Thursday, 11 April 2019


Lawrence Felinghetti's 100th birthday reminded me that twenty years ago I did an interview with him which was published in the Financial Times. I was in Los Angeles, and wrote another piece for them on the OJ Simpson auction, forced by his losing the civil suit brought by the Brown family over the murder of Nicole Brown. I talked the editor of the FT Weekend, Julia Cuthbertson, into taking an interview with Ferlinghetti, about to turn 80 and then-poet laureate of San Francisco, with the hook being the as-yet unsettled appointment of a Poet Laureate of Great Britain.  What follows is basically the version I filed, but is considerably different from the version as printed, for reasons I will explain in a long footnote.  In the meantime, here it is as titled by the FT:

Financial Times Weekend, 25-26 March 1999

In Britain, the chase for the Poet Laureate's job resembles a literary Grand National. Bookies quote odds, possibilities range from Pam Ayers to Benjamin Zepheniah. Vitriol follows verse as literary gossip columns study the form and rate the runners in ways that would make the Racing Post blush. Who's lobbying whom? Is Andrew Motion really twisting well-connected arms like a literary Lyndon Johnson? Who's Irish? Seamus Heaney said if nominated, he will not serve. Is it time for the first woman laureate, or is Carol Ann Duffy just a sop to women, or to the North, or to the working class, and/or to lesbians? Do you even have to be British? Derek Walcott was born in St Lucia and has lived for decades in the USA. I am more British than he is. And, crucially, what skeletons are buried in which poetic closets?

The only thing that seems beyond the bounds of the discussion of who will be chosen by the 'great and the good' is the verse itself. Given that the job's main responsibility, traditionally, is to sing royal praises, how could literary criticism not founded in cynicism, be a crucial factor in deciding who will get the chance to become this generation's John Betjeman?

It has been a long, drawn-out process. Way after the official shortlist has come and gone, and the bookies have frozen the odds, and long after most of the running has been made, a winner, inevitably the short-odds Motion, will at last be announced.

It's all so much easier in San Francisco. Just ask poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “I was walking past a fancy restaurant in North Beach when a limousine stopped. Mayor Brown jumped out and told me he wanted me to be his poet laureate. I said 'OK'. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse.”

Willie Brown had been asked by businessmen in Seoul, South Korea, if his city had a cultural ambassador. He had promised on the spot to appoint a poet laureate. “Six months later, reporters began to remind him of his promise,” says Ferlinghetti. “Then, when he asked me, I told him I didn't trust the corporate structure of the city, and he said, 'that's no problem'”.

At 79, Ferlinghetti has been central to San Franciscan culture for almost 50 years. His City Lights bookstore is a Beat Generation shrine. It was the heart of North Beach's artistic community, headquarters for writers such as Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth. Ferlinghetti's own 1958 collection of poems, A Coney Island Of The Mind, is still in print and has sold more than a million copies. At the height of 1950s conformity, City Lights published Allen Ginsberg's Howl, defended it in court, and helped create an underground which came to define the counter-culture before it became the over-the-counter culture.

This things change. “North Beach was solid Italian in those days, working people,” he recalls. “Now it's yuppified, and poets can't afford to live there. It's become a theme park overrun with tourists.”

Ferlinghetti never sought this respectability, but inevitably it has found him. In fact, back in the Fifties, he returned a questionnaire from Who's Who with an uncompromising rejection. “It seems now like some other guy fdid that,” he laughs. “But they put me in the book anyway. They include you whether you cooperate or not.”

Now he spends most of his time painting, but he recently released his 14th book of poetry, A Far Rockaway Of The Heart, whose New York beach title recalls and reflects on his first book. In an effort to keep the Beat spirit alive, he is setting up a non-profit City Lights Foundation, to serve as a cultural centre, give grants and encourage the arts. It's part of what he sees as San Francisco's purpose.

“We dangle off the edge of the world out here. San Francisco is an island republic with an island mentality. It's not really part of California, or America. In fact, I'm reading in LA soon and I think I'll need a visa.” He ponders that for a minute. “Or maybe as poet laureate I'll have diplomatic immunity.”

Ferlinghetti sees the laureate's job as simple. “We need to be reminded that democracy is not defined simply as successful capitalism. I get to say publicly the things ordinatry people think, but no one ever reports in newspapers.” In his inaugural speech, Ferlinghetti blasted the city for squeezing out working people and creating an “urban hell” for the convience of the wealthy. Did this upset Mayor Brown? “No, I think he liked the publicity.”

Where Britain's laureates serve for their lifetime ((note: since this piece was written it is now a fixed ten-year term)), San Francisco's post is an appointment for only one year. Ferlinghetti will probably wind up serving 18 months, until the end of 1999. “I haven't gotten ossified yet,” he says, “but they'll want new blood for the millennium.” Asked to pick his likely successor, he opts for the expatriate Englishman Thom Gunn. “He's a fine poet, and he brings both cultures to bear on his work.”

Ferlinghetti hasn't kept up with the race to name Ted Hughes' successor. “They've been doing it so long in Britain, for centuries, the process has congealed by now.” He's unfamiliar with most of the candidates. “I do know some people who went across to Berkeley to hear Seamus Heaney read,” he says. “They fell asleep.”

So whom would he choose? He suggests “younger” poets like Tom Pickard or Adrian Mitchell. “Though I guess they're not so young any more.” Then he has an inspired idea. “Why not Thom Gunn? He could do both jobs at once!”.

Whoever becomes Britain's next laureate is somewhat less likely than Felinghetti to consider making political waves part of the job description. In 1958, San Francisco's laureate wrote: “I am waiting for/the final withering away/of all governments/and I am perpetually awaiting/a rebirth of wonder.” More than 40 years later, he now a part of the government, however nebulously, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still waiting.

NOTE: I should point out too that this is a piece of journalism: I've never been a fan of Ferlinghetti's poetry, but this is a story about his position as a public poet and one of the faces of the Beat movement, and it was sold as a contrast to the British Laureate election. Literary criticism was best avoided in my analysis of either appointment.

Julia Cuthbertson, the lively FT Weekend editor, for some reason liked my writing, though much of what she liked about it never seemed to survive the pencils of her sub-editors' (an ex-FT staffer for whom I wrote at the Herald-Tribune used to remind me to 'keep it boring' for them) excising what I (and I assumed she) thought was entertaining. Sometimes, if the edits were run by me, I could restore a few on appeal. The piece that ran was somewhat different from what you read above, but not for that reason, which makes it a more interesting story. What I had filed was, in the opening three paragraphs, setting the scene for the British Laureate battle, much like what I have restored here.

A few days after I filed I was awakened in LA by a call from Jan Dalley, who I think had just replaced my editor on the books pages, Annalena McAfee. I don't think I had ever met Jan at that point, and with my usual aplomb in ignoring journalistic career politics and nepotistic log-rolling, I was completely unaware of the fact that she was Mrs. Andrew Motion, and she was livid about my 'literary Lyndon Johnson' line, with which I had been inordinately pleased. 'How can you say that? what were your sources?' she asked. I mentioned Private Eye and a couple of literary gossip columns. 'It is completely untrue Andrew is lobbying for the job. In fact, we had dinner with Chris Smith ((then the culture secretary, and thus the man in charge of the whole process)) two weeks ago and the poet laureateship was never even mentioned'. I laughed and when Jan asked why I was laughing, I said I thought she had just proved my point. I'm not sure she agreed, but I agreed to rewrite the opening and remove the reference. As it turned out, I had caught the short-list perfectly, and had I written it later, I would have added a bit on how it was a four-person list designed to provide one easy winner, who was Motion.

In fairness, Motion proved a conscientious poet-laureate, who worked at widening the base for poetry, and Carol Ann Duffy, who succeed him due to the ten-year term limit, has been the same. I wouldn't say much about their poetry, though. My 'skeletons in closets' line, while not intended to refer to Derek Wolcott, proved prophetic ten years later, when it was revealed that in the race for the Oxford Poetry Professorship, my former Belsize neighbour Ruth Padel had anonymously leaked smears to Oxford professors, about Wolcott's facing harassment allegations years earlier at Harvard, then publicized the professors qualms. As I pointed out in a letter to the Observer which defended her, far from being a victim of the press, she had been hoist by her own petard. The Observer edited the best part out of that letter too.

Julia soon left the FT, and my feature writing assignments dried up, but Jan did continue to assign me book reviews, our problem being that she didn't want to print any negative ones, and I, unburdened by log-rolling, couldn't guarantee positivity in advance. So it goes.

One thing I could hardly have expected, twenty years after all this, would be that Lawrence Ferlinghetti would still be going strong. Happy 100th!

No comments :