Judging from his verse* of disgust for unwanted phone calls and visitors, is it safe to say that Charles Bukoswki would welcome email, text, tweeting, blogging and other networks were he alive in 2013?
Documented, too, is his love/hate relationship with the mailbox and the postal service, but imagine his status updates: “outside, it is the same: the devils drink from the breasts of stunned maids; it is beginning to rain: fleck, fleck, fleck, the dirty drops of tulip wine.”** Or texts and tweets such as, “the ass is the face of the soul of sex,” or “God is a lonely place without steak.”*** Alas, such succulent nuggets can only be e-delivered secondhand these days.
Backtrack to a 2001 publication, Beerspit Night And Cursing: The Correspondence of Charles Bukowski and Sherri Martinelli, 1960-1967 (Black Sparrow Press) for an in-depth look at his correspondence via letters with Sheri Martinelli, a 42-year-old doyenne of artistic luminaries that included past acquaintances: Anais Nin, Charlie Parker and Ezra Pound.. In 1960, Bukowski was a 39-year-old writer living alone in Los Angeles busily writing and submitting poetry to magazines, betting on horses and drinking–despite a near-death trip to the hospital for a bleeding ulcer in 1955. He was first published in STORY in 1944 and made appearances sixty times in various publications throughout the 40s and 50s, but had yet to achieve fame. He was also beginning a decade in which he was a prolific letter writer and, through his job at the post office, letter sorter.
That same year, he sent off some of his poems to Anagogic & Paideumic Review, a San Francisco literary and arts magazine run by Martinelli. Though several of them were published in issues number five and six of the “little” mimeographed magazine, something in Martinelli’s presumptuous dismissal of Bukowski’s style piqued the poet’s interest and kicked off the correspondence.
In many ways, Beerspit breaks new ground in understanding Bukowski and his art–during what was for him a chaotic, yet productive time. (He was published nearly forty times in 1960, alone). Though Martinelli is alluded to in his poetry (see “he wrote in lonely blood” in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, Black Sparrow, 1973), she is not mentioned in Howard Sounes’ excellent Bukowski biography, Charles Bukowski: Locled in the Arms of a Crazy Life (1998, Grove Press) or Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski (1991, Random House) by Neeli Cherkovski, so Beerspit reintroduces Martinelli to the world from which she left relatively unnoticed.
Editor Steven Moore points out a previous reference to her in a letter to the poet, Jory Sherman, from another Black Sparrow edition of Bukowski letters from the 60’s Screams from the Balcony (1993, Edited by Seamus Cooney). In the August 17, 1960 letter, Bukowski recalls, “Martinelli…called me a ‘prick’, said I built ‘ass-hole palaces’…I can’t be bothered with gash trying to realign my outlook…The last thing I wanna see is more gash and more people.” Screams readers will recognize the Bukowski style, finding more letters in which the poet moans, kicks and whines about the trials and tribulations of the writer in search of publication.
Beerspit reveals a deeper understanding between Bukowski and Martinelli, however. The entirely-epistolary relationship between the two oscillated wildly between artistic braggadocio and tenderness. Martinelli was a one-time acolyte of Pound (who penned an introduction to a book of her paintings) when he was incarcerated in St.Elizabeths Federal Hospital for the Insane after WWII. Bukowski’s admiration for Pound is documented elsewhere, and Martinelli’s ties to Pound and her able discussion of literature and pursuit of a stalwart life of artistic endeavor attracted Bukowski.
There is a feral and reckless quality to these letters, and the prose of both correspondents is rife with abbreviations, misspellings, dialectical play, poor typing and deliberate misuse of grammar and punctuation, left mostly untouched by Moore and which some may find tiresome to navigate. The liberties of those qualities are suggestive of the book’s title and the days and nights during which they were typed.
Via post and poetry, Martinelli did seem to have a fix on Bukowski’s foibles. In one letter of January 13, 1961, she harped on the poet, writing,
If you think that all a poet must do on earth is fuck women and squeel in his poetry on their most secret conversations & call it art…or drink himself to death…then you think that…I KNOW differently/I don’t give a hoot in hell wot the monkey minds say/you are not yet a poet & if you dare sit on that soft pillow & belch and fart away…you’ll lose yr soul.
Their differing views on poetry are pointed out clearly in Moore’s introduction:
For Bukowski, it was solely a means of self-expression and followed no rules but his own, while for Martinelli poetry was a guide to civilized behavior and a vehicle for the exploration of spiritual truths, with a long tradition to be respected and followed. It’s the romantic outlook versus the classical: the difference between Keats and Pope, Whitman and Eliot, or–to use the authors championed by Bukowski and Martinelli–between Robinson Jeffers and H.D. Sheri accused Bukowski…of wallowing in the mud rather than turning his mind to higher matters…The only writer they admired in common was Ezra Pound, though for different reasons.
Bukowski was often blunt and even belligerent in his hubris. “There are only 2 contemporaries I look up to–Pound and Jeffers, and as the days go on, it is almost becoming a level stare,” Bukowski wrote. His criticism of contemporary poets follows throughout, even if they happened to be friends of Martinelli, as was Allen Ginsberg. Bukowski’s displeasure with Martinelli’s beloved Beats included Kerouac, Corso and Ferlinghetti, causing Bukowski to write in July, 1960: “When (Robert Penn) Warren puts them to shame, old as he is, it is time to tighten ranks. Pound and Jeffers never weakened.”
In other passages, Bukowski’s obvious respect and compassion for the older woman is apparent:
If you were a male, Sheri, you would be famous. Womanhood is always held against one like a gun. You are in the minaret but they will bring u down won weigh or another
There certainly will not be any more Sheri M’s. You have completely astounded me and resounted me, and you are the only person…I have learned anything from…You know what gets me, Sheri, love, when I find someone else in the world as alive as I am.
Perhaps the Bukowski-Martinelli correspondence ended much as many of his relationships did: with the other party offended by being referred to unkindly or unexpectedly in his poetry. Moore cites a “stupid accusation” in Bukowski’s final “rather impersonal letter mentioning that a new acquaintance of his…claimed Sheri couldn’t have known Pound at St. Elizabeth’s.”
Beerspit unearths a previously, little-known connection between two bravely independent and often misunderstood people in which they connected and sometimes misunderstood each other. Evidently, the pair never shared a telephone conversation, and opportunities to meet were mutually decided against several times, as if Bukowski respected the correspondence enough and lacked trust in himself and his relationship to women to insist on a liaison.
The relationship might not have survived a single night had the two met together in a booze-stocked room free of a chaperone or bouncer. For readers’ sake, theirs was a relationship best carried out on paper via mail delivery, instead of the common mediums of many others documented during Bukowski’s life: wine, flesh, bone, blood, screaming and broken glass. Here in 380 pages, Bukowski fans gain a welcome chapter and the world of letters gains insight to a woman who lived a spirited, artistic life and inspired many artists and writers in the process.
* See “The Telephone” from The Last Night Of The Earth Poems
** See “dinner, pain and transport” from Open All Night
*** Both from Notes of a Dirty Old Man