It’s Nice to Be With You Always: Remembering Neeli Cherkovski

Joshua Bodwell

“I am the way I am / because nobody could convince me / to be otherwise”

— From “Hello,” by Neeli Cherkovski

The first time I ever read the name Neeli Cherkovski was on my seventeenth birthday. My father gave me a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Septuagenarian Stew and there on the dedication page it declared: For Neeli Cherkovski. Years later, Neeli told me with a chuckle, “That’s the best line he ever wrote.”

Shortly after gifting me Septuagenarian Stew, my father gave me his own old hardcover copy of Neeli’s biography of the poet, publisher, and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Later, I devoured Neeli’s Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. With both books, Neeli had beaten other biographers to the story. In his favor was the fact that both men were his friends long before they were his subjects. Finally, I began reading Neeli’s rollicking poems, which are endlessly surprising in their energy and range.

In 2019, nearly three decades after first finding Neeli Cherkovski there in the pages of a Bukowski book, I contacted him in my role as the editorial director of Black Sparrow Press. Two thousand twenty marked the centennial of Bukowski’s birth and I hoped Neeli might be interested in writing a new introduction to his then-out-of-print biography and allowing the press to bring out a new edition. He was thrilled at the idea of having a book with Bukowski’s longtime publisher. I began working as Neeli’s editor and we published new editions of his biographies of both Bukowski and Ferlinghetti in 2020 and 2022, respectively. He was the consummate collaborator but editing him could be an exercise in patience. Had he been born in the last twenty years, he most certainly would have been diagnosed with ADHD. Ferlinghetti once remarked to Neeli, “You can’t sit still. Sometimes I don’t know how you could even finish a haiku.” Neeli’s brain seemed to fire in snatches, so his missives across emails, text, and phone calls were often like the individual squares of a quilt and it was up to me to assemble them.

An example: here’s part of an email I sent Neeli in 2021 after editing the long epilogue to the expanded edition of his Ferlinghetti biography:

You’ve emailed me a total of 5 different drafts of the Afterword: two on 7/11, two more on 7/15, and one on 7/16. The core of the Afterword attached here is the 7/16 version, but I also used bits and pieces from the second draft sent 7/11 and the second draft sent on 7/15. Because every draft you sent had good, smart, funny, thoughtful writing that was worth weaving in!

His entire response to the draft I’d spent hours editing and worrying over was, in total, one word: “Perfect.” He could be that way: utterly easygoing when it mattered.

Neeli replied to my emails occasionally, but he preferred the phone; his eyes had been in a long, slow decline. He sometimes called me several times a week; or, during manic episodes when we were in a phase of heavy editing the new material he was generating for the biography re-issues, several times a day. When a call came in from Neeli, I never knew if it would be a ten minute chat or an hour-plus journey through his memories of 1960s Los Angeles or 1970s San Francisco. But unless I absolutely couldn’t, I picked up. As exhausting as those calls could sometimes be—there were shimmers of desperation when Neeli called seeming to need validation—I cherished them. Neeli’s enthusiasm—his lust—for poetry was infectious and listening to him often made me feel like a kid falling in love with literature all over again.

After our first phone call in 2019, Neeli and I kept in near-constant contact, exchanging a few calls each month. Our bicoastal friendship deepened with every conversation. The last time we spoke was about two weeks before Neeli died on March 19 at the age of seventy-eight. He was in great spirits—actually, I struggle to think of a time when he was ever in a sour mood. He sounded buoyed by his work, lit by what seemed like an unextinguishable fire. He was still working on his memoir, he said. The French translation of his Bukowski biography was about to arrive from the publisher in southern France, I told him. We discussed his forthcoming Selected Poems: 1959-2022 from Lithic Press, which he was thrilled about (“Four hundred pages, man,” he said with disbelief in his voice), and marveled at the fact that he’d realized a lifelong goal: City Lights would be publishing a collection of his poems in 2025. He was proud, humbled, and professed his good luck in life. Content? Probably not. He was always hungry for more, hungry to read more—to be read more—to write more, to learn more, to travel more, to eat more. Neeli struck me as greedy, but not in a competitive way. He could be impatient, though never a pushy way. He was simply insatiable. If we’re being honest, aren’t we all?

Nelson Innis Cherry was born July 1, 1945, in Santa Monica, California. Years later, around the time he came out in his twenties as a gay man, he un-Americanized himself, reborn as the poet Neeli Cherkovski. The black beret suited him.

Neeli was raised in San Bernardino, along the eastern edge of Los Angeles, in a close-knit, progressive, and artistic family. The house brimmed with books and art. Young Neeli hid away in his bedroom and read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass over and over. His father, Sam, was an accomplished photographer; his uncle was the abstract expressionist painter Herman Cherry. His mother, Clare, authored several books on child development and early education that were so influential that an elementary school in San Bernardino was named after her. I never heard Neeli speak about his parents and sister with anything but affection. “He had the temperament of a hobo, a man of the open road,” Neeli said of his father. “A deeply moral man without trying to be.”

In the very early 1940s, Sam and Clare Cherry were regulars at the Black Cat Café, a bohemian San Francisco bar frequented by William Saroyan and John Steinbeck, and featured in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In the 1950s, after Sam’s tour of duty as a war photographer, the couple opened Cherry’s Bookstore and Art Gallery on Route 66 in San Bernardino. It quickly became a stopover for hippies and counter-cultural travelers. Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other Beat-era figures became patrons and friends. But it was Sam’s friendship with a postal worker named Bukowski that would have the most profound impact on his son’s life.

The first night Bukowski visited the Cherry house, he found Neeli waiting: “Okay, little Rimbaud,” he said, “I heard you wanted to meet Bukowski.” Neeli was fifteen; Bukowski was forty-two.

That evening, Neeli, who as a teenager was already publishing in some of the same small poetry journals as Bukowski, presented the elder poet with a poem that began “Bukowski looks out his window . . .” After a glance, Hank, as he was known to friends, promptly tossed the poem into the Cherry family’s fireplace. Neeli, unperturbed, snatched out the singed poem. Despite this ornery introduction, Neeli was soon carrying around copies of Bukowski’s early chapbooks, such as Longshot Pomes for Broke Players. He thought it was funny when his high school English teacher didn’t understand that “pomes” was not a typo, but an intentional statement about poetry itself. Neeli was eighteen when he read Bukowski’s It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, a stunningly produced collection designed and letterpress printed by the tramp printer Jon Webb at his Loujon Press in 1963. The book contained “Old Man, Dead in a Room,” written when Bukowski was thirty-nine and had already lost both his mother and father. Neeli learned it by heart: “this thing upon me is not death / but it’s as real / and as landlords full of maggots / pound for rent / I eat walnuts in the sheath / of my privacy / and listen for more important / drummers…” It astonished Neeli. 

Bukowski became a regular guest at the Cherry home. Sam Cherry’s now-iconic photographs of Bukowski standing on Skid Row and hanging off the back of a freight car were used as the author photos in all his early books published by Black Sparrow Press. Mugging as a tough outsider, the images helped with the invention of his “laureate of American lowlife” persona. Years later, Sam remembered that day in the railyards as revealing of Bukowski’s personal mythmaking his down and out days riding the rails: the poet couldn’t get himself up on a freight car that was parked. “It took me about ten minutes to figure out he was bullshitting me,” Sam said. “He couldn’t even figure out how to get one foot in the car. I had to push him up there by the ass.”

The odd couple of Neeli and Hank—the tough-talking, hard-drinking poet and the precocious, hyperactive kid separated in age by twenty-five years—became unlikely friends. Soon, the pair was attending boxing and wrestling matches together at L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium, swilling cheap beer and devouring hot dogs. They often drank together. But, above all else, they talked. And talked and talked and talked. About John Dos Passos, John Fante, James T. Farell, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Carson McCullers, Pablo Neruda, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and many others. They would record themselves talking for hours and hours. When Neeli listened back to the cassettes years later, he wrote, “I picture us surrounded by empty beer cans.” During that period, Neeli—who often groaned whenever the subject of school came up—still managed to earn a B.A. in American Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, graduating in 1967.  

In 1969, Neeli and Bukowski began coediting a saddle-stapled literary journal together. Bukowski suggested a title: The Contemporary Review: A Non-Snob Compilation of Active Creativity Now. “We need a tougher, wilder title,” Neeli responded. Two days later, Bukowski phoned with a new option: Laugh Literary and Man the Fucking Guns. Neeli was twenty-four at the time and Bukowski was forty-nine. Yet it was Neeli who had to convince the older poet to settle for “Humping” rather than “Fucking,” as the latter wouldn’t make it past postal censors. They were quite a publishing duo: Neeli couldn’t focus and Bukowski specialized in surly rejections to poets who submitted work; the elder poet’s influence rubbed off on the younger poet, who eventually rejected a submission this way: “We wouldn’t publish these if our lives depended on it.”

Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns, co-edited by Neeli Cherkovski and Charles Bukowski.

Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns lasted three issues before puttering out in 1971, the same year Bukowski published his first novel, Post Office. In 1972, the pair managed one last project as coeditors: a collection of work by sixteen friends titled Anthology of L.A. Poets. These were some of the most transformative years of Bukowski’s life. He had gained a certain level of infamy through his small press chapbook publications and his “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column for the newspaper Open City, but Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin’s financial commitment to Bukowski had given him the lifeline required to quit his soul-sucking post office job. His Black Sparrow books began to reach a readership he’d only dreamed of. He never again worked as anything but a fulltime writer.

Few people had such a unique front-row seat to this period of Bukowski’s life the way Neeli did. Their friendship was one of the longest in the famously combative author’s life. When Neeli regaled me with Bukowski stories, he’d drop into an impersonation. He explained how, over the years he’d known him, Bukowski became an impersonation of himself, sounding more like Humphrey Bogart than the man Neeli once knew, not only in his persona but also—and this pained Neeli—in his poems.

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“Since the early 1960s I have been in a conversation with Charles Bukowski,” Neeli wrote years after his friend and mentor’s death. It was a conversation not without its complexities. When one friend could be thin-skinned and pugnacious, the other more collaborative and nonconfrontational, complexity is to be expected.

But Neeli loved Hank to the end. “The hard-drinking bard is mostly fictional,” he wrote in his introduction to Bukowski, A Life: The Centennial Edition:

When I think of the essence of Charles Bukowski, I think of the day he met my partner Jesse Cabrera [Neeli’s partner for thirty-seven years] when we visited him at his house in San Pedro. There was no tough-guy surprise that I was gay. Hank took me aside and said, “I’m so glad you are with somebody, man.” Then he asked if we would stay the night. He and Linda had a room prepared, and there were fresh-cut flowers in a vase on the nightstand. None of this surprised me—Hank accepted people.

Interviewers often wanted to speak with Neeli as much about his famous old friend as they did his poetry. His own work could be overshadowed by his associations. Neeli joked that someday he hoped to get through just one interview without being asked about Bukowski. He hated it almost as much as he loved it.

In his mid-twenties, Neeli began working as a political consultant in the San Bernadino area. In 1974, he filled his car with books and clothes and drove north to San Francisco, where he’d landed a job on the mayoral campaign staff of then-State Senator George Moscone. During staff meetings, Neeli would stare out the windows and watch tree swaying in the wind, or birds flying by. His heart wasn’t in the work. The real breaking point came when the taciturn campaign manager who’d worked for Lyndon Johnson was tipped off that although Neeli appeared to be diligently drafting campaign-related memos and press releases at his desk, he was actually typing poems. Before Moscone won the election—and was eventually assassinated, as was Harvey Milk—Neeli was fired. He was out of work and happy about it. San Francisco’s bohemian allure had set its hooks in him.

“It was a working-class city, by and large, and had a European character,” Neeli told an interviewer in 2023. “Housing was unbelievably inexpensive and there were plenty of bookstores with their own unique character. The wharf was still an active port.” He would make San Francisco his home for the rest of his life.

With an unemployment check in his pocket, Neeli settled a few blocks from the City Lights bookstore, in a hotel where he shared a communal kitchen, as well as communal toilets and showers, with dockworkers and immigrants from Spain and Italy. He was in heaven: he had a little money, a lot of time, and a head full of poems.  

Neeli began to frequent Caffé Trieste, just up the hill from City Lights. There he met the city’s poets, such as Jack Hirschman, Harold Norse, and, of course, Ferlinghetti. “In L.A., all was spread out,” Neeli said, “but in San Francisco we were crammed onto a peninsula. You could not help bumping into other poets in San Francisco.”

Ferlinghetti helped Neeli find a more permanent place in North Beach. His three-room, $135-a-month apartment soon became a gathering spot for an ongoing neighborhood salon. Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Ferlinghetti, and Philip Lamantia were all regulars. Neeli became something of a “Baby Beat,” a poet who drew early influence and inspiration from the Beat Generation and the bohemian culture around City Lights, though he was actually a generation younger. Because of his close friendships with key Beats and ubiquity on the scene, this sometimes confused people. In the days after his death, the San Francisco Chronicle even ran the headline: “Neeli Cherkovski, longtime S.F. poet and beatnik, dies at 78.”

In a way, Neeli was his own one-man literary movement, impossible to contain within a single moniker.  

Just five years after Neeli had arrived in San Francisco, Doubleday brought out his Ferlinghetti: A Biography in 1979. “That bio saved my ass financially,” Neeli quipped years later in an interview.

After Ferlinghetti died in 2021, I suggested to Neeli that he write an expanded edition of the biography that would include a new foreword, an epilogue that covered from the end of the 1979 edition to the end of Ferlinghetti’s life, and an afterword. Asked about the new edition—Ferlinghetti: A Life—by an interviewer in 2023, Neeli replied: “At first, I was reluctant . . . It seemed like too much work. Once I’d started it proved easy to do.” That’s close but not quite accurate.

Weeks after signing a contract for the revised edition and receiving his advance, Neeli called me. He sounded sheepish, worried. But he got to the point: he was convinced he was in over his head and needed to cancel the contract. Neeli could overthink things. I was certain he was simply overwhelmed by the flood of things he would, eventually, need to do—Neeli’s mind saw everything at once. We talked and talked and as we talked, I drafted a sequential punch list of items to tackle one at a time. An hour later, Neeli had calmed down and was re-committed to the project. But he was still worried about writing an introduction. He had no idea of how he wanted to begin. I said, “I’ve always wondered how you came to write the biography in the first place.” He launched into a twenty minute story:

One afternoon at Caffé Trieste, Neeli noticed a guy at the next table listening in as he spoke with a friend. Eventually the guy struck up a conversation. When Neeli said he was an out of work poet and his unemployment checks would soon come to an end, the guy asked him what he was going to do. Neeli blurted out: “I want to write a biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.” The stranger said he had a literary agent in New York, and he thought the agent would be interested in Neeli’s book. He’d call him and ask. Standing to use the payphone in the corner of the café, he said, “Oh, by the way, my name is Jerry.” In what feels like a pure Cherkovskian moment of serendipity, the stranger offering to help him was Jerry Rubin, the social activist and anti-war leader whose 1968 protest at the Democratic National Convention led to his being tried as one of the Chicago Seven, along with his fellow Yippie Abbie Hoffman. From there, Neeli got Ferlinghetti to agree to the biography and pounded out a proposal (while on acid). Rubin’s literary agent, John Brockman, quickly landed him a handsome advance from Doubleday.

When Neeli paused for a breath, I said, “This is the introduction, Neeli!”

“Oh,” he chuckled, “I think you’re right.”

The new editions of Neeli Cherkovski’s biographies of Charles Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both published by Black Sparrow Press.  

When Neeli eventually sent me his first draft of the introduction, he’d left out entire anecdotes he’d shared on the phone. Anticipating this might happen, I’d taken notes. We worked through another couple of drafts. I’m convinced Neeli composed his prose not with a fountain pen but a fire hydrant. He often needed a lot of help sorting, refining, and reordering his sentences and paragraphs. A few paragraphs might require several calls over several days. Neeli worked on his own schedule and by his own methods, though I’m convinced there wasn’t always much method to his method—it was more a matter of instinct and heart.

Some critics were not fans of Neeli’s approach as a biographer. He broke their rules; unintentionally, I’m certain. Writing biographies of your two famous friends—Ferlinghetti and Bukowski—while they’re both still alive is hardly advisable. It also seems quintessentially Neeli that he did just that. I love his biographies in part because I can hear Neeli’s unique voice and point of view when I read their pages. I believe his most faithful readers respond to his personal, idiosyncratic style. The author and critic Doris Grumbach, however, tore apart the Ferlinghetti biography when it was first published in 1979. Neeli was stung by her sharp review in The New York Times. So much so that when I suggested he could mention in the new edition how she’d misread him, Neeli said he didn’t even want her name in the pages of his book. Instead, he restated his intentions in his foreword: 

I didn’t want either a book of gossip or a book of academic-style criticism—I was a poet, after all, writing on another poet, not some stuffy, erudite soul on a year’s sabbatical. I also decided I didn’t want the book to be . . . authoritative. I wanted to gather and put down on paper the practical details of [Ferlinghetti’s] life and what he’d accomplished because I believed there was historical value in his story.

And again in his afterword:

I wasn’t an academic who set out to study a living poet like a lab rat and report back my findings in clinical language. I was a poet who set out to celebrate another poet. In that, I hope I succeeded.

Neeli certainly succeeded; and he was too much of a mensch to take a swipe at long-dead Doris Grumbach in the process.

Neeli’s best work of prose is Whitman’s Wild Children, a collection of essays on twelve poets. The book is written in the first-person, full of anecdotes and humor. It blends biography and memoir. First published in 1988, the portraits of James Broughton, Bukowski, Corso, William Everson, Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Kaufman, Lamantia, Michael McClure, Jack Micheline, and John Wieners still crackle. The shorter form essay is a perfect fit for Neeli’s talents; the longer narrative arcs of full biographies are demanding, not to mention the research and sustained attention required. In Whitman’s Wild Children, Neeli could provide his always insightful poetic analysis without the pressure to write so-called “Literary Criticism.”

He was well-read and whip smart, but poetry was never academic for him; poetry was personal.

While I worked with Neeli Cherkovski exclusively on his prose, he was always first and foremost a poet. He was everything you could hope for in a classic West Coast poet, including seemingly unconcerned with anything in life more than with the line, the rhythm, the poem.

Neeli published a pile of chapbooks and books of poetry in his lifetime. I think even he had a hard time keeping track of what he’d published and where. By the time someone updated his bibliography, he’d have published another slim volume, a limited edition, or something in translation. For a true accounting, we’d need the librarians at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, where his papers are archived; in the time it took me to write this piece, someone somewhere has likely published one of Neeli’s poems.

Neeli’s influences and inspirations were vast. His interests were as wide as any poet I’ve ever met. He read not only widely but deeply. His early love of Whitman never dampened. But for a poet so associated with the Beats, Neeli was also apt to rattle off some Robert Frost stanzas. He loved Frost. He loved William Butler Yeats and Rimbaud and Pablo Neruda and LiPo. He could be scattered-brained—he’d call me, breathless, to tell me something he’d told me twice already—but he could also recite from memory entire Frost poems and long sections of Ginsberg’s Kaddish or drop into a sonorous impersonation of Ezra Pound and perform The Cantos—I don’t mean a few stanzas: he would go on, unbroken, for several minutes at a time performing the complicated, arcane, meandering modernist text. Neeli despised antisemites but he also marveled at The Cantos. I don’t think he ever considered these things to be mutually exclusive. In fact, Neeli’s 2018 chapbook In the Odes is an homage to Pound (and Confucius). Pound could be a terrible man but a great poet; Bukowski could hide his tenderness beneath a tough-guy façade. Neeli seemed comfortable with incongruity. In the end, it was always about the poetry for him.

Neeli’s work seemed to be expanding rather than contracting as he aged. In late 1963—when Neeli was just eighteen—Bukowski wrote in a letter to his young friend: “A man doesn’t get old because he nears death; a man gets old because he can no longer see the false from the good.” If this is true, one could argue that through his poetry, Neeli was becoming younger and younger as he wrote, a lyrical Benjamin Button of sorts. Two of his most recent collections, Elegy for My Beat Generation and Hang on to the Yangtze River, include some of his best work. Humor and self-irony abound. “I fill pages in my notebook / leaving mayonnaise stains,” he writes in “Hyper Me.” He drew from a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration and wove in hints of his inspirations and his wide reading but never in a showy way. “A good style,” Bukowski had advised in the same letter, “comes primarily from lack of pretentiousness.”

A friend once joked that scarcity in the world of poetry—of publications, of jobs, of money—made poets protective of their perceived turf. “The smaller the bone, the bigger the growl,” she told me. I’ve found this to be more true than not. But Neeli was unique. In the foreword to his expanded Ferlinghetti biography, he wrote:

In the first months of my friendship with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I learned that despite his incredible ability to get things done and stay on top of his many obligations, he had an insecure side. He was vulnerable, which isn’t particularly surprising for a poet, I suppose. I learned that he had a good feeling for younger writers and made it a point to find himself among them as often as possible, being present and participating as much as he could as simply one of the poets. He was never one of the old guard who’d mutter, “My God, what’s wrong with this new generation . . .” He was open-minded and respectful.

I smiled the first time I read this. The whole thing—the vulnerability, the openness, the generosity toward other poets—describes Neeli himself. He was one of the only poets I’ve ever known who didn’t gossip negatively about other poets.

Neeli’s forthcoming books from Lithic Press and City Lights were to him the most important books in his life; every next book seemed to be the most important in his life, but in the case of these books, I believe it’s true. These books represent a high level of validation that he craved. Selected Poems: 1959-2022 from Lithic Press is a retrospective of six decades worth of work, the sort of book that thumbs its eye at death, Neeli might say, and makes a case for immortality. The collection from City Lights means that Neeli will finally be published by his favorite publisher, the publisher of so many of his friends and heroes. It is acceptance, so to speak, into the exclusive club he always sought membership to. I have no fewer than three phone messages of Neeli excitedly telling me that in 2025 City Lights would be publishing a book of his portrait poems. “I waited a long, long time,” he says in one message. And waiting, his friends would all agree, was not one of Neeli’s strengths.

Many months ago, I packed up my copies of Neeli’s poetry collections and mailed them to him to sign and inscribe. Eventually, he sent back just two books—the Ferlinghetti and Bukowski biographies we’d worked on together—as well as two surprises: an original print of his father’s photograph of Bukowski standing in the lobby of Los Angeles post office where he once worked, and a bright oil pastel Neeli had made for me. “Do you like the painting?” he called to ask. I loved it, I told him, loved the energy and how he’d written Rimbaud in two places. I reminded Neeli about the poetry books he still need to sign and send back. “Oh, yes, damn!” he said. “I’ll get those back to you this week!” I waited for months, reminding him occasionally, but there was always some minor disaster on his end—or a perhaps just a poem that needed to be written. The books were never returned. I’ll be waiting forever for a box of poems that’ll never arrive.

Editing Neeli was always a unique experience. He was terrible with technology. In the years I knew him, he had several different email addresses and Facebook accounts because, I assume, he was constantly losing passwords and locking himself out. Sometimes he would receive my editorial notes and suggestions in a carefully prepared Word doc, only to revise long pieces of prose by dictating his changes into a voice memo on his iPhone and hitting SEND. It was then up to me to sort out the details.

Neeli’s favorite technology was most certainly the telephone. We spent hours and hours on the phone. Neeli loved the phone so much that he called me when he didn’t even mean to: he once left me a long message that began with all sorts of strange street sounds, then a chuckle as Neeli raised the phone to his mouth and said, “Oh, I was just racing to catch the bus and accidentally dialed you somehow . . . but, anyway, while I have you . . .” and then launched into a long story.

On many calls, he gave me updates on his friend, the writer and editor Raymond Foye, or on Paul Vangelisti, whom he’d known since his days in Los Angeles. He’d often have a report on the poets Charles Bernstein and Clark Coolidge, on his friend George Scrivani, Gregory Corso’s longtime secretary, editor, and translator. Or on the Kyles, Harvey and Schlesigner, of Lithic Press and Cuneiform Press, respectively. After Hirschman died, he called to describe how it was to spread his friend’s ashes in San Francisco Bay. “I’m still working on my memoir,” he’d declare about every third phone call. Sometimes he’d ask if he could read me a few new paragraphs. I always responded, “Of course.”

Neeli was a natural storyteller and performer, like a bohemian Homer beside the campfire of American poetry. If Neeli told you a story once, he likely told you three times. But his enthusiasm was contagious, and he added new riffs often enough to keep his repertoire fresh. He loved words. When he called to tell me he’d just been into the doctor’s office for an eye procedure, he called it “Gruesome . . . just gruesome.” It was as though he liked how the word felt in his mouth—gruuuuuu-sooome—saying it over and over until the word sounded like the thing it meant.

Conversations with Neeli were wonderfully digressive. We’d be talking about something and then, instead of responding to what I’d just said, he’d suddenly say “What do you think of this for a title for my next collection?” and then announce a title in a dramatic, showman’s voice. To a title he once suggested, I said, “Ahh … you can do better.” My response didn’t put him off at all; he wasn’t easily offended.

A few days later, he called back and said, “What about this for a title? Hang on to the Yangtze River.”

“That’s it,” I said.

“Good,” he said, “I thought so.”

I was not his only sounding board, of course. Neeli called many people with these kinds of questions. He loved to call friends and think outload to see what stuck.

Neeli liked to think and re-think and overthink and think again, but he was also impulsive. “BUY MY BOOK!” he would sometimes post on social media—providing no hyperlink to his newest book, of course, because such technology was beyond him. When I suggested he delete such posts and reword them, he protested. “You seem either aggressive or desperate,” I told him. He didn’t mind though. He wasn’t beyond exasperation. Neeli had a been bright boy, always encouraged and supported by his parents, publishing his first poems when he was just fourteen. But he never realized the readership he’d hoped for, the kind he’d watched Bukowski and Ferlinghetti build. I want to say that it bothered him that this bothered him, but I’m not quite sure that’s accurate. When good things happened in Neeli’s writing life, as they often did, he was almost boyish in his delight to share the news. When the librarians at the Bancroft Library were visiting his house to purchase another tranche of his papers for their Cherkovski archive, he always slipped the news into a phone call or two. “They’re offering me . . .” he’d say, managing to sound both casual and excited about the dollar amount. And what did I think of that amount, he wondered. Then he’d ask where he could buy a limited edition of Bukowski’s Septuagenarian Stew, one of the rare copies that’s not only signed but includes an original serigraph by the author. He was spending that Bancroft Library money in his mind before the check had even been written. When I told him I’d sold the translation rights to Bukowski: A Life in France and it would be a nice payday for him, Neeli replied, “I’m thinking about buying a really nice pen with the money. What do you think of that?”

If Neeli asked me for something on the phone, he asked two dozen times. Sometimes I think he genuinely forgot; other times I’m certain he was pitching on his behalf, making a case for something he wanted. He was guileless. When I mentioned that I was flying out to San Francisco with my wife and driving up to Santa Rosa to visit Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin, Neeli interrupted:

“Can I come with you!?!?”


For some reason, I was immediately struck by the image of wild-haired Neeli sleeping on a narrow folding cot in a motel room with me and my wife, as though he were our brilliant, hyperactive child.  

“Ah, you paused there!” he said. “Never mind, never mind I mentioned it. Yeah, maybe it’s not such a hot idea.” Instead, after my trip to Santa Rosa we met up back in San Francisco at a memorial reading for the poet Tom Clark hosted by Bird & Beckett Books.

When Neeli was ready to wrap up a call, his voice would rise and he’d say enthusiastically, “Okay, my man!” That’s how you knew the call was over. It always felt like a warm embrace—not like a door closing, but a door opening.  

Neeli Cherkovski was a tender man.

When Maine, where I live, experienced the largest mass shooting in the state’s history, Neeli called as soon as the news broke. When my wife and I were attacked by a motorist in a road rage incident while cycling and posted about it on social media, Neeli called the moment he heard. When my father died quite suddenly in 2022, Neeli called me week after week to ask how I was and to talk and to share stories of his own perpetual grief over his father’s passing. He understood. He loved that it was my father who’d given me Bukowski’s Septuagenarian Stew on my seventeenth birthday, the book with those three words: For Neeli Cherkovski. He knew what that book—that gift—means to me. He saw it as some sort of cosmic connection between us.

Over the years, it wasn’t unusual for our talks to turn to the subject of death. In Kyle Harvey’s wonderfully atmospheric short documentary about Neeli, It’s Nice to Be with You Always, Neeli discusses death. “I think what I’d like when I go . . .” he begins, then describes an idea of heaven as a café in an old city where he can order one cappuccino after another and write and “the thing is, you never get bored.” That’s how you know it’s heaven, he says. I have a feeling Neeli Cherkovski was never bored a day in his life. His mind hummed; it ran hot and ticking like an old two-stroke motorcycle engine.

The last email Neeli sent me—likely dictated into his iPhone, as it seems far too long for him to have typed it—was on March 4, 2024, two weeks before his death, the same day as our last phone conversation. When we spoke, I told him how low-spirited I’d been, in no small part because of all the death swirling around me. Over the course of the past three years, I’d lost one of my best friends, my mother, my father, my wife’s mother. Another dear friend recently lost his wife of more than sixty years. An old friend from high school had just taken his life. It never occurred to me that Neeli would soon join that list. “Death wants more death,” goes the Bukowski poem. On our call, I apologized to Neeli for being out of touch for a few weeks. A few hours after the call, he wrote me:

We all have to experience death and dying, because it is inevitable. Perhaps it should be thought of as the other side of birth, and therefore not such a bad thing. Two sides of the same coin, my friend. We write, and we love writing, as a hedge against mortality, while at the same time, realizing it is a way to make a statement about the beauty and wonder of creation, and to understand that it is all part of a vast cycle with a beginning and an end.

I am a 78-year-old man and I have seen so many friends pass away and, of course, so many family members. At one point in our lives, our fathers and mothers seem immortal, but they are not. The best we can hope for is to carry them with us in ourselves. 

Last night I was thinking of all the poets I have known who have passed away, and how much I love them, and how much they are missed. Thank god for the younger ones, and thank god for people like yourself.   Neeli.

As editorial director of Black Sparrow Press, Joshua Bodwell worked with Neeli Cherkovski on new editions of the poet’s biographies of Charles Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He lives in Maine.  

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