Poet and Writer Denis Johnson (d. May 24) to receive posthumous award for fiction

“English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.” Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son


Upon being offered the prize in March, Johnson said, “The list of past awardees is daunting, and I’m honored to be in such company. My head’s spinning from such great news!” After a protracted struggle with liver cancer, Denis Johnson died on May 24 of this year. He was sixty-seven.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced last week that Denis Johnson (July 1, 1949 – May 24, 2017), author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, and the novel Tree of Smoke, will posthumously receive the U.S. Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction during the 2017 Library of Congress National Book Festival, Sept. 2.

The National Book Festival and the prize ceremony will take place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The author’s widow, Cindy Johnson, will accept the prize.

Hayden chose Johnson based on the recommendation of a jury of distinguished authors and prominent literary critics from around the world.

“Denis Johnson was a writer for our times,” Hayden said. “In prose that fused grace with grit, he spun tale after tale about our walking wounded, the demons that haunt, the salvation we seek. We emerge from his imagined world with profound empathy, a different perspective—a little changed.”

Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, the son of an American diplomat, and spent his childhood in the Philippines and Japan before returning to spend the rest of his youth in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He is the author of nine novels, as well as many plays, poetry collections, a short-story collection and a novella. Johnson won the National Book Award for his resonant Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

His short novel Train Dreams (2012) was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent work, The Laughing Monsters, was published in 2014. Johnson’s many other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Lannan Foundations and a Whiting Award.

Johnson’s characters were down on their luck (at least in the work that I’ve read) and created out of his own life and experience of being benched early on by alcohol and drugs, psychiatric care in his early twenties and after his first marriage. It apparently took him some time to realize that his addictions did nothing for his creativity. Once he became sober his output was prodigious. The eleven stories in Jesus’ Son, considered by many to be Johnson’s preeminent work, are linked by the same drug-addicted narrator. The fictions depict criminal activities in various parts of the U.S.

“The traveling salesmen fed me pills that made the lining of my veins feel scraped out, my jaw ached… I knew every raindrop by its name, I sensed everything before it happened. Like I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside, I knew we’d have an accident in the rain. I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.”
― Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son

Part of this write-up is courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Celebrating American She-Poets (5): Rita Mae Brown, “I wanted to write a perfect poem.”

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“Time had not teased me. I thought eternity was mine in which to live and in which to write. Thinking myself amazingly intelligent, I saw no reason to hide my light under a bushel basket.  My youthful poetry paraded my stuff. I imitated Horace shamelessly; he still remains one of my favorite poets in the original Latin but I have grown up enough not to imitate him. Who could?

“Perhaps there will only be one Rita Mae.  I’m not sure I could stand another one.  Anyway, as I learned more and more about language and literature I also learned more and more about my own limitations.  I wanted to write a perfect poem.  I was soon humbled and wanted to write a great poem.  I eventually became realistic: I wanted to write a good poem.”

. . . so says American novelist, screenwriter, POET and activist, Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) in the intro to Poems, poetry from her two published collections combined into one book. Who among us can’t sympathize with that ambition? Or perhaps you want to write the perfect short story, paint the perfect picture, or compose the perfect piece of music. It’s all in the same spirit.

Spare and elegant, Rita Mae Brown’s poems deal with war, human rights and feminist and lesbian themes. She’s always confident and often contemptuous.

A Short Note for Liberals

I’ve seen your kind before
Forty-plus and secure
Settling for a kiss from feeble winds
And calling it a storm

Many of the poems were written when she was eighteen and the introduction is written from the perspective of middle-age. She’s fierce, her imagery apt and sometimes breath-taking.

For Those of Us Working For a New World

The dead are the only people
to have permanent dwellings.
We, nomads of Revolution
Wander over the desolation of many generations
And are reborn on each other’s lips
To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons
Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.

Thumbs-up on this collection.  It’s out of print, but used copies are available through Amazon and other book vendors.

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Rita Mae Brown is also a New York Times bestselling author of the Mrs. Murphy mystery series, which is cowritten with her cat, Sneaky Pie. Other novels include In Her Day, The Sand Castle and Six of One. She’s written two memoirs and was nominated for an Emmy for her screenwriting. Writers might enjoy Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual. It’s savvy and full of sass, an enjoyable read.

© poems and book cover art, Rita Mae Brown

Father’s Day with Juan Felipe Herrera, performance artist and California Poet Laureate

Juan Felipe Herrara (b. 1948), American poet and writer, photo by SlowKing
Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948), Mexican-American poet and writer, photo by SlowKing under GNUFDL

Juan Felipe Herrera is a Mexican-American poet and performance artist, a writer and cartoonist, a teacher and an activist.

“Many poets since the 1960s have dreamed of a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too. Many poets have tried to create such an art: Herrera is one of the first to succeed.”  Punk Half Panther by Stephen Burt in the New York Times

Herrara incorporates into his writing his experience of family and the life of the compesinos, migrant farm-workers.

“Into the tilted factories, the smeared taxis,
the stunted universities, into the parlor of bank notes,
in the cramped cookhouse where the dark-skinned
humans still stoop and pitch the daily lettuce bags …”

He sometimes tells stories that arise from what is for him a pivotal moment: the early school experience of trying to fit in though he had no English-language skills. He also writes stories that illustrate the problems of immigration, which often separates families.

In 2012, California Governor, Jerry Brown, named Herrera California Poet Laureate, the first Chicano poet to be so honored.

Many of us – like Juan Felipe Herrara – had fathers or grandfathers who came to the United States to make a better life for themselves and eventually for their children and future generations. Sometimes we like to remember and acknowledge them for their vision, courage and hard work. Today seems like a good day to do so. The video below is charming children’s story, A Tale for Father’s Day, about Herrera’s immigrant father. Enjoy!

Happy Fathers’ Day to all the dads and to all the moms who, for one reason or other, are both dad and mom.