Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the old San Francisco, his new novel, and his first 100 years

The literary legend discusses the legacy of City Lights, anarchism, and the San Francisco that was with editor Ira Silverberg.

Perhaps no living American deserves the honorific “man of letters” more than Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Best known as a poet—his poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind, first published in 1958, has sold more than one million copies—Ferlinghetti is also a novelist, playwright, publisher, and bookseller. In 1956, he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems at City Lights Books, which was then, Ferlinghetti says, both a one-room bookshop and a “two-bit poetry press” in San Francisco. The ensuing trial for obscenity became a literary landmark when the California State Superior Court decided in Ferlinghetti’s favor, ruling that Howl “does have some redeeming social importance.” That decision also paved the way for a landmark of a different sort: In 2001, nearly 50 years after opening its doors, City Lights, the bookshop Howl made famous, was designated an official historic site by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In March, Doubleday will publish Ferlinghetti’s Beat-inflected third novel, Little Boy, on the occasion of the author’s 100th birthday. Though the little boy of the title is based on Ferlinghetti, and his biographical details bear more than a passing resemblance to Ferlinghetti’s own— dead father, absent mother, World War II service, studies at the Sorbonne—the author is quick to clarify that the boy is “an imaginary me.”

Recently, Ferlinghetti caught up by phone with Ira Silverberg, a fellow publishing polymath whose career has spanned several decades, multiple book imprints, and two literary agencies. Silverberg, now an editor at Simon & Schuster, was also a close friend of Ginsberg and continues to teach his work each year at the Columbia University School of the Arts MFA writing program.

Ira Silverberg—How are you? It’s been a number of years.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti—Well, there’s no blood running out.

Ira—Indeed. You know, I read something of yours today that I’d love to read back to you, if you’ll indulge me.

Lawrence—Yeah.

Ira—[“Pity the Nation” (After Khalil Gibran)]

‘Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars Whose sages are silenced

And whose bigots haunt the airwaves Pity the nation that raises not its voice Except to praise conquerors
And acclaim the bully as hero

And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed Pity the nation oh pity the people

who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!’

Lawrence—Where did you pick it up?

Ira—Oh, you know, the wonder of the internet is that one can find anything. It’s actually on the City Lights site. Hearing it today, I wonder how that feels in terms of where we’re at politically right now.

Lawrence—It’s right on.

Ira—I agree. I see you in the context of other poets who have been visionary, and I think specifically of Allen [Ginsberg] and the incredible role Howl had, not only for you and for City Lights, but in terms of opening up the culture. I wonder where you see visionaries in poetry.

Lawrence—Well, Allen was a true visionary. I am not.

Ira—And would you classify others you’ve published and worked with in the visionary category of poetry?

Lawrence—Well, we were always looking for visionary poets, but we didn’t find very many. [Laughs] From a crazy point of view, you could say that Charles Bukowski was visionary. He saw the world through alcoholic glasses.

“That’s what happens when you get really old: You end up as a gibbering baby. It’s a total fallacy that in old age people are wiser.”

Ira—Right. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about poets moving into prose. You wrote a surrealist novel in 1960 called Her.

Lawrence—Yes.

Ira—And now, almost 60 years later, you have another novel coming out called Little Boy. I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about that novel.

Lawrence—Well, it’s coming out for my 100th birthday.

Ira—In March. Yes.

Lawrence—Right. The little boy is an imaginary me, as in the case of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Ira—What was it that got you thinking about going back to childhood at this point in your life?

Lawrence—Well, it’s actually going forward to my childhood. That’s what happens when you get really old: You end up as a gibbering baby. It’s a total fallacy that in old age people are wiser. They’re not. Generally, they’re stupider.

Ira—The impulse to return to childhood—I wonder what that was. You link it to old age. Is there something about the cycle of life and death that brought you back to very early years? Maybe you can tell me a little bit of the backstory of the novel.

Lawrence—I’ve been working on it for years and years. It’s gone through various other titles. Parts of it I wrote 20 years ago. But it has to stand by itself, and everything I say would detract from a pure judgment of it.

Ira—All right. What was the impulse to write Her when you were a much younger man?

Lawrence—The raised phallus. [Laughs]

Ira—So that was your sex novel?

Lawrence—Well, yeah. You could say so.

Ira—If Her was the sex novel, then what is Little Boy?

Lawrence—Well, I can’t put it in any category. In fact, I think that’s why the publisher decided to publish it, because he couldn’t pigeonhole it in any of the regular pigeonholes.

Ira—I’ve noticed a lot of poets turning to prose these days—the Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo, Claudia Rankine, Cathy [Park] Hong. I’m curious about your moves from poetry to prose and back, and what it is that inspires someone to move from one form to the next.

Lawrence—I never think of it in those terms. I’m just writing. If the line is broken up, you could call it a poem— otherwise, by the typography. It’s all poetry.

Ira—That’s beautiful. As the last man standing of the so-dubbed Beat Generation, I wonder where you see the impact of many of the texts you either published or sold on the new generation, on the new century. Which are the prime gems from that school of writers?

Lawrence—Well, Allen Ginsberg prophesied what’s happening today. He really was a visionary, and what’s happening today is his vision in spades. He was extraordinary.

Ira—You’ve received any number of awards.

Lawrence—Oh, yes, like the Robert Frost [Medal].

Ira—And many others, as I recall. There was the National Book Critics Circle [Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award], The Los Angeles Times [Robert Kirsch Award], the Frost [Medal], election to the Academy of Arts and Letters…

Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the old San Francisco, his new novel, and his first 100 years

Photography: Allen Ginsberg. Special thanks: Urban Print & Motion.

Lawrence—Yes.

Ira—And you got the wonderful National Book Foundation [Literarian] Award. And you’re a Commandeur [of the French Order of Arts and Letters]. Not so bad.

Lawrence—Well, I appreciate the Academy of Arts and Letters more than anything.

Ira—Tell me why.

Lawrence—I mean, I grew up in New York, but being out here, anything west of the Hudson really isn’t part of the in-group. You’re just way out there in the wilderness. It’s like the old New Yorker cover that shows Manhattan, and then there’s a big slough.

Ira—The famous Saul Steinberg cover.

Lawrence—Yeah. That’s the way it is, certainly in the literary world, so I appreciate being taken into the fold at the American Academy [of Arts and Letters].

Ira—That was in your eighties?

Lawrence—Yeah, I guess so.

Ira—Do you feel as if the proper publishing or proper poetry world didn’t pay attention all those years before?

Lawrence—Well, I don’t know. I think they always pay attention to what New Directions publishes. New Directions was an early pioneer of bringing the avantgarde to the United States. When James Laughlin was running New Directions, he was the founder and innovator that brought many important European authors to America for the first time, especially Dylan Thomas.

Ira—And Céline, as I recall—they did the first translations. And around the same time, Barney Rosset was doing some challenging work at Grove.

Lawrence—Yes, that’s true. James Laughlin was away at his ski resort or at his golf course, and Kenneth Rexroth out here was the leading literary light, the leading literary critic in San Francisco for many years. He kept urging Laughlin to stop leading the rich man’s life and to get off of his ski resort, get down to earth, and find out what was really happening in the literary world. There was a literary revolution going on that he ought to tune in on before other publishers got [to] it.

Ira—And what about you? You were publishing at that time, as well.

Lawrence—Well, at that time City Lights was just a little two-bit poetry press.

Ira—A two-bit poetry press that fought the Howl lawsuit.

Lawrence—The Howl trial really put us on the map in the literary world.

Ira—That was probably, what, just a few years before the Naked Lunch trial. And what was going on in the store in those days, in the late ’50s? It was in the same location.

Lawrence—Well, we were just a very small, one- room book store, and then we published Howl in 1956. And it kept growing and growing. Now we’ve taken over the whole building. It’s in the same location as when we started.

Ira—As I understand it, you have protected the building so it can be City Lights forever?

Lawrence—Yeah. It has landmark status now.

Ira—And you’ve set up a foundation that owns the building?

Lawrence—Yes. City Lights Foundation.

Ira—That’s beautiful. So we can expect to have City Lights in our lives forever?

Lawrence—Well, there’s no such thing as forever, but it gives us some protection. We’d be out of business if we hadn’t been able to get the building.

Ira—Did the city of San Francisco help City Lights gain that protection? How did that work out?

Lawrence—No, the landmark commissioner was independent of the city. But San Francisco is being totally transformed these days.

“Actually, what’s happening is not attractive at all. I think the San Francisco that we’ve known all these years is disappearing very fast. In another 20 years, we won’t even recognize this city.”

Ira—Tell me about that.

Lawrence—The whole city is torn up with construction and reconstruction and re-everything. There’s a huge, ugly tower that’s now dominating the skyline, and it’s called Salesforce. They have the audacity to put such a vulgar title to [one of the] biggest building[s] west of the Mississippi: ‘Salesforce.’ And that’s what’s happening to this city—it’s becoming totally a Salesforce project, you might say. It’s total commercialization of the city. There is construction going on all over this city. It hasn’t hit North Beach yet, where we are, but it’s getting there. This is Boomtown, USA. It’s the biggest boomtown since the Gold Rush days in the 1850s.

Ira—So you haven’t seen this kind of gentrification before in San Francisco?

Lawrence—It’s more than gentrification. It’s just this mass construction of huge buildings. Business, business, business. Unfortunately, the mayors of this city have been totally pro-business, including the new mayor.

Ira—How will young people be able to afford San Francisco?

Lawrence—They can’t. We’re having trouble at the bookstore. It’s hard for people to keep their jobs at the bookstore, because they have to live out of town now. They can’t really afford the city anymore. It’s even worse for artists and writers.

Ira—In all your time in San Francisco, you being an East Coast man, what else have you seen changing there? In the ’60s, you had the hippies. In the ’80s, San Francisco was really hit hard by AIDS. Now the money is coming in. It’s a very dynamic place, prone to great social change. Would that be an appropriate way to characterize San Francisco, as a kind of Petri dish or hotbed?

Lawrence—Well, that sounds very attractive, the way you put it, but actually, what’s happening is not attractive at all. I think the San Francisco that we’ve known all these years is disappearing very fast. In another 20 years, we won’t even recognize this city. In the time of James Joyce—say, in 1902—Dublin was of such a size that you could walk down the main street, like Sackville Street, and meet everybody important in the literary world. I’m sure Dublin isn’t like that anymore, either, and in San Francisco in 1902, probably you could meet everybody important in the literary world. That’s all gone now.

Ira—That’s a very sad story.

Lawrence—Yeah, it is.

Ira—You’ve described yourself as a philosophical anarchist.

Lawrence—Well, I picked that up from Kenneth Rexroth. That’s what he called himself. But you know, you could say up through Kenneth Rexroth’s days there was still some validity in anarchism. And you could say the only validity that the idea of anarchism has today is that it’s a partial escape from the military industrial complex, which has taken over control of the United States. Anarchism was a way to ward off the whole complex.

“It’s hard for people to keep their jobs at the bookstore, because they have to live out of town now. It’s even worse for artists and writers.”

Ira—What do you think people can do today to fight the military industrial complex as it exists right now?

Lawrence—Turn on, tune in, and drop out. [Laughs]

Ira—Are you suggesting people start taking hallucinogens to deal with the current political state?

Lawrence—Thank you, Timothy Leary. No, that’s not a practical, serious proposal these days.

Ira—I don’t know. They’re very popular again these days.

Lawrence—Well. Have we done enough?

Ira—Do you feel like we’ve done enough?

Lawrence—Unless you have some great final question.

Ira—What are you going to do for your 100th birthday?

Lawrence—Oh. [Laughs] In the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s last writings, which were all about going further underground, I’ll be digging my grave.

Ira—I look forward to seeing the photos of that.

Pity the Nation” (After Khalil Gibran) © Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted with permission.

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