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Review: Charles Bukowski – The Laughing Heart

SPIFF’s Entertaining 6-hour Tribute Honors San Pedro’s Most Enduring Literary Figure

By Ivan Adame, Contributor

“Buk’s dead,” said the poet RD Armstrong, also known as “Raindog,” bluntly while on stage during the San Pedro International Film Festival’s 95th birthday tribute to Charles Bukowski. The words seemed to teeter between bewilderment and amazement at Bukowski’s continuing influence. It has been 21 years since Bukowski died in San Pedro.

Like him or not, Bukowski remains appealing to readers because of his depictions of sex, alcohol, poverty, and endurance with — or without — those things. They can be fleeting working-class portraits for some, or affirmations for others.

Much like one of his few acknowledged influences, Ernest Hemingway, Bukowski had gained an eccentric persona which may have run contrary to him.

For Harbor Area locals his appeal would be very difficult to question. Downtown San Pedro is simultaneously within arms-reach of art, booze, and poverty.  In other words: it’s all still here, and not very much has changed.

Much like some spiritual, literary retreat, the 6-hour long, Aug. 17 sold-out tribute Charles Bukowski – The Laughing Heart was attended by Bukowski’s friends and fans, all bundled together at the Grand Annex. They were fittingly surrounded by the sweaty summer heat and the lingering smell of alcohol.

The event comprised of several poetry readings, a live presentation, a lively panel discussion, and several film screenings, all of which were a testament to Bukowski’s enduring influence.

The film adaptations of two poems, “Love is a dog from hell” and “Nirvana” were brief and vivid. However, Bent Hamer’s 2005 feature adaptation of the novel, Factotum, was neither brief nor vivid. No matter how intentional its perpetual slackness was, the feature could not save itself from tedium. It has a few redeeming, deadpan moments, but Bukowski’s prose style was poorly translated into film.

Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez read from his own poetry, and concluding with Bukowski’s ever-popular “So You Want To Be A Writer.”

Poet and Cal State Long Beach professor, Gerald Locklin, read his published account of Bukowski’s funeral. He told an amusing anecdote about the specific location where Bukowski vomited at the college’s parking lot.

Guest poets Raindog, Alexis Rhone Fancher, and Michael C. Ford read from their own work, working from common Bukowski themes.

One of the poetry highlights belonged to Raindog, who read a sardonic and autobiographical poem about a cashier at a Long Beach supermarket who, by dumb luck, asks if he’s familiar with Bukowski. After telling her that “Me and Buk go way back,” she gives him a discount on his jar of peanut butter. “At last my association with Bukowski is paying off,” he said.

Another highlight of the readings belonged to poet Alexis Rhone Fancher, whose high-octane erotic poetry provoked cheers from the audience.

Sue Hodson, curator of The Huntington Library and Art Collections, presented highlights from its acquisition of Bukowski’s manuscripts, letters, and literary and pornographic magazines, some of which contained rare glimpses into his talent as a cartoonist.

Also during the presentation, Hodson drew parallels from Bukowski poems to that of Walt Whitman.

“They’re very much of one mind, even if they’re a century apart.”  Hodson said.

During the panel, each of the panelists gave their own insights as to how Bukowski was perceived by the academic and literary establishment. While Michael C. Ford believed that the academics patronized him as “the poet laureate of skid row,” Hodson believed that he took it in stride.

“He was proudest of a letter that came to him from some inmates in some prison in Australia who said that his book was the only book that got passed from cell to cell,” Hodson said.

While it was fun, stimulating, and educational, the day-long Charles Bukowski –The Laughing Heart was a moving tribute to the poet, capturing much of Bukowski’s complexities as a person, while asserting that his work is very much alive in our local and literary character.

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