Today at the San Francisco Art Book Fair: poet, painter, publisher, activist and San Francisco legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti in conversation with curator Kate Eilertsen. The talk is presented at the Rena Bransten Gallery from 2-4pm, inside the exhibition Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Love & War.
Ferlinghetti (now 97) is the author of dozens of books of poetry, including the best-selling A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), which has been translated into nine languages and has sold over a million copies. But his biggest legacy is City Lights, a bookstore founded in 1953 and still active today. City Lights Publishing began the Pocket Poet series two years later, producing small affordable paperbacks by William Carlos Williams, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, Kenneth Rexroth, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Kenneth Patchen (the brilliant Poems of Humor & Protest).
"From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic,” Ferlinghetti said, “I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.” The books are known for their distinctive black and white cover design, which was borrowed from Patchen's An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air (1945).
The fourth title in the series brought national attention to the project.
Ferlinghetti had heard Allen Ginsberg read Howl at the Six Gallery in 1955 and offered to publish it the next day. Released in late 1956, Howl and Other Poems (with an introduction from William Carlos Williams) was seized for obscenity in early 1957. In June of that year local police raided the bookstore and arrested store manager Shigeyoshi Murao on the charge of offering an obscene book for sale. Both he Ferlinghetti faced a possible fine of five hundred dollars and a six month prison sentence.
"When I got started in San Francisco it was the height of the McCarthy era – or error. Freedom of expression was really under attack. We were busted for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. I mean, we were just a little one-room bookstore with no resources for legal aid, and it would have sunk us if we hadn’t had the ACLU to defend us for free. Freedom of the press is a continuing battle in which every victory is temporary.”
Subsequently, the press has published a wide wide range of poetry and prose, fiction and social justice titles, including works by Charles Bukowski, Georges Bataille, Rikki Ducornet, Paul Bowles, Sam Shepard, Andrei Voznesensky, Nathaniel Mackey, Alejandro Murguía,Ernesto Cardenal, Daisy Zamora, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Juan Goytisolo, André Breton and Noam Chomsky.
The City Lights foundation has always resisted government funding ("I don’t see how one can take money from a government that has been killing millions of people overseas in illegal wars”) but was awarded historic landmark status in 2001 - not just the building, but the business. City Lights was cited as "playing a seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation...that attracts thousands of book lovers from all over the world because of its strong ambiance of alternative culture and arts”.
We visited yesterday, and the store retains much of it’s independence and personality. A wall of books falls under the heading of "Muckraking", for example. Other sections include "Surrealism", "Topographies", "Commodity Aesthetics" and "Oulipo" (the group of French writers and mathematicians who employed constrained writing techniques - Georges Perec et al). The store now has three floors and employs a staff of fifteen (with yearly proceeds in excess of a thousand dollars!).
Unfortunately, the art monographs are hidden away behind the counter, making them difficult to peruse. This is somewhat forgivable though, given that our during our lunch a few doors down a man familiar to the restaurateurs burst in the front door, grabbed a handful of food from the plate of a bewildered and frightened diner, and flung it across the room. Recently City Lights staff would regularly discover a woman sleeping in the basement. She would sneak in the staff entrance and slide down a wooden chute into the receiving room. "She had made herself a bed out of bubble wrap at the bottom of the chute" staff member Tân Khánh Cao told lithub.com last year.
Staff pics are highlighted throughout the store, including this one from Khánh Cao, for Yoko Ono's Grapefruit ("Quiet it's a bomb") .
The Rena Bransten Gallery is located at the Minnesota Street Project (1275 Minnesota Street, San Francisco) and City Lights is at 261 Columbus Avenue, on the nexus of North Beach and Chinatown in San Francisco.
For more information about today's talk and the San Francisco Art Book Fair, visit their website: