Neeli Cherkovski was born in 1945 down among the showmanship depths of Southern California (So Cal), that hazardous wonderland where sandy beaches lie stranded alongside industrial waste yards and international seaports while oil rigs are as likely to dot the ocean horizon as they are the local corner that was once nothing but a sand dune. Poetry thrives there much as it might anywhere of course. Having myself been raised a So Cal 1980s-90s skateboarding kid, however, I’ve witnessed firsthand how over the last sixty years the abysmal landscape has swelled into a decidedly detrimental locale for the eye and ear: all that offensive sprawl of concrete, the endless summer of swimming pool after swimming pool, freeways spiraling out to nowhere and everywhere, the Hollywood cultural engine grotesquely burning up individuals as if they were house flies attracted to its merciless death-dealing light.
This is Cherkovski’s home territory. He’s lucky enough though to have had a family history rich in character which as luck would have it has generally supported his pursuit of influences beyond reach of the region’s most disastrous kind. His father spent the Depression hopping freight trains crisscrossing the West. Rather than attempt to hide his past out of any sense of shame he passed onto Cherkovski awareness and appreciation for the values of the hobo perspective; not only sharing the worthwhile nature of experiencing the human interaction with fellow travelers but also exposing him to appreciation for the physical environment, the trains and tracks on which he rode.
Neeli Cherkovski: The Thirteenth Man by Art Beck (Big Bridge)
A retrospective review of:
From the Canyon Outward, R.L. Crow, 2009
Animal, Pantograph Press, 1996
Whitman’s Wild Children, Steerforth Press, re-issued 1999
I’ve known Neeli Cherkovski since the 1970s. Whenever we’ve met, it’s always been cordial, jovial, collegial, just plain fun. But despite having lived in the same city all these years, we only seem to run into each other every five years or so. We always vow to get together again soon, but…
Re-reading Whitman’s Wild Children, Neeli Cherkovski’s critical memoirs of twelve beat-contemporary poets – first published in 1988 and reissued in 1998 to add Michael McClure and Jack Micheline – I realize why. Neeli and I have lived in the same city, but in parallel universes. In one sense, perhaps no one lives in the “same” San Francisco, the way the old Greeks opined that no one could step into the same river twice.
But maybe that’s too philosophical. The reason I mention this is to point out that whatever perspective I have on Neeli’s poetry and poetics may be skewed by my own bend in that river. Through the seventies, eighties, nineties and much of the “aughts”, I was working in a bank and publishing poetry under a pen name. I socialized with poets, but didn’t lead “a poet’s life.”
Neeli, conversely, has been intimately involved in that milieu of poets and post beat bohemia that’s sometimes characterized as “North Beach.” But as much a state of mind as geography. A place in the mind where the Los Angeles ghost of Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg’s New York shade still slip out from the stacks of City Lights for a smoke in Jack Kerouac Alley.
We all know you and Bukowski worked together, but how close were you as friends?
NC: I don’t know how close anyone could really be with Hank. The best times we had were one on one, drinking bouts at his De Longpre Avenue apartment in East Hollywood. There was no end to the bantering, mostly about the literary life. He liked to spar and was happiest when we were in disagreement. His wife, Linda Lee, tells me “You and Hank were closer than anyone but me.” Well, I don’t know if that is true. I spent so much time with him in the late 60s, on into the very early 70s. There was something there — the “old man” and the kid. He was nearing fifty and I was in early to mid twenties during that period. Thinking back, I remember how open he was with his feelings. I also understood that he held a lot in. I guess we all do. He had a wily and calculating side. This man was so dedicated to the writing. Many things were left for the page. Hank had a way of pacing himself. What many think of as a chaotic life, was actually well regulated. He had time for the writing and time for his friends. There was time for the race track and time to write letters. Etc. In retrospect, I wish we had been correspondents. He kept encouraging me to write letters, so that we could build up a conversation in that manner. Alas. It felt so much better being in his presence.
The wild man was there, but only in the late night, when drink got the best of him. it is clear that he was, despite raw edges, a true gentleman. My partner, Jesse, liked him very much. He is a psychiatrist. After spending just a little time with Hank (late 80s) he remarked to me, Your friend Bukowski would have been a great therapist, He has empathy and he knows how to listen.” How close were we? Probably as close as you could get t him — Push the friendship hard and he will burn you, Writing a bio of “my friend” certainly changed the relationship. That is another story. I suggest the introduction to my rewrite of the bio as an overview of our friendship.
Scot: As a child what did you want to grow up to be?
Neeli: I’m not sure. Childhood hardly exists. Sam and Clare Cherry were loving parents, old bohemian souls. But I was needy, alienated, muddled, easily angered, mistrustful, etc, etc. To put a positive spin on it, I was sensitive. My friends were outcasts. Public school was horrific, fraught with psychic danger. Often, I challenged my teachers, especially in junior high school. Later, I held my breath because it wasn’t worth the effort. Making an adult eat his or her words when you are twelve or thirteen is embarrassing all the way around. The worst thing was play period. Participatory sports was one of the dangers. I did have a playmate, who I still see now and then, the Mormon kid from across Rosewood Avenue in MarVista, Los Angeles. The latter half of childhood was spent in San Bernardino where my folks eventually opened a bookstore/art gallery that provided a constant source of books. It was Walt Whitman who spoke to me and for me. I heard his secrets and cherished them. I also came into possession of some haiku books that were in the family bookshelf and a book of Longfellow’s poetry. My father occasionally recited The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, especially when he was drunk.
Like a lot of adolescents, I went through many novels, beginning with Moby Dick, moving on through Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck — on and on. Hemingway’s short stories win the day in American prose, and two of Norman Mailer’s novels, read as an older adult, The Executioner’s Song and Harlot’s Ghost, rank highest on my list of prose. The first is a tone-poem on the Mormon underclass and on the criminal mind, and the other a true fable of CIA intrigue. My father was a Depression-era hobo, four years wandering. He never fit in, never amassed any money, lived to 95. My mother was an artist and early childhood educator who wrote a lot of books on the subject.
What characterize Neeli Cherkovski’s philosophy about the life…and world?
Somewhere in my poetry there is a philosophy “about the life.” I have always listened to the world. My first three poems, written when I was 12 in 1957 were on Gandhi, Buddha, and Africa. I was reaching — reaching over frontiers. Gandhi intrigued me because of his non-violence. I had read his autobiography and marveled at his focus on making changes, first in South Africa and then in India. His work led me to the Bhagavad Gita, the classic Hindu text on the law of karma, and on doing one’s duty. It has helped me keep top my life as a poet, even in days (or years) when I didn’t write much. I came across Some Sayings of the Buddha, according to the Pali canon. Actually, my father gave it to me, he was very subversive. In this translation of early Buddhist thinking I found what has turned into a lifetime of thinking. pausing, and thinking again. Here is the guidebook to undertaking a journey into the whole world, into the mind of a plant, the sound a tree makes, the light in an animal’s eyes. All of that.
I also read Rousseau’s Confessions and the Social Contract. He stresses, of course, individual freedom, the right to think independently and the need for self-expression. I felt he stood by me when I challenged some of the things I heard in school. My iconoclasm often sent me to the Dean’s Office, which was cool. As for Africa, it is always there as a kind of dream, the original home of the human race. Again, my father led me there.
Well, fifty years later and what do I know about this life, this world? Some of my best memories are about hiking and camping, alone, in wilderness areas round Southern California. I’d go off for days, or weeks, at a time and commune with the trees, the streams, mountain lakes — it was splendid. Sitting alone at a campfire, nothing like it, watching the wood go down to coals and the coals go up in ashes. I confess, I was a boy scout, mainly because I was in love with other kids my age.
Walt Whitman’s “Salute A Monde” seems so naive today, even as many of us reach across borders and languages to redeem our land, our sense of communion. My view, my idea, my philosophy of life centers around the need to re-adjust ourselves to the planet, to leave the rain forest alone, to keep the wild, or some of it, wild. Ah, so many people now, a crowded planet, and crowded minds.
I go to the poets, many of the great classical ones, like Homer (always Homer) and the poets of ancient China, so boldly rendered into English by Ezra Pound in The Confucian Odes. Five thousand old beatniks, from way back in time, beat on my door. I remember reading Rimbaud back in 1961, for the first time, in a tiny illustrated edition — this guy, wow! He had such insight, such anger directed art a stultifying society. Poets inform me. They expand my mind. They are like medicinal plants for my brain. Listening to Sappho’s paeans for love is another significant event in my life.