To the Light—Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 1919–2021

24 February, 2021

lawrence ferlinghetti_city lights sepia.jpg

Ammiel Alcalay 

I. Brief Biog­ra­phy of a Poet

News­pa­pers all over the world have already pub­lished detailed and gen­er­ous notices in appre­ci­a­tion of Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, a tru­ly unique cul­tur­al fig­ure whose life and work will con­tin­ue to res­onate for a long time to come. Many of the bare facts of his life are well-known: his very tran­si­to­ry child­hood, with the death of his father, an Ital­ian immi­grant from Bres­cia, pri­or to his birth, and the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of his moth­er, Clemence Alber­tine Mendes-Mon­san­to, not long after the death of her hus­band. Mov­ing between New York and France, between orphan­ages and the care of rel­a­tives, Lawrence even­tu­al­ly end­ed up in a wealthy home where his aunt Emi­ly Mon­san­to had gone to work as a gov­erness. When his aunt dis­ap­peared, Lawrence remained with his new fam­i­ly and his more for­mal edu­ca­tion began, tak­ing him to an exclu­sive board­ing school in Mass­a­chu­setts and the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill, before enlist­ing in the US Navy in 1941. He would go on to com­mand a patrol boat dur­ing the inva­sion of D‑Day and find him­self in Nagasa­ki peer­ing at the unearth­ly destruc­tion caused by the atom bomb. With mon­ey from the GI Bill, he went on to com­plete a mas­ter’s degree at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty before going to Paris where he fin­ished a doc­tor­ate at the Sor­bonne in 1949. After mov­ing to San Fran­cis­co, he for­tu­itous­ly met Peter Mar­tin, then a pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at San Fran­cis­co State and the son of Ital­ian anar­chist Car­lo Tresca, and they found them­selves open­ing the first paper­back book­shop in the US, call­ing it City Lights, after the Char­lie Chap­lin film. Soon came the famous Six Gallery read­ing, the pub­li­ca­tion of Allen Gins­berg’s Howl, fol­lowed by the obscen­i­ty tri­al, and the pub­lic emer­gence of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion. The rest is history.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose book   Howl  , published by City Lights, triumphed at its

II. City Lights

My own rela­tion­ship to City Lights start­ed, like so many oth­ers, with my first expo­sure, as a teenag­er, to some of the Pock­et Poets: I remem­ber, in par­tic­u­lar, Fer­linghet­ti’s own Pic­tures from the Gone World, Ken­neth Patchen’s Poems of Humor and Protest, Gre­go­ry Cor­so’s Gaso­line and, of course, Howl itself. Though I had spent time in the book­shop dur­ing a half year or so of liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co cir­ca 1974, I was work­ing in an auto body shop and not, in any sense, a “rec­og­nized” writer. Besides read­ing City Lights books, there would be a very long detour before I per­son­al­ly recon­nect­ed to the shop, the press, and, even­tu­al­ly Fer­linghet­ti him­self, as well as co-own­er and pub­lish­er Nan­cy Peters and the rest of the quite small staff run­ning the show. Hear­ing of his death on Feb­ru­ary 22nd has put it all in per­spec­tive and it feels like a sto­ry worth telling.


III. Iraq

Sinan Antoon's   I'jaam, an Iraqi Rhapsody   (2007) is still in print from City Lights.

I have spent more than a lit­tle time pon­der­ing the shame­ful (and shame­less) reha­bil­i­ta­tion of George W. Bush over the course of the 2020 elec­tion process and the install­ment of the new Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tion. Iraq, and the con­tin­u­ing US role in its destruc­tion, remains the mas­sive and unal­ter­able abyss cut­ting off all ratio­nal polit­i­cal dis­course, all abil­i­ty to con­nect any dots over the course of events these past thir­ty years, since the first inva­sion of Iraq in 1990. And yet, when I heard about Lawrence’s pass­ing at the age of 101, it was one of the first things I thought of because I remem­ber with great clar­i­ty and fond­ness the wel­come I got from Lawrence, Nan­cy Peters, Bob Shar­rard, and every­one at City Lights in the build-up to the Gulf War. I had returned to the US from six years in Jerusalem and envi­rons and was hav­ing a hard time find­ing my literary/political foot­ing in New York. As I tried pub­lish­ing texts that dove direct­ly into the tur­moil of the region I had returned from and the intense polit­i­cal involve­ment of those years, I was met with hos­til­i­ty, increduli­ty, or both! At City Lights, they were in the process of mobi­liz­ing writ­ers and artists against the inva­sion, an activ­i­ty I was more than hap­py to be recruit­ed for. With this ini­tial wel­come, I soon came to under­stand that City Lights could be a home for the kind of work I was doing, and I felt an enor­mous sense of relief and grat­i­tude as it empow­ered me to not only pub­lish many hybrid works of my own but help bring oth­er books to the press, includ­ing one of the first con­tem­po­rary Iraqi nov­els pub­lished in the US, Sinan Antoon’s bril­liant I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhap­sody.


IV. A Vision­ary Publisher


Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing  (1996) from  City Lights  is still in print.

Though we only briefly allud­ed to a com­mon Sephardic her­itage, I’ve often won­dered whether that part of Lawrence may have pre­dis­posed him towards my work. He was cer­tain­ly aware of it, though giv­en the com­plex­i­ty of his upbring­ing it was hard to tell what it actu­al­ly might have meant to him. Regard­less, when it came time to think about a pub­lish­er for Keys to the Gar­den, an anthol­o­gy I edit­ed and co-trans­lat­ed that broke new ground— peo­pled as it was by con­tem­po­rary Iraqi, Yemenite, North African, Turk­ish, Iran­ian and Indi­an writ­ers who just hap­pened to be Jew­ish Israelis—it was to City Lights that my imme­di­ate thoughts went. My logic—and I feel it has been borne out—was that the limbs join­ing main­stream Israeli writ­ers with main­stream US pub­lish­ers, need­ed to be sev­ered, with extreme prej­u­dice. The idea being that such books—by and for the mainstream—had no pos­si­bil­i­ty of effect­ing writ­ing at its pro­duc­tion point, among oth­er writ­ers, among emerg­ing writ­ers. But by pub­lish­ing with City Lights, per­haps, final­ly, such writ­ing might be seen for itself, and not just as a sur­ro­gate for nation­al­ist pro­pa­gan­da and part of the US’s favorite nation sta­tus in the form of Israel. In fact, because Keys to the Gar­den was the first col­lec­tion of its kind in any lan­guage, it has gone on to have dis­pro­por­tion­ate influ­ence on the Israeli cul­tur­al scene as well as through­out the region, mak­ing many great and unknown writ­ers with roots in the Arab world final­ly avail­able to Arab read­ers. It was fol­lowed up with a co-trans­la­tion (by myself and Oz Shelach), of Out­cast, a nov­el by Bagh­dad born Shi­mon Bal­las, which remains the only book of this major nov­el­ist in Eng­lish. Over the years I would go on to pub­lish a num­ber of oth­er books with City Lights, titles of my own as well as shep­herd­ing in work by Juan Goyti­so­lo, Abdel­latif Laabi, and many oth­ers. These would be added to books by Tahar Ben Jel­loun, Etel Adnan, Naw­al el-Saadawi, Mohammed Mra­bet, Paul Bowles, et alia, cre­at­ing a very use­ful and idio­syn­crat­ic affin­i­ty group of books from and about the region. In addi­tion, dur­ing the wars of ex-Yugoslavia, I end­ed up being the only trans­la­tor con­sis­tent­ly work­ing with mate­r­i­al from Bosnia. While many time­ly and impor­tant texts that I trans­lat­ed for main­stream pub­lish­ers have gone out of print, Semezdin Mehmedi­nović’s clas­sic work from the siege, Sara­je­vo Blues, like all the oth­er titles I worked on for City Lights, remains in print. 


V. San Francisco

When­ev­er I had the chance to vis­it or spend a longer peri­od of time in San Fran­cis­co, City Lights always felt like home base. Through­out the course of all these dif­fer­ent and var­ied projects, Lawrence was always atten­tive, curi­ous, informed, and sup­port­ive, even as he and Nan­cy were less present and Elaine Katzen­berg­er, now Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, took on more and more. As our unique archival pub­lish­ing project, Lost & Found: The CUNY Poet­ics Doc­u­ment Ini­tia­tive, a stu­dent edit­ed series that pub­lish­es extra-poet­ic mate­ri­als by major and less­er known 20th c. fig­ures got under­way, and we began doing col­lab­o­ra­tive books, City Lights became one of our first part­ners, and they con­tin­ue to be. One day I remem­ber going into the office upstairs and catch­ing Lawrence alone at his desk with a pile of Lost & Founds, intent­ly read­ing. We spoke for a while and he told me how much he enjoyed it when a new batch came in. Need­less to say, it was an incred­i­bly mean­ing­ful and sat­is­fy­ing moment, one of many that I will trea­sure as I think of Lawrence today and his con­tin­u­ing journey.


                                                                                    Feb­ru­ary 23, 2021



American poetryLawrence FerlinghettiSemezdin MehmedinovićShimon BallasSinan Antoon

Poet, translator, critic and scholar Ammiel Alcalay is the author of the classic After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, from the warring factions, the cairo notebooks and other works. His co-edited A Dove in Free Flight, poems by Faraj Bayrakdar will be out in 2021 from Upset Press, along with a new sequence of poems, Ghost Talk, from Pinsapo Press, and A Bibliography for After Jews and Arabs, from Punctum.