Garrett Caples

Garrett Caples is a poet living in Oakland, CA. He is an editor for City Lights Books and curates the City Lights Spotlight poetry series. When not doing this, he contributes to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, usually on Bay Area hip-hop, but also literature and painting. He's the author of two full-length collections, The Garrett Caples Reader (Black Square Editions, 1999) and Complications (Meritage Press, 2007), and the editor of Pocket Poets #59: Tau by Philip Lamantia & Journey to the End by John Hoffman (City Lights, 2008). In 2010, Wave Books will publish his essay, Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English, as volume 1 of its new pamphlet series. A chapbook, AVID DIVA, recently appeared from Auguste Press/Lew Gallery.

What is (or has been) your favorite editing project and why?

As an editor, I’m the luckiest man alive, having through a variety of circumstances stumbled into an editorial position at City Lights Books. To be an editor at a left-wing press founded on a poem (“Howl”) is the greatest job I can imagine.

Among the several projects I’ve handled for the press, two come to mind as my favorites. The first book I edited for the press was Pocket Poets #59, Tau by Philip Lamantia and Journey to the End by John Hoffman. Lamantia was a good friend of mine, and indirectly the reason I wound up at City Lights, so the privilege of working on the Pocket Poets series was matched by the thrill of introducing a hitherto unknown work by him. Tau was the second book of poems Lamantia put together, scheduled for 1955 publication by Bern Porter but pulled by the poet at the last minute due to his evolving spiritual beliefs and visionary experiences. In other words, by mid-1955, the book no longer reflected his beliefs, though three of the poems would appear in his second published collection, Ekstasis (1959), and a fourth would turn up in his Selected Poems (1967). The Tau MS was found in his papers, which are now housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. The typescript was fairly clean, though there were at least two rounds of handwritten corrections. Some of these were illegible and there was no indication of the order of his revisions, so occasionally I was forced to adjudicate among three renderings of the same line. Instead of working out a system by which to make choices, I made my decisions on a case-by-case basis, guided by my overall feel for Lamantia’s poetry. Anything definitively crossed out by him was relegated to a short page of notes following this portion of the book. The second half of the volume consists of all the surviving poems of John Hoffman, a close friend of Lamantia’s who died of mysterious causes at the age of 24. These were the poems Lamantia read, instead of his own, at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955 at which Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl,” making their inclusion in the Pocket Poets series all the more appropriate. The original MS pages, on variously colored onionskin sheets as described in Kerouac’s fictionalized account of the event in The Dharma Bums (1958), are also in Lamantia’s papers at the Bancroft. Editing Hoffman was a breeze, as Lamantia established the definitive texts in 2000, when we printed a chapbook of the poems in a symbolic 24 copies. The existence of these poems has been known since 1955, but only three were ever published, so it was truly a contribution to American literary history for City Lights to finally make them available.

The other, more recent project has been helping City Lights launch its new American poetry series, City Lights Spotlight, whose purpose is to give small press poets a wider platform on which to present their work. We’re publishing one a season; the first two volumes, published in 2009, are Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008 by Norma Cole and Free Cell by Anselm Berrigan. For 2010, we’re publishing Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems by Andrew Joron and Stranger in Town by Cedar Sigo. Editing this series, with much help from editorial assistant Maia Ipp, is a dream, though its limited scope can occasionally be a nightmare in terms of being forced to reject MSS from various poets, some of whose work I greatly admire. (I’ve never been in this position before and confess that I still find it painful.) But the rewards of putting out such books incomparably outweigh the difficulties. In particular, the selected poems by Cole and Joron have been gratifying projects, as I obviously take a more active editorial role here than with individual volumes. Carving a selection out of substantial bodies of work isn’t easy, yet, with ample input from the poets, both of these volumes have come together wonderfully, reading well as books as opposed to disparate selections. It’s fascinating to see the patterns that emerge from poem to poem as the books take shape.

I could go on and on about my love for City Lights, but I’ll spare you this and simply express my gratitude to co-owners Nancy Peters and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and executive director Elaine Katzenberger for taking a chance on me. It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime.

bare maximum

it’s the cats in the back
who do the most frontin’

—Sumthin’ Terrible

rockstar wants my job
in this economy

o you who have fame
spain, music

o me who has
only this

unconscious as america
you run a wet finger

across my crumb
for branding purposes

the flank of poetry sizzles
picks up a goosebump or two

you picked the wrong guitar
send your roady home

the piggyback piggybank
bellyupped long ago

you ain’t got the goo
& you’re going who

the fuck am i? a poet
a painter a phantom a priest

transgressin like chessmen
confess man you’re guessin

the question is less of
a test than a lesson

seriously, that hipster shit’s
for bougie dudes

but my shit slaps
like three stooges

for i have touched the sun
& kissed its cool cheek

what’ve you done? i’ve spent
a month on this poem so far

it’s a combination of toil
& automatic dictation

i wake up shower dress
& go to bed dreaming

the poem but work
to make it work

jerk it off it won’t come
o feline poem. last night

got drunk with a poet
who pronounces it poim

philip used to say poe-em
two birdsongs sharing a note

what’s it got to do with you
center stagecoach, auction hero

esophagus philosopher? my daughter
laughter peals from my petals

without so much as a featherduster
to amplify her lineage. her

paper whispers nonetheless
ruffle the atmosphere

pretty fucking dope!!!
buncha words & it’s on

small carbon footprint
to boot. o poem, if only

he loved you like i do
stellarstone, pebblecomet

white dwarf boulder man
rockstar rockstar rockstar

what’d lunch ever do to you
let’s forget to get together


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