Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Quintessentially Zinn, Quintessentially Bukowksi

Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994. My group of comrades celebrate Buk Day, by starting to drink as soon as we're up, staying drunk all day, reading Bukowski short stories and poems, watching footage of him reading his work and bits of the documentary "Born Into This." The better of us also get some writing done--I was not one of the betters this year. What I was, however, was recklessly emotional, and looking at Buk through a very different lens, after attending a Hollywood-studded tribute to Howard Zinn last week.

I watched a series of famous actors (including some favorites of mine like Viggo Mortensen, Tim Robbins, and Marisa Tomei) read from Zinn's collected works. No frills, no effects, just good voices, good writing, good people, good intentions. A clip from The People Speak, a new documentary about Howard Zinn's life and work, ended with the line: "Don't mourn, organize."

I stomped my feet and sang my heart out with Tom Morello, Boots Riley, Exene Cervenka, and Ben Harper, as they led us in the "missing" 3rd verse of "This Land is Your Land," and we all--famous people, not famous people, artists, business-heads, publishers, weed-smokers, drinkers, AA vets, strippers, writers, directors, journalists, assistants, moms, out-of-towners and Hollywood-ites, we all were, it seemed, for one shining moment, agreeing on a few very important things. Like how miraculous it was that we were there, together. Many of the attendees were public faces, entertainment-industry people for whom being called "a radical" is of more potential social/financial consequence, which made the night even more poignant. Not that anyone might mistake Josh Brolin for anything else. The point is, everyone mentioned Zinn's cheerfulness in the face of such adversity in the world, and one of my favorite readings came from "The Optimism of Uncertainty," in which he wrote:

"An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

I taught a set of poems by Charles Bukowski in my "Infamy and Cultural Deviance" class at Emerson and he was usually met with half-enthusiasm and half-terror-manifesting-as-disgust. The argument never centered on whether he was "honest," because even the scared people can see that--the argument centered on whether it was right, or useful, or helpful to the world, for a person to be as relentlessly critical as he was. He wrote poems about his boredom with current literature, current music, current culture. He wrote poems lambasting normalcy and sanity and people who seemed to believe they were doing something important in the world. He told readers to quit fucking around, quit lying, quit "trying," and above all, quit making him watch their bullshit.

If Bukowski and Zinn had been sitting at a table together, though (and I wonder if this ever happened, since I couldn't find any record of it) I think they would have hit it off. Not because Zinn would ingratiate, or because Bukowski would perform. Not because Bukowski would be erudite, or Zinn would be funny. Not because they'd agree on what to talk about, even. I think they would have recognized in each other, through their fundamental difference in "style," three other, more important fundamentals: (1) a well-researched and deeply felt dissatisfaction with the world as it is, (2) an irrepressible desire for people to wake up, change, do new things, surprise them, and (3) a belief that the latter is actually possible.

If Bukowski was a miniaturist, a writer focused on the most pertinent details of the current, real moment, then Zinn was a panoramic thinker, someone seeing the history of the world in long, wide strokes. Asking their texts to speak to each other is a bit like asking Jane Austen to write a manifesto on...anything. But why not? Why not imagine them at the table?

Zinn: Education can, and should, be dangerous.

Those are both quotes. Think about how much more exciting that conversation could get.

After the Zinn tribute, we were shuffled into an extremely posh party at the Beverly Hilton. We were "under" dressed-- or wrongly dressed, is what it seemed--as Linz bounced forward in her Ivory Coast soccer jacket, Anthony wore jeans next to men in tuxedos, and I sprawled on a white leather pouf in a T-shirt with a big red star and "EZLN" written across the front. We drank wine. We got tired of not being able to hear ourselves. As we left, we were handed bags of swag. This is what the letter, impeccably placed in a glossy black folder in the glossy black bag, said to us.

"Thank you for your support of Artists for Peace and Justice. In honor of your attendance at this evening's 3rd Annual Hollywood Domino Pre-Oscar Gala, I am delighted to personally extend to you a special invitation to join Quintessentially, the world's leading Luxury Lifestyle Group."

The letter, at one point, asks this question:
"Want to charter a jet to take ten of your closest friends on a spur of the moment trip to a private Caribbean island?"

What? I was hot with protest music and hope, fired up on the potential radicalism in a town where image usually seems more important than content, and suddenly, this, THIS was in my hands.

The letter might as well have said:
"Want to ensure that the unjust distribution of wealth in America remains totally unchallenged, as you stroke your ego by donating a tiny bit of your money to a mostly-vanity-run charity?" or "Want to be a part of the world's mostly-white ruling class, and remind yourself of your inflated importance by continuing the exploitation of workers in colonized and post-colonial nations?"

And then, I knew, someone would say, YES! YES I DO! and fork over $5,000, and they would be happy that they now have a brand new leather luggage tag and a 24-hour global concierge. For their NEEDs. Needs like massages and price-inflated champagne.

Oh Howard Zinn, I thought, I'm sorry. And yesterday, I wanted to run to Bukowski's house and give him the ridiculous letter, and let him make a poem about it.

Instead I will make the poem, since he's dead.


Dear Guest,
Thank you for your support.
We are Artists
For Peace
And Justice.
You are right to love us.

You have needs, and we know someone
Who can help you.
Your needs are special.
Your place in the world is special.
You yourself are incredibly special,
and there are many people
who are less special than you
who would like to help you
your specialness.

Don't worry, they want to.
They really do.
They need jobs.
Planning a trip to Athens, and
need to know the hottest places to sleep, eat, and play?
Need a woman, who is pretty?
You crave things.
You can have them, easily
With our help.

Thank you, for your support.
Our membership is tiered, and
is priced beginning
at the low, low, extremely insignificant price
of $5,000
which of course you could send
directly to a local artist
or to Amnesty International
But we know many
pretty women
we promise
we know more
pretty women with massage licenses
in more countries
and we know how to fulfill
your special

Here is a Buk poem to read to your friends' voicemail:

Nobody But You

nobody can save you but
you will be put again and again
into nearly impossible
they will attempt again and again
through subterfuge, guise and
to make you submit, quit, and/or die quietly

nobody can save you but
and it will be easy enough to fail
so very easily
but don't, don't, don't.
just watch them.
listen to them.
do you want to be like that?
a faceless, mindless, heartless
do you want to experience
death before death?

nobody can save you but
and you're worth saving.
it's a war not easily won
but if anything is worth winning then
this is it.

think about it.
think about saving your self.

your spiritual self.
your gut self.
your singing magical self and
your beautiful self.
save it.
don't join the dead-in-spirit.

maintain yourself
with humor and grace
and finally
if necessary
wager your life as you struggle,
damn the odds, damn
the price.

only you can save your

do it! do it!

then you'll know exactly what
I am talking about.
--from Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, The Line, the Way

What is most hopeful about this poem is the last line--the implication that once you've committed, once you've gone over to the side of those who refuse to be dictated by the hegemonic systems around them: capitalism, sexism, racism, etc., that you'll find a true community on the other side, a big BBQ where Buk and Zinn and Boots Riley and Dostoevsky and Tom Morello and Mike Davis and SARK and Che Guevara, and thousands others, and the Cristofanis, and the Teds, and me, with such gratitude I include myself, are already drinking salted Pacifico's (or shots of Jack, or water, or whatever), planning the next move. And singing. And writing. And laughing. And loving, and fighting, and getting waylaid, and getting back on track, and starting again.

As a Frenchman once said to Linz (excuse the lack of correct punctuation):

Join the fete!


  1. finally, a writer who thinks both "Buk would have written a great poem about this", notices the lack, and then does something about it. thanks for bringing these two minds together. your commentary on 'nobody but you' is gorgeous and i'm very glad to know what he and you are talking about.

  2. I like how your poem dissects the special needs of the dominant wealthy class of people into their own class. The needs and desires people have while they are alive have social classes too, the wealth breeds a more extravagent mind-set of need; Hell-best on simply preserving their class privilege, the rich have needs that are accordingly hell-bent on preserving their existence. They are therefore only needs to the needs themselves. Never forget, Needs are people too.

  3. First off, I'm sorry for breaking my promise of commenting within the past week. Please forgive me.

    The second time I read this was at 3am, listening to El Condor Pasa from the Bridge Over Troubled Waters album by Simon and Garfunkel. Perhaps it's the quavery pan pipes, perhaps it's the hour, perhaps it's this weekend's crucible, but the second reading was more beautiful, more satisfying. I could feel your rush, your high, and then your disappointment and disgust at the letter.

    Your thoughts on a conversation between Zinn and Buk are truly titillating in their possibility. I am reminded of something I read about Osensei, the founder of aikido. It was said that he loved meeting Fatty Arbuckle, not because they shared the same life course or the same interests or the same life, but because he recognized another master.

    Thank you for the quote about being optimistic. It is far too easy to by cynical out of safety, out of the news you can see/read every day, to misguidedly protect yourself. I fear my ability to act in the face of suffering, or disappointment, or even simply being overwhelmed at what I perceive to be the vast, unending amount of need for help, for action, for change. I have allowed it to paralyze me for far too long, even just in my own life. I admire your courage in striking out into the unknown country. It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that I, too, need to make this my country as well. I need to do it for my soul, for my life, for my daughter, for my unborn son, for my wife.

    I feel frustrated with myself for "observing" and "studying", in the mistaken thought that I can somehow avoid "failure" by doing enough research. To do that is to avoid learning. We need our scars, our reminders of lessons past. What we choose to do with them, recoil out of fear and discomfort, or spring forth in unexpected and beautiful directions, is up to us.

    Not sure if the link will make it, but here's what I was listening too while reading/writing: