Sixty years ago in 1955, City Lights Publishers was established by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco. Since then, City Lights has helped change the face of American Poetry by bringing poetry to the masses by publishing previously marginalized voices, including many writers of color and queer voices. Their authors have ranged from the virtually unknown, to the nationally lauded, such as the current National Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, all the while expanding the diversity of of literary voices and audiences. They've even recently released their first children's book, "Rad Women A to Z". Its history is shaped by the serendipitous meetings of writers and touchstone publications that have made this institution one of California's most significant cultural landmarks that remains active and relevant today.
Located on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach, City Lights is equally famous for its large bookstore and the hundreds of books they have published since they opened in 1953 and was founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. Martin was a New Yorker that moved to San Francisco in the 1940s. In 1952, Martin started a magazine called "City Lights," in homage to the Charlie Chaplin film of the same name. The magazine published many of the early San Francisco Renaissance poets like Philip Lamantia, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan. Ferlinghetti had also published several translation of French poems by Jacques Prévert.
The story of their meeting is that Ferlinghetti was walking down the street shortly after Martin hung a sign up that read, "Pocket Book Shop." Ferlinghetti introduced himself as a contributor to the magazine and they struck up a conversation. Ferlinghetti told Martin that he had always wanted to open a bookshop and before long the two men pooled their money together and opened the doors. It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country. Two years later, Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti for a $1000 and moved back to New York to open another bookstore. Over half a century later, Ferlinghetti continues at City Lights' helm.
When City Lights first began, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a recent GI Bill graduate from the University of Paris, otherwise known as the Sorbonne. According to author and long-time City Lights collaborator David Meltzer, Ferlinghetti had been very impressed by French paperback books and many stores around Paris that carried them. Simultaneously the idea of high-end literary paperback books was also beginning to come to rise in the States via publishers like Signet and other paperback publishers. The genius of Ferlinghetti, Meltzer says, "was to focus on poetry from an international perspective, advancing emerging postwar American poets as well the generation before, like Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth."
The first City Lights book published was a volume of poems by Ferlinghetti called, "Pictures of the Gone World." This work was also the first book in the celebrated "Pocket Poets," series. The series has come to define City Lights and they have published 60 books under the Pocket Poets banner. Among the many great poets included in the series besides Ferlinghetti, they have published Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Diane di Prima, Philip Lamantia, Nicanor Parra, Ernesto Cardenal, Jack Hirschman and Kamau Daaood among many others. Ginsberg,one of the Beat Generation's most renowned poets, has seven different collections of poetry in the "Pocket Poets," series and it was his book, "Howl," that put City Lights and the series on the map.
Shortly after Ginsberg read the incendiary poem, "Howl" at a San Francisco gallery in 1955, Ferlinghetti reached out to Ginsberg and asked him if he could publish the poem and a small collection of other poems along with it. "Howl,"almost immediately became controversial and was charged for obscenity in a legal trial that eventually dismissed the charges. Attempts to censor the book only increased its popularity and attracted more attention to City Lights and its Pocket Poets series.
"What happened to American poetry in the '50s was 'Howl' and its profound impact on poetics at home and abroad. It was followed by works by Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Diane DiPrima, Bob Kaufman, et al. Breaking down the boundaries of the academic poetry chokehold, these and many other poets opened up poetry to a larger public, made poetry more accessible and eventful," David Meltzer explains.
Sesshu Foster, an L.A.-based writer also published by City Lights, recognizes the historical impact City Light's Pocket Poet series had on literature, "That series changed American literature! They published Nicanor Parra's 'Anti-Poems' in 1960, Frank O'Hara's 'Lunch Poems' in 1964. They opened a world of poetry to me and others."
Foster explains why City Lights has been so influential over the last sixty years. "They have published writing that was new, socially and politically cutting edge, international and multilingual in outlook and scope," he says. Furthermore he adds, "It was really cutting edge compared to the Anglophone and Euro-centric corporate New York publishing houses. City Lights, fed on the San Francisco Renaissance and fueled the whole burgeoning West Coast scene."
In addition, Foster notes that City Lights also broadened its reach with international linkages, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jacque Prevert, Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Ernesto Cardenal.
Foster has had two books of his own published by City Lights, "Atomik Aztex," in 2005 and "World Ball Notebook," in 2009. He has a forthcoming book to be released by City Lights.
60th Anniversary Edition of the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology
In honor of their 60th anniversary, earlier this year, City Lights published, "City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology." This volume collects the last sixty years of the legendary series. The anthology collects a few poems from all sixty books in the series. In just over 300 pages, the volume collects some of the greatest poets from the last century including all of the writers mentioned above. Beginning with Ferlinghetti's "Pictures of the Gone World," and ending with David Meltzer's "When I Was A Poet," it is a tour-de-force of both American and international poetry.
David Meltzer remembers how he saw his first City Lights Pocket Poets book in 1955 when he moved to Hollywood from Brooklyn at the age of 16. "I took a sabbatical from high school and worked at an open air newsstand on Western and Hollywood Blvd. Saved by movies, jazz, the library, I remember going regularly to the Highland/Hollywood newsstand and I saw my first City Lights book -- Ferlinghetti's 'Pictures of a Gone World' which knocked my funky sweat socks off and which alerted me to keep an eye out for more Pocket Poets titles." Little did Meltzer know that over 50 years later, one of his books would be published in the same series, (more on this in a moment.) In 2011, City Lights published Meltzer's poetry collection "When I Was a Poet'" as Pocket Poets #60.
I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career
Another recent City Lights' book celebrating their 60-year legacy is, "I Greet You at the Beginning of A Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg." This recent volume collects 42 years of letters between these two titans of the Beat Generation and cover the evolution of the Beat poetry movement. The title is taken from the first line of a Ferlinghetti letter to Ginsberg shortly the latter read his seminal poem "Howl". The letters continue all the way until 1997 when Ginsberg finally passed.
Notes on the Assemblage
Over the years, City Lights has continued to publish hundreds of books that have also included fiction and nonfiction. Sesshu Foster writes, "City Lights has not only not quit, folded nor given up on the 20th century, it has continued to publish translations from Mexico and elsewhere, cutting edge poetry like Will Alexander's brilliant 'Compression & Purity,' as well as current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera's most recent, 'Notes on the Assemblage.'
"Notes on the Assemblage," consists of 38 poems, six of which appear in both English and Spanish. Herrera has always been a timely poet and the book is so current that it includes poems about the nine church goers who were murdered on South Carolina last June, as well as the 43 disappeared students from Mexico and a piece for Kenji Goto, the Japanese journalist killed by Isis. There are elegies for Wanda Coleman, Phillip Levine and Jose Montoya. Herrera also poetically salutes the great Buddhist poet Thich Nhat Hanh and includes two poems that are dialogues in verse.
Incidents of Travel in Poetry
Continuing in their tradition of celebrating poetry movements and multicultural writers, one of City Lights' next books, slated for early 2016 is a collection of poems by a lesser known writer named Frank Lima. The work is titled, "Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems." Lima was a member of the New York School of poets and was very close to Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch in the mid-1960s. Lima was born in Spanish Harlem in 1939 to a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother.
Lima is less known than the other New York School poets because he disappeared for many years after O'Hara passed and only started publishing and writing again in the last 15 years of his life. Though Lima passed away in 2013, his work has resurfaced in the public recently largely thanks to the work of City Lights Editor, Garrett Caples.
Both City Lights' publishing house and the landmark bookstore have become institutions in American poetry. Sesshu Foster exclaims, "City Lights is not only a great bookstore and a publishing house with a vital history, it's a kind of lighthouse in stormy times, and a beacon that illuminates possibilities. City Lights shows that a better culture is at hand." David Meltzer adds, "To me, City Lights is Ferlinghetti and at 95 he remains vital, undaunted, courageous, and on target in his assessment of contemporary politics and culture."