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Becoming Visible: City Lights Spotlight

[Note: I’ve been trying to blog about the new City Lights poetry series, City Lights Spotlight, but am dissatisfied with the results. Fortunately, however, Patrick James Dunagan, author of A GUSTONBOOK (Post-Apollo Press, 2011), recently proposed interviewing me on the subject, which seems like a far more congenial approach. Many thanks to him for letting me dog it for Harriet.]

Patrick Dunagan: Hi Garrett, thanks for agreeing to have this chat via email about your editorial work with City Lights Books on the Spotlight series. In an earlier Craft Work post you mention how your friendship with Lamantia led to your working with Nancy Peters and editing his Tau. This in turn led to you finding yourself now the editor for the new Spotlight series. So far in the Spotlight series (which seems to operate on the basis of two books a year, one “younger” and one “older” poet) you’ve published: Norma Cole/Anselm Berrigan, Andrew Joron/Cedar Sigo, and Will Alexander/Micah Ballard. Is this series something that you came up with on your own? Or did the powers that be at City Lights approach you with the idea and ask if you were interested?

Garrett Caples: The idea of doing a new American poetry series was kicking around City Lights long before I was—I was just standing in the right place at the right time. But I did have a big hand in shaping its overall parameters. The process of moving from the initial discussions to the first book in the spring of ’09 probably took a year. And there were different options about the type of series to do. We thought about doing something local—a Bay Area or West Coast series—but we realized that would probably limit the impact of the series. Why would NY or Boston or Chicago or Philly or D.C. or Denver care? And too, these are fluid times; a poet might start his or her career in the Bay and then wind up in NY, or teaching somewhere less cosmopolitan, so does such a poet count as a local? Geography was too arbitrarily limiting, though obviously there’s a strong Bay Area presence in the series. As we pondered different ideas, the one that emerged was to do a series specifically designed to direct attention to the small press poetry world, using what I called in the marketing blow City Lights’s cultural visibility to help poets from that world circulate in a wider realm. There are plenty of people in this world who know City Lights but have never heard of Small Press Distribution, so Spotlight is designed to point people in that direction. I’m grateful to our distributor, Consortium, for letting us list SPD and its website in each volume, which is something of a breach of ordinary publishing protocol, but perfectly in keeping with the spirit of poetic cooperation.

These were all group decisions, in consultation with Nancy and our executive director, Elaine Katzenberger, rather than simply my own prerogatives. Then we needed to get Lawrence Ferlinghetti on board with the plan. Others have edited individual books of poems, but Lawrence has always been in charge of City Lights poetry so it was important for him to be cool with it. He basically is, though his major criticism was the specifically American character of the series, as he’s always been an internationalist publisher; the genius of Pocket Poets as a series is that it has no geographical or historical boundaries. Which was essentially my counterargument: City Lights has no shortage of translations, Pocket Poets or otherwise. In any case, he came around to our conception of the Spotlight series, though I won’t pretend he agrees with everything the series has done. He’s given us his trust but I take his criticisms very seriously—and he’s not shy to offer them—because he’s safeguarding something wonderful that he’s created.

PD: That sounds like rather delightful fun, sparring with Ferlinghetti a bit. He’s been around poetry for so long and had such an impact. City Lights does a terrific job publishing what and who it does so he should defend his turf; after all it is his.

Just for clarification, you are focusing the series on poets publishing with small presses from within the United States? Is there any set end in sight, a certain number of years and/or volumes in mind? And this is an inherently flexible series isn’t it? You decide each year who’s next in line, allowing you to highlight whoever appears most exciting at the time?

GC: I’m not worried about the particular address of any given small press—think, for example, of Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca or Zasterle in the Canary Islands—but am more interested in state of the art American poetry, and the state of the art is always going to be best gauged by looking at small press poetry. (“American” too is deliberately vague and is not meant to signify a nationality, though it more or less means poetry going on in this country.)

In terms of the scope of the series, the only plan so far has been to do two a year, one in the spring, one in the fall. I think the best case scenario is that it will continue on indefinitely like the Pocket Poets series. Eventually, Elaine and I will sit down to do the reckoning, to see whether the series is economically sustainable in its current form. Given that volume 6, Micah Ballard, is in the pipeline, that means she’s given me three years to establish the series before even making those bottom-line-type demands, which is very generous, I think.

In terms of the poets we pick, the process is maybe a bit more complicated than your question makes it sound. There’s a lot of pressure at this level of publishing due to the complexity of distribution. At the absolute minimum, acquiring and publishing a book is a year-long process, and ideally I like to be able to see two years ahead, to keep things running smoothly. I’ve had to juggle the order more than once due various contingencies, like a MS not being ready or someone’s prior small press book being delayed, compelling us to delay a volume so the poet’s not putting out two books simultaneously. I don’t want to be too far ahead because, yes, the series is designed to reflect what’s going on in poetry now, but at the same time, I can’t be entirely last minute and spontaneous. I need to make each move pretty carefully in order for the series to fly.

PD: Ah, that is great... yeah, giving it 3 years to see how it looks financially sounds awfully generous. But that’s what makes City Lights such a different kind of publisher. I see a fairly broad range in the poets you’ve included in the series. For instance, Norma Cole and Anselm Berrigan don’t usually appear together in any context (journals, presses, or readings, etc.). Nonetheless, each of them is highly visible in communities of which they’re part of. I conceive of the series in this way as an attempt of pulling together different groups of readers and suggesting (or perhaps at times affirming) affinities and roads of cross-influence. The result of which I’d hope would be a broadening of what folks are reading, poets especially.

From my perspective, as an outside observer, I see this and, more importantly hear it, when I attend the readings for the books held at the store. There’s a sort of continuity within disparity as far as what gets read, who attends, and other such business which is a delight to witness—I mean this as a definite Strength. A creation towards a new, further reading of the various poetry communities that goes beyond say East Coast/West Coast (NYC/SF) or any so-called “schools.” You have also reached beyond what I’d call “City Lights poets” and in this I don’t think you’re attempting to, say, avoid publishing anyone, which is much to your credit!

GC: In terms of the broad range, I guess it depends on how wide a lens we’re looking through. Within a certain part of the poetry world, the part you and I run around, let’s say, Norma and Anselm might seem far apart, but in the context of all the poetry being published in the U.S. right now, they appear far less distant from each other. Yet too, what you say about pulling together readers and cross-influences is exactly the idea, and better than I could have put it. I think—not in general but in relation to this series—it’d be a mistake to assert too deliberate an aesthetic; if there are continuities, they’ll emerge over time. When a new book comes out and we have a reading for it at City Lights, I always try to have the previous author of the series read if it’s logistically feasible, and it’s fascinating to see what emerges between the two poets in terms of the evening as a whole. You saw Cedar Sigo read with Will Alexander, and that to me was a great reading; they’re radically different poets yet there was palpable electricity created by the alternating currents of their work.

Editorially, the series has a populist streak. This may seem like a strange claim for a series that includes Will, or what is surely the most complex Anselm Berrigan book yet (Free Cell), but I think it’s possible to publish poetry that is both challenging and accessible. By “accessible,” I mean poetry I imagine can be appreciated cold, with no explanations, justifications, or specialized knowledge. Not all poetry is accessible, nor should it be, but some books, no matter how wonderful, will always be better suited to a smaller press than City Lights. A book-length poem that’s, say, the second installment of a trilogy working through the writings of Walter Benjamin in relation to a contemporary installation artist may never have more than 250 readers walking the earth at any given time, and such books are precisely what small press publishing is for. But the series needs to shoot for higher numbers or it will fail and do no one any good.

As an editor tasked with selling books, I assume the worst and pray for the best about readers. I assume an intelligent but impatient, easily bored reader with a short attention span. This assumption has tilted the series toward shorter, self-contained work over long-form or serial work. Though even here, Anselm’s book has already violated this premise, as it’s essentially two serial poems separated by a single poem. In general, I feel like a reader unfamiliar with a given poet is going to open a book and read one poem, so that poem better deliver a full-blown poetic experience on its own. Most readers aren’t going to wait for something to unfold over the course of a serial poem. Any given segment might be the one the reader lands on to judge the entire book, but I felt like the sections of Free Cell would still come across even under such unforgiving circumstances.

PD: Well, aesthetically speaking it’s been going along just great. The selections in both the Alexander and Cole books were the best I’ve seen of each of those poets work. And the short but long poem “Let Us Sample Protection Together” in the Berrigan book is easily one of the top poems of the last few years, I can’t think of a single recent poem that’s more accomplished. I’m excited to see the next three years of this series! Who’s next in line (that is, if you don’t mind sharing)?

GC: Micah Ballard’s book, Waifs and Strays (Spotlight #6), will be out in September. Obviously you know who Micah is, as you guys co-authored a chapbook, Easy Eden (PUSH Press), but for those who don’t know, Micah is a poet from Baton Rouge, LA, author of Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Productions, 2009), and co-publisher (with Sunnylyn Thibodeaux) of Auguste Press. He also runs the admin side of University of SF’s writing program. Micah’s hard to describe but he’s something like the quintessential poet of urban mystery. The next volume (#7, Spring 2012) will be Advice for Lovers by Julien Brolaski. One of the editors of the journal Aufgabe, Julien’s a third-gender poet who’s coined a set of pronouns and possessives for third-gender reference: “xe” [zi] for subject; “xem” for object; “xir/xirs” for possessives; and “xemself” for reflectives. Xe’s definitely the youngest and least established poet selected for the series so far. It’d be great to eventually be able to do someone’s first book, but we’re a little ways off from that possibility just yet. Julien, fortunately, just had a book, Gowanus Atropolis, come out from Ugly Duckling Presse, which made it easier to bring xem to City Lights with confidence, since UDP is obviously very attuned to what’s going on in poetry. The great thing about Advice for Lovers is how unique it is, combining utterly contemporary diction and radical queer sensibility with the elaborate formal complexity of Elizabethan verse. That sounds like blurb-talk, but it’s true; of any attempt in this direction, no one has taken it where Julien has because xe’s got genuine Elizabethan chops, knowing Latin and Greek and other languages. So the book isn’t any sense a pastiche. Julien can truly inhabit the mode in a way few are equipped to. The book reminds me of no other, and that level of individuality is what the series aspires to.

Originally Published: June 7th, 2011

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...