"At 96, Poet and Beat Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti Isn't Done Yet" (NPR Books, 2015)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti lives in a modest second-story walk-up in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. Hanging on his walls are his doctorate from the Sorbonne, an unframed Paul Gaugin print and posters of celebrated poetry readings dating back to the days when he personified a hip, literate and rebellious San Francisco. Not that he's nostalgic.
"Everything was better than it is when you're old," he says.
Sixty years ago, Ferlinghetti, now 96, was the principal publisher of an iconoclastic band of writers and poets known as the Beat Generation. Today, he's still co-owner of City Lights, one of the most celebrated independent book stores in America. These are quieter days for the internationally acclaimed poet and painter. His eyes are going, but his mind and humor are sharp. And while he may have slowed down some, he's still publishing three books this year.
Ferlinghetti is generous with his time, and he greets this reporter's visit with a surprise. "I see you've got those reporter's notebooks," he says. "I wrote a whole novel here in these reporter's notebooks — 78 of them there." (We'll get to back to his unfinished novel a bit later.)
From his desk window, Ferlinghetti surveys his North Beach neighborhood, which he says is changing just like the rest of San Francisco. Take for example his favorite neighborhood coffee shop, where he says no one talks to anyone else anymore because they're all staring at a screen. "Yesterday morning I was walking down there and a guy passed me. I said, 'Good morning;' he didn't even look at me. He just went right on past," he recalls with a laugh.
(Read more at link above, includes full audio)
"At 95, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Recounts More Than Six Decades of Life in San Francisco" (KQED News, 2015)
The first time I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti was unforgettable: It was early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and Elizabeth Farnsworth and I were working on a story about him for the PBS NewsHour.
As surreal news trickled in of planes crashing in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the crew and I continued to set up the lights and cameras while Ferlinghetti floated in and out of the room, offering stoic yet witty commentary.
Shortly after that morning, he composed "History of the Airplane," a prose piece inspired by the attacks. Here's an excerpt:
So, when KQED conceived of its Boomtown series, which seeks to put the Bay Area's current boom-and-bust cycle in context, I thought who better to turn to than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to reflect on the changes that gentrification and technology have made in his beloved city.
Ever since the iconic poet, painter and publisher helped spark a literary renaissance in the 1950s with the "Beat" movement, Ferlinghetti has served as a conscience for San Franciscans, especially when times are tough.
When Ferlinghetti arrived in the city in 1951 from New York, he settled into a $65/month apartment in the Italian working-class neighborhood of North Beach. That was the beginning of his journey to put San Francisco on the world's countercultural map by publishing the work of beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
With $29/month rent for a massive art studio, "it seemed as ideal as any city could be for an artist or writer … a city small enough for human conviviality and large enough for intense creative ferment, with a metropolitan sensibility," he wrote in a 2001 prose piece titled “The Poetic City That Was.”
(Read more at link above, includes video)
"Lawrence Ferlinghetti" (Interview Magazine, 2013)
Our heroes tend not to own stores. But there is an exception—poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who I've always imagined standing a bit like George Washington in the famous painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, crossing the Delaware. Except Ferlinghetti would be on a boat in the San Francisco Bay instead of an eastern river, and instead of Revolutionary War soldiers along with him, there would be all of the revolutionary writers and poets—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Frank O'Hara, among them—who he has helped in his career as founder and publisher of San Francisco's City Lights bookstore and press.
City Lights, which opened in 1953, still remains in its original North Beach corner building and has become the literary equivalent of the Four Corners Monument—a landmark where visitors can stand so as to be in many different states all at once. City Lights is where Ferlinghetti began his Pocket Poets Series, which included the brave choice of publishing Ginsberg's "Howl," and the equally brave nonchoice of facing obscenity charges in a case that went to trial in 1957 (Ferlinghetti was found not guilty and the bellwether verdict has proved instrumental in the continuing First Amendment protection of artistic freedom).
Ferlinghetti has also been, in different periods, a World War II Navy man, a Fidelista, a Sandinista, a Zapatista, an antiwar activist, an environmentalist, a translator, and an expressionist painter (a passion that takes up much of his time). But at age 93, and still a die-hard San Franciscan, the man is foremost a poet. His 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best-selling books of poetry in America (only in the genre of poetry is an ultimate best seller also an aesthetic masterpiece), and his 1979 poem "Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes" is, in my mind, the single best poem dealing with the American class struggle. All of the nation's dreams and frustrations reside in that poem, tossed in those seductive, straightforward lines: "And both scavengers gazing down / as from a great distance / at the cool couple / as if they were watching some odorless TV ad / in which everything is always possible." The poem ends on "the high seas of this democracy," and Ferlinghetti has never stopped steering his boat right through those storm-driven waves. His latest collection, Time of Useful Consciousness (New Directions), came out in October, a sequel to his earlier book, Americus, from 2004. Ferlinghetti refers to Ginsberg as "the Whitman of our age," but Time of Useful Consciousness has that epic, galvanizing, country-hopping voice of a latter-day Good Gray as Ferlinghetti recreates the pioneer spirit of racing west for gold, for freedom, for art, for land, for the hell of it, for life—as well as all the messy stops along the way. He evokes many of his Beat conspirators, but there is a larger elegy in these caffeinated verses, a sense of a certain loss of the spirited American animal that Ferlinghetti so admires, and a maniacal, self-interested, climate-killing new republic that doesn't seem deserving of the characters who brought it burning to life.
Last August, in a small café in North Beach, I met Ferlinghetti for coffee. He looked nothing like George Washington, and nowhere near 93. (Is a life of poetry the secret to staying young forever?) Ferlinghetti has a busy season ahead (subsequent to this interview, I learned that a full-length documentary called Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is being released by First Run Features in February). But, like all great poets, he's thinking far beyond the next few months. He will always be, for me, one of our great national poets, and he is, to quote from his latest work, "the one who bears the great tradition / And breaks it."
(click link above to view the interview)
"Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Indelible Image" (San Francisco Chronicle, 2012)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in his early 30s when he wrote a poem of hope and innocence about a penny candy store in New York and the magic to be found in jellybeans and licorice sticks, about the evanescence of a rainy September afternoon.
Sixty years later, Ferlinghetti has written a new book-length poem, "Time of Useful Consciousness," where "technocracy" dominates the heart, where corporations rule the people, where man is greedy and badly educated, and Walt Whitman's optimism is needed - as time is running out.
Since the 1950s, Ferlinghetti has been a San Francisco institution. He opened City Lights in North Beach, a renowned bookstore that attracts visitors from across the world. He stood behind the publication of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," an act of daring that changed the course of publishing in America. He penned dozens of books, published breakthrough works - including the Beat writers, who insisted on oral incantations - and became San Francisco's first poet laureate and its most lyrical town crier.
(click link above to read interview)
Aside from being one of the most famous living poets in the United States, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is an erudite publisher, a recognized painter, and lately, he's a little ticked off at the world. Who can blame him? Fifty years ago he wrote: "I am waiting/ for the American Eagle/ to really spread its wings/ and straighten up and fly right." Decades later he’s still waiting; it seems no one has heeded his calls for change. With a massive ecological disaster, two costly wars, and an economic depression, he might rightly say I told you so. But who would listen? Poetry hardly draws the audiences that it once did, much less the national poetry tours that Ferlinghetti speaks of.
The ninety-one-year-old began writing poetry and painting sixty years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. He founded one of the oldest and most prestigious independent publishing houses in the United States, City Lights Books, that famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. A friend to Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, he is often considered the father of the Beats. But he is more than a bookworm. Ferlinghetti was in Nagasaki shortly after it had been obliterated; he was arrested for publishing Howl; he was an American advocate for the Sandinistas and later the Zapatistas. From surrealism, to abstract expressionism, to fluxus, to eco-poetry, Ferlinghetti was there. He was the man, and he suffered, somewhat. Perhaps that’s why he has never been afraid to shake things up, and—as evidenced in this interview—he still isn’t. In fact he made me promise that the political content of our conversation wouldn’t be edited out, something that apparently has happened to him before.
Which leads me to the side of Ferlinghetti that shows in his bibliography, but hardly comes up in his biography: he’s a Hispanophile. He reads and speaks Spanish (despite his modest denials of speaking it). Like the protagonists of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives he bounced around Latin America in pursuit of poetry, justice, and truth. I wanted to find out more about this side of Mr. Ferlinghetti’s past, as well as his views on the state of politics and poetry today. We spoke by phone between Colombia and San Francisco, and the following is a record of our talk from two different ends of what we might agree is a dying world.
(click link above to read interview)
"Legendary Beat Generation Bookseller and Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books on the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl" and Poetry as Insurgent Art" (Democracy Now!, 2007)
(video interview, click link above to view)
Fifty years ago this year, Viking Press published Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Today we will talk with City Lights Books’ publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In 1953, Ferlinghetti co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. Two years later he launched the City Lights publishing house. Both institutions are still running half of a century later.
Fifty years ago this week, Viking Press published Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The book was an immediate hit and remains one of the key works of the Beat Generation.
On the Road was a fictionalized account of Kerouac’s travels across the country in the late 1940s. He originally wrote the book over a three-week stretch in the early 1950s. Kerouac typed it on a scroll single-spaced with no margins or paragraph breaks.As the literary world marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road, we spend the hour today with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a leading literary figure of the Beat Generation. He is part poet, bookseller, book publisher and activist.
In 1953, with Peter Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. Two years later he launched the City Lights publishing house. Both institutions are still running half of a century later.
City Lights might be best known as the publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem "Howl." It revolutionized American poetry and American consciousness. But it also led to Ferlinghetti and his publishing partner being arrested and put on trial for obscenity.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a poet himself. His 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind has sold over a million copies, and he is a former poet laureate of San Francisco.
At the age of eighty-eight, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still going strong. He continues to write poetry and run City Lights. I met up with him recently in San Francisco. He gave me a brief tour of the City Lights bookstore.
"Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The Poet Who Paints," (KQED's Spark, 2007)
(video feature, click link above to view)
Over the past six decades, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has established himself as one of the most renowned poets and publishers in the world. A founder of City Lights Books and a noted Beat writer, he is commonly considered one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. But Ferlinghetti has been painting for almost as long as he has been writing. Spark visits Ferlinghetti in his studio as he prepares a series of works for a show at San Francisco's George Krevsky Gallery.
Ferlinghetti first took up painting in 1948 while living in Paris on the G.I. Bill, at a time when French artists were heavily influenced by Spanish surrealism in general and the work of Pablo Picasso in particular. Like many American painters at the time, Ferlinghetti interpreted these influences to produce abstract expressionist works. But the artist quickly became dissatisfied with nonobjective painting, abandoning it in favor of works that incorporated both figuration and the written word.
Now in his late 80s, Ferlinghetti still paints fervently, and most mornings he can be found working in the Hunter's Point Shipyard studio that he has kept since 1979. All the paintings that he is preparing for his show at the Krevsky Gallery combine provocative, sometimes mystical imagery with written words: some of his own, others from canonical wordsmiths such as Blake and Eliot.
Though he began painting early in his career, Ferlinghetti didn't exhibit his work until the 1980s, after George Krevsky himself approached the poet following a reading. Krevsky complimented Ferlinghetti highly on his writing, and the poet/artist responded that the gallery owner should see his paintings. Krevsky's visit to Ferlinghetti's studio began a relationship that has lasted more than 20 years.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. Returning to New York, Ferlinghetti earned a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from the Sorbonne, in Paris. While living in France, he met the influential poet Kenneth Roxroth, who encouraged Ferlinghetti to move to San Francisco, where he eventually came to be known as one of the founders of the Beat movement. In 1953, Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights bookstore with Peter D. Martin; the publishing house was founded two years later, in 1955. Ferlinghetti has since published more than 25 books of poetry and has won numerous literary awards.
Lawrence's Acceptance Speech For the National Book Awards 2005
San Francisco has appointed Lawrence Ferlinghetti the city's first Poet Laureate. The following is the text of his inaugural address delivered at the San Francisco Public Library on Tuesday, October 13th, 1998