Poetry In Memoriam
Homage to Ferl, the Owner of the Building
At the store, among staff, he was always “Lawrence”—or “LF” over email—while certain of his older acquaintances insisted on “Larry” and the occasional trying-too-hard supplicant tried “Doctor.” To the world at large, he was simply “Ferlinghetti,” like Picasso is “Picasso,” or Madonna “Madonna.” But among my friends, I have always encouraged the use of “Ferl.” This is how Philip Lamantia, when I knew him, would refer, with affection, to Lawrence. (Philip had his own term for everything; he’s the only person I’ve ever met who referred to City Lights—almost invariably—as “The Lights.”)
What cemented the nickname for me, however, was the opening couplet of Mac Dre’s 2004 hit, “Feelin’ Myself”: “I’m out of this world, not your run of the million / My name is Ferl, I’m the owner of the building.” The name is actually “Furl,” in reference Mr. Furley, the landlord played by Don Knotts on the old sitcom Three’s Company, and was Dre’s self-bestowed moniker celebrating his acquisition of property in Sacramento. Yet the lines always seemed to me to perfectly distill the relationship between City Lights and Lawrence, even though he’d been a renter for the first 46 years of the bookstore’s existence and since the ’80s had only co-owned the business, having traded a portion of the ownership to Nancy Peters in exchange for her more-than-full-time devotion to keeping the place afloat. But City Lights, as a physical space, is imbued with Lawrence through and through, reflecting his tone and aesthetic, his concerns and his lack of concern, in all its rough details. If ever a man owned a building, Ferl owned City Lights.
When I started working there, in publishing, I remember walking up Columbus Avenue from Montgomery and thinking, as it loomed above me, that the building resembled a ship. As we gathered in the office the day after his death, I said this to my colleague Caitlin Wild, who immediately said, “It creaks like a ship.” It does! The building is almost comically wooden, groaning and shifting underfoot, while the stairs are too steep and narrow, so visiting the basement feels rather like going below deck. Receiving is tucked in a tiny closet of irregular shape, as though built into the ship’s hull, behind the door labeled “I AM THE DOOR,” left over from some Christian group that used the basement as a church before Lawrence got there. With his combination of wry humor and utter beat disinterest in prettying up the place, Lawrence left the group’s biblical slogans on the walls, though virtually all are now obscured by tall bookshelves. Ferl, it could be said, extended the hand-painted aesthetic of the basement throughout the store by signage, sometimes practical, sometimes philosophical, rendered in his own painterly calligraphy. That this calligraphy occasionally made its way to a book cover, like Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (1971), underscored the symbiosis between the building and the activities of the man within.
If City Lights seems like a ship, that ambience, of course, also stems from Lawrence, who, in what he considered his last major poem, “At Sea,” refers to himself as “an old salt.” Commander of a “subchaser,” a now-obsolete class of wooden naval vessel, during World War II, he was indeed a sailor and retained a nautical flair with his penchant for Greek fishermen’s caps and his understated earring. He was definitely captain of the crew of approximately 20 that it now takes to run the bookstore and publishing house. You didn’t really approach him so much as stood by ready for orders. As much as City Lights has its distinct identity both making and selling books, and even though it’s never been his main publisher, it has also and inevitably existed to handle Lawrence’s business as a poet and famous person.
I say “poet and famous person” because his fame was beyond the fame of a “famous poet.” Di Prima and McClure were very famous poets and their deaths were duly covered by the New York Times within a day or two. But Lawrence’s death was breaking news, a short article immediately appearing on the paper’s homepage while they put the finishing touches on his full obituary, which went up by the afternoon. It’s a combination of his stature as a poet—A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) has sold something like 1.5 million copies—and as the founder of a place that’s probably listed in every San Francisco travel guide in the world, and then it’s topped off with his role as defendant in the 1957 Howl trial, which, following the 1936 ruling on Ulysses and preceding the 1964 Tropic of Cancer trial, largely ended obscenity-based censorship in this country. He was easily as important a left-wing figure as he was a poet, and his determined internationalism as a publisher—the first Anglophone one for several important writers—combined with the enduring fame of the Beat Generation made his death a world event, something like the #3 trending topic on Twitter, to put it vulgarly. He was the sort of poet asked to comment on world events, whose opinion mattered to people all over the world, and there are precious few such poets in the United States.
Only after Lawrence’s death did I realize that it’s possible to have worked at City Lights now and never have met him; he’s always seemed so present it hadn’t occurred to me. When I first arrived there in 2006, he was 87, and he was still coming in nearly every day, even though he’d long since retired from running the business. He liked coming in, taking what to me is a somewhat strenuous 20-minute walk from his apartment to the store, and there was always a little business to handle. On rare occasions, he had his hand in a book—it was he, for instance, who insisted the press publish David Meltzer’s When I Was a Poet in 2011—but he exerted a palpable influence as the publisher whose legacy we were carrying out even as he was still around to hold us to account. In 2008, when we proposed launching a new poetry series, City Lights Spotlight, that I would edit, Lawrence was vocal with his reservations about its various parameters, but he let it happen, and once it got going, he was fully supportive, even though I knew he disagreed with several of my choices.
He liked me, for some reason; I don’t know why. Lawrence had a folksy, jaunty, Pete Seeger-meets-Red-Skelton sort of stage presence, but that Lawrence only existed on stage, or wherever he needed a public persona. Despite his fame, he was quite private and shy, hard to read. But he liked me well enough that I served a few stints as his assistant. Being Lawrence’s assistant meant opening and sorting mail, fielding emails, figuring out what requests seemed legit enough to require his attention and what was nonsense that I could refuse on his behalf. Requests for autographs and pleas from Eagle Scouts. Lucrative gigs. Innumerable blurb requests, sometimes for books absurdly unsuited to a blurb from him. Occasionally something staggering or preposterous came in, like an invitation to Obama’s first inauguration. He didn’t go but it got hung in his office. Or an invitation to the Vatican from Pope Benedict, requesting his participation in a meeting of artists and intellectuals. Lawrence was a confirmed atheist but I figured I’d better call him. “You got an invitation to the Vatican from the pope,” I said. “That Nazi?!?!” he replied. It was hilarious and all he needed to say.
I was lucky enough to be able to spend time with him late in his life, when he was preparing to turn 100, after he’d stopped coming into the store. The Paris Review wanted an “Art of Poetry” interview, but because he was almost blind, Lawrence didn’t like to do in-person interviews with a stranger. He said “no” to almost everything, but he was sufficiently intrigued with prospect of appearing in that venerable series that he agreed to let me come by and do it, and the Paris Review assented. I felt fortunate he took me seriously enough as a poet that he was willing to engage with me on the topic. But even with an approved interlocutor, Lawrence remained a tough nut to crack; he was reticent to answer questions about writing a poem, even as it was the raison d’être of the series. It took a lot of work to frame a question right; I sometimes asked the same one three or four different ways before I coaxed an answer from him. A Paris Review interview is already a strenuous process; they want at least three sessions plus a follow up for clarification, but we started early and got in two interviews in the summer of 2018 and the third and the follow up during the fall. Later, after I went through the editorial process, I had the terrifying task of reading the finished product back to him. I won’t say he was exactly thrilled with the result, but again, he let it happen, and really only asked me to change one thing.
As he grew less active, the requests tapered off but believe me they never stopped and you’d be amazed at how many people won’t take “He can’t, he’s 99” for an answer. It was his own fault, in a way, for staying preternaturally active long past the usual age and for having always been generously responsive to various outcasts, misfits, and madmen who wrote letters to him and to City Lights over the years. I can’t tell you how many letters I answered from people explaining that they’d met him in a bar in, say, 1977 and he said they should send him some poems someday and now here they are! The assumption that he was still running City Lights on the day-to-day level, at an age when doing so would be beyond all reason, was rampant among his correspondents. But it goes to show, again, how thoroughly people identify City Lights with him. And City Lights has benefitted from this tremendously, as he funneled a lot of love that was really directed at him to the organization he founded.
I’m pretty confident of City Lights’ survival into the future and I’m definitely confident in the work we do as a press and as a place where literature happens. But I admit I fear losing the halo of this Ferl-directed love. It felt like a form of protection, and now it feels like we’re on our own. But I imagine it will never completely vanish, as long as we stay true to his spirit of engagement with the world and are able to maintain the poetic miracle he began.