Transcript: City Lights Balances Business & “Poetic Sensibility”

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Elaine Katzenberger, Executive Director and Publisher, City Lights Books
Acceptance Remarks for 2016 PubWest Rittenhouse Award

Recorded February 6, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico

For podcast release Wednesday, March 9, 2016

KATZENBERGER: Getting a call that I was going to have a lifetime achievement award was a bit of a shock to me, since I’m only 13. (laughter) So I have much more work to do, and my work really is still ahead of me. I have worked a long time in the book industry, but I do have a lot more to do. Still, it did make me think about taking myself seriously in these ways. What does a lifetime achievement award mean? And though I understood that this award really was meant for Lawrence Ferlinghetti and for City Lights and the legacy of that place, it was really moving for me and personally transformative in some ways to have someone want to actually acknowledge the work that I personally do there. So I really do appreciate that and thank the members of PubWest for deciding to tip the hat in my direction as well.

Also, I’m glad that you mentioned Nancy. I did definitely want to say that Nancy Joyce Peters is the third party in this lifetime achievement award. Nancy stewarded City Lights for a good 30-plus years. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who of course is the force behind it all and continues to be and always will be – he also was a pretty famous poet and a painter and someone who was constantly on the road, traveling, having experiences as his own individual force and always had people behind him at City Lights who were taking care of the sort of day-to-day end of things and also adding to the creative aspect of things. Nancy really is a big part of that, and she was really the person who mentored me and gave me the opportunity to grow into a publisher. So she deserves a huge amount of the credit.

There was a point when Nancy retired when I became the director that the LA Times – they used to have a magazine on Sunday. It’s defunct now, alas. But they did a little profile on the three of us, and there’s this great quote where Lawrence says, yeah, well, back then I was kind of traveling and going to conferences and giving readings. I kind of had my head up in the clouds. (laughter) Nancy really took care of things. That’s really true.

I’m happy that you covered a few things that I was going to cover there. I’m going to be brief, but there are a couple things I wanted to mention. I did want to say that Lawrence, of course, is a very popular and beloved poet. Last time I knew and I checked anything like this, A Coney Island of the Mind was America’s best-selling poetry book. This is without any actual critical attention ever paid to that book. So that’s really a testament to how his voice speaks to people and what it means and the transformative nature of that.

I always get greeted when I go places, and I’ve heard it again here many times this afternoon – it’s an honor. And it’s like, well, it’s an honor because of City Lights. It’s an honor because of what Lawrence created, what kind of vision he actually embodied in that place. Why he was able to do that is the constant sort of stew within which anyone else who’s involved in keeping that place going and stabilizing it toward a future and trying to bottle the essence of it and pass it on is always thinking about.

A big part of what informs City Lights is a poetic sensibility. Poets are outward-looking, often. Heightened powers of observation, heightened sensitivity, a desire to share that, an ability to condense complex notions into small bits of language, and a real awareness of the power of language and of the power of books and the influence they exert on our common discourse. He’s also a painter, and so he’s someone who looks out and sees the world and wants to somehow represent it again. Again, that’s that same set of curiosities and desires and passions. Those are some really core traits that influence and inform what it is that City Lights does and what its mission has always been.

And informing City Lights Bookstore – that was the translation of those exact traits and passions into a civic engagement, which was this attempt to create a public place where others could participate in exactly those kinds of curiosities and engage with each other in them. That was his intention. It was very much a generosity of spirit, of wanting to share that excitement, and again, knowing what it meant – what role books and other printed matter had in that kind of cultivation of people and of civic life.

The publishing house came two years later, and that was the moment when Lawrence could transcend the physical boundaries of the bookstore and take that project out and make it go global, and it did. And it has those same intentions. So it’s always been a very artistic venture, and it’s always been a very political venture at the same time. I think you stated it very well what Lawrence stands for and what City Lights stands for.

City Lights – we just celebrated our 60th anniversary as a publisher last year. That’s a long history of publishing, and it’s an illustrious backlist that we have. That backlist certainly speaks to the mission of City Lights, but it doesn’t encapsulate it entirely. When you tell the story about coming to City Lights, I have my story. A lot of people have that story of the first time you go there and what it means to go there. The place continues to be filled with people who go there for exactly those reasons. Sometimes it’s something very inchoate or intangible or perhaps not a thought that’s particularly formed, but there’s something people are looking for, and it has something to do with authenticity – human authenticity, something that has to do with authenticity beyond this is a place wherein we do business and we buy and sell merchandise, and therefore X, Y, and Z happens. It is a bookstore, but it’s so much more than that. It holds those ideals in a way that I think is very – perhaps it’s not unique, but it’s rare.

And I think in the world that we live in now, it’s more rare all the time to have non-commodified space and to have a place where you can go where you know that the mission isn’t just to make money or to take yours. The mission really is to inspire and to shake you out of your complacency in some way so that you can look at the person next to you and say, wow, did you ever think of that? Those are the moments when we’re all free. I feel like that’s what Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave us, and that’s what City Lights is supposed to continue to give us. So those are some of my thoughts about this. (laughter)

OK, so now I want to read you a short statement that Lawrence prepared in acceptance of the prize. I wish I could do it in his voice, because if any of you have heard him, he has a very singular style, and I’m not even going to try to imitate it, but it’s written in his style.

Thank you very much for the awards. We are certainly honored. As a poet, I am sometimes asked by journalists and other truth-seekers, exactly how do I write poetry? Do I write in bed, on the sky, on the wall? With a pencil, on the computer? I always reply, it’s a trade secret. Another trade secret you might not have heard of is that bookstores hardly ever publish books. Shh, don’t – some of them started to figure it out. Sylvia Beach famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the old Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan published a monograph now and then, but I’m not conscious of a bookstore in the United States now with a full publishing program with a full list, fall and spring.

When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951, it was still a provincial capital. The only place one could get a croissant was in the basement of the City of Paris department store, and the bookstores all closed at 5:00 PM and were never open on weekends. When we started City Lights Bookstore in 1953, my idea was to create a locus for the literary community open at all hours – a community that already existed, but seemed to have no place to congregate. Publishing avant-garde books was a part of that literary locus that I wanted to create.

It took decades to do it. For much more than 10 years, we were just a little one-room bookstore with a publishing list of small, subversive pamphlets and books, including Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Other Poems, for which we got busted. The charge was publishing and selling obscenity. But I enjoyed that trial and the acquittal. It set a legal precedent that allowed Barney Rosset and Grove Press immediately to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropics. And the rest is some kind of history indeed.

That’s where I come in – first Nancy, then me. When I talk again back to this lifetime achievement award, there was this moment when Kent Watson called me and I received this news that I was going to be awarded along with Lawrence. I had this feeling of – I felt like it was my Obama moment. I’m going to get the Peace Prize? I haven’t even done anything. (laughter) Not right. But I also understood what the gesture meant, and that it was appropriate, and that I am doing this thing there, and I have been tasked with this. So what is my lifetime achievement?

I grew up to be a publisher. Lots of you did the same. That wasn’t a course I set from the time I was a child. I didn’t even know what a publisher was. Didn’t even think about it. I’m sure most of us didn’t. Nowadays, they have courses in publishing. I learned my job by apprenticing, which probably a lot of people here did, too. It’s one of those things that you learn by doing, and there aren’t that many professional jobs that really work that way anymore. I don’t know how much publishing still works that way, but I think that even the people who go to publishing schools actually still learn it that way.

Obviously, things have changed a huge amount in the years since Lawrence was doing the job back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and even when I first started publishing in the early ’90s, and now – technology being the big one. But some things don’t change. When I was looking through the program for your conference – there’s a section on teamwork, building a team. Lawrence was building a team from day one. He always had a team, and he always needed a team. That’s part of why I’m there. I’ve been at City Lights – at this point in my life, I’ve worked at City Lights longer than I didn’t work at City Lights. There’s a number of people there who have that same story. That’s part of what it is when you actually have that kind of openness to really include other people in what it is you’re doing, and you have a vision that actually inspires. That’s a big part of publishing. It’ll always be a big part of publishing.

The business part of publishing – Lawrence used to get upset because sometimes some of his more Beat-y friends, like Gregory Corso or Jack Kerouac and others, have used the word businessman and associated it with Lawrence as a epithet. Still, it happens sometimes. I would always laugh at that, because the person that I know is not a businessman. (laughter) He’s a poet. But of course he’s a businessman. Of course City Lights wouldn’t continue over the years, especially all those first years, without somebody who really understood how to do business.

All of us have to know how to do business, and we’ve all had to become much, much, much more businesslike in the modern world that we live in. That’s a bit of a drag, I think, but it’s the truth. But the creativity and the ways in which we still learn our job every single day – there’s always something new happening every day. That’s the experience of publishing that really is inspiring and beautiful.

I did have the opportunity to travel with Lawrence for Mexico for a week, and we just came back a week ago. I’ve worked alongside him now for almost 30 years, and there’s been lots and lots of opportunities to ask questions and hear stories and get layers of history in there. This was another one. There were these moments of understanding something about the motivations behind some of the choices that he made. It’s always really great to be able to reaffirm what I think I know about what it is I’m supposed to do.

If I truly live up to this lifetime achievement award, my lifetime achievement, I think, will be passing the baton so that City Lights continues on into the future and continues to be what it’s supposed to be. So thank you very much.


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