5 Questions with Gerald Nicosia

night trainWelcome back to 5 Questions, our quasi-weekly querying of authors who visit City Lights Bookstore, whether it be a reading, discussion, or performance. This Tuesday, October 28th, Gerald Nicosia will be here to read from his new book of poems, Night Train to Shanghai and Other Memories of China, published by Grizzly Peak Press.

Event: Tuesday, October 28th @ 7:ooPM. Gerald Nicosia reads from his new collection, Night Train to Shanghai.

About the Book: The poems in Night Train to Shanghai and Other Memories of China grew out of Nicosia’s several trips to modern China, beginning with his trip to Hefei in 1995 to adopt his six-month-old daughter Wu Ji (now Amy). He later traveled to Chengdu to guest-teach Beat poetry and other subjects to graduate students at Sichuan University, and took his daughter Amy to many cities in China, including her birth-place of Wuhu, when she was ten and had already learned to speak Mandarin.

In his introduction, Beat poet Jerry Kamstra describes Night Train to Shanghai as “clearheaded and respectful, bighearted but critical, knowledgeable but not pedantic, modern China seen through the middle eye of a poet who is much more than the best biographer of Jack Kerouac (Memory Babe) or the scholarly author of Home to War, his seven-hundred-page opus on the Vietnam War and the plight of returning veterans.” Kamstra further claims that “Gerald Nicosia is a poet of the first rank, following in the tradition of Irving Layton and Theodore Roethke.”

Maxine Hong Kingston, arguably America’s greatest living Chinese-American writer, declares in her foreword that “Gerald Nicosia has written a truthful, beautiful collection of poems.”

About the Author: Born and educated in Chicago (University of Illinois, Highest Distinction in English, 1971 and 1973), Gerald Nicosia has for decades been best known as the author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac and a critic and historian of the Beats, the 60’s, and the Vietnam War. But even before his undergraduate years ended, he was publishing poetry as well, mentored by Chicago poets he loved such as Carl Sandburg and some he knew personally such as Paul Carroll, founder of Big Table Books and Magazine. And while his poetry quickly absorbed the influence of the Beat writers in its insistence on clarity, narrative coherence, and incorporation of common speech, it also drew heavily upon the down and dirty blues voice and sometimes black humor of Chicago writers like Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Richard Wright.

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

nicosiaGerald Nicosia:  I first came to City Lights in 1977, when I was interviewing Lawrence Ferlinghetti  for my biography of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe. I remember we walked somewhere for coffee, probably the old Café Roma on Columbus and Vallejo, and then Lawrence walked me to an electronics shop to help me pick out a better microphone for my tape recorder. I couldn’t believe such a famous man was so “down to earth” and willing to help me as if he was just an ordinary guy down the street. Since then, City Lights has been not only a place to get good, hard-to-find poetry books and small press materials, but also a home away from home—the literary heart of North Beach, where all writers can feel comfortable and protected. Many blessings to Lawrence (and Nancy [Peters] too) for creating this haven!

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

GN: If my book had a soundtrack, it would be someone playing a traditional Chinese flute or recorder.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

GN: Very hard to remember which was the first book I finished. I remember reading a lot of books my first year of high school, and discovering that I really liked books (though I had been writing creatively since I was eight years old). Of course as a freshman they made me read The Iliad and other standard high school fare. But I also remember many of the books I checked out of the library for book reports. One of them was No Time for Sergeants by Mac Hyman, which I thought a wonderfully funny book about ordinary working class people—the kind of people I grew up among. It began a lifelong thirst for writings about real, ordinary, less-than-wealthy, less-than-glamorous people.

CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?

GN: I’d probably be a lawyer, a public defender, helping poor people fight the system and getting a lot of innocent people of color off death row.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no Wi-Fi).

GN: I use Wi-Fi very little anyway, so would not miss it. I would like a stack of good books (maybe a whole lifeboat full of them), especially some of the great ones I’ve never gotten around to reading yet, like War and Peace. The Gospels too. Paper and pencils to write with. A telescope to look at the stars. And some gardening tools. I wouldn’t need more than that. In fact, it sounds good enough that I ought to leave right now!


For more about Gerald Nicosia and his ongoing writings and other projects, go to his official site. Go here for more about this event. For others coming up at City Lights Books, including a discussion about the late Qiu Miaojin this Wednesday, and our week-long examination of Walter Benjamin, go here.

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