Lawrence Ferlinghetti hardly needs an introduction. At 96 years old, the publisher, poet, activist, painter, and cofounder of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore is one of the most well-known figures in American publishing. Associated with the Beat movement, Ferlinghetti helped to foster a creative counterculture literary scene in the Bay Area and became a champion of free speech during the obscenity trial related to the publication of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl.
Ferlinghetti’s newest book is Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals, 1960–2010 (Liveright, Sept.). Edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson, it gives a glimpse into Ferlinghetti’s storied life. In it, he recounts tales of being drunk in a tomato patch in Nerja on Spain’s Costa del Sol; of finding himself in Cuba in 1960, “just when the United States [was] about to break off diplomatic relations with this Moscow baby”; and of visiting his father’s birth home in Brescia, Italy, among many others.
While Ferlinghetti is often associated with San Francisco and the Beats, he never self-identified as a Beat and spent much of his life as a “seeing eye across the landscape.” In the opening of Writing Across the Landscape, he writes, “My earliest memory was abroad.” The book gives readers a taste of Ferlinghetti’s prose stylings and drawings as he goes from Mexico to Morocco, to a nail-biting journey on the Trans-Siberian Express, with glimpses of legends such as Henry Miller, Pablo Neruda, and Ezra Pound along the way. Among the places Ferlinghetti documents in the book is Paris, where he attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill, during which time he met lifelong friend George Whitman, owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company.
“When I was writing in little spiral notebooks all those years, I never expected to publish them,” Ferlinghetti says over coffee at a cafe in North Beach, Calif., two blocks from his house. The book came about after Diano, one of the author’s Italian translators, found the spiral notebooks while digging in the Ferlinghetti archive at UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft library and suggested that they be published. But because Bancroft doesn’t allow materials to be checked out, Ferlinghetti says Diano had to photograph every page of the notebooks and transcribe them. “It wouldn’t have been done without her; it was all her idea.”
Sterling Lord, whom Ferlinghetti calls the “last of the gentleman literary agents in New York,” always wanted him to write an autobiography, but Ferlinghetti hasn’t so far. Prodded about his reluctance, he says: “This book is the closest I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography. In the grand scale of things, I shouldn’t think it would be that important for me to write an autobiography. I figure my poems are my autobiography.”
As for City Lights, Ferlinghetti says that when he arrived in San Francisco in January 1951, he noticed a dearth of literary hangouts. “I had in my mind to have a nice used bookstore where I could sit in the back under a green eyeshade and read all day and growl at everybody who disturbed me.” He opened City Lights Pocket Bookshop in 1953 with Peter D. Martin. The idea was to create a literary meeting place. Two years later, Ferlinghetti started publishing the Pocket Poets series, beginning with his first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, and then, in 1956, he published Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, which prompted a prosecutor to file obscenity charges. Ferlinghetti won the case.
Ferlinghetti says it was easy to start the bookstore and, on its heels, the publishing company: “We each had $500. When I bought Peter out I gave him another $500. It was just a little one-room bookstore.” Since its inception, the bookstore has annexed the rest of the building, “one room at a time,” until 1992, when it finally occupied the entire building. Comparing publishing and bookselling, Ferlinghetti notes that publishing required a totally “different kind of expertise.”
Most people can barely manage one career, let alone several. How did Ferlinghetti juggle all of his roles? “It never occurred to me that it was a problem,” he says. “I was so busy that I didn’t have time to think about it.”
In addition to Writing Across the Landscape, Ferlinghetti is also publishing two more titles through City Lights Publishing: the 60th-anniversary edition of City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, which he edited, and I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955–1997, the title of which comes from the letter that Emerson wrote to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass.
Ferlinghetti’s only moment of melancholy comes when he admits that his family life suffered from his travels and work, and he says he regrets that. “I probably shouldn’t have traveled so much.”
There are no signs that Ferlinghetti has slowed down or stopped working due to his age. Nor has he become less vocal about his politics. Speaking of his political spirit, he says: “It’s developed. It hasn’t waned at all. It’s become more incisive, I think. I know with old age most people become more conservative. It seems I’ve gotten more radical. In fact, I’ve been writing a stream-of-consciousness book and the tentative working title is Portrait of the Artist as an Old Red.”
But Ferlinghetti does have some of the laments that anyone his age might have. He reminisces on his neighborhood and how it’s changed (“Two brand-new Mercedes parked where garbage collectors once lived”), and he is saddened by the prevalence of people staring at smartphones and laptops. “It’s surprising how little people observe what’s going around them,” he says. He also worries about the fate of writers who were once revered, such as Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence: “Who is reading those guys now? They are really important figures. No one even mentions them.”
Ferlinghetti currently spends his days writing and hanging out with friends. He has given up some of his much-loved activities due to glaucoma and macular degeneration. He regularly held a live painting group in his studio for 36 years, but one day, several months ago, someone asked if he liked the pose of the figure model and he realized he couldn’t see it. He can’t see well enough to read a computer screen, but he is still working on a book using reporter’s notebooks; he’s filled 78 of them.
And Ferlinghetti is excited about the direction that City Lights Publishers, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, is headed. It published its first children’s book, Rad American Women A to Z, this year, and he notes that it’s the first of the press’s books to hit the New York Times bestseller list. “Even Ginsberg’s Howl didn’t make that list,” he says.
Finally, how does it feel to be 96? “It’s a drag that there are so many things I can’t do now,” Ferlinghetti says. “I used to be a lap swimmer. I used to ride my bicycle every day. I’ve flunked my driving test. It’s a real drag. But my teeth haven’t fallen out yet. And I’m on my way to Paris to just hang out at Shakespeare and Company.”