I was seventeen and working my first job at Mann’s Village Theatre in Westwood, California. My friend Carlos had put in a good word for me and I was hired after a brief five-minute interview in the lobby. Minimum wage as (as it is now) about the price of a bargain matinée ticket and without revealing how much that was let’s just say that my first week I worked 28 hours and made $65 before taxes.
It was an awesome experience, that first paycheck, that heady allure of money coming in a steady stream. I had no bills, no sense of saving money, no financial responsibilities except to keep putting gas in the car. I had that brass ring of capitalistic happiness, disposable income, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
Well, I did. I mean, now I could eat out anywhere or anytime I wanted. I could stop borrowing friends records and recording them and start buying my own vinyl. I could hang out at the mall and buy cookies the size of my head – 3 for a dollar – or hang out with friends after school and eat pizzas.
Then I discovered bookstores.
There were the big bookstores around Westwood which made perfect places to hang out during breaks at work. You could use a fifteen minute break to wolf down a falafel or softball-sized carrot cake muffin and spend your entire meal break later at the bookstore looking at all those books piled everywhere. I discovered so many books that were important to me in those early days of reckless spending, a dozen or so I still own several decades later, but the oddest in retrospect was the first book of poetry I ever bought for myself.
I have to clarify, because I did own a collection of Edward Lear’s work, and I know there were other books that were either gifts or books that entered the house that I assumed as my own, but there was one distinct book that I consciously picked up, read parts of, and purchased with little more going for it than a random page test reading.
It was Charles Bukowski’s Play The Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin To Bleed a Little.
Bukowski is either the best or the worst poet to put into a teen boy’s hands. This was in the late 1970s and his reputation was only starting to bubble to the surface of the mainstream, so I found very few people I could talk to about Bukowski’s poems. I had a sense there were some who would be put off by his crudeness, his portraits of lowlife and barlife, people who found little they liked in poetry because they thought poetry was hard, or was like a secret society where you had to know to rules to “get” what was on the page. I’m talking about my teenage peers here, not the adults who (then and now) really wouldn’t have appreciated a teen reading this stuff.
The poems didn’t speak to me so much as they spoke with a single-minded clarity I hadn’t been exposed to before. They rang with a sort of ugly truth that felt more relevant than the Beat poetry I had recently been exposed to. Kerouac and Ginsberg were noodling jazz, all filigree word salad, Bukowski was a bell buoy in choppy seas.
I’ve read more Bukowski but I only own one other book by him, the biographical novel Ham on Rye. Sometimes I feel like I should own more but I find that out of every collection there are only a couple poems that work for me and the rest I could live without. Also, I’m slightly afraid that owning other collections of his poems would diminish the impact of this one book, my first, in a way that would take away its specialness.
Specialness. What makes it special? Was it that I bought the book with my own money, or the fact that buying poetry felt like a sophisticated act? I certainly didn’t brag about it, about owning a book of poetry, though I’m sure my teenage self did casually mention to people about this “weird poet” I’d “heard about.” I do think there is something to be said about its first-ness and I wonder if the cumulative effect wasn’t what kept me tangentially attached to poetry all these years.
I’m curious: what was your first book of poetry that you purchased for yourself? How old were you? Do you still own it?