Neeli Cherkovski–The Rusty Truck Interview
Scot: As a child what did you want to grow up to be?
Neeli: I’m not sure. Childhood hardly exists. Sam and Clare Cherry were loving parents, old bohemian souls. But I was needy, alienated, muddled, easily angered, mistrustful, etc, etc. To put a positive spin on it, I was sensitive. My friends were outcasts. Public school was horrific, fraught with psychic danger. Often, I challenged my teachers, especially in junior high school. Later, I held my breath because it wasn’t worth the effort. Making an adult eat his or her words when you are twelve or thirteen is embarrassing all the way around. The worst thing was play period. Participatory sports was one of the dangers. I did have a playmate, who I still see now and then, the Mormon kid from across Rosewood Avenue in MarVista, Los Angeles. The latter half of childhood was spent in San Bernardino where my folks eventually opened a bookstore/art gallery that provided a constant source of books. It was Walt Whitman who spoke to me and for me. I heard his secrets and cherished them. I also came into possession of some haiku books that were in the family bookshelf and a book of Longfellow’s poetry. My father occasionally recited The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, especially when he was drunk.
Like a lot of adolescents, I went through many novels, beginning with Moby Dick, moving on through Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck — on and on. Hemingway’s short stories win the day in American prose, and two of Norman Mailer’s novels, read as an older adult, The Executioner’s Song and Harlot’s Ghost, rank highest on my list of prose. The first is a tone-poem on the Mormon underclass and on the criminal mind, and the other a true fable of CIA intrigue. My father was a Depression-era hobo, four years wandering. He never fit in, never amassed any money, lived to 95. My mother was an artist and early childhood educator who wrote a lot of books on the subject.
Neeli: I wrote that book because Hank wanted me to do it. I might have been much more critical, but could not muster the will. I left out his “plan,” the calculation, the mask he built. He was a good actor, basically, staging a wild act, the tough guy. At the same time, he was exciting to be around because he spoke these gems, one after another. That was good and he had a kind heart hidden behind the bantering. He worked long hours to get where he finally “got.” All through the 50s and 60s and 70s, the typewriter was his life. Actually, the book, “Bukowski: A Life,” a re-write of Hank, reveals more of his character, especially in the introductory essay where I give a rather detailed, if concise, account of our friendship.
Scot: You developed a friendship with Charles Bukowski, what is the most memorable time you recall as his friend?
Neeli: He and Linda came to my mother’s funeral and then to the graveside. If ever I needed a friend, it was then, and there he was. He told the rabbi at the service, “I was a little worried for you after Neeli spoke, but you did good, too.” Later, at graveside, I said, “I’m standing here with five of my favorite people in the world.” Bukowski counted and said, “Hey, you included yourself. I like that.” Linda Bukowski and I remain good friends I sometimes visit her down in San Pedro, Hank’s last home. There is that computer he used in his last years,and the swimming pool. Man, he deserved it all.
Scot: Your writing and poetry has taken you overseas. In your travels is poetry accepted differently overseas?
Neeli: The support given to the arts in Latin America and in Europe is quite something. This recent participation in a literary festival in Austria was charming, flawless actually. It is nice to see that poetry paid my way around the world — wow. I had two readings in Austria at the Sprachsalz Festival in the pocketbook sized town of Hall, which has a spectacular Old Town. The Tyrolean Alps loom over the place from two sides. While there, I met Gerard Malanga, an incredible poet and photographer, and part of the Warhol Circle in “the days.” Also, William Gass, author of many fine novels and essays. Connections are made and understandings built. Elias Schneitter, one of Austria’s most innovative poets, and now a publisher, will be doing a collection of my poems in a bi-lingual edition: Falling Light. It includes poems from across the decades, some written in Mexico, two from a long work called Frankfurt A To Aleph, my foray into Holocaust ‘thinking’ and into the beauty of German poetry and music. Falling Light also includes love poems and images of life in San Francisco’s North Beach. I am confident the work will speak well in the German Tongue. The project reminds me of how important translations of poets have been for me. How else would I feel such a friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca and Arthur Rimbaud — among others? Further, Frankfurt has brought me home to Nietzsche, one of those thinkers I found among my father’s books in the form of Thus Spake Zarathustra. I read it on one delving day, fascinated by the opening image, “When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home.” I am still meditating on that more than fifty years later. His home. The lake of his home. And he lives in a cave far from the crowd.
Scot: You have written extensively on the beat generation of poets. What makes them still so widely popular and copied?
Neeli: I don’t believe they are copied. They’re just part of the correspondence that goes on. You read Whitman, Thoreau, Blake, you have the beat thing right there. Also, John Wieners, Harold Norse, Amiri Baraka, and many others are lumped into the category “Beat.” Good God! It’s basically journalese. We have to leap across it and beat the term to death. Then it is possible to talk of the exciting and varied poetry of post-WW!! America, or “The New American Poetry,” which includes the Beats, but many other innovators as well. This is why the anthology The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen (1960) is so important as a useful map. It steps over narrow labels and establishes a sense of equilibrium. One sees Charles Olson and Robert Duncan in the saddle, writing new verse, not beat, but in essentially the same “uncapped” manner.
Scot: Do you have any other artistic pursuits besides writing?
Neeli: Yes, I paint and draw, using acrylics and pen and ink. Recently, my notebooks have been filling up with sketches, alongside the notes and the poems.
Scot: What are you most proud of?
Neeli: I sit and write and am happy to be participating in something so basic to our being as self-expression.. And I have this secret pride about it. But the concept of pride itself bothers me.
Scot: Who was the wildest of Whitman’s Wild Children, the book you wrote?
Neeli: They were a rowdy bunch. Ferlinghetti is the most mandarin of them. Bukowski calculated his “wildness.” He was well-read and keenly aware of the poetry that came before him. I think Walt Whitman outdoes all of them on that score. By “wild children” I meant poets who took their cue from outside of established literary tradition. When you look at that tradition, however, you find a good deal of wildness.
Scot: What person or poet has had the greatest influence on your writing?
Neeli: There is a common touch in poetry, crossing time and convention. I aspire to write poems that would come close to Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos. How serious does one want to be? There are sections of that masterful work that stands like the land itself. Central to the magic of that Pisan book is the way Pound jumps from West to East. The European influence is there, but so is the gentle touch of Chinese aesthetics. Robert Duncan observed that Pound and figures like him made one want to be more serious.
I was close to Harold Norse, 29 years my senior. He had a subtle, but strong influence over the direction of my writing and was crucial to the changes I made in the 1980s. Rather than be specific, let me only say that he emphasized grandeur in a common voice. Norse palled around with the young James Baldwin, was Tennessee William’s room-mate when he wrote “The Glass Menagerie” and a “student” of William Carlos Williams. He had many tales to tell, and they were all interesting. Both of us were gay poets. He wrote poems of lust and I wrote poems of love. That was one difference between us. In the end, I realize how generous he was, finding ways of being critical about certain poems, yet with a positive tinge. On many occasions, either over a cafe table or in his study, he would urge me on, challenging me to knit more deeply, and, when he traveled, I could always expect fascinating letters, a number of which are now housed in my archive at the Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley).
Friedrich Hölderlin is a poet with whom I feel a close kinship. He wrote that “man dwells poetically.” Think of that. Yes. We are in the house of the poetic, and now we are crowded-in with misfortune on a shrinking planet. Yet, this poet calls for the shrinking gods to re-appear, meaning, in my view, for the mythos, the imagination to re-assert itself. He built words into temples, always tending to the silence, the empty space. The poem is a built thing born out of silence and yearning for words to come together, vocally and on the page.
I live by influence, by listening, ingesting, lingering in another poet’s voice. There are many younger writers here in San Francisco who I pay attention to — they are so ‘out there’ with a new sense of poetics, but this only means they are well-schooled in what has come before. You may take the present, yearn for the future — it rests on a foundation. One may, say it is all built on fragments taken out of the sweep of human time, even pre-human as we listen to waves on a shore or pay attention to how a bird soars over the breeze.
In the forefront of my thinking is the notion that a single poem streams through human consciousness and that we dip our minds there and find the words and phrases we need, and the measure we require. We read as we write and writer while we read, and, truly, we toss fine impressions into the air or onto our dreams and they will not see print. Buddha, Christ, and Socrates did not write, but look at their influence.
Neeli: Yes, Bob Kaufman was special. He climbed out of himself early on and wrote such inventive poetry. His magic lies in the way he stepped as far out of the culture as he could — behind it all was a loving, noble Kaufman clan from down south, New Orleans, a conventional family. They became quite proud of the renegade brother.
Scot: Who are your poetry heroes?
Neeli: I love richly lyrical poetry that echoes with nature. Still, the list is long, but here in U.S. Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, for starters. Certainly Allen Ginsberg as well, someone I actually knew. Ezra Pound I’ve mentioned at some length, but not his translations of European poetry and his rendering into English of The Confucian Odes — here he does a marvelous job. We feel as if those 1500 BCE singers, poets are speaking in a modern voice, looking for the same grace, fighting the same demons, etc. that occupy us today. My book, From the Middle Woods, is inspired by Pound’s work.
A few thoughts on WC Williams are in order. He is a master at stripping language to essentials, throwing out excess verbiage. A later poem, “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” is a long lyrical poem filled with the music of human speech. It intertwines the difficulties of love and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation — quite some accomplishment. Williams could focus well on a single flower, a single human being, or a whole panoply of images.
I used to tell my students that after Homer it was down-hill. His writings are the single greatest tool-box for poetry and I am happy so many translations of his epics still appear. We deconstruct so much of our past — it’s an industry — ripping off the glory of life and literature, putting everything on a scale we have invented as ‘advanced,’ O we are modern thinkers. One way of seeing it is to look at the cave art of early man, preserved due to the nature of the cave itself, and think about the empathy and beauty of the archaic images.
I loved teaching about the cave artists and the heroic Homer and discovering the excitement my students felt at the often vulnerable humanity the art and Homer’s writing invokes. Poetry is a means to praise life and to accept our mortal selves.
Scot: Greatest living poet alive today?
Neeli: Me, of course!
Neeli: Poetry, at its heart, does not change. It is elemental. There are surface disturbances, but the center holds. That center protects love without end and endless life. The newest poetry, and the strongest, communicates with elemental sensations and primal dreams. Poetry of complaint, social, political, literary, usually is stuck in its own misery. Rimbaud envisioned a world of poets. Why not? That would mean re-emphasizing a sense of the sacred. We might learn to live and love trees, bees, and the ocean. Still, the rage of Achilles works. Man is like the cosmos, a harmonious system held together by opposition. This is akin to what Heraclitus spoke of — a harmonious universe that is in a constant state of flux.
Scot: Has technology changed the face of poetry–good, bad or ugly?
Neeli: I call my computer “the magic slate.” At the same time I work with very snooty fountain pens, They bring me to an earlier time. And, as a poet working with nature, I sometimes wish that my technology only went as far as knowing how to build a fire on which I could cook the game I’ve killed with my bow and arrow. We can forget that. I just spent seven days in the mountains above Carrara without immediate W-Fi access and it drove me crazy.
Scot: How do you want to be remembered?
Neeli: Actually, that I cannot answer. I don’t want to die, but I will die. Sooner or later, nothing will be remembered.
Scot: You have been interviewed several times, what question do you wish you would have been asked and never were?
Neeli: I would love an interview where Bukowski is not mentioned, or at least not mentioned until question 16 or 17. I do thank you for your questions. Hail a rusty truck.
Scot: Sorry about that–so noted.