Joanne Kyger (1934-2017)

Yesterday we were shocked and saddened to receive news of the death of City Lights author and legendary Beat Generation/San Francisco Renaissance poet Joanne Kyger. Joanne’s death leaves a massive void in American poetry generally and in the Bay Area specifically, where she was a formidable presence—periods of travel aside—since the late 1950s, even as she chose the relative seclusion of Bolinas as her base of operations, receiving visitors at her elegantly rustic home and making occasional raids on the City for readings and other literary pursuits. At City Lights, we had the honor of publishing her last book of poems, On Time: Poems 2005-2014 (2015), a book which is still receiving reviews and remains one of the more impactful volumes I’ve edited for the press. Since then she had also published a new edition of The Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964 (Nightboat, 2016) and a chapbook of recent poems, The Year of the Ram (Omerta Press, 2016), and she had just completed work on There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera, in collaboration with her editor, close friend, and fellow City Lights author Cedar Sigo, as the inaugural volume of Wave Books’ new interviews series, due in September—continuing to break new ground, in other words, right up until the end.

I’d known Joanne, not well, for about a decade when I first received a call from her wondering if City Lights would be interested in a book of her poems. And how! I thought, and it was not difficult to sell the press on the idea. I admit I was intimidated at the prospect of being her editor, but I needn’t have been. It was easy, because she knew what she wanted, and merely required me as an occasional sounding board. (J: “Should I cut this?” G: “No!” was our most frequent exchange; I think I asked her to add one poem I knew of that she hadn’t included in the initial MS.) A couple trips to Bolinas, a couple glasses of wine, and we were done. The clarity of purpose she brought to the project was characteristic, perhaps necessary for a woman of the Beat Generation. Recognition was not as easily forthcoming as it was for some of her male colleagues and she’d had to endure in order for her reputation to catch up to her achievements.

Her poetic practice was fascinating to me, a process of daily writing and retrospective culling, resulting in a MS of sequentially dated poems. When the book was published, she tweaked me, just a little, for not including a table of contents, and I admit it hadn’t occurred to me because the flow of the book seemed so organic and integral to itself. I was struck during our discussions around the book by her remark that she was deeply influenced by Frank O’Hara, who provided an antidote to her early lessons at the feet of Robert Duncan. The weight of erudition Duncan brought to his poems, she said, was impossible to emulate, and O’Hara offered a welcome relief in his attention to the quotidian details of experience. In her own poetry we’re afforded access to a larger, metaphysical realm of inquiry through her focus on the minute particulars of daily life.

Joanne will be deeply missed by all of us at City Lights and we send our condolences to her husband and fellow poet Donald Guravich.

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5 Questions with Jim Shepard, Author of The World to Come

City Lights is proud to partner with Zoetrope Magazine in hosting Jim Shepard at Zoetrope Cafe on Friday, March 24th! Jim will be reading from his new book, The World to Come: Stories (published by Knopf). Michael Ray, the managing editor of Zoetrope Magazine, will be introducing him. We asked Jim our five questions – more info on him, and his answers, below!

The Event: March 24th, 2017, 3pm. Zoetrope Cafe, 916 Kearney St. San Francisco CA, 94133. Admission Free.

About The World to Come: These ten stories ring with voices belonging to–among others–English Arctic explorers in one of history’s most nightmarish expeditions, a young contemporary American negotiating the shockingly underreported hazards of our crude-oil trains, eighteenth-century French balloonists inventing manned flight, and two mid-nineteenth-century housewives trying to forge a connection despite their isolation on the frontier of settlement. In each case the personal is the political as these characters face everything from the emotional pitfalls of everyday life to historic catastrophes on a global scale. In his fifth collection, Shepard makes each of these wildly various worlds his own, and never before has he delineated anything like them so powerfully.

Jim Shepard is the author of seven novels and four previous story collections. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles. He teaches at Williams College.

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 Shepard: I remember being amazed to finally be there, after having read and heard so much about it. The first time I visited, I came for someone else’s reading, though I don’t remember whose.

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

JS: There weren’t a lot of children’s books around my house when I was small, so the first books I read were almost certainly my father’s; he had a bookcase of oversized books on various subjects in our front hall, and I remember looking through books on World War II, and the natural world, at a very early age. When I got old enough to have my own books, I remember loving picture books of dinosaurs, and books about the science of disaster like “All About Volcanoes.” And by first or second grade I was way into Peanuts.

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

JS: I suppose that depends whether you mean which books have meant the most to me or which I would find the most irreplaceable, since the three that might have meant to most to me—let’s say, choosing off the top of my head, Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian—are all instantly replaceable.

As for those books I own and cherish that I would find the most irreplaceable, I’d list things that are quite a bit weirder and more esoteric: Luciano Berriatúa’s Los Proverbios Chinos de F.W. Murnau, for example, or my first edition of Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, or maybe the copy of John Gardner’s Grendel that he signed to me.

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

JS: The new book? I’m not sure it would have one soundtrack, since the stories are all so varied. But if it did, maybe Popul Vuh’s soundtrack for Aguirre, the Wrath of God.  Or Ennio Morricone’s for The Mission. Or Nino Rota’s for 8 1/2.

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

JS: Boy, good question. Micronesia? Tahiti? New Zealand? Maybe it’d be called A Yank in Exile. And if we’re talking fantasies here, my bestsellers would be all those books I admire from my friends and loved ones —

See Jim Shepard discussing his work in conjunction with Michael Ray on Friday, March 24th! This event is happening at Zoetrope Cafe. Be sure to check out Jim’s website, as well as Zoetrope Magazine‘s site to learn more. For a full list of our spring events, visit the full event calendar here.

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5 Questions with Elif Batuman, Author of The Idiot

City Lights is very excited to welcome award-winning author Elif Batuman to the bookstore on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Elif will be promoting her new novel, The Idiot published by Penguin Press. We asked Elif our five questions. More about her, and her responses, below.

The Event: Wednesday, March 22nd at 7pm. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco CA, 94133

About The Idiot: The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.

At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin’s summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.

With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman’s fiction is unguarded against both life’s affronts and its beauty–and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.

About Elif Batuman: Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor, she also holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University.

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?

Elif Batuman: The first time I visited City Lights was right after I moved to the Bay Area in 1999, to start grad school at Stanford. I had always lived on the East Coast and had never been to California. I only had one California-related artifact that meant anything to me: a pocket edition of Howl that I bought in college. I somehow heard the opening lines of “Howl” for the first time, went to the bookstore, and found this beautiful $5 pocket edition, which became kind of a talismanic object for me—especially the poem “A Supermarket in California,” where Walt Whitman is interrogating the supermarket (“Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”).

One weekend I went to North Beach with a cool older grad student, we went into Vesuvio and City Lights, and I remember seeing this whole foggy edge-of-the-world noir vibe that I thought only existed in movies, and feeling that the world was so much bigger than I had known. And then at City Lights I realized you guys published that Pocket Poets Series—that was where my little Ginsberg book came from. I was really moved by that.

In general, that was a really heady time for me. I was just starting a PhD in comparative and Russian literature, I was thinking about literature in new ways. For the first time, I was really thinking about historicity and the writer’s relationship to their time, to the texture of time and place—and I was making these realizations in this surreal atmosphere of palm trees and frescoes and linear accelerators—and at the same time it was all part of this same world with Russian literature, with the Frankfurt School, with the way all those guys came to California, and everyone somehow seemed to wind up in California in the end.

After I finished grad school, I published a book of interconnected essays about it, called The Possessed, and was so honored to have the book launch at City Lights. Peter Maravelis made vodka martinis—it was a total dream. And just now, I just realized that one of the essays in The Possessed—an essay that mentions Chekhov being bemused by the sight of Tolstoy’s floating beard, and ends with me asking Chekhov, “Where are you now?”—was totally influenced by “A Supermarket in California”!: “Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?”

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

EB: My father taught me to read when I was three, with Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends. Then he told everyone I had taught myself to read. I remember identifying with Toad most of the time—but then sometimes I felt like Frog, which was confusing, because, you know, which one was me? Over time, I realized that that’s what reading is—you find parts of yourself in different characters.

Right now I’m reading the galley of Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, a brilliant book of criticism by my friend, the great and cranky poet, Michael Robbins.

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

EB: In the past seven years, I’ve moved between the East and West Coasts, and also between the U.S. and Turkey, and ended up selling or giving away most of my books, and still haven’t replaced most of them. People who visit me are always like, “Wow, I didn’t realize you were an illiterate person.” Anyway I think I only have about 10 books with me now, that I’ve had since college or earlier, and I’m not planning to get rid of them any time soon, either. Among them are: that Pocket Poets edition of Howl; the Redhouse Turkish/ Ottoman-English Dictionary, which I bought in Ankara when I was in college (I’ve carried it everywhere, even though it weighs a ton and is falling apart); and a bright orange Schocken edition of Kafka’s Complete Stories that I stole from my father when I was in high school.

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

EB: Music mentioned in my book, which is set in 1995-96 at Harvard and in Paris and in a Hungarian village, includes: “Linger” by the Cranberries; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana; “Ordinary World” by Duran Duran; “A Hard Day’s Night,” “All My Loving,” and “Seventeen,” by the Beatles; “Maria” from The Sound of Music; Albinoni’s Adagio, Aram Khachaturian’s violin concerto; and the Hungarian folk song “Az a szép.” The Butthole Surfers, Ella Fitzgerald, Boris Vian, and Rigoletto, are also mentioned, and the representative tracks I would choose would be “Pepper,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Je suis snob,” and “La Donna è mobile.” For extra-deep cuts, it might be nice to have a song by the 1990s Hungarian boy band, Hip Hop Boyz, and also an a cappella choir singing “Respect.”

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

EB: I think it would be cool to have a bookstore space with a small, rotating selection of books, maybe even with the covers facing out, curated by a different person every few months, so when you went in you would feel like you were walking into a legible, minimalist version of someone’s mental library.

Please join us on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 to celebrate the release of The Idiot. The book is available direct from Penguin Press, on the City Lights website, and at your local independent bookseller. For more about Elif, go to her official site.

For more information on our events this spring, please visit the complete events calendar.


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Henry A. Giroux’s Critical Reads & Thinking Dangerously in an Age of Authoritarianism

By Henry A. Giroux

via Seminary Co-Op Bookstore

March 2, 2017; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; McMaster University Library presents a lecture by Dr. Henry Giroux and announcement of the gift of his archive to the Library. Photo by Ron Scheffler for McMaster University.

It’s time to think dangerously again. In part, this means learning how to hold power accountable, search for the truth, embrace thoughtfulness, and recognize that no society ever reaches the limits of justice. Such thinking should be capable of both understanding and engaging the major upheavals people face and be able to connect such problems to both historical memory and larger political, structural, and economic issues. Such thinking nurtures the imagination and envisions a future in which the impossible becomes possible once again. Hannah Arendt has argued that all thinking is dangerous; this appears particularly true in the age of Trump.

What happens to democracy when the President of the United States labels critical media outlets “enemies of the people” and derides the search for truth by disparaging such efforts with the blanket use of the term, fake news? What happens to a society when thinking becomes an object of contempt and is disdained in favor of raw emotion? What happens when political discourse functions as a bunker rather than a bridge? What happens when the spheres of morality and spirituality give way to the naked instrumentalism of a savage market rationality?  What happens when time becomes a burden for most people and surviving becomes more crucial than trying to lead a life with dignity? What happens to a social order ruled by an “economics of contempt” that blames the poor for their condition and wallows in a culture of shaming? What happens to a polity when it retreats into private silos and is no longer able to connect personal suffering with larger social issues? What happens to a social order when it treats millions of illegal immigrants as disposable and potential terrorists and criminals? What happens to thinking when a society is addicted to speed and over-stimulation? What happens to a country when the presiding principles of a society are violence and ignorance? What happens is that democracy will wither and die as both an ideal and a reality.

The need to think dangerously becomes particularly important in a society that appears increasingly amnesiac – a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated. The United States has tipped over into a social order that is awash in public stupidity and views critical thought as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in the presence of a celebrity culture that embraces the banal and idiotic, but also in the prevailing discourses and policies of a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed.

Thinking dangerously is inseparable from the notion of critical reading and reading critical books. It is about how knowledge, desire, and values become invaluable tools in the service of economic and political justice, how language provides the framework for dealing with power and what it means to develop a sense of compassion for others and the planet.  Reading critical books is no longer an option but a necessity in the fight against manufactured ignorance. Such reading is the foundation for thinking dangerously and acting courageously. Critical reads are the basis for a formative and educational culture of questioning and politics that takes seriously how the imagination can become central to the practice of freedom, justice, and democratic change. Here is my list:

1. Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, Liquid Evil (Polity Press, 2016)

2. Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World (Routledge,2016)

3.  Brad Evans, Liberal Terror (Polity, 2013)

4.  Adrian Parr, The Wrath of Capital (Columbia University Press, 2014)

5. Michael Yates, The Great Inequality  (Routledge, 2016)

6. Donald Lazere, Why Higher Education Should have a Leftist Bias (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Henry A. Giroux is a world renowned educator, author and public intellectual. Giroux holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest, and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His recent books with City Lights are America at War with Itself (2016), Disposable Futures (with Brad Evans, 2015), and The Violence of Organized Forgetting (2014).

This post originally appeared on Seminary Co-Op’s blog for their excellent #ReadingIsCritical series, showcasing recommend reads from their booksellers as well as authors and educators.

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5 Questions with Yiyun Li, Author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

City Lights is proud to welcome author & friend of the store, Yiyun Li, this Tuesday, March 7th! Yiyun will be reading from her new book, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (published by Random House). We asked Yiyun our five questions–more info on her, and her answers, below!

The Event: Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 at 7:00PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco CA, 94133. Admission Free.

About Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life: Startlingly original and shining with quiet wisdom, this is a luminous account of a life lived with books. Written over two years while the author battled suicidal depression, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is a painful and yet richly affirming examination of what makes life worth living.

Yiyun Li grew up in China and has spent her adult life as an immigrant in a country not her own. She has been a scientist, an author, a mother, a daughter—and through it all she has been sustained by a profound connection with the writers and books she loves. From William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield to Søren Kierkegaard and Philip Larkin, Dear Friend is a journey through the deepest themes that bind these writers together.

Interweaving personal experiences with a wide-ranging homage to her most cherished literary influences, Yiyun Li confronts the two most essential questions of her identity: Why write? And why live?

About Yiyun Li: Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. She has received fellowships and awards from Lannan Foundation and Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. MacArthur Foundation named her a 2010 fellow. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.

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?

Yiyun Li: I have been to City Lights several times for author events. One fond memory: once, when I arrived early, I sat in a deli across the street and watched the storefront of City Lights, brightly lit, and read Sylvia Plath under a dim light.

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

YL: I don’t have any recollection of the first book I read, but the first book that made a lasting impression is Arabian Nights. A friend loaned it to me in second grade, as we both thought it was a children’s book. I was seriously baffled by the reading.

Some of the books I’m reading/rereading at the moment: Troubles by J. G. Farrell, Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, Crabcakes by James Alan McPherson, The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg, and Willa Cather’s letters.

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

YL: Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

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

YL: Symphony No. 1 of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a lesser known composition by Tchaikovsky but I would love it to be the soundtrack of my book.

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

YL: I would like to call it Read and Breathe. It would be located in a town where there is no independent bookstore. My bestseller would be short stories by Chekhov and William Trevor.

Join us this Tuesday, March 7th at 7PM, as we celebrate Yiyun Li’s new book!

For more about Yiyun and Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, go to For more information on events coming up at City Lights, go to our complete calendar.

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“The Secret of Life,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti Interviewed by Elementary School Student

Image from The New Yick Times, January 2017

In the January issue of The New Yick Times, the newspaper by elementary school students at San Francisco’s Yick Wo Elementary School, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was interviewed in his home (photo above) by Penelope Bloom Aprile. The interview took place on November 6, 2016. Here it is for your enjoyment, re-purposed for the City Lights Blog with their permission:

New Yick Times: When you were a little boy, what was one of your Halloween costumes?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: When I was a kid, I remember I wore a pumpkin on my head, like a head. Once, as a grown up, we were celebrating Halloween at City Lights Bookstore, and I wore a Dada costume. Dada was a poetic movement started in Switzerland and France, and it was all crazy people doing crazy things.

NYT: Did you play any sports?

LF: I played basketball . . . but in those days you didn’t have to be seven feet tall.

NYT: Did you like writing poems from a young age or when you grew up?

LF: I didn’t really start till I was grown up. I didn’t know what I was doing when I was a kid. I think I was in the deep dream.

NYT: Were you scared when you moved from different families?

LF: I didn’t think like that at all. So I was adopted into another family, and they were nice to me, but I missed my original family.

NYT: What is your most beautiful memory and the saddest one?

LF: My favorite memory is my years in Paris as a student. My saddest is the 2016 Presidential election.

NYT: How did you survive in World War II?

LF: I was lucky, I had a guardian angel watching over me, because I was in the Normandy invasion there were bombs dropping all around me and nothing hit me. So I think it was a guardian angel watching over me.

NYT: What is the secret of life?

LF: Tenderness, live with tenderness.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti with the issue of the New Yick Times he’s in.
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A Beefheart Confession

by Brian Strang

[Editor’s note: The following essay is posted on the occasion of the upcoming HARDLY STRICTLY PERSONAL—2017 (HSP2017) — A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Projects, taking place in Berkeley, CA, March 3-5, 2017. Details on this festival appear below the post.]

When I was a 22-year-old undergraduate in 1988, I studied art under Ann Hamilton (whose spectral and existential influence I’m only now beginning to appreciate). I even helped install one of her projects, the capacity of absorption, at MOCA in L.A.—several huge rooms with strange dreamlike objects that melded into landscape and human. I don’t remember exactly but it would be something like this: in one room, there would be a giant waxen horn with a silent video showing in one end, in the next, the horn funneling toward a telephone and human actor/model (sometimes Hamilton would sit in herself) sitting motionless at a table with hands pressed downward and a coat trailing into the next, creating another fantastical landscape/object. These exhibits were grand in scale and yet detailed and meticulous to install, so she utilized the willing enthusiasm of her students, which in my case mostly meant spending hours creating a floor from old typeface packed in upwards so that when anyone entered the room they were literally walking on text and having text stamped on the bottom of their shoes. I even got my name on the wall at MOCA. When I studied with her, I created immersive environments (or tried to anyway) that blended sculpture, sound, text and so forth.

Around this time working either on my own projects or hers, I was hearing a lot of Captain Beefheart, almost exclusively Trout Mask Replica. It was inevitable and inescapable. It was as perfect and as all-absorbing as her work. At the time it was the rich, stimulating soundtrack to creativity itself, as my mind became increasing exploratory and inclined toward combining art forms and testing possibilities. Don Van Vliet was right there, ahead of me showing me the way and behind me spurring me on, beyond what I learned from Hamilton and out into my own painting, poetry and music. Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

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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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