Sunday, April 17, 2016
I want to thank all the editors who considered and had nice words about my unpublished interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The thing is, I'm really intent on having it published in its complete long-form -- because it's that good, a meaty twenty-page Q&A transcribed almost verbatim from my audiotape. The interview reads like two tennis pros hitting balls to each other. (Obviously, I do NOT put myself at Ferlinghetti's level, but, by the time of this interview, I had developed a high level of expertise on "Howl," the main subject of my interview, and it reads like it.)
So, considering I want it published in its entirety, I'm self-publishing it now. Here it is, for the first time, my fully transcribed one-on-one Q&A with Ferlinghetti.
Paul Iorio's Exclusive Interview with Ferlinghetti -- Finally Published.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore, earlier this year. [photo credit by Paul Iorio]
Sixty years ago next month, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" was first published.
It initially appeared in a mimeographed edition on May 16, 1956, and had a print run of a few dozen copies.
The subsequent edition, published months later by City Lights Books -- titled "Howl and Other Poems" -- would go on to sell around a million copies, but only after it had become the subject of a landmark obscenity trial the following year.
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights, published "Howl" in November 1956 and was soon arrested by the local police department for selling it, charged (along with bookstore clerk Shig Murao) with selling obscene material. (He was later acquitted of all charges. Today, of course, the poem is considered a landmark of twentieth century literature.)
On August 29, 2000, Ferlinghetti and I talked, in an exclusive one-on-one interview, about many aspects of "Howl."
At the time of the interview, I had just finished a year of immersion in the subject, beginning in late 1999 when I did a massive amount of research on Ginsberg for a story that ran in The Washington Post on May 7, 2000. I then did further copious research for a piece I was writing on the first public reading (at San Francisco's Six Gallery) of the poem; that story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 28, 2000.
So, by the time I got around to interviewing Ferlinghetti, I had become something of an expert on the poem and had come up with around two hundred questions I wanted to ask him!
My Q&A with Ferlinghetti began at around 5:30 p.m. on the 29th at his office at City Lights. We then continued talking as we walked around North Beach together to a restaurant called Tosca. There, a little after 6 p.m., the two of us took a back table and talked for an hour.
I recorded the entire conversation on an audiotape that I still have.
The whole interview had never been fully transcribed until March 2016 and has never been posted or published anywhere until now.
Only 225 words of the nearly 5,000-word conversation have ever been published anywhere. (I used those 225 words in that Chronicle story, which has since become required reading at ivy league and other universities worldwide. Years later, my story was quoted and cited in Jonah Raskin's book "American Scream.")
This transcript here has been only lightly edited and runs for nearly 4,000 words, drilling deeper into aspects of "Howl" than most journalists and scholars have gone before.
Nobody else was present at the 90-minute interview (though Ferlinghetti's City Lights associate Nancy Peters came in to get him in the final fifteen minutes). (In those last minutes, she sat with us and briefly spoke with Ferlinghetti a couple times.)
Here's the transcript. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams: Hold on to your hats and gowns, we're going deep into Ginsberg's hell.
Paul Iorio: I'd like to start at the beginning with when you met Allen Ginsberg. I heard that he strolled into City Lights and...
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Someone's imagination added the stroll! [laughs]
Iorio: He lived in the neighborhood, didn't he? He lived at 1010 Montgomery.
Ferlinghetti: That was later. Let me begin at the beginning. I was in France on the G.I. Bill getting a doctorate at the Sorbonne and I didn't know any American poets. I was living with a French family ...and while the Beats were at Columbia University and in Times Square and hitchhiking around the country, I was doing that in France. I wasn't a member of the original Beat group...
Iorio: You were slightly older than them.
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, except [William] Burroughs was much older. Yeah, I was seven years older than [Allen] Ginsberg, five or six years older than [Jack] Kerouac. So, I came to San Francisco and started City Lights with Peter D. Martin in June 1953 and naturally I started meeting poets because poets naturally congregate at bookstores. And it was just a couple years after we got started that Ginsberg came through, I think he'd been in Mexico, came up from Mexico and hadn't met Peter Orlovsky by then, who became his steady boyfriend. He'd been in San Francisco a few weeks or months before he came around to City Lights. Must have been in '55.
Iorio: Right, some would say August 1955. I went through [Ginsberg's] journals and he stayed with the Cassadys in San Jose in June ’54 and then Carolyn Cassady kicked him out in August '54, at which point he moved across from City Lights. Did you see him in the neighborhood at any point --
Ferlinghetti: No, I never saw him till he came into the bookstore. At that point, I was living on Potrero Hill, I was married and leading a bourgeois life and didn't stay down in North Beach at night much. So I didn't meet him until he came in the store with his manuscript.
Iorio:...Ginsberg showed you poems early on at that first meeting. Do you remember what poems he showed you?
Ferlinghetti: He showed me "Howl" -- that was the first thing I saw. Where did you get the information that he showed me earlier poems?
Iorio: The Michael Schumacher book “Dharma Lion.”
Ferlinghetti: Schumacher never interviewed me. There is so much erroneous information in the biographies. Ann Charters was the first Kerouac biographer. She knew him personally and it was much more direct and first generation, whereas the later biographers were a generation or two removed.
Iorio:....A couple books say that you turned down early poems by Ginsberg.
Ferlinghetti: Much later, he showed me earlier poems that were published after that under the title “Green Automobile.”
Iorio: The fourth part of “Howl,” am I right? "Green Automobile" was originally the fourth part of “Howl”?
Ferlinghetti: No. Where did you get that?
Iorio: That’s in a book by --
Ferlinghetti: Totally wrong!...It’s not at all in the same style. I don’t see how it could possibly be seen as the fourth part.
Iorio: When he showed you that first draft of "Howl," what did you think?
Ferlinghetti: It wasn't a first draft. He considered it ready to publish. It was a final draft. And he had already produced a mimeographed edition typed by Kenneth Rexroth's wife, Marthe Rexworth, who was working at San Francisco State at the time, and she typed this mimeographed version. Which is very rare. Rare bookdealers get more for it than they do for our first editions of "Howl" in the City Lights series. Twenty copies or something like that [Note: Ferlinghetti appears to be factually wrong here about the date of the mimeographed edition; that first "Howl," according to multiple sources, is dated May 16, 1956.] By the time he came to City Lights and gave me the manuscript to publish, it was what he considered final form.
Iorio: Schumacher says that you rejected that version.
Iorio: What he wrote in "Dharma Lion" is that City Lights didn't have the money to do it. But I guess not.
Ferlinghetti: [nods no] When I read it, I immediately saw that it was totally new, there was nothing like that up to that point. At that time, poetry was very academic and the king of the poetry mountain was Karl Shapiro, who was editor of Poetry, Chicago. He turned into an academic with many years at U.C. Davis after that. So, it was a real academic poetry scene before "Howl" [which] sort of kicked the sides out of everything, the way when the rock 'n' roll revolution started in the Sixties, cool jazz just disappeared. So when he gave me the manuscript, I first said, "We don't have any money right now, but soon." Then the "Howl" reading at Six Gallery was like two nights later.
Iorio: So, that would place it in October....Now, the Six Gallery thing, Ginsberg was organizing it. Did he approach you? He probably wanted you to read, didn't he? "Pictures of the Gone World" had already come out --
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, but I wasn't one of his gang. I wasn't one of his group at all. He sort of considered me like a square bookshop owner. In Kerouac's book "Big Sur," which he wrote in my cabin at Big Sur much later when he old and alcoholic, he has a character in there that's supposed to be me. I think the character is called Mendez Monsanto [note: it's actually Lawrence Monsanto], which is my maternal grandfather's [last] name. But in that book, Kerouac's picture of me is as a genial businessman. I wasn't in the inner circle at all. I wasn't invited to read at the "Howl" reading because I wasn't really known as a poet. I think "Pictures of the Gone World" might not even have been published. [Note: "Pictures of the Gone World" had been released a couple months earlier.]
Iorio: Of course, you went on to outsell --
Ferlinghetti: I mean, I was totally straight, I was married living this bourgeois life and I wasn't one of them. They were this wild gang of dope-smoking, etcetera.
Iorio: The story has it that [on] October 13, the reading at 6 Gallery, you invited everyone to get in the car, everyone was going over to this Friday night reading, you and your wife invited Kerouac and Ginsberg to drive over in your car.
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, we had an old Aston Martin, my first car I ever owned, I bought second-hand. Little tiny car and there were three or four in the back. Maybe there were three: Kerouac, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.
Iorio: I'm trying to picture it. So, they came in from Berkeley.
Iorio: They must've taken the BART [train] --
Ferlinghetti: There was no BART then.
Iorio: But they were living on Milvia [Street in Berkeley] --
Ferlinghetti: There was only one level on the Bay Bridge. There were trains on the other level on the Bay Bridge. They probably came over on the train.
Iorio: And then they met you at City Lights.
Ferlinghetti: Yes. I think so. I was living in Potrero Hill. Maybe I picked them up somewhere...
Iorio: According to Ginsberg's journals, he was living on Milvia Street at this point.
Ferlinghetti: Oh, that was in Berkeley, in the cottage.
Iorio: Yeah, cottage. He wrote that poem, you know, in "Reality Sandwiches." Kerouac was staying with him just for the weekend.
Ferlinghetti: Kerouac never really lived here except for short periods when he worked on the Southern Pacific as a brakeman. And he lived in a hotel down by the old Southern Pacific railroad station, which is near the ballpark [AT&T Park]. Near Third and Townsend.
Iorio: So, you're driving, you're in the Aston -- and what's it like driving over there? Was Ginsberg drunk already? Or Kerouac? Was there joking?
Ferlinghetti: Allen was never drunk. He was too intent on his career to be drunk that night. He was such a master publicist, besides being a genius poet and a genius performer. Really a master of performance. You ever hear his records?
Iorio: Yeah, I've heard him perform a few times.
Ferlinghetti: He could really turn the audience on. But anyway, did you read in one of the biographies, did they reproduce the postcard announcement for the Six Gallery reading?
Iorio: Yeah. "Six poets at Six Gallery, angels coming to --"
Ferlinghetti: Yeah. The last two words were so perfectly Ginsberg: "charming event." [laughs]
Iorio: [laughs] That's him!
Ferlinghetti: I don't know how many postcards he sent out, probably not more than ten or twenty. Who knows how many. Wish I had one.
Iorio: That would be great for the art [for my story]....I want to focus. So, you're driving and you arrive at Six Gallery. It's Cow Hollow, it's a forty minute walk [from City Lights], it's a ways away. When you get there, what's it like? Are there people outside?
Ferlinghetti: No, it wasn't that big a crowd.
Iorio: Seventy-five people or so?
Ferlinghetti: Oh, there weren't that many. I would say, forty at the most. Thirty five.
Ferlinghetti: Oh, yeah. It was a small garage.
Iorio: In a space like what?
Ferlinghetti: There was a small storefront and a garage, really, and it had a cement floor. I think the building's pretty modern now. Have you ever been around there?
Iorio: Oh, yeah. I've been there, but I've not been in.
Ferlinghetti: It's a low ceiling. And it's no bigger than the back part here [points to a small area at Tosca].
Iorio: Was there a stage?
Ferlinghetti: A little tiny stage. Could've been an improvised stage. Must have been raised up somewhat.
Iorio: So, it wasn't just a podium there.
Ferlinghetti: It was supposed to have been an art gallery...but a totally alternative art gallery....
Iorio: So, where did you sit at the reading?
Ferlinghetti: My wife and I sat somewhere in the audience. I wasn't involved in it, so I was a specatator. They didn't consider me one of them.
Iorio:...Now, Kerouac's role at the Gallery has been written about...Everyone says he was sitting on the platform, or sitting near the platform.
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, probably near the platform. The platform wasn't so high that he couldn't sit on the edge of it. He was sitting on the edge of it. He had a jug of red wine, I remember that.
Iorio: Was he taking collection for...
Ferlinghetti: He was passing the jug of red wine around. And I didn't smell any dope there, I don't think anyone was smoking dope....It was the end of the bohemian period, nobody used the word Beat then. When I arrived in San Francisco, I was the last of the bohemian generation. When I came from Paris, I was still wearing my beret. That's what bohemians wore. And when the word "Beat" started being used -- Herb Caen coined it, "Beatnik," as a real square way to put down poets, that's the way I looked at it. And that's the way the other poets looked at it. It was like a put-down. It was at the time of Sputnik, so it was slightly derogatory, you see. I didn't know a single Beat poet that didn't hate the term and didn't hate being called a Beat. Allen sort of developed it, being the master showman and publicist that he was. There wouldn't have been any Beat generation recognized as such if it hadn't been for Allen. He created it out of whole cloth, really. Without Allen, it would've been just separate great writers in the landscape. It wouldn't have been known as the Beat generation. He was the one who put it all together.
Iorio: Something like an agent, almost.
Ferlinghetti: He was fantastic. He never missed an opportunity. When he got famous and started crawling around the world, every city he went to, he had this enormous address book, he had the phone numbers and names of every important press person in that city. And he called them all up.
Iorio: He had a list he sold "Howl" to, eventually, that included Charlie Chaplin and Marlon Brando.
Ferlinghetti: Oh, sure.
Iorio: So, did you ever hear back from those guys?
Ferlinghetti: I didn't, but I'm sure he did. He heard from a lot of them.
[A City Lights associate shows up and he tells her the interview will continue for another fifteen minutes. Ferlinghetti orders a Bass Ale beer.]
Iorio: Wondering about Jack Kerouac sitting on that platform and shouting encouragement. What kinds of things was he doing?
Ferlinghetti: All I remember him shouting was "Go!"
[A waiter brings him a beer.]
Iorio: And the audience joined in with Kerouac?
Ferlinghetti: Yeah. Like I said, it wasn't 75 people, it was more like 30, 35. Kenneth Rexroth introduced it. Rexroth was really the pater familias for the poets, the elder statesman.
Iorio: [Rexroth] was wearing a bow-tie that night?
Ferlinghetti: Not a bow-tie. He was wearing a string tie. In fact, I have it. I don't know how I inherited it, but I have this tie that he wore. It's about three quarters of an inch wide.
Iorio: And was Ginsberg nervous when he got up there, was he playful --
Ferlinghetti: He wasn't nervous. But his voice was much higher than it became later. With Buddhist breathing exercises, he developed a much deeper voice. He was very serious, but he wasn't nervous.
Iorio: Was there one point during "Howl" when the audience really caught on. Was there one line or one passage --
Ferlinghetti: I don't remember there being a passage. I mean, nobody had ever heard anything like that before! That's the thing about a great poem: when you hear it for the first time, you say, I never saw the world like that before.
Iorio: Was that what you felt [when you read "Howl"]?
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, yeah. I never saw reality like this before. That's what you say when you pick up Whitman for the first time, for instance. I didn't know him well enough to go out with him afterwards, so my wife and I drove him to Potrero Hill. In those days there was no fax, no computers, of course. There were telegrams. So, I sent Allen a Western Union telegram that night saying, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do we get the manuscript?" Do you know where the first sentence came from?
Iorio: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ferlinghetti: You're right. When he first read "Leaves of Grass," he sent a note to Whitman. And Allen never mentioned that. The only way that got known was I started telling reporters about it years later. Another thing Allen never told anybody -- and I never really studied the annotated "Howl" -- Allen says he has no memory of it, but I distinctly remember there was a fifth part of "Howl" that I persuaded him to leave out. A whole page, single spaced typewritten page. And it didn't go with the rest of the poem. And I convinced him to leave it out. It just disappeared. I don't think it's in the annotated version or anywhere.
Iorio: I've never seen it. There were parts of "Howl" that were left out -- you know that -- then there were poems that were added to the mix [in the book "Howl and Other Poems"] --
Ferlinghetti: Not poems that were added to "Howl" itself. To the volume.
Iorio: To the volume, exactly. He didn't like "Greyhound Station" ["In the Baggage Room At Greyhound"]. He told you --
Ferlinghetti: I persuaded him to leave it in....He was going to leave it out....Another thing: I persuaded him to change the title. The whole title was "Howl for Carl Solomon" in the same-size letters. And I persuaded him to put "for Carl Solomon" on another page as a dedication. It made a big difference. It immediately made it universal instead of just addressed to one person.
[Ferlinghetti's associate at City Lights returns to the table and listens to our conversation.]
Iorio: You also showed it to the ACLU beforehand[before any legal troubles] --
Iorio: How did you know to do that? You had a lot of prescience there.
Ferlinghtti: My father was an auctioneer, he was a small time mafioso. He knew what he was doing. I must have inherited some of his genes.
Iorio: Do you think the trial would have gone differently had Ginsberg been in town?
Ferlinghtti: He wasn't arrested, he wasn't indicted.
Iorio: Certainly not. It was only you and Shig Murao for while. But if Ginsberg had been around, he might've been called as a witness and there might have been a lot more media hoopla.
Ferlinghetti: No, there wouldn't. Because he wasn't known. He was totally unknown -- until the book was busted. I don't know where he was. He was either on a freighter in Alaska or in Tangier.
Iorio: Morocco. He wrote to you from Morocco saying, "This looks like trouble. This is worse than the Customs action," and he was really alarmed. Do you remember any --
Ferlinghetti: Yeah, I remember that letter. I think it's in Ann Charters' "Selected Letters."
Iorio: It is, yes! Did you think [the legal action] was a boon, a help? Because you were getting publicity. Or were you alarmed?
Ferlinghetti: Oh, no, I was very happy with the whole thing. Shig was, too....
[Ferlinghetti has a brief interchange with his associate, deleted here.]
Iorio: The asterisks [redacting obscenities in "Howl"] were provisional, weren't they?
Ferlinghetti: [Ginsberg] put those asterisks in himself.
Iorio: Have you ever thought of restoring it?
Ferlinghetti: No, [Ginsberg] wanted it that way.
Iorio: How come?
Ferlinghetti: Out of respect for his mother, I guess. You read "Cottage" ["A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley"]and you realize how attached he was to his mother.
Iorio: He was. [Ginsberg's mother] Naomi was lobotomized about a month or two before "Howl" was written. Do you think that was one of the causes [of the writing of the poem]? "Howl" was such an eruption --
[A waiter appears and offers more beer.]
Ferlinghetti: [Looking at his beer, which is almost gone] There's a hole in this glass. I swallowed that in a hurry![To the waiter] Just a drop. That's enough, thanks.
Iorio:....How do you think Ginsberg actually got into the mental state to be able to do that. Do you think that it was may his mom's [lobotomy] and the friction that that caused? Or being in San Francisco among a lot of people who --
Ferlinghetti: It's more New York. I mean, it's a New York poem, really, [though] he wrote it out here....Yeah, I think his mother had a lot to do with it, because they lobotomized her....
[Ferlinghetti and his associate exchange a few words, deleted here.]
Iorio: Ginsberg was such a practical man, too. He was an agent, almost, for the Beat --
Ferlinghetti: He was very practical.
Iorio: How do you reconcile those two halves of Ginsberg? On the one hand, he was institutionalized. On the other hand, he was almost a businessman. He had an advertising job when he was in town.
Ferlinghetti: No, market research. Quote market research. It amounted to going around ringing doorbells....
Iorio: Ultimately, are you surprised by the respectability of "Howl" today? I mean, it's taught in all the universities that rejected Ginsberg [initially].
Ferlinghetti: No, I think it happened because the Beat message became the only rebellion around. It's still the same today. In fact, during the "Howl" trial, when Life magazine published a big story on the trial, the headline was, "The only rebellion around...," which is still the case. And with the dot commies and the computer consciousness...that has taken over the whole country and the world, the Beat message is needed more than ever. So [the Beats have] become this group that was saying all these things fifty, forty years ago. So, academics recognize this is an important work...
Iorio: Wasn't the [Richard] Eberhart piece in The New York Times -- remember that? "West Coast Rhythms" -- wasn't that the breakthrough thing for all these poets, wasn't that the demarcation line?
Ferlinghetti: You're reading the biographies, which are all written by east coast biographers. It was a big breakthrough in New York to get this in the Times. But on the west coast, no. The Times wasn't that much read out here! They didn't have a west coast edition of the Times at the time. That was an east coast phenomenon. Out here, the poetry scene was wild anyway, it was an anarchist scene. Kenneth Rexroth was the leading anarchist/philosopher and he had a program on KPFA radio....He didn't review just poetry; he reviewed every field: geology, astronomy, philosophy, foreign translations, you name it. I got a complete political education listening to Rexroth....KPFA was a huge intellectual influence at that time in the Bay Area....This was all separate from the New York scene and the New York carpetbaggers. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso: they were all New York carpetbaggers -- like myself.
Iorio: And Peter Martin, too, was a New Yorker.
Ferlinghetti: He was the son of Carlo Tresca, the famous Italian anarchist, who was murdered on the streets of New York, probably by the mafia. So we had this anarchist bias at the bookstore right from the beginning.
Iorio: What do you think of the theory that the San Francisco poetry renaissance was a New York poetry renaissance that happened to happen in San Francisco?
Ferlinghetti: You know, there wasn't the San Francisco renaissance here; it started in Berkeley in the late Forties. Poets like William Hewison and Robert Duncan and Thomas Parkinson, who became a professor at Berkeley....So, this was going full blast before the New York carpetbaggers arrive.
[Ferlinghetti's associate says something to him, brings up poet Gary Snyder.]
Iorio: Gary Snyder...had the bad luck of having to read after "Howl" [at Six Gallery]. Do you recall --
Ferlinghetti: I don't even remember he was there!
Iorio: OK, because it's one of those little known things.
Ferlinghetti: I guess Phillip Whelan read also?
Iorio: Whelan, Lamantia --
Ferlinghetti's associate: McClure.
Iorio: McClure was second, Ginsberg was after an intermission. Do you remember an intermission during that Six Gallery thing?
Ferlinghetti: [Nods his head no, sips his beer. His associate says a few words to him.]
Iorio:....Which ones did you get along with? I guess Rexroth. Did you ever go over to Ginsberg's place on Milvia Street?
Ferlinghetti: No, I didn't know him that well.
Iorio: And Kerouac: what kind of guy was he?
Ferlinghetti: Allen was always trying to say he was gay, but I thought that was really absurd. He was one of the biggest women-chasers I ever met. He was built like a French Canuck lumberjack.
Iorio: He played football in Lowell.
Ferlinghetti: Yeah. I didn't get to know him very well. I ended up knowing Allen much better.