Friday, May 26, 2017


I only knew Denis Johnson briefly, while he and I were at The University of Iowa Writers Workshop back in the late 1960s. I liked him and he seemed to like me. We talked some and were friendly, but not hang-out friends. He was eight years my junior and I was married with one child and another on the way.

The most vivid memory I have of him then was at a protest against recruiters from DOW Chemical, the makers of napalm, the petroleum based jelly bombs dropped from "American" planes that stuck to clothes and skin and burned innocent and "guilty" alike. Or maybe it was Marine recruiters, I no longer remember (though there are newspaper articles and photos in my archives at NYU that could verify which it was).

A bunch of pro-Viet War jocks attacked the front lines of the protesters blocking entrance to a university building, and I remember Denis's innocent, boyish face as the jocks punched and kicked us, trying to create a break in the line, but we held firm. Eventually the police arrived and arrested the protesters, not the jocks, typical of those times, and these.

This photo (unattributed on the site I found it on) doesn't capture the Denis I knew back then who was  around twenty at the time, slim and like I said, boyish. He was quiet and undemonstrative to my boisterous radical persona, so I assumed he found me a lot to respond to. But I let him know how much I liked his writing already, and was happy when years later he and I had poetry collections published by the same elegant small press run by the late Kim Merker—The Stone Wall Press.

At this stage of my life I'm trying to reduce the things in my life, even my precious library, so last year I sold some of it to a rare book dealer and friend who took that book of Denis's—A Man Among The Seals—that I had held close for all these decades. I missed it as soon as I let it go. I know there are many who will miss Denis, who was taken too soon from family, friends and fans. But he left a great legacy of great books, which is what any writer would want.

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