Poet Neeli Cherkovski has spent time with Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Charles Bukowski. Recently, he spent some time with local writer Todd Cirillo, while visiting New Orleans.
The poet Neeli Cherkovski was in New Orleans from his home in San Francisco, for a reading at the 17 Poets series at the Gold Mine Saloon, as well as a lecture at the Historic New Orleans Collection’s new exhibit. HNOC's installation at the Williams Research Center celebrates New Orleans’ own LouJon Press.
For the uninitiated, LouJon Press was a famous small press by Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb that operated out of their home on Rue Royal in the French Quarter in the early 1960‘s. The pair published four issues of literary history with The Outsider magazine including; Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, among others. The quality of the work that the Webb’s produced separated them from other mimeographed magazines of the day.
Eventually publishing Bukowski’s first two books It Catches My Heart in Its Hands and Crucifix in a Death-Hand, which Cherkovski says “are awesome productions, fine paper, beautiful print and their magazine, “The Outsider,” was exciting, filled with the “new.” Their “Bukowski Outsider of the Year issue” of 1962 was particularly great. John and Gypsy Lou Webb of the Loujon Press were among the best of the small publishers or “little magazine” editors. Their pioneering work on letterpress magazines and books is so inspiring, especially from this digital age.”
Throughout the weekend we discussed Cherkovski's feelings on poetic inspiration, his friendship with Bukowski and hope for the medium.
Charles Bukowski first came to New Orleans in 1942 and then again in 1965 to write poems for "Crucifix in A Deathhand" and meet with the Webbs. Bukowski went on to write poems, such as “Young In New Orleans”, short stories and his novel Factotum about his time in the Crescent City.
“I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two five-cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write," Bukowski said of his time in New Orleans. "But starvation, unfortunately, didn't improve art. It only hindered it. A man's soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax.”
Cherkovski said Bukowski, “loved New Orleans and loved the Webbs, but was uncomfortable out of Los Angeles and its familiar ground.” Cherkovski took home the “kindness of many folks” in New Orleans with him, even if the humidity was a bit much.
Another poet introduced Cherkovski to Charles Bukowski as a poet in Los Angeles, whose chapbook, FLOWER, FIST, AND BESTIAL WAIL was out, worked at the post office and spent his free-time at the typewriter or the race track.
“When I met Neeli he was 16 and I was Bukowski,” Bukowski said.
I asked why he connected with Bukowski.
“Ah, Bukowski. He was there. He was available. And he was willing to give the time to a younger, unpublished poet. It’s that simple. We had so many wild escapades in the “grave” basin of Southern California,” including co-editing the Los Angeles zine Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns.
“I think he saw my potential, felt it, recognized it and we shared a sardonic view of our fellow man," he continued. "We were both humorous and loved to gossip.” There was an element of “You know, showmanship, trading barbs, putting down almost everyone we knew. . . it was fun.”
Cherkovski went further, saying, “In reality he was a very refined man, a middle class demon sat in his skull and he saw the world through the lens of mid-American values. You work hard to do what you do, you make your own way.”
Though they remained close for the remainder of Bukowski’s life, Cherkovski said the friendship was strained after he wrote Bukowski's biography.
“Well, it ruined things," Cherkovski said. "He was always a difficult friend, and I suppose he just found it easier to push me away once the book came out. Later, after his death, Linda Bukowski (his wife) told me, ‘You were closest to him after me.’”
Over the course of the visit we go from bars to breakfast to fast goodbyes, talking about Bonnie and Clyde, the humidity, gossip, as Cherkovski accents his talk with “oh that’s great!”, “right man” and many “wow”’s. He is a man at once wholly engaged in the conversation and one who can detach instantly to write a poem into his notebook with an old fashioned ink pen. As he did while we were getting a drink at Cafe Beignet. I wonder where he goes when inspiration is not with him.
“I go to the poets, reading their work, delving into their images, swimming in the sea and ink of their words. When I write I’m aware of being part of a vast chorus stretching back in time.”
Cherkovski is becoming one of the old masters in status and appearance. With twelve books of poetry, including: From the Canyon Outward, Elegy for Bob Kaufman and Animal; two acclaimed biographies, Bukowski: A Life and Ferlinghetti: A Biography; Whitman's Wild Children (a collection of critical memoirs), and a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for his book Leaning Against Time. He has been publishing since the 1970‘s and his works are translated into many languages. He is asked to read throughout the world, and in fact he is preparing to return to Italy for a reading tour in two weeks, and his beard grown long, turned grey and unruly. He would not be out of place wearing a toga in ancient Athens, with those he draws inspiration from. Poetry first came to him through the classics: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Poe, Rimbaud and now he gets a kick out of having “the poems of Walt (Whitman) and Emily (Dickinson) on my I-Phone; wonder of wonders”.
These days, people post anything they write online and call it poetry, I say, can anyone be a poet and if so does the poet have any responsibility to say, an audience, the world, the poem?
“Everyone has a touch of the poet, a bit of poetic blood running through their veins,” he said. “The poet has only the responsibility to be true to his or her own words, own voice but must treat their own creation kindly, a lesson I am still learning.”
I ask him, if everyone is just being true to his/her words, then what is the purpose of the poem.
“Poetry, the art and craft, is one of the ways to express oneself and is a root to some truths, or what look like truths, for those who write it. In poetry I see all the deities, good and evil, dancing, singing, brooding, loving, hating, boasting, living in humility, all of that.”
Regarding his own poetry, Cherkovski says, “I write out of a field that Dante and Blake laid before me, a literary field that some might say is a bit highbrow. Also, I’m a lyrical poet, so folks say, and can be obscure at times, even when I don’t want to be, I just follow the muse and am driven to archaic words and big ones, as well.”
Cherkovksi does a magnificent job at the lecture reading poems of his own and his friend Bukowski, who he imitates expertly, especially when retelling the way Bukowski would explain that his first short story was about the World War I flying ace Baron von Richthofen, which Bukowski would say in a slow Humphrey Bogart-cool drawl, the entire room laughs out loud.
Cherkovski appears genuinely grateful to everyone who speaks with him and appreciates the audience and their interest. He networks and introduces people he thinks should know each other. He will laugh when telling stories of the literary giants he has known and grow sad when telling of their passing. They are emotions of an artist who was invited to drink in the late nights with those most of us just read about and now is assuming his rightful place at the table of American literature. He calls poetry “a lucky charm which I have held onto for more than fifty five years, making me an old-timer.”
My last question is about the future of poetry. He says, “Of course, one hopes that an “ordinary savage” like Rimbaud will appear on the scene. That’d be nice.”
We say goodbye on Chartres Street in the late golden afternoon; he to a dinner and I to a bar with outdoor seating thinking, yes indeed, some savagery would be nice again.