The City Lights Books of Jack Kerouac

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost people think of Jack Kerouac as a novelist – and rightly so. His era-defining On the Road, foremost among a score of his other novels, is still in print after nearly sixty years and has become shorthand for the literary movement known as the Beat Generation. Its audience has only expanded. But fewer people may know that Kerouac often thought of himself more as a poet than a writer of prose. In his statement on “The Origins of Joy in Poetry,” Kerouac views himself and his work firmly in the company of poets:

The new American poetry as typified by the SF Renaissance (which means Ginsberg, me, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Corso, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, I guess) is a kind of new-old Zen Lunacy poetry, writing whatever comes into your head as it comes, poetry returned to its origin, in the bardic child, truly ORAL as Ferling said, instead of gray-faced Academic quibbling.

Composing “whatever comes into your head as it comes” perfectly encapsulates the “spontaneous prose” method Kerouac claims to have employed in On the Road; in this case, however, Kerouac clearly identifies it as a mode of poetic writing.

scatterpoems“The Origins of Joy in Poetry” is gathered together with selections of Kerouac’s verse, written over a period spanning 1945 to 1970, in Scattered Poems (City Lights, 1971 – Pocket Poets #28). Here one finds Kerouac’s poems for Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud, his very fine attempts at Haiku, and selections from the well-known sequence “San Francisco Blues.” Surprisingly, given Kerouac’s disdain for the “gray-faced Academic quibbling” of the mid-century literature department, one of the most delightful pieces in Scattered Poems is “A Pun for Al Gelpi.”

Al Gelpi was a freshly minted English PhD lecturing at Harvard in the early ’60s when he invited Kerouac, then living with his mother in nearby Lowell, MA, to give a reading on campus. I happen to know Al, who is now a freshly retired English professor at Stanford, and he remembers Kerouac’s reading at Harvard as one of the most raucous he ever attended. Crowd members spilling out of the overflowing lecture hall leaned their heads in through open windows to hear Kerouac recite lines of verse from memory. The evening went off the rails as some members of the crowd outside began passing drinks in through the windows, hoping to see a visibly drunk Kerouac get even looser. The poet gamely accepted each one.

At a certain point, Kerouac halted mid-sentence and demanded that somebody bring him a volume of Emily Dickinson so that he could read from it. Al scrambled up to his room in the dormitories and brought back his Dickinson, but by that time it seemed that the reading was nearly over. Kerouac could barely form a complete sentence. Still, the poet and the professor became fast friends, corresponding and meeting over dinner when they could, inspiring “A Pun for Al Gelpi,” scribbled down in one of Kerouac’s letters to Al:

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Planet News

“In 1951 I had the feeling walking up Market Street … that the general attitude was that San Francisco really wasn’t part of the United States. They were sort of an offshore republic. … But that’s not the case anymore… Now it’s like the rest of the country. Our city is like all the other cities. We’ve lost that feeling of being a unique place. I think the electronic revolution has caused that. So with the Internet it becomes flat earth. We’re living in the flat earth now.”
Six decades of San Franciscan life: Ferlinghetti interviewed on PBS

Fantastic podcast in which couples who are both artists are interviewed… Listen in! “David Meltzer and Julie Rogers. Husband and wife, reading and performing partners, Meltzer and Rogers also share a Beat sensibility with Buddhist leanings. The ostensible occasion for the interview is to plug Meltzer’s recent release from City Lights, an expanded version of his 1977 book Two Way Mirror. But the conversation takes on a life of its own, ranging from the value of maintaining a long term creative practice, the role of poetry in the US, to music, politics, and life in general.”

“Lots of you have been asking how to help after our fire. You are all very sweet. We smell like smoke.”
Help AK Press after their devastating fire!

Vanuatu asks the world: please send books!

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Homage to Richard O. Moore (1920-2015)


(Photo of Richard O. Moore, 2011, by Brian Lucas)

by Garrett Caples

It is with much sadness that I have to report that poet and filmmaker Richard O. Moore died on March 25, 2015, a week before the official publication of his new book, Particulars of Place, by Omnidawn. My sadness is inevitably tempered by the fact of his extraordinary and extraordinarily long life and the privilege I had of knowing him over the last five years. For he was truly a great man. Essentially a depression-era orphan, he was sent as a young man to the University of California, Berkeley, and was eventually expelled for protesting World War II, though he was later allowed to come back to complete his B.A. One of the original circle of anarchist poets centered around Kenneth Rexroth in the 1940s—including Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Philip Lamantia, Madelaine Gleason, William Everson, James Broughton, and Thomas Parkinson—Richard appeared in such little magazines as Circle, The Ark, and Contour, though he stopped publishing early on to devote himself to a career in broadcasting, as a co-founder of the first U.S. listener-sponsored radio station, KPFA, and later as an early member of the 6th U.S. public TV station, KQED.

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Miriam Klein Stahl, Bay Area Artist and Illustrator of Rad American Women

MiriamMiriam Klein Stahl was a natural fit as the illustrator for our first kids book, released this month, Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future! (City Lights/Sister Spit, 2015). All of the women profiled in the book had notable public careers, and Miriam’s artistic practice has been shaped around a deep commitment to public art.

When she first began publishing her own work, Miriam hand-made and illustrated zines – a format that she still engages with. One of her pieces from around the time of the first Gulf War, a screen print of a spike-braceleted fist in the air with the slogan “Punks Against War,” was recently included in a gallery exhibit in the Czech Republic. When a gallerist called Miriam to request permission, she was astounded that the piece had survived, even more so that it had surfaced in an east European capital. That print had apparently been stuffed into a zine in the early ’90s when someone associated with the Czech gallery had purchased it at a small New York bookstore. Miriam’s portraits for Rad American Women retain some of the stencil-like punk aesthetic of her earlier zine work. Compare the two for yourself:


More recently, Miriam’s portfolio was selected in competition for Castro Valley, California’s Streetscape Improvement Project. This makes her a peer of Maya Lin, winner of the Vietnam War Memorial design competition and the subject of Miriam’s thirteenth portrait illustration in Rad American Women:

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5 Questions with Caryl Phillips

lostchildThis week we are pleased to have novelist Caryl Phillips visiting City Lights Bookstore this Wednesday. He’ll be reading from his new book, The Lost Child: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), and today he took the time to answer our 5 questions. As always, the questions remain the same for each participant.

Event: Wednesday, March 25 at 7PM. Caryl Philips reading from The Lost Child: A Novel.

About the Book: Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child is a sweeping story of orphans and outcasts, haunted by the past and fighting to liberate themselves from it. At its center is Monica Johnson—cut off from her parents after falling in love with a foreigner—and her bitter struggle to raise her sons in the shadow of the wild moors of the north of England. Phillips intertwines her modern narrative with the childhood of one of literature’s most enigmatic lost boys, as he deftly conjures young Heathcliff, the anti-hero of Wuthering Heights, and his ragged existence before Mr. Earnshaw brought him home to his family.

The Lost Child is a multifaceted, deeply original response to Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. A critically acclaimed and sublimely talented storyteller, Caryl Phillips is “in a league with Toni Morrison and V. S. Naipaul” (Booklist) and “his novels have a way of growing on you, staying with you long after you’ve closed the book.” (The New York Times Book Review) A true literary feat, The Lost Child recovers the mysteries of the past to illuminate the predicaments of the present, getting at the heart of alienation, exile, and family by transforming a classic into a profound story that is singularly its own.

About the Author: Caryl Phillips is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including Dancing in the Dark, Crossing the River, and Color Me English. His novel A Distant Shore won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and his other awards include a Lannan Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Britain’s oldest literary award: the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in New York.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Caryl Phillips: I read at City Lights perhaps ten years ago. I remember a really attentive audience who asked good questions after the reading. I also remember wondering
how I was going to get out of the bookstore without buying dozens of books. I spent a great deal of time, both before and after the reading, browsing the shelves.

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Friday staff Pick: Girl in a Band

“This sharply observed collage-like memoir of a life in music and art left me inspired and ready for a new musical vision. The evocative Didion-esque depiction of Kim’s girlhood in the post-Manson landscape of Los Angeles, the wild early ’80s downtown NY art / no wave existence then, of course, her years spent playing bass in Sonic Youth… A dry sense of humor, a perceptive and incisive voice and a life spent in the avant-garde make this an un-putdownable read!”

-recommended by Layla

Kim Gordon, founding member of Sonic Youth, fashion icon, and role model for a generation of women, now tells her story—a memoir of life as an artist, of music, marriage, motherhood, independence, and as one of the first women of rock and roll, written with the lyricism and haunting beauty of Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

Often described as aloof, Kim Gordon opens up as never before in Girl in a Band. Telling the story of her family, growing up in California in the ’60s and ’70s, her life in visual art, her move to New York City, the men in her life, her marriage, her relationship with her daughter, her music, and her band, Girl in a Band is a rich and beautifully written memoir.

Gordon takes us back to the lost New York of the 1980s and ’90s that gave rise to Sonic Youth, and the Alternative revolution in popular music. The band helped build a vocabulary of music—paving the way for Nirvana, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins and many other acts. But at its core, Girl in a Band examines the route from girl to woman in uncharted territory, music, art career, what partnership means—and what happens when that identity dissolves.

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Planet News

Look at the fake self-help books hidden on shelves at Book Soup in LA by a trickster mysterious customer: The Beginner’s Guide to Human Sacrifice, Learn to … Dress Yourself!, and So Your Son Is a Centaur: Coping with Your Child’s Confusing Life Choices.

“…reading, in my case, arrived all of a sudden, without much of a context. I always associated it with pleasure. My interest in literature came from lyrics, from language, jokes, and tongue twisters, more than from direct reading—there weren’t any books around. There was literature, though.”
Alejandro Zambra in conversation with Daniel Alarcón (via Bomb Magazine)

“In her comments on The Making of Americans, Stein notes, “[I]t was an effort to make clear just what I felt about the whole world and how it talked.” Stein’s explicit interest in a shared idiom and the fact that fragments of The Making of Americans make up such a large part of the recordings, should certainly be seen through the historical framing of this collection: that she was being recorded in a lab where speech patterns were studied.”
Gertrude Stein recordings (from 1935!) uncovered / unedited (via Jacket2)

“One rough paraphrase of queer thought might go: Queer, pervy sex is so non-normative and so exciting, and these relations have to fray patriarchy and capitalism just because they’re not accepted by it. But the people who felt like that have been so demoralized to see this clamoring for assimilation.”
Maggie Nelson interviewed in Guernica
(Via Harriet)


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In Memoriam: Rex Ray, 1956-2015

Rex_at_WorkSince his death from late-stage lymphoma in early February, San Francisco artist Rex Ray has been eulogized in many media outlets; by his publisher, Chronicle Books; on the website of his friend and admirer David Bowie; and recently by Douglas Coupland, another good friend, in an obit for Artforum. Among other things, Coupland recounts Ray’s time spent as a City Lights cashier. Although Ray described himself as the “world’s bitterest clerk,” City Lights wouldn’t have been the same without its association with Ray. He doubled as a graphic designer for our publishing house, putting his talents to radiant use for numerous City Lights book covers and catalogs.

If you’re an aficionado of erotic literature, you may be familiar with Ray’s cover for our edition of Georges Bataille‘s Story of the Eye (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1987):


Or if American surrealism is your thing, Ray’s work for Bed of Sphinxes (1997), one of our Philip Lamantia volumes, might ring a bell:


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In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now Book Trailer

The newest nonfiction book from City Lights is Benjamin Hedin‘s In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now.

In Search of the Movement trailer from The Blues House on Vimeo:

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands in an epic march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, in what is often seen as the culminating moment of the Civil Rights movement. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law that year, and with Jim Crow eradicated, and schools being desegregated, the movement had supposedly come to an end. America would go on to record its story as an historic success.

Recently, however, the New York Times featured an article that described the reversion of Little Rock’s schools to all-black or all-white. The next day, the paper printed a story about a small town in Alabama where African Americans were being denied access to the polls. Massive demonstrations in cities across the country protest the killing of black men by police, while we celebrate a series of 50th-anniversary commemorations of the signature events of the Civil Rights movement. In such a time it is important to ask: In the last fifty years, has America progressed on matters of race, or are we stalled—or even moving backward?

With these questions in mind, Benjamin Hedin set out to look for the Civil Rights movement. “I wanted to find the movement in its contemporary guise,” he writes, “which also meant answering the critical question of what happened to it after the 1960s.” He profiles legendary figures like John Lewis, Robert Moses, and Julian Bond, and also visits with contemporary leaders such as William Barber II and the staff of the Dream Defenders. But just as powerful—and instructional—are the stories of those whose work goes unrecorded, the organizers and teachers who make all the rest possible.

In these pages the movement is portrayed as never before, as a vibrant tradition of activism that remains in our midst. In Search of the Movement is a fascinating meditation on the patterns of history, as well as an indelible look at the meaning and limits of American freedom.

Get the book from City Light at a 30% discount or wherever good books are sold.

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Planet News

“This sort of restless, hustler, trickster poetics can be a fairly useful source of creativity. And being. And survival. It has something to do with the blues, the modern blues: the existential improvisations of a rambling man, a rolling stone pushed one way by a Sisyphus who is happy, pushed another by a Sisyphus who was happy and plans to be happy again.”
Who was Etheridge Knight? Terrance Hayes investigates. (Via Paris Review)

“The report doesn’t give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up. A single report isn’t going to make a difference unless people become organized.”
Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and the author of the best-selling book, “The New Jim Crow,” discusses the Department of Justice conclusion that the police and city courts in Ferguson routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Watch her interview. (via Democracy Now)

“One of the great gifts of having an artist for a friend is the unique education that comes of asking what are you into? Nearly all my favorite music, writing, films, and paintings have been received as an answer to this question. Sometimes it is direct: Karl gives me a book, Ally sends me a link to a poem. Often it is indirect: A song I hear in Jane’s car as she drives me to the airport, a broadside stuck on Coco’s bedroom wall, a movie Kit cajoles me into watching. And then there is the mixtape.”
We just published Elaine Kahn’s brilliant Women in Public and she is blogging at the Poetry Foundation all month-check out her Poetry Mixtape series!

“Yes, jazz and bop, in the sense of a, say, a tenor man drawing a breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement’s been made … That’s how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind … ”
Jack Kerouac was born today in 1922

from Anne Sexton’s Scrapbook
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