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A Report from the Poetry Trenches: Rexroth, Bukowski & the Politics of Literature

 

Bukowski loved the idea of poetry wars. Even at the lowest level of mimeo magazines, when he was co-editing Laugh Literary & Man the Humping Guns with Neeli Cherry, he jumped in guns blazing ready to take on the world. “Poetry,” he always said, “is a poor country without any boundaries. It’s open to all kinds of fools. All the poet has is his shitty little poem and his point of view. It’s like being on a bar stool, but with a piece of paper in your hand instead of a drink. You shout and scream and you hope someone will notice you.”

He thought poets were the spoiled children of literature: they had to do very little work to get published. They could write whatever they felt. Poetry was about feeling. It was not the complex work of a novelist or a journalist or a historian.

“Poets dazzle,” he said, “but often their best stuff is written in bitchy essays about what art is! When people call me a poet, it makes me want to vomit. I’m a writer!”

That was in 1976, when I was Arts editor of the L.A. Vanguard. I was doing a piece about Bukowski for the newspaper. Photographer Lory Robbin and I had showed up at Bukowski’s place on Carlton Way when he was first entertaining the woman who would later become Linda Bukowski. Lory got a great series of shots of the three of us drinking, while Bukowski was his usual outrageous self on tape.

The Vanguard had a policy about major pieces; they had to be approved by consensus among the editorial collective. When I handed in my piece on Bukowski, it was turned down by a three-to-two positive vote. Dorothy Thompson and Ron Ridenour turned it down because they viewed Bukowski as reactionary and anti-feminist.

I’d had this problem before. When we tried to send our male rock critic to a Holly Near concert, Near’s PR people threatened to withdraw their ad if we didn’t send a woman to review it. I sent Diana Saenz, who was a close friend, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and secretary to Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13 fame. She wrote a great review, added a few lines of a song from an RCP group called Prairie Fire, and managed to piss off everyone but me, but it ran, because we had a paid advertisement. Diana was a delightfully talented poet, propagandist, and radical organizer and she could never be thought of as politically correct!

As editor, I’d had enough of the PC bullshit! “If not Charles Bukowski,” I asked, “who would you have in mind?”
Kenneth RexrothKenneth Rexroth

The name Kenneth Rexroth came up. I called Lawrence Lipton, author of The Holy Barbarians, and a friend of Rexroth’s from childhood. He gave me an address and telephone number: 1401 Pepper Lane, Montecito, California, 805 969 2722. I called Rexroth and he immediately agreed. “Come at noon next Tuesday. We live in the country just off the freeway. Carol (Tinker), my wife, will make you lunch.”

When I told Bukowski the Vanguard wasn’t running my piece on him and he’d been replaced by Kenneth Rexroth, he was amazed.

“But you’re the Arts editor.”

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