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His Find Is Poetry in the Making

Collectors: When Gary Stella found a gold-painted file box in a pile of trash, he thought it'd make a good place to store letters. Then he opened it--and found poems by, among others, Charles Bukowski.

June 21, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Bukowski was an American street poet. A vulgar, potbellied pissed-off boozer who talked dirty and wrote dirty and savored his scummy image as a dirty old man.

So it comes as no small surprise that a young man such as Gary Stella, an accordion-playing, Catholic-educated policeman's son from Kenosha, Wis., should be the first to find some of Bukowski's long lost poems.

"Perhaps it would have been more fitting had they been discovered by someone more, uh, worshipful of Charles' work than I," mused Stella recently over a glass of iced mango tea. "But, of course, I knew who he was and I had seen the movie 'Barfly,' so I was not unacquainted with the man."

Immortalized on film by Mickey Rourke as the unabashedly drunken Los Angeles writer, Bukowski was considered the best of the so-called Meat School poets for his masculine, in-your-face, blood-and-guts style. A Carl Sandburg of the gutter. Poet laureate of the down-and-out.

When Bukowski died of leukemia on March 9, 1994, at the age of 73 in his San Pedro home, some of his cultish followers staged coffeehouse vigils. Others, mad with grief, drank and howled in the streets.

Gary Stella was not among them. The 33-year-old assistant film director, who moved west in 1987, was probably in his Los Angeles apartment listening to one of his dreamy 78 rpms from his Aunt Kathy and Uncle Don's collection of '50s tunes. Or perhaps he was out scouring the thrift shops for another antique postcard of Kenosha or Disney lunch pail to add to his collections.

In any event, just weeks after Bukowski's death, Stella came upon an important piece of the poet's life in a heap of trash on a Los Feliz curb.

"There were a few broken chairs, a roll of carpet or somesuch and then this gold-painted metal file box which immediately caught my eye," Stella recalls. "Being something of a trash-picker--a collector really would be a better way to put it, if you don't mind--I thought this box might be perfect for filing my correspondence. I file most all of the letters I receive. So I picked up the box, took it back to my apartment and opened it on the floor of my living room."

*

Stella pauses for breath--and effect.

"And that is when I see it contains the records of a poetry club that met at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles back in the 1950s and '60s. The contents of the box were divided alphabetically. By the time I got to the Bs, I knew. B, you see, was for Bukowski."

By the time he got to S, the normally unflappable Stella was breathless. There were more than 90 poems written by Frances Dean Smith, Bukowski's common-law wife and the mother of his only child, Marina. Together with Bukowski's work, Smith's poems formed a dialogue, a two-way tirade on their shared life in L.A.

Stella was excited but, careful collector that he is, not overly anxious to cash in just yet. Not until a rainy day last March when Stella found himself out of work and out of hope, as Bukowski himself so often was, did he decide to find out what his find was worth.

Stella took his discovery to the Los Angeles office of the auctioneers Butterfield & Butterfield. "Right away, they sort of said 'Wow, this is valuable!' and sent the box to San Francisco for a full appraisal."

A Butterfield spokesman says experts there verified the contents of the box as the works of dozens of Los Angeles-area poets, but none so famous as Bukowski or Smith. According to Kurt Zimmerman, the firm's director of book sales, as many as 33 of the 68 Bukowski poems in the box may never have been published.

Whether they will be published is a decision that rests with Bukowski's widow and literary executor Linda Bukowski and John Martin, the poet's longtime friend and publisher at Black Sparrow Press, who holds the power to publish Bukowski's work. Although the "artifacts"--or papers on which the newly found poems were written--belong to Stella, the right to publish the poems and artwork on those pages still belongs to Martin.

"These are like working papers that somehow got separated from the author," Martin says. "Some are not publishable--some are just fooling around. But if something here deserves publication, we'll collect it in a book."

Some of the manuscripts have corrections neatly penned in the margins. A few are illustrated with simple doodles by Bukowski--one of them a pen-and-ink self-portrait of the poet smoking and drinking at his writing desk. "I'm just a guy who drinks wine and has a lucky typewriter," Bukowski was fond of saying. In fact, Bukowski almost never wrote without wine--or, more often, whiskey.

The 90 poems written by Smith, Zimmerman says, give "an intimate look into their sometimes tumultuous relationship." By the 1960s and early '70s, Bukowski was living alone in a 500-square-foot apartment at 5124 DeLongpre Ave. in Hollywood, the address typed beneath his name in the upper left-hand corner of many of the found poems.

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