He inspired me, and so many others, to a life in poetry
Lawrence’s voice is on the radio. I just got back from a raise-a-glass party in City Lights’ editor Garrett Caples’s backyard and I’m feeling high on poetry, lit up enough to write a volume of sparking wordplay and goofy nostalgia crossed with tough-love revolutionary joy like “Coney Island of the Mind” #4, now beaming over KPFA all the way from 1956. Have you heard the man read? It was that voice, not his text, that first turned my brain inside out. Lying on my twin bed at sunrise on the forgotten end of the City, twenty straight hours worth of poems fizzling in cold black coffee perched on my chest, Ferlinghetti’s voice (face?) on the turntable; raising the clear blue flag of friendship. I wanted to do that, too!
I first heard his name when I was 17 and had just taken the cloth. I rode BART from Berkeley to City Lights looking to bump into him so I could give him my latest copy-shop book. He graciously took it, then pointed me to the bookstore’s consignment section, probably (still) the best in the Bay. Eighteen years later I handed him my novella: rejected, but with a handwritten postcard full of publishing tips. Still later he walked out of his office while I was reading for the first time at the store: stopped to listen. And just a few days ago, in the grand scheme of things, I was recording a podcast in his personal office: a slice of uninsulated attic on the second floor of the bookstore festooned with ephemera so close to my heart it could have been heat-set on my ribcage.
Garrett tells me Ferlinghetti had been stationed in that corner office since the very beginning, which makes sense since I don’t think his attitude toward publishing ever changed. Lawrence saw poetry as popular art, as the song of our commons if there was any justice, and he built a successful business on that vision.
And it was the man (or at least his persona) who anchored that bookstore, a kind of antiauthoritarian boat/safehouse for poetry, who really inspired me, maybe even more than the great poet who wrote “Coney Island of the Mind” inspired and still inspires me. Yes he published Howl and defended it in court, which would have been enough. But his life’s work ended up being all about giving us a place to gather, together and apart. Ferl’s poems, his risky press, and his shop all gave me the hunch that a life in poetry would lead to a lot of deep friendships. And that turned out to be true.