New Directions has published some of America’s most renowned writers while forging lasting connections with other major literary institutions. On June 3, the New York City press will join with one of its closest partners, San Francisco's City Lights Booksellers, in the first of three celebratory events to honor the 85th year of its founding.
The virtual event will feature a slate of poets including Will Alexander, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Susan Howe, Sylvia Legris, Nathaniel Mackey, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Tarn, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Eliot Weinberger. Pulitzer Prize recipient Forrest Gander will head up the event, with staff from City Lights and New Directions jumping in to share stories of the ties between the two literary institutions.
New Directions editor and publicity co-director Mieke Chew said the event will “honor seminal New Directions poets and the way their work has influenced and shaped poets in the years that have followed. It has been programmed as a kind of literary seance, with the current generation of poets and writers—some who have been publishing with ND for 25 years, others, like Sylvia Legris, who are about to publish their second book—reading a poet who is close to their heart.”
One of those seminal poets was City Lights cofounder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who passed away earlier this year at age 101. Ferlinghetti’s books were published almost entirely by New Directions. A Coney Island of the Mind was the first of them, and has sold more than a million copies since it was published in 1958.
But Ferlinghetti’s books are only one part of a deeper connection between Ferlinghetti and New Directions cofounder James Laughlin. The two had a shared vision of America’s landscape of letters and were deliberate about charting a course together, said Peter Maravelis, events director at City Lights.
Maravelis sees the June 3 event through the lens of that connection. “When James Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and [Grove Press publisher] Barney Rosset met back in the early '80’s at City Lights Bookstore to herald a new era in the life of City Lights, those present understood the importance of that moment. In much the same way, as we now come together in this amazing display of poets and writers to celebrate the 85th anniversary of New Directions, it is easy to recognize the impact and influence New Directions has had on the world of letters,” Maravelis said.
Two more events will follow later this year, each celebrating and envisioning different aspects of the publisher’s past, present, and future. Chew is hopeful that at least one of them will be able to be held in person, in no small part because the success of the publishing house has been rooted in personal connections from the day it was founded by Laughlin in a Harvard dorm room in 1936 at the urging of Ezra Pound.
For City Lights head buyer Paul Yamazaki, those connections are what make the June 3 event so meaningful. “Personally this is one of the most significant celebrations that I can imagine,” Yamazaki said. “It is impossible to imagine City Lights without New Directions. As long as there is a New Directions there will be a City Lights.”