by Mark Howell
… “Watchman, what of the night?” …
“Seeking refuge from the anxieties of the modern age, much amplified by amplification”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to Key West in March 1994 for his first visit in more than 50 years. He was 75 when he gave us this interview plus some unpublished poems. He had just celebrated his birthday in Jacksonville, Fla. with his daughter Julie. His son Lorenzo was “joining the working class” as an arborist in Bolinas, Calif. Their mother, the poet explained, was Selden Kirby-Smith, granddaughter of the last southern general to surrender in the Civil War. The subject of Kerouac came up soon enough ...
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: One of the bonds Jack and I had was that we both spoke French with our mothers. When Kerouac went to France he was very paranoid about his Quebecois accent, which of course the French put down like he was a country bumpkin. So Jack was really very unhappy when he went to France, he ended up drinking more and more. The French are so snobby about their language.
Mark Howell: How French are you?
LF: My mother was French-Portuguese-Sephardic. She was actually born in Providence, Rhode Island, but her family had left Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, gone into France for a couple of generations, then took a Danish crown colony expedition to St. Thomas in the Virgin islands. The graveyard in St. Thomas is full of my mother’s ancestors. When I was born my mother had a complete nervous breakdown. My father had died before I was born, she had five sons and I was one too many. She went into a mental hospital, so her French sister took me to France. When I came back to this country with my French aunt, she disappeared. I used to write her letters, it was the first writing I did, like Anais Nin writing to her absent father. My own father was from northern Italy, from Brescia. Ferlinghetti ain’t Irish.
MH: Kerouac called you Monsanto in his novels.
LF: My mother’s maiden name. Another bond I had with Kerouac, we were both Thomas Wolfe fans. Essentially Kerouac had the same sweeping vision of America that Wolfe had, a pre-World War Two America that no longer exists today except in forlorn, lost, dusty old Greyhound buses stations in the outback.
MH: Your own first novel, “Her,” did anybody influence you on that?
LF: I wrote it in an extraordinary mood. My sensibility in the Paris of 1948 was a very strange one, perhaps mood is an understatement. It was very much affected by Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood,” which is one of the great books of American writing. The heroine is Robin, the lady with the cape. She’s searching Paris for a woman she’s in love with. She goes from café to café and ends up visiting an Irish expatriate alcoholic transvestite, surprising him in bed wearing lots of lipstick and a very beautiful costume. She says to him in a distraught state, “Watchman, what of the night?” and he starts in on this monologue that is some of the most beautiful prose in all literature. I once told Djuna Barnes that I thought she wrote a man’s prose. I wouldn’t have dared say that today. But she said she considered it a high compliment.
MH: Is there something wrong with men these days?
LF: I think the American male today has generally been raised by a woman because of the large number of homes where there’s no man around. Men have been raised to please women, and they tend to abdicate their masculinity in order to please women. It was much worse before. The man did what he was gonna do and the woman had to trail afterward.
MH: How goes capitalism?
LF: Capitalism is the most wasteful form of economic organization that you could possibly have. Capitalist organizations are spreading out all over the world, and you’ve heard their motto: “Think globally.” Well, they’re thinking globally of where the cheap labor is. They’re in a race to the bottom, rushing to the country that has the cheapest labor.
MH: You always refused government hand-outs to you or your press?
LF: I don’t see how one can take money from a government that has been killing millions of people overseas in illegal wars.
MH: Did you ever think that you might not prevail?
LF: When I got started in San Francisco and we opened City Lights bookstore in 1953, it was the height of the McCarthy era – or error. Freedom of expression was really under attack. We were busted for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I mean, we were just a little one-room bookstore with no resources for legal aid, and it would have sunk us if we hadn’t had the ACLU to defend us for free. Freedom of the press is a continuing battle in which every victory is temporary.
MH: What was the high point of the 1960s for you?
LF: When I put on my beads and went to the Filmore and started dancing. The first time I took LSD wasn’t necessarily my high point of the Sixties, but certainly LSD was the high point in the liberation of consciousness. That part of the revolution did happen. What didn’t happen was a political revolution, which was aborted by the troops at Kent State. And by a general absorption into the middle class of the many Sixties heroes, especially in the musical world, who became so successful and rich that they were ingested into the system.
MH: You are an exhibited painter these days.
LF: Painting is a bride of sorts. It’s more of a – what’s the word? We can’t carry this analogy too far, I’ll get into trouble. Painting is more demanding than most wives, and very uncompromising. You can’t get away with anything with this bride, the bride of painting. That’s a good line.
MH: How about Kerouac?
LF: Jack’s first book, “The Town and the City,” is I think a much greater book than “On the Road.” It was the book he wrote before he was infected by the beat virus and it was modeled on Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.” Kerouac had the same sweeping vision of America that Wolfe had, a pre-World War Two America that no longer exists today except in forlorn, dusty old Greyhound bus stations in the outback.
MH: And America?
LF: Inasmuch as the empires of the world have been crumbling – first the French empire went, then the British empire went, then we watched as the Russian one went – now it’s our turn. The American empire is going to disintegrate. I feel that in the 21st century we’ll have more and more secessions. San Francisco never did consider itself a part of the United States. I think Key West has a great idea. Good luck to the Conch Republic.
MH: This is your second visit to Key West?
LF: I was last here half a century ago, in 1943. It’s hard to believe. It was like Hemingway’s Key West back then. We were at the Navy base on escort vessels, and going to submarine school to find out how submariners thought. We went down in submarines here. I think we only stayed six weeks, maybe two months. We ended up spending a good deal of time at the Carline Street house of Jesse Porter Kirk, through a buddy of mine in the Navy who was a marvelous piano player. He played ragtime, he played South Pacific music, he was great person to have at a party. Jesse would invite us to every party she had at her gorgeous house.
MH: Didn’t you invite Jesse’s daughter Jeanne out on a date last night?
LF: She was nowhere to be seen. I think she was 16 when I first visited here, just running around the house and the garden, skipping. A whole bunch of us did go out last night, but I think Jeanne had retired already. We went to a very noisy bar up the street and stayed about 10 minutes. You know, tourists could be weaned from the electronic age if the city of Key West became known as the one place in the whole of the United States where you could go and hear nothing but pure, non-amplified music. We pollute Caroline Street with electronic music. The hope is that some electronic angel will make our ears mutate so we don’t hear this awful racket. People who are seeking refuge from the anxiety of the modern age, which is much amplified by amplification, would be able to come down here as a last refuge. Key West could become famous for that. The last refuge.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
by Mark Howell