Our 60th Anniversary celebration of our Publishing house continues with a look at one of our newest series, spotlighting innovative contemporary poets both young and old, the City Lights Spotlight Series.
In 2009, City Lights enlisted the multitalented poet, journalist, and literary critic Garrett Caples to edit the new City Lights Spotlight Series of contemporary poetry volumes. The first title in the series was Bay Area writer and visual artist Norma Cole‘s Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems, 1988-2008, which went on to be nominated for the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association Award for Poetry Book of the Year. Since then, twelve more Spotlight volumes have been published, with Alli Warren’s 2013 Here Come the Warm Jets recently having been awarded the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award. The newest book in this series, volume 13, is Women in Public, by Oakland-based poet and musician Elaine Kahn. One of the core ideas of the Spotlight books is to use the visibility of City Lights to “spotlight” innovative American poets both young and overlooked as well as the small presses that have published their work in the past.
The Spotlight Series also recalls the original mission of City Lights Publishing, which began in 1955 with founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti‘s now-classic book of poems Pictures of the Gone World. Soon followed Allen Ginsberg‘s landmark volume Howl and Other Poems, which put the City Lights Pocket Poets series on the map. The Pocket Poets books fit nicely with the bookstore’s status as the first all-paperback bookstore in the country. They were small, cheap, square-shaped books that tucked snugly into the back pockets of the denim jeans people were beginning to wear everywhere in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Just as Penguin books had revolutionized the look, feel, and affordability of classic literature for a rising middle class earlier in the century, the Pocket Poets Series brought contemporary avant-garde literary work to the post-war masses in a new and instantly recognizable format.
The original standardized Pocket Poets covers are now considered, like their Penguin ancestors, classics of contemporary graphic design. While the Spotlight Series doesn’t exactly mimic the format of the old Pocket Poets books, its new twist on the standardized cover design is destined to ingrain itself on the retinal memory of book lovers everywhere. Further, the Spotlight Series carries the Pocket Poets’ torch by focusing a large part of the City Lights poetry publishing program on what’s happening in America’s poetry scenes today. The goal is to continue honoring the older series’ legacy of innovation, discovery, and inclusiveness.
One of the most interesting things about much of the poetry being written right now is the way poets are combining engagement with the individual voice (either to revel in or critique it), what Ferlinghetti calls “your own limbic, your own underlying, your ur voice,” with a fierce and largely successful resistance to modern regimes of profitability, which have otherwise proven extremely adept at incorporating or subduing individual expression. We often hear laments about the fact that nobody reads poetry anymore, and that books of poetry don’t sell in great enough numbers to make them viable means of support for poetic careers and commercial publishing houses. Looked at another way, though, this is nothing short of a modern miracle. In an epoch when it seems that there is no unique positioning of the self deemed too strange or pointed or offensive to sell Volkswagen cars and mobile devices with, poetry still manages to plant its flag upstream, proclaiming an inalienable liberty.
If there is one thing that unites the very different authors represented in the Spotlight series, it is their belief in the potential for an individual poetic voice to resist this manufacturing of youthful dissent. And their poems do so not stridently or didactically the way that so much academic literary work does, but rather through a commitment to preserving the sheer, irreducible weirdness of the poetic imagination as it appears to us, channeled through the nervous system of the hand and arm and into the physical realm of the printed book. I offer below a selection from a few of our Spotlight poets in order to give some idea of what I’m talking about.
1. Here Come the Warm Jets (City Lights Spotlight #10) by Alli Warren demonstrates what modern consciousness looks and feels like filtered through the excessive mediation of the ever-present digital image. The moment of lyric introspection or epiphany in Warren’s verse is usually interrupted by or recombined with transmissions from some external entity, usually corporate or celebrity in nature. “Three Banquets for a Queen” opens with a day at the park:
where sky is pink near the lake
a hooded woman carries a dog
a baby its ear flapping in the breeze
this dog is the way I know
there is a breeze
and it does not cease
that tellers are truth-seekers
& kiddies gonna yodel
Do you know how
these birds get to eat?
And it ends in a reflection compulsively abstracted from the natural scene and sent spiraling into the non-human image before the poet struggles to find salvation from its horror in the arms of chivalry, at first, and Black Power, at last:
I mourn the loss of the Yahoo! billboard
I link my excitement to an image
burned in a pit
is that wreath or coat of arms?
For as long as possible
one should not blink
I have lost my touch with eggs
and the gallant men
who flew them
crosses his legs
2. In Nervous Device (City Lights Spotlight #8), Catherine Wagner investigates the voice of authority by trying on personas that make that authority look ridiculous and desperate. “Never Mind” explores the indignity of either being a baby or being treated like one:
The terms given you were: Breathe. That starts it.
Then, do as you’re told, to please them
and don’t, to discover your mind.
Then you are imperfect
child, a wanton.
Whence came this agon? Snot and tears,
hot face, and wretched powerless,
except to cause annoy. So cause annoy.
Compare this with the slightly menacing speaker of “Versus”:
In this poem all artifice
is stripped away
but you are held under water.
In this poem you enter a mirrored dressing room
lit so that you look more beautiful than you have ever looked.
I recognize you with surprise.
In this poem you are by yourself.
These two poems are side by side in Wagner’s book, causing a kind of readerly vertigo in the sudden shift from an infantile register to one that assumes it has you under its thumb. Nervous Device is nerve-wracking in the best way, as it keeps you guessing about what the power dynamic will be between reader and poet as you turn the page.
3. Cedar Sigo, in Stranger in Town (City Lights Spotlight #4), recalls both the localism and the mystical yet chatty, urgent yet casual visions of older poets associated with the New York School and the San Francisco Renaissance. Take, for instance, his poem “Showboat”:
I thought you were coming toward me
a few blocks earlier down
Hyde St. It was a man weak
and crushed beneath this gray wig
for women. I can’t believe that
it’s really you. Who would ever
remove both shoes in the Tenderloin?
Waiting outside of LIFETIME BOOKS
I rejected your invitation to the Jack Hirschman
reading, as he was not represented by
top agencies, he had given a reading
at the police station. None of this
concerns the poem as pure entrance,
what I have allowed & what I might do…
Walking beside Sigo are the shades of Frank O’Hara heading to the San Remo and Jack Spicer ambling up to Aquatic Park on the far side of North Beach. It is too easy to resort to cliches about the beauty of the everyday when reading this kind of poetry – those are best left for verse about birdwatching in Provincetown or some such thing – and Sigo readily deflects them with a knowing wink. His appropriation not of everyday beauty but of everyday pettiness in the self-conscious literary posturing here deflates the aesthetic mythologies of his home turf, suggesting that there is nothing very poetic about being a poet walking down Hyde Street in present-day San Francisco.
A few lines later, in the poem’s conclusion, Sigo’s stated intention to go sit in a bar and “visit rulers of the interior” recalls, in its phrasal ambiguity, Warren’s combat with the rulers of her own interior. Will Sigo’s similarly be a knight in armor, and his savior a Black Panther? He leaves his own particular ruler undescribed, so it’s quite possible that he means that he will measure his soul like some sort of interior decoration a la O’Hara instead of privately battling against its Warren-esque subjection to the inexorable tractor beam of capital. This would befit the more casual idiom of his “I do this, I do that” stroll through the Tenderloin, but, as Warren would probably say and as Sigo’s own double-entendre indicates, it doesn’t let him off the hook.
Here’s a complete list of the books in the City Lights Spotlight Series, find them or ask for them wherever good poetry books are sold or at citylights.com.
1. Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1998-2008 by Norma Cole
2. Free Cell by Anselm Berrigan
3. Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems by Andrew Joron
4. Stranger in Town by Cedar Sigo
5. Compression & Purity by Will Alexander
6. Waifs and Strays by Micah Ballard
7. Advice for Lovers by Julian Talamantez Brolaski
8. Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner
9. Joie de Vivre: Selected Poems 1992-2012 by Lisa Jarnot
10. Here Come the Warm Jets by Alli Warren
11. The Tranquilized Tongue by Eric Baus
12. Deep Code by John Coletti
13. Women in Public by Elaine Kahn