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Posts Tagged ‘Beats’

(Note: in the wake of the death last week of iconic San Francisco poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and fixture of its North Beach neighborhood, I am reprinting an interview I did with him in 1992 and published with Maturity News Service. His takes on revolution, poetry, racism and feminism are still very much in the news today. Joanna Biggar)

No one has ever accused Lawrence Ferlinghetti of being a moderate man.

 “I like books that subvert the dominant paradigm, declares the 72-year-old poet/publisher/revolutionary.”

   Speaking by telephone from his office at the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach, which he co-founded in 1953, Ferlinghetti makes it clear that the flames of fervor don’t go out with age; they may just shift a little.

     The other “subversives” he allies himself with include Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, French writers Blaise Cendrars and Jacques Prevert, and his fellow Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. These writers not only share revolutionary vision, says Ferlinghetti, but they have made a difference.

     His own volume, A Coney Island of the Mind, for example, first published in 1958, has sold nearly a million copies, an extraordinary figure for a contemporary American poet.

In it, his affinity with Twain is clarified:

“and I am waiting
for God to look out from
Lookout Mountain.
and see the ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’
as a real farce
and I am waiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am perpetually awaiting
the rebirth of wonder.”

(From “I Am Waiting.”)

     It was back in the heyday of the ’50s that City Lights published Ginsberg’s Howl, a landmark book that has sold about 700,000 copies. In it, Ginsberg defined what would be the credo for the Beats, those “angel-headed hipsters … looking for an angry fix.”

      Now, Ferlinghetti declares, the sad truth is that “poetry is very much in the state it was before Howl was published, back in ’55, ’56. It’s gotten very academic. Lots of poetry about poetry, language about language.

     “Very rarified,” he sighs. “Yeah, it’s time for another poet like Ginsberg to come along and kick the sides out of things. So when it happens we’ll all say, “Gosh, that was just waiting to be said.”

     Noting the academic insularity of the who influences whom game—and its misogyny—he adds: “The tradition is still going on—but with a twist. Today, City Lights publishing list is about two-thirds women, many of them prose writers.”

     Ferlinghetti explains his own subverted paradigm like this: “Generally I think that whitey—the white writer—doesn’t have a revolution of his own. So what’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years is that the white writer has latched onto various third-world revolutions.

     “It’s typical of many left intellectuals … with the exception of black writers, and women writers. They have their own revolution still to accomplish. Consequently, there’s all kinds of fascinating writing coming out of feminist circles.”    

     The old, academic tradition is still going on, too — but with a twist. Today, City Lights’ publishing list is about two-thirds women, many of them prose writers.

     Ever in the avant-garde since it began publishing in 1955, City Lights’ latest list includes such feminist titles as Veils, the story of Iranian immigrant Nahid Rachlin; Terrible Girls, Rebecca Brown ‘s lesbian stories of erotic love first published in England; and poet Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment.

     Finley received a certain notoriety when her grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was revoked two years ago.

     That’s because, Ferlinghetti explains, “She’s a performance artist who performed on stage with her body smeared with chocolate. So her grant was withdrawn, and there was a big hullabaloo in the papers.”

     Then he hastens to say that City Lights never gets funding from the NEA, nor does he believe it should.

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