Paul Yamazaki, a jury member for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014, tells about “Howl” and the Hungry Generation

The way a bookshop stocks its books says a lot about its temperament. At City Lights, a landmark San Francisco independent bookstore-publisher, some of the sections are called Commodity Aesthetics, Stolen Continents, Green Politics, Muckraking, Topographies & Somalogistics, representing a bookselling ethic that is fast eroding, or has already eroded. As its principal bookbuyer, Paul Yamazaki curates the collection.

Yamazaki is a member of the jury for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014, which will announce its longlist shortly. Antara Dev Sen, editor, writer and literary critic, chairs the jury, while Arshia Sattar, translator, writer and teacher, Ameena Saiyid, the MD of Oxford University Press in Pakistan and Rosie Boycott, British journalist and editor, are the other members.

“Reading for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is identical to reading for City Lights. I am looking for stories wrought with exacting language that transport me to an understanding of the world that I would not arrive at on my own,” he says. In an e-mail interview, Yamazaki speaks about City Lights, its connection with India, and the role of an independent bookstore. Excerpts:

Can you give us a brief history of City Lights and how you came to be associated with it?

City Lights Pocketbook Shop opened in June 1953. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had the chance encounter that would set so much else in motion: on day when he was driving north on Columbus Ave to his home on Chestnut Street in North Beach, he was approaching the intersection at Broadway when he saw “this guy putting up a sign about a pocket bookshop.” That guy was Peter Martin, son of Carlo Tresca, the legendary Anarchist and editor of a little literary magazine named after the Charlie Chaplin film, “City Lights.” Martin was opening a small pocket bookshop to provide financial support for his magazine. After a short conversation, Ferlinghetti and Martin agreed to become partners in the bookshop and to invest $500, each. They sealed their partnership with a handshake. On June 24, 1953, Martin and Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookshop. With it’s opening, City Lights immediately became a gathering spot for poets who had been drawn to San Francisco in the early ‘50s. Among them, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia. Allen Ginsberg who arrived from New York in 1954. Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady, Gregory Corso would drop in to City Lights on their cross-country road trips. In October of 1955 Allen Ginsberg read at the Six Gallery his poem “Howl” in public for the first time. Ferlinghetti recalled, “I went home afterward and sent a Western Union telegram to Ginsberg. I said, ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do we get the manuscript?’” City Lights published, “Howl” in 1956. Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao the manager of City Lights Booksellers were arrested for selling copies of “Howl”.

Ferlinghetti’s Western Union message to Allen Ginsberg and his subsequent publication of Howl stands out as one of the great editorial and publishing moves of the 20th Century. In this, Ferlinghetti recognized Howl as a groundbreaking work of American literature and immediately saw Ginsberg’s significance as a poet and cultural figure. In their Howl trial, at whatever personal cost to themselves, Ferlinghetti and Murao put on a strategic and steadfast defense that furthered the rights of authors to be published and readers to read. In doing so, they tested the strictures of society, and in winning, they extended the bounds of what was permitted if not universally accepted. Howl, the book and the trial, made literary history and brought City Lights, as bookseller and publisher, to a national and international prominence, which continues to this day.

City Lights is currently celebrating its 60th year of existence.

What does it mean to be an “independent bookshop”? What do you think is the role they play?

The independent bookshop in the U.S. has its roots in a post second world war internationalism. City Lights, Keplers, Cody’s in the San Francisco Bay Area and the 8th Street Bookshop in New York City were established in the decade after the end of the second world war. The 8th Street Bookshop and City Lights were also publishers of radical poets often called the Beats. Roy Kepler was a pacifist war resister who was in imprisoned by the United States Government during the Second World War. After the war Kepler became a major cultural and political figure in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kepler not only founded the bookstore but also was one of the founders of the 1st public radio station in the United States. Many of the bookstores and that emerged in the sixties and seventies were influenced by the spirit of the radical stores. Over the past decades the number of books being published annually has increased dramatically. Independent booksellers are able to put the right book in the right reader’s hands. Readers are appreciative of this service that we provide. In the second decade of the 21st Century the role of the independent bookshop is more crucial than ever.

As the principal book buyer, can you tell us a about the process by which books get selected?

Acquiring books is a craft and in my 43 years in the business many things have changed, but the essentials of bookselling have remained the same: reading, curiosity and conversation. These lie at the heart of what I do. And to the question, how do you select books for City Lights, I would say, I look for the answer reading as much as possible and having conversations with independent booksellers around the country, with editors at publishing houses, large and small, with publisher sales representatives and with my colleagues at City Lights. Here, the conversation about what books to read and what books will be represented on our shelves begins with the staff. Each member of the City Lights crew participates in the decision over what front list and backlist titles we will offer.

An ongoing dialogue with editors is another key element. We talk to editors to learn about new writers and books, and this, in turn, allows our staff to be early readers and champions of authors and books that have modest announced print runs and marketing and publicity budgets. We see this kind of engagement and conversation as essential to what we do, presenting books often not found elsewhere.

Every decade, it seems, has featured a major challenge to the independent bookseller. We manage by being very selective. The craft of bookselling lies, not so much in reacting to the marketplace as in developing it by representing, on our shelves, a point of view that sets us apart. As independent booksellers, we build the final plank in the bridge that connects the writer to the reader.

Globally, there are arguments being made for both the decline as well as the resurgence of independent bookshops.

There has been a resurgence of the independent bookstore in diverse communities throughout the United States. A new generation of booksellers is establishing new bookstores or is taking over currently existing stores. The independent bookstore has become important not just for the curatorial practices described previously but also for the central role it plays as a communal gathering spot.

City Lights published poets of the Hungryalist Movement (Shakti Chattopadhyay, Malay Roy Choudhury, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy, among others) from India in the 1960s. Would you know how this happened?

It is my belief that the poets of the Hungryalist Movement were part of a wave of global insurrectionary poetry that swept around the globe during the 20th Century. The spirit of insurrection in poetry appeared in different parts of the globe under a variety of names, Negritude, Surrealism, Hungryalist, and Beat. Lawrence Ferlinghetti felt he and City Lights were part of that insurrectionary wave of poetry. Ferlinghetti most likely felt a profound sense of solidarity with the Hungryalist poets.