A New Home For The 'Poet Of Skid Row'
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The writings and art of the man called the Poet Laureate of Skid Row have found a permanent home. The Huntington Library in Southern California is taking in Charles Bukowski's manuscripts, letters and paintings. From member station KPCC, Steven Cuevas reports there's also a move to make the poet's former home, complete with dirty ashtrays, into a museum.
STEVEN CUEVAS: Charles Bukowski spent decades holed up in seedy rented rooms across Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, increasing book sales allowed him to settle into a handsome two-story house in the city of San Pedro overlooking the L.A. harbor.
Ms. LINDA BUKOWSKI: He came here and he started typing straight away. He was energized.
CUEVAS: On a sunny afternoon, Linda Bukowski, the writer's widow, settles into a spacious sunken living room with a cocktail. Many of her late husband's whimsical cartoons and paintings line the walls.
Ms. BUKOWSKI: This house, upstairs where he had his little typing room, there's a balcony that overlooks the whole industrial harbor there. And it's the seaport, and it's gritty, and it's the kind of element that's perfect. He didn't want the pastoral ocean view.
CUEVAS: Seventeen years after his death, a thin layer of dust and the faint smell of tobacco smoke still hang over Bukowski's small studio.
Ms. BUKOWSKI: This is the same as it was, I haven't changed it.
CUEVAS: Cigarette butts are still piled in a pair of ashtrays. There's a beer bottle and a faded Santa Anita racetrack beach towel. Betting on the ponies was one of Bukowski's vices.
Ms. BUKOWSKI: This is nothing that's been seen before.
CUEVAS: There's even a stack of yellowing poems that Linda Bukowski has yet to archive. Bukowski's time in San Pedro was among his most prolific, sometimes cranking out more than half a dozen poems a night. It's also where he wrote "Ham on Rye," a novel about his rough childhood in Los Angeles, a subject he'd only flirted with in prior work. Here he is in a recording from around that time, reading a poem called "The Rat."
Mr. CHARLES BUKOWSKI (Poet, "The Rat"): (Reading) With one punch, at the age of 16 and half, I knocked out my father, a cruel shiny bastard with bad breath, and I didn't go home for some time, only now and then to try to get a dollar from dear mama.
CUEVAS: Bukowski never gave much thought to what should happen to his papers after he died. That responsibility fell to his wife, Linda. She's reluctant to disturb the spirit of her husband's writing studio, but she'd like the San Pedro house to eventually become a museum - an adjunct to the new Bukowski archive at the Huntington Library near Pasadena.
Ms. SUE HODSON (Curator of Literary Manuscripts, Huntington Library): Charles Bukowski papers, box one.
CUEVAS: Deep in the bowels of the Huntington's climate controlled archive, chief of manuscripts Sue Hodson digs into the wall of boxed manuscripts, letters and art donated by Linda Bukowski.
Ms. HODSON: OK, this is a proof of "Sifting Through the Madness: the Word, the Line, the Way." So, it's a printout but it's his proof copy.
CUEVAS: Hard liquor almost killed Bukowski before the age of 40. He switched to wine and beer and almost made it to 75. The unrepentant boozing fueled his unsparingly profane writing style. But the Huntington Library's Sue Hodson says it didn't drown out his wit or his affection for the underdog.
Ms. HODSON: He could hang with prostitutes and drunks and gamblers and also just blue-collar workers. He understood that because he'd been there. He could speak very directly and personally to their lives.
CUEVAS: Charles Bukowski is now translated into more than 30 languages. The writer is buried close to his San Pedro home and his beloved racetracks. His epitaph is succinct: Don't Try - as in don't force creativity. Be patient, place your bet on the Muse and wait.
For NPR News, I'm Steven Cuevas.
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