Photo Essay | Insiya Poonawalla

 IMG_6385 copy.png

City Lights
The North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco has pretty much been the lifeline of Beat generation activity in the city since the 1950s and 1960s. At the centre of this important American countercultural movement on the West coast was an independent publishing house and bookstore, thriving to this day, called City Lights. 

Turn Left
If the fact that it takes its name from a famous Charlie Chaplin movie doesn’t give you a sense of its socio-political outlook, then perhaps the signs hanging in its first-floor windows will. Hand-drawn by the bookshop’s co-founder, the poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself, the signs implore the approaching visitor to enter with an “open mind” and “open heart”, and also, of course, to “disarm” and “turn left”.

Sell Phone
If the liberal aura exuded from the building hasn’t thrown you off (you are a book lover, after all), you get closer and stand at the shop-windows for your next set of instructions. Once again, in Ferlinghetti’s hand, you are asked, among other things, to “abandon all despair”, stash your “sell phone” away, and proceed educating yourself on three floors’ worth of books.

IMG_6403 copy.png
IMG_6404 copy.png

IMG_6444 copy.pngIMG_6407 copy.png

Starving Hysterical Naked
In 1957, two years after Allen Ginsberg read his poem, Howl, at Gallery Six, and a year after City Lights published this work, the folks who ran the bookstore and press found themselves at the centre of a remarkable controversy. Howl and Other Poems was considered an obscene volume that had potential to corrupt America’s youth. As publisher, Ferlinghetti stood trial at the nearby Hall for Justice (housed in a building that is now part of the Hilton hotels), where he defended Ginsberg’s work, and its literary and social significance. In a landmark judgement, which ruled that the poem had a redeeming social value, the publication of Howl would set a legal precedent in the fight against censorship in literature. Today, City Lights still publishes Howl and Other Poems with the original 1956 cover. This iconic image can now also be found on some of the bookshop’s official merchandise. 

IMG_6400 copy.png

Rebel People
But wait. We do not enter the bookshop yet. Instead, we peer into the narrow lane to its left. Once an inconspicuous, garbage-strewn alley, Adler Place was renamed Kerouac Alley in 2007, largely due to the efforts of Ferlinghetti. As pictured below, on either side of this 50-m-strip stand City Lights and Vesuvio Cafe, the notorious watering hole for the members of the Beat generation. The walls of both the pub and the bookstore are plastered, respectively, with snippets of poems and scenes from the 1990s uprising in a Mexican state. The City Lights mural, specifically, depicts the rural life in the Chiapas region of Mexico, juxtaposed against images of armed men in masks. It is inscribed with the powerful injunction, in both Spanish and English,Un pueblo con memoria es un pueblo rebelde” (“A people with a memory is a rebel people.”) 

IMG_6413 copy.png

IMG_6416 copy.png

IMG_6423 copy.png

IMG_6424 copy.png

IMG_6440 copy.png

                                                         All Characters in Bookstore are Real
It is easy upon entering the bookshop to get lost in the labyrinth of shelves. One room leads to another. There are doors within door, and at the end of those, the stairs. On the walls hang old photographs, framed announcements for long-expired events, and, of course, more hand-lettered signs by Ferlinghetti. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” reminds one.

IMG_6446 copy.png

IMG_6452 copy.png

IMG_6459 copy.png

IMG_6460 copy.png

IMG_6516 copy.png

The Basement
The City Lights basement houses a large collection of non-fiction on subjects ranging from history, economics, women’s studies to music, cinema, print culture, and so on. For its more rabble-rousing customers, the staff has helpfully labelled the relevant shelves as “class war”, “anarchism”, or “muckraking”. This isn’t at all odd when you consider who the basement’s most famous haunters were, back in the day—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady, among others. Ferlinghetti stumbled upon the basement quite by chance when he decided to poke around some loose floorboards in the store one day. Under them, he found the notorious creature that he later wrote about in his poem, “The Great Chinese Dragon”. The ancient dragon (the first of its kind to cross the Pacific and the same one that “ate all the shrimp in San Francisco Bay”) was said to, until then, lay low in the basement all year, except during Chinese New Year, when it was paraded around Chinatown. The basement was also once the meeting place of a Christian sect. That explains why its walls are plastered with snippets of Biblical verse (“I am the door”, proclaims one).

Have a Seat, Read a Book
That the merchandisers at City Lights have an eclectic taste would surprise no one. A section on the ground floor is stocked with a wide selection of writings from Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and so on. But what City Lights is known for the most is perhaps its poetry room. In addition to hosting the largest collection of poetry in a bookshop, this upstairs room is a nook for lovers of the form. Here, you will find poets and readers, in varying degrees of literary intoxication, reclining on chairs whilst perusing an anthology of their choosing, hovering over displays, and turning over shelved volumes. Reading is not only encouraged in this bookshop, it is enabled.

IMG_6466 copy.png

IMG_6475 copy.png

IMG_6489 copy.png

IMG_6491 copy.png

IMG_6495 copy.png

IMG_6499 copy.png

Poems | Adam Zdrodowski

Photo Credits : Gb

The moon, the stars, and after

It well may be the universe hid behind your eyelashes
The moon got swallowed up, the blackstar
Was extinguished and, later, turned to ashes.

In disguise, the Death Star advances, raises dust, then crashes.
My heart missed a beat, the composer skipped a bar.
It well may be the universe hid behind your eyelashes

And now expands there, unfathomable. When the wind brushes
Your hair aside, and your shawl flutters, any tsar
Or duke stops petrified, then turns to ashes.

They scatter them into the ocean, the water splashes,
Accepting, flowing and flown. The ashes will travel far.
It well may be the universe hid behind your eyelashes

And left me empty-handed, dreaming. One dream clashes
With another; the clash leaves a trace, a scar
Like a tattoo, perhaps removable, or, later, turned to ashes.

Out of the ashes something must rise. Someone hushes
One up, they don’t know. I see your face in a passing car.
It well may be the universe hid behind your eyelashes
Caught fire, and, not much later, turned to ashes.

Song to a Girl I Don’t Know Well

To meet, wind-beaten, mint-scented, in the world, in the
Season of rains and peacocks’ restlessness,
With sublime snow-covered peaks looming in the distance.
Never mind the lark’s song, the nightingale’s sweet trill.

The season of rains and peacocks’ restlessness
Has other stuff in store: the monkeys’ conversations, the porcupine’s keen sting.
So sod the lark’s cheap song, the nightingale’s sweet trill;
Breathe in the tang of weed, the fragrance of the pines, 

Regard what’s yet in store: the monkeys’ conversations and the porcupine’s keen sting;
Dream broken dreams, and join disjointed parts;
Breathe in the tang of weed, the fragrance of the wine;
Fall into step with me while sleeping on the wing.

Dream broken dreams, and join disjointed parts.
Close stranger, radiating strangeness of a sweeter kind,
Fall into step with me while sleeping on the wing.
We’ll emerge from the brokenness, the disjointedness of dreams:

Close strangers, sharing the strangeness of a sweet kind
(no sublime snow-covered peaks looming in the distance),
We emerge from the brokenness, the disjointedness of dreams
To meet, wind-beaten, honey-scented, in the world, at dusk.

As One Drifting on a Raft 4.000 Miles Off Course

Or so they say. Like the gentle
sun she was he was
it was you were I was they were.
So now, goddesses, I implore you,
give us more sun & song & dance
& festive music & piercing light
in which we may examine 
each other like one 
does a creased crater. 

What light? What music?
I guess the stars are the negative
of lizards’ eyes, the dark sky hiding
the lizards’ negative bodies that keep
squawking and squealing way into
the small hours. The moon licks
its fleshy lips, like a mass murderer-poet,
the snake sheds its skin, and emerges,
flashy and nimble, ready for new rituals.

So, I guess soon all this will get sorted out,
your nearly-forgotten misery sliding into
the lowest, darkest recesses of your ego,
and a new season of summer festivals
will begin, our little grand tours
of Europe and India, wandering,
wondering, turning and turning,
circling and circling, and usually
returning, but always with a twist.

On the Manner of Addressing the Nrityagram Moon from a Warsaw Balcony
(Cheap Imitation)

You revolve and I revolve yet
the moon glow makes our silent revolutions
ominous, demod├ęs. The light projects
you (that is, the mental image of you I have)
revolving in my mind which is itself
a projection, a probe cast out there

in the world. This is the world
of two minds revolving in unison,
but in reverse directions; one centrifugally,
the other – centripetally. This is the picture
of two minds; this is the image of true minds
coming together, or coming apart,
revolving and resolving impediments.

And this is the speaker come as lover
burning down the cities of the mind, bringing
the ashes of the cities of the mind to lay
them at your mindful feet. And thus we stand
maladroit though ambidextrous.

Regard, oh reader, the ashes of the minds
and tongues, the slickness of the circular
motion, the swiftness of the funicular
taking you up there, to the realms
of the unreal mind, over the dreamily-textured
hills and pistachio-colored clouds, ever so lightly
and far away.

A Very Short Introduction

Do I smell accounting?
Where shall we breed accounting?
How do you grow advertising?
Shall we eat African history?
Can you betray Alexander the Great?
Do you fancy getting stoned on American political parties and elections?

Do you fancy getting stoned on ancient Egypt?
Do I smell the animal kingdom?
Can you betray atheism?
Where shall we breed Buddha?
Shall we eat contemporary fiction?
How do you grow forensic science?

How do you grow the Marquis de Sade?
Do you fancy getting stoned on twentieth-century Britain?
Shall we eat writing and script?
Do I smell writing and script?
Where shall we breed the World Trade Organization?
Can you betray world music?

Can you betray Wittgenstein?
How do you grow the Vikings?
Where shall we breed twentieth-century Britain?
Do you fancy getting stoned on Thomas Aquinas?
Do I smell the Spanish civil war?
Shall we eat Russell?

Shall we eat postcolonialism?
Can you betray microeconomics?
Do I smell Gandhi?
How do you grow ancient Egypt?
Do you fancy getting stoned on innovation?
Where shall we breed innovation?

Where shall we breed information?
Shall we eat international migration?
Do you fancy getting stoned on the ice age?
Can you betray Italian literature?
How do you grow HIV/AIDS?
Do I smell languages?

Do I breed German philosophy?
How do you eat modern France?
Can you fancy diaspora?

Thirteen Ways of Yelling at a Blackbird

Once, you stayed at a place where darkness was really dark so you could easily lose yourself and find an ultimate release and, a human torch yourself, glow endlessly. Now, trapped in a space full of penumbras, in a world stuffed with countless ‘what ifs’ and ‘buts,’ gorging on meaningless mangoes, you can only open your French door and yell at a blackbird, in the following thirteen manners:

1.     Stay silent – the blackbird might yell back at you.

2.     In the crow position – it is common knowledge that blackbirds fear crows.

3.     Bring your guitar and amp to the balcony and yell against a thick wall of feedback.

4.     Combine 2 and 3 (and figure out how).

5.     Scream in guttural tones like a prophet imploring the stone to yield water.

6.     Yell to revamp your larynx.

7.     Shout at the floor, vomiting mangoes, papayas, litchis and jackfruits.

8.     Howl and cry out in the moonlit night while the blackbird is asleep.

9.     Yell into the nine holes of your mortal friend.

10.   Bull’s eye, you nailed it, friend.

11.   Suppose it’s on the balcony, suppose it’s on. Little birds, ladies, little birds, ladies, little                       blackbirds of feathers.

12.   In fear, because you mistook your raspy cadences for the shadow of the blackbird’s cry.

13.   Like no one would, in an equipage exquisite.


Letters from California #1 | Sophia Naz

Photo : Divya Adusumilli

I've seen the future, baby: 
it is murder 

Leonard Cohen, Sept 21, 1934 - Nov 7, 2016

In the early hours of November 9, 2016 the unthinkable happened. A man who had built his political career on a racist lie disparaging the first African American President of America was himself elected to the highest office in the land. In his run for the White House Trump broke every rule in the Presidential campaign playbook, he insulted minorities, women,  the Muslim immigrant family of a decorated war hero, a disabled reporter, the list goes on and on. Even the leaked video in which he boasted  about sexually assaulting any woman he chose with impunity did little to dent his momentum. Since the election much ink has been spilled on how this travesty could possibly happen, and yes, a large part was played by Russian hacking of the election , the growth of “alt-right” aka white supremacist media, along with the progressive vote being siphoned off to third party candidates post Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination but the bald fact remains that Donald Trump won by blaming the economic troubles of blue collar white voters on non-white immigrants successfully stirring up a toxic brew of racism and xenophobia. For me, this outcome was particularly disturbing  because like countless others, when I received political asylum in America it came with the promise of a country that  would not discriminate  on the basis of ethnicity religion or any of the markers that plagued the country of my birth. I come from lands that know all too well the  horrors that are unleashed by demonising an imagined “other”.

In the aftermath of the election, I was reminded of Brecht. In his Svendborg Poems, written in exile in Denmark in the 1930s, Brecht wrote: ‘In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/About the dark times.’ His life was shaped by these dark times, as ours will no doubt be, in these years to come. It is in times of trauma that poetry becomes indispensable to our lives because nothing else can gauge the barometer of our horror, or distill the stubbornness of our resistance:

Diane Di Prima,  Revolutionary Letter  #7

what will win
is mantras, the sustenance we give each other,
the energy we plug into
(the fact that we touch
share food)
the buddha nature
of everyone, friend and foe, like a million earthworms
tunneling under this structure
till it falls

Here in California, the election  results could not have been more starkly different. Californians not only voted for Clinton by a record margin, but they also approved a raft of progressive measures, that included the legalization of recreational marijuana, easing parole for nonviolent criminals, raising taxes on cigarettes, extending income-tax increases on the wealthiest few, increase in school spending, restoring bilingual education and banning single-use plastic bags. Californians made Kamala Harris the first Indian-American (and second African-American woman) to be elected a United States senator, and reaffirmed overwhelming Democratic majorities in state politics. With Clinton’s popular vote lead surpassing 2 million, there are secessionist  rumblings that could gather steam if Trump’s threats to withdraw federal funds for so-called “sanctuary cities” such as San Francisco and Los Angeles which do not  expel undocumented immigrants. In general the mood here is one of anger and disbelief, summed up perfectly in Michael McClure’s poem from his compilation Huge Dreams, San Francisco and Beat Poems written in 1961 but eerily prophetic in its tone:

The part left smolders.

Indeed  San Francisco and the “Left Coast” is no stranger to poetry that stands against the status quo. In fact one could argue that it is its very crucible, that the Beats came here because there was already a movement, both poetic and political already underway with the help of older poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer.  Spicer was one of the founders of the Six Gallery, site of the 1955 reading with Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. This was the first important public manifestation of the Beat Generation, as McClure recalls in the documentary, Rebel Roar:

“The East Coast Beats really reached a watershed moment when the Six Gallery reading took place, in particular Kerouac. ( who was in the audience)  It was after the Six Gallery reading that he was able to write Dharma Bums and Big Sur. In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before. We had gone beyond a point of no return--and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellectual void--to the land without poetry--to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”

I lift my voice aloud,
    make Mantra of American language now,
            I here declare the end of the War!
                Ancient days’ Illusion!—
        and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
    let the nation weep,
        let Congress legislate its own delight,
            let the President execute his own desire—
this Act done by my own voice,
                nameless Mystery—
published to my own senses,
        blissfully received by my own form
    approved with pleasure by my sensations
        manifestation of my very thought
        accomplished in my own imagination
            all realms within my consciousness fulfilled

Allen Ginsberg, Wichita Vortex Sutra #3

Post this apocalyptic election the hunger for voice and vision has grown fierce once more. Poetry has taken on an urgency not seen in recent years. Reactions to the election that resists Donald Trump and his ideology dominate Calls For Submissions at journals. The most poignant of these  calls was from DarkHouse Books: “If you are so inclined, maybe send us a Descanso ( roadside memorial marking a fatal accident )for America, and place it, like a pushpin on a calendar, on Election Day 2016”  An array of  poetry protests all across the state are ongoing. Typical  is this notice:  “Open mike at Union Square, San Francisco, Open to all genres, all arts, all people. If not in SF--send work, will read! NOT MY PRESIDENT!”

So, sweet seeker, just what America sought you anyway? Know
that today there are millions of Americans
seeking America. . .

Gregory Corso, Elegiac Feelings American

There is some consolation in the fact that in many ways the counter culture of the Beats has become the culture in California. It now remains to be seen whether the rest of America will catch up or go another way. The fate of our planet may well hang in the balance.

Sophia Naz
Glen Ellen, California, November 2016


Poems | Saurav Roy


Grand images
Cows and carts
And dug up roads

Dried up kunds
Locked in land
Coffers and coffins
And ghats

Burning and raging
Spitting pyres
Gold diggers avenged
Cracked skulls and embers
Worth million years

Seats of skins
And luggage
Of dead stinking rotting
Bleak remains of the once bleating
Thrown down at the thrown downs
Two dead men
Once knew themselves as living and now through the bent and crooked alleys
Looking for strength and sorrow at light poles and south of the spitting pyres along castles of burning wood and abandoned castles of time

Cows and dogs and drunk men pissing in silence
Into the salvation spot go streams of jizz

Cheese and Peanut Butter Toasties

Six pieces and six bodies
On red and gold and four
shoulders chanting and bidding

Through the houses and tea stalls
dead men through the stalls, caged, selling spurious concoctions
okayed by the residents and the dogs and crows

Dead men meeting other dead men
in a human traffic jam
narrow alleys, sweating men
and cold dead bodies on red and gold and four
while i gulp hot tea underground
watching wide eyed at
the clergy of Death

Going to Kashi!

Careful on the way
Grace be with you
There are thugs and thieves and pairs
Of golden swords and wretched sands

Three weeks of hustling
On corridors devoid of dust and flourishing away
From the vortex of a city we live in

Dreams and surreal wishes at tea stalls
Our only gifts – a bike a bag a bottle
And two dead men

Three Years

Against the Shining Sun
love notes and photos
folded legs and letters
with red ink of desire

Deferring dreams
daily lives

sticks and stones
silly little quips

Against the shining sun
While it lasts, laugh, Let go..