March 05, 2021 • Ammiel Alcalay
I FIRST GOT NEWS of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s passing in a message from Tara Marlowe, a daughter of the late Diane di Prima. Along with poet Sara Larsen, I had been deep into helping out on two books by Diane for City Lights for the past several years: a new edition of the classic Revolutionary Letters (1968) and the extraordinary 1964 prose work, Spring and Autumn Annals. While Lawrence’s death was not, in any sense, “unexpected,” given that he was about to turn 102, it still felt acute and abrupt since he had been such an immovable fixture in the life of poetry, publishing, and civic cultural work for so long, exerting an influence that radiated far and wide in so many intangible ways. Like so many, I realized that I had also been quite distinctly marked by Ferlinghetti, from my first readings of the Pocket Poets Series as a teenager to my return to the US before the Gulf War, after having spent eight years off and on outside the country, primarily in Jerusalem, where a revolution—the first Palestinian intifada—had taken place.
After writing a piece for The Markaz Review that approached Lawrence’s life and work from my own experience, with a focus on how I had found a home at City Lights for various work emerging from the Middle East (and work done under my editorship with Lost & Found), I got all kinds of responses from people in various parts of the world acknowledging that my essay had filled in some gaps. Novelist and editor Malu Halasa, who has worked on key anthologies on Syria, Lebanon, and Iran, wrote from London to say that my tribute answered her longtime question: Why did City Lights carry her books? Malu added: “When I was a girl growing up in Ohio, Lawrence Ferlinghetti meant so much to me.” And Sonallah Ibrahim, the great Egyptian novelist, wrote from Cairo: “I was aware of the important role played by City Lights, but not of Ferlinghetti. Thank you for enlightening us!”
Of course, one of the reasons it was possible to find translations, not only of Arabic novels published in the UK, but of works translated from many other languages that were unavailable anywhere else in the US (not to mention the very deep stock in history, politics, Indigenous studies, and so many other areas), had to do with the legendary Paul Yamazaki, the buyer at City Lights, and someone who has been working there for over fifty years. In what is certainly now a kind of legend among those aware of it, Paul had been politically active at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s and found himself sentenced to six months in prison for “inciting to riot and illegal assembly.” After serving about one hundred days, he was made aware that, if he could prove employment, he would be eligible for early release. A friend working at City Lights brought it up with Lawrence and so Paul was hired, sight unseen. Much proverbial ink could be spilled compiling instances of Lawrence’s hand intervening to touch a person, a moment, or a movement.Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore, 1959. Photo: City Light Books.
One of the things that characterized Lawrence’s own work, as well as his public activities as bookseller, publisher, and activist, is that he was never afraid of being popular. He steadfastly refused to cordon himself off in the rarified sphere of any “special interest” or veer into mystifying discourse. But that didn’t mean he was unaware of mainstream modes, fashionable stylistic registers, or elitist aesthetics. It only meant that his anti-elitism also embraced an openness to all modes of art and thought. What this also meant, in a practical sense, is that the sheer number of people whose initial encounter with poetry came either through Lawrence’s own poems or a book in the still-distinctive Pocket Poets Series must number, at this point, in the millions.
While this certainly counts as an extraordinary accomplishment, the persistence of City Lights as a physical entity, as an actual place in San Francisco, is equally significant. I can think of no other cultural institution in the US that so clearly announces the actuality of its mission and history, its intention, in quite the same way. It really is what it announces itself to be, and what Lawrence—along with Peter Martin, Shig Murao, Nancy Peters, Elaine Katzenberger, and so many others along the way over the years—set out to create.
This is something that came home to me, over and over again, from my initial association with the place and the people, beyond that of a reader. The depth of experience and information that I brought back with me from those years in Jerusalem was often met with derision and resistance in New York, and certainly the idea of publishing in the forms I was working in and with the positions I was taking felt beyond the pale. But at City Lights, in the buildup to the Gulf War, Ferlinghetti and his comrades were mobilizing writers and artists against the invasion. I felt not only welcome but needed, and whenever I was in San Francisco on a short or extended stay, City Lights became my headquarters. That it could be traced back to some of my earliest and most impressionable reading experiences, as well as be a bastion of more recent political allegiances, was indeed a most welcome respite from so many other kinds of split personality arrangements I was unwilling to accommodate.Exterior of City Lights Bookstore with Ammiel Alcalay’s “Letter to the Americans” in the window. Photo: Ammiel Alcalay.
Publishing my own very different books—essays, translations, a novel, an anthology—and bringing so many other writers into the fold at City Lights has had a deep impact on the way I’ve been able to carry myself in the world. After the criminal and merciless Israeli invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014, I wrote a poem called “Letter to the Americans.” Rather than publishing the poem, I simply sent it to friends: It circulated wildly and was soon translated into Arabic, Turkish, and other languages. Garth Davidson, a graphic artist friend, set the poem in a design suitable for free broadside, placard, or window display. I wrote to Lawrence asking if we could send a bunch to raise money for Gaza relief. His response, so characteristic, was “MOLTO BENE! We can do our part.” I soon got back a photograph showing my poem in the shop window and again felt the elation and reassurance of being myself in the public world.
Ammiel Alcalay is an author, most recently of Ghost Talk, A Bibliography for After Jews & Arabs (2021), and the co-edited collection A Dove in Free Flight by Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar (2021).