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 yiyunli.com. 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.

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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, www.timzhernandez.com

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: http://noirconeville.com


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 citylights.com. 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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