Collecting Floyd Salas

by Don Herron


Under the title “Floyd Salas: From the Mean Streets,” a somewhat edited version of this article first appeared in Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine in December 2003 — worth grabbing for the cover images. The following is the original text:

The first editions from the boxer, poet, and novelist Floyd Salas offer an amazing chronicle of a life torn, page by page, from the mean streets. His first book, the novel Tattoo the Wicked Cross, is a widely recognized classic of juvenile crime and prison literature. With searing honesty, the autobiography Buffalo Nickel tells of the destruction of his family, with one brother a suicide and the other, Al, caught up for decades in an addiction to drugs. His most famous books, long known to the collecting community, offer fine, passionate writing at still accessible prices. And for those collectors who crave more thrills during the hunt, his checklist of firsts includes a few off-trail items that provide enough challenge to make the completist chase genuinely compelling.

As was the case with Charles Willeford, Floyd Salas is a writer I had never heard of before I met him in person — the slow way to discover favorite writers, although it seems to be working for me. In 1996 to celebrate the opening of a new main library in San Francisco, the publisher Weldon Owen released a commemorative book entitled A Free Library in This City, with the main text by Peter Booth Wiley. Peppering the volume are one-page essays, selected by Isabel Allende, celebrating the institution of the public library. Contributors included Armistead Maupin, Harold Norse, Ethan Canin, Michael McClure, Jessica Mitford, and many other writers who have lived in the Bay Area. Perhaps because the Dashiell Hammett Tour I’ve led for many years starts off from the library, I was invited to appear, as well.

I met Floyd, a quick bantam-like guy, at the publication party. His essay for the book recounted one of his earliest jobs, working as a page at the library in Oakland. Later, in the credit lines I noticed that Floyd had written a novel called Tattoo the Wicked Cross. Mystic resonance crackled off the title. Instantly, I wanted to read the book, just because of the name alone.

When the novel actually lived up to that great title, I started looking for more. By chance I fell in with Floyd socially, seeing him at another literary gathering later in 1996. I guess at minimum I’ve been to two or three parties at his place every year since then, and occasionally I go to a reading. The most recent was in April 2003 at the main library in Oakland where Floyd had worked as a page, pulling books in the stacks, in his teen years. At age 72 he returned to read the selection from Buffalo Nickel which editor Rick Heide used for the massive, landmark anthology Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California (Heyday, 2002). Introducing Floyd, Heide pointed out specifically that his first title, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, was “One of the best reviewed books ever to come out of California.”

From the first moment of sale, the 1967 Grove Press hardcover of Tattoo was recognized as a modern classic. Telling the story of fifteen-year-old Aaron D’Aragon, sentenced to a penal farm for adolescents in California, the narrative balances on a tightwire as the naivete of childhood encounters the unrelenting brutality of prison life. Well over thirty years later, the novel remains as arresting as ever, always attracting new fans. Andrew Vachss has been one of the most vocal, praising it on several occasions, with the summary in the December 1988 issue of Writer’s Digest one of the best: “A poetic masterpiece. . . . It’s that rare book that improves as you read it again and again. The sheer narrative force compels too cursory a look at the secondary themes and near-subliminal messages. It’s like a blues song where you hear the pain from the sound and then have to listen a couple of more times to catch the words.”

Born in Walsenberg, Colorado in 1931, Floyd was raised largely in Oakland, California after his family moved to the West Coast. His mother died when he was twelve, and then his idealized older brother committed suicide, and he soon had incident after incident with the law. “I’ve never been to prison,” Floyd tells me. “I’m not an ex-con.” But he says he was “busted five times as a juvie. I did time five times, twice for fights, once for a hot car.” He also served 120 days for spitting in a cab driver’s face.

“Once I got busted for being in or near a house where marijuana had been smoked,” he adds.

At the age of 18 he was arrested for punching out an off-duty cop. A tiny guy, but with years of Golden Gloves training behind him, Floyd found himself once more behind bars. He didn’t shave yet and weighed only 111 pounds in his clothes. He says in the jail a couple of others prisoners tried to molest him. One, a Mexican, was “very white, pink,” with anywhere between fifteen and fifty knife scars on his body. Floyd gave him one shot to the jaw and broke it. He says he went to the hole for five days for doing that. “On the second day,” he tells me, “they gave me food, a little food.”

Tattoo the Wicked Cross grew out of Floyd’s initial attempts at writing, as he wrestled the stuff of his existence onto paper. Inspired by The Naked and the Dead — Floyd still hails Norman Mailer as “his hero” for inspiring him with the possibilities of literature — he tried his first short story at age 21. Entering Cal Berkeley on a boxing scholarship in 1956, the tale of a boy who witnesses the rape of a friend in juvenile lockup won him a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship for 1958/59 to El Centro de Escritores in Mexico City.

Floyd had written another short story in early 1957 after watching “sky pilots” trying to save souls in Pershing Square in Los Angeles, when he was on the lam from Oakland narcs. This story formed the basis for the wonderful, grotesquely comic sequence in Tattoo, when the brutal teen prisoner Buzzer is forced onto his knees to pray by his visiting mother. Floyd showed this story to the poet Josephine Miles at his college before he got the Rockefeller grant, and she marked it up for him and encouraged him to keep writing.

Tattoo is pure invention,” Floyd says, but then he also tells me, “I never knew Buzzer, but I knew a guy I based Buzzer on.”

Over four and a half years, he wrote his first novel seven times, pulling the material from the unpublished short stories, changing the narrative style from first person to third, and finally to third subjective. “I tried to capture the subjectivity of Joyce with the objectivity of Hemingway,” he says. During this time he had enrolled at San Francisco State, and used the pieces from his work-in-progress to try for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in 1964. Worth $1000, Floyd received the award the year after Leonard Gardner got it for Fat City — both for as yet unpublished novels. One of the best things to happen in connection with this was that writer Herb Gold, one of the award judges, advised Floyd to ditch the title he had for the work: The Star, the Cross and the Broadsword. Floyd thought of a better one, and used Gold’s laudatory letter to apply for a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship to finish college at State, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1966.

Grove Press gave a significant push to Tattoo for the 1967 release — advance reading copies are still to be found with some ease, plain wraps covered in the actual dustjacket used on the book, which features a cover image of Floyd himself behind bars. The true first edition in hardcover is a very solid product, a durable piece of bookmaking. The largely white dustjacket is subject to staining, of course, and the words “by Floyd Salas” in red ink on the spine equally subject to sun fading, but I have seen many very nice copies. Because it was an instant classic, the book has been a known commodity to dealers all along. Thus, it is easy to find copies of the first to this day, and because fine copies are numerous the price has remained in reasonable figures. Grove quickly did a second printing in hardcover, and later a regular paperback. Floyd also tells me of a pirate edition from “Studio Books,” a porn press, which packaged it as a homoerotic novel.

The ending of Tattoo retains the power to shock, but I’ll let you encounter that sequence for yourself, even though Floyd says, “With great literature, you can know the ending.” In one of his own best scenes, Andrew Vachss nods to Floyd’s novel with a scene of rape in a juvie detention center, building the backstory for one of his villains. Floyd recalls talking to Vachss one time and telling him, “Bad guys have suffered, too.”

At San Francisco State, Floyd got deeper into literary life, with his first editorial job on the college magazine Transfer. He also met many other struggling young writers, such as Anne Rice and her husband, the poet Stan Rice. Anne Rice has said that Floyd introduced them to boxing. “We got into it and would go with him to the Golden Gloves in San Francisco every year.” She also recalls, “one time I got in the ring with him. I found it a bit too rough. I mean, one blow to the head, even with that mask, is enough.”

Floyd’s street fights are legendary, the tough spine for much of his best writing. When I first met him, Floyd was telling me about a fight he’d been in the year before, when he was sixty-six. I remember phoning my pal, the publisher Dennis McMillan, to turn him on to Floyd’s work. Dennis does the same for me when he discovers a hot new hard-boiled or absurdist writer. I felt sure I had something this time, and thought to tell him about Floyd’s recent fight.

“You mean some sixty-year-old guy is still getting into fights on the street?” Dennis exclaimed.

Well, sure, I thought– and later told Floyd about Dennis’ reaction. “And then Dennis said, ‘You mean some sixty-year-old — ‘”

“Sixty-six,” Floyd interjected.

Grove Press gave Floyd a $2000 advance in 1967 on his next idea for a novel, Gin for Xmas, named after the Lionel Hampton number. Floyd had witnessed a barfight in the old Knotty Pine Bar at 18th and San Pablo, downtown Oakland — because the younger of two brothers refused to get into the fight, the older brother ended up killing him. Floyd saw a way to catch the dynamic between himself and his older brother Al in the incident, and began working on it.

Over the years he figures he did at least eight or nine or even ten versions of Gin for Xmas, but in the short-term he realized it was going to take too much effort to get it ready for publication. He’d just spent years doing rewrites on Tattoo the Wicked Cross, and thought, “I’m not going to kill myself again with the second book.” Floyd had shown a poem he’d written to Don Allen, a West Coast editor for Grove Press and a key figure who helped establish The Beats with the New American Poetry series. Allen told him the material of the poem would work better as a short story — instead, Floyd turned it into a novel.

What Now My Love appeared in 1969 from Grove Press in lieu of Gin for Xmas, and Floyd says that it is “All true, except the killing.” Set in the Haight-Ashbury as the drug scene turned violent in the late sixties, this one is my favorite of Floyd’s novels, a perfect book of its kind. Dennis McMillan made it to the Haight in that period and confirms that every sensory detail matches his memory of the place and scene. “The word went down Haight Street like the wind when somebody had a new stash of acid,” but in this case a narcotics bust results in a cop being shot, and the narrator, his girlfriend and the dealer fleeing to Tijuana. The narrator, Miles, of course is modeled on Floyd: “I went to Cal on a boxing scholarship and though I’m only five-five and 125. . . I’ve had over two hundred street fights — though most of them were before I started writing — and won every one, nearly all by knockouts. . . .”

Capturing the feeling of no possible escape, and a sure sense of the absurd, What Now My Love could have been written to meet the definitions Charles Willeford set out in New Forms of Ugly, where he pinpoints and defines The Immobilized Man in literature. Miles at once is thoroughly immersed in the moment and yet able to stand aside and watch each instant pass by, as if someone writing dispassionately years later could have known the hippie scene inside and out. Floyd says he took the acid lab bust from the news, and pulled an incident from one of his early short stories where the same Mexican cop shook him down twice in the same day. The first draft was done as he lay sick in bed, taking twenty-three days after beginning to push through. Then in the next six months he rewrote it five times, most of the revisions done when standing around at pot parties. At the time he tells me he was living with six hippies, and “we’d all smoke a joint, then I’d write some more.”

The 1969 Grove Press first of What Now My Love is a somewhat more cheaply made and much slimmer book than Tattoo, and hasn’t held up quite as well under the rigors of time, having more colors on the dustjacket to fade and being more subject to spine-lean. Capturing a bit of the second novel syndrome, copies are by no means as common as on Tattoo, but so far offer no great obstacle to a collector — nothing compared to the group of firsts that come next.

While What Now My Love was underway, however, one of the most notorious and interesting incidents in Floyd’s literary life occurred. It was 1968, and Saul Bellow appeared as a lecturer at San Francisco State as the campus roiled with the forces that led to the famous riots by the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Floyd says this moment has dogged him for years. “I’ve had writers I’ve never met before in my life show hatred for me,” he tells me, but adds, “When I had that thing with Bellow, I’d read everything he’d ever written.” He believes that Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and The Adventures of Augie March are the best books by a man he still calls a great writer.

First-hand reports of what actually was said at the lecture vary greatly. Floyd admits he got to the talk late. Clearly the audience wasn’t warming up to Bellow. One student asked how much autobiography there was in his work and Floyd says Bellow replied, “That’s none of your business.” A young writer known to Floyd by the name of Frank Olsen then asked the visiting lecturer why he hadn’t titled his previous novel Bellow instead of Herzog. Some accounts, such as James Atlas quotes in his biography Bellow (2000), report that Floyd ended up screaming obscenities at the older writer. Floyd swears that never happened, but does admit that he finally shouted out to the crowd, “Do you realize what you’re doing, worshiping that effete man down there in that expensive suit? I bet he can’t even come!”

In 1970 in Mr. Sammler’s Planet Bellow transposes this scene to Columbia University, where his alter ego Sammler confronts a similar audience — “Most of the young people seemed to be against him. The shouting sounded hostile.” An unnamed character in the audience who assumes Floyd’s role in the incident yells, “Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He’s dead. He can’t come.” It’s interesting that on the core quotation both Floyd and Saul Bellow come so close, and even more intriguing to see how these two writers, both masters of turning their life experiences into fiction, crossed paths.

From this same radical scene at San Francisco State came Floyd’s next two novels, Lay My Body on the Line and State of Emergency, where he appears under the name Roger Leon. But it would take six years for the opening of the Leon saga to see publication and twenty years for the second half to appear. Meanwhile, Floyd earned a living by teaching. His creative writing classes have become famous, with his admonition to his students: “First you tell what happened as true as you can, then you shape it into fiction.” And many who enroll are dismayed by the first assignment, which is to write about “the worst thing you’ve ever done.” Floyd also worked as a boxing coach for fifteen years at Cal — in 1976, his first year as full boxing coach, he says he “turned out three intercollegiate national boxing champions at 112, 126 and 132 weight classes.”

His next published book jumped suddenly out of the creative writing class scene. Peralta College Extension offered him a chance to do a class if he could gather enough students, so Floyd went over to a park where his son Greg and Greg’s drinking buddies were hanging out and signed them up. Using poems from the class and from Bay Area literary pals such as Stan Rice and Jack Micheline, Floyd assembled a chapbook of almost one hundred pages of poetry and prose and named it after a poem by Jimmy Lyons which is included.

Word Hustlers, edited by Floyd, appeared in 1976 from the “Word Hustlers Press” in Berkeley. Saddle-stapled in stiff yellowish-tan wraps, it is a very elusive item, seldom seen for sale. The actual print run at this juncture is unknown, or unremembered, although Floyd wants to guess it may have been a thousand. I’d think that number is much too high, and suspect it may have been in the lower hundreds, with enough copies to distribute to the contributors to pass around. The price “$2.00” appears on the back cover. Floyd himself contributed several poems and also the short story “Mr. Skiles is a Really Fine Man” in its first appearance, written after he had to go and ID the body of a nephew who had hung himself in jail, high on reds. This story or incident would reappear later in Buffalo Nickel.

In this period Floyd estimates he was writing about fifty to one hundred poems a year, and many of these appeared in such zines as Box of Words, The Holy Earth, Blue Mesa Review and The San Francisco Bark, a Gathering of Bay Area Poets, among many others. He used his literary connections again later in 1976 when he was chosen to edit another anthology of poetry and prose, whose full title is To Build a Fire: A commemorative anthology of 77 writers in, from & about a geographical place known as Oakland, Calif. for the Celebration, November 6, 1976.

Taking its title from the famous story by Oakland resident Jack London, To Build a Fire has to be the rarest item in Floyd’s list of first editions. Published by Mark Ross in connection with a local “Celebration of Writers,” done in what looks similar to high-grade mimeography, 8″ by 11″ with the pagination viii and 124 stapled within stiffer tan covers. The copy in Floyd’s personal file has a white strip of tape as additional binding on the spine, and this is the only copy I have seen thus far. The numbers printed could not have been great, and no doubt most went straight into the hands of contributors.

In a brief preface Floyd terms the celebration, “This first and only literary venture of this magnitude in the city of Oakland” and hopes that people may come to know the names of the writers as well as they know the Oakland A’s. “Maybe this is just a dream but how many of you can tell me who were the star baseball players of 1916 when Jack London died? Yet everyone remembers him, all over the world. There are more Jack Londons around. They just need a chance to be seen, to be appreciated and to grow.”

Mostly poetry, To Build a Fire starts with a section of “Invited Works” from the likes of Ishmael Reed, Jack Micheline, Stan Rice, Al Young, A. D. Winans, and Jerry Kamstra. Floyd uses Jimmy Lyons’ “Word Hustlers” again, and works by his son Greg, plus his own poems “There’s a Narcotic Hum in the Air,” “Great Big Pink Cement Trucks,” and “For Shirley and All Those Other Black Girls Who Got Fired by Their Bosses.” A concluding section contains works from “Finalists in the Competition Held During September 1976” — of this group, Mary Rudge probably is the best known poet today.

In 1978 the first Roger Leon novel, Lay My Body on the Line, appeared as a trade paperback from Y’Bird, an operation headed by Ishmael Reed and Al Young, both writers with considerable collectors interest of their own. Floyd knew them from the local scene. He recalls going with Reed to the San Francisco airport to pick up Chester Himes when he came through the area late in his life. They took Himes, a “handsome guy, he didn’t look ill” even though he was in a wheelchair, to the Before Columbus Foundation homebase on 6th Street below Gilman in Berkeley. Reed headed Before Columbus, which promoted and disseminated books of ethnic diversity, as well as Y’Bird.

Gundars Stroud, an assistant to Reed, believes the print run on Lay My Body was at least 2000 copies and may have been as many as 3000, but of all Floyd’s mainstream imprints, this novel seems the least common today. Manufactured in an odd trim-size and easily subject to scruffing and bending of the wraps, finding copies in collectable condition of course is more problematic than with the initial hardbacks from Grove Press. Floyd recalls sales being slow, at best, but in many ways this book was his most successful — it won him a NEA grant which he used to go in on a property in Berkeley.

Dealing with the radical political scene and the rioting at San Francisco State, in which Floyd was actively involved, this novel was composed in first draft in Europe in one year, as the boxer-writer fled the police state he saw coming down the road. Roger Leon indeed is paranoid, Floyd notes, but he’s paranoid for a reason. Written between election day 1968 and election day 1972, Floyd then turned the experience of being on the lam in Europe and writing a novel into a sequel, State of Emergency, done between the 1972 and 1976 elections.

After completing State, from 1976 to 1984 Floyd wrote two historical novels, going back and forth between them, trying to become more commercial in his themes. Fandango is set in 1852 in ranchero California while La Favorita takes in 1806 in the Presidio, but neither has yet found a publisher. At one point Joe Memoli, a Mafioso type who owned a place in Oakland called The Fat Lady, wanted Floyd to write up his life story for him, but Floyd preferred to cover his own experiences and managed to wiggle out of the project. Floyd was acquainted with Memoli from when his brother Al used to sell him stolen suits, and figured it would be better to take a pass.

The next first appeared in 1980. You’d think a book titled Pussy Pussy Everywhere: A Voyeur’s Delight — published by no less than the Tough Titty Press — would be about sex, but Floyd has called it both “a cosmic poem on the secret police” and “a tragic poem on the secret police.” Only twelve pages in stapled wraps, sold for “one dollar– street” or two dollars if ordered by mail, this booklet follows close on the heels of To Build a Fire and Word Hustlers as the most difficult Floyd title to track down.

When the poem was reprinted in Ishmael Reed & Al Young’s Quilt 4 (1984), Floyd wrote an explanatory article: “Exhibit ‘A’, Censorship, Female Fascism and Pussy Pussy Everywhere” on the history of the poem and the political repercussions he experienced because of it. “It all began one day in the fall of 1976 when I looked out the window and saw six nude women. . . . I didn’t see the nudes all at once. First one, then another. Then, a little while later, another. . . .” It would seem the topic might be sex.

Then Floyd adds: “But I’m a paranoid dude, too, and was more so then, after spending sixteen years in different phases of The Movement. And I was afraid I was being set up by the police, who knew my weakness for women.”

“I was trapped in my own house.”

From this experience Floyd composed “Pussy Pussy Everywhere,” which he read in spring 1977 at Ken Kesey’s Hoohaw, a marathon poetry jam at the University of Oregon which he attended with Jack Micheline and Jimmy Lyons. He was booed, and later audiences also seemed to take it in the wrong spirit. Micheline, a poet with many quite expensive firsts (his initial book, River of Red Wine from 1958, features an introduction by Jack Kerouac), took the response to the poem to heart and decided to do something about it. So Micheline founded a new imprint to get the poem to the public and composed a cover letter to go with review copies, dated October 7, 1980, announcing “this valiant first publication of Tough Titty Press.”

In a blurb for the back cover, Micheline wrote, “Tough Titty Press was founded in San Francisco during 1980 to publish controversial and courageous writing, In these dark ages, as all ages are dark, we are proud to have chosen Floyd Salas as the first of the Tough Titty writers.” Although some dealers catalog this item as the first in a series of chapbooks, as far as Floyd knows it is the one and only publication from Tough Titty. He says a few people “collated the little booklets and stapled most of them together in my kitchen.” He doesn’t remember the print run — “maybe only 500, a guess.” As an actual Floyd first and for the particular association with Micheline, hailed by Floyd as “the greatest street poet in America,” — and for the outrageous title — this booklet makes a very desirable collectors item.

Every year or so Floyd would plug back into his early novel Gin for Xmas, never getting it to his satisfaction, but in 1984 he was invited to appear in Writers at Bay, a UC Berkeley Bay Area Writing Project where “outstanding writing teachers” were asked to contribute. He came up with the short story “Each Tear is a Crystal Heart,” which moved his ideas for the novel closer to the form in which it finally would appear.

His next first edition, though, was a third anthology — and he once more used Jimmy Lyons’ “Word Hustlers” in the roster. Stories and Poems from Close to Home appeared in 1986, a huge trade paperback, over 500 pages perfect bound, with the cover and all interior illustrations drawn by Floyd himself. This book began much as Word Hustlers did, with an invitation to guest-edit an issue of a literary journal published at De Anza College. Floyd was told he could have his creative writing students contribute, even the convicts in the Poetry Writing Workshop he had begun teaching in 1984 at San Quentin Prison. Per norm, Floyd asked his many published literary friends to write something for him, as well.

At that point a new editor took over the college magazine and rejected the whole shebang. Floyd explained to him that many of these people were quite famous writers, to which point the editor replied, “We don’t care if they’re famous. We reject everybody.”

Floyd mentioned this fiasco to a night class he was teaching at Foothill College, and on the spot they gave him donations to publish the book anyway. One man, a banker, contributed $1000 and didn’t even want to appear in the anthology. Turning the money over to his girlfriend Claire Ortalda, Floyd jumped into the concept once more. No one got rejected; he just had the beginners rewrite as needed. He included new and reprinted work by such names as Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and Caroline Kizer, who had just won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1985. Among the many first appearances are two poems each by Al Young and Ishmael Reed — Claire remembers Reed calling her up and submitting the new poems by reading them to her over the phone. Claire contributed the short story “Close to Home,” which makes a nice reference with the title of the book, since she fronts for the publication under the imprint Ortalda and Associates. Floyd’s son Greg has a story about the time he was shot — he’s shown me the bullet scar, so I figure as with his dad, there’s little leeway between fiction and fact. Floyd contributes several pieces, including an essay commenting on the suicide of Richard Brautigan, who was a fellow Grove Press writer in the sixties, but Brautigan with his light, fun books took off commercially while Floyd with his heavy themes did not.

Claire recalls the print run as being “one thousand and change,” and in an early panic at seeing so many copies with so few advance orders, they asked all the contributors to buy their copies, except the convicts. But mass readings by many of the poets, including one at City Lights Books, which lasted for hours, started moving it out. Later, library orders took many from the stock until all copies were sent out into the world.

After writing the short story “Each Tear is a Crystal Heart” in 1984, Floyd realized that he just didn’t like the concept for his novel Gin for Xmas, he “didn’t like this fake story with my brother Al and me.” He thought, “Instead of inventing a story, Jesus Christ, why don’t I just tell the truth?” So he took the novel he’d been working on for years and turned “dramatic fiction back into dramatized truth.” Working with the materials in hand, in 1991 he reworked the concept “three times in two and a half months” and produced one of his finest books, the autobiography Buffalo Nickel.

Arte Público Press at the University of Houston in Texas, specializing in Latino literature, released Buffalo Nickel in October 1992 in a first edition print run of 5162 hardcover copies. The trick for collectors is that Floyd, after sending in a shot of himself as a kid in a boxing pose to use for the cover, bitterly complained about the dustjacket that appeared on the book. The first state dustjacket in silver and red features a young boy, not Floyd, in the middle distance, barely holding up his gloved hands. For the second state dustjacket in brown, orange and green colors, released circa January 1993, the publisher did a new shot of the same boy, posed closer to the camera, with gloves held in something more like a fighting posture. The poignant story of his early life and the tragedies that stalked his family, Buffalo Nickel may well be the one title by Floyd that no one should miss.

Twenty years after he finished it, Arte Público published the second Roger Leon novel, State of Emergency, in February 1996 in a simultaneous edition of only 512 hardcover copies and 1567 trade paperback copies. That few hardcover copies make the casebound state one of Floyd’s scarcest items. This novel shows Leon in Europe, where he is writing the novel Lay My Body on the Line. He also gets to meet, as Floyd got to meet, his hero Norman Mailer. I remember complaining about some plot angle in this novel at one point, and Floyd saying, “But that’s what happened, baby! That’s what happened!”

In October 1996 Arte Público published the most recent Floyd first edition in a print run of 1100 trade paperback copies. Color of My Living Heart collects many of Floyd’s best poems, but recently he has taken an advance from Don Ellis at Creative Arts for an even larger selection, for which he turned in 1250 pages of poetry to choose among. When he was in Hollywood in 2002 working for a few months on the TV mini-series Kingpin, brought in by the savvy producer David Mills, Floyd managed to write about fifty new poems in his spare time.

Of possible related interest to collectors may be another chapbook, Seeds Sown by Salas, a 1995 publication sponsored by the California State University in Sacramento. This slim item, saddle-stapled in lime wraps, collects poetry done at an Elderhostel on Bishop’s Ranch on January 25, 1995, where Floyd taught a course and first thing challenged his students to write “a poem on the spot.” Many of the poems respond to Floyd himself, personally, and Russ Kletzing in the introduction mentions that a “prediction that ‘you will either love him or can’t stand him'” was fulfilled.

The moment is ripe to start a collection of first editions by Floyd Salas, with the majority of his titles still to be found at affordable prices and especially with numerous signed or inscribed copies available on the market. In several decades as a very public writer, active at readings and teaching, Floyd has personalized many copies, many of these to his fellow writers, which turn up as mortality stakes its claim or as these peripatetic folk move from one lecture post to another. My copy of Lay My Body on the Line, for example, picked up for $30 in 1997, is inscribed to Robert Bly. A copy of Buffalo Nickel signed to Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan sold recently for only $80. At this moment the copy of Lay My Body on the Line which Floyd inscribed to the late poet Josephine Miles is being offered for $95. I can’t help but feel that soon enough these will all sound like impossibly great deals.

On the personal Floyd front, I’m very much looking forward to a first edition of the novel currently in the pipeline, which returns to his best milieu, his home turf as a teenager fist fighting on the mean streets of Oakland. This novel, The Dirty Boogie, is now in its fifteenth draft.