Not Walking Next to the Wall: An Interview with Rachel Aspden

Rachel Aspden is the author of Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East. She will be appearing at City Lights to discuss her work on Thursday, February 23, 2017, 7:00 p.m. City Lights’ Peter Maravelis recently interviewed her.

More about Rachel here, and information on her book is here via Other Press.

City Lights: Congratulations on your new book. It’s done such a wonderful job of portraying life in Egypt and the issues a new generation has had to contend with during the recent uprisings. I am so curious to know how you personally processed the complexities you were presented with while standing as witness in such an important moment?

Rachel Aspden: This was a real challenge for me because as a journalist I had been trained to think of myself as an “objective” observer, detached from the story I was telling. But living in Egypt while I researched the book, I was experiencing all the turbulent events that followed the 2011 revolution alongside the people I was writing about. Even though as a western citizen I was privileged compared to many Egyptians, there was no way to escape the waves of violence, the tension that gripped the city before a big political speech, the riot police and their APCs ranged across the end of my street on protest days.

As I grew to know people better, it was my friends who were being detained or injured in protests, who were faced with impossible choices such as submitting to repression or trying to flee their own country. I was afraid for them and their future, and I shared their bursts of hope at signs of change and their grief and disillusionment at Egypt’s slide back into authoritarianism. It deserves so much better.

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Remembering Ben Hollander

By Julien Poirier

The first thing you need to know about Ben Hollander is that he was a truly original writer, a one-of-a-kind stylist whose books don’t resemble anyone else’s. Early last year when Ben and I were just becoming friends but before we’d actually met in person, he sent me a copy of Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli, which I read over the course of a few nights. The book is a landscape of parallel texts, dialectical magic knots, snapshots of Santa in Palestine, Texas; Marx Brothers quotes, palimpsests and political arguments. In fact the whole book could be read as a family argument taking place at the human table, after dinner but before the kids go down. Ben’s wit fashions the book into a periscope for seeing around corners in the mind. And then there’s In the House Un-American, which David Shapiro calls a “masterpiece,” going on to say, “A book of this order comes very rarely to our consciousness.”

I think over time Ben’s work will be discovered by more people—maybe not a ton more but more, and that these readers will cherish the work he left us and see it as a source of intellectual and spiritual rejuvenation. His books have the auras of living systems—I mean, even if I don’t happen to be re-reading Rituals at the moment, but just inadvertently glance at the spine on the shelf, I tingle with its life force: What we have here is a supersensitive substance ready to receive my changing mind. Ben’s restless prose relates directly to his morals, his suspicion of answers as endpoints. The reader is the endpoint of his stories. And he happens to be a very good storyteller who knows the ropes—whether in a poem, essay, anecdote or swirl of all three—even when he’s chewing your ear off like Harpo Marx v. Mike Tyson.

When I finally met him outside of the covers—outside of the hours and hours of email conversations we’d clocked (always about words, our immigrant families, ethnic identity, poetry politics)—I found myself completely at home in his presence. It was raining in North Beach when he bought me a slice and a cappuccino at Piccolo Forno. We jawed about poetry for an hour. Later that night we were back at it online. He had a much broader knowledge of poetry than I did. When he mentioned someone I hadn’t heard of he would say, “Oh you’ve got to read her! and then check out…”

Ben and I only got a chance to hang out four or five times before he died of brain cancer in November. In our phone conversations, he tracked the terminal disease with black humor. I still haven’t let his death sink in.

Piccolo Forno was his spot and the last time I saw him it was there, over big bowls of strawberry ice cream that he bought for my daughters. It was an impromptu meeting after mediocre lunch that my girls and I had had elsewhere, and Ben deepened his hangdog lineaments to show me how sorry he was for us that we’d had to stomach subpar pizza.

“I could’ve told you…” he said gently.

He left a real impression on my girls.

One more thing: Ben really cared about poetry. He believed poetry was an artform that could liberate our minds and even our bodies. He didn’t have much patience for poetry that wasn’t taking us in that direction. In addition to being a introspective experimenter, he was also a provocateur and even a showman—a blower of poison-dart essays and very strange critical-poetic rhizome texts designed to out-meta even the brainiest of conceptual contortionists. He was funny, brilliant, wordy, weird, amazingly generous and always impossibly no one but Ben.

Groucho would have loved him.

-February 2, 2017


There will be a Ben Hollander memorial tribute reading at the Unitarian Church on Franklin & Geary in San Francisco this Sunday, February 5th at 6:30PM, presented by the Poetry Center at SF State University. 

Participants include George Albon, Charles Alexander, Todd Baron, Arthur Bierman, William Cirocco, Norma Cole, Chris Daniels, Steve Dickison, Elise Ficarra, Susan Gevirtz, Jack Hirschman, David Lau, Duncan McNaughton, Sarah Menefee, Laura Moriarty, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Michael Palmer, Julien Poirier, John Sakkis, Len Shneyder, Richard B. Simon, Susan Thackrey, and Siamak Vossoughi.

Ben Hollander’s last book review was for Julien Poirier’s book Out of Print, published posthumously in Boston Review.

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5 Questions with Tim Z. Hernandez, Author of All They Will Call You

We’re thrilled to be hosting Tim Z. Hernandez this Tuesday at City Lights Bookstore in order to celebrate the recent release of All They Will Call You, Published by University of Arizona Press. Joining Tim will be special guests Margi Dunlap, Connie Ann Mart, and Lance Canales. Tim took the time to answer our five questions: more on him, and his answers, below.

Event: Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 at 7:00pm. 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133

About All They Will Call You: All They Will Call You is the harrowing account of “the worst airplane disaster in California’s history,” which claimed the lives of thirty-two passengers, including twenty-eight Mexican citizens—farm workers who were being deported by the U.S. government. Outraged that media reports omitted only the names of the Mexican passengers, American folk icon Woody Guthrie penned a poem that went on to become one of the most important protest songs of the twentieth century, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” It was an attempt to restore the dignity of the anonymous lives whose unidentified remains were buried in an unmarked mass grave in California’s Central Valley. For nearly seven decades, the song’s message would be carried on by the greatest artists of our time, including Pete Seeger, Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, yet the question posed in Guthrie’s lyrics, “Who are these friends all scattered like dry leaves?” would remain unanswered—until now.

Tim Z. Hernandez will be joined by Margi Dunlap and Connie Ann Mart, two women directly related to the song and the incident, as well as Lance Canales, a musician who helped secure a long-overdue memorial for the Mexican victims of the crash.

Combining years of painstaking investigative research and masterful storytelling, award-winning author Tim Z. Hernandez weaves a captivating narrative from testimony, historical records, and eyewitness accounts, reconstructing the incident and the lives behind the legendary song. This singularly original account pushes narrative boundaries, while challenging perceptions of what it means to be an immigrant in America, but more importantly, it renders intimate portraits of the individual souls who, despite social status, race, or nationality, shared a common fate one frigid morning in January 1948.

About Tim Z. Hernandez:  Tim Z. Hernandez was born and raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Hernandez makes his home in El Paso, where he is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. You can find more information at his website,

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Tim Z. Hernandez: Yes, I’ve been going to City Lights for many years. Long before I had any aspirations to be a writer, I was a fan of all the books that came out of City Lights Publications. And then when I did realize that writing was a calling, I envisioned one day I might have my own book on a shelf there. The space itself holds history, and I’m just excited to be a small part of it.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

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City Lights Resistance Reading List

Created in the wake of the November election, our newest bookstore section, “Pedagogies of Resistance,” is designed to act as an educational course in revolutionary competence. These texts build upon one another to highlight the motivations, ideas, successes, and failures that define past and present revolutionary movements in order to illuminate possibilities for current and future movement builders. 

These titles below, selected from a developing list of nearly 100 books, are available for purchase via our online store. The rest can be found on a visit to our bookstore–we hope you’ll come by to check out our new section. Our democracy needs every one of us to be as informed and engaged as possible! Arm yourself with information.



Verso Book of Dissent; edited by Andrew Hsaio and Audrea Lim (Verso, 2016). A freshly updated edition of this classic compendium is perfect at any stage of your revolutionary education, from the budding iconoclast to the revolutionary scholar. Global in scope and vast in its historic reach,  this collection draws from folk songs and poems, manifestos, speeches, pamphlets, and plays, thus expressing the ultimate power of words and ideas in all revolutionary movements.

Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America; Peniel E. Joseph (Holt, 2007). Masterful in its scope and nuance, this indelible history illuminates the interconnections between the more mainstream Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, often pitted against one another in traditional history books. Joseph traces the ways in which individuals and ideas moved in, through, and around both movements, shattering widely held notions about the Black Power Movement and its adherents.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; Richard Hofstadter (Vintage, 1966). Our President-Elect embodies anti-intellectualism to the point of farce. From his rejection of daily intelligence briefings (“I don’t have to be told–you know, I’m, like, a smart person,”) to his denial of climate science, to his repeated use of the non-word “bigly,” it was nearly impossible for many of us to imagine him sitting in the Oval Office. But here we are again, and again, and again, and again…

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals; Saul Alinsky (Vintage, 1989). This playbook, originally published in 1971, is one of the earliest definitive texts of the modern community organizing movement. Utilized by organizers on all sides and edges of the political spectrum, consider this your 101 entry point to the world of practical organizing.


Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace; Vandana Shiva (North Atlantic, 2015). Monsanto got you down? Want to do something about the future of food? In India, women and farmers are at the vanguard of the environmental justice movement. Learn from their ways.


Citizen: An American Lyric; Claudia Rankine (Graywolf, 2014). “So groundbreaking is Rankine’s work that it’s almost impossible to describe; suffice it to say that this is a poem that reads like an essay (or the other way around) — a piece of writing that invents a new form for itself, incorporating pictures, slogans, social commentary and the most piercing and affecting revelations to evoke the intersection of inner and outer life.”—Los Angeles Times

The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues; Angela Y. Davis, introduction by Robin D.G. Kelley (City Lights, 2012). This collection of speeches enlightens connections between seemingly distinct societal ills, such as misogyny, racism, incarceration, capitalism, queerness, and conservatism, with the sort of enlivening prose that can’t help but inspire action.

Struggle for the Land: Native north American Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Colonization; Ward Churchill; introduction by Winona LaDuke (City Lights, 2002). This seminal book established Churchill as an intellectual force to be reckoned with in indigenous land rights debates. Required reading for anyone interested in Native North America and ecological justice. Revised and expanded edition.

America at War with Itself; Henry A, Giroux, Foreword by Robin D.G. Kelly (City Lights, 2016). Giroux directly confronts the Trump administration with clarity, wit, and wide-reaching intellect.



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In Memoriam: David Meltzer (1937-2016)

[David Meltzer, left, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti; photo by Garrett Caples]

As if 2016 needed to perpetrate one final outrage on our society, poet, musician, novelist, editor, anthologist, and all-around polymath David Meltzer died early in the morning on December 31, having suffered a debilitating stroke the day after Christmas. He would have been 80 in February. His loss is especially felt here at City Lights, with which he’s been associated since 1961 when he co-edited with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure the first issue of the Journal for the Protection of All Beings. David would later publish three projects with City Lights—San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (2001), a book of interviews; When I Was a Poet (2011), a book of poems; and Two-Way Mirror (2015), an expanded reprint of his book of writings on writing poetry—as well as write forewords for Marilyn Buck’s Inside/Out (2012) and Van Morrison’s Lit Up Inside: Selected Lyrics (2014). But this barely hints at the extent of his oeuvre as a writer and multifaceted cultural worker, and David always seemed to land on the coolest presses, like Auerhahn, Oyez, Black Sparrow, Semina. True to form, the productive and protean poet had just completed a new project, guest-editing with Steve Dickison a new issue of their music-oriented mag Shuffle Boil as the seventh issue of Nick Whittington’s Amerarcana.

David was, of course, a legendary figure among the legendary Beat Generation. The youngest poet to appear in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (Grove, 1960), Meltzer was arguably the most vital link between San Francisco’s beat counterculture of the ’50s and its hippy counterculture of the ’60s, through his hosting of the Monday night hootenannies at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach—attracting the likes of Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, and Janis Joplin—as well as his leadership of the psychedelic folk band Serpent Power, which dropped its eponymous debut on Vanguard Records during the Summer of Love. But if you’ll permit me to omit a full rehearsal of his accomplishments—or at least to direct you to such accounts elsewhere—I’d like instead to simply note the magnitude of his death in terms of its impact on the Bay Area poetry community. David’s been part of this community since moving to San Francisco in 1957. His associations among the scene’s renowned practitioners are wide and varied, everyone from Spicer and Duncan to Rexroth and Ginsberg to Wieners and Hirschman to Kyger and di Prima to Berkson and Coolidge. Perhaps even more significantly, he taught writing and literature at New College of California for 30 years, mentoring and influencing hundreds, those officially enrolled as well as those in the school’s wider orbit. I myself was lucky enough to get to know him in 2010 while serving as his editor for When I Was a Poet, and the number of my good friends who have been touched by him in some way—up to and including my fiancée—is almost comically vast, not to mention the circle of more casual acquaintances I only know through David himself.

The death of a friend is frequently lonely, alienating the survivor from the rest of the world not sharing this pain. But David’s death has been a profoundly social experience, in keeping with his own profound sociability. I’ve already been to three or four spontaneous wakes, getting together with friends to chat about him, read his work, and toast his memory, and I’m sure we’re not alone among his network of friends in holding such gatherings in advance of the inevitable official tributes. David seems to lend himself to such convivial mourning. For myself, I found it impossible not to love the man. His personality was such a unique combination of childlike joy and enthusiasm and sagelike wisdom derived from his study of leftist politics, world religion, kabbalah, philosophy, music, and poetry. He had deep reservoirs of self-deprecating and even gallows humor, yet there wasn’t a hint of cynicism in his makeup. He was unfailingly genial and warm. He was always among the first people I’d send a newly drafted essay to and he always had feedback and insights to offer in return. This generosity was hardly unique to me; his living room table always contained a sizable stack of books, chapbooks, photocopies, and printouts awaiting his attention, and the wonder is that he was able to make time to process all this while still attending to his own prolific output. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will miss his concern in such matters.

So much remains to be said about David as a poet, as a writer of essays, as a consummate bricoleur assembling hybrid texts like Two-Way Mirror or anthologies concerning such subjects as birth, death, and jazz. But for now, I’d like to simply extend condolences to his wife Julie Rogers, his three daughters Jenny, Maggie, and Amanda and son Adam from his marriage to his late first wife Tina Meltzer, and his inlaws, grandchildren, and great-grandchild. For them most especially, and for so many of us in the world of poetry, his death leaves an unfillable void in our lives.


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5 Questions with Jim Nisbet, Author of The Syracuse Codex

syrcause-codexWe’re pleased to welcome back Jim Nisbet to City Lights, this time to celebrate the release of his latest book in paperback, The Syracuse Codex, published by Overlook Press. He answered our 5 questions! More about Jim, and his answers, below.

Event: Tuesday, December 6th, 2016 at 7PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About The Syracuse Codex: Over the course of the last decade, the Overlook Press has brought into print, in quality paperback editions, the majority of the literary oeuvre of San Francisco literary great Jim Nisbet. The Syracuse Codex is the latest in the series of books that are essential reading for all lovers of fiction, especially of the “noir” variety.

In The Syracuse Codex, Nisbet returns in a wild tale of skullduggery, mayhem, and history peopled with a rogue’s gallery of the eccentric and unscrupulous. San Francisco frame maker Danny Kestrel regularly rubs elbows with the rich and immoral at art openings and commissions. But he’s never dreamt of entering their lurid world until Renée Knowles―interior decorator, billionaire’s wife, nymphomaniac―asks for a ride.

When Knowles is murdered soon after their one-night stand, Danny finds himself a prime suspect. Renée’s death has stirred up a hornet’s nest of fabulously crooked and wealthy collectors of black market historical artifacts, all seeking the crown jewel: the eponymous Syracuse Codex, a secret account of Empress Theodora’s illegitimate son. Worse, everyone seems to think Danny has it.

About Jim Nisbet: Jim Nisbet is the author of twelve novels and five books of poetry. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, shortlisted for the Hammett Prize, and published in ten languages. Visit his website at:


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?  If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Jim Nisbet:  I can’t remember the first time I visited City Lights, but, I assure you, it was a long time ago, probably in 1966.  But perhaps more to the point about how I feel about the place, let me tell you about a night in 1977 or ’78.

A friend and I were drinking in North Beach.  It was about one in the morning, and we were hustling up Columbus to get to Gino and Carlo before closing.  My friend had never been in San Francisco before, and even though he was a musician he was a big reader (just kidding!), so I pointed out City Lights as we passed, with the promise that we’d visit during business hours.  At the corner of Broadway, however, he was no longer with me.  He’d stopped in front of the middle window to browse the titles:  “Come on, Johnny, we got time for one more!” But something had caught his eye, and he insisted I come back to see it. When I got there he pointed out my own book, Poems for a Lady, face out and surrounded by the literature of the world.

There’s nobody reading this who doesn’t recognize what the like of such a serendipity would mean to a fledgling author. And I’d like to suggest that there’s nobody working at City Lights who doesn’t take such a responsibility seriously. Was I surprised? It was my first book, I’d published it myself, it was in the store on consignment, and other than the friendly reception I got from the staff, none of whom I knew, I had no juice with City Lights. You bet I was surprised. I know the place well enough by now to surmise that somebody had simply liked the book well enough to display it, and that was it. (And yes, it had a great cover!) No fooling around: the work speaks. It’s the best kind of acceptance. I’ve always proceeded along those lines. And altogether to the point, the people who work in City Lights know what’s in their store, and they love books.

And now? Well, not to state the obvious, but it’s later, baby! By now I’ve published twenty books and I’ve lost track of the number of events I’ve done with City Lights.  And while I’ve had many a publisher in the intervening years, I put a book in there on consignment just last month. The relationship continues. For me, as a writer, City Lights has always been in my corner, period.  It’s not about sales, and it’s not about who I know, it’s about the facts that I’m out here giving it a try, literature-wise, and City Lights is paying attention — simply the best.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

night-flightJN: Can’t remember. But I do recall a big, fat Sherlock Holmes Omnibus my mother gave me–or perhaps it was just around the house, for it was a house full of books–all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in one volume, which I’d read at least once in its entirety by the time I was 10. At that time, by the way, Faulkner remained banned from the public library in town. But, way out in the seditious pine barrens, Herman Wouk was around the house, and Hemingway and Steinbeck, Irwin Shaw, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight. The Arch of Triumph . . . I even stumbled through Moby-Dick for the first time when I was 15. (Did you ever hear that the hyphen was added later?  Or about the copy editor who drew a red line through “Call me Ishmael”?) At any rate, what’s a 15-year-old doing reading Moby-Dick?  Took me a long time to get back to that one, but I did. One of the most audacious novels ever.

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

JN: It’s more like 5,000. But let’s narrow it down to novels, then narrow it down to Lady Mary Loyd’s translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma; the Scott-Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; and Lucia Berlin’s collection of stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

JN:  If my books had a soundtrack, I’d be a musician.

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

JN: I would think that one of the main advantages of being on a desert island would be the absence  of WiFi.  Other than that, give me my wife and a good dog, along with a roll of canvas, a stack of lumber and tools adequate to build a boat from scratch, and I’d be very happy.  And hey, you know what?  We might take our sweet time about building that boat.
A certain bookstore on a nearby island would be good, too . . . Maybe that’s where I’d open mine?  I’d call it Lucubrations Unlimited, and, for a while, anyway, I’d put Lucia’s book in the middle window, all by itself.

Join us on Tuesday, December 6th for a special evening celebrating Jim Nisbet’s latest book, The Syracuse Codex. It’s available directly through Overlook Press or at Go to Jim’s site for more about him and his other publications. For a list of upcoming events at City Lights, check out our complete calendar.

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Wichita Vortex Interview: Outtakes from My Conversation with Michael McClure



On Tuesday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, CA, I’ll have the pleasure of reading from my new book, Power Ballads (Wave Books, 2016), alongside legendary poet Michael McClure, who is celebrating the release of his new book, Mephistos & Other Poems (City Lights, 2016). I recently had the chance to interview Michael for the Poetry Foundation, where he spoke of Charles Olson and his own encounter with a beached whale in the town of Rockport, MA. Inevitably, the conversation generated way more material than I was able to use for that feature, so I’ve gathered here a handful of unused remarks he made on his youth in Wichita, KS, particularly in relation to his friends, the publisher/printer/Zen priest David Haselwood and the artist Bruce Conner, as well as his early days in San Francisco leading up to the Six Gallery reading in 1955. These remarks are all the more apropos in light of the current SFMOMA retrospective, Bruce Conner: It’s All True, up now through January 22. Please enjoy these glimpses into the Wichita Vortex!

Garrett Caples: Much like the NY School with its Tulsa, OK contingent—Joe Brainard, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, etc.—the NY- and SF-based Beat Generation had what Allen Ginsberg called its “Wichita Vortex,” referring to yourself, artist Bruce Conner, publisher David Haselwood, and so forth. What can you tell us about your Wichita, KS origins?

Michael McClure: Allen’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is, of course, not really about Wichita. There are a few references to Wichita. Mostly it’s about the international politics of the time. He wrote it while he was driving through Wichita. I was actually born in Marysville, in the northern part of the state. A very tiny town. It’s farmland but it’s pretty sophisticated. It’s the county seat.

When I was a boy I wanted to be a naturalist. I would go out and mow lawns, deliver newspapers, and then take the money and buy books about nature. In those days it was easy to make money; it was during the Second World War, and everybody was looking for a man. You’d come to the door and they’d say, “Can you mow lawns?” “Sure!” Continue reading

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5 Questions with John Freeman, Editor of Freeman’s: Family

freemans-2We very glad to welcome back John Freeman to City Lights this week! He’ll be celebrating, along with Garnette Cadogan, the new issue of his anthology of new writing, Freeman’s, published by Grove Press. This second issue, Family, features never-before-published stories, essays, and poetry by Claire Messud, Aminatta Forna, Marlon James, Alexander Chee, Aleksandar Hemon, Tracy K. Smith, and more.

John took the time to answer our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

Event: Wednesday, November 30th at 7PM at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94113.

About Freeman’s: Family: Freeman’s: Family is what the series reviewers are calling “bold” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) and “refreshing” (Chicago Literati). Following a debut issue on the theme of “Arrival,” Freeman circles a new topic whose definition is constantly challenged by the best of our writers: family.

In an essay called “Crossroads,” Aminatta Forna muses on the legacy of slavery as she settles her family in Washington, D.C., where she is constantly accused of cutting in line whenever she stands next to her white husband. Families are hardly stable entities, so many writers discover. Award-winning novelist Claire Vaye Watkins delivers a stunning portrait of a woman in the throes of postpartum depression. Booker Prize winner Marlon James takes the focus off absent fathers to write about his mother, who calls to sing him happy birthday every year. Even in the darkest moments, humor abounds. In Claire Messud’s home there are two four-legged tyrants; Sandra Cisneros writes about her extended family of past lovers; and Aleksandar Hemon tells the story of his uncle’s desperate attempt to remain a communist despite decades in the Soviet gulag.

With outstanding, never-before-published pieces of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from literary heavyweights and up-and-coming writers alike, Freeman’s: Family collects the most amusing, heartbreaking, and probing stories about family life emerging today.

About John Freeman: John Freeman was the editor of Granta until 2013. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Tales of Two Cities: The Best of Times and Worst of Times in Today’s New York. He is an executive editor at Literary Hub and teaches at the New School. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Paris Review.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?  If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

John Freeman: I grew up in Sacramento and my brother acted at ACT so my family used to drive in to see his performances, as I mentioned in this interview last year. One thing I didn’t recall though was that my parents used to drop me at the store and would pick me up hours later. There was nothing like it in Sacramento, and I’d go into a kind of trance in the Poetry Room. I didn’t know who the Beats were at the time, nor did I know about Daisy Zamora or Frank O’Hara or Julio Cortázar, and one thing City Lights gave me permission to be was a globe trotter without thinking of it as such. They made it easy with all these Pocket Poet books, and I set out to read them all and one of the happiest stacks I have in my house is a nearly complete set of that series, because it reminds me of the pleasure of accidental reading and the near holy trance of the Poetry Room.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

JF: The first book I read that was for adults on my own volition was Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book that gets more prescient with every passing week of this abominable year, in which there’s been an orgiastic celebration of not making sense as a peculiar kind of wisdom. Of cult of personality. Of truth obliteration.

Oddly enough, I’m reading the memoirs of Diana Athill, who for fifty years was a publisher and who worked briefly at a company run by André Deutch when he had the opportunity to publish Orwell’s book but balked. It makes me wonder what book about our own moment is being turned down out of fear.

Diana Athill

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

JF: God, that’s a hard one. I’d have to say it might be some of the original ones – Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems because it is the book that for me yokes together revelation and nightmare; To the Lighthouse because it makes me happy to be alive; and Hamlet because it reminds me of the pain and pleasure of being in a family.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

JF: It would be a mixtape for sure because there are twenty-some writers in the latest issue of Freeman’s and part of the pleasure of working in this form is the huge range of sounds and music to people’s voices, so it’d range from Édith Piaf to Chinese opera to Violent Femmes and maybe some early Ice-T. And since Garnette Cadogan is in the issue – he’ll be with me tonight – and he will one day write his great book on the singer, there’d have to be some Bob Marley.”

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

JF: Well it’d be in the ground floor of my building in New York City, obviously, so I could go down in robe and slippers, and right now that storefront is selling socks in bulk. I have no idea how they sell enough to stay open. I suppose books would be an even harder proposition, so the robe, slippers and a flask would be necessary elements of the bath I’d take with NYC rents. I’d call it Freeman’s because I like places named after their owners, and rather than a cafe I’d have a bar adjoining because as much as I realize this is perhaps a bygone-era wish, there’s not really a literary pub in NYC where what unites people are love of books and the strange people who make them. It’s what I like about journals as a form, they’re like a bar with the best regulars that is always open.

Join us on Wednesday, November 30th at 7PM to celebrate the latest issue of John Freeman’s excellent journal of new writing, Freeman’s: Family. You can get Freeman’s: Family direct from Grove Press or at For more from John, follow him on Twitter and for more events in 2016 at City Lights, check out our complete calendar.

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Planet News, 11/18/16


“Cohen looked unflinchingly and with monkish intensity at his own excesses and weakness, and at ours, and saw them, tragic and beautiful, as our only strengths. ‘There is a crack in everything,’ he sang in 1992’s ‘Anthem,’ ‘that’s how the light gets in.’ No tribute can leave out his most beloved and most covered song—one of the most covered and beloved songs ever written— ‘Hallelujah.’ From its best-known Jeff Buckley version in 1994 to Rufus Wainwright’s and countless others, the song instantly conjures gravitas and stirs deep wells of emotion in the secular and religious alike.”- Josh Jones on Leonard Cohen’s passing in Open Culture.

“The first language the keepers of the hold use on the captives is the language of violence: the language of thirst and hunger and sore and heat, the language of the gun and the gun butt, the foot and the fist, the knife and the throwing overboard. And in the hold, mouths open, say, thirsty.” – On the Violent Language of the Refugee Crisis: an excerpt on Lit Hub from Christina Sharpe’s new book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.

“Dostoevsky experienced more than one hundred major seizures, walked in chains and prison garb, wasn’t permitted to hold a pen or pencil for nearly four years or read any book but one. He watched two children die and wrote several times of a man’s inner-life in the minutes and seconds before execution. […] His books offer the words to feel into pursued to their radical end, embodied. To feel into—which doesn’t mean to understand, or analyze, or interpret, or heal. Doesn’t mean to solve, define, make steady, claim knowledge of, but has something to do with drawing close, with how there’s a radiance more mysterious, more unspeakable than horror; more private in its wounds, more lasting.”- Laurie Sheck on “Dostoevsky’s Empathy” and incredible suffering for The Paris Review.

“And a poet wakes up and thinks, ‘You know, anything is possible.’ They imagine things before they’re possible. The reach and power of the imagination means that poetry will always be with us, that it will always be important, that it will always be part of what goes along with our culture, our politics, our personal feelings and relationships.”- Hope in the aftermath of the presidential election–an interview between Megan Garber and the editor of Poetry magazine, Don Share, in The Atlantic: “Still, Poetry Will Rise.”

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Henry A. Giroux Talks President-Elect, Authoritarianism, and More on CTV News

Author Henry A. Giroux appeared on CTV News last week, to discuss American democracy in the shadow of our new President-Elect. Giroux published his book, America at War with Itself, in September through City Lights. Describing America’s radical division as a conflict between “those who want to live in a democracy and those who don’t,” Giroux explains the rise of American authoritarianism, the key subject of this book. He points to the media, and its chasing after ratings, as a key factor in the creation of this unfortunate political climate which champions both celebrity culture and “emotion over reason.”

Watch below as Giroux offers his analysis on the historically unprecedented election, and what this means for America moving forward:

Additionally, Robin D. G. Kelley mentions Giroux’s new book in a recent (and excellent) Boston Review piece which offers paths of resistance in the aftermath.

“This election was, among other things, a referendum on whether the United States will be a straight, white nation reminiscent of the mythic “old days” when armed white men ruled, owned their castle, boasted of unvanquished military power, and everyone else knew their place. Henry Giroux’s new book America at War with Itself made this point with clarity and foresight two months before the election. The easy claim that Trump appeals to legitimate working-class populism driven by class anger, Giroux argues, ignores both the historical link between whiteness, citizenship, and humanity, and the American dream of wealth accumulation built on private property.”

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