San Francisco's City Lights in a New York State of Mind

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Church bells rang to kick off the East Coast celebration of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore's 50th anniversary, hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York City. Elaine Katzenberger, associate director of City Lights, was co-emcee of the packed-to-the-eaves event along with Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor of William Burroughs' writings. Writers and performers including Karen Finley, Anne Waldman, and Steven Van Zandt read, performed, and sang their own work and also the work of Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the two-hour commemoration of the bookstore and City Lights Press.

Performers and readers with Steven Van Zandt (right) at the East Coast celebration of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore's 50th anniversary.

City Lights held its West Coast party this past June, where, among others, Ferlinghetti, Dave Eggers, and Andrei Codrescu read from their work and Columbus Street was closed for a "Poetry Dance," but City Lights wanted to also recognize its large New York fan base and New York writers who have long been associated with the bookstore and press. The venue of the Poetry Project was chosen because "City Lights has always thought of the Poetry Project in New York as a bellwether for the state of poetry," Ferlinghetti said in a statement read at the event by Katzenberger. "We have always stayed tuned to hear the latest voices on the frontiers of American poetry."

Silverberg stressed the importance of independent bookstores and presses in his introductory comments and urged the crowd to "buy books from independent publishers from independent bookstores. If we don't, places like City Lights won't exist. They're the ones who discover new talent, take risks." He also encouraged the crowd to visit St. Mark's Bookstore, which is around the corner from the Poetry Project.

Readers Mark Swartz (left) and John J. Trause at St. Mark's Poetry Project.

At the celebration, Steven Van Zandt, who is "Little Steven" of the E Street Band and Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, read Ferlinghetti's "Statue of St. Frances" and Karen Finley performed "Black Sheep" from her landmark Shock Treatment. Anne Waldman announced that she was "grateful for the amazing ethos of the press and the vision of City Lights." She chanted Ginsberg's "Hum Bom!" and read from her own Fast Speaking Woman while another performer, Bethany Spiers, accompanied her on the mandolin.

At a reception following the reading, Van Zandt talked with BTW about his association with City Lights. A big fan of Ferlinghetti and his bookstore, Van Zandt had invited Ferlinghetti to a recent Springsteen show. In turn, Ferhlinghetti asked him to participate in the East Coast reading. Van Zandt talked about the history of City Lights and mentioned Ferlinghetti's defense in the "Howl" obscenity trial as one of the most important moments of protecting the First Amendment.

About Ferlinghetti, Van Zandt added, "He certainly did his part. Everyone owes him a debt of gratitude."

Katzenberger said that it was "heartwarming to come to New York and see all the people who love what we do. I knew that City Lights draws people from all over the world, but it's important to have these cross-country ties, it's vital. Bringing City Lights to New York reminds us of that." --Karen Schechner