Some quick personal thoughts to mark the passing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti at age 101 last night, and then a couple ways you can support terrific young poets this week.
I admit I hated the Beats when I moved to San Francisco almost 30 years ago. I loved the dazzling linguistic rectitude of the New York Poets, the pop culture cool of the Language Poets, the much more direct revolutionary language of homocore and fanzine outbursts—not what I, as a young queer writer, considered the musty, self-obsessed, youth-fixated Beats. You couldn’t drag me within 50 yards of a bongo, or a straggly beard, or a horny, Zen-drenched meditation on the white male navel. (At Wayne State University in Detroit I’d been fortunate enough to witness Amiri Baraka’s fiery rhetorical incantations, but I could never really connect his radical Black politics to the scene he was often associated with.)
That changed—mostly, still have bongophobia—when I encountered Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s world at City Lights bookstore and in the then-still-hopping cafe culture and burgeoning Spoken Word scene here. You needed to see the poetry in action, rather than sitting on the page. I suspect this happened with a lot of headstrong young poets, eager to overturn the status quo. The Beats were a driving force, yes, but Ferlinghetti’s mission went so much farther than a genre or movement. He wanted words to live—poetry was a provocation, not a series of indentations. To be a poet meant you were gathered in community, an active verb. “Fuck art, let’s dance.”
Once you vibed to that frequency (and the amazing effect of San Francisco itself on your soul), you realized why he had to champion so many poets and movements, why he started one of the most beloved bookstores and iconic presses—and why his own writing seemed so rambunctious and unclassifiable.
Lawrence was the world’s poet, but he was also a local one in the most valuable sense of the word, the locus, the place-holder, the parter-of-curtains and (up)setter-of-tables, spiky-hearted defender of the luminous citadel and a generation’s messy expression. He wanted to raise our consciousness, spur us to action. (Examiner Managing Editor Sara Gaiser points out that when he was named the city’s first poet laureate in 1998, his inaugural speech railed against gentrification and rents rising into the $1600s—our own contemporary elegiac mode.)
And his influence still lives on for San Francisco, not just in patchouli-dusted nostalgia, but alive in the COVID- and realty-battered poetry scene that still pokes like wild fennel through the condo-paved sidewalks.
I’m thinking particularly of two instances coming up this week. James J. Siegel’s monthly Literary Speakeasy (Thu/25, 7pm on Zoom) brings together a wonderful array of writers and poets to benefit Martuni’s piano bar. James himself is wonderful poet, documenting life in the Castro and gay America in general in just-released volume The God of San Francisco. He recently put out a video reading “No Obits” from the book, which revolves around the day in August 1998 when the Bay Area reporter published its famous “No Obits” headline, announcing a miraculous pause in the 17-year flood of obituaries in its pages, and marking a turning point in the fight against AIDS.
I’m also thinking of Black Freighter Press, run by our current poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin and writer-educator Alie Jones, a “platform for Black and Brown voices to honor ancestry and propel radical imagination” (named for a Nina Simone lyric), that’s kicking off a new reading series called The Docks (Fri/27, 6pm on Zoom) that’s gathering some tremendous writers and educators who you really must hear.
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These readings are part of Ferlinghetti’s poetic legacy of outspokenness and inclusion, radical discursiveness and personal history, communal force and intimate operation. To paraphrase his famous last line in “A Far Rockaway of the Heart,” he’s now seated in the back seat of his ancestors’ eternity, reaching out to embrace them. But it’s not like we’re letting that “cardboard automobile with no license” just drive him off into the sunset.