THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER
The mouth was ripped open and the rat was stuffed in right up to the back legs and the dead man’s teeth were showing dark fur. If you don’t have your own style for writing a poem, you may as well be writing without hands, dreams, balls, tongue or anything. As far as poetry is concerned, style is both your firecracker and your death certificate. I can always tell when I’m reading a poem by Charles Bukowski, even when his name doesn’t appear on the page. The same goes for Tony Moffeit, Gerald Locklin, and Mark Weber. Their styles are so distinctive and one of a kind, these poets could sign their names just by writing poems.
Raymond Chandler used to say, if you don’t know how to start a story have a man enter a darkened room with a gun in his hand. I practically took Chandler at his word. I wish I had a dollar for every poem I’ve written that had some shooting in it. I wish I had a dollar for all of the guns I’ve put into poems. And, I wish I had a dollar for all the critics who, both on and off the page, have complained about my arrogant display of violence. One poet, and I won’t mention who, once stated that he was revolted by one of my shooting scenes where the bullet hits the man in the face and his eye falls out on the plate. And here is a poet who thinks nothing of writing about gunfighters and outlaws.
Sam Peckinpah once said in an interview that violence was beautiful and seductive. I would also add that violence is hypnotic and addictive. Have you ever seen two men fist fighting on a streetcorner while you were out driving? Have you ever seen a man take a monkey wrench in the face? Or, probably much more common, have you ever watched the evening news and seen the blackened parts of corpses that a bomb has blown out into the street? You can’t look away, can you? There is something both horrible and irresistible about a corpse that still has the bomb smoke pouring off. You almost want to go out and smell it.
When I first started writing poetry, when I first realized that I wanted to write poetry that wasn’t like anyone else’s, I started to write about shootouts in cheap little bars, gangland killings, car wrecks, and house fires. I took some of it right out of the newspapers. And then I dug farther back. Stuff that I knew about from when I was a kid. Shit I’d heard my father talking about. Street talk about guys who knew guys who knew guys. You don’t live in a fleabag like the Clifton Hotel for twelve years and come out knowing nothing. Or, lets put it this way, you don’t come out of a fleabag like that without having been part of the buzz.
So, when I started to write poetry, I had to strip the poem bare right down to the blood and the wood and all I had left was the hotel, the street, the fights I’d been in and I’ve been in a few, the alkies, my father, the stories I’d heard, the railroad, and the river. That was the sum total of who I was and what I was as a kid. And, while it sounds like it was a slice out of Bukowski, it wasn’t. He lived in L.A. I lived in cockroach infested hotel a hundred miles from downtown Chicago. The thing is we both saw the same kinds of shit but from different points of view. He was a man in the big down and out and I was a kid living on rural skidrow in anywhere america. And, the way we wrote. Not even close in terms of style to what I did then and am doing now. You put one of his poems next to mine and you can pick the styles out immediately. Mostly, he wrote a longer lined poem. Sometimes, one of his lines was a sentence and sometimes not. But his poems became stories that somehow rattled, growled, and laughed themselves sardonically down the page.
Even thirty years ago, my poems were distinctive. Mostly they start inside the middle of something. Maybe an argument, or one guy taking a punch at another and they jump from there into a breakneck race down the page. Now, even more than then. Except for the long sections of DILLINGER and all of WORKING ON MY DUENDE, reading one of my poems is like standing in the eye of a tornado or a bomb going off. Bukowski is almost always at the center of his poems. I may or may not be inside mine. And while somebody might be talking, it’s the kind of talking that takes place at the apocalyptic edge. Bukowski doesn’t rely on the cinematic image. A blown off leg sliding down the length of a windshield or an eye floating around in a tall glass of beer. I do. I live where I stare. I am what I see. And, that may be the biggest difference between us.
My old man used to say, you know why so many people go to watch housefires. When I didn’t answer, he’d take another hit of whatever it was he was drinking and say, it’s because they’re bored off their asses. They do the eight to five dance, drink, fuck, read the sports page, get a heart attack or cancer and die. So, they need something. Some catastrophe to take them so far out of themselves that it feels kind of like being down for the count and pointblank salvation. They need to watch something blow up. They need to see fire painted all over the sky.
That was over fifty years ago and it hasn’t changed. And, that’s what I write about except that it isn’t so much about as inside of. I write inside of a man being shot to death and a car getting blown sky high. I write the same way that Weegee took pictures. I write the same way that Peckinpah shot THE WILD BUNCH. The blood in the shower during the shooting of PSYCHO. That’s the kind of blood that I know. Along with some of my own and the blood of some others. I write through the center of the violence and a little off to the side of the man talking about it.
Looking back now, I can see that it really wasn’t so much the poetry of the past that brought me to the poem that I write now, as it was all the movies I’ve been to. I know some guys who claim they were influenced by the way all the best movies were shot, angle, close up, freeze frame, fade out. Not me. For me, it was all action and the fast talk. It was the kind of talk I’d heard at the hotel, the kind of talk hookers used on the street, the kind of talk hustlers were known for. All carnied up and smelling of cheap perfume and Jesus pussy. It was like hellzapoppen in the ears and I was a sucker for it the way I was a sucker for listening to Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP or Brando in STREETCAR, or Widmark in KISS OF DEATH. I had to go back to those movies, listen to all of that lingo again in my dreams to get it down and right and then weld it to the clickety click action in the way that I write.
It happened just like a scene out of a an old black and white movie. This guy is standing in the alley behind the Clifton yelling up at his girlfriend who is really an aging hooker. He’s howling, I didn’t fuck her. And, she’s yelling back, either tell the truth or I’ll start a fire. She has an old wooden chair half in, half out of the window and she’s holding a lighter. And he says I am telling the truth and she says, what was her cunt like, and he replies, she’s got sores all over it, and pretty soon the woman in the window has the wicker seat burning and the chair is now even more wedged in the window than before and she yells, aintcha gonna help me, and the guy below is bent over laughing and pretty soon the woman in the window just stands back and gives the chair a dropkick that shatters it and sends wood, burning wicker, and splinters all over the air. And, while the shit is falling, I grab a stick of fire before it hits the ground and the guy who was doing all the yelling stands back and claps.
The rat in the mouth style is what I brought to the poem. Chandler would get it and Chandler would smile. (LONG LIVE THE OUTLAW POET)