Interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 2009

“The world needs the Beat message more than ever”  A conversation with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and celebration of his contributions to poetry, in celebration of his 90th Birthday

By Pina Piccolo

Italian translation published in Sagarana, Issue 38 October 2009


I am signaling you through the flames.


The North Pole is not where it used to be.


Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.


Civilization self-destructs.


Nemesis is knocking at the door.


What are the poets for in such an age? What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.


Scratch the surface of the 90 year old determined, Jeremiah like prophet of politically committed poetry and you find the indignant twenty-something American naval officer, with a twinkle his eyes that comes from having known surrealist poetry, shocked and indignant at the death and destruction wrought upon the people of Nagasaki by his own government . Scratch the surface of the world as it is today and you find the seeds of its configuration in that very historical moment. So it is perfectly consistent that the 90 year old version of that young surrealist naval officer should continue to issue Jeremiad-like calls that blend together that exquisitely Amerikan topos that is Manifest Destiny, with figures from Greek mythology like Nemesis, images from the 20th century science of ecology all rolled together with an Asian Zen pacifist twist, courtesy of the Beat poets that he helped put and keep on the map.

Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area from the 70’s through the early 2000, Ferlinghetti and City Lights hold a special place in my heart: at the darkest moments of US propaganda, in February 2003 when Colin Powell held his infamous press conference at the UN in front of a curtained Guernica you could pass in front of City Lights and see four big banners hanging from the balconies proclaiming that DISSENT IS NOT UNAMERICAN and you could feel like you were not alone. Later that year as the “liberator” army  occupied and wreaked havoc on Iraq, you could join a crowd celebrating the 50th anniversary  of City Lights and not feel completely dejected at the state of the world and your own powerlessness within it. That bookshop and that brand of poetry have withstood the test of decades of Cold War mentality, the Vietnam War, the Iraq wars, the wave of Christian fundamentalism, the post 911 hyper-nationalism, the ongoing US imperialist agenda and continued to take a clear stand in favor of the downtrodden and against American hubris. In other words, the establishment has not been able to bury them (and us) and it actually seems that Lawrence, and that other 90 year young, poetic  musical bard Pete Seeger  have buried quite a few of them. Obviously we haven’t won, but there is no harm in sipping small satisfactions, as we celebrate Lawrence Ferlinghetti 90th year of life.

And what a life it has been. Embodying a bundle of contradictions that often surfaces in his own poetics, a young Ferlinghetti managed in the same week to make to Eagle Scout and be arrested for shoplifting. On his balance sheet, he has  the authorship  one of the best selling collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind (which sold over 1 million copies), the co-founding of a bookshop and small press City Lights that has become an international hub for progressive poets and activists, the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  in 1956 setting off a storm of controversy and winning a  an anti- censorship sentence that still sets a precedent today and which resulted in  launching the public life of the Beats. And that message of the Beats he has continued to keep alive and promote for over 50 years acting, in his characteristic contrarian way, as a shrewd businessman among the Bohemians. The many  twists and turns in Ferlinghetti’s career are chronicled in his only authorized biography, written by Italian scholar Giada Diano, “Io sono come Omero. Vita di Lawrence Ferlinghetti”, Feltrinelli 2008.

Much of that message is still relevant today even though the surface conditions may have changed and the artistic world become more complex and enriched thanks to feminist, anti-colonialist, ecological voices. Sure the decades have passed and the issues for which Pete Seeger’s famous question “Which side are you on?”, have morphed  into different ones that often t leave us discombobulated and at loss for solutions. Models that once held our imaginations have crumbled, formerly colonized countries  and peoples are reclaiming their artistic traditions and voices and all together now, progressive artists all over the world are confronting the implications of what that means for artistic production today. As a species we facing the prospect of a planet or maybe a galaxy plotting to get rid of us, using the poisons we ourselves have produced and continue to release in all elements known to human beings. Yet inside of us, that nagging spirit, in the shape of a sprightly nonagenarian (much in contrast with the 19th century  Italian  “fanciullino” of poet Pascoli) keeps on spurring us on, calling on us to unleash the creativity we all hold inside of us against the forces of money and destruction. “Besides molding an image of the poet in the world, he created a poetic form that is at once rhetorically functional and socially vital,” the critic Larry Smith wrote. “His work exists as a vital challenge and a living presence to the contemporary artist, as an embodiment of the strong, anticool, compassionate commitment to life in an absurd time.” (as quoted in Carolyn Kellogg, in the March 24, 2009, Jacket Copy blog, The Los Angeles Times).

I was very lucky and honored to be granted an interview on the phone with Lawrence Ferlinghetti on May 19, 2009, and in spite of technological interferences (echoing speaker phone), problems with aging ears (his) and accented tongues (mine),  I was able to get some words of wisdom  that I think will be meaningful for Sagarana readers as the 9th year of the online magazine is being celebrated.  All the more pertinent given also Ferlinghetti’s commitment to disseminating international literature as his description of the mission of his publishing house testifies, “publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic. I had rather an international insurgent ferment in mind, and what has proved most fascinating are the continuing crosscurrents and cross-fertilizations between poets and writers widely separated by language or geography, coalescing in a truly supranational voice.” (as quoted in Carolyn Kellogg, in the March 24, 2009, Jacket Copy blog, The Los Angeles Times)

For many of the questions I relied on concepts laid out by Ferlinghetti is his booklet “Poetry as Insurgent Art , published in Italy as  Poesia come arte che insorge (Giunti Editore, 2009)



The book opens with apocalyptic urgings reported at the beginning of this essay and goes on to delineate through a great many aphorisms a manifesto of poetry as an accessible form of art that far from dealing with arcane subjects revels in bearing acute and truthful observations of the world (“No ideas but in the senses. Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu”). From Ferlinghetti’sPoetry as Insurgent art,  “If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space. Filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit”  “If you would be a poet, experiment with all manner of poetics, erotic broken grammars, ecstatic religions, heathen outpourings speaking in tongues, bombast public speech, automatic scribbling, surrealist sensings, streams of consciousness, found sounds, rants and raves – to create your own limbic, your own underlying voice, your ur voice.”

“My book Poetry as Insurgent Art—says Ferlinghetti—  tries to demystify poetry so that it is not the domain of a few elite people. This is supposed to be a redefinition of poetry in a very simple, down to earth way. It is not up in the clouds with the British Romantic poets. It’s not flying in the air with Woodsworth. It’s a down to earth definition. There are so many definitions of poetry in my book and they are all aimed at demystifying poetry, not making it something for the elites.”

Asked whether poetry can be used as an antidote to the mystification of language carried out by the powers that be, their attempts to further dehumanize us by making expressions like “collateral damage” part of normal, everyday speech, he answered: “ Yes, the point of bringing poetry down to earth and not being all eerie, is trying to make poetry acute, accurate observation. I don’t think a poet can do anything about the distortion and adulteration of language produced by government propaganda or using phrases like “collateral damage’, it’s a matter of people having enough education so they can see the adulteration of the language when they hear a phrase like collateral damage, when they relate it to their real life they can see what kind of obfuscation it is, what a distortion of reality it is.”

“Speech is to poetry as sound is to music, and it must sing”, “Compose on the tongue not on the page.”, “Pursue the White Whale, but don’t harpoon it. Catch its song instead”.  In “Poetry as Insurgent Art”, Ferlinghetti laments that in this century and the past one, poetry has lost its song and insists over and over of the necessity to bring it back. “Eighty or ninety years ago, when all the machines began to hum, almost (as it seemed ) in unison, the speech of man certainly began to be affected by the absolute staccato of machines. And city poetry certainly echoed it.” Asked about the start of this process, Ferlinghetti answered, “The printing press made poetry so silent that it has lost its song, and 9/10, or maybe more than 9/10 of the poetry that is published today is really prose in the typography of poetry. You can pick up any anthology and you can read poem after poem and it sounds just like prose. On the printed page it looks like a poem but it is prose; very well written, often witty, very beautiful prose. But it’s still prose and that’s one of the things that I try to combat in “Poetry as Insurgent Art”… The printing press is the first thing that is responsible for that. The Internet would continue that because it is silent. Poetry is able to get on the Internet but poetry isn’t able to get on the television which would be audible and for the poet to be a success would have to be effective audibly, like television, but they never get on there, or very seldom. The trouble is, the reason why most poetry is prose today, most of it has no emotion in it, for instance.  Every age gets the type of poetry it deserves, this is a Technocratic Age and I’m afraid the Internet encourages that, it encourages the technocratic, the pragmatic, there is no poetic aspect of consciousness, everything is boiled down to a few telescoped letters, you get into text messaging, Tweetering, compressing everything into a few syllables, totally shorn of any poetic consciousness. I don’t know what the poets are going to do. Except poetry readings are more and more popular, at least in the US, and for instance, you should hear Jack Hirschman. …He is a great performer and evidently he is very popular in Italy, he is there on tour right now. He is very much in tune with what I am saying, he is trying to bring sound and song and melody back into poetry.

If poets are not producing poetry it does not mean that poetry is not being produced, just that someone else is doing it, and Ferlinghetti identifies the folk singers as the purveyors of poetry as song  today, or as eloquently puts it “Dig folk singers who are the true singing poets of yesterday and today “.  When I asked him if he was familiar with De Andrè he said he had heard him and reminded him of the French song writer singers, like Leo Ferrè who were popular after WWII. . . and there were other people there who really were the poets, and Bob Dylan in this country. Bob Dylan was a poet first, his long, early songs are really long surrealist poems, and there were other important folk singers, some not quite as famous. For instance, there is one living down by the Texan border, his name is Tom Russell, he is first of all a poet, and he is saying a lot of very important things about American culture and he sings them. These are the real poets; they have a big audience, not just a little one. I mean how many books of poetry did most poets sell? But unfortunately I can’t play a guitar, I wish I could because that’s where the real audience is. You know they just had a 90th birthday celebration for Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden in New York and all the great folk singers came, except for Bob Dylan, he wasn’t there, but all the rest of them were there. Pete Seeger was, I could say, much more important as a poet even than Allen Ginsberg. Everything he was saying is still very valid today as poetry. I just heard a song of his from early on in his career, he had a song about the workers, it was about a strike that was going on, but it transcended all that because the refrain of the poem was “Which side are you on?” and that’s even more valid today .I really hope you will emphasize in your interview that today the United States is on the wrong side of the world revolution, by which I mean the people’s revolution. The people of the world are rising up everywhere; I mean national governments are not able to combat what we call “terrorist” groups, all over the world… al Qaida or whatever you want to call them, the groups that are not nations. Nations have no way to combat them, because even though they have big armies they can’t find the enemy. This is all over the world, in Africa, the peoples’ movements in so many African countries and in South America. You have movements in Venezuela and in Bolivia, these are people’s revolutions and the United States is on the wrong side of the revolution. Martin Luther King said this in a speech just before he died in 1968. He said that, way back then.”

It is in this context that the Beat message is still extremely relevant today. For instance, the Beat message has spread around the world. So it has had a big influence in places like Mexico and Prague, in the Czech Republic. There has been an enormous influence of the Beat poets because the Beat message is against everything that is happening today. It is pacifist, it is anti-technocratic, anti-materialistic, it has a Buddhist consciousness and these things are just the opposite of what is happening today. It is like the world needs the Beat message more than ever, it really has had a great effect on countries like Mexico, there is a whole, enormous amount of Mexican poets that are affected by poets like Ginsberg, Kerouac and myself too- even though I never included myself as a Beat-. You can say this is in a way revolutionary art that is being transferred to other countries.

in Italy, there is an enormous influence of American poetry. La Casa della Poesia disseminates American poetry constantly and there are many American poets that have their books published in Italy by some of the biggest publishers there. Kerouac is published by Mondadori and so am I.… We had a City Lights Italy in Florence for about 10 years, Antonio Bertoli was running it and a City Lights Italia press as well, but  then the whole thing folded. He had a tour of American poets in about 7 or 8 Italian cities around 1998. We had a very successful tour, with huge crowds in cities everywhere from Torino to Calabria. In contrast nothing like this is happening in France. No publications, no poetry readings by American poets, the difference in literature in general is enormous.

In relation to his own dissemination of Italian poetry in the US, Ferlinghetti says, “I translated selected poems from Pasolini’ and published  book by the title Roman Poems together with Francesca Valente, who at that time was the Director of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in San Francisco.  When we translated that book together her English was about as bad as my Italian, but we worked on it for a whole year and I think it came out well. Jack Hirschman thinks that it is one of the most important books City Lights has ever published. We are now working on another book of Pasolini, which Jack Hirschman is editing and it should be published next year. The title is going to be “In danger”. It’s not a book of poetry, it is quite a large selection of his writings. There will be some critical essays and quite a few political essays.

Going back to the US being on the wrong side of revolution, Ferlinghetti spoke of the destruction of cultures wrought by American corporate monoculture, “American corporate monoculture is sweeping around the world as a part of globalization. It destroys the local cultures, the indigenous cultures wherever it goes. I was in Oaxaca, I met Toledo a leading artist there, the head of the Instituto de Cultura Indigena, he and his group had just succeeded in keeping Mac Donalds out of Oaxaca and I said to him, ” “Well that’s a temporary victory, you haven’t won the war. If you came back here in 20 years, I bet that there would be not only Mac Donalds but every other big, American monoculture type of industry, restaurants or shops. Because the dynamic of the American monoculture is so powerful that it runs over everything. The old cultures are disappearing overnight in some of these countries.”

And American corporate monoculture brings with it its technocratic ethos,” Well, obviously one can oppose Internet and technology because the Internet is sweeping the whole world and transforming all civilization and consciousness. It’s useless to take a Luddite position against what internet can do for the dissemination of poetry.  But if you look at it from a long distance point of view, this is a civilization, including Internet, which is built on electricity. If the electricity were to go off tomorrow morning, as it may very well, given the state of the ecology, the whole ecosystem could crash overnight, just like a computer. I mean literally overnight and as soon as electricity goes off, the whole electronic civilization would cease to exist just in a second and we’ll be back to square one with printed books. I was at the award ceremony of the National Book Award about three years ago and in my acceptance speech I said just this. When I was asked by the television interviewer what do you think of the dominant culture of America that allows you one poem in its program?” I said:”You said dominant culture. The dominant culture is the TV culture, but the main stream of culture of our civilization is still the intellectuals, the writers, the poets, the painters, the professions, the high school teachers, the librarians, the newspaper critics, the journalists and everyone who is carrying forth the Greco-Roman civilization, the European civilization, which is what basically is still meant by culture in the US today.”

Going back, full circle to the “apocalyptic voice” which is sorely needed in this epoch , the voice that Ferlinghetti  urges poets to sing in today If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of Apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic, Ferlinghetti said, “Allen Ginsberg wrote in an apocalyptic style sometimes and the times call for it. The world needs that apocalyptic voice. Of course it’s being ignored by all the Establishment media. I know some people would be [put off by apocalyptic poetry] they want nothing but “feel good” news, “have a nice day”. Well, but the people need to hear that. They need to hear that the world might come to an end tomorrow morning on account of the ecological crisis… I’m afraid I don’t hear too many of those voices among American poets today. I think most of the poets here are sound asleep, like the rest of the country. Lulled to sleep by television. San Francisco is one of the few places where there is any dissident poetry these days.” And who better then Ferlinghetti could give us examples of what sounding an apocalyptic trumpet through poetry would be like, through his own poetry. I have chosen 3 of his poems, Pity the Nation (suggested by Ferlinghetti himself), Cries of Animals Dying and The History of the Airplane.



(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep

and whose shepherds mislead them

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars

Whose sages are silenced

and whose bigots haunt the airwaves

Pity the nation that raises not its voice

except to praise conquerers

and acclaim the bully as hero

and aims to rule the world

by force and by torture

Pity the nation that knows

no other language but its own

and no other culture but its own

Pity the nation whose breath is money

and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed

Pity the nation Oh pity the people

the people of the earth of every nation–

And my country, tears of thee

Sweet land of liberty!


— Lawrence Ferlinghetti

San Francisco, January, 2006

In a dream within a dream I dreamt a dream
of all the animals dying out
all animals everywhere
dying & dying
the wild animals the longhaired animals
winged animals feathered animals
clawed & scaled & furry animals
rutting & dying & dying
in shrinking rainforests
in piney woods and high sierras
on shrinking prairies & tumbleweed mesas
captured beaten starved & stunned
cornered and traded
species not meant to be nomadic
wandering rootless as man
All the animals crying out
in their hidden places
slinking away and crawling away
through the last wild places
through the dense underbrush
the last Great Thickets
beyond the mountains
crisscrossed with switchbacks
beyond the marshes
beyond the plains and fences
(the West won with barbed-wire machines)
in the high country
in the low country
in the bayous
crisscrossed with highways
In a dream within a dream I dreamt
of how they feed & rut & run & hide
how the seals are beaten on ice f elds
the soft white furry seals with eggshell skulls
the great green turtles beaten & eaten
exotic birds netted & caged & tethered
rare wild beasts & strange reptiles & weird woozoos
hunted down for zoos
by bearded black marketers
who afterwards ride around Singapore
in German limousines
with French whores
In a dream within a dream I dreamt a dream
of all the earth drying up
to a burnt cinder
in the famous Greenhouse Effect
under a canopy of carbon dioxide
breathed out by a billion
infernal combustion engines
mixed with the sweet smell of burning flesh
And all the animals calling to each other
In codes we never understand
The seal and steer cry out
in the same voice the same cry
The wounds never heal
in the commonweal of animals
We steal their lives
to feed our own
and with their lives
our dreams are sown
In a dream within a dream I dreamt a dream
of the daily scrimmage for existence
in the wind-up model of the universe
the spinning meat-wheel world
about to consume itself
And in a dream within a dream I saw
how the bad breath of machines
sickens earth and man
and consumer culture
eats earth and man
and bottom-line capitalism
masquerading as democracy
rapes earth and man
But in a dream I dreamt a dream of how
all the watershed people of the earth
all the ethnic peoples of the earth
all the disenfranchised people of the world
the Mom-and-Pop people of America
the youth of America and the poor of America
would at last rise up
and dismantle industrial civilization
without killing anybody
and save mankind from itself.


The History of the Airplane
A poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

And the Wright Brothers said they thought
They had invented something
That could bring peace on earth
If the wrong brothers didn’t get hold of it,
When their wonderful flying machine
Took off at Kitty Hawk
Into the kingdom of birds,
But the parliament of birds
Was freaked out by this man-made bird
And fled to heaven;

And then the famous Spirit of St. Louis
Took off eastward and flew across the Big Pond
With ‘Lindy’ at the controls
In his leather helmet and goggles
Hoping to sight the doves of peace
But he did not
Even though he circled Versailles;

And then the famous flying clipper took off
In the opposite direction
And flew across the terrific pacific
But the pacific doves were frighted
By this strange amphibious bird
And hid in the orient sky;
And then the famous flying fortress took off
Bristling with guns and testosterone
To make the world safe for peace and capitalism
But the birds of peace were nowhere to be found
Before or after Hiroshima;

And so then
Clever men
Built bigger and faster flying machines
And these great man-made birds
With jet plumage
Flew higher than any real birds
And seemed about to fly into the sun
And melt their wings
And like Icarus fall to earth.

And the Wright Brothers were long forgotten
In the high-flying bombers
That now began to visit their blessings
On various Third Worlds
All the while claiming
They were searching for the doves of peace;
And they kept flying
And flying and flying
Until they flew right into the 21st century;

And then one fine day
A third world struck back
And stormed the great planes
And flew them straight into
The beating heart of skyscraper America
Where there were no aviaries
Or parliaments of doves
And in a blinding flash
America became part
of the scorched earth
of the world;

And a wind of ashes
Blew across this land
And for one long moment in eternity
There was chaos and despair
And buried loves and voices
Cries and Whispers
Fill the air