The Legacy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Jack Foley interviews Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Part 1

A celebration of Ferlinghetti’s career and of his book from New Directions, Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, edited by Nancy J. Peters. The back cover reads, “In 1953 Lawrence Ferlinghetti cofounded City Lights, the first paperback bookstore in the United States, a Mecca for millions. His Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best-selling volumes of poetry by any living American poet. Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919, Ferlinghetti has received the Robert Frost Memorial Medal and the first Literarian Award of the National Book Foundation.” It has blurbs from Bob Dylan (“A brave man and a brave poet”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“Lawrence gets you laughing then hits you with the truth”).
An interview KPFA’s Jack Foley did with Lawrence Ferlinghetti on January 3, 1990.
The interview took place at City Lights and in it Ferlinghetti candidly discusses his entire career. Though the interview is twenty-eight years old, we think you will find it as fresh today as the day it was recorded. Carl Landauer writes, “I can’t say enough how good the interview was.”
This is Ferlinghetti’s famous ars poetica, “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” from A Coney Island of the Mind (1958):
Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                              above the heads
                                                                    of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                  climbs on rime
                                             to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                            above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                                 to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                                   and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                                  and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                                  for what it may not be
       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                       taut truth
                                     before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                       toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                           with gravity
                                                      to start her death-defying leap
      And he
                a little charleychaplin man
                                             who may or may not catch
                   her fair eternal form
                                          spreadeagled in the empty air
                        of existence
And this is a poem in tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti by Jack Foley, from Sketches Poetical, a collaborative book by Foley (text) and artist Helen Breger:
My name was Lawrence Ferling.
There are more allusions in my poetry
than there are in The Waste Land.
I am a painter and a publisher and a book
store owner. After
invading Normandy,
I came to San Francisco.
I published one of the greatest dirty poems of the twentieth century.
I took the phrase “a coney island of the mind”
from Henry Miller and made it
the title of my marvelous, hugely popular book of poems.
Like Jack Kerouac, I spoke French to my mother
except (but I didn’t know) she was my aunt.
I had an incredibly complex, confusing childhood
but was nonetheless a child of privilege.
I wrote painterly poems and “oral messages.”
I embraced the downtrodden, the lost, the outcast.
I denounced the government and “autogeddon”
(a word I took from Heathcote Williams)
but was a successful and eventually rich
My bookstore became a national monument.
I am a street in the city of San Francisco.
Vorrei ringraziare tutti—e anche i miei genitori immigranti.
I am Lawrence
I never knew my father.