Raymond Carver and the Night of the Living Bukowski




I FIRST MET Raymond Carver in the spring of 1971, when he was a guest in a poetry class at Cabrillo Junior College, near Santa Cruz, California. Nothing about Carver stood out as remarkable at the time. Indeed, he gave the impression of someone who did not want to be noticed, sitting not at the head of the conference table like other visiting poets but on the side with the students, slouched in his chair, hiding behind dark glasses and a scrim of smoke. When prompted by our teacher, Morton Marcus, to talk about his work and to give advice to the table of young, aspiring poets, Carver mumbled through a couple of poems and said something about keeping after it and not giving up. Then he lit another cigarette. Not an auspicious introduction.

And yet there was something about Carver that connected with many of the students that day. Most came from similar working-class backgrounds, and most, like Carver, were first-generation college students. And many of us — Barbara Bloom, Fruud (the poet formerly known as Michael Smith), Tom Maderos, and the brilliant, Blakeian Greg Hall — had a commitment to writing that astounded Marcus, who had never encountered such a concentration of talent in a community college classroom before. And he was right. Several of us went on to publish books of poetry and, in my case, fiction and history. These were heady times to be a young writer in Santa Cruz, and Carver arrived unannounced in the middle of it all, badly in need of a haircut and a new set of clothes. Much like the rest of us at the time.

After class, some of us gathered at Greg Hall’s apartment. The front room looked (as Tom Maderos described it) like a cross between a literary shrine and a fan-club headquarters, with Hall’s collection of garishly hand-painted models of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman; World War II model airplanes; pictures of Rimbaud, Whitman, and Kerouac; and even a framed postcard from Allen Ginsberg. Dust and cigarette smoke shifted through the late-afternoon light, as Hall, eyes wild, his hair forming a beatific halo, and his beautiful wife, Peggy, in her long flowing skirts, brought out a jug of wine. Fruud, unable to sit in any one place for long, darted around the room, the toes of his shoes cut out to form make-shift sandals, while Maderos sat back and took it all in, not missing a single detail. Carver hunched down on the couch as if folded into himself, smoking and laughing — chuckling really, hand over his mouth — drinking wine from a Dixie cup, clearly enjoying the company of young, high-energy writers, some of whom must have reminded him of himself when he was 10 years younger and life was still full of possibility.

When Carver learned that I planned to transfer to the University of California at Santa Cruz where he would be teaching that fall, he leaned across the small table cluttered with empty bottles of Olde English Malt Liquor and Cribari wine, overflowing ashtrays, maybe a platter or two of crackers or nuts, and pleaded with me to take his short story class. I promised to enroll in his poetry course the following spring, but that did not satisfy him. He was desperate, he implied. If I did not sign up for his first course, he feared no one would. The university would be forced to cancel the class and then eliminate his position for lack of interest. He would be back on the street again, of that he was certain. And for some reason I believed him.

Thus, I became one of Ray Carver’s first students, no doubt known to him as a soft touch as well. Or an easy mark. While I did not excel at short story writing, I soon learned to adore Ray and his wife Maryann, who became unlikely friends and role models for me, more like ne’er-do-well parents than peers. They invited me to their house for dinner and parties, and after class one day, Ray took me to my first bar, a dark, seedy-looking place with free hors d’oeuvres, where he felt at home.

When Curt Johnson requested a picture for his Best Little Magazine Fiction anthology, Ray asked me to take a photograph of him in the trees behind Fruud’s house, where we all had gathered one afternoon. As could only happen in a Raymond Carver story, I shot an entire roll of film — Ray leaning against a tree trunk, Ray looking off into the distance, Ray lighting a cigarette, Ray peering through a cloud of smoke — only to discover that the film had not advanced through the camera. We would have to do it all over again, something Ray said he could not possibly manage. I think he felt over-exposed enough already. Instead, he sent the editor a photo of himself as a chubby, preadolescent boy with a fishing pole, requiring Johnson to include a note that the young boy pictured was now a writer in his 30s.

That fall, I transferred to UCSC’s College V, where Ray taught a course on short story writing, followed by one on poetry in the spring. I signed up for both classes — an easy mark, as I said. Ray also had partial responsibility for organizing a series of campus readings. In addition to inviting some of his favorite writers, he worked on bringing friends to town, most notably Dennis Schmitz from Sacramento, and others he hoped would become his friends, such as the poets Richard Hugo and James Welch from Missoula, Montana, where Carver hoped one day to live.

Other writers visited campus that academic year as well. In the spring of 1972, Gary Snyder gave a reading and told stories about stopping to bury dead animals he spotted on the side of the road. It was a simple act of respect and kindness by a man in tune with the natural world, one that countered the oppressive news of wars and the military draft, an outlook on life that endeared him to the students, professors, and poets from town. Not long after Snyder’s reading, a warning appeared in the student newspaper: Watch out, Santa Cruz. Charles Bukowski is coming to town and he is going to piss all over you.

Since Ray had invited Bukowski, another favorite writer of his although they had never met, he was responsible for escorting the poet from place to place and arranging for an after-reading party. Pissing on all of the party guests was not something any self-respecting university faculty member was willing to sign up for, it soon became clear. As the day of Bukowski’s arrival neared, Carver became increasingly frantic, fearing he had invited the wrong writer to this idyllic school nestled in a redwood forest outside of town. No one would help him, he said, stopping me on campus one afternoon. He had nowhere else to turn. He could not possibly have a party at his house, he explained. Not with his wife and kids and all. And besides, he lived out of town (although he had hosted other after-reading parties there before). Surely, I could do him this one small favor, just this once. Penniless, I did not have the means to host anything, much less a faculty party for Charles Bukowski, so I tried to put him off, much as I had tried to put off signing up for his short story class. But he persisted. I was his last hope, he told me. And I believed him.

Years later, I learned that he had made a similar plea to Tom Maderos, my boyfriend at the time, bringing along a six-pack of beer to help seal the deal. Although he managed to talk us into it, we both were firm on one point: Ray would have to provide all the food and drink. He readily agreed, of course, but promptly forgot all about it, arriving after the reading with nothing more than the guest of honor. “Where’s the booze?” I can still hear Bukowski demanding from the kitchen — or maybe it was Ray himself — sending students and faculty alike scurrying down the stairs and across the street to Lloyd’s Liquors.

Bukowski’s reading on campus that night did not disappoint, with a large crowd showing up as much for the spectacle as for the poems. Wearing what appeared to be a secondhand suit jacket and brandishing a bottle of liquor as if it were a sword (or maybe a shield), Bukowski introduced himself as the ugliest man in the world — something Delores Johnson, one of Ray’s UCSC poetry students at the time, did not think was far from the mark. But as Maderos remembered it, in spite of all Bukowski’s bravado, the mix of students and faculty and town poets in this elite academic environment seemed to have thrown the poet off his game, as he rushed his lines or threw the best ones away. And yet The New Yorker writer William Finnegan, another UCSC undergraduate at the time, recalled loving the event, finding Bukowski more literary than he had expected and, most certainly, larger than life.

Indeed, there was something iconic about Bukowski as he made himself at home later in our small, upstairs apartment. He climbed onto the bed, the only furniture in the room other than a couple of kitchen chairs, and propped himself up, back against the wall, sitting like a malicious Buddha, as Morton Marcus described him years later. Drinking and smoking and stubbing his cigarettes out on the floor, he insisted that Marcus “Give us some ‘Howl,’” noting the poet’s vague resemblance to Allen Ginsberg, all hair and beard. Other guests Bukowski dismissed as a waste of his time, threatening to throw them all out the second-story window as they milled around, drinking beer, wine, or whiskey from paper cups.

One poet from town, Robert Lundquist, with his blond good looks, apparently attracted too much attention from a young woman Bukowski also had his eye on, initiating another round of insults. Lundquist later remembered how Bukowski unzipped his pants and wagged his penis in his direction; Lundquist flipped him off in reply. Both ended up downstairs in the driveway, in a standoff of sorts, the older poet large and menacing, but ultimately yielding to the younger man’s suggestion that they retreat upstairs to share a few more drinks. Students and faculty fled, fearing they might be next to experience the visiting poet’s ire, leaving mostly the poets from town behind. One fearless student, Delores Johnson, sat cross-legged on the floor, clearly unimpressed by Bukowski and the rest of the night’s activities unfurling around her. So, of course, he made a pass at her.

“Bukowski, you’re full of shit,” Johnson said.

“Other than me, you’re the smartest person in this room,” was the writer’s quick reply, probably the best and only authentic exchange at the party that night.

Ironically, most of the young poets who endured Bukowski’s slights and slurs — Fruud, Greg Hall, Delores Johnson, Robert Lundquist, Tom Maderos, even Ray Carver himself — were poets of the street, not products of the university. Other than Ray, who had worked hard over a number of years to earn a BA, few if any even had a college degree. There was not an MFA or graduate student in sight. Marcus later claimed that these young writers watched Bukowski closely to learn how to be a real poet but, more likely, Bukowski watched them, surely sensing and maybe even fearing the collective brilliance they radiated in the crowded room. This was the next generation — his successors. His competition even. None were safe from his scorn. As Maderos later recalled, Bukowski insulted them all and “the place itself, poetry, writing, any form of human connection […] his overarching vibe one of mean suspicion.”

Ray Carver, on the other hand, held back, leaning against the doorframe between the tiny, freshly painted kitchen and the crowded front room, as students, poets, and academics ebbed and flowed through the apartment. Ray stood there, leaning forward slightly, his hair wild, his sideburns creeping down the side of his cheeks like an uncontrollable growth. He was most surely smoking a cigarette — I always remember Ray smoking — and holding a drink in his hand. And silently watching, taking it all in, no doubt expecting the worst. He later recreated the party in his rambling poem “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” parenthetically described as “an evening with Bukowski,” which captures the older writer’s aggressive style and contempt for anyone who taught poetry or anything else for that matter. As Bukowski boasts:

there’s only one poet in this room tonight
only one poet in this town tonight
maybe only one real poet in this country tonight
and that’s me

The poem reads as if Ray had pulled snippets of speech out of the air from that large, unruly gathering, capturing the friction between the poet and the professor, as Bukowski insisted on calling Ray that night — a tension that haunts MFA classrooms to this day. It was a lesson that many of us, as young, aspiring poets, would never forget. A cautionary tale. The Night of the Living Bukowski, as Maderos would later memorialize it.

Ray hit the heart of his target that night, but Bukowski missed his mark. Of those left standing at the end of the party — mostly poets from town — only Delores Johnson would pursue an MFA, and she dropped out after one year, deciding to apply her talents to the visual arts instead. But most of the others continued to publish poetry throughout the 1970s, some even creating small presses of their own. And while many, such as Fruud and Tom Maderos, turned eventually to the visual and performing arts, Greg Hall and Robert Lundquist kept writing into the millennium. Indeed, Lundquist recently published a well-received book of poetry with the New River Press in London.

Ray Carver, of course, survived to tell the tale. As someone who considered himself a poet for most of his life, the best of his poetry stands up against the best of his celebrated stories. And certainly, against any of Bukowski’s. But Ray felt out of place in that cloistered environment, teaching creative writing to indifferent students, and he dreamt of moving his family to Montana, where he could change his life. And write a novel.

Not long after the party, unhappy at UCSC and with no financial aid lined up for the year ahead, I told Ray I was moving to Great Falls, Montana, where I had lived as a kid. He expressed no concern about my dropping out of school, something he was familiar with in his own life, but he questioned my chosen destination.

“We’re all moving to Missoula,” Ray told me. “You will love it there. And you will fit right in.” As usual, I believed him.

¤

Diane Smith lives in Missoula, where she is writing a book about Montana writers in the 1970s.

¤

Banner image: “20110617-NRCS-LSC-0690” by U.S. Department of Agriculture is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

 

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