Lawrence Ferlinghetti lives in a modest second-story walk-up in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Hanging on his walls are his doctorate from the Sorbonne, an unframed Paul Gaugin print and posters of celebrated poetry readings dating back to the days when he personified a hip, literate and rebellious San Francisco. Not that he’s nostalgic.
“Everything was better than it is when you’re old,” he says.
Sixty years ago, Ferlinghetti, now 96, was the principal publisher of an iconoclastic band of writers and poets known as the Beat Generation. Today, he’s still co-owner of City Lights, one of the most celebrated independent book stores in America. These are quieter days for the internationally acclaimed poet and painter. His eyes are going, but his mind and humor are sharp. And while he may have slowed down some, he’s still publishing three books this year.
Ferlinghetti is generous with his time, and he greets this reporter’s visit with a surprise. “I see you’ve got those reporter’s notebooks,” he says. “I wrote a whole novel here in these reporter’s notebooks — 78 of them there.” (We’ll get to back to his unfinished novel a bit later.)
From his desk window, Ferlinghetti surveys his North Beach neighborhood, which he says is changing just like the rest of San Francisco. Take for example his favorite neighborhood coffee shop, where he says no one talks to anyone else anymore because they’re all staring at a screen. “Yesterday morning I was walking down there and a guy passed me. I said, ‘Good morning;’ he didn’t even look at me. He just went right on past,” he recalls with a laugh.
The guy probably didn’t know he was ignoring the man who helped spark a literary revolution. Ferlinghetti was a young bookstore owner in 1956 when he first published Allen Ginsberg’s iconic Beat-era poem, “Howl.” It was a sexually explicit critique of American materialism, and its publication landed Ferlinghetti and an associate in hot water. They were busted for selling obscene literature and their trial drew international attention.