It takes a special kind of dedication for a writer to quit his day job. When notably hard-living, hard-writing poet Charles Bukowski took the plunge in 1969, at the behest of his Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, he did it in the same spirit of seriousness he’d reserved for smoking, drinking, women, and the written word. “I have one of two choices,” he wrote in a letter at the time, “stay in the post office and go crazy… or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” Later, in 1971, he wrote the letter above, a reply to an inquiry about the possibility of his giving a reading in Florida. His price? Round-trip airfare from his home in Los Angeles to Florida, rides from and back to the airport, a place to stay, and $200.
Having already spent about two years working as a writer and a writer alone (and having spent the first twenty nights of that period furiously composing his first novel, Post Office), Bukowski quickly developed a head for what he called “the literary hustle.” He makes a distinctive pitch for his poetic services: “Auden gets $2,000 a reading, Ginsberg $1,000, so you see I’m cheap. A real whore.” I can easily envision Bukowski hammering out this letter at the front window of his now-iconic bungalow up on De Longpre Avenue on another hot summer 42 years ago, not least because he describes himself doing it: “They say it’s 101 degrees today. Fine then, I’m drinking coffee and rolling cigarettes and looking out at the hot baked street and a lady just walked by wiggling it in tight white pants, and we are not dead yet.” If you never had a chance to catch a Bukowski reading yourself, you can catch his reading at City Lights Poets Theater, recorded in September 1973. It’s just above.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.