A Q&A With Lawrence Ferlinghetti
by Darian Bleecher
Celebrated literary icon and founder of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is coming to UCSB’s Campbell Hall tonight, Thursday, November 2. Last week, he discussed with me the plight of independent bookstores, the current administration, and the resonant spirit of the Beat generation.
I noticed that Borders is involved at your upcoming UCSB appearance. No! I didn’t know it had anything to do with Borders. No one at the university mentioned that when we arranged the reading.
They probably knew it would bother you. Well, of course it does! Everybody knows the chain bookstores and wholesalers have wiped out independent bookstores around the country. I read in Chicago about five years ago, and my publisher at New Directions couldn’t find an independent bookstore to sell books at the reading. There was nothing but the chains.
How has City Lights survived? From the beginning, we tried to become a community center. Are there many independent bookstores there [in Santa Barbara]?
We still have a few. Are there many in San Francisco, other than City Lights? Oh yeah, there are still plenty of independent bookstores here. In fact, there’s a proposition in the November election which would make it city policy to keep out chains.
Do you feel that the way people read has changed? There are more books being published now than ever in the history of the world. There wouldn’t be if people weren’t buying them. Not everyone watches TV. And people don’t want to read whole books on a computer screen. … They’re not going to sit in bed with their computer to read a book.
You’ve been referred to as the “political Beat.” Yet you don’t consider yourself a Beat poet, per se. I was from a generation before the Beats … the last bohemian generation. That’s what writers and artists and what’s now called “counterculture” were called before the Beats — “bohemians.” I got associated with the Beats by publishing them.
And, by your arrest for doing so. I understand that when you published Howl, you preemptively enlisted the support of the ACLU. Well, yeah. We’d be out of business if it weren’t for the ACLU.
We’d all be out of business if it weren’t for the ACLU! Yet these days, people are handing over their rights on a silver platter. I consider Bush the real terrorist in the world. I heard his press conference this morning … it was embarrassing to hear this awful hicktown English! Besides his murder of the English language, he’s very arrogant … and arrogance combined with ignorance is a pretty awful combination. He used 9/11 as an excuse to generate this huge national paranoia, and because of this paranoia, he was able to pass all this legislation that decimates our Bill of Rights. I don’t know how much longer the American people are going to let him get away with it. Hopefully on November 7, we’ll see a change in all that.
Could there ever be a revolution? There won’t be any revolution in this country until there’s a depression as large as the one in the 1930s. Everyone is just too well-fed — in the ruling classes, that is — to let anything happen. So it’s going to take another really great depression. It’s bound to happen sooner or later.
Would people listen to a poetic revolution like they once did? We sell the books of the major Beat writers now more than ever. The world needs the Beat message. The Beats in the 1950s articulated most of the main tenets of the 1960s counterculture: spiritual practice, pacifism, the individual against the state. It was really a revolt of the youth against what’s happening today — we just saw the beginnings of it back then: the dehumanization, the mechanization of life. Today it’s nationalist and militarist and technocratic — it’s just the opposite of everything the Beats stood for. That’s why their message still resonates today.
Are you still awaiting a rebirth of wonder? Well, that was a very romantic concept. The older you get, the less romantic you get, I think.
Could the notion still apply to the political climate? It’ll be a wonder if the Democrats can find their backbone again. I don’t know what happened to them. … They seem to have forgotten the Democratic Party of FDR and the New Deal. It’s a different century now, different times.