Monday, 10 March 2014

So, where were you when Bukowski died? London. 1994. Poetry. Bukowski

 So, where were you when Bukowski died?
London. 1994. Poetry. Bukowski.

In the early 1990’s I finished college and moved from Hastings to London. I traipsed the streets of the west end’s theatre-land knocking on every stage door seeking work. I was penniless and hungry but eventually got my first job in the flies, backstage at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, for the production of Miss Saigon. Working up in the flies you were up in the rafters, pulling the ropes to bring in backdrops and scenery throughout the performance. This was physical work, soon my hands became hardened to the rope burns, but the pay wasn't bad and the hours were perfect. I worked only during show time and this gave me my days free to pursue writing and music, to explore the capital, my new home. I diligently wrote letters to publishers and record company’s that were putting out the books and vinyl I loved. I left the theatre when I got a job with Acid Jazz Records, aged just twenty, my first real day job was as their A&R girl. This was also my last real day job, I haven’t had a nine to five office job since.

I find myself writing this because I have been working on a retrospective of my poetry which will be published by Burning Eye this summer. This new collection goes way back to the beginning, to my early poetry adventures which I feel all began with Bukowski. I first appeared on a London poetry stage in 1994 hiding behind the moniker Salena Saliva. That first gig was one hot summers night upstairs at The Paradise Bar in Kensal Rise, at the invitation of notorious mod poet Jock Scot. Jock was the first person I interviewed for my monthly ‘Unsung Heroes’ column in the Acid Jazz Magazine. Jock took me under his wing, I remember his wicked rock and roll influence, that he introduced to me to legends like the late Ian Dury, Shane McGowan and The Nectarine No.9. 

Jock Scot gave me my first ever Bukowski Notes of a Dirty Old Man. I was hooked and soon collecting everything I could find about him, books and underground zines from America, I discovered the collaboration he did with Robert Crumb. 

I had a shrine to Bukowski in my bedroom. Back then most people called me Salena Saliva but some started calling me Birdkowski. In those days I wrote a great many letters. I wrote Bukowski a letter, but sadly missed the boat by a few months, Charles Bukowski died twenty years ago today, March 9th 1994, he was aged seventy three. 

When I look back at the last two decades I owe much to that American poet. It isn’t feminist to like Bukowski - I have been lectured. I have listened to people argue that Bukowski was anti-feminist and anti-women. But I always found his poetry raw and real and readable. Its like drinking and smoking and staying up all night, I know its bad for me, but I always enjoyed it, his brutal honesty, tenderness and sense of humour. Bukowski didn’t appear to pander to cliques, to the snobbery or elitism that attaches itself to most poetry or art. It seemed he was always sharpening his tool, his inimitable voice and style, rather than competing with whatever prize or list every other poet was grabbing at. Bukowski was the craggy faced underdog and the outsider. He lived and wrote about a hard world, filled with shit jobs and bad sex, fuelled by hunger and booze, its his heavy-weight boozy bruiser poetry that remains my all-time anti-hero and a favourite re-read to this day. 

Back in 1994, following that first gig, I cut my teeth at weekly events that included Paul Lyalls Excess Express, The Hard Edge Club run by Joe Cairo and Mick P’s Pull My Daisy. I remember opening for John Cooper Clarke at Dirtbox, Phil Dirtbox’s club in Soho and performing shows for Arthrob at venues like The Ministry Of Sound, supporting the likes of Irvine Welsh and Will Self. And around that time in Soho there were regular boozy poetry nights for Rising Magazine on D’arblay Street at the Tactical Bar with Tim Wells, who has remained a great comrade to this day. And during the mid-1990's we were all doing shows together: Tim Wells, John Cooper Clarke, Murray Lachlan Young, Tim Turnbull, Jennie Bellestar, Francesca Beard, JC001, Courttia Newland, Dorothea Smartt, Vic Lambrusco, Attila The Stockbroker, Patience Agbabi, Lemn Sissay, Ivan Penaluna, Fran Landesman, Cheryl B, Joelle Taylor, Lucy English, Nathan Penlington to name just a few '90's favourites and jog your memory.

Patience Agbabi and Salena Godden / The Sunday Times
Soho was my playground and I enjoyed my A&R job. I was there at the Greek Street HQ for a couple of years. It seems dated now but I was delighted to go to the pressing plant to cut vinyl. I wined and dined bands and was out watching live gigs every night. As A&R assistant I listened to every cassette and wrote hundreds of replies. I understood it took money and guts to send a demo to a record company and the least I could do was respond or go see them play live. 

That summer I went to the 25th anniversary of Woodstock on the original site of Yaskurs Farm. I was there to see a band called something like Spanglehead who invited me to fly with them to America to see them play. This festival adventure quickly escalated into a Hunter S Thompson inspired road trip across the USA - travelling from Woodstock, New York through Texas to Flagstaff, Arizona. I joined a merry band of Dead Heads from Timothy Leary’s kitchen into the desert. And when I finally returned to England September 1994, glowing from the desert sun, galvanized from meeting the Hopi Indians, I couldn’t sit behind a desk, unless it was to be a writer. I wish I had a copy of the resignation letter I submitted to my boss Eddie Piller. I felt it was a declaration to be a poet inspired by the freedom of the open road.

I expected the writing life to be difficult, I had to learn to hustle. I was prepared to starve, to be rejected a million times. Poetry is not for the fame hungry or the light weight. I believe every book should lead you to another book, every author to the author they read. Reading is the gateway drug to writing. Influenced by friends like John Cooper Clarke, Jock Scot, Tim Wells and the spirit of Bukowski I discovered Black Sparrow Press and City Lights, John Fante, Richard Brautigan and William Burroughs and more. I spent a lot of time in the public library to nourish my appetite for reading but it was shelter and the warmest place in winter. It was also the cheapest place to photocopy poems to post to zines. It looked like one long party, but there was some method in the madness, a drive and discipline that shone through the beautiful chaos. 

So, it is with shameless sentimentality I write this and recall 1994, the year Bukowski died. If I had a time machine and typed in those words London. 1994. Poetry. Bukowski. I would be there reading Ham on Rye for the first time and doing my first ever gigs. My soundtrack to that year, The Beastie Boys Sabotage. Notably too it was the year Tarantino's Pulp Fiction came out. I presented short slots for Glastonbury on Channel 4 and got to meet Johnny and June Cash back stage. I remember watching the breathtaking Jeff Buckley play live down at the 12 Bar on Tin Pan Alley, I'll never forget the heartbreaking intimacy of that gig. And in April 1994, Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head, I distinctly remember the furore and the shocking pictures and articles in Melody Maker. Meanwhile that was the year Nixon died and the year Justin Beiber was born, just to give you a sense of the years and the times a-changing. 

London. 1994. Poetry is drinking and poetry is laughing and ranting in a dark smoky room above a pub, with a broken ice machine, with thick sticky carpets and nicotine stained walls. Poetry is heard about word of mouth, poetry is making homemade fliers and chapbooks and swapping them for beers. Poetry is on cassette or white labels with trip hop, ragga, ska and break beats. It's performance poetry or spoken word, it's punk poetry or ranting poetry. It's early Tricky and Banksy street graffiti, verbalised, oral and aural. 

London. 2014. And poetry is cutting a fine dash. Poetry is in rude health. We see poetry, headlining major international festivals like Latitude. Poetry is publishing fiercely and independently, poetry is online and getting hits on youtube and poetry is on the BBC. If you are under a certain age you will take much of this for granted. That poetry always had a forum for a roughly equal ratio of female and male poets, poets of different races, religions, education and class distinctions - but it wasn’t always quite like this. I have watched poetry go in and out of fashion, seen poets come and go. Doing poetry is a long, long game with very few material rewards, but if you do it, you do it, and you’ll keep doing it, fighting the good fight, because its the only good fight there is.

Bukowski “If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

‘Springfield Road’ a literary memoir of childhood in 1970's will be out soon with Unbound Books. Its not too late to get your name in my book, just sign in here. The new poetry collection will be published with Burning Eye later in 2014. Please subscribe to 'Waiting For Godden' to get the latest on these new books, launch parties, festivals, gigs and more! 

My next gig is MARCH 27th with the mighty Tongue Fu
If you admire David Lynch, William Burroughs or Andy Warhol, you might like a one-off show we're doing at The Photographers Gallery in the West End as part of an exhibition of their work.