Demosthenes Agrafiotis

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: a reticent World Traveler

On June, 2002, the VIII International Poetry Festival is organized in Genoa under the curatorship of Claudio Pozzani. Genoa, the competitor of Venice, holds a strong position in the Italian peninsula, but it has never surpassed the Serenissima in glory, riches or prestige. In today’s circumstances, the city of Genovese admirals and of Christopher Columbus stays away from the whirlwind of tourism, exactly because of that second place in the race for domination and greediness. However, the old mansions that used to belong to Genovese merchants, sea captains, pirates and warlords have been restored with much care and the whole city exudes a distinctive aroma of majesty. Besides, in 2006, the city was pronounced by UNESCO as an International Architectural Heritage site. The city (Genova Superba) spreads out on the hills and ends in the harbor, which is still alive and active and serves the needs of the western part of Italy, and which, furthermore, is now adorned by an architectural work created by Renzo Piano, right at the center of the Ligurian Bay.

The atmosphere in 2002 had nothing to remind us of the Genoa of just a few months ago when, in 2001, the meeting of the World Powers (G8) took place, and of the drama that followed with the death of the young protester, Carlo Giuliani. (See: D. Agrafiotis, “The Broken Equilibrium. On Crisiology,” Bibliotheque, Athens 2018, pg. 62.) At that time, Italy had been turned into an amusement park and a circus, thanks to the control of the culture industry by Silvio Berlusconi. Using as a point of reference the fiesta-celebrations organized by Benito Mussolini and his black-shirt followers, as well as the soccer-vespers in the full-to-capacity stadiums, “Buga-Buga” was using the medium of television, full of his half-naked models, to pin the viewers to their armchairs. And without ever giving up his control of newspapers, magazines and soccer team ownership, he had been able to offer Bread and Circuses to millions of his countrymen addicted to the cheap, stupefying entertainment. One question emerged: to what degree that kind of power strategy is interconnected with the strategy of the mafia? The cultural and social horizon in the beginning of the new millennium appeared vague and suffocating, and the Festival faced a multitude of obstacles and contradictions in the existing socio-political situation.

Among the poets participating in the Festival were Lawrence Ferlinghetti (USA), Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chile) and Joy Harjo (USA), a First Nations poet of the Muscogee Creek Nation and now, since June, 2019, U.S. Poet Laureate. We hardly saw the Chilean poet, except during his readings. The First Nations poet, being active in the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, seemed always to be surrounded by members of the Italian gay community. With Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the situation was quite complex, as it will become evident in the following paragraphs.

Both Michèle Valley and I were participating at the Festival, since we had been invited to present a “total sound” musical poem which consisted of my poems, or verses of my poems, in three language versions – Greek, Italian and French from my collection “Maribor” (Erato, Athens, 2004), that is, a duet using the three languages as sound components.

One of the visitors was the important collector of the Fluxus movement, publisher and art activist of the Neo-Dada avant-garde Francesco Conz, with whom I had a continuous and productive colaboration until his death in 2010. At the same festival, David Giannoni wanted to fly over the city with a helicopter and throw leaflets of poems. In the end, he climbed the dome of the city hall and from there he threw his leaflets to the Genovese.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti used to stay for many hours in his room at our hotel. He would come out for some of his meals, but even then, for a very short time. He would come out for the readings – discreetly performative – and for the interviews organized by the Festival. The reporters were always chasing him for something more special or exclusive, but he gave almost all his interviews in the presence of the other poets. I also took part in three of those interviews. He was expressing eloquently his political views, persistently pointing at the neo-crypto-fascist strategy of the then leading Italian order and denouncing the political games of Berlusconi and of capitalism in general. The reporters were showing enough interest for the other poets also, but the titles of their articles usually referred to the words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who kept disappearing from the stage, reminding one of the old Hollywood stars as they played (and still play) hide-and-seek with the mass media.

One sunny day, I convinced him to come with me on a stroll in the city. I used as an argument his dissertation at the Sorbonne whose subject was exactly “La citè comme symbole” (“The city as a symbol”) 1950. That little excursion in the alleys of the old city gave an opportunity to Michèle Valley to photograph us and to me to ask him many questions. From all the things that were said then, I have retained a few “fragments” which I set forth here, along, of course, with any possible misunderstandings, the fading of my memories and my later readings of his work and his biography.

I started with the war stories, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti had served in the navy during the Normandy landing (June 6, 1944) and more specifically on the deck of one of the ships charged with sounding the alarm at the presence of German submarines. He also visited Nagasaki in 1945, with the ship on which he served then.

He very quickly bypassed the subject of the landing, but he stopped for some time at his experience in seeing Nagasaki, stressing the horror he felt but also the harshness of the Americans in excessively punishing the Japanese people, when they had already won the war. He expressed with a gesture that from that time on he became a pacifist. Not a bit of nostalgia for the war epic, but on the contrary, a strict dedication to peace. Almost one-word answers, vacant stare.

We spoke about Ezra Pound, but I don’t remember his views exactly. And then the talk came to the “Beat Generation.” He didn’t like the name “Beat.” When I asked him how he explained the fact that Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was enjoying a huge popularity, while other poets with a more serious body of work, like for example Jerome Rothenberg, were not treated as generously by the media. His answer was that the media always look for stereotypes and for “heroes” in order to come up with sensational micro-narratives. He went on to say that what’s important was that in the decade of the 60s, in both coasts of the U.S., there was an infinite number of initiatives taken about writing and reading poetry, and there was publication of all kinds of books, magazines and fanzines (chapbooks). Also, we should not forget that Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself had published Ginsberg’s book “Howl” in 1957, something for which he was arrested and tried as a publisher for offending public decency.

He was more generous in his references to his friend George Whitman, the “legendary” and eccentric founder of the “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore on the banks of Seine , 37 rue de la Bûcherie in Paris. George Whitman supplied books for the American students in Paris, and in the beginning, he worked out of a small room which was also his living space. Later on, he created the bookstore which became point of reference in the City of Light. He died in 2011, when he was 98 years old.

In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti along with Peter D. Martin started the adventure of “City Lights” in San Francisco. Inspired by George Whitman, they created a bookstore that was to become a meeting place, a hangout, offering small books in the spirit of “counter culture.” (The name of the bookstore was taken from the title of Charlie Chaplin’s movie, 1931.) Two years after the opening, he started publishing small books (pocket books) of poetry: Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski, Ginsberg and so many others. (When I visited the bookstore in 2007, I recognized the atmosphere of “chaos” that so much appeals to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.) I expected him to tell me more details about the poets’ editions, but he only said that what they had tried to do was to create an anti-system in the area of publishing and in the promotion of experimental writing. (When I visited the bookstore in October of 2007, I was received by one of his assistants who was of Greek descent and who explained to me the difficulties of keeping the place alive by organizing activities, readings and performance art.)

During our stroll, Lawrence Ferlinghetti showed a particular interest for what was happening in Italy, which was of course his father’s origin. His mother, with the name Clemence Albertine Monsanto, had been raised in a Jewish family from Portugal of Sephardic Hebrew origin. After the death of his father (on March 24, 1919 and before his own birth in Yonkers, New York,) his upbringing was entrusted to his aunt Emily and they lived for a few years in Strasburg, France. Later on, he was adopted by a wealthy Manhattan family. I asked him about his feelings for the Italians and the French. He said that he felt closer to the Italians, and that he was moved by the fact that they were still fighting against capitalism, but he found the French trapped in an air of seriousness. As about the events of 1968, he thought they were coated in a bourgeois color, which was why he tried to stay true to the spirit of Antonin Artaud.

Until his recent death in February, 2021, he lived in San Francisco, in North Beach, a neighborhood that reminds one of Italy, with coffee shops where still the regulars, one by one and then all together, will hum and sing Italian opera, proving for once more the popular roots of Opera among the Italians, and also among the immigrants of Italian origin to the United States.

As I mentioned before, in his interviews he was brief and nonconformist, in our conversations he was reticent and observed a certain economy for the essential, something that was unexpected to me. As to his beloved Italy, after all those years of political wrestling and labor struggle, today it has unfortunately fallen to a dramatically downgraded political state: after widespread corruption it has fallen in the hands of ruthless manipulators of the so-called social media of the “Five Star Movement” and the bottomless cynicism of “Neo-Benito” Salvini. How Lawrence Ferlinghetti could ever imagine in 2002 that his own country would provide Italy with new communication technologies that would become the medium of a most fiendish social control of the descendants of the Renaissance? What was said then, the interviews and his own words at the time sounded right enough in general, but they seem ineffective and ill-matched to today’s reality of widespread deception.

A century-long life for a passionate poet who liked adventure, travel and exploration! Poet, publisher, bookseller, activist, painter and novel writer, he has traversed the entire “brief” 20th century. The city of San Francisco that had pronounced him “Poet Laureate” in 1998, also named a street after him. Translations and special editions of his works and of his life, art exhibitions for his paintings, all of them show the many facets of his activities. Everything seems triumphal for a poet who used to consider himself something of a “fool” and who yet has always accurately measured his words and works.

Translated from the Greek by Angelos Sakkis.
Photographs of Ferlinghetti and Agrafiotis by Michèle Valley.
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