Harry Calhoun has passed away. (1 Viewer)

Black Swan

Abord the Yorikke!
I just read that Harry has died. To honour him I thought of posting the essay that he had written for Buk Scene in 2009.

A footnote to small press history:
Charles Bukowski and me

By Harry Calhoun

Imagine: It’s 1985. That’s just a few years beyond midlife to me, but that must seem a long time ago to many who read this. At 64 — 65 on August 16th of that year — Charles Bukowski had attained some of the fame that finally rewarded his years of struggling and pain. I was a 31-year-old with my own struggles, selling articles and writing resumes to piece together an income. I was also active in small press poetry, both as a writer and putting out a little magazine called Pig in a Poke. I sold a copy or a subscription here and there, but mostly I funded it myself. It was a labor of love, much like Jan’s magazine is. I know you don’t want to hear about me, but bear with me: I think that it’s necessary to give you some context so you will have more insight into the man that I encountered.

I started Pig in a Poke in 1982 and squeezed out two issues before it became too much a burden on a bartender and freelance writer’s income. But like many in the small press, I was resourceful and determined to keep going, so I changed format. Rather than lay out the copy myself and have it printed, which was time-consuming and expensive, I stole an idea from something called This is Important, which published poetry in a little fold-out pamphlet resembling a religious tract. I started putting poems into an 8½ by 11 format, cutting that in half and folding it over. I usually photocopied it wherever I was working at the time and so it cost me nothing. And it made me feel like a rebel! I called these little efforts Pig in a Pamphlet.

Eventually, I got the resume job and that gave me enough money — barely — to occasionally expand the format to a half-size version of Pig in a Poke. I published one of these featuring poet Paul Fischer, another featuring Judson Crews and another with several poets. And of course, I published the Bukowski booklet. Pig in a Poke gave a last gasp as one of these booklets, with Pig in a Poke #3 also featuring some Bukowski poems.

Before I tell you the story of the Bukowski booklet, let me clarify one thing: While the publication is almost always listed on rare books sites and elsewhere as Pig in a Pamphlet, that’s misleading. There were at least 18 issues of Pig in a Pamphlet, but for Bukowski’s — #12 — I borrowed a line from one of the poems in the issue and called it then I gave up and started drinking heavily. That seemed to exemplify Buk’s general attitude and so that’s what I called the booklet.

The story of me and Bukowski

Now that the background is done, gather around for the story. Back in 1985, as now, the small press was alive, and even without the Internet, correspondence was fast and furious. In those days, Ernest Hemingway had a similar status among young writers as Bukowski does today. There are parallels: Like Bukowski, Hemingway wrote with a clear, concise style. And like Hemingway, Bukowski had died leaving a considerable literary legacy behind. Both had become the object of idolatry for a generation of young writers.

I really can’t remember when or where I saw Bukowski’s work published in another little magazine, but of course he had been a legend and a hero to many of us for years. And I thought: How the hell did they get Bukowski in their mag?
I think the answer to that was that he always had a soft spot in his heart for the small presses that had eventually brought him the fame he deserved.
So I contacted several editors that I knew and one of them gave me Buk’s San Pedro address. I believe it was Ron Androla from Northern Pressure Press who gave me the contact information; it could have been Steven Doering from Random Weirdness.. At any rate, I sent Buk a letter asking if he would be interested in submitting some poems to my little magazine.

When I wrote to Bukowski asking for poems, I was hoping simultaneously to publish one of my idols and maybe actually break even on an issue. As it turned out, I did both. Bukowski wrote back to me and his letter was accompanied by several poems. I was ecstatic, and I liked the poems that he sent so much that I kept four of them. Today, the fact that I rejected some of his work is mind-boggling, but of course that’s the way it goes. Not even the legends get 100 percent acceptance, and of course we all know that Buk had his share of rejection all along.

I had published two single-author pamphlets already — #10 with Judson Crews and #11 with Paul Fischer — and it became obvious that this was what to do with Bukowski’s poems. I liken the publishing of several poems by a single author in a pamphlet of this sort to a rock band releasing an EP or extended play single.

then I gave up and started drinking heavily” came out in 1985 and sold well by my modest standards. John Martin from Black Sparrow Press bought 200 — about half of the press run — at a discount and had Bukowski sign them. So what I sold him at less than 50 cents a copy … less than a hundred bucks for 200 copies … are now bringing $200 and upwards each at rare booksellers now.

Controversy with John Martin

After I published the pamphlet, I attempted to revive Pig in a Poke as one of these little pamphlets, and I used three more Bukowski poems in issue #3. I was encouraged by the success of then I gave up and started drinking heavily and started entertaining notions of a follow-up effort with all Bukowski poems. Apparently, Bukowski was excited about the idea and he must have mentioned it to John Martin at Black Sparrow. Sometime in October 1985, Martin wrote me a letter and stated he had the rights to Bukowski's book publications and to limit my Buk publications to individual poems. He didn’t want to set an example where small-press publishers could turn our volumes of Bukowski at will.

Naturally, I had not intended to spark any such controversy — like anyone back then, I simply jumped at the chance to publish one of my literary heroes. So I wrote back to Martin, somewhat angrily, and told him that I never intended to infringe on his empire by publishing the pamphlet. Martin replied quickly to my letter — his reply came on October 31st, and he mentions October 27th as the date of my letter to him.

In the letter, Martin explained that he was just trying to protect his own interests. To quote:

“I’m sorry if I sounded as if I was making an accusation in my previous letter. I was as sure then, as I am now, that you meant no harm whatsoever when you published the first little Buk pamphlet. It was only … when I heard that there might be another, that I suddenly came to life … if you go ahead with such a series, there are at least a dozen other small publishers who would get the same idea … Bukowski is so popular that it’s almost impossible to persuade eager publishers that what they want to do with all their hearts is actually illegal. So I have to keep a tight rein on things … to preserve what is essentially a sane situation for both Bukowski and myself.”

He went on to say that my letter showed that I was “a decent and honorable person” and asked me to look through the Black Sparrow checklist that he sent with the letter and pick any books I wanted. I must have picked a dozen books —- by Fielding Dawson, Paul Bowles, John Fante, Bukowski and others — and he sent them to me. I still have most of them, but that was as far as I can remember my last correspondence with Martin.
I continued corresponding with Bukowski for several years after I published the booklet. He struck me as a kind man, contrary to his often-gruff persona in his fiction and poetry, and he had a great, wry sense of humor. He was very supportive of small press magazines and grateful for the publication in even so modest an endeavor as Pig in a Pamphlet. At one point, he reported that Linda, his wife, said, "At last, a poetry magazine that I can read!" I was always rather proud of that.

The end of the story
The final little nugget in this story: I stopped publishing Pig in a Pamphlet around 1989 or 1990. In 1993 I left Pittsburgh for Key West, and somehow lost my signed copy. I wrote to Bukowski asking him if he would send another. So in a week or so, the signed copy showed up in my mailbox, but the chatty letter that I had come to anticipate wasn't there. A few months later, of course, I learned of his death. He must have been very sick when he got my letter but he still signed the copy and sent it back to me.

So that’s as far along as I came on the journey that was Charles Bukowski’s life. I’ve encountered a lot of people since his death who know more about him and his life than I do. I’m sure that some of them have a lot more of his collected works and memorabilia. But I will never forget that for a little while, I actually knew the man — wrote to him and published his work. I am proud that he was a part of my life and my legacy to the small press.

About four months after completing this essay, I moved some boxes of my old papers from my outdoor storage shed, consolidated them into a large plastic bin and brought them in to my office. Shortly afterward, I took a break from work and began looking through the papers. They were mostly old poems and correspondence, but then I picked up a sheaf of about four papers and a postcard fell out. It was from Bukowski and dated July 1986. That gave me hope that I had managed to save more of our correspondence, and several days later I once again went to the bin.

Near the bottom of the papers was a Manila folder with three letters, a handwritten note and a self-addressed envelope with Bukowski’s address on it. Two of the letters were from 1983, when I first contacted him for some poems. One is from March 1985, giving me the go-ahead to do the pamphlet. And the handwritten note was from 1988.

Unfortunately, copyright issues prohibit me from showing a scan of any of the letters here, but I’ll share a few choice quotes. What is funny is that I had been trying to figure out for years which of his books a few of these lines came from, but they were in the letters. The ones that stuck in my mind are in italics:

From a letter dated April 2, 1983: “I’m glad you drink; I tend more to trust a man who drinks than one who does not, although there are plenty who drink who are total assholes, especially those who prefer the company of barstools and those who sit upon them. It doesn’t take a man to drink but it sure as hell takes a man who drinks hard and still survives the lo and many years; it takes a man to do that and there aren’t many men. And let’s not talk about the liver; I don’t want to think about my liver; maybe it won’t think about me.”

From the same letter: “You’ve got a lot of guts to publish a ‘little.’ I did it once myself. Reading those incoming manuscripts made me realize that plumbing was man’s greatest invention, especially in reference to the sewer system.”

From a letter dated March 21, 1986: “Accepts and rejects are strange. Some of the poems that come out later in my books and are noted by many as the best, many of these were rejects. This is not a game for those who are easily affected by putdowns, yet, on the other hand, some of the worst talents have the most confidence.”

From the same letter: “You’ve got the idea: drinking while listening to classical music is one of the finest activities going, and then if you can type at the same time … the world, for a moment, seems like a plausible place.”

Same letter: “I seem to have some fame now (going on 65 in August) but mostly in Europe, and that’s great luck, I can walk through supermarkets here without being bothered. The gods have been very kind to me. And when I sit down to the machine, I still have the same sense for the line, the sense of drama and doing, of entering the arena that I had when I started. I never thought I would live this long or that the words would keep on arriving. Any time I die will be a good time for me but there are far too many bottles to empty yet so I should linger about a bit longer?”

From a handwritten note dated August 10, 1988; I had asked Bukowski if he would consider reading at a poetry event I was sponsoring in Pittsburgh: “On readings, I just don’t do them anymore. I get my vanity-boosts sleeping until noon …”
I read somewhere on Facebook that he had stroke-like symptoms earlier this year but then recovered. He was far too young to go this way.
This was sad to read the other day. Harry was always a generous and enthusiastic supporter, and truly loved the small press. He hustled all over too, with Maintence and Death from Pig Ear Press surely being a recent highlight for him. If he had to go, I'm glad it was quick.
Harry was a good guy. He could be a royal pain in the arse, but that was for a number of reasons. The saddest thing is that in the final few years of his life he seemed to finally settle down and find the peace he was looking for with Trina and his two dogs. And then he goes and dies. The title Maintenance & Death describes the period of Harry's life that I entered. He was flicking between absolute joy and absolute despair, sometimes in the space of one week. Throughout it all he never lost sight of one thing and that was the love he had for his wife. I only knew Harry in the last few years of his life but he left a lasting impression and as a writer I'm sure that's what he would of wanted (well, that and maybe a statue).

RIP Harry

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