Laurence Weisberg and the City Lights Blog
Periodically, when no one better is available, I find myself taking on the role of being Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s personal assistant at City Lights. This usually consists of opening mail—which could come from anywhere from the Vatican to Tuli Kupferberg—answering emails, and occasionally fielding phone calls. A couple of years ago I was on the phone with a Scandinavian journalist, who suddenly took me to task because City Lights didn’t have a blog. Why didn’t a famous left-wing organization like City Lights have a blog? I forget exactly what I said, but it was some version of the following two facts. Number one was a question of resources; blogs are free but staff time is not and someone needs to keep an eye on things to make sure they’re running smoothly, as I’m sure the good folks at the Poetry Foundation can sympathize. The publishing staff at City Lights is small and was already maxed out doing all of those publishing things that existed before and continue to exist after the advent of blogs. Number two was editorial. City Lights had been a publishing house for over 50 years and was accustomed to a high degree of editorial control over what it publishes. With a blog, you need to be prepared to be a bit “loose and goosey,” as the poet Alden Van Buskirk used to say, in order to maintain a volume of posts sufficient for success. Between these two factors, City Lights was compelled to approach the question of blogging with slow deliberation.
But the press was working on it, and in February we finally launched blogcitylights.com, nobly run by Dia Vergados and Jeff Von Ward. There’s a bunch of cool shit up there and I encourage you all to check it out. To stick with National Poetry Month themes, however, I direct interested parties to Cedar Sigo’s wonderful post on Bob Kaufman or Andrew Joron’s touching memoir of Barbara Guest. In particular, however, I’d like to draw people’s attention to a work in progress, the second of four installments of which was posted today: Modern Beasts Have No Memory: A Laurence Weisberg Dossier by Brian Lucas. Brian recently came across Weisberg’s posthumous collection Poems (Anon Editions, 2004) at my apartment; I happened to have an extra, which I gave to him, and he has run with it, so to speak. As Brian writes in part 1:
Visionary, unhinged, oddly romantic, classically surrealist, and of such strange force I immediately had to know who the poet was. I intended this to be a 200 word appreciation of Laurence’s poems, but it has since grown into a different sort of beast, one which came about after I contacted some of his closest friends and associates. What follows is only a sliver of my exchanges with them. Laurence Weisberg was born in the Los Angeles area on May 6, 1953 and died March 13, 2003 at the age of 49.
I’d known about Weisberg from Philip Lamantia, who was a friend and something of a mentor to this apparently magnetic but deeply troubled poet who worked at the City Lights Bookstore for much of the 1970s. Weisberg was an ultra-maudit, if you will, too demanding and too pissed off to really deal with the poetry world as such, and as a result, he rarely published anything. You can find a handful of poems in the Chicago Surrealists’ journal Arsenal, but even this alliance was short-lived. I’m sure if there’s an afterlife, he’s positively livid about being featured on the Poetry Foundation’s blog during National Poetry Month, but he’s one of those fascinating poets who have fallen through the cracks and I can’t help dwelling on the remarkable job Brian has done track down those various figures Weisberg knew, like the surrealist dancer Alice Farley, who was his partner of many years. Stay tuned for parts 3 and 4!
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...