“Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100: A Tribute,” co-hosted by City Lights Bookstore and the Paris Review, took place midday Sunday at the Veterans Memorial Building auditorium. As moderator and Paris Review editor Emily Nemens noted in her introduction, Ferlinghetti hardly needs an introduction anywhere — especially not in the Bay Area, which he calls home.
A prolific writer and small press publisher who co-founded San Francisco landmark City Lights and whose name is forever tied with the Beat Generation, Ferlinghetti has published dozens of poetry collections, short plays and novels, among other literary pursuits. On March 24 of this year, he turned 100 years old — an event that warranted celebration all around the world, including a birthday party at City Lights.
It was in light of his birthday that this panel was held, as the Paris Review recently published a series of interviews with Ferlinghetti. Garrett Caples, a poet and editor at City Lights who conducted the interviews, was present as one of the panelists. Also on the panel were City Lights-published poets Julien Poirier and Barbara Jane Reyes, alongside Maw Shein Win, the first poet laureate of El Cerrito.
The first half or so of the panel was devoted to readings by the panelists, each of whom selected works by Ferlinghetti. Old and newer works alike were read, with Caples, who knows Ferlinghetti personally, stressing the value of Ferlinghetti’s “lesser”-known work, or that which has been overshadowed by the monumental success of such early collections as “A Coney Island of the Mind” and “Pictures of the Gone World.”
This was followed by a discussion of how the Paris Review’s “Art of Poetry” interviews came to fruition, with Caples providing anecdotes about the process and the research he did before going into each interview with Ferlinghetti.
As the conversation shifted to Ferlinghetti’s legacy, Poirier, who grew up in the area, recalled reading Ferlinghetti for the first time at age 19 and the influence of this on his own writing. City Lights and its significance inevitably entered the conversation, with Nemens and Caples discussing what it means to run a publishing company and how Ferlinghetti has kept his business independent. This is an astonishing feat considering that, as Caples pointed out, poetry doesn’t sell as much as they’d like.
Yet they continue to publish because, in keeping with Ferlinghetti’s original intentions, poetry is “in the DNA” of City Lights.