A Square-Cornered Archivist

Feb 9, 2011

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the new issue of Slake; the Bukowski show runs at the Huntington until Feburary 14th, and author Laurie Ochoa will read more from this piece at Vroman’s on February 13th.

Sue Hodson: Literary Curator at the Huntington Library
By Laurie Ochoa

We are upstairs at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, and the folding chairs are filling fast. Somebody has thoughtfully placed a cooler of cheap beer toward the back of the space, and the hospitality is gratefully received by the crowd gathered to hear several experts discuss the work of the late Los Angeles poet and novelist Charles Bukowski.

The event is billed “An Evening with Bukowski’s Friends,” and the night’s speakers have been chosen by the author’s widow, Linda Lee Bukowski. The woman at the podium, though, does not look like the usual Bukowski connoisseur.

“I’m a square-cornered library archivist,” says Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library. Hodson has sensible short hair, comfortable shoes, a mauve tweed jacket, and glasses that frame her forthright expression. Hodson admits that she hadn’t given Charles Bukowski’s work serious thought until Linda Bukowski showed her around the couple’s home in San Pedro. There, Hodson went through a treasure trove of Bukowski letters, photographs, rare first editions, and limited-run books lovingly maintained in a temperature-controlled archiveroom. When she gives the Vroman’s audience a brief history of Bukowski’s life, it’s clear that  Hodson has absorbed a lot from her research.

And then she utters a shocking expletive from the podium that shows just how deep her research has taken her. There’s no way around the word. Hodson is reading one of her favorite Bukowski poems and it’s right there in the title: “The History of One Tough….” Well, let’s just say the word begins with “mother.”

Bukowski turning respectable librarians into potty-mouths is only a modest anomaly in his unlikely afterlife. More impressive is that with the institutional backing of San Marino’s Huntington Library, home of fifteenth-century Chaucer manuscripts and a Gutenberg Bible, this scholar is standing before a beer-swigging crowd, advocating for a poet who was posthumously accused before the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission of being a Nazi sympathizer and person “of low moral character,” charges that the commission dismissed. Even more unlikely, Hodson has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to Bukowski: manuscripts, photos, correspondence, rare Black Sparrow Press editions of his work, and a large collection of ephemera, much of it from Linda Bukowski’s personal archives.

Among critics and readers in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Bukowski’s reputation is strong (Camus, Genet, and Sartre were all advocates). And he has many famous partisans—Tom Waits, Sean Penn, Bono, Barbet Schroeder, Taylor Hackford, and Mickey Rourke among them. But his Hollywood following earns him no credit among certain literati, even in his hometown. Many Los Angeles writers are still embarrassed by Bukowski’s status in local letters. They view him as a drunken, untalented misogynist, or else they dismiss him as an artifact of Boho 101, a writer to put aside once you graduate to “real” literature. At the other end of the spectrum are the Bukowski fanatics, who sometimes pay homage with their livers, adopting his Barfly persona. Hodson is a bridge between the extremes. In her audio introduction to the Huntington exhibition, she calls Bukowski “one of the most original voices in twentieth-century English-language literature.”

Yes, she says, “he wrote about the pimps, the prostitutes, the gamblers, the scam artists, the drunks, the layabouts on the edges of society. But he also wrote about blue-collar workers, the common people who simply struggle to live, to survive.”

Hodson knows that Bukowski would protest that he couldn’t have cared less that a place like the Huntington finds his doodles and scribbled notes significant enough to put in a museum display case. This may be one reason why she chose to read “The History of One Tough Motherfucker” at Vroman’s. The poem, about survival and friendship, describes “a white cross-eyed tailless cat” that is beaten, shot at, and run over but survives anyway. It’s also a shot at the literary establishment.

… and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say, “look, look
at this!”
but they don’t understand, they say something like, “you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up, “by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows …
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photographed together.

he too knows it’s bull**** but that somehow it all helps.

Inside the Huntington, beyond the wood-paneled lobby and past the Renaissance tapestry that hangs in the stairwell on the way to Hodson’s office, a metal book cart is stacked with folders containing some of the letters, photos, and marked-up manuscripts waiting to be mounted for the Bukowski exhibition (on display through Monday, February 14). On the wall across from Hodson’s nearby desk is a huge black-and-white image of Jack London on horseback at his Glen Ellen ranch. It’s a souvenir that Hodson kept from an earlier Huntington exhibition. Recently, she coauthored a book titled Jack London: Photographer. Bukowski is not the first sex-obsessed alcoholic she’s spent time with.

Hodson rolls the Bukowski cart into a research room crammed with bookshelves and carefully opens one of the folders. Inside is a thin, elegant book of poetry, which she places on a burnished-wood display podium.

“This is a very, very important piece,” she says, a jolt of excitement in her voice. “It’s an extremely limited edition of At Terror Street and Agony Way. A small number were done with different fabric covers and an original piece of Bukowski art for every one. Each illustration is different. Each volume is unique.”

She pauses to admire Bukowski’s surprisingly lovely brush strokes, then gently turns the pages. “Look at the type, and the paper, the thick paper. It’s beautifully printed. This is a quintessential Black Sparrow production,” she says. “John Martin [Black Sparrow Press founder and longtime Bukowski patron and publisher] was just brilliant. You know, just for the heck of doing it, they made a little piece of art.”

Hodson isn’t finished. She holds up a page of the Black Sparrow book so that the light falls upon it, revealing a secret.

“Look at this, right here,” she instructs. “This was the backing page behind the manuscript in his typewriter. You see? Can you see it?” Her eyes are bright, her smile wide and her face flushes as she strokes the indentations left behind by Bukowski’s manual typer. A moment of spontaneous passion here in the staid recesses of the Huntington Library.

Coming out of her reverie, she adds, “This really is a very sophisticated item.”

As odd as it might seem, the Huntington makes a good home for Bukowski’s legacy.

“We are so formal and conservative, really spiffed up to the max,” Hodson says, “and Bukowski is so out on the edge, so rough and raw and raunchy at times. Linda Bukowski and I joke about this a lot. It’s almost disjunctive. Like we are all going to rub off on each other. But there is a healthy respect on both sides.”

Hodson knew from the beginning that the Bukowski collection would be controversial. “I have a friend, a very fine librarian, who still cannot imagine why I wanted the Bukowski papers here, how I could stand to read them, and how on Earth I could stand to work on the exhibition,”she says. “To that librarian, he is not a poet. … She wants to read more beautiful thoughts. And for Bukowski, the beautiful thoughts of poetry, well, that wasn’t for him. He used to say he liked his poetry ‘raw, easy, and simple.’ And, boy, that captures him.

“People either love him or hate him. There’s not much in between. A lot of people, a lot of poets don’t like him at all. And, of course, he didn’t like what they were doing. But an archivist that I am acquainted with told me he was at a crossroads in his life, working on a loading dock just to make money, when one of his co-workers handed him some Bukowski poems and said, ‘Have you ever read this guy?’ So he started reading, and to hear him tell it, Bukowski saved him. He started clipping poems, and soon realized that he could do something more with his life. He ended up going back to school, getting his degree, and is now a very fine archivist.

“This is why I enjoy a variety of voices. I love Henry James. I love Ernest Hemingway. I love Emily Dickinson. I love Charles Bukowski. I love that there are so many different ways to speak to all of us.”

We turn our attention to a series of postcards made in the Netherlands from photos of the author. On the back of one is a Bukowski quote that always makes Hodson laugh: “Two of man’s greatest accomplishments are plumbing and the creation of the hydrogen bomb. We need somebody who can keep our shit flowing until we blow it away.”

There was a time, however, when Hodson might not have found the humor in those lines.

“My first encounter with Charles Bukowski had to have been in the 1970s, reading a long profile on him in the L.A. Times,” she says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Good heavens! Why does someone need to write like that?’ Truly. I more or less forgot about him until this opportunity came up. As soon as I set up that first meeting with Linda, I started reading him—and enjoying him. I like to think that I grew into this. That I matured into liking Bukowski.”

And now the square-cornered archivist is not only among Bukowski’s strongest and most influential advocates, she gets his jokes.

A longer version of this article can be read in the second issue of Slake: Los Angeles, “Crossing Over,” available at local bookstores and Ochoa, co-founder of Slake: Los Angeles, will read with other Slake contributors (Larry Wilson, Lauren Weedman, Geoff Nicholson, Victoria Patterson, Mary Woronov and Sam Slovick) at Vroman’s Bookstore on Sunday, February 13 at 6:30 p.m.

2 Responses for “A Square-Cornered Archivist”

  1. Ann Erdman says:

    What a dream job to have!

  2. Paladin says:

    Great article allowing the reader to see Hodson go from a closed-eyes conservative to an open-minded reader of one man’s thoughts on life.
    I wish I could have been to the exhibition, but it’s just too far across the country. I like how Hodson was so excited to see and touch Bukowski’s artifacts–that is a true “librarian” !!!



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