Beat poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti featured today


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David Perry interviews legendary poet, artist and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s indelible image

SUNDAY PROFILE / Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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Updated 3:05 am, Monday, September 24, 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, andWalt Whitman‘s optimism is needed – as time is running out.

Since the 1950s, Ferlinghetti has been a San Francisco institution. He openedCity 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.

“My poetry, including ‘The Time of Useful Consciousness,’ is activism,” Ferlinghetti said, sitting in a cafe in North Beach near his home. “Ecologically and politically, it’s a totally dim prospect.”

The 93-year-old poet spends one day a week at City Lights, and on other days can be found at his painter’s studio in Hunters Point. Painting, he says, is the lighter antidote to his more painstaking poetry. With his keen blue eyes, white beard and snazzy, paint-streaked sneakers, he looks every bit the part of painter, poet and gentleman radical.

“The norm is that when people get older, they get more politically conservative, but it’s been the opposite for me,” Ferlinghetti said with a laugh.

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Striving to improve world

Ferlinghetti’s biographer, Bill Morgan, an archivist and bibliographer for Ginsberg, said the San Francisco poet has always been “interested in making things better and calling attention to the crazy things going on.”

“Lawrence is still an activist interested in the politics of our time,” Morgan said. “He’s a really good performer of his poetry. He does not consider himself a Beat poet, but he was a publisher of the Beats. And City Lights is one of the best book stores in the country – and it’s been there for 60 years.”

Barry Gifford, the Bay Area author, screenwriter and poet who was friends with Ginsberg, was introduced to Ferlinghetti’s poetry in high school.

“When I was a kid in high school, I remember someone had ‘A Coney Island of the Mind,’ and it made a real impression,” Gifford said of Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry, which has sold more than 1 million copies. “Lawrence has a way of saying what he needs to say in a style that is immediately comprehensible. He’s always been able to communicate with his poetry better than most.”

Gifford added, “Lawrence’s connection with the Beats is not to be underestimated, but he has made – and continues to make – a lasting contribution to American literature.”

Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in March 1919. His father, Carlo Ferlinghetti, died before he was born. His mother, Clemence, overcome by stress, asked a relative to care for Lawrence, the youngest of her five boys. Only later did he reconnect with his family.

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Awakened to activism

He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; his master’s at Columbia University, with a thesis on critic John Ruskin and painter J.M.W. Turner; and his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950, where he studied comparative literature and delivered his thesis (in French) on “The City as a Symbol in Modern Poetry.”

He attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, having served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II.

“I was the all-American boy, the Eagle Scout,” Ferlinghetti said. “I remember I was at my girlfriend’s apartment, and there were these strange publications like the Nation and the New Republic. I started looking at them and thought, ‘Gee, this is weird; people saying things against America?’ It was an awakening. On the East Coast, I’d never even heard of conscientious objectors.”

Ferlinghetti came to San Francisco in January 1951, knowing no one and having little money. He walked up Market Street from the Ferry Building, and asked a passer-by for the Bohemian part of town. Soon settled in North Beach, he began listening to KPFA, the free, independent FM radio station that included a weekly segment by Kenneth Rexroth, the poet, essayist and philosophical anarchist.

KQED Spark – Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Partnering for City Lights

The idea of City Lights came about by chance.

“I was coming up from my painting studio, and I drove up Columbus Avenue,” Ferlinghetti said. “It was a route I wouldn’t normally take, and I saw a guy putting up a sign where City Lights is now.” Ferlinghetti hopped out of his car and went to say hello.

“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m starting a paperback bookstore, but I don’t have any money. I’ve got $500.’ I said, ‘I have $500.’ The whole thing took about five minutes. We shook hands, and the store opened in June 1953 as City Lights Pocket Bookshop.”

Ferlinghetti’s partner was Peter Martin, a sociology student at San Francisco State who had been publishing a small magazine called City Lights. Martin was the first to publish the works of Pauline Kael – who was another KPFA contributor and would go on to be a film critic for the New Yorker.

“Peter’s idea was to sell quality paperbacks, which were just coming onto the market,” Ferlinghetti said. “At the time, paperback books weren’t considered real books by the trade. They were just these 25-cent pocketbooks that were merchandized like newspapers on the newsstands, but the newsstand guys didn’t understand what they had.”

Around the same time, Ferlinghetti married Selden Kirby-Smith, who went by “Kirby.” She was the granddaughter of a Civil War general and the daughter of a successful doctor, and she had earned her master’s degree from Columbia. The two met in 1946 aboard a ship en route to France. They were both heading to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Timothy Leary

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[l to r: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Timothy Leary, at the Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, 1967 January 14], photograph by Gene Anthony, courtesy, .

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Dylan & Ferlinghetti

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Ferlinghetti & Burroughs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti …

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born March 24, 1919

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[The City Lights in North Dakota Conference, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, sponsored by the UND English Department, was the first of many Beat related conferences recognizing the cultural importance of the Beats. Clockwise from top left: Michael McClure,Gregory Corso, Miriam Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Janie McClure, Shig Murao, Curator (name unknown – female), Joanne McClure Curator (name unknown – male),  March 18, 1974. – Photo by D.Sorensen ]

Obscenity trial for ‘Howl’

In 1955, Ferlinghetti went to a poetry reading at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street to hear Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder,Philip Whalen, Michael McClure and Ginsberg – all introduced by Rexroth. Jack Kerouac also was there but declined to read.

It was Ginsberg’s first public reading of his wild, graphic and shattering poem, “Howl,” which opens with the lines: “I saw the best of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”

“Allen gave me the manuscript a couple of weeks before the public reading,” Ferlinghetti said. “What a great poet does is let you see the world in a way you’ve never seen it before. That’s what Allen did.”

The day after the reading, Ferlinghetti sent a Western Union telegram to Ginsberg, who was staying in Berkeley. “I wrote, ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career,’ which is what Emerson wrote to Whitman when he first read ‘The Leaves of Grass.’ I asked, ‘When do we get the manuscript?’ ”

“Howl and Other Poems” was the fourth book in Ferlinghetti’s City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series, and featured an introduction by William Carlos Williams. In 1957, hundreds of copies of the book were seized by U.S. customs officials – who stated, “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it” – and Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity in a trial that drew international attention.

“We had submitted the manuscript to the ACLU ahead of time, asking if they would defend us if we were busted,” Ferlinghetti said. “They committed themselves ahead of time. Of course, when the trial began, I was young and stupid and thought a few months in jail would be OK; I’d have a lot of time to read.”

Free flow of literature

Ferlinghetti won that year, when the Municipal Court judge ruled that the poem couldn’t be deemed obscene because it had “redeeming social significance.”

“That established us as an independent bookstore,” Ferlinghetti said. “And after that, the floodgates were open. Grove Press – which spent a lot of money on the trial – was able to publish ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and Henry Miller’s books and so on.” City Lights also was known for carrying the first gay, lesbian and transgender publications.

While many of his writers were known for drug and alcohol use – he once lent his Big Sur cabin to Kerouac to dry out – Ferlinghetti always made it home for dinner.

“My mother was very protective in terms of who we had over at the house,” said daughter Julie Ferlinghetti Susser, who now lives in Tennessee. “We had Gregory Corso to our house, and he once tried to shoot up. He was never allowed back. My mother did really like Kerouac. Ginsberg would come over whenever he was in town, and my mother tolerated him. He was never interested in what women had to say.”

Immediacy of painting

Throughout her childhood, Susser remembers something else: “I would sit by the door every night, waiting for my dad. … He was home every day by 5:30 or 6. I remember I begged and pleaded for a pony, and my dad got me one. I saw him as a businessman who went to work and came home at the same time. He always made things fun.”

The Ferlinghettis, who divorced in 1973 but remained close, also had a son, Lorenzo, who lives in Bolinas and has two children. Kirby Ferlinghetti died this year and is buried in their family plot in Bolinas.

These days, the poet is gravitating to painting. George Krevsky, Ferlinghetti’s longtime gallerist, said, “When I first met Lawrence, I said, ‘I’ve met two great poets – you and Robert Frost,’ and he said, ‘You should see my paintings.’ ”

For Ferlinghetti, painting is a “lyrical escape,” a way to express himself that has more immediacy than his poems.

“It’s easier to get high doing a painting,” he said, walking home from the North Beach cafe. “For one thing, it’s more instantaneous. A book – this new book of mine – is two years of work. Whereas a painting, I might have one in a day. I feel like I can take a lot of chances in painting.”

Ferlinghetti’s outlook, like his poetry and like his paintings, moves from dark to light, from foreboding to hopeful. He looks at poems such as “The Pennycandystore” as embodying a time of innocence for himself, and America.

“I wrote that in the early ’50s,” he said of the candy store poem. “America was full of hope.”

Sending a lifeline to culture

The title of his new work, “Time of Useful Consciousness,” to be released in October, comes from an aeronautical term denoting the time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the moments when it’s still possible to save your life.

“It’s a statement about where culture is,” Ferlinghetti said. Smiling, his blue eyes taking in the sunshine in North Beach, he added, “I’m trying to be an optimist.”

Julian Guthrie is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @JulianGuthrie

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Good article on Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

August - October 1999

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The Painter
oil on canvas
36 1/2 x 40 in.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The PainterLAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI just returned from three weeks in Europe. One of his stops was in Florence for a book signing and poetry reading at City Lights Italia, a book store named after the one he had co-founded in San Francisco in 1952, but not otherwise connected with it. A man there walked up to him, “and he handed me a thousand dollars in American money. I said, ‘Well, what’s that for?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll give you 2000 more if you’ll do ten designs relating to Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s his 500th anniversary, and then we’re going to have an exhibition. We’ve asked 70 artists around the world to do this, and the exhibition will be in Milan sometime around 2000.'” Turned out the man was Francesco Conz, a collector who had been a primary funder of the Fluxus movement in Europe. He also invited Ferlinghetti to his home in Verona, a four story building filled with surrealist and Fluxus art by the likes of Dali, Joseph Cornell, and André Breton.When Ferlinghetti returned to where he was staying, he took a supplement from the Sunday edition of La Repubblica-“sort of an illustrated history of art, 48 pages, saddle stitched. There was an illustration of Monet, and one of Gauguin-it went back centuries.” He chose several pages, and in French, English, or Italian wrote “‘Leonardo was here’-he had influenced all these artists. And on a couple of illustrations I put, ‘Leonardo was here’ with a question mark. And things like that. Then I did a little bit of collage on them, and that was it. I mounted them on story boards and sent them to him and he sent me $2000 more.”

One of his reasons for going to Italy was to select the final versions of glass plates that had been commissioned by a hotel in Venice and that were being produced by “the top maestro on the famous glass-making island of Murano. I was in his factory for two days. I had sent him the designs [in black and white] several months ago, and they produced some trial plates, which then I chose among. . . . I chose two colors, two of the designs. They did them in cobalt blue on very light transparent blue glass, and the other two are going to be on yellow ochre. Basically, the design was Auroboro, the snake eating its own tail, which fits onto a plate very nicely. Did several variations of that. Now they’re going to produce a limited edition.”

A week before he went to Italy, he attended the opening of his solo show at Dominican College in San Rafael CA. Curated by Diane Roby, it consisted of about a dozen paintings on canvas or burlap, and a similar number of drawings, lithographs, and other works on paper. The paintings ranged from about 17×13½” to 68×72″, and most of them referred directly or indirectly to such personages as El Greco, Freud, Ezra Pound, Magritte, Picasso, Van Gogh, or Motherwell. The works on paper included Serpent – Bird, a seven-panel suite of drawings in sumi-e ink on Japanese paper; done in Big Sur in 1997; it shows a serpent turning into a bird. There were also about 15 books, including such things as his most recent novel, a book of his drawings of the figure, When I Look at Pictures (images and poetry), as well as a number of broadsides.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Liberty Series #6
oil on canvas
50 x 56 in.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Liberty Series #6Ferlinghetti started painting in 1948 while he was in Paris writing poetry and novels and preparing to get his doctorate in comparative poetry from the Sorbonne. “A guy I was rooming with left his painting equipment behind when he went home, so I picked it up and gave it a try.” He soon became serious about painting and began to attend drawing sessions to work from the figure (first at the open studio of theAcadémie Julien), a practice he continues to this day.Before the show, he had been collaborating on a series of pieces with Christopher Felver, who created photos of himself in various stages of clown makeup and which Ferlinghetti then wrote on. “On one of them I wrote, ‘I am not a clown.'” They hope to publish the series of 16 pieces in the near future.
Ferlinghetti / Felver
I Am Not a Clown
mixed media

Ferlinghetti/Felver, I Am Not a ClownLast October, Gibbs Smith publishedFerlinghetti Portrait, a book of Felver’s photographs that also contains the subject’s long poem “Autobiography.” The shots include several of the painter in his studio, at City Lights, at Big Sur, and about 100 others. A documentary, also by Felver, The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was shown last fall at the Mill Valley Film Festival at the Roxie in SF, and on PBS, where it will be shown again.Ferlinghetti’s work can be seen at the George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco (415-397-9748) and at the Molly Barnes Gallery in Santa Monica (310-395-4404).

San Francisco CA, 07.28.99


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