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
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.