Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"R" -- a Story about Sal Salasin

Frontispiece of a book of poems by
Salasin, published in 1988

In January 1969, about 400 students at my alma mater occupied the administration building and staged a two-week sit-in. The students were protesting the denial of tenure to an assistant sociology professor named Marlene Dixon.

Ultimately, whether Dixon had been turned down because she was a feminist and / or a Marxist (or unworthy of tenure) became part of the larger issue of student participation in decisions by the university. Often cited were the lack of student representation on advisory committees, the necessity of more women professors, and the effect of the university’s urban renewal initiative on poor blacks.

Of course student occupations and strikes occurred all over North America and Europe during the 1960s. But since I was a student at Chicago, this sit-in was particularly interesting.

Besides, my friend Andrew and I were in the habit of flipping through old issues of the college newspaper and came upon the 1969 story about six months before its ten-year anniversary. We thought that our student paper should run a retrospective and I would write it.

Outside the administration building
during the 1969 sit-in

How long ago this seems now. The sit-in had occurred just a decade earlier. The past was nearer then.

In 1979, plenty of people on both sides of the sit-in still lived in the neighborhood. As I started to contact them, each led to another and then many others. Someone referred me to a former student who had been expelled and I wrote to him at an address in Asia. The letter was forwarded two or three times.

Finally a reply from “R,” as Andrew and I came to refer to him, arrived from Japan. R never gave us his first name. The letter was hand-written in cramped script on six onion skin pages. We eagerly deciphered it together.
Now, thanks to the internet, I know who he was. But at the time, Robert Alan Salasin desperately wished to remain anonymous. He believed that at least two federal agencies would love to get their hands on him. However, he could not resist telling us about the sit-in, his two expulsions from the university, and how it was better to work around an FBI plant than to out him and have to figure out the identity of the new guy.

Immersed in ideology, R reflected on the failure of student movements:

The problem was that we were terrible Marxists—we didn’t practice the logical implications of our own analysis. What we should have done was organize slowly and carefully to enter into struggles of the university workers and local black community, an effort of several years at least . . .

R also expressed acute paranoia that Andrew and I had trouble comprehending. But his “ultra-Leftist adventures,” as he described them, had continued after he left Chicago and went on to Drake University where he earned 23 court injunctions. So it made sense that the U.S. government kept an eye on him.

Poem by Sal Salasin

What we did not know, though, is that R was a poet whose work appeared regularly in San Francisco Poetry Journal, the Poetry Project Newsletter, and other alternative reviews. A founder of RealPoetik Magazine, he published several collections of poetry under the name Sal Salasin.

One of his poems, “Radio City,” begins:

When I was six my parents took me to Radio City to see Esther Williams
in Dangerous When Wet
and I thought that’s a funny name for a girl,
Wenwette.  .  .

Andrew and I never would have guessed that R might have a sense of humor.

In the mid-1980s, R came back to live in the United States. He returned to Chicago and other places where he had been young and angry.

Some of that anger persisted in the poems which he continued to write and publish until his death in Berkeley in 2009, at the age of 61.


  1. "The past was nearer then." Figuratively and literally!
    I think this also underlines how essential a sense of poetry is for any revolution to be worth committing to. This is the fatal flaw of Marxism -- invariably its leaders exhibit no sense of humor.

  2. Sal & I became best friends in Des Moines in late 1968 or early 1969, after he'd been kicked out of the U. of Chicago. We co-founded an SDS affiliate at Drake University, and his paranoia was not imaginary - there were 2 undercover FBI agents in the group. He was indeed ulta-Leftist, and by 1972, a hunted man.

    Sal was warm & lovely human being, a talented poet (we read together in 1969, & I published him in the Drake University literary journal, Periphery), & most definitely possessed a sense of humor, albeit with a sharp edge of sarcasm. He remained politically committed for all of his life - I was emailing with him until not long before his death.

    With love to Sal from France. Jai humanity on this dark New Year of 2020, and resist oppression.

    1. Hi -- thank you for writing. The world indeed is in trouble. Sal's niece is collecting information about Sal, possible for a biography. If you like I can connect you to her.

  3. Hi Claudia - I'm already in contact with Elisa - it prompted me to do a Google search, which led me to your pages. I'm an historian of (mostly) European Decorative Arts (& published poet), but have been politically engagé since I was 14 - in 1964. I have zero social media presence due to my politics - it is still very much dangerous to be active - but can be reached at - it's an encrypted service.

    Best, Roy

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