Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books

Pub date November 5, 2008
WriterAri Messer
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

The first book I held close to my heart was Italian poet Antonio Porta’s 1987 Kisses from Another Dream, number 44 in the ongoing City Lights Pocket Poets Series. I bought it on a trip to the city from Santa Cruz when I was around 17, and I savored every line, whipping out the book at coffee shops and other high school hangouts, in attics late at night, at beach bonfires, and even for a speech at one friend’s funeral. It wasn’t just the eerily direct poems that turned me on, nor the delightful format (which has remained basically unchanged in the series aside from modernized cover designs), but a feeling of participation in a tradition that began with the first City Lights Publications book, founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World in 1955, and that has continued with wordsmiths and thinkers from Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski to Tom Hayden, Terry Wolverton, and San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman.

I am biased about City Lights, but isn’t that the mark of good publishers — to increase readers’ bias toward purveyors of quality writing and thought? To this end, City Lights has participated in a type of conscious branding of which Americans can be proud. The publisher and North Beach bookstore continues to be marked by fierce, heartfelt works that seem to emanate from their instantly recognizable Y-with-an-O-on-top logo of a human in a state of ecstasy, outrage, celebration, and/or soothsaying.

Having worked in numerous positions in the small press world, I continue to be annoyed by the oddly prevalent idea that putting out more books — including those of low quality which you think will sell — somehow guarantees success. Despite this type of bingeing, the information age has ushered in a new set of consumers whose interests, resources, and appetites run so wide that they crave guidance across the board. From the Slow Food movement to’s daily online roundups, people are willing to research and improve most areas of their lives. Publishers have long served this need, and under the guidance of the current executive director, Elaine Katzenberger, and others such as editor and Guardian contributor Garrett Caples, co-owner Nancy Peters, and Open Media Series acquiring editor Greg Ruggiero, City Lights is increasing the potential of real and literary democracy.

At a publishing-world dinner a little while back, Katzenberger impressed me with her eloquent dedication to publishing good writing without unreasonable marketing goals. Obviously City Lights wants its books to sell, but there’s no reason to expect Oprah’s Book Club-type numbers. Part of the reason the press is still in business is that it has taken risks on good but unknown writers, not on bad but marketable mishmash. In his introduction to 1995’s City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, Ferlinghetti writes: "The function of the independent press (besides being essentially dissident) is still to discover — to find the new voices and give voice to them — and then let the big publishers have at them." He goes on to remark that although City Lights initially tapped into the Beat scene, it has continued to respond to current circumstances: "From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic, and not publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just our ‘gang.’ I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment."

In a recent column for Slate, Emily Yoffe noted that taking offense — especially taking offense at taking offense — has become a "political leitmotif" during the seemingly endless election season. Any actual discussion disappears into the mist. City Lights’ political output, whether you agree with individual authors or not, has certainly worked against the reactionary bullshit and political fluff that plagues politics everywhere. It’s been good to see them bringing this cultural literacy to more art-related titles of late, including 2007’s All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna and this year’s Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun by Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen, a much-needed evaluation of Bilal’s controversial project.

One of the poems in that heart-close Porta volume is "You Continue to Ask What Silence Is." If poetry comes from silence, and politics from the space between dreams and reality, then City Lights knows what silence is, and this is why its authors scream so sweetly. A Lifetime Achievement award is as much a hymn to co-owner Ferlinghetti’s life and early organizational skills as to what City Lights has become. Though he has technically passed over the editorial reins, Ferlinghetti remains involved in the press and also, in terms of his own writing, intentionally uninvolved: he has kept New Directions, over on the other coast, as the publisher of his own writing, ensuring that in an age of celebrity and numbness, City Lights is anything but a vanity press.