Contrappasso Archives: Noir Issue

cp noir front cover raw

From the archives: Here is the introduction to our special 2013 issue on Noir in film, fiction, and other arts. It has never previously appeared online.

The issue was edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear. Contributors include Luc Sante, Suzanne Lummis, Nicholas Christopher, Barry Gifford, Morris Lurie, Dahlia Schweitzer & Toby Miller, Andrew Nette, and Matthew Asprey Gear. We also feature interviews with Dennis McMillan and Adrian Wootton.

The Noir Issue remains available in print form at Amazon.com, for Kindle, and in other ebook formats at Smashwords.

INTRODUCTION: ORGANISING WHAT WE SEE

NOEL KING and MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

When we decided to do this special Contrappasso noir issue—a grab bag of essays, interviews, and new and classic poetry—we were aware that some time ago two critics whose work we greatly admired, Luc Sante and James Naremore, had expressed fatigue with the term. In 2004 Sante told our colleague Peter Doyle, “noir is a category badly in need of a twenty- or thirty-year moratorium, at least in films.”

Naremore’s wonderful More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) ends by saying:

Given the current situation, debates over whether specific films are “truly” noir, or over the problem of what makes up a film genre, have become tiresome. There is, in fact, no transcendent reason why we should have a noir category at all. Whenever we list any movie under the noir rubric, we do little more than invoke a network of ideas as a makeshift organizing principle, in place of an author, a studio, a time period, or a national cinema. By such means, we can discuss an otherwise miscellaneous string of pictures, establishing similarities and differences among them. As I argue throughout this book, every category in criticism or in the film industry works in this fashion, usually in support of the critic’s or the culture’s particular obsessions. If we abandoned the word noir, we would need to find another, no less problematic, means of organizing what we see.

Naremore’s book is now widely accepted as a canonical text; Tom Gunning described it as “the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, and level of writing that this group of films deserves.” Gunning continues:

The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.

While Gilles Deleuze referred to film noir unproblematically as a “great genre” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and the late actor-director Dennis Hopper felt able to call it “everyone’s favourite genre” while he was directing The Hot Spot (1980), film critics have spent the last forty years debating whether film noir is a genre, a sub-genre, a film style, or a film movement.

noir

Whatever the case, if film noir was not a genre at the time of its first appearance—if by genre we mean a film industry-recognised way of producing and marketing films—it has certainly become one, in the industry and the academy, in our time. International mainstream movie makers, makers of art cinema, and independent filmmakers alike have their work defined as “neo-noir” or “noir-influenced,” which no longer has to imply corny pastiche; convincing recent Hollywood examples include Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) and Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Noir, when it rises above a series of clichéd filmic gestures (trenchcoats, fedoras, cigarettes, lipstick), seems to be the language to express the darkness at the heart of our troubled times.

Meanwhile film courses around the world have devoted themselves to the film noir, accompanying the surge of scholarship since the late 1990s. On the film-critical front there has been since that period a deluge of books on classic film noir (roughly 1941-58) and on whatever we call the films noir that emerged from the sixties onwards.

In 2001 Foster Hirsch both published Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir and updated his 1981 account of classic noir Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. There are many other important new books: a few include those by Edward Dimendberg (Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 2004), Wheeler Winston Dixon (Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, 2009), Vincent Brook (Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré directors and the Rise of Film Noir, 2009), Alistair Rolls and Deborah Walker (French and American Noir: Dark Crossings), Dennis Broe (Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood, 2010), Gene D. Philips (Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, 2011), and Mark Osteen (Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream, 2012).

Some excellent material was gathered in a special issue of Iris (no. 21, Spring 1996) devoted to “European Precursors of Film Noir”. Fine anthologies of essays include Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Readers (1996-2004) and Eddie Muller and Donald Malcolm’s ongoing Noir City Annual (collecting the best of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine, formerly the Noir City Sentinel). And as the British Film Institute series of Film Classics and Modern Classics (now combined into one series) trundles along it delivers new forays into the world of noir and neo-noir.

Film noir is seemingly everywhere—on our screens, in the academy, and in the hearts of movie lovers. But we’re also interested in looking at how the notion of noir is travelling in other cultural contexts.

We looked, for example, at Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien’s Sunshine & Noir: Art In LA 1960-1997 (1997), which contained Mike Davis’s essay ‘A Double Funeral’ on the race rivalries and gangs of Latinos, Koreans, and African Americans inside and outside LA jails. Catherine Corman’s photographic book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (based on her photographic exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale) might have had trouble spelling Fredric Jameson’s name correctly but it came in a clear line of descent from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s photographic rendering of the world of Philip Marlowe’s LA, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works (1989).

annex-lancaster-burt-killers-the_02

In her introduction to Manila Noir, Jessica Hagedorn said, “it made perfect sense to include a graphic noir since one of the many ways I learned to become a writer was through the Filipino horror komiks of my childhood.” In 2013 we are abundantly aware of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for graphic novels, especially those with a noir slant (Sin City, V For Vendetta). Darwyn Cooke’s recent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels deserve a mention, too, because they’re more faithful to the mood of the classic noir novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. John Boorman’s classic film Point Blank (1967) creates a rather different noir mood—as Adrian Wootton informs us in this issue, Boorman never actually read its inspiration, Stark’s The Hunter (1962)—and Taylor Hackford’s Parker (2013) is perhaps best skipped over entirely.

Recent generations of Batman comics are practically synonymous with noir. Frank Miller steered the comic franchise in this dark direction in the 1980s; the latest collection illustrated by Eduardo Risso, Batman Noir (2013), is a another fine example. We also looked at anthologies such as Dark Horse Books’ Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics (2009). We could have easily devoted an issue to the subject of comic book noir, which attracts many of the best contemporary illustrators and has an enormous fan base.

The noir sensibility has found expression in video games. An Australian contribution was Team Bondi’s hugely successful L. A. Noire (2011), the first video game officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. The game inspired a spin-off ebook anthology of noir short stories edited by Jonathan Santlofer.

In noir matters literary and poetic we felt on secure ground.

Noir fiction is now a distinct category within the crime genre. It wasn’t always that way, at least in the United States. Paperback publisher Black Lizard, founded and edited by Barry Gifford in the 1980s, played a crucial role by reviving mostly forgotten mid-century American hardboiled crime novels (which were much more enduringly popular in France, published in translation through Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire from 1945). Moreover, Gifford focused on republishing crime writers with a distinct noir sensibility. Noir fiction turned out to be something slightly different from the masterful hardboiled detective tales of Chandler and Hammett. The prose of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis was certainly hardboiled, but their narratives focused less on tarnished heroes and more relentlessly on the self-destructive, the hopeless, and the insane.

Luc Sante—who examines a series of haunting New York City police photographs in this issue, revisiting the terrain of his book Evidence, an inspiration for Australian writer-researchers Peter Doyle and Ross Gibson—once wrote in the New York Review of Books of how

[James M.] Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it.

scott-and-bogart

In 1997 the Library of America, under the guidance of then-Executive Editor (now Editor-in-Chief) Geoffrey O’Brien, published a two-volume anthology of Crime Novels: American Noir, attempting to establish a canon of the subgenre. The first volume (The 1930s & 40s) collected authors James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, and Cornell Woolrich; the second volume (The 1950s) featured Goodis, Willeford, Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes.

To this tradition of American noir fiction should be added writers such as Paul Cain, W. R. Burnett, Richard Hallas, James Ross, Peter Rabe, John D. Macdonald, Gil Brewer, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block, Leonard Gardner, Floyd Salas, James Ellroy, Kent Anderson, Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Denis Johnson, Christa Faust, James Sallis, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott.

Many new noir stories have found a home in independent ebook and print-on-demand journals such as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Melbourne’s Crime Factory. Independent publishers New Pulp Press and Stark House Press are doing important work publishing new and vintage noir, respectively. And we decided the work of independent crime publishers Dennis McMillan and Matthew Moring deserves attention; interviews with each appear in this issue and point the way to unjustly-neglected writers in the noir tradition.

We were aware of early American poetic noir offerings, from Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning (1938) and Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948) to Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, both from 1928, which were jointly republished in 1968 in a revised form that removed “ethnic references” thought to give possible offence to a 1960s reader. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel rendering of The Wild Party (1994) restored those excised textual elements.

We had long admired Nicholas Christopher’s poetry. Two of his early poems, ‘Film Noir’ and ‘John Garfield’, appear herein with his kind permission. Noir has long been an animating influence on Christopher’s work. His verse novella, Desperate Characters (1989) was nicely blurbed as “The Lady from Shanghai as rewritten by Proust,” and his novel Veronica (1996) is in many ways neo-noir. Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) is his account of noir and the fascination it holds for him, from the initial moment of encountering the great Out of the Past (1947) in a small Parisian cinema off the Rue de Rennes after he had taken some opium, through to his long New York years which saw him diligently work through all 317 films listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia (1988). In fact, he added extra titles, based on his own viewing, which he felt deserved inclusion.

We had hoped to set alongside Christopher’s ‘Film Noir’ another poem of that title found in Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra’s collection, Insectissimo! (2011) but couldn’t run him to ground in time for this issue to obtain reprint rights (i.e., your editors failed as gumshoes). We also liked Michael Atkinson’s lovely poem about John Garfield in his collection One Hundred Children Waiting For A Train (2002) and enjoyed Kevin Young’s long poem Black Maria (2005). Young’s noir poem series tells us it is “produced and directed” by him and it contains all the right noir props—ashtrays, gunsels, femme fatale, the set-up, the sucker, the speak-easy, the grift, the frame, the dive, the payback, and so on.

LA-based Suzanne Lummis has been running a noir poetry workshop for years; we are delighted to reprint two of her noir-themed poems in Contrappasso.

In short, we have to agree with James Naremore when he says that we now inhabit a “noir mediascape” (he borrows the term ‘mediascape’ from Arjun Appadurai). This is apparent from a casual encounter with the world of book publicity. Recent crime writing is referred to variously as “casino noir” (James Swain’s series of books beginning with Grift Sense) or “surf noir” (Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and later books). When he was reviewing a Joe Lansdale book, the great Daniel Woodrell described it as “backwoods noir”; both that descriptor and Woodrell’s self-applied “country noir” fit his own work (Tomato Red, Give us a Kiss, the excellent Winter’s Bone). We have feminist writers describing their works as “tart noir” and lesbian writers self-describing as “dyke noir.” And while we were completing this issue Jim Kitses urged us to read James Salter’s 1956 Korean War novel The Hunters as an instance of “military noir” (he urged us to read it in any case).

So settled is the term in publicity usage that we have noir by national location—”tartan noir” to describe some Scottish crime fiction, even “Australian noir” (see the essays in this issue by Andrew Nette and Mick Counihan). There is noir by US state, as in “Florida noir.” The vibrant series of city-focused noir anthologies from Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based press founded by musician Johnny Temple, has now expanded beyond the US to focus on cities from New Delhi to Havana (Los Angeles Noir and Manila Noir are reviewed in this issue). In each anthology, noir stories and sometimes bits of graphic novels emerge from specific neighbourhoods. The noir sensibility is truly international.

As we finish up this introduction, news comes that Lou Reed has died. The venue seems appropriate for us to remember him for one of his many great songs, ‘Femme Fatale’.

We hope readers of this special issue of Contrappasso enjoy our explorations of noir in its many guises.

mitch

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from Issue #8: Poetry by Floyd Salas

Photo (CC) G&R @ Flickr

Photo (CC) G&R @ Flickr

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My Brother

He was bent in the shadow
of the same father
wore the same anvil of ignorance
like a hexer’s charm
round his neck

But he glowed like a dark sun
while I was shrouded
black and white
and dusk grey
where the skin showed

Grey is the truer color
I wear it like a dark shroud
White is seen at dark
when only the lamp has eyes

But black catches the light more
like windshields in July heat
and hot tar on a wide street

.

 *

New Year’s Eve  

The moon goes down in the crowd’s eyes
by half
sinking into the sunken lid

The black night cups the crowd’s horror
It will spill it back again
in the cold day
when vacant eyesockets hold yellow pools
of stale rainwater
and face powder
streaks its white masks

Pinpoint the spot
the star crosses your heart
Make a sign over it
in the indelible bruise of a fist
so you won’t forget

.

*

 .

Like Smoke Streaking From Every Shoulder

Al Curtis killed a guy the other night
shot him four times with a .357 Magnum
and it didn’t even surprise me
he was always so uptight and tough
too tough for the clientele at the Salamandra
drove them away
shooed off the poets
threatened them
snubbed them
wouldn’t pay them for reading
or even give them a drink

I think Al killed because he was an ex-con
because he had done time
been caged like a beast
and acted like a beast
because he was black
and they wouldn’t let him in the hospital
after the cops beat him up
when he was innocent

Suffering made him that way
but unless he’s got a lot of money
he’ll go to Folsom Prison now
for life

One hundred years will bury him
behind cool stone gray stone
grave stone walls
built by coolies in the last century
built to last forever
You can see the chips in the stone
where the chisels bit

Picture the guy he shot
struggling for his life
holding his hands out
terror lining his face
making his eyes blaze
the scream curling in his throat

Picture his heart
deflating with each shot
four times
and the first one knocked him down
from the floor he begged and moaned
“No Al No Al Please Al”
and then three more times
like a kick in the ribs
that splinters clear through
deep inside
where it hurts
too deep
to heal
knowing he’s dying
that the light is going out
that the hole
goes clear through him
empty space
like the circle in a donut
the center of the shape
but empty nothing
there
the first circle of eternity
gone clear through him
knowing that
knowing he’s dying
becoming air
literally
picture that

I killed a fly the other night
with my forefinger
poked him with it
and got him the first time
right by my eye
on the pillow
not more than an inch away
He never knew what got him
One poke
and that’s all there was

I cross my heart
then clasp my hands
and bow my head to kiss them
in penitence
Catholic boy
the ritual of death stays with you
like Che Guevara the communist
when the soldier came in with the machine gun
He crossed himself and prayed to the Lord
just before he died
small habit he never broke
when the cross came down

We are all little creatures of habit
like squirrels under the ground
pop up into the sunlight
to see
if it’s all
clear

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

FLOYD SALAS is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of seven books, including the novels Tattoo the Wicked Cross, What Now My Love, Lay My Body on the Line and State of Emergency, the memoir Buffalo Nickel, and two books of poetry, Color of My Living Heart and, most recently, Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats. Also an artist and sculptor, he was 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, as well as staff writer for the NBC drama series Kingpin and the recipient of NEA, California Arts Council, Rockefeller Foundation and other fellowships and awards.  http://www.floydsalas.com

New Double Issue launch on 10 April!

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

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Roll camera…

Contrappasso starts its 4th year with a DOUBLE ISSUE.

Writers at the Movies, edited by Matthew Asprey Gear and guest Noel King, brings together many kinds of artists who have been captivated by film: its imagery, history, personalities and political edge. Across essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography, the contributors are James Franco, Emmanuel Mouret, Sarah Berry, Barry Gifford, Michael Atkinson, Luc Sante, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Lowenstein, Anthony May, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Simmon, Clive Sinclair and the late, great Richard Hugo.

Companion issue Contrappasso #8 takes the journal’s adventures in international writing further and wider, with its biggest selection of new fiction and poetry, from nine countries.

There’s an interview with Filipino authors F. H. Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, plus stories by Pasion-Flores, US authors Rick DeMarinis and Kent Harrington and, in a Contrappasso first, a long-overdue translation of Argentine modernist author Roberto Arlt (with translator Lucas Lyndes)…

…plus the most poetry in any Contrappasso issue, with work by Nicaragua’s Blanca Castellón (translated by New Zealand’s Roger Hickin), Spain’s Alicia Aza (translated by J. Kates), China’s Lu Ye and Geng Xiang (translated by Ouyang Yu), New Zealand’s Kerrin P. Sharpe and Mary Macpherson, the UK’s Bill Adams and Richard Berengarten, the USA’s Floyd Salas and J. Kates, and Australia’s Elias Greig, Philip Hammial, Travis McKenna, Sascha Morrell, Tony Page, Sarah Rice, Frank Russo, Page Sinclair, Alex Skovron, Paolo Totaro, Lyn Vellins, Luke Whitington – and one of the last poems by the late, much-missed Morris Lurie.

This Contrappasso DOUBLE ISSUE presents the most writers so far, across the widest range of fields.

And… cut.

from Issue #2: Poetry by Floyd Salas (II)

Line drawing © Floyd Salas

Line drawing © Floyd Salas

*

Steve Nash, Homosexual Transient

Executed San Quentin gas chamber
August 21st 1959
for killing eleven men
and a little boy

This is about the killer who gets away
This is it from the viewpoint of the murderer

Dedicated to Tony Curtis and the Boston Strangler
and to Johnny Wiesmuller
and Jane
with thanks to Jack Micheline

“One could do worse
Than be a swinger of birches.”  Robert Frost

I am a big cat
six-four
long stringy body
with sloping shoulders and big hands
hands that hang down like small paddles
like balls of weight with big knuckles
big hands
I can spread around a basketball
knobby hands
from having to work all my life
in canneries
and on construction jobs
out on the farm picking grapes
or prunes
bussing dishes

I think I’d like to kill me a few guys
guys who think they’re tougher than me
because I take it like a girl
guys who live down where I do
in skidrow rooms with hotplates
in poolhalls
in the cafeterias late at night
guys who wear clothes they buy
from the Jew at the army-navy store
guys who don’t take too many baths either
and smell like the rooms I live in
faint reek of sweat
and wrinkled shirts

Sometimes I pick me up a kid down at a park
or in the front row of some shoot-me-up show
downtown
but mostly guys
It’s okay
unless they make fun of me
and if they do
I bust ‘um
and sometimes croak ‘um
I get ‘um alone and kill ‘um
I choke ‘um after I hit ‘um
when I hit ‘um with my big fists
swinging like sledgehammers
down at the end of my long arms
I knock ‘um dizzy
I knock ‘um cold
Then I choke ‘um to death
if I don’t kill ‘um with my big fists
for making fun of me

I’m an Okie
That’s what people think
But I’m really from Texas
Gawky kind of guy
bony face
high cheekbones
not good-lookin’
country kind of rube down on the streets
That’s what I look like
Black hair and dark-skinned
from a stain of Indian blood
back there

These sailors pick me up and then laugh at me
mock me
So I slug the guy in the back seat with me
right in the nose
knock him cold
Then I grab the yo-yo in the passenger seat up front
and strangle him
break his neck
while his buddy tries to keep from crashing
rolling off the end of the pier
jams on his brakes and throws open the door and tries to run
But I catch him with a smash to the side of the head
knock him out
throw him back in the car
and push it off the end of the pier
with all three yoyos in it
push it down into the black water
with a muffled splash
down down below
in the oily water
deep down in the oily water
out of sight in the black night
so that nobody will see it until daylight
at best
deep deep down
in the oily water

Then they are after me
Then I have to run
run from hotel room to hotel room
run everywhere I go
run from the guys in the gray clothes in the greyhound bus station
with grim faces
run when they chase me
run down a back alley
disappear into the darkness
stay close to the walls of the buildings
until I get to my room
a buck-fifty a night
run because I can’t hitchhike out
not even in the night time
with the black and white cop cars cruising around
run to the railroad yards and hop a freight
but it’s a passenger train
and they’re still looking for me
They know I did it and they’re out to get me
I’ll do anything
I’ll stay in the back
I’ll pay when the conductor comes
I’ll do anything

But a guy comes in
and he has a grim gray face and gray clothes
and sits down next to me in the club car
I stand up where I can get the jump on him
bust him down with one punch
or crack his neck

He looks up at me
and I see his white collar and black coat
when he asks who I am

“Who I am?” I say.  “You’re no priest!”
“Yes, I am,” he says.  “Look!”

And I turn to look and see
all three sailors looking at me
but younger
rosy-cheeked and blooming
They do not speak
They are as perfect and still
as in a coffin
but standing up
They are standing up
They are after me

“Confess!” the priest says.
“Confess?” I say.  “This is a trap!”
And I grab the priest by the collar
and smash him in the face
throw him out the back door
over the rail of the last car
and see him bounce off the tracks
and tumble down the embankment

Then I turn and smash into all three sailors
punch them around like bags
so fast they don’t even move
knock them all down
then jump off the back of the train
and sail feet first
down the embankment

It gives as I fall
gives under me
and I fall slowly
ride the edge down
like a wave crashing slowly on the sand

Then I run down some streets
and hop up onto a house
jump from rooftop to rooftop
as teams of cops
crisscross the streets under me
like commandos in a war movie
shooting up at me

I hear the bullets whine
They whine
because they can’t get me
They whine
but I get away
I see cops crawling over the rooftops behind me
gaining on me
They are gaining on me
I watch myself escape now
I am Floyd
standing down below in the streets
along the sidewalk
with all the others
watch as the six-four killer finally gets treed
treed in a tree four stories high
five six maybe

He climbs to the very top of the tree
bullets whizzing around him
calling his name
sound dying out with a hum
climbs climbs
to the very top of the tree
me expecting it to break
for him to fall down
and bounce on the ground
get captured or killed at least

The police all stand around and watch too
as he swings back and forth
back and forth
high above the rooftops
in a circle of sun
framed by the sun
the orange sun
sun the color of the setting sun
see him swinging back and forth
and back and forth
and back and forth
with great swooshes of wind
reaching almost head first
down to the rooftops
on one side
then back over
way down
on the other side
the same way
framed by the sunlight
glowing gold in the sunlight
haloed in ecstasy
swinging with freedom
beyond death
knowing he will never get caught
knowing they will never get him
knowing that he is freeeeee
freeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Floyd Salas is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of seven books, including the novels Tattoo the Wicked Cross, What Now My Love, Lay My Body on the Line and State of Emergency, the memoir Buffalo Nickel, and two books of poetry, Color of My Living Heart and, most recently, Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats. Also an artist and sculptor, he was 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, as well as staff writer for the NBC drama series Kingpin and the recipient of NEA, California Arts Council, Rockefeller Foundation and other fellowships and awards. Find out more about Floyd at his own website,  http://www.floydsalas.com

from Issue #2: Poetry by Floyd Salas (I)

Line drawing © Floyd Salas

Line drawing © Floyd Salas

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The first three of Floyd Salas’ poems in Issue 2 – “Kids Born In ‘Thirty-One,” “A Lament on Original Sin” and “God and the City” – are presented as a special PDF to preserve their unique formatting. Click here to read them. Find out more about Floyd at his own website, www.floydsalas.com

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Floyd Salas is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of seven books, including the novels Tattoo the Wicked Cross, What Now My Love, Lay My Body on the Line and State of Emergency, the memoir Buffalo Nickel, and two books of poetry, Color of My Living Heart and, most recently, Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats. Also an artist and sculptor, he was 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, as well as staff writer for the NBC drama series Kingpin and the recipient of NEA, California Arts Council, Rockefeller Foundation and other fellowships and awards.  http://www.floydsalas.com

Sydney launch

Image Daniel Boud, Tourism NSW

Image Daniel Boud, Tourism NSW

Thanks to everybody who came along to the Sydney launch of our second issue on December 12 and to the contributors who read at the event: Mark Tredinnick, Tessa Lunney, Erin Martine Sessions, Daniel East, Chris Oakey, Elias Greig, and Luke Whitington. Poetry editor Theodore Ell read Antigone Kefala‘s ‘The Fatal Queen’. Editor Matthew Asprey read extracts from Mimi Lipson‘s ‘Safe, Courteous, Reliable’ and Floyd Salas‘s ‘Steve Nash, Homosexual Transient’.

Floyd Salas: new website launched

Floyd Salas, the legendary San Francisco writer-fighter – and Contrappasso contributor – has launched a newly revitalized website featuring samples of his writing, artworks, and photography. Check it out here:

www.floydsalas.com

A series of poems by Floyd Salas will appear in the forthcoming second issue of Contrappasso this December.

Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press

Here’s the trailer for a fine 2007 documentary about one of Contrappasso Magazine‘s heroes: the late Barney Rosset (1922-2012), whose Grove Press and Evergreen Review fought the hard battle for freedom of expression in the United States.

Rosset published such writers as Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Kenzaburō Ōe, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Eugène Ionesco, and Floyd Salas, whose memoir piece ‘Darkness Come Down’ appeared in issue #1 of Contrappasso. Salas appears as an interview subject in the documentary directed by Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg.

from issue #1: ‘Darkness Come Down’ by Floyd Salas

DARKNESS COME DOWN by FLOYD SALAS

HIS NAME WAS PANCHO and he messed with me the first day I was put up in C Tank in the county jail. A white-skinned Mexican dude in his thirties probably who had a bunch of knife scars on his pale, pink body. I checked them out when he took off his shirt for some reason, maybe to take a shower though I don’t recall him ever getting into the shower when I was in C Tank with him that couple of months or so.

In fact I was the only guy of about twenty guys and more who took a shower every day, every morning in fact. I was eighteen and didn’t even shave and weighed about one-fifteen with my clothes on. Five-five with a wiry body, small-shouldered bone structure but with a big chest and thick shoulder muscles, not shaped like a body builder but full-formed, a fly-weight novice amateur fighter, had a handful of fights when I was seventeen. Dark brown wavy hair, not curly, wavy, with big curls that waved back from my temples, medium complexion, big hazel green eyes, a speck of yellow in the iris softening the green. A prisoner said, “Good body,” when I had to take a shower in B, the incoming tank on the first floor of the jail, the thirteenth floor of the county courthouse, down below the C and D tank, which were on the fourteenth floor. That was when I first got to the jail to face a superior court trial for two counts of strong-arm robbery and an aggravated assault against an off-duty cop who saw me and three other guys in a street fight in East Oakland, Ninety-Eighth Ave, and chased us down ‘til we skidded to a stop and jumped out and fought him, too. And he lost the fight and covered up with his arms and bent legs, but chased us when we first drove off from the fight and ran to a cop phone on a boulevard street corner and put out a calling-all-cars alarm and pretty quick we were in jail, thinking we just had a street fight with two guys.

But they were calling it armed robbery because we took a bottle of whiskey from the guys we were in the street fight with in the first place—when the off-duty cop first saw us—and, big crime, a paper sack with men’s socks in it.

But the real reason they were over-charging us was because we beat up the cop even if he was off-duty in street clothes and we didn’t know he was a cop.

In any case, here I was, in jail with a huge bail of fifteen thousand dollars on me and a lawyer that wanted a thousand dollars to take the case and this was in 1949 when it only cost thirty-five cents to go to the show and I earned a dollar fifteen an hour as a kitchen helper at Duchess Party Foods. I was put in this jail tank on the fourteenth floor of the Alameda court house with a bunch of adult felons and didn’t know what I was doing or going to do since a trial date hadn’t even been set yet. When it was finally set, it would be four months away.

So, I was a kid in a barred tank, a big day room with a stationary iron table and two iron benches on each side of it secured to the concrete floor in the middle of a jail tank full of felons, ex-convicts and soon-to-be convicts when they got sentenced and here’s this guy Pancho in front of me talking nasty like I was nothing, insulting me, telling me to get off the mop-wet floor or something and I didn’t even know what he was talking about but I knew he was spewing bullying hate with his spittle when he talked at me—not to me, at me.

He wasn’t big. Average size man, about five-eight or so, probably in his thirties, medium build, one-fifty say, and brown hair that fell straight across his forehead sometimes and was combed to the sides from a part in the middle, old-fashioned style in a way, foreign, like he was from Mexico.

C Tank was the best tank to be in the four tanks of the county jail—I’d find that out the hard way when I got transferred out of it. C Tank faced south and got the sun most of the day. It had a view of the South Bay over the roof tops if I’d climb up the bars a few feet and peek past the barred hallway that separated the tank from the outside walls of the county courthouse.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on that first day and suddenly here’s this guy in front of me talking nasty and belligerent with his thick lips spewing out spit, saying, “Get off the floor!” or something like that and I said something back and he must have pushed me because I threw a punch at him and he reached out and blocked the punch and we struggled for a moment when this older guy named Jim Fox jumped in and got between us, stopping the fight.

Maybe he was trying to protect me because I was smaller, but I could think, I was smart and I could fight, too, and I feared no one. I could drop any guy I hit with one punch, no matter how big, and had never lost a street fight in my life and I’d had about twenty or so of them by this time.

I’d gone to nine public schools before I finally graduated because I acted like a big guy which could rile some dudes. If there was a bully in the crowd, itching to vent his anger at being alive and having to fight for survival every day, he’d decide to take his pecking order instinct out on me, the smallest guy around. I was smart, too, and had skipped a grade so looked even smaller for my age around the older kids, and acted like I belonged to any crowd.

But after a fight or two, I didn’t have to fight a lot because I always won. I had athletic talent, graceful movement and was always a leader and could hit hard for my size and could drop anybody I hit, no matter how tall, and every school I went to I got a reputation as a tough kid who didn’t mess with anybody but would fight if he had to. There were boxers in my family on both my mom and pop’s sides. It was in the blood.

Usually I was the sharpest in the crowd and knew more about the adult world because my older brothers had both taken me with them on their adventures, both intellectual and physical, and treated me like an adult while still watching over me. I kept my mouth shut and got along with the older people I met through either of them, my big brothers, and learned about the big world.

I had dropped that cop after those three big guys I was with, my friends Dexter McGee, Corky Bible and Bill Waters, couldn’t put him down. I did it by reaching up between them and dropping him with a single left hook to the chin. They then each booted him once as he covered up like a ball. I saw the only unprotected part of his body and kicked him right between the cheeks of his ass and he yelped and we then jumped into Bill’s car and sped off.

But the cop jumped in his gray Ford coupe and chased us and, as we sped down San Leandro Boulevard through a mile-long section of East Oakland that had the Frisco Bay and light industry buildings on one side and houses and fields on the other, I saw him brake, jump out of the car and run to a police phone near a gas station.

“That guy might be a cop,” I said.

But Bill said not to worry about it—he’d report his car as stolen. We’d just had a fight—no big deal—Dexter said, so we decided to go get a big bottle of Coke to mix with the whiskey at an all-night drugstore market on Nineteenth and Broadway and party.

That’s when the cops hit. Bill parked his car on the corner of Nineteenth with his back-end on Broadway, the main drag in Oakland, and Corky jumped out and went inside the store to buy the Coke. The store had two doorways, one facing Broadway and the other Nineteenth. My father’s restaurant, the El Patio, was right across the street from the Nineteenth Street side door, but it was closed this late at night, after midnight. I was sitting on the passenger side of the front seat when the next thing I know I see a man through the glass window standing right outside my closed door, bent over, wearing a rumpled dark suit and hat. And he’s got a black pistol aimed at my face. He’s not a big guy but he’s not kidding. I know he’s a cop and do what he says, “Get out.” Bill and Dexter get out of the car, too, and then I’m standing on the sidewalk with Dexter and Bill and cops standing all around us—guns pointed at us.

There’s some reporters and a photographer, too. One of them, some guy I can’t see too clearly standing between two cops in the streetlight on the corner, starts bad-mouthing us, talking tough, and when he says something real wise-guy like, Dexter says something back and they trade smart remarks for a few wise-cracks. Bill and I keep our mouths shut.

I think I’m in trouble for getting in a street fight, no major thing, even if I’m going to jail. I don’t want to be there, but I’m not freaking out either. I’m glad my father’s restaurant’s closed though.

Then I’m in jail and the long nightmare starts.

*

HE THUMPS HIS BLACKJACK down on my thigh. A thick-bodied cop, thinning black hair spreading back on top his head from his wide face—pushing up against me on the bench where I’m waiting to get booked. I still think I’m in there for a street fight, no big deal, but they’ve taken my pants off for evidence from a spot of blood on them and now I remember Dexter in the back seat of the car leaning over next to me, dripping blood on me from his bloody nose. I’m in red boxer shorts and bare-legged and feel the heavy hardness of that blackjack on my skin clear to the bone. He got me good.

Then he does it again, in the same spot. I wince, whether I want to show that it hurts or not.

I wait for another shot and tighten my leg, but just then a gray-haired guy in civilian clothes, dark slacks and sport shirt, probably an inspector, walks in from the next room and looks at me when he walks by with what seems to be an amused smile or smirk and the balding cop leans back away from me and against the wall, playing it safe so he won’t get in trouble for brutalizing a prisoner, I guess. The booking room is the bottom floor of the city hall, which is twelve stories high, with a drive-in right next to it in the building where they drop the poor suckers off who are going upstairs to the top floor of the building, the jail, and that includes me.

I used to carry a hair brush to keep my scalp and hair healthy. Baldness ran in the family on my father’s side, but not on my Mom’s side and I was a scholar and had worked in the library as a page for a buck an hour on my first job after high-school and studied hair among other subjects like dreams and Freud and novelists like Richard Wright and so carried a brush because brushing your hair every day was healthy, I’d read. I did it so I’d never get bald when I got older.

But when the cops had me strip naked, one cop picked up my brush and with a bright look in his eye told me to turn around. I said no and wouldn’t turn or obey him because I knew he was going to poke me in the ass with it.

*

THAT WAS THE BEGINNING of jail time. First they put me in a separate, single row of cells that faced an enclosed yard in the middle of the main jail floor which was the twelfth floor of the city hall. The elevator stopped there.

I sang out in the middle of the day, pretty pop songs a young man just entering manhood with thoughts of mating would sing, like Louie Armstrong’s

I found my thrill
on Blueberry Hill
where I found you.
The moon stood still
and lingered until
my dreams came true.

Once, I was taken into a room with two detectives. The big fat detective in a dirty, rumpled suit, gray with age, asked me what happened, and I told him about the guys shouting at us and us getting out to fight them and picking up the bottle of whiskey and the bag with the socks and driving off and getting chased by this guy and then driving off, never mentioning that I dropped that cop with a left hook to the chin, underneath his guard and in-between the bodies of Dexter and Bill and Corky while they were throwing punches from all sides at him and couldn’t bring him down.

Then the cop says, “You sign this and we’ll charge you with petty theft and let it go at that.”

I signed and felt pretty good. Both cops that grilled me were in their forties, at least, and sloppy in their dress, and the one fat cop, who grilled me and got me to sign right off—a dumb kid who didn’t even know that I could ask for a lawyer, me just thinking it was a small charge, petty theft thing, like the cop said, no big deal—talked real civil, without education, but high-school English level, street level language, fat cop sitting opposite of me in the cubby-hole of a tiny room, and wrote down my story and got me to sign it at the end of the long yellow sheet.

I was in the cell when I was called out into the hall in the middle of the second day or so to face the two cops and all three of us, me and Dexter and Bill, were handed felony warrants for two strong-arm robberies and one aggravated assault. Their hypocrisy and deceitful behavior in over-charging us in every way, left me standing there in front of the two cops, knowing there was nothing that I could do about it. Nothing. Strong-arm robbery? Assault? He chased us. At least they didn’t charge us with attacking a cop, but that was small consolation.

Then I was taken out of the line of cells that faced the small yard down below and put up on the top tier of that cell block, the back cells, the felony cells, five levels up, facing the gray blank wall of the opposite side of the cell block at the top of the city hall. This tier had the only windows in the cell block that opened out and let the cold air in. The guys on the bottom level sweated with heat and were always crying out for us to open the windows while the guys on the top tier like me wanted the windows closed because they let in cold air that the heat from the main floor down below didn’t reach.

A couple of things happened in the twelve days of darkness I spent there that stuck with me. I found a way to keep my cell door unlocked by sticking a magazine in the doorway when the trusty in the stairwell pulled the lever that closed off the cells in the row, blocking it from closing. At night, they’d close those cell doors but in the day time they were often open and the prisoners could move up and down the tier of their cell block and go into other prisoners’ cells. You could move around at least and even sneak down to the bottom tier level sometimes. It was there where some big black dude did some tough talking and I said, “You want to spar?” and charged at him and drove him back in his cell to the back wall, throwing just body shots to keep it from being a fight, but showing what could happen if he wanted to really tussle. He backed away.

Then there was Jesse James. That was his real name. A nice black guy, average size, one-fifty maybe, who was in on auto theft and had a cell next to mine. One night the wind’s whistling in the windows in that row of top tiers and I hunker down in my blanket and try to stay warm, but start sniffling from the cold every once in a while, in the dark. The lights are out, it’s sleep time, when I sniffle again and hear from the next cell, Jesse James’ voice: “You okay, Floyd?” as if he thought I was crying. It would come to that.

“Yeah, I’m okay, Jesse. Just a little cold. Thanks,” I answered.

*

BUT THE DARKNESS CAME DOWN. Twelve days in that dark hole and finally there’s a preliminary trial, but long before that, days before that, there’s the life in the felony cells, the floors of iron with the caged walkways. At night, a woman would sing from the women’s dorm, which must have been on the other side of the wall of the felony cells. Her voice would come down into the tank from the darkness of the night outside those windows. A sweet pretty voice that suited her name, Pearl.

My preliminary trial was coming up and the future was unknown and filled with threat and my fear. I was in Hell on Earth and had to survive it, and so did she and so did all of us. And yet she sang and there was something about the rich tones of her voice, like chocolate or blackberry wine, that was sweetness itself. It touched my spirit and that of those around me.

© 2012 Floyd Salas

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Floyd Salas is the critically-acclaimed author of four novels, a memoir and two volumes of poetry.  His publications include Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967), winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship; What Now My Love (1970); Lay My Body on the Line (1978), written and published on National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowships; the memoir Buffalo Nickel (1992), which earned him a California Arts Council Literary Fellowship; State of Emergency (1996), awarded the 1997 PEN Oakland Literary Censorship Award, and his poetry books, Color of My Living Heart (1996) and Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats (2006).  

He was a staff writer for the NBC drama, Kingpin, released in February, 2003 and a 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley.  He has recently completed a novel about 1940s Oakland entitled Seventh Street Jump. He is also working on Maverick:  Prayers of Heresy, a volume of new and selected poems from the last fifty years.

He is editor of Stories and Poems from Close to Home (1986) and other anthologies of San Francisco Bay Area writing, and the author of numerous essays and reviews about writing and the creative life.  Tattoo the Wicked Cross and Buffalo Nickel are featured in Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature (HarperCollins 1994).   His other awards and honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Fiction Scholarship, an NEA creative writing fellowship, and two outstanding teaching awards from the University of California, Berkeley.  His fiction, non-fiction and poetry manuscripts as well as letters and biographical information are archived in the Floyd Salas collection in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.  His novel, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, earned a place on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Western 100 List of Best 20th Century Fiction.  He has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Sonoma State University, and Foothill College, as well as at numerous writing conferences and at San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville and other correctional institutions.  He is a founder and president of the multicultural writing group PEN Oakland, and a former boxing coach for University of California, Berkeley.