For most, City Lights is synonymous with the Beat Generation, a bookstore that became a gathering spot for poets who have since entered the pantheon of post-war American literature. But in the sixty-five years since its modest beginning, City Lights has embraced an eclectic aesthetic, publishing a wide range of works that do not fit easily into any simple categorization. Stephen Sparks, Little Infinite’s editor, emailed Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights publishing program, to find out what the press looks for in its famed poetry series.
What's your elevator pitch for City Lights?
City Lights got its start in 1953 as an all-paperback bookshop, which was an intentionally democratizing move at a time when quality paperbacks were mostly unavailable outside of news racks in New York. Bookshops in San Francisco served a downtown clientele, and the atmosphere wasn’t particularly welcoming for the young writers and readers who wanted a place to congregate and engage with books—and with each other.
The idea from the beginning was to create a “literary meeting place,” which became the City Lights masthead. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti launched his publishing imprint two years after he co-founded the bookstore, and with that City Lights was able to grow beyond the physical limitations of the bookstore itself, creating a network of writers and readers across the country and, after a while, around the world. Without the publishing company, City Lights would have been an extraordinary bookstore, but with it, City Lights began to create its own enduring contribution to cultural history, and at a certain point, with the publication of some seminal Beat Generation writers, it began to assume mythic proportions.
The writings and the lifestyles we associate with the Beats were a conscious attempt to break out of scripted roles and models for “success.” The desire was for greater personal authenticity and individual voice, for an expanded realm of choice and for some form of freedom from the capitalist treadmill. Of course, a critical part of that ethos was to experiment with literary forms. Poetry in particular became a means to vividly interact with the zeitgeist, and it was a conscious decision to popularize the form, make it “speak” directly to readers (and sometimes huge live poetry audiences) in their own vernacular.
Every aspect of those aspirations—the attempts to throw off oppressive or repressive forces, both external and internal; attempts to open the mind and to engage politically; the commitment to creativity as a potent form of revolutionary thinking and action—all of this is still central to our sense of mission and purpose.
What are you looking for in your poetry books?
Well, generally speaking, we look for work that somehow relates to the mission of the press, which is first of all to publish work that inspires. But in addition, City Lights was founded with a commitment to poetry as a popular art form, which doesn’t mean we don’t publish formally challenging work, it just means the work shouldn’t be hermetic, it should be conceived and executed with the polis in mind. Also, there’s a primary rule here, established by an adamant Ferlinghetti, about making sure it’s never “prose masquerading as poetry!”
We publish two series, with two very distinct curatorial patterns to them, and then we also publish poetry that falls into neither of those series.
The Pocket Poets Series was how Ferlinghetti launched the publishing arm of City Lights, and it has always been meant as a place to showcase “revolutionary” poetry, in the broad sense of that word — poetry that’s either aesthetically, politically, or formally revolutionary, or at its best, all three — and it has always been international in scope.
The Spotlight Series is a more recent home for poetry here, and generally speaking, the series was conceived to showcase new work by contemporary American poets who are poised for a leap, the idea being that the platform offered by our press might open up a wider audience than these poets may have been able to reach so far. We’re about to publish the 17th volume in the series now, and overall it's a fairly eclectic mix of poets and styles, and it’s definitely been inspiring to see a community coalesce around it.
The poetry that’s published in neither of those two series simply stands on its own merit as having some kind of connection to the various traditions, intentions, and schools of poetry fish that swim here. Generally, we're looking to publish work that’s relevant to the times, or perhaps to its own “historic times,” with the philosophy being that “Poetry is still the best news,” which was Ferlinghetti’s response to William Carlos Williams’s famous line, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably for lack of what is found there."
If you had to recommend only 5 City Lights poetry titles to a bookseller or librarian, which would you start with?
That’s tough, since we’ve been publishing poetry for over 60 years, and we have a LOT of gems on our list. Trusting that booksellers and librarians already know about the most famous, best-selling classics, maybe I’ll choose some really special lesser-knowns from the recent years (it’s still nigh impossible to choose only 5…these are just a handful of favorites from a much longer list I’d offer:
- World Ball Notebook by Sesshu Foster
- Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems by Frank Lima
- 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border by Juan Felipe Herrera
- Out of Print by Julian Poirier
- Language of Saxophones: Selected Poems of Kamau Daaood Dated Emcees by Chinaka Hodge
What might someone not know about City Lights that you would like them to?
That’s a tough question, since a mythological City Lights seems to live in a lot of psyches already.
Maybe folks should know, if they don’t already, that we have an entire room devoted to Poetry in our bookstore. And beyond the treasure trove waiting on the shelves, it’s hands-down the most enchanting spot in the store to sit and read a while.
Oh, and the “Poet’s Chair,” a comfy old rocking chair that sits in a very inviting, sunny corner of the Poetry Room, hasn’t really always been there, and Jack Kerouac never really sat in it, no matter what anybody tells you.
City Lights was founded by a poet, as a poetry press. We publish more than poetry, but poetry will always be the spiritual and political core of what we do here. I think Lawrence Ferlinghetti has said it better than I ever could:
“Even though some say that an avant garde in literature no longer exists, the smaller independent publisher is itself still a true avant garde, its place still out there, scouting the unknown. And as long as there is poetry, there will be an unknown, as long as there is an unknown, there will be poetry. The function of the independent press (besides being essentially dissident) is still to discover…”
Interview conducted by Stephen Sparks, Little Infinite Editor