Mark Phinney’s epic weeklong Koh Phangan Man event, the second in a series, concluded this week. One of the joys of living on the island is the presence of numerous artists, entrepreneurs, and idealists innovating new modes of living, entertaining, and transforming.
With the talented Gabrielle Leon providing the background tunes, Liz Griffin and I performed the entire 3,000 word poem Howl as part of a playful sunset poetry happening we organized, “Filthy Sunset.” I also read Love’s Victim from Ovid’s “Amores.”
Earlier this year, I visited City Lights Bookstore, the scene of the legal battle to publish Howl six decades ago, and talked to the store’s manager Elaine Katzenberger about that unique fight for First Amendment free speech protections. Here are excerpts from that interview, parts of which will be used in my upcoming book on the art and alchemy of successful political protests.
There is a museum at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborh0od dedicated to the beats. It’s worth visiting but for my money the sacred epicenter of the social movements that shook the youth of a nation for decades is across at the street at City Lights bookstore. Any bookstore is magic, the holder of promised secrets and a slice of the grand history of human knowledge. City Lights, with its mythic origins and tumultuous past is one of a tiny subset of literary shops that holds something more, something sacred. I walk in and a mother stands at a respectful distance while her pre-teen boy engages the cashier in a line of questioning. Do you have this book, where can I find books on that subject, mom knowing some of the answers but choosing to allow the experience of discovery.
I met the manager of City Lights bookstore (and publishing house) some years back when I video recorded and livestreamed some of their author events for FORA.tv. Elaine Katzenberger is, as you might imagine, a thoughtful and interesting woman, two attributes required to choreograph the visitor experience and keep it relevant as one of America’s important bookstores. On this weekday morning, the place was packed buzzing with visitors, the out-of-town tourists, the loyal locals, and no doubt one or two devotees of the faith, the never-ending pursuit of that one new book that will crack open the universe in some new way.
Gruber: Why is City Lights such a quintessential part of San Francisco’s civic life?
Katzenberger: Well, I don’t really think of it as belonging to San Francisco because people who don’t live here come for the same reasons that you do and that I was originally drawn here. San Francisco was the place Lawrence birthed City Lights, but it has transcended that, it’s more of a world location and it holds something that people need. It also may sound a bit abstract or metaphysically corny…
Gruber: Keep it coming.
Katzenberger: It has to do with ideals, feelings of integrity; there are a lot of interpretations that have been layered over the founding stories. Some visitors are just tourists, and some are clearly making a pilgrimage, but everybody is looking for the same thing on some level.
Gruber: And what is that?
Katzenberger: People would use different words – it’s a large stew – but it’s that creativity trumps capitalism, and that the human spirit is somehow communicating with other human spirits in this way that is authentic, and not subject to the rules that the rest of the economy is playing by. Maybe that’s why San Franciscans who have lived here a long time want to claim it, because the city used to talk about itself that way, it was an illusion, but a lot of people came to San Francisco for the same reason that people come now to City Lights.
Gruber: Lawrence is about to have a big (100th) birthday. Can you articulate what was the ethos at that time, the ethos of the beats that motivated Lawrence to publish Howlin 1956? What was happening then, particularly in the context of how that might be relevant now?
Katzenberger: Lawrence always talks about how, first and foremost, he wanted to publish it because he identified it as groundbreaking poetry, he thought that Ginsberg was doing something that no one had done, and that had to do with poetics as (much as) anything else. And then, in terms of the content, the way in which the poem decries capitalism and militarism, that is what the counterculture in the 1960s was trying to talk about, rebellion against conformism, against the celebration of what capitalism was supposed to bring to quote, unquote average Americans. It meant reaching for freedom outside of that, somehow captured in this poem, which was especially exciting to him (Ferlinghetti). It was also the shared declamatory nature of it, very much talking about making poetry some form of actual communication, and that was part of what the beats were about, poetry as speech, poetry as a way of actually getting the message across.
Gruber: A key focus for the store is books on progressive politics. What does it mean to be progressive?
Katzenberger: Another big question. Something to do with putting the social contract with other human beings and other life forms on the planet before profit and power.
Gruber: One of the premises of the ’56 trial was that Ginsberg and, by extension, Ferlinghetti, were subversive. Do you think that the acts of protests of Ferlinghetti and the beat poets and the kind of literary explorations that City Lights does are patriotic, are aligned with what the founders had in mind in terms of how citizens need to be engaged politically?
Katzenberger: Obviously. If you want to be able to participate in a democracy, you need to be able to not only be informed, but to form opinions based on critical thinking, all of those things are part of civic life and a healthy democracy.
Gruber: When a visitor walks out of your store, what do you hope they leave with, in addition to a large handful of books? What’s the experience?
Katzenberger: I hope they feel validated in being part of a community of interesting, thoughtful, sensitive human beings. That’s what books have always given me. That’s what I hope that books give other people too.