Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman gave me a reason to keep writing

A typewriter surrounded by books, a crumpled paper, a potted cactus and two empty beer bottles.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Charles Bukowski stood on the staircase landing above us in the lobby of the Cal State L.A. student union. Students crowded the floor. Bukowski growled and grumbled poems tersely, the “notes of a dirty old man.” At an elevation, he looked like a haggard Rodin bust of Balzac. Between quips, he chugalugged Michelobs as some enabler behind him pulled fresh bottles out of a bag and stowed the empties.

This was the first poetry reading I’d ever attended, in 1975. I thought “Buk” — or Hank, as the fans liked to call him — was either nervous or playing to public persona. The six-pack or two he guzzled in 45 minutes didn’t impress me, thanks to my own alcoholic dad, but I did respect Bukowski’s poetry. His laconic “verse” (let’s call it that) was embittered and world-weary, defiant or faux-defiant, a perfectly potent analogue to this city of strip malls and sun-blasted avenues, industrial zones and mean streets — the L.A. that Jack Kerouac had called “the loneliest and most brutal of cities.”

What makes writers’ favorite memoir on the Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf Luis J. Rodriguez’s ‘Always Running’? It’s a personal story that aims to save us all.

April 12, 2023

I grew up across the freeway from Cal State L.A. in City Terrace, so when a friend told me Bukowski was reading, I walked over. In high school, I spent my days filling notebook after notebook with drawings and writing. When a notebook was full, I threw it away and picked up another. When an activist friend found out about my habit, he took a stack of notebooks to Gidra, the Asian American movement newspaper, which first published my work. I wasn’t the best student, but I read all the time, sometimes a book a day.

"Love is a Dog From Hell" by Charles Bukowski

I left home for good at 17. I hitchhiked back and forth to Northern California to see my younger brother. Paul had been kicked out of the house at 12 and was living in hippie communes or foster homes or sometimes on the street. Once, standing on Highway 1 south of Monterey, Paul handed me the classic City Lights pocket book, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” which immediately detonated all my ideas of literature. Ginsberg’s incantatory dithyrambs pulled the Beats, Walt Whitman and much of 20th century poetry into view. More than that, my brother’s gift put me in touch with the whole West Coast counterculture our father was part of — with his alcoholism and Zen Buddhism, his haphazard poetry and painting during a life on the road.

By the time I saw Bukowski read, I’d already read his poetry. It didn’t hit me with the force of “Howl,” but I recognized the L.A. I grew up in. John Martin had founded Black Sparrow Press in the 1960s in order to publish Bukowski, and his burgeoning international sales funded a whole catalog of avant-garde writers. During hitchhiking trips to visit my dad, who often roomed in a Santa Barbara YMCA, we’d frequent bookstores together. That was how, in a used bookstore near the Santa Barbara Greyhound station, I came across Wanda Coleman’s first Black Sparrow Press chapbook, 1977’s “Art in the Court of the Blue Fag.”

The 14 most essential L.A. poems or poetry collections, including those by Wanda Coleman, Robin Coste Lewis, Sesshu Foster, Bukowski, Brecht and more.

April 11, 2023

My dad, born and raised in the shipyard town of Vallejo, was a Signal Corps veteran who used his GI benefits to study painting with Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Richard Diebenkorn at the San Francisco Art Institute. He went to Saburo Hasegawa’s lectures on Zen and the art of painting, drank red wine at Beat poetry readings around San Francisco. After having some 10 children with three wives, he lost all his families to alcohol and the restless road.

My relationship with my father was largely in writing: weekly letters — sometimes four or five a week — from wherever he went in the world, detailing his adventures and daily marvels. He wrote to me also of César Vallejo and Henri Michaux, Chuang Tzu and Kenneth Rexroth’s translations from the Chinese and Japanese, often starting his letters with quotations.


Years later, in college, I was trying to write my own first book, wearing out manual typewriters I bought at yard sales for $20, typing and retyping manuscripts I threw away in frustration and disgust. In Bukowski’s “Post Office” and “Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame,” and in Coleman’s “Mad Dog Black Lady” and “Imagoes,” I could see the maximum L.A., the violent, vast indifferent L.A., that we’d experienced and survived. I couldn’t see that city in my own slack sentences, but Bukowski and Coleman proved there was a there there. They set a standard I could not ignore.

"Mecurochrome: New Poems" by Wanda Coleman
(Godine / Black Sparrow Press)

I met Coleman and her husband, Austin Straus, after college, while I was writing poems that seeded my first book. They came to a reading I gave at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research on South Vermont Avenue. Wanda and Austin approached afterward and said they liked my work. They ran the “Poetry Connexion” program on KPFK, 90.7 FM — would I care to feature as a guest? Weeks later, I did; they were cordial and generous, and I was stiff with beginner’s nerves.

Famous for dynamic, performative readings, Wanda appeared intense and volatile, but I found her unfailingly supportive of younger writers. She got backlashed and “Black”-listed for daring to pan a book by Maya Angelou. Her columns for the now-defunct L.A. Times Magazine grated on some readers, who sent letters to the editor.

Indeed, she could be stern and direct. In a letter to me (a copy of which somebody stuck in a glass case at UCLA’s posthumous tribute), she blasted one of my poems, instructing me to radically revise the whole thing. We crossed paths around town and read together at venues like the Midnight Special Bookstore. For my second book, Wanda contributed a blurb that struck me as both enthusiastic and sincere, and I finally felt my writing could stand on its own in L.A.’s smoggy glare.

Your ultimate L.A. Bookhelf is here — a guide to the 110 essential L.A. books, plus essays, supporting quotes and a ranked list of the best of the best.

April 13, 2023

The last time I saw Wanda was at the Boulder, Colo., motel where Naropa University houses its summer instructors. Between that first KPFK radio show and our last chat in Boulder, Wanda had recommended me and many other poets for grants, publications, reading series and gigs. But more than all that, Wanda represented all of us — the poets and readers of Los Angeles — with fierce and revelatory honesty.

Her husband, Austin, called in 2013 to inform me of Wanda’s death. In her last years, exiled to the desert due to failing health and lack of institutional support, Wanda passed after an uncustomary silence. Her renewed national recognition in recent years, a kind of posthumous comeback, strikes me as both welcome and sad, indicative of the hard face L.A. showed its own major poet.

Foster is the author, most recently, of “City of the Future,” winner of a 2019 Firecracker Award for Poetry.