A small improvement upon the truth, reading Charlene Rubinski
Interview by Ben Pleasants.
“You know, you’ve got people out there, just craving to be attacked by Bukowski. They used to line up, “Please, Please…””
Steve Richmond, Meat Poet, with more than twenty books to his credit, was Charles Bukowski’s best friend at the time of their greatest production. Letters back and forth between the two number almost two hundred. After forty years of heavy drug use, Steve has reemerged to claim his place as the writer of thousands of Gagaku poems, a form he invented, and America’s most important lyric poet since Emily Dickinson. Here, Steve Richmond talks Ben Pleasants through Charlene Rubinski, his satirical (and now scarce) fact-based take on the Bukowski legend.
3:AM: You wrote it in like 1979, 1980, something like that?
Steve Richmond: I guess.
3:AM: This is the first edition, and this was in Stance? This is Stance 5, I think.
SR: I published that myself. I don’t know, is that was it was?
3:AM: It says Stance Press.
SR: Yeah, that’s when I was putting out the Stance Magazine.
3:AM: Right, ok and I think it was the last one you did, like 5 or something like that. It came out in 1980, but I think you wrote it in 1979, or something like that. By that time I completely lost touch with you. I went through a divorce, so I was living in the Palisades. So life for me was very different.
SR: Yeah… I don’t know what I was doing.
3:AM: You were doing fine, you were doing well in 1980.
SR: I was still living in the house. I wrote that…it was either that or kill myself.
3:AM: Anyway, so let’s go back to Charlene Rubinski, if you don’t mind? It was a real pain-in-the-ass to get this stamped and copied. “Oh, could you fill out this form? Are you going to use this?” ‘I know the guy.’ “Yeah? You want to prove it?” [laughing]
SR: Where was it, UCLA Special Collections?
3:AM: Yeah. I mean I know all the people there, but they were just giving me a hard time because they are mad at me.
3:AM: They are mad at me because I wrote about the fact that the guy who now runs the Huntington and the woman who now runs the UCLA Special Collections had an affair like 20 years ago and they hate each other. I thought it was very funny, that they were competing for the same spot. They can’t stand each other.
SR: You wrote about that in a couple of articles.
3:AM: Yeah, it’s out there someplace. It goes on and on, they can’t defend themselves. And it’s good. It should be that way.
SR: So it still exists at UCLA Special Collections?
3:AM: Yeah, they’ve got a lot of your stuff there.
SR: They’ve got everything.
3:AM: I think they do, yeah. Did you send them things? Or did they just buy them?
SR: You know when I had the Earth Rose store? They always… they came out…I’d be sittin’ in there and the place would be empty for three days in a row, not even a …maybe some little groupie would come in. And then, they came in two of them from UCLA Special Collections, and they looked around and said, “This is a goldmine!” And they bought like 700 bucks’ worth of books. Back in those days it was like $7000…they got things for, you know, 50 cents.
SR: They told me, whatever you do, send it to us.
3:AM: My friend, Jim Davis, he was a buyer, not then but after that, he was just a great guy. He was one of my best friends and died a few years ago… I went to his retirement thing at UCLA, and all of these people came up to him and said “You were the guy who got me into Library Science, it changed my life, it was the best thing that ever happened!” And he’d say to me, “I have no idea who that was.” [both laughing] But he was a wonderful person. There are people you miss and there are people you really miss, he was somebody I really miss… So anyway, I got it done through them. Tell me how you came up with the idea for Charlene Rubinski? I never saw this before and I’d heard about it, it has become kind of legend. But I think they are trying to squelch it. So that nobody will ever get to see it again. It is my purpose to republish it.
SR: There is a thing about a “Zelda Fulbright” in there. The one person who would try to do that would be John Martin, that’s “Zelda Fulbright.” It’s one of the chapters.
3:AM: Let’s go through it chapter by chapter.
“In 1980 I decided to supplement my income. An old writer friend, Charlene Rubinski, had taken two recent trips to Europe at the expense of her publishers. I decided that if my publishers wouldn’t send me to Europe, I’d gather funds of my own.”
So who were you talking about there? “Charlene Rubinski.”
SR: That was after he wrote, remember he wrote Shakespeare Never Did This.
3:AM: Who’s “he”?
SR: Charles Bukowski. I wrote the book, using a gender [reversal].
3:AM: And why would you attack this poor man who never used real people in any of his books? [both laughing]
SR: It says so right up front: “Any similarity to any persons living or dead is pure coincidence.”
3:AM: There was a reference to him in Gossip Girl, which is a great thing about rich, rich girls in New York on television, of Bukowski being very cruel and misusing people.
SR: I think they got that from D.H. Lawrence. You’ve got to make a living. I don’t know, he was good at it, wasn’t he? He used us all. We knew it. And that’s all right. It goes with the territory.
3:AM: Absolutely, what are we little boys, for god’s sake? Are we going to go crying to, like Harold Norse…so anyway, “Charlene Rubinski” is a woman who became Charles Bukowski in the book, right?
SR: Yeah, I wrote it…first I wrote the manuscript using Charles, it wasn’t “Charlene Rubinski” obviously, it was another name, I think it was “Charles Mankowski.”
3:AM: Ah, huh. Male.
SR: Which just happens to be the name that Elmore Leonard uses in one of his novels, his hero character was “Mankowski.” But it didn’t come off until I changed all the male characters to female, and all the female characters to male, and then it worked.
3:AM: Yeah, it’s really a great novella…satirical. Why did you write it?
SR: I had to…after I wrote it…I read somewhere where he said about Richmond, he said “Never cross Richmond.” [laughing] ‘Cause he’d read it, he read Charlene Rubinski. It was right after either what he wrote about me in Women the novel or the 300 Poems poem. Probably, the 300 Poems, which you called me on the phone and told me about.
3:AM: Yeah, you mentioned this. I don’t remember doing that but I thought it was pretty cool. What did he write about you in Women?
SR: I don’t know, I think my name is “Marvin Woodman.” [laughing] So first of all, he has me down as “He is rich, and I am poor.” He writes about demons and demons in Argentina, and demons in Paraguay, he is the best demon writer in, you know, Zambia. [laughing] It was great. You know, you’ve got people out there, just craving to be attacked by Bukowski. They used to line up, “Please, Please…”
3:AM: Did he ever try to run you over by a car?
SR: No, Linda King tried to run him over.
3:AM: Ok, because he said he did. He said he tried to run you over in a car.
SR: Who said that?
3:AM: Bukowski. He said after reading at The Bridge bookstore in Hollywood, he got drunk and he was driving on the sidewalk.
SR: I thought that was the Linda King story trying to run him over, which he has written about 100 times. No, he never tried to run me over. We had one violent, almost violent, confrontation when he was with Neely at my place, and he was drunk and he spit on the floor and got up to cuss me out…he had asked me…they came in they were drunk, they asked to see my recent poems…I showed them to them, probably the 300 Poems and I had to…he got up, he spit, I said ‘Ok that’s it’ I got up and put my hand on his shoulder and I lead him out the front door. I wasn’t gonna hit him.
3:AM: Actually, Bukowski was very strong. I saw him in one fight where a guy said something he definitely shouldn’t have said in his place and Bukowski decked him.
SR: He told me, he threw his head against the windowsill. He’s a shape-shifter. Bukowski was a shape-shifter.
3:AM: He was always nice to me. I never in any way felt ever in any danger unless we were both in danger. One time we went down to the fights and they picked his car up, so we couldn’t find his car and we were worried about that it was, like, 2 o’clock in the morning walking around downtown. [laughing]
SR: There was this picture in the symposium, the Bukowski symposium, that tells the whole story, he’s got his hand on your shoulder. You helped him, a huge amount, you helped him out.
3:AM: Well, I mean, I was his friend that’s all.
SR: You were getting article after article in the L.A. Times.
3:AM: There were only two actually…So “Jim King” is a male and “Jim King” would be…
SR: “Jim King” is Linda King, yeah.
3:AM: You didn’t try hard to hide that.
SR: No, Malone wrote a review of it, when he was at Wormwood, where he put down every character and who it really was… in the back section of the Wormwood.
“Struggle was over for Charlene Rubinski and Struggle was the most beautiful thing about her…”
3:AM: What do you mean by that?
SR: Well, once she made it, what did she do? She went Hollywood. Hanging out with the…she is a careerist. [laughing] Nothing wrong with that. Every writer worth his salt has a career.
3:AM: Yeah, but he started out in the oddest way to make a success by starting out of little magazines…
SR: You know, he started out with “I hate the rich” and takes the side of the poor. And then he gets rich and then what? He won’t hang with you unless you’re rich! [laughing]
3:AM: He said when he had his house, “Now what the hell am I going to write about the garden? I guess there are things I could write about.” The garden, his life wasn’t tough anymore.
SR: Yeah, when he came to the wedding reception, man, he said “It was better when I was on a park bench, I didn’t have to worry about the mortgage papers, and the insurance papers, and these papers, and those papers, and all the papers.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 11th, 2009.