Time Spent with a Legend: Conversations with Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

What does one talk about when speaking with a legend?  How often does one have the opportunity to speak with an icon of San Francisco’s North Beach and beyond? And, in Italian, which he likes to call “la bella lingua”.  He enjoys being called Lorenzo.
 
I recently spoke with Lawrence Ferlinghetti about North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy, Italian language and culture, travel to Italy and discovering one’s roots.  All those wonderful topics one would hope to chat about while sitting across from a literary legend.  An additional delight for me was that one of our conversations was in a North Beach café called, of course, Café Puccini.   
 
These recent conversations have surely left a lasting impression.  A predominate topic was Ferlinghetti’s new book, Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1950-2013, to be released in October of this year.  I’ve had the good fortune to view one of the advance copies of the manuscript that contains travel journals, including travels to Italy and France.   
Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919, Ferlinghetti’s life journey brought him to San Francisco on January 1, 1951.  In part two of Conversations with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, we will explore that journey and in particular his visits to Italy while tracing his roots. 
 
Well before this newest book, Ferlinghetti’s history as a poet and author was well known world-wide.  First published in 1958, A Coney Island of the Mind continues to be the most popular poetry book in the United States.  It has been translated into nine languages, and there are nearly 1,000,000 copies in print.  He is, and has been for decades, a prominent voice of the poetry movement that began in the 1950s having written poetry, translations, fiction, art criticism, film narration, and essays. 
 
Writing Across the Landscape is his most recent and much anticipated book which will undoubtedly appeal to a wide audience.  Lawrence explained the book will contain first-hand accounts of time spent in Italy, France, Mexico, Morocco, and Russia. These real-time observations span six decades allowing the reader to experience Ferlinghetti’s encounters with Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, and, in 1965 Italy, Ezra Pound.  
 
Sixty years of entries are selected from handwritten notebooks including Ferlinghetti’s account of his journey across the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1957.  The book also contains poems, facsimile manuscripts, and personal sketches.  In nearly 500 pages, the journal documents places and encounters with people that have shaped our times.  
When asked how the book first came about, Lawrence replied, “The journals were in very small spiral notebooks of different size with drawings in with the writings.” The original notebooks were kept in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley.  
 
A passage in the book refers to the “Italian Journal”, dated June 1965, and the Spoleto Festival, all described using the author’s stunning account as he captures the captivating Italian landscape, ageless stone houses with traditional tile roofs, flourishing fig trees, and, as Lawrence describes, “the faces of Italians with souls in their eyes.”  The Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds), as the Spoleto Festival is sometimes called, is an annual music and opera festival held during the summer months in Spoleto, Italy, dating back to 1958 when it was founded by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The two worlds refer to Menotti’s intentions to have American and European culture come together at the same historic locale.
The scenes of the narrow streets of 1960s Rome are brought to life with an elegant narrative describing Via Bocca di Leone and the fruit market.  The Bocca di Leone (Mouth of the Lion) market is in the street of the same name in the middle of Campo Marzio, the fourth district of Rome, the area that in Ancient Rome was consecrated to Mars, the Roman God of War. Ferlinghetti’s journey then continues through Catania, Taormina and past Mt. Etna in the distance. 
 
When asked what he wanted to share with Italian readers about his book he replied, “The story that is of a first generation Italian.  I was born in New York but I kept going back to Italy many times, and then tracked down my father’s birthplace. That was very important to me.  I found the whole family in Chiari”.
As the title of the book so aptly indicates/suggests/denotes, the entries clearly document journeys across the landscape.  As Lawrence describes it, “my walkabout in the world, my voyaging. This isn’t a biography; it’s a travel journey, a life’s travel journal”.  And a stunning one at that, Lorenzo.
 
Make certain to mark your calendars for the book release event on October 20th at City Lights Bookstore.  You do not want to miss this celebration!  Be sure to check the City Lights website at http://www.citylights.com /ferlinghetti/ in the next few months for more details.  
Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1950-2013 is edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson and will be published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton and Company.   
 
Look for part two of Conversations with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the next issue of L’Italo-Americano.  We will explore more about the man behind the living legend.

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