City Lights, Still Fighting the Fight

By Elaine Katzenberger

President of City Lights accepting speech at podium with photo advertising "Banned Books" projected in background. The 2022 National Book Critics Circle Awards, New School Auditorium, New York, New York, March 23, 2023. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

The NBCC’s 2022 Toni Morrison Achievement Award went to City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore and publisher.

Thank you to the board and the members of the National Book Critics Circle for your work to nurture and develop our community of writers, readers and publishers. Toni Morrison herself described the NBCC as “a wild faculty of sorts, dedicated to books and their scrutiny. Passionate, eager to laud and reward the best.” This cohort of readers who are devoted to the astute criticism of books provides a critical service to the writing and publishing – and bookselling – world, and we are all enriched by the work you do. 

Special thanks to Jane Ciabattari and Maris Kreizman, who’ve been extremely helpful and supportive, basically leading us to the door of the event tonight. We’re especially grateful for the support of May-lee Chai, who nominated us for this award, and we’d also like to thank Jacob Appel, who agreed to announce our selection, despite the fact that we’re located west of the Hudson, and who described City Lights as “a guiding flare for readers and writers across the globe who dream of a better world.” I really appreciate those words.

It’s an honor to stand here before you tonight, representing City Lights and accepting an award for our “significant contributions to book culture.” This comes to us at a particularly auspicious moment, since this year we’re celebrating he 70th anniversary of City Lights, and tomorrow, March 24, is the birthday of our founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

And of course, first and foremost, I’m accepting this award on behalf of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose name is basically synonymous with City Lights Books. His vision, his example, and the consistency of his commitment are in large part what is being honored here tonight.

But there are others who deserve to share this honor, and I know that Lawrence would want them to be mentioned tonight. Nancy Peters, my predecessor and my mentor, was a significant force in shaping the trajectory of our institution, and she worked alongside Lawrence for more than 40 years, infusing it with her own formidable intelligence, acumen and vision. As Lawrence put it in an interview that took place as Nancy was preparing to retire and pass the torch to me, “There were many years when I was traveling the world, giving poetry readings and just basically running around with my head up in the clouds, that Nancy was there, steering the ship. We would’ve gone under without her.”

And then there is Paul Yamazaki, who many of you in this room know, and who most definitely wishes he could be here with us tonight. I especially wish he were here to share this stage with me. Paul has been working at City Lights for over 50 years, a lifetime of dedication to his craft of choosing exactly which titles should fill the shelves of our bookstore, executing a complex choreography between backlist and frontlist, what’s new and what’s essential, and always, what’s imperative for us to share. We would not be who we are now without Paul.

I’m also here to represent all the folks back there working at City Lights right now, both as booksellers and in the publishing house. This award is for every one of them, and all of those who have collaborated in the project of bringing City Lights forward year after year, working hard for not much money, but choosing instead to find gratification in the merit of our project.

Quick shout out to the colleagues who are here with me tonight, Stacey Lewis and Greg Ruggiero, and two of our authors, Ammiel Alcalay and Mosab Abu Toha, whose book, Things You May Find Hidden In My Ear is a finalist for tonight’s Poetry Award. We’re all extremely proud of that honor as well, and his book represents exactly what it is at the core of our mission, since City Lights is the work of a poet, after all. Lawrence Ferlinghetti believed fervently in the power of human creativity to unlock the closed doors, to inspire and encourage, and to demonstrate the best of what we humans are capable of. Poetry is the beating heart of City Lights.

I’m personally quite astonished at the journey that has brought me to this stage. After the gift and privilege of working for many years with the extraordinary people I’ve just mentioned, I now find myself sharing an honor with Cave Canem, a powerful and important organization, and which is meant to honor the memory of Toni Morrison as well. Of course I remember the first time I saw Toni Morrison in person, who doesn’t? In my case, it was at an event held at the main branch of the New York Public Library, celebrating the publication of our City Lights edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which includes two lectures on liberation by Angela Davis. That night Angela and Toni had an extended conversation about what they called “the three L’s”: literacy, liberation, and libraries.

Ammiel Alcalay in center. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Which brings me to the most important thing that all of us who understand the power and the potential of books must confront: the atmosphere of intimidation and the attempt to control what we are able to read. This is not the first time that those who seek power have attempted to gain it by limiting access to knowledge and ideas, but the phase of book banning we are in now is something more cynical and dangerous – and unfortunately more successful so far – than what we have had to fight in the past. On one hand, it’s gratifying to see how those who would seek to ban books seem to understand the actual power they have to transform culture, but without readers, books cannot do their work. Freedom of expression only goes so far if there is no freedom of access. And while the libraries and librarians themselves are under direct attack, we in the bookselling and publishing world must do our part to keep access open. Dissent must turn to defiance in as many ways as possible.

I’d like to take a cue from Toni and Angela and propose the three C’s that I’d say define the role we strive to play at City Lights: Creativity, Curiosity, and Critical Thinking. That’s what we are here to stimulate. We do this work in the face of some other very daunting “C’s”, namely, the commodification of consumer capitalism. I always balk at the phrase, “now more than ever,” when people want to talk about the importance of a longstanding mission, since honestly, there is no “more than ever,” there is only ALWAYS. This work is always important. Someone wrote about our anniversary recently saying that City Lights, unlike the city changing all around us, is “preserved in amber,” and while that’s not quite it, I’ll take it. I do think part of what’s being recognized here tonight is our constancy, the fact that we are still here, fighting the fight, and it’s still the work at hand to open hearts, open minds, and open doors with books.

And now I’ll close with a few lines from one of Lawrence’s most popular books, a compilation of various writings about the role of poetry in our lives. It’s called Poetry as Insurgent Art, published, of course, by our friends at New Directions.

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?

What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if that means sounding apocalyptic.

If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who requires full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.

If you call yourself a poet, don’t just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a “take a seat” practice. Stand up and let them have it.

Have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance. Express the vast clarity of the outside world, the sun that sees us all, the moon that strews its shadows on us, quiet garden ponds, willows where the hidden thrush sings, dusk falling along the riverrun, and the great spaces that open out upon the sea . . . high tide and the heron’s call . . . And the people, the people, yes, all around the earth, speaking Babel tongues. Give voice to them all.

Elaine Katzenberger is president of the City Lights Foundation.

The 2022 National Book Critics Circle Awards, New School Auditorium, New York, New York, March 23, 2023. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan