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The Intersection of Literature & Free Expression  

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

Whenever I travel to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, I make sure to pay homage to the roots of my craft near the intersection of Columbus & Grant, where North Beach and Chinatown intersect.

It is a simple little tour, really: just three places. The first, City Lights Books, is a wonderful patchwork of angles, stories, perches, step-ups, cellars and basements loaded with books you may not find anywhere else. It is also home base to celebrated poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who spent the 1950s writing poetry collections, turning a half-dozen unknown writers into the famed San Francisco Renaissance crew (or West Coast Beats), and taking on the U.S. Supreme Court when they censored his publication of Henry Miller.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Now 95, Ferlinghetti is a hawk of a man, tall, imposing and imperious when crossed. He and my old friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, still read together once every October. Every time we write a page, article or book with anything we want to say, and then publish it, we’re reminded of who won that landmark censorship battle that culminated in 1961. It wasn’t the Supreme Court.

City Lights is my favorite bookstore, the bookstore that City Lightssparks me every time I walk through its doors. Now 60 years old, it is what an independent bookstore is all about — distinct character and personality, books carefully chosen by a well-read staff, a sanctuary of the written word, and the hub of a great writing community and movement. It is the best store to buy Beat literature in the world. Its selection of poetry, novels and literature reflects an open-minded, story-crafting, intelligence-promoting approach that is, well, the only approach that should ever matter in a society.

My favorite City Lights moment came in 2001. I walked into the store with Marty Balin, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame lead singer (and founder) of Jefferson Airplane, as well as Jefferson Starship. During their San Francisco concerts in the wild 1960s, bands used to ask poets to open their shows — celebrations of light, spoken word, dancing and music. Ferlinghetti was the Airplane’s designated poet on several occasions. As we walked inside, there was Ferlinghetti, perched in the checkout area. Marty and Ferlinghetti hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. Immediately, I felt like the luckiest fly on the wall as they caught up and discussed music, literature, and reminisced about those early concerts at Longshoreman’s Hall, the Matrix and The (original) Fillmore.

If the walls of Vesuvio's could talk, who would ever leave?

If the walls of Vesuvio’s could talk, who would ever leave?

Across the street from City Lights is Vesuvio’s, the colorful two-story pub that served as Jack Kerouac’s watering hole during his trips to San Francisco. Hemingway had Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Henry James had the White House Tavern in New York City, and Kerouac had Vesuvio’s. He percolated large parts of On The Road, The Dharma Bums and other novels while sitting inside. Now, the place is lined with classic photos from the Beat generation, along with posters of Mae West, Janis Joplin, and other adornments that were part of the bar Kerouac knew. It looked like a few patrons and bottles of ancient booze on the shelves had never left, too.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio's and leads to Chinatown.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio’s and leads to Chinatown.

After that, we took our haul of books a hundred yards to Vital Tea Leaf, located in the middle of Chinatown. (Gotta love the way ethnic neighborhoods run into each other in San Francisco, so effortlessly, without fences or borders.) Our old friend, the 83-year-old proprietor with a sailor’s tongue and a sage’s wisdom, greeted us with hugs at the door. We then spent the next 90 minutes tasting teas made of nectar and gold (so it seemed), and listening to him mix insightful history and preparation tips with playful poking at customers as they walked inside. I find Chinese tea opens up the creative pores in a way that makes verse and prose pour from mind, body and soul; it is always my chosen drink when writing. So, I loaded up with pu’erh, milk oolong, cloud mist and lapsang souchong (the smoky tea), heard our host’s stories about each (cloud mist grows at 8,000 feet, for example), and headed off to write a few of my own.

To me, Columbus & Grant is not only the junction of ancient and modern literature, or the crossroads of shih and Beat writing and poetry. It is also the shining beacon that reminds me of two endangered species — the independent bookstore and freedom of written expression. As we move into National Poetry Month, we’re reminded of the treasures men and women have written for thousands of years. And the inalienable right and freedom to do so. That’s worth honoring in the best way possible — by writing.Kerouac sign

 

 

 

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The Power of Group Book Signings — and Birth of a New Literary Series

In this era of extreme tidal changes in the publishing industry, writers, readers and those who love personal author appearances will be happy to know of a great trend: enterprising authors banding together to form group appearances and signings.

The power of the group read, this occurring at Vista Library, site of the North County Literary Cavalcade: Sunset Poets and Hummingbird Review  launch. (L-R) Sunset Poets creator and poet Dick Eiden; "Dances With Wolves" author Michael Blake; poet and musician John Doe, of the legendary group X; Charles Redner, Jr; Hummingbird Review publisher & author Charles Redner; fictionist Alwyn Pinnow; and yours truly

The power of the group read, this occurring at Vista Library, site of the North County Literary Cavalcade: Sunset Poets and Hummingbird Review launch. (L-R) Sunset Poets creator and poet Dick Eiden; “Dances With Wolves” author Michael Blake; poet and musician John Doe, of the legendary group X; Charles Redner, Jr; Hummingbird Review publisher & author Charles Redner; fictionist Alwyn Pinnow; and yours truly

 

AK Patch, the author of "Passage at Delphi," will appear Feb. 23 to launch the North County Literary Cavalcade series at Vista Library.

AK Patch, the author of “Passage at Delphi,” will appear Feb. 23 to launch the North County Literary Cavalcade series at Vista Library.

Not necessarily. Speaking from San Diego County and nearby areas, I can report that a few enterprising authors are working hard to create more group signings. Kaitlin Rother recently hosted an event at the new San Diego City Library that drew a standing room-only crowd. Author Lin Robinson, one of the most innovative and funniest writers around,  is stirring up the waters for a group signing series as well. “My thoughts are to get some local writers together and do something major and newsworthy, maybe in the atrium of the new San Diego library, or across the street in the beautiful Jing Si Café,” Robinson said.

It goes from there. A genre-based group, the Crime Fiction Collective, has been staging group signings for awhile. The La Jolla-based indie bookstore Warwick’s presents not only national authors, but individual and group signings with area authors — in which the author gets a table and signs for several hours on a Sunday afternoon. Very cool.

Group signings are awesome. Several authors appear together, read from their works, perhaps hold a short panel discussion, and then meet, greet and sign. While every author wants (and should have) the stage to themselves, I can tell you that booksellers and libraries love group signings. Why? They put more butts in the seats — and more buyers, or patrons. Readers feel like they’re at an event, and when you attend an event, you want to take the energy and memory of it home with you; hence, buying a book (that’s why motivational speakers and leaders always sell books at the back of the room). Plus, authors receive the dual stimulation of sharing stories from the trenches with other writers, and engaging with their readers.

We will be actively promoting all group signings on this blog, and on the Word Journeys Social Media Network. If you’re an author, band together with a couple other authors, visit your bookstore or library, and set yourself up. It will be much easier than you think — and you will connect eye-to-eye with your audience. Readers and writers, stay tuned.

 Speaking of libraries, I’m pleased to announce something I’ve wanted to create for a long time: a monthly literary series. This one even gives a naming nod to the Golden Age of radio and TV! The North County Literary Cavalcade will be hosted by Vista City Library. Reference librarian Kris Jorgensen and I met earlier this week, and laid out the plan for a combination of author signings, group reads, student presentations, panel discussions, topical workshops, open mics and festival events that will involve national and area authors, educators and poets. Best of all, we’re drawing authors from all fiction and non-fiction genres, plus young adult authors, sci-fi writers, and children’s writers. No matter your reading preference, you’re going to be up close and personal with a prominent author at this series.

Vista Library is a great venue: We hosted a pair of Hummingbird Review launches there, drawing large crowds in both cases. The secret? Yep — group reads. We had six to eight readers on each occasion.

Our first event takes place Sunday, February 23, from 3 to 5 p.m. Author AK Patch will present the history and backstory of his new historical adventure thriller, Passage at Delphi. This book brings the famous Greek-Persian War (source of the “300” movie series) into modern-day light, as eyewitnessed by time-traveling professors. They are under the influence of the Greek God Apollo, who worries that today’s civilization will go the way of the Ancient Greeks. If you’re a “300” fan, and pacing the floors waiting for the March 7 premiere of 300: Rise of an Empire, this book will not only feed you, but give you a counter-story filled with excitement and depth.

I’ll also be reading, as Dr. Patch’s warm-up act. Kris Jorgensen and I will co-host the event, and we will also present the schedule of Literary Cavalcade events.

Hope to see you there — and at all group signing events.

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