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Post-war economic boom times gave a lift to West Coast bohemian counterculture from Seattle to San Diego, and unexpectedly vital literary scenes rose in between, such as Fresno, home of a legion of writers, including Gary Soto and Juan Felipe Herrera, Santa Barbara, one time home of once widely -read but now defunct Capra and Black Sparrow presses, all were part of a burgeoning small press network that spread from coast to coast, celebrated in events such as the Taos Poetry Circus (with its World Heavyweight Poet contest), the Bisbee Poetry Festival, and Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, once nationally known. Later recessions, state cutbacks in support for the arts, and the ever-increasing income inequality has eclipsed and erased most of that literary history and poetic culture. City Lights Books is one of the last major small press publishers extant.
City Lights books, their revolutionary pocket poets series—the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti—and the others, Kenneth Patchen, Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile translated by Kenneth Rexroth, opened a world of poetry to me and others. They published Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems in 1960! Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems in 1964! That series changed American literature!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the other editors at City Lights not only picked up on the New American Poetry (anthologized by Donald Allen in his 1960 edition with that title), they broadened its reach with international linkages, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jacque Prevert, Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Ernesto Cardenal.
City Lights Books published writing that was new, socially and politically cutting edge, international and multilingual in outlook and scope. It was really cutting edge compared to the Anglophone and Eurocentric corporate New York publishing houses. It had the scope of a New Directions Publishers on the west Coast. Unlike New Directions, which looked to Europe and overlooked homegrown talent, City Lights, fed on the San Francisco Renaissance and fueled the whole burgeoning West Coast scene.
City Lights has not only not quit, folded nor given up on the 21st century, it has continued to publish translations from Mexico and elsewhere, cutting edge poetry like Will Alexander’s brilliant Compression & Purity, as well as current U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s most recent, Notes on the Assemblage.
City Lights is not only a great bookstore and a publishing house with a vital history, it’s a kind of lighthouse in stormy times, and a beacon that illuminates possibilities. City Lights shows that a better culture is at hand—if we take it in hand.
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