounges around the city. Money was spent on cabs and money was spent on cigars, and finally the poor guy had nothing left and we abandoned him on a cold street corner. Gregory felt the guy had gotten his money’s worth spending all that time with one of the legendary poets of the Beat Generation.

North Beach has clearly been a significant backdrop to your life. Looking back, what does the area mean to you?

North Beach was my Emerald City back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. For about eight years I lived a charmed life in a three-room apartment on Harwood Alley, now called Bob Kaufman Alley in honour of the poet. It was in North Beach that I met so many lifelong comrades such as Raymond Foye, Kaye McDonough, George Scrivani, and my old love Lisa Brinker. There were poets jumping off rooftops and often sleeping in my living room. Those of us who were younger were pleased with the open-heartedness of the elder Beat poets. I spent so many hours with the incredible latter-day surrealist poet Phillip Lamantia, and later with Agneta Falk and Rosemary Manno. North Beach remains one of my spiritual homes and I almost feel nostalgic for what has been.

I read somewhere that there was a notable tonal shift in your poetry from the 1996 collection Animal onwards—that you became more inward. Is that a fair observation?

I have aged well (in my own self-aggrandising opinion) because I sat at the feet of the great masters and was inwardly patient with myself as a poet. Poetry has a touch of what we call “the sacred.” It’s almost religious; tapping into the mysteries of our cosmic neighbourhood. Poetry is my ideology. It serves me well. Yes, my poems are more introspective than they were. Today, I feel more energetic and relaxed in my art and craft than ever before. A critic recently wrote that I outpaced Bukowski. Yeah. Now that I like.

Neeli Cherkovski’s latest poetry, ABC’s, and the updated editions of his Ferlinghetti and Bukowski biographies are available on Amazon. Selected Poems, 1959-2021 will be published by Lithic Press.