To his publisher, John Martin (of Black Sparrow Press)
Thanks for the good letter. I don't think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don't get it right. They call it "9 to 5." It's never 9 to 5, there's no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don't take lunch. Then there's OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there's another sucker to take your place.
You know my old saying, "Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors."
And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don't want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.
As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can't believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?
Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: "Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don't you realize that?"
They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn't want to enter their minds.
Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:
"I put in 35 years . . . "
"It ain't right . . . "
"I don't know what to do . . . "
They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn't they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?
I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I'm here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I've found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system. . .
I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: "I'll never be free!"
One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.
So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I'm gone) how I've come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.
To not to have entirely wasted one's life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.
To William Packard, Editor of New York Quarterly
4/17/92 12:15 AM
Hello Wm Packard:
Huh. Listen, I know that you can never print all the accepted poems on your backlog. First, it would freak all the good souls of the universe. And, second, there are other writers. Huh.
Yet, I can't resist, in spite of knowing all this, sending you a shit-balloon poem that might explode into the multi-faced reign of ultimate godliness. Huh. Huh, huh?
Still, some concern on "dumb night", for such a poem is considered anti-social enlightenment . . . such as a drunk vapid woman? Impossible and unfair. There are no longer any drunken sluts. There are only stupid, mean white men. There are no vicious homosexuals or lesbians or bisexuals. And there are no longer any stupid, mean black men. Although there might be some stupid, mean yellow men or brown men, depending upon the political climate and the local of the moment. Each only deserves attack and derision in direct relationship to any force they might apply to our survival. Most successful commercial writers know what to attack and when. And even the Artsy-Fartsies who are touched upon with the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, they too are screened for any dangerous signals of individuality. But how about . . . ? you say. How about them? They too sucked to the signal of the moment, the edict, the on-coming demand of thought control. They were only the forerunners of the obvious.
But getting back to small matters, it has always been curious to me that my writing has been attacked for portraying others as I have seen them, but my writing has never been criticized when I ended up as the jacknape. This could be art, they say, he is calling himself a fucking fool. They like that, it takes the heat off of their frightened asses.
We are living in a terrible climate now. Everybody is waiting to be insulted. I think that I believe more than almost anybody in the right to be whatever you want to be. In fact, I have probably worked more directly from that premise than most and have en ded up in any number of hells for doing so. But I did this from a singular stance, most alone, and not buddied up by a jolly group in safe chorus.
So often now, it is not so much a group demanding their rights as it is a group wanting more than their rights, it is almost a tribal on-surging, subconsciously or perhaps even consciously wanting to be top dog and screw all else. Also, there are those within each group who are simply psychotics who want to be seen and heard in parades or any other damned place or time.
As a writer, one must write what one sees and feels regardless of the consequences. In fact, the more the consequences the more one is goaded into going for it. Some call it madness, I call it near-truth. You know, there is nothing more entertaining, funnier than near-truth because you see it, read it so seldom. It hits you with a refreshing blast, it runs up the arms, into the head, it gets giddy, god damn, god damn, so rare, so lovely. I saw some of it in Celine, in Dostoevsky, in Hamsun, I started laughing as I read them, it was such a joy
In our age, the only safe target for the writer is the white heterosexual male. You can make him a murderer, a child-rapist, a motherfucker. Nobody protests. Not even the white heterosexual male. He's used to it. Also, things like "White men can't dance," "White men can't jump," "White men have no sense of rhythm", etc.. What is happening here might be a near-truth, still it is mostly mouthed by white women and promoted by white men in the media. Am I racist? Tell me, how many non-whites have you had in your home or in your room lately?
Well, we go on and on. Probably a certain psychosis working here. I hope so. It seems to give one an edge in the working place. Still the poem "dumb night' got me to thinking about this and about the reaction you'd get if you published it. Yet, many of us have had nights like this one. It's just a place within a place, something that explodes into the air, and for all its grossness there is a certain demented glamour of two people trapped together in a world that has never worked for them and never will. There is no insult to man or woman intended but if there is some insult there, then fine, it belongs.
Well, I'm drinking, have been or wouldn't have gone on so long. Basically, only want to say that at this time it is tough for the writer who wants to put it down as it is, or was. The 90's have far more strictures than the 50's ever had. We've gone back, not so much in how we think but in what we can say. Each Age has borne its own contriticions [?contradictions] but the end of the 20th century is a particularly sad one. We've lost our guts, our gamble, our heart. Listen, believe me, when we say it and say it true, the women will love it, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the greens, the reds and the purples will love it, and the homosexuals and the lesbians and all the in between will love it. Let's not crap ourselves, we are different but we are one. We bring death to each other and death brings it to us. Did you ever see that flattened cat on the freeway as you drove by at 70 m.p.h.? That's us, baby. And I scream to the skies that there should be no way, no word, no limit. Just a roll of the dice, the tilting of the dark white light and the ability to laugh, a few times, at what has trapped us like this.
[These letters are included in the third volume of the letters of Charles Bukowski, edited by Seamus Cooney, from Black Sparrow Press, 1999.]