"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)


 

"The Wrong Side: Jesse Tangen-Mills interviews Lawrence Ferlinghetti" (Guernica, 2010)

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

POETRY & CITY CULTURE

I certainly was surprised to be named Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the Mayor, "How could I refuse?" I'd rather be Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world.

But we are in danger of losing it. In fact, we are in danger of losing much more than that. All that made this City so unique in the first place seems to be going down the tube at an alarming rate.

This week's Bay Guardian has the results of a survey that "reveals a city undergoing a radical transformation -- from a diverse metropolis that welcomed immigrants and refugees from around the world to a homogeneous, wealthy enclave."

The gap between the rich and the poor in San Francisco increased more than forty percent in just two years recently. "San Francisco may soon become the first fully gentrified city in America, the urban equivalent of a gated bedroom community", says Daniel Zoll in the Guardian. "Now it's becoming almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city -- people who have been the heart and soul of the city for decades -- from the fishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others -- to exist here anymore. And when you've lost that part of the city, you've lost San Francisco."

And Richard Walker, head of geography at UC Berkeley has said, "It means a one-dimensional city, a more conservative city -- one that will no longer be a fount of social innovation and rebellion from below. Just another American city, a corporate city -- a fate it has resisted for generations."

When I arrived in the City in l950, I came overland by train and took ferry from the Oakland mole to the Ferry Building. And San Francisco looked like some Mediterranean port -- a small white city, with mostly white buildings -- a little like Tunis seen from seaward. I thought perhaps it was Atlantis, risen from the sea. I certainly saw North Beach especially as a poetic place, as poetic as some quartiers in Paris,as any place in old Europa, as poetic as any place great poets and painters had found inspiration. And this was the first poem I wrote here...a North Beach scene:

Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
among the charley noble chimneypots
of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines
a woman pastes up sails
upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
with wooden pins
O lovely mammal
her nearly naked breasts
throw taut shadows
as she stretches up
to hang at last the last of her
so white washed sins
but it is wetly amorous
and winds itself about her
clinging to her skin
So caught with arms upraised
she tosses back her head
in voiceless laughter
and in choiceless gesture then
shakes out gold hair
while in the reachless seascape spaces
between the blown white shrouds
stand out the bright steamers
to kingdom come

But this past weekend North Beach looked like a theme-park, literally overrun by tourists, and kitsch was king.

What happened to it? What makes for a free poetic life? What destroys the poetry of a city?

Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don't have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero! And in San Francisco right now we have another chance to stop Autogeddon from happening here. Just a few blocks from here, the ugly Central Freeway can be brought down for good if you vote for Proposition E on the November ballot.

And for another destroyer of poetry and peace, how about those killing machines, the Navy's Blue Angels, who have just carried out their annual attack on the City? But the poetic life requires Peace not War. The poetic life of the City, our subjective life, the subjective life of the individual is constantly under attack by all the forces of materialist civilization, by all the forces of our military-industrial perplex, and we don't need these warplanes designed to kill and ludicrously misnamed the Blue Angels. They dive upon our city every year, in an frightening militarist and nationalist display of pure male testosterone. I've seen old Vietnam ladies in Washington Square diving under the benches! Do we really need to be reminded yearly how our planes have bombed Third World countries back to the Stone Age? In San Francisco, of all places, do we really need "bombs bursting in air to prove that our flag is still there"? What would Saint Francis say? Perhaps the City could disinvite them next year.

I could go on until I'm singing to your snores, but I'll mention just one more destroyer: Chain stores, or chain gangs. Corporate chainstores wipe out long-established independents, killing off local color, local traditions, and -- in the case of bookstores -- literary history. I've been to other great cities on poetry tours and found not a single independent bookstore left in neighborhoods where chain gangs have moved in. It's an old story by now, but it's time to revise a lot of old stories! If so much of this City's population doesn't want chain stores, as the Bay Guardian suggests, why can't the City government take a united stand against them? ......But to get to the positive side of things, I have quite a wish-list for the City. I've proposed that North Beach, with its long literary history including Mark Twain, Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, William Saroyan, and many others including Beat writers, be officially protected as a "historic district", in the manner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and thus shielded from commercial destruction such as was suffered by the classic old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid. I do hope someone will pick up this ball and run with it.

And I've already proposed that a small wooden house on Treasure Island or in the Presidio be made a Poet's Cottage where future laureates might live or work and conduct poetry events or even an annual city poetry festival. The Mayor and the important journal Poetry Flash are already behind it, so I hope it will happen...

And since we are in the Main Library, let's remember that the center of literate culture in cities has always centered in the great libraries as well as in the great independent bookstores. This Library should have l0 million dollars a year to spend on books, more than twice as much as presently allotted. It also needs more space, since evidently this new state-of-the-computer postmodern masterpiece doesn't have as much shelf space as the Old Library next door -- that classical Carnegie-style library with its great turn-of the-century murals -- and I believe the people made a great mistake in passing the Proposition to remove the building from the library system. It might not be too late to reclaim it as a Library Annex, even though the Proposition to get rid of it has already been partially implemented. All it would take is another Proposition on the ballot to retrieve it, just as the Central Freeway Proposition may soon very well succeed in reversing an earlier misguided vote.

Other outrageous things on my wish-list include: One -- give bicycles and pedestrians absolute priority over automobiles, and close much of the original inner city to cars, including Upper Grant Avenue. Two -- make the City a center for low-power alternative radio and TV, with tax breaks for the broadcasters. Three -- uncover our city's creeks and rivers again and open up the riparian corridors to the Bay. Five -- Paint the Golden Gate Bridge golden. Six -- tilt Coit Tower -- think what it did for Pisa!

And speaking of the literary culture of the city, I'd like to announce that City Lights is just now attempting to create a non-profit foundation so that City Lights may continue through the next century as a literary center and poetic presence in the City. For such a foundation, we need help. Philanthropic literary angels are invited to descend upon us!

lI.

"Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed -- up too long
in your closed worlds....
No time now for the artist to hide
above, beyond, behind the scenes,
indifferent, paring his fingernails,
refining himself out of existence.
No time now for our little literary games,
for our paranoias and hypochondrias,
no time now for fear & loathing,
time now only for light & love.
We have seen the best minds of our generation
destroyed by boredom at poetry readings....etc.....etc....


What I had in mind in the l970s in this "Populist Manifesto" was for poets to stop mumbling in their beards to private audiences and say something important to the world. A few years ago I gave a talk in Michael McClure's class at the California College of Arts & Crafts, the title of which was "Why don't you paint something important?" (There was a graffitto on the wall that said "You're so minimal".) Anyway, it was an attempt to pry the artists, like the poets, out of the their hermetic worlds.

Parenthetically, I must say that my manifesto called forth such a cacaphony of bad poetry that some editors felt like chanting,"Poets, go back in your closets!"

The manifesto was a not very original Whitmanian call for a universal poetry, with what I call "public surface" -- a poetry with a very accessible commonsensual surface that can be understood by most everyone without a very literary education. But of course, if it was to rise above the level of journalism, it must have other subjective and/or subversive levels.

Well, I'm still on the same kick.

Most poets today still exist in a kind of poetry ghetto. They get pittances for published poems, compared to prose writers, even in mass media periodicals, if they manage to get in at all. And poetry readings don't begin to pay the rent for most.

What to do about it? How to get out of the poetry ghetto? The answer is obvious. Write poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that's news. And is it naive to think that even the mass media might print it or air it, if it were a new kind of news? Perhaps the poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they're saying just what our materialist, technofilliac world doesn't want to hear. And the messenger with the unwelcome message will continue to be killed?

I would like to propose a regular monthly column in a daily newspaper with the title "Poetry As News". It would begin with great poems of the past that still are news. I think right off of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":

Ah love let us be true
to one another!
For we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night...

......I think also of course of Whitman's "I Hear America Singing", of poems by Homer, Shakespeare, W.B.Yeats, Cavafy, Pablo Neruda,Marianne Moore, e.e.cummings, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich. I think of Bob Dylan's early songs and of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine", of "The Great Paramita Sutra", and perhaps of the latest rap poetry at the Newyorican Cafe on the Lower East Side. And I think of the French poet Jacques Prevert whom I translated when I was a student in France:

The Discourse on Peace

Near the end of an extremely important discourse
the great man of state
tumbling on a beautiful hollow phrase
falls over it
and undone with gaping mouth
shows his teeth
and the dental decay of his peaceful reasoning
exposes the nerve of war
the delicate question of money

Quartier Libre

I put my cap in the cage
and went out with the bird on my head
So
one no longer salutes
asked the commanding officer
No
one no longer salutes
replied the bird
Ah good
excuse me I thought one saluted
said the commanding officer
You are fully excused everybody makes mistakes
said the bird

Above and beyond all this, poetic intuition and the intuitions of great poetry still remain our best medium for fathoming man's fate. In this vein, here are some proposed subjects for poets to ponder:

Why is it dark at night, why is there darkness at night?
Is every orgasm a little death, or a little birth?
Is death male or female or neither?
La vida es sueno? Is life literally a dream? And, if so, when will we truly awake?