Poetry News

Lawrence Ferlinghetti Interviewed at Interview

By Harriet Staff


Pardon the redundancy, but make your way over to Interview to read this great interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Christopher Bollen leads the conversation and introduces the piece by comparing Ferlinghetti to that other great American revolutionary George Washington:

Our heroes tend not to own stores. But there is an exception—poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who I've always imagined standing a bit lie 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.

They begin their conversation by discussing Ferlinghetti's latest book, Time of Useful Consciousness, which then leads into his relationship to the Beats:

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: The title of your new book of poetry is an aeronautical term, isn't it? "Time of useful consciousness" is a term for the time between when a pilot loses oxygen and the time they pass out. I'm interpreting that title as a warning for America right now.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Yeah, it's when we are still conscious and have the time to do something to save ourselves. And everybody knows what should be done, but they don't do it. Congress, the corporate world . . .

BOLLEN: Why don't they? Because it's easier not to?

FERLINGHETTI: It's easier not to and the sales figures can better gratify their immediate needs. It's instant gratification. Everything is me, me, me, me; the social contract is forgotten and the younger generation doesn't even know what that term means.


BOLLEN: Time of Useful Consciousness is very much about the West-about the last frontier and the travelers along that road.

FERLINGHETTI: It's one of a two-book series. The first one started in Europe, moved to New York, and ended with the assassination of Kennedy. This book takes off from that point and moves west.

BOLLEN: And there are Beat figures scattered in these poems. I wonder now how you align yourself with the legacy of the Beat poets.

FERLINGHETTI: I don't mean to give them more weight than other poets. The bohemian generation is what they called people who didn't lead conventional lives before the Second World War. When I arrived in San Francisco, I was still wearing my French beret! And then the Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac, they were a few years younger than me. They weren't old enough to be in the war. So there's a difference. My poetics were totally different than Allen Ginsberg's. We had the same political positions. Ginsberg's background was immigrant Russian, Jewish, radical, communist. Typical New York radical. Threw potato salad at etiquette picnics. Whereas I grew up in very staid Westchester County. Totally different background. It was only when I got to San Francisco that I started listening to the first free radio, KPFA [a community-supported radio station in Berkeley, California]. KPFA had just been founded in 1949, and it was a totally different station than it is today. It started out as a station that really had a wide cultural program for that time. Alan Watts was on there. And so was Kenneth Rexroth, the most important poet and critic in San Francisco. He was published by New Directions in New York, published in The Nation, things like that. And he had a program. He didn't just review books, he knew every possible field-geology, astronomy, philosophy, logic, classics. It was a total education listening to him. It was a radical position. I used to go to his soirees on Friday night. There were a lot of poets that would show up. He lived in the Fillmore District, which was black at that time. He lived at 250 Scott Street, above Jack's Record Cellar. Anyway, Friday night soirees at his house were old and young, but just poets. That's where I met Kerouac and [Neal] Cassady and Gregory Corso . . .

The two go into greater depths about the Beats, obscenity trials, publishing, and politics. Make the jump to check it all out. But, before that, we'll leave you with this little bit on how Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems came about.

BOLLEN: I wanted to ask you a little bit about Frank O'Hara. You published his Lunch Poems in 1964. What was it like working with him?

FERLINGHETTI: It was all by postcards. I don't think we ever had a conversation in person about it. I don't know what prompted me to write him. I think I'd read one poem he'd written in his lunch hour when he was working at MoMA. I said, "How about a book of lunch poems?" And he sent a postcard back to me with one word on it: "Yes." I waited six months to a year and I wrote, "How about lunch?" He wrote back, "It's cooking." And maybe another two years passed before he finally sent his poems to me.