Interview // Serious Books: A Conversation with John Martin

by Jacob Uitti | Contributing Writer

Looking back on it, it seems like an incredible risk in 1965. At the time, Los Angeles-native John Martin, a manager of a large office supply store, decided he would dedicate one-quarter of his monthly income in perpetuity to a relatively obscure writer with a penchant for drinking. But Martin, as it would turn out, bet on the right horse. His deal with L.A. poet, novelist and short story writer, Charles Bukowski, would end up making history—and the both of them hundreds of thousands of dollars, too. Bukowski, known as the poet of skid row, wrote poetry books like Love is a Dog From Hell and novels like Ham On Rye and Women. Together, he and Martin helped to change modern American writing, bringing poetry and prose to a street level where they could be read and enjoyed by the “common reader.”  

Martin, born in 1930, is now retired from the publishing house he founded, Black Sparrow. He has sold the rights to Bukowski’s work and the work of a few other authors to ECCO, a subsidiary of Harper Collins. Black Sparrow, in its modern form, continues to exist, publishing work, though it’s stewarded by new publishers and editors. We caught up with Martin to talk with him about his early love of literature, his $100 deal with Bukowski, “insiders” versus “outsiders,” his other favorite authors and much more.

As a reader, do you remember the first book you fell in love with?

Oddly enough, it was The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood’s oft-repeated mantra was, “I am a camera.” It was the first book I had ever read where the style was no style, was so direct, so without artifice, with nothing between me and the author’s eye. Isherwood did indeed write like a camera. Books like this enabled me to appreciate later the finger-on-the-pulse writing that Bukowski developed, writing that explained little bit still managed to say it all. The next significant author to come my way was Paul Bowles, who wrote in the same unvarnished way. Then I was drawn to the Objectivist poets like Reznikoff and Oppen. For all of my publishing career, I looked for writers like that.

Another writer you’ve spoken about is D.H. Lawrence. Can you talk about the ideas or words or worlds that drew you in to his writing?

I started much earlier with D.H. Lawrence, in the late 1940s. He was another kind of writer altogether. His roots may have been in the nineteenth century, but his ideas and writing began the formulation, the foundation, of modernism. His original insights into the human condition, plus his sensuous grasp of the natural world, was very appealing to an eighteen-year-old. He soon became my all-time favorite writer. His writing style may have been less direct than the modernists to come, but he still was able to plunge deep beneath the surface, to address “the substance of things not seen,” to touch and reveal the essence of life.

That seems to be an important part of your ethic.

Yes, that’s what drew me to writers such as Bukowski, Reznikoff, [Diane] Wakoski, Wanda Coleman, and others.

You famously sold a bunch of first editions to fund the start of Black Sparrow. Was it hard to see those books go?

No, I was anxious to move on with my life. Then later, I just recollected everything even better than before.

How did the West Coast and Los Angeles shape your literary sensibilities?

Well, that’s where I was. And there was the San Francisco Renaissance and I became interested in those poets. In fact, the first—well, the first thing I ever published were five broadsides by Bukowski—but the first little book I ever published was by a poet in Berkley named, Ron Loewinsohn. I published Michael McClure and David Meltzer and a number of the members of the San Francisco Renaissance. And then I began publishing people like Robert Kelly and Wakoski, who represented the New York school, at that time. I then went on and published John Ashbury and Kenward Elmslie, who were surreal New York poets. I wanted to publish everything!

My other goal in publishing was to start with a writer and then stick with him, more or less, forever. Because of D.H. Lawrence’s career—he bounced from publisher to publisher to publisher and I could see how scattered that made his work. You couldn’t get it all from one publisher, different publishers had different house styles, and I thought it would be best for any author if he had his or her own publisher who would keep their books in print and publish their new books.

You’ve talked about the difference between literary insiders and outsiders. And you often published work that showed the underbelly of industrialization and modernity. Where did that ethic come from?

It’s so clear—I mean, going back to Walt Whitman. You have the famous poets of the day, like Longfellow and Whittier. And then you had this little guy in Brooklyn paying to publish his own book, Leaves of Grass. It’s always been a matter of insiders and the outsiders. The insiders are the poets and writers that write for the establishment. The outsiders are the poets and novelists who write to bring down the establishment. But almost every really significant writer that I can think of in the 20th century, from Virginia Woolf to T.S. Elliot to James Joyce, their first books were all published either by themselves or privately.

How did you find the writers you published?

Well, that’s easy. Because as soon as you publish a writer and that writer flashes his book in his circle of friends, you get manuscripts from all those friends. And you get many, many other manuscripts—some of them very good—that you can’t possibly publish. So, you just publish as much as you can of the very best that come in. But you don’t publish—or I didn’t—on a one-shot basis. Even if the book looked promising, I shied away if I didn’t think a second book was in the pipeline.

I remember I was at a poetry conference in San Diego—oh, I guess it would have been in the 60s. Creeley was there, I think Michael McClure and some others. I was offered a manuscript by Jim Morrison. But that did not fit my scheme. I could have lived off that book forever. It never would have gone out of print. It would have sold thousands of copies every year. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted my program to be something else. I didn’t want to publish lucrative books. I wanted to publish serious books.

You paid Bukowski $100 per month to quit his job at the post office and write full time.

That’s kind of a funny story. I mean, we sat down one day and he got out a little piece of paper and gave it to me and I took a pen and he gave me his expenses. He was working in the post office at the time. His rent was $35 a month. He had $15 a month child support. He wanted $15 a month for booze and food. He needed another $10 a month for car insurance and gas. When we added it all up, it came to $100. I said, “You can really live on $100?” And he said, “Yeah.” So, I said, “Okay, I’ll give you $100 for life if you quit the Post Office and write full-time for Black Sparrow.”

Prior to the deal, had you thought about this plan before making the offer?

No, no. It just popped into my mind because he was complaining that he couldn’t get the amount of work done that he wanted to get done under the circumstances. He worked the night shift at the Post Office from 10 o’clock in the evening to 8 o’clock in the morning. Then he would come home and sleep. He’d sleep until about the early afternoon, a short amount of sleep. And then he would write in the late afternoon and the early evening until he went back to work. It was very draining, so that’s why I felt if he could be freed from that kind of drudgery, we could get somewhere.

And he did. We made the deal. I think that was in November of ’69, around there. He said, “Okay, I’m going to work until the end of the year and then I’m going to quit.” I said, “Fine. It’s a deal.” And he said, as an aside, “But I’m going to take January 1st off because it’s a holiday.” And I thought, “Uh-oh, what’s all that about?” And I think around the middle of February, he sent me the first draft of the manuscript of Post Office. I called him and said, “Where did this come from?” He said, “Well, you said you wanted a novel to start with and here it is.” I said, “How could you write a novel in just a few weeks?” And he said, “Fear.”

Photo courtesy of Joshua Bodwell, Editorial Director, Godine / Black Sparrow Press

How would he get you his work, would he send it in the mail?

Well, I was living in L.A. at the time. He’s 15-20 minutes away. But then when I moved to Santa Barbara in 1975, then it was all phone calls and through the mail. When I moved to Santa Rosa in ’87, it continued to be phone calls and through the mail.

Did you ever go to the track together?

No. I did not want to intrude on his personal life at all.

Bukowski was often frightened of people. But why do you think you two hit it off so well?

Well, here I come out of the blue. He’d never heard of me and I lavished praise on his work, which he was not used to. And I was in a position to actually begin printing and publishing his work. I managed a large office supply company and one of my duties was to manage the print shop. So, I had available to me printing presses and printers who, in their spare time, could do for me whatever I wanted. That’s how I printed the first five broadsides by Bukowski and the first little booklets.

What was it like to see his legend grow in real time?

It was certainly satisfying. But you’ve got to remember that both of us were under a lot of pressure. I was trying to keep a small business afloat and after I started Black Sparrow in 1966, I kept my day job until 1969 or 1970. I would work all day and I had an office that someone had let me use where I went in the evenings and did all the office work – the editing, catalogues, mailing lists, the shipping. I would work at my regular job from about 8 o’clock until 5 and then I’d go home and have dinner and I’d work at my office from 7 until midnight. And I did that for three or four years. In one year, I think it was 1969, if you look in the Black Sparrow bibliography you can check that, I published 35 books. I didn’t have a secretary, I didn’t have a helper, I didn’t have a book shipper. I had nobody. And my really long hours would be supplemented by weekends where I could work a 12- or 14-hour day getting everything caught up from the week before. Later I was able to start hiring people and it got easier.

How does it make you feel that Bukowski’s books are some of the most stolen from bookstores?

Those are the amusing asides. I had noticed that bookstores were re-ordering even more than I’d hoped. I guess that was the reason. But those weren’t my problems. I was trying to feed and house my family and build this business up and, as I added authors, I had to keep them happy, publish their books, get the books out there, arrange readings. It was a big job.

Something that’s not always talked about with Bukowski is that the sale of his books helped fund the publishing of others Black Sparrow authors.

That’s true with any publishing company. That’s why Random House publishes movie star tell-all books. They sell 1,000,000 copies and pay for all the books that break even or lose money.

Is that something you two ever talked about at all?

No. He knew what the story was. He knew what the score was. He was no fool.

Do you remember when you found out he’d died?

Yeah, Linda Bukowski called me. I knew he was very sick and that he was in the hospital. I still wasn’t prepared for it. She said, “John, Hank’s gone.” I said, “Oh my god.” But, you know, [Laughs] Hank was, you know, he was not well received, critically by the insiders, if you know what I mean. And it irked it him. He would kind of sneer at what he called “precious poets” who would publish little 30- and 40-page books of poems while he was publishing 250 and 300-page books of poems. So, he asked me to put aside— and I began doing this in the 70s—poems I really, really liked—I’d say the best poems—and hang onto them. He wanted to go on being published after he died and that’s exactly what happened. I sold the rights to his books to ECCO press and I added nine full-length books to his published poetry. All those poems that he had asked me to put aside.

And I bought all of them!

But they wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I have to say in all candor that over the many years I had a hard time keeping up with what he wrote in spite of the ones I was putting aside. If I had published all those poems as we went along, I’d have had to publish a big book more than once a year. And I really didn’t want to do that. You can over-saturate anybody, no matter how good they are. You can make it seem too common and not special enough. So, I would publish a book of his approximately every year-and-a-half, which is a lot. Most authors don’t publish a book every year-and-a-half. But by the time I would be ready to publish a new book, the demand would be there. Our salesmen who were out calling on bookstores would be asked, “When’s the next Bukowski coming?”

Were there many poems he sent you that you didn’t include in books or never published?

Yes, they are in the university archives.

If Bukowski was alive, how do you think he would do in quarantine today?

I think he’d like it. He could just sit and think and write. The only thing he’d miss is going to the track because—after everything was settled down and he was successful and he was living in San Pedro, he’d get up early, he’d have breakfast, read the paper, get ready, leave at about 11 o’clock for the track, spend the afternoon at the track, come home, have dinner, go upstairs at about 8 o’clock and write until 2 in the morning. And that was inviolable. He never broke from that pattern. It was comfortable and it’s like anything else, if you start some kind of project every day at the same time, it’s there for you the next day. So, writing at almost exactly the same time every day, or every nightI don’t think he ever had writer’s block in any significant sense.

Looking back, what do you think Black Sparrow did for American literature?

Well, I hope it had some impact. I mean, I published nearly 1,000 books and I published, in addition to Bukowski, some very significant authors. In fact, in this week’s New Yorker, they have a big double-page spread on Wanda Coleman, who was one of my favorite authors and who lived in L.A. She was a major voice and now, four or five years after her death, she’s still significant enough to where she gets a two-page spread in the New Yorker, with a photo!  

Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer whose has been featured in the Seattle TimesVanity Fair, Washington Post, and The Monarch Review.