Ferlinghetti & Wynonna Ryder Child & Dog
Litquake Presents: 2010 Barbary Coast Award:
Constantly Risking Absurdity, an evening honoring Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
Litquake, the raucous San Francisco literary festival that reminds the nation how much fun serious words can be, kicked off its nine-day program this year by presenting a heartfelt tribute and lifetime achievement award to one of the city’s top scenemakers: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This is the visionary who in the 1950’s brought books directly to the people, launching City Lights as both a retail shop and publishing company of affordable paperbacks, of revolutionary literature. This is the publisher who schooled the New York Establishment on the wave of the future. This is the believer who put the Beats on the map, daring to give hungry readers Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” during the repressive McCarthy era. This is the activist who stood trial — and won — for his crime against American Moral Values. This is the poet who wrote “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which sold over one million copies. Yep, a slim volume of poetry. One million copies. This is the painter whose figurative images combine socio-political and artistic concerns. This is the community organizer who to this day believes in the power of “Poetry as Insurgent Art.”
An all-ages crowd packed the posh Herbst Theatre in downtown SF on Saturday night to commemorate Ferlinghetti as his colleagues and successors took the stage, channeling the man’s generous spirit, reading excerpts from five decades of his work and telling stories that made the nonagenarian poet seem like your own best friend from high school. It was a literary love fest, Bay Area style, and the stars came out to play: devorah major, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Daphne Gottlieb, Robert Mailer Anderson, Beth Lisick, Michelle Tea, Justin Chin, Juan Felipe Herrera, James Kass, Chinaka Hodge. This was the first wave of readers, reciters and rabble-rousers, so polished in their individual presentations of Ferlinghetti’s verse, we might as well have been in Connecticut. But then they came on en masse as the Poetry Chorus, a cacophonous “Holy! Holy! Holy!” howling: beautiful, tuneful, gushing. Their enthusiasm was infectious. This would be no staid affair. To underscore the point, emcee Marc Bamuthi Joseph poked the audience: “Any impulse you have to be quiet or coy… throw that out the window.” And so we did.
The tributes were sweet. City Lights lifers, Paul Yamagatzi and Elaine Katzenberger, talked about how people need City Lights: a community hub, a place to not only buy cutting-edge books but to hang out and read, to lit-talk, to organize for political causes, to be with others who care about art and politics and activism. “We need each other,” said Katzenberger. There was no posturing here, the sentiment genuine but not cloying, the feeling of camaraderie conveying a sense of hope for the future of books and then some.
Michael McClure concluded his reflections with a poem dedicated to the night’s honoree, ending with a playful Beat-style, “Grrrrrrawwwwrr!” Michael Horowitz of the Ludlow Library regaled us with a tale of being indicted for archiving the work of acid philosopher Timothy Leary after his escape from the joint. Never one to back down from injustice, Ferlinghetti rushed to Horowitz’s defense with a testimony challenging the court’s jurisdiction: “And then they came for the archivists?” SF Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman exposed Ferlinghetti as “a master husker of American corn… [who] stole from all he knew” (e.g., “Coney Island of the Mind” was a line lifted from Henry Miller).
More anecdotes and homages followed from Litquake founders Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware, Ishmael Reed, and others. The most memorable came from Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia), a “poverty scholar” in a white pant suit and frightful mask with a powerful activist attitude to match her forebear’s; Truthdig’s Robert Scheer, a kid in City Lights’ candyshop back in the day, who contextualized Ferlinghetti’s contribution as a bridge between the Beats and the hippies, “demanding the powerful be held accountable”; and New Yorker cover artist Eric Drooker, who let video projections of the blue-elephant painting that inspired Ferlinghetti’s “A Far Rockaway of the Heart” and recent animations for the new Howl film speak for themselves.
The inbetweentimes were sumptuously filled by the Marcus Shelby Quartet, laying down appropriately chilled-out grooves — Bird, Monk, Coltrane — fitting riffs, as jazz gave the Beats the cadence of the streets just as many of today’s poets lift their flow from hip-hop. The language of music and the music of language — everything is everything. We could hear this, feel it in the electric air. Emcee Bamuthi Joseph said it right: “This is off the chain…. a reminder of how blessed we all are.” Yes, it was a love fest. Can you get this in New York?
The event wound to a close with appearances by two iconic countercultural songwriters: Patti Smith and Tom Waits. Smith appeared with her longtime partner, guitarist Lenny Kaye, first excerpting Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby,” then performing “Wing,” a moving freedom song, respectfully dedicated to a man who is “our father — at least for tonight.” Waits sat down at the piano and gave a passage from Ferlinghetti’s classic “Coney Island” poem a whiskey-steeped melody that seemed too short to be significant, and yet, Tom Waits, however briefly in the house, is significant. The audience erupted at the end.
Actress Wynona Ryder, who grew up in Ferlinghetti’s bookshop, provided the final shout-out, talking about how the “light in City Lights [is] like a lighthouse,” offering its patrons “protection and inspiration.” It was a fitting last testament. In 21st century America, where alternative culture is sanitized by marketing committees and sold back to us stripped of its power to effect meaningful change, we need indie-minded places like City Lights and motivational figures like Ferlinghetti to remind us that there is another way. As a post-9/11 placard in the store’s window once read: “Dissent Is Not Un-American.”
Due to health complications, Ferlinghetti wasn’t able to accept his award in person, but he did appear on video, reading one of his recent poems, “At Sea.” The line that resonated long after the show was over? “And yet and yet/ we are still not born for despair.”
–Jesús Ángel García is the author of “badbadbad,” a transmedia novel (forthcoming in May 2011 on New Pulp Press). Short stories adapted from this book have been published in 3:AM Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and sPARKLE & bLINK. A few of these pieces, a preview of the novel’s soundtrack and the first trailer for a five-part series of interconnected short films based on themes of the book are available at http://badbadbad.net.