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The Lights Still Shine

Poet, artist, activist and owner of a legendary bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at 83 still carries the torch for independent thinking and political dissent

By Tom Nattell

Five white banners drape down between the second floor windows of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, spelling out a short, direct phrase: Dissent is not un-American. Each banner spells part of the phrase. Below each word is the black-and-white image of a person whose mouth is covered, gag-like, with a red, white and blue U.S. flag. The author of the phrase is octogenarian poet, publisher, painter and social agitator Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his bookstore next year. Since he opened its doors in 1953, City Lights has been a bastion of political and literary dissent. The banner message is just the latest sign of resistance by this colorful and energetic artist, who will be in the Capital Region later this month for the Woodstock Poetry Festival.“It was dreamed up by a collective in the Mission District—a bunch of young graphics artists,” explains Ferlinghetti. The poet helped unfurl the banner project last October in response to the threats to civil liberties that followed the events of Sept. 11. “The first month or so after 9/11, they got by with saying it’s un-American and you’re helping the enemy—you’re aiding the enemy—if you dissent from our views and our wishes. So, they got a lot of legislation passed, including the limiting of our civil liberties, by these scare tactics,” says Ferlinghetti, describing the environment that inspired the banner raising.

“They’re strung out on the face of our building, and thousands of people—commuters and others—see it every day going by because it’s a main intersection,” says the activist-artist. “We get an enormous amount of positive feedback.” With a slight laugh, he goes on, “The ironic thing is that this is not a radical statement. It’s a perfectly conservative statement.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, just north of New York City, in 1919. He refers to himself today as “an old New Yorker” and claims, with feigned sincerity,” I’m just here [in San Francisco] on a visit. I could go back at any time.”

Among Ferlinghetti’s cherished memories of growing up in New York is a trip he made up the Hudson River while in his teens. “I always loved the Hudson,” he reminisces. “When I was 15, I took a canoe trip on the Hudson, and put into places like Coxsackie and Saugerties.” (Whenever Ferlinghetti visits the Capital Region, he always wants to check out the Hudson.)

Ferlinghetti did a stint in the Navy during World War II, took part in the invasion of Normandy, and later experienced directly the massive destruction wrought by nuclear war. “About six weeks to two months after the bombing of Nagasaki, I was there,” says the poet. What he saw in Nagasaki would forever color his view of nuclear war. “As long as there are atomic bombs, eventually they’ll be used,” he says, moving into a dark moment of prophesy. “I think it’s inevitable it’s going to happen here unless . . . Homo sapiens are able to agree on the dismantling of all nuclear weapons.”

After World War II, Ferlinghetti went to the Sorbonne in Paris, where he got his doctorate in 1950, and emigrated to San Francisco the following year. Two years later he and friend Peter Martin opened City Lights, the first bookstore in the United States to sell only paperbacks. The bookselling was soon spun off into publishing, and the City Lights publishing company was formed. The bookstore quickly became a gathering space for writers and activists, while the publishing company became a vehicle to deliver their art and ideas to the public. The bookstore recently was made an official San Francisco historic landmark.

A critical incident in Ferlinghetti’s literary chronology was when he heard Allen Ginsberg read his legendary poem Howl at the legendary Six Poets at the Six Gallery reading in 1955. The following year, Ferlinghetti published Howl in the City Lights Pocket Poets series, and it quickly sold out. When a second printing of the book arrived at the bookstore, so did the San Francisco police, who arrested Ferlinghetti for selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti fought the charges, and on Oct. 3, 1957, he won the case. The court battle transformed Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg into literary heroes, boosted Howl sales, and helped the fledgling publishing house get a firmer economic footing. In 1958, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind was published, which firmly established his reputation as a poet in his own right. This collection of his early poems continues to be a hot seller, with nearly a million copies in print (it is now also available as a reading on CD from City Lights).

Since those distant days, Ferlinghetti has been a constant voice in resisting war and injustice, often putting his views into verse. Early on, he earned the FBI’s stamp of disapproval as a “beatnik rabble rouser.” The banners hanging on the bookstore are but the latest in a long string of activism by the writer who once said, “When the guns are roaring the muses have no right to be silent.” He continues to follow his own advice.

Discussing the banner pro-test inevitably leads Ferlinghetti to George W. Bush, whom he refers to as “George the Second.” “This is the most illiterate president we’ve ever had in the White House,” he says. “Of course, he’s got a cadre of highly intelligent—what do you call them?” Stretching back to memories of the days of Nixon and Watergate, he pulls up the word he’s searching for: “Plumbers?”

George W. doesn’t score any better with Ferlinghetti on the economy or international politics. “Their economic policy consists of pump priming the economy by huge military spending. And what’s ironic,” notes the poet, “is George the Second came into office with a total, typical Republican program of shrinking the federal government and giving more power to the private sector and to the states.” He sees the administration’s current promotion of war with Iraq as little more than an expensive diversion of the public’s attention from domestic issues, similar to that portrayed in the movie Wag the Dog. “It really gets them out of their domestic crises, doesn’t it?” he asks. Ferlinghetti seems to relish discussing the contradictions and ironies flowing from the Bush administration.

He thinks the current wave of corporate corruption cases has revealed only a small part of the picture. “It’s the tail of the serpent . . . and I think when the rest of the serpent gets out or gets uncovered, Mr. Cheney’s gonna be very much in evidence. And I won’t be surprised if in the November elections this year the Democrats will sweep the elections and sweep the Republicans out.” He then adds after a short pause, “As long as they stop acting like Republicans themselves.”

Despite his advancing years, Ferlinghetti continues to write poetry. “History of the Airplane” was written in response to Sept. 11 and its aftermath [see Poetry in the Paper, page 25]. The poem follows the evolution of a technology that was born with hopes for peace, and its ultimate delivery as an unforeseen weapon of war.

Ferlinghetti’s most recent book of poems, How to Paint Sunlight, was just released in paperback by New Directions Books. The poems included in this collection were written between 1997 and 2000. According to the poet, “All I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life. These poems are another attempt to do it.” Many of the poems deal with light in some form, fashion, application or particular place. The book also includes poems written about the death of his close friend Allen Ginsberg; a group of New York City poems; and a poem written for the Greek Oracle of Delphi as part of UNESCO’s 2001 World Poetry Day. Its cover picture is an oil painting, by the author, of a human figure with birds perching on its shoulders and rising from its feet.

Reflecting on the growing popularity of poetry among young people today, Ferlinghetti says he suspects that “spiritual hunger” feeds the interest. He goes on to say, “A lot of young people have bad tendencies to go straight and have these serious goals, like being part of the Consumer Society. So,” he adds with a sly laugh, “I’m glad to see a lot of them are getting straightened out by going crooked.”

And what advice does the elder poet have for young poets today? “I would advise them not to go to poetry workshops and poetry seminars and poetry retreats or to writers colonies—stay away from all that! Bukowski would have nothing to do with anything like this. He didn’t lead the literary life. He went to the racetrack and bet on the ponies. It’s better if a budding poet did something like that than hanging out with other poets. . . . Avoid the academy at all costs!”

With the ranks of the Beat writers shrinking substantially in the last five years with the deaths of Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and others, Ferlinghetti likes to make it clear that he doesn’t consider himself one of them. The bard notes that “I wasn’t a member of the Beat Generation. I was the last of the Bohemian Generation. When I arrived in San Francisco from Paris, I was still wearing my beret in 1951. I became associated with the beats by publishing them. My poetics are totally different, even though we had great solidarity politically.”

While Lawrence Ferlinghetti is best known as a writer, he is also a painter and is quick to note that he got into painting “before poetry.” In conjunction with his reading at the Woodstock Poetry Festival, he’s exhibiting some of his paintings at the Kleinert Arts Center. “It’s called Lit.Paint. It’s literary paintings,” says Ferlinghetti. The large oil paintings in this show mix figurative images with what he calls “versions or subversions of famous or infamous quotations from Dante to Ezra Pound to James Joyce to Thomas Wolfe to Allen Ginsberg, potent messages of poetry still haunting our collective consciousness.”

With all the activities he’s involved in at the sagely age of 83, questions about Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s secrets for a long, poetic life inevitably pop up. He answers with one word: “water.” “We have the purist water in the country here [in San Francisco],” he says. “It comes straight down from Yosemite. It’s purer than the bottled water. You should drink about eight full glasses of water every day—I mean big glasses of water.”

And with all that fine water drinking, Lawrence Ferlinghetti may far outlive the administration of those against whom he’s most recently raised his banners of protest.

You can catch some of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s verse live at the Woodstock Poetry Festival (Aug. 22-25), where he’ll be reading at the Bearsville Theater at 8 PM on Saturday, Aug. 24. Others on the festival program include Anne Waldman, Michael McClure, U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee and Sharon Olds. Ferlinghetti’s exhibit Lit.Paint will be on display at the Kleinert Arts Center (34 Tinker St., Woodstock) through Sept. 15, with a gala fundraising reception Friday, Aug. 23, from 5 to 8 PM. Tickets to the reception are $35. For tickets and information about these events and the rest of the festival schedule, go to www.woodstock, or write to: P.O. Box 450, Woodstock, NY 12498.

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