The unrepentant revolutionary poet and Beat godfather, now 91, looks back at friendships with Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Fidel, and the Sandinistas—and asks when The Nation will publish his next poem.
Homepage photo via Flickr by Steve Rhodes
Aside from being one of the most famous living poets in the United States, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is an erudite publisher, a recognized painter, and lately, he’s a little ticked off at the world. Who can blame him? Fifty years ago he wrote: “I am waiting/ for the American Eagle/ to really spread its wings/ and straighten up and fly right.” Decades later he’s still waiting; it seems no one has heeded his calls for change. With a massive ecological disaster, two costly wars, and an economic depression, he might rightly say I told you so. But who would listen? Poetry hardly draws the audiences that it once did, much less the national poetry tours that Ferlinghetti speaks of.
The ninety-one-year-old began writing poetry and painting sixty years ago, and hasn’t stopped since. He founded one of the oldest and most prestigious independent publishing houses in the United States, City Lights Books, that famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. A friend to Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, he is often considered the father of the Beats. But he is more than a bookworm. Ferlinghetti was in Nagasaki shortly after it had been obliterated; he was arrested for publishing Howl; he was an American advocate for the Sandinistas and later the Zapatistas. From surrealism, to abstract expressionism, to fluxus, to eco-poetry, Ferlinghetti was there. He was the man, and he suffered, somewhat. Perhaps that’s why he has never been afraid to shake things up, and—as evidenced in this interview—he still isn’t. In fact he made me promise that the political content of our conversation wouldn’t be edited out, something that apparently has happened to him before.
Which leads me to the side of Ferlinghetti that shows in his bibliography, but hardly comes up in his biography: he’s a Hispanophile. He reads and speaks Spanish (despite his modest denials of speaking it). Like the protagonists of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives he bounced around Latin America in pursuit of poetry, justice, and truth. I wanted to find out more about this side of Mr. Ferlinghetti’s past, as well as his views on the state of politics and poetry today. We spoke by phone between Colombia and San Francisco, and the following is a record of our talk from two different ends of what we might agree is a dying world.
—Jesse Tangen-Mills for Guernica
Guernica: I know you’ve traveled extensively in Latin America. Did you make any famous acquaintances?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: I met Pablo Neruda in Cuba on the first or second anniversary of the revolution in 1959. I just happened to be in Havana on my way back from St. Thomas, when Neruda had come to address the fidelistas. I was staying in some cheap hotel on the beach, where I met, it turned out, editors for the literary supplement Lunes. They took me to meet him. Neruda was staying at the Havana Libre, which had been called Havana Hilton as it was called after the revolution, the top floor penthouse. He was writing in a giant-sized notebook in huge handwriting. He was there with his wife Matilde, and she spoke French. At that time my French was a hell of a lot better than my Spanish—and it still is. He showed me this cuarto-sized notebook that he was writing in with a large pencil. He spoke English. He said, “I love your wide open poetry.” I didn’t know if he had meant my poetry or the Beats. He, like us, thought that poetry could contain everything, every subject. He wanted to put everything in his poems and take nothing out. Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, and myself, had been translated and published in El Lunes, the literary supplement of the newspaper la Revolución. The editors of El Lunes were young poets. This would never happen in a capitalist country [Laughs]. A big newspaper’s literary supplement was run by these young, at that time unknown poets. Then it came time for him to give a reading and they had sent a limousine for him. And he said, “Well why don’t you come with me?” and I said, “No, no you go ahead.” He said, “No, come with me.” So I went to the National Assembly building, right where the dictator’s henchman once met. It was a huge elegant chamber with velvet armchairs at least in the balconies. The fidelistas filled the hall, still in fatigues smoking cigars, in these velvet chairs. They had their feet on the furniture. The whole place was trembling with fantastic excitement, which you might call revolutionary euphoria. It was so alive with this euphoria it seemed like everything was possible. This is before people had a chance to have second thoughts about it. He read many poems and he got a standing ovation after every poem. I didn’t see him again.
Guernica: A few months ago I read a new poem of yours “At Sea.” I noticed you dedicated it to Pablo Neruda. Can you talk a little bit about how you feel about Neruda now, so many years later?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: I’ve been reading him in Spanish and it turned me on.
Guernica: You call Neruda an “omnivore” in “A Far Rockaway of the Mind.” Can you elaborate a little on that?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Yeah, he wrote about everything. He was like Whitman that way. He saw poetry of some kind in everything and everybody.
Guernica: Did you meet any other famous figures in Cuba?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The editors of Lunes took me to a cafeteria where they said Fidel often came for lunch. Sure enough, this big guy smoking a cigar comes out of the kitchen. I said, “Isn’t that Fidel?” and they said “Yes,” and I said, “Well, how about introducing me?” and they said—like most unknown poets when confronted with somebody famous—“Well, we don’t know him.” So I just got up and went over and shook his hand, and I was surprised he had a very soft handshake. He had a big smile on his face. At that time, I couldn’t think of anything much to say in Spanish, except that I knew he had met Allen Ginsberg at the Lennox Hotel in New York, so I said, “Soy amigo de Allen Ginsberg.” And he got a grin on his face, sort of waved, got out and got into his jeep, an open jeep. He just drove off by himself. I mean, I could have been a hired agent from the United States or somewhere else. It would have been an easy assassination, but at that time he didn’t seem to need a guard he was so popular.
Guernica: What do you think of Fidel now?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: How old is he now? Eighty-five?
Guernica: About there I guess.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: I wish him well. I wish he could have continued on his original revolutionary path. I’m rather ill-informed after those first years.
He bought a dozen berets. I should have known something was up. Why should he buy a dozen berets? I guess you know the rest.
Guernica: When was your first time in Nicaragua?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: I went in 1985 at the invitation of Ernesto Cardenal, who was the minister of Culture. We did a tour of the country, always in a caravan of military vehicle with a walkie-talkie in the first vehicle and another at the rear end. It was still war footing then. Everyone was still carrying guns. We went down to the Southern border with Costa Rica and we got there just after the border station had been burned down by a fire from Costa Rica. We stopped on the way through a jungle camp of fidelistas in the deep jungle. I don’t know what they were doing there, if they were training or just hanging out.
Then we took a Soviet-built helicopter from Managua across Lake Nicaragua to Ernesto Cardenal’s hermitage, an island on the other end of the long lake. Solentiname was the name of his retreat, where he had invited many young sons of fidelistas, kids who were probably from poor farms to learn how to make art. They made quite a few paintings, which became quite famous, very much in demand. I don’t know for how many years he continued with that school of art with all those kids.
Guernica: When did you meet Ernesto Cardenal?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Well, you know he was known as a poet first in the United States before being known as a fidelista. He was published by New Directions first, who was my publisher. I had never met him in person, but I knew all about him. So when he came to San Francisco we met. He came to City Lights bookstore. We hung out there. He wanted to go to Army and Navy stores, surplus stores, where you can buy uniforms and stuff like that. They don’t exist anymore. But he wanted to go there. I didn’t know why. And he bought a dozen berets. I should have known something was up. [Laughs.] Why should he buy a dozen berets? Soon after that was the fidelista insurrection. I guess you know the rest.
Guernica: Do you still keep in contact with Cardenal?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Through others like Daisy Zamora, a poet through the very last years of the Sandinista regime, I get news of Ernesto through her now and then.
The second time I went to Nicaragua was 1989, just before the vote, when the Sandinistas were voted out. They abided by the vote and didn’t go back on their word. At that time there was a totally different feeling in Nicaragua. The country was no longer militarized. You didn’t see any guns, but the countryside looked pretty impoverished still. It was a sad tale, but before it became a sad tale, that summer we went to this huge rally in the baseball stadium in Managua. The Sandinistas came from all over the country and filled this stadium. Must have been ten thousand Sandinistas in there with huge flags and banners. Lots of great music and I was with my son, he was just eighteen, I think. It was a great experience for him. There was such great enthusiasm at this rally and everyone was sure that the Sandinistas would win the election. Of course, they didn’t. Well, with the United States giving out dollar bills on street corners to thwart this election.
My son was in Puerto Escondido surfing. I got there to pick him up and head to Nicaragua. He was totally barefoot with not a cent in his pocket when I got there. He had been there all summer, sleeping on the beach, no money. So he had a surf board, and when we got to Mexico City to change planes to go to Nicaragua, he wanted to take the surfboard with him. I said, Oh no. He didn’t realize there was a war going on. So we checked the surfboard in the airport. When he got there he immediately realized what a travesty it would have been if he had shown up with a surfboard in the middle of a revolution.
Guernica: You’ve traveled in Mexico as well.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A lot, especially Oaxaca.
Guernica: When was the first time you went to Mexico?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: When I was in college. I came in through the East side, through Laredo. I was probably eighteen years old when I went to Mexico City. But then I didn’t go back until I was out in San Francisco. I had gotten to San Francisco in 1951. I started going to Mexico in the nineteen sixties.
I used to go in my old VW bus with my dog. And we went to practically all parts of Mexico including Baja. All the popular spots. Mexico City of course. Now, I avoid the big cities. The first time I was in Guadalajara it was like six hundred thousand and now it’s like two million. I don’t want to go over there anymore. Oaxaca is still my favorite place.
Guernica: What was your first contact with poetry there?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: It’s been quite a while now. I have met a lot of poets. I read at the Plaza Nacional en Bellas Artes and I had a whole array of Mexican poets on stage who had translated various poems of mine.
Guernica: I saw that City Lights published Homero Arjidis’s last book, Solar Poems.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: He’s an old, old friend of mine, and a still older friend of Nancy Peters and Phil Lamantia, a surrealist poet who died about four years ago. (Nancy Peters was the managing editor of City Lights until she retired last year.) Ernesto Cardenal officiated Phil Lamantia’s first marriage in Mexico. That must have been in the nineteen fifties. Then, when Homero came to the States we always saw him, and had dinner with him. He was also the Mexican delegate for UNESCO, up to six months ago. I visited him during his first month in Paris. I had dinner with him at his new UNESCO apartment. We published Solar Poems. He had a reading at City Lights two months ago. I believe he’s back in Mexico.
Guernica: I really enjoyed Solar Poems.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Beautiful.
Guernica: There’s a romanticism in those poems, but interestingly romanticism for a dying world, I felt. Do you share the opinion that we’re at the end of something?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Definitely. Homero was always involved in ecological struggles. His Grupo de cien, the group of one hundred, was an activist group that campaigned against various ecological horrors and was able to stop the building of a huge cement plant in Baja that would have devastated the landscape. They used to put full-page ads in the New York Times. So he’s always had an ecological consciousness. Recently, I’ve written poems that have more or less the same consciousness.
Guernica: What Latin American authors were known or read in the United States the first time you came to Latin America?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Hardly any. Allen Ginsberg was a great cultural ambassador. He spoke taxi cab Spanish. He stayed up all night in Chile translating “Howl” into Spanish with other poets.
The mainstream media is still the high culture of intellectuals: writers, readers, editors, librarians, professors, artists, art critics, poets, novelists, and people who think. They are the mainstream culture, even though you may be the dominant culture.
Guernica: I know that your publisher City Lights was the first to translate Chilean poet Nicanor Parra in the nineteen fifties. So, how did you meet Nicanor Parra?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: I came upon Parra when I was riding on a train in Chile between Santiago and Concepcion, 1959. We were invited to an international poetry festival organized by the communist party somewhere in Chile. Ginsberg and I didn’t know the CP was the organizer until after we arrived. We had been invited by Fernando Alegria, professor then at UC Berkeley, and his brother in Chile was one of the organizers of the conference. Jorge Elliott was on the train. He spoke English and I was sitting near him in coach. He said that he had translated Parra. I asked him to send it to me. He did and City Lights published it in the Pocket Poems series. I met his sister Violeta [Parra] in Lima later in that same trip. She came to a bad end, as I understand.
Guernica: I’ve often seen similarities in your work. Do you see any correlation between “a coney island of the mind” and “antipoetry”?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Parra definitely was an influence. He had a satirical bent that was very similar. Of his poems I remember:
I grow a louse on my tie
And smile at the imbeciles descending from the trees.”
Guernica: Some people say that the U.S. is in a state of decline? Do you agree?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Yes. [Pause. Laughter.] Western Civilization has been in a state of decline since the Edwardian age, say 1910. That was the height of Greco-Roman European civilization. Then there was the First World War. That was the beginning of the end. That civilization has been in a decline ever since. But from the American triumphalist point of view our wonderful electronic revolution is really the forefront of an ongoing wonderful civilization. I was on television a couple of years ago and the reporter asked me, “How does it feel being on mainstream media? It’s not often poets get on mainstream media.” Sort of a condescending question. I said, “Well I think you’re the dominant media, the dominant culture, but you’re not the mainstream media. The mainstream media is still the high culture of intellectuals: writers, readers, editors, librarians, professors, artists, art critics, poets, novelists, and people who think. They are the mainstream culture, even though you may be the dominant culture.” So we come up to today, and I think today America’s on the wrong side of the world revolution. What I mean by that is, the world revolution is the people’s revolution, the liberation movements in all the third world countries, which when everyone tries to get started the U.S. stops, as they did in Nicaragua, like they’re still trying to do in Cuba. The democratic revolution, the people’s revolution, we’re on the wrong side of the revolution. We’re on the wrong side. We’re not on the side of the people of the world. I sent a poem saying that to The Nation magazine in New York and they accepted it about, must be six months ago, and I still haven’t seen it appear in The Nation. I’ve been out of the country. I was in France and Italy last couple of months, but I don’t think it’s appeared. They may have had second thoughts, even though it’s a leftist journal.
I wrote Frank O’Hara, “Are the lunch poems cooked yet?” And he wrote back, “Still cooking.”
Guernica: There was an exposition of your paintings recently in Italy, correct?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Oh yeah, I had a six decades retrospective of my painting in the Museo di Roma. It has now moved to a museum in Calabria. Close to sixty paintings, a lot of them are quite large.
Guernica: How did you feel at the exposition?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: When I was there I got a huge amount of publicity in the national press. Full-page spreads. For writers and artists, that never happens in this country. Andy Warhol was somebody who could.
Guernica: When I think of the connection between painting and poetry, Frank O’ Hara comes to mind. Did you know Frank O’Hara?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: We published his Lunch Poems in the Pocket Poems series. The way that happened was that I wrote him on a postcard and said I know you published a couple of “lunch poems”—because he wrote them on his lunch hour, when he was working at the Museum of Modern Art. He said, okay let’s do a book called Lunch Poems. A couple years passed, and I wrote him, “Are the lunch poems cooked yet?” And he wrote back, “Still cooking.” And it went on like that for a couple more years before we finally got the manuscript. Been in print ever since.
Guernica: I was saddened to hear that Voznesensky passed as well as another Beat poet, Peter Orlovksy. Someone told me to read “An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Patchen.” Do you think the world is just trying to “forget about them and their awful strange prophecies” as you put it in that poem?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Peter Orlovsky didn’t make any “strange prophesies.” He wrote vegetable poems. That’s what he called him.
Voznesensky didn’t make any “strange prophesies” either, but his great rival and compatriot was Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was very interesting, at the time that the Soviet regime sent him, there was an NYU exhibition of Beat poetry and Beat art, and Andrei Voznesensky showed up at the opening. We didn’t even know he was in town and he’d come to the States for the reading. And he said, “I have to hurry back to Russia because I don’t want to miss out on what’s happening.” So he went back. Yevtushenko stayed in this country more, and I think he became a professor at Southern Methodist University. I imagine that perhaps the younger generation identified him too much with the older Soviet Regime. Both Voznesensky and Yevtushenko were sort of working a very thin line between being dissident poets, and not being so dissident that they were banned from publication, and they weren’t allowed to leave the country. It turned out that they were allowed to leave the country because they could come to America and earn a lot of money for the Soviet Union in dollars, so they were allowed to attend poetry readings.
Voznesensky and Yevtushenko—both of them—came to San Francisco in readings sponsored by City Lights Bookstore. They were wonderful readings. Yevtushenko read at Project Artel which was a huge old factory building, but we couldn’t find a place that was big enough for him. He said he was used to reading in football stadiums in Russia. Voznesensky was here a couple of times. We read at Fillmore once between sets of the Jefferson Airplane. I got to know Voznesensky much better. We did a tour of Australia with Allen Ginsberg. In 1973 we went to the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. And then we sold out the town hall in Melbourne and Sydney. I should say that Voznesensky and Ginsberg, they sold them out. We had huge audiences. At the reading in Melbourne, it was exactly at the time when Soviets were still in Afghanistan, and just when Voznesensky was about to read, a huge parade of protesters came in and marched down all the aisles with big placards protesting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And Andrei and I were standing on stage. And he said to the audience, “What should I say?” I said, “Don’t say anything. Just stand here silently. Don’t say a thing and it will die down.” He stood there for at least fifteen minutes while the demonstrators went on. The police didn’t clear the hall or anything. Finally, the protesters went back out and Andrei read his poetry.
Guernica: I read Poetry as Insurgent Art. Is dissidence a part of poetry?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Of course! I mean you just read the book, right?
Guernica: Fair enough. Then what about Sartre’s critique, “What can a poem do for a starving child?”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: He said that?
Guernica: Yes. As someone who has dedicated his entire life to both causes, do you think there’s any validity in that? How would you respond?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Phrased like that and they quote it that Sartre said it? He probably said it in conversation some time. The phrase is taken out of context. The next phrase is probably, you can’t live without it. So I would say you can’t live without it.
Guernica: Can poetry change the world?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poetry can change the world, just like any art can change the world, by changing consciousness. Of course this was the great slogan of the nineteen sixites hippies’ revolution—enlarge the area of consciousness, which quite often was done by psychedelic means. Generally, the idea was, you could change the world by changing consciousness. There were so many things that proved to be an illusion. For instance, people like Timothy Leary would say if we could feed LSD to all the heads of state then we would have universal peace. Well, that certainly proved to be not true—not that they all had it.
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This interview first appeared in Spanish in El Malpensante.