COLUMN FORTY-FOUR, APRIL 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
The New King of Poetry Turns 80: From Reykjavik to San Francisco and Beyond
(Photo Courtesy Myles Aronowitz)
[Ron Whitehead has studied, published, read with, worked with, and written about Lawrence Ferlinghetti for several years. Ron's new CD, From Louisville To Reykjavik & Beyond, with his new group, Voices Without Restraint, will be released by Iceland's Bad Taste Label in June. His next book, Gimme Back My Wig: The Hound Dog Taylor Blues, will be released from Ireland's ITaLiCs Press in July. He will be touring the USA and Europe with Voices Without Restraint in '99 and 2000. When not traveling he lives in Kentucky and Iceland.]
In 1953 Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded the first paperback bookstore in the United States. In four and a half decades City Lights, the bookstore and publisher, has become mecca for millions, for the world's alternative voices.
Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island Of The Mind (1958) is the number one best selling volume of poetry by any living Amerikan poet. On March 24, 1999 the reluctant New King Of Poetry turns 80. Poet-Writer-Editor-Publisher-Scholar-Organizer Ron Whitehead is writing a new biography of Ferlinghetti. Ron's recent conversation with the private Ferlinghetti took place from Reykjavik to San Francisco.
Ron Whitehead: Lawrence I asked you in a letter if you are interested in either A Coney Island Of The Mind or A Far Rockaway Of The Heart being translated into Old Norse, into Icelandic, and being published here in Iceland in a cooperative project by Bad Taste/Smekkleysa, the main record label, and Bjartur, the main independent publisher.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Of course.
RW: Okay. I'll continue to pursue that. I've already spoken with folks here and they are interested. I'll tell them you said "okay" and I'll open the doors for them to write you and communicate directly with you about it. I'm doing the same for Lee Ranaldo and his new book, The Moroccan Journals.
RW: I love A Far Rockaway Of The Heart and consider it to be not only one of your best works but a masterpiece of 20th Century poetry.
LF: Well obviously you're a genius critic.
RW: (laughter from both.) I am, I am! (more laughter.) What are you doing now? I know you're continuing to write and paint.
LF: I'm not doing anything at the moment except lying on the bed.
RW: Okay (more laughter), do you have any new book releases planned?
LF: Well no. A Far Rockaway has just been out a year. But I now have enough poems for two books. But New Directions is saying they can't publish that fast. They want maybe one next year. One is a book called The Divine Butcher, poems that were spoiled by humor. In other words, humor destroys sublimity in poetry. I'm getting the title from Gregory Corso who said "humor is the divine butcher." He said you can't have a sublime poem if you use a lot of humor.
RW: I don't know if I agree with that.
LF: Well I have some pretty ludicrous poems. I have a serious poem and then I put in this ludicrous image which completely destroys it but it's fun. For the other book I have between thirty and forty poems of non-humorous poems. Well with the usual humor but nothing too devastating.
RW: I've been listening to Allen Ginsberg's Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems And Songs 1949-1993. Have you been talking with anyone about a possible CD release?
LF: This Saturday I'm going to be recording for Ryko in Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope Studios which is just a block from the City Lights Bookstore.
RW: Fantastic. Just down the hill.
LF: Yes. The producer is Jim Sampas, Jim Sampas of the Sampas family and the Kerouac Estate.
RW: Yes I've met Jim.
LF: Jim is in his mid 20s I guess. He's a musician. He's coming out Saturday. We're going to record all of A Coney Island Of The Mind.
RW: Wonderful! That's good news!
LF: He's got musicians back east he'll have on separate tracks. He's gonna blend their music with my voice tracks.
RW: I guess David Amram's going to be on some of the tracks?
LF: No Jim and Ryko have their own musicians or group that they insisted on. I hope to do something with David Amram sooner or later.
RW: I hope so, too. I'm reading an amazing 83-page text David wrote and sent to Sterling Lord and me titled This Song's For You Jack: Collaborating With Kerouac. I've had the opportunity to read with David several times and he's a wonderful person and an incredible musician.
LF: Yes he is.
RW: You mentioned to me previously that you're working on an autobiography. How's that coming along?
LF: I've given that up for the time being. I've found that it only comes out like Samuel Beckett.
RW: (laughter) So it'll be a short autobiography.
LF: Well, rather.
RW: Part of the problem is that you've done so much.
LF: Baffling and ambiguous is the way I see it.
RW: It would have to be thousands of pages long. We've discussed the possibility of me writing a new Lawrence Ferlinghetti biography.
LF: Yeah I know. I wish you'd do it.
RW: Good. I was hoping you'd say that.
LF: But you're on the wrong end of the world there in Iceland.
RW: But I'll be in San Francisco soon. And North Carolina and New York City and France and Italy. I'm getting back on track on the biography. I'll do it. I've already started.
LF: You better hurry up. I'm 80 years old (laughter from both).
RW: I know. But you're as healthy as ever.
LF: Well I work out all the time.
RW: Yeah anybody who sees your photos can tell that. Do you swim every day?
LF: I'm going to the gym in just a few minutes.
RW: In '99 and 2000 I'll be working with folks in The Netherlands, Ireland and Iceland to produce events. What are your travel plans? I want to invite you to those events.
LF: Since I got appointed Poet Laureate of San Francisco I'm getting invited to too many places.
LF: I'm receiving invitations in all directions. At the moment I can go to Brazil, Argentina, Columbia, Cuba, France, Italy, Czech Republic. I can't go in all these directions at once. I went to Prague and they want me to come back and have a big art exhibition this spring but I can't. There's so much happening now I have to be here. I'm writing a regular column for The San Francisco Chronicle called Poetry as News. So I have to be here. I may go to Italy in June and if I do I may go to Prague too but I don't think so. Not this year.
RW: I know you went to Prague last year for the Art Forum Exhibition. They celebrated you, your life, your work.
LF: They built a complete replica of the outside of City Lights Bookstore at their Festival. It was extraordinary. And there was a 72-hour non-stop INSOMNIACATHON reading of my poetry by every poet in town. It was held in a big church in the old town. They had an exhibition of your work and The Literary Renaissance right next to the City Lights Exhibit. Have you been to Prague?
RW: They invited me to the same event but I couldn't make it due to a prior commitment.
LF: You should go! It's fantastic!
RW: Yes. They kept all my work for their archives. I received a long letter afterwards from Karel.
LF: Yes Karel Srp. He's a great guy.
RW: He told me about how the public responded to you. He said it was like a rock concert. When they opened the doors to the Exhibition thousands of people came running straight to your table. He said you signed books all day and way into the night.
LF: I wrote a poem called Rivers of Light in the middle of the night and by God it was published the next day on the front page of the main daily paper. And it was published translated into the Czech language. That would never happen in the United States.
RW: That's amazing.
LF: It's a long poem. About two pages. So it was fantastic. The town is the most interesting city I've been in for many years. It's medieval yet it's like Paris yet it's like Florence. The castle, Kafka's castle, was the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and you really feel it when you go there. That's where President Havel's offices are.
RW: I understand that President Havel was recovering from surgery when you were there but he called and had his limo pick you up and take you to the castle and had his military guard give a multi-gun salute to the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Shifting gears a little let's head south and talk about City Lights Italia. I know it took you years, after many requests, to give the okay for a City Lights to be opened in Europe. You finally gave Marco Cassini approval to open City Lights Italia in Florence, Italy.
LF: The first person who had the idea was Antonio Bertoli, the Director of the avante-garde theatre in Florence, Theatre Studio Scandicci. He and Marco Cassini started City Lights Italia together. There's no financial connection. They came to San Francisco. I had stayed with Antonio in Florence when I performed in his theatre. I ended up staying with him in his farmhouse in the hills above Florence and we got to be really good friends. And Marco was a small publisher in Rome.
RW: Minimum Fax Press.
LF: Yes. Now he's becoming a big publisher and he split up with Antonio. They don't see eye to eye. Like the difference between Florence and Rome. Like the difference between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Marco is very ambitious. He wants to be a big publisher. He's much more commercially minded. Antonio is a theatre director and is not at all interested in commercial ambition. In fact at the City Lights Italia Bookstore in Florence they publish books, separate from Marco, under the imprint of City Lights Italia and no matter what the size of the book they charge the same amount for it. A big thick book, say 200 pages, they charge 1,500 lira. That's a little less than a dollar. If the book is 48 pages they still charge 1,500 lira. So obviously they're going broke. They publish a lot of avant-garde Italian authors and they also publish many City Lights San Francisco authors in translation. City Lights Italia is a great cultural center. There's nothing like it in Florence or in Italy. Most of it is still back in The Renaissance. At the moment it's more of a cultural center than a bookstore cause they don't have the money to get enough books. But it is also a bookstore. It's a great meeting place. They have many wonderful events there. They've been going two and a half years now. Any time you want to read there let me know.
RW: That sounds good. I may go there in the fall.
LF: Well this year they're having a festival in I think early July. Do you have their address?
RW: So I should put letter to the attention of Antonio?
LF: Antonio Bertoli, City Lights Italia, Via San Niccolo, Florence. It's right in the center of town.
RW: What are the plans for City Lights San Francisco? I know you still take an active editorial role. I remember visiting when you were editing the new City Lights Anthology. You spend at least a couple hours each day there. Is Nancy Peters. . ."
LF: She's the Managing Director.
RW: She's running the show?
LF: Yes. We're becoming a Foundation. We're going to be The City Lights Non-Profit Foundation. We're trying to buy the building by establishing the foundation and thereby enabling donors to buy the building for us. We've been tenants all these years.
RW: It's a historic site for people round the world.
LF: It's an old building and the owners are very old and they're ready to sell it so we're starting this foundation right now. It's happening this week.
RW: You expressed concern, and I mention this in my poem San Francisco May 1993, about the influx of Chinese money from Hong Kong buying out the Italians in North Beach.
LF: No I wasn't expressing concern. It was just a statement of fact.
RW: Considering that San Francisco has grown so much do you still like living there? Have you thought about moving?
LF: No the population hasn't grown. There's no room for expansion. The population in the city is still only about 750,000 but it's the outskirts, the suburbs and the outlying territory, that make it up to 3 million and that's what has grown. But the Asian population is 40% of San Francisco now. And another 30% is Hispanic. So the whites are a minority.
RW: That's interesting.
LF: Yes it's a Third World City. And our part of town, North Beach, which used to be solid Italian, is now two thirds Asian all the way to The Bay. But no I'm not going to move.
RW: You had been talking about buying a house. Are you still considering that?
LF: Yes but I can't possibly afford one here.
RW: I've read that San Francisco is the most expensive city in The States.
LF: Yes it is. You can't get a two bedroom house for under five or six hundred thousand.
RW: Wow! I'll just continue visiting San Francisco. Let's see, I made $2,400 last year. Yes it's definitely out of my price range.
LF: Yes it's impossible.
RW: I've had the opportunity, which I enjoyed thoroughly, of meeting your son Lorenzo but I haven't met your daughter Julie.
LF: She's in Nashville, Tennessee now.
RW: That's what i remember you saying. Do your children have children?
LF: Julie has a three year old boy, Jonathan. And Lorenzo's wife had a boy a year ago. His name is Leonardo, Leonardo Ferlinghetti. He's a year old.
RW: Do you get to visit your kids and your grandkids often?
LF: Yes. They were here for Christmas. And I go out to Bolinas, where Lorenzo lives, all the time. It's just an hour from here.
RW: John Tytell and I worked for over a year to get you nominated for the Nobel. It's my understanding that once you're nominated you stay in the pool of candidates indefinitely.
LF: Well they must have thousands of names.
RW: I don't know about that. You and Allen Ginsberg worked together for decades. In the eyes of thousands, perhaps millions, you and Allen were are The Kings of Poetry. I heard you say that Allen deserved to receive the Nobel and to be Poet Laureate of the USA.
LF: It's shocking that Allen never got recognized, that he never received a Pulitzer Prize in this country, and that he was never invited to be the Poet of The Library of Congress which is now called Poet Laureate. I think they were afraid of him. It's shocking that the poet who changed the poetic consciousness of several generations of writers, not just in the United States but round the globe, was never officially recognized for his life and his work. Go to Prague, Czech Republic and Italy and Germany and numerous other countries and cities all over the world and see what a huge difference he made.
RW: In the consciousness of the people.
LF: Especially among the poets.
RW: Well do you have anything to say about being nominated for the Nobel or is that something you'd rather not talk about?
LF: I was flabbergasted when John Tytell wrote me that you guys were nominating me . I figure that's pie in the sky.
RW: You never know. My feeling is that if anyone in the world deserves the Nobel for lifetime achievements for their poetry and for the work they've done for poetry round the world that person is you.
LF: I agree with you.
RW: Good. Good.
RW: (much laughter from both) I'm glad to hear that (laughter continues)! Chris Felver's new book of photographs of you is beautiful. I've already shown it to many people.
LF: Do you have a copy in Iceland?
RW: Not right in front of me. I loaned it to the Reykjavik Arts Council. I get it back Monday before my lecture on "The Beat Generation & The Process of Writing" at the University of Iceland. Chris is sending me a copy of his documentary film, The Coney Island Of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which Iceland's National Television is going to play. How do you feel about Chris' new book, a book full of remarkable photographs of you?
LF: Well I wrote an introduction to the book. Chris and I have been working together for thirty years. He believes in cinema verite. There are pictures in the book I'm not crazy about but he won't take them out (laughter from both). Same with his film, the documentary on me. It's cinema verite. There are no comments or voice over by himself. Just what the camera eye sees. And then I'm speaking too.
RW: The documentary is beautiful. The book and the documentary show sides of you that the public has never seen. A private, vulnerable, fun loving zen surrealist anarchist poet, a real human being. They are both so honest. Both engage the heart in an emotional way. I really like working with Chris. I respect and admire his work.
LF: Did you get a copy of my Poet Laureate speech?
RW: No I didn't.
LF: It's in the last issue of POETRY FLASH. It's also on the City Lights website at www.citylights.com.
RW: I'll check that out. You've become computerized.
LF: Also the articles I'm writing for the San Francisco Chronicle will be on our website. I've written two columns so far under the title Poetry as News. The first column was on Sappho. The second one was on Kapafy. The third column, which I just wrote, is on Bertolt Brecht.
RW: Of those gone from your life who do you miss most?
LF: Everybody seems to be gone or going. People are croaking right and left. It's terrible! At my age there ain't so many left, including a lot of old girlfriends (laughter from both). They're getting picked off either by some other guy or by Mr. Death himself, the Dead Man in The Sky, The Guy With The Big Sickle. Watch out for Him. One member of The Beats is still left, and he's greater than any of them, and that's Gregory Corso. He's really The Avatar of Pure Poetry, of Pure American Lingo. Ain't nothing like Gregory. He's never derivative of anybody. Gregory is The Greatest! I became associated with The Beats by publishing them. I was not a member of the original group. I'm seven years older than Allen. The other person who is much ignored and underappreciated is Ed Sanders. Ed Sanders is a great poet. He's also a brilliant journalist. He's publishing the Woodstock Journal out of Woodstock, New York. It's a wonderful small town newspaper. Ed Sanders is very educated. He's a great wit. He's like Mark Twain. He even looks like Mark Twain. He wears white suits and he's got the Mark Twain moustache. He's really great yet greatly underestimated and ignored. Those two guys are really all that's left of The Beat Generation. Anne Waldman, who founded The Naropa Institute with Allen, is going strong but she's the younger generation really. And you're a little younger still but you're working to carry the flame forward.
RW: I consider you to be a mentor. How do you feel about the role of mentorship in human relations?
LF: (laughter) Don't follow my advice. I got divorced when I was 40 or so and I'm sorry to hear you're doing the same. Don't' follow my example.
RW: A couple more questions. How many hours do you usually sleep?
LF: Oh I've been sleeping a lot lately. I sleep eight hours.
RW: Lawrence I hope this is the beginning of many more interviews as I turn my attention to your biography.
LF: Yes, I wish you'd get to it.
RW: I will. I'll stay in touch and will let you know about the translation of your work into Icelandic. I'm sure there will be celebrations in San Francisco for your 80th Birthday.
LF: I'm going to ignore it.
RW: Ignore the big number 80?
LF: Yes ignore the big number 80. Maybe my family will have a little something.
RW: Well, Happy 80th Birthday Lawrence!
LF: Thanks! Good Luck! ##
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