Saturday, April 30, 2016

My Dinner with Larry: Steve Glines recalls a dinner with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

**** Years ago the late poet Jack Powers invited me to a lunch with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founder of City Lights Books. I had to work that day--and I regret that I didn't call in sick. Fortunately Steve Glines, the designer for the Ibbetson Street Press had dinner with the grand old man, and here is his story...

My Dinner with Larry

It was in the mid 1990's, Jack Powers called to invite me over for dinner. Jack didn't drive so I took an invitation like this to be an invitation to drive him all over town. Jack was a lousy cook. His specialite de maison was spaghetti drenched with oil covered tuna, beans, chili and a few more unappetizing components. I politely declined. Jack insisted, promising dinner in a real North End restaurant, with a celebrity.

Jack was the kind of person who knew everyone in his tiny universe. He was a celebrity in his own right, but only in the poetry community of Boston. Not a very big world as far as celebrities go. Still whenever a big name poet came to town to give a well-paid lecture or reading at one of the universities, they would always pay a visit to Jack and occasionally read at his venue, the venerable “Stone Soup Poets.” 

“Is it anyone I know?” I asked.

“His name is Larry.”

I could hear laughter in the background and someone said, “He's the light of the city.” Still more laughter.

I thought I knew who the mystery celebrity was. “I'll be there in an hour.”

I had known Jack for over 30 years. When I first moved to Boston in 1970 I hung around the Grolier Bookshop where I sit in an overstuffed chair and read for hours. In 1970 Harvard Square was full of literary-want-to-be's, poseurs, for whom being thought of as a writer was far more important than actually being a writer. I mentioned this to Gordon Carnie, owner of the Grolier, who expressed a dislike for most of his clientele, those same poseurs for whom being seen at the Grolier and acknowledged by Gordon was the apex of their status. Gordon suggested I try the Stone Soup Poetry in Boston. You'll find real poets there, he said.

I went to Stone Soup off and on for the next forty years. I became a regular in the 1990's when my daughters expressed an interest in poetry and literature. My youngest daughter made it her mission to catalog the thousands of poems Jack had written over the years. She gave up after cataloging well over a thousand items in just one pile in one corner of just one room. The poems were written on the back of envelopes, utility bills, shreds of Newspapers, etc. Each item was carefully placed in a plastic bag, numbered and accompanied by a 3 x 5 index card stating what it was, when it was written (if Jack could remember) and any other interesting information. A duplicate card went into a file box.

As I was walking to Jack’s apartment in Boston's North End I saw him carrying a dozen loaves of bread from a truck to a restaurant. He went back and forth supplying every restaurant on the block with fresh bread. The North End is very crowded and a delivery truck stopped to deliver anything can be the cause of a major traffic jam. With Jack doing the delivery the truck didn't have to stop for long. That was Jack's explanation as we walked to his apartment.

When we got to the apartment there was a young couple that had hitchhiked to Boston  and Jack had taken them in ,and a bearded old man with a red beret sitting in a very old, third hand, overstuffed chair, likely saved from a trash heap. The old man got up and Jack introduced us. It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “Call me Larry,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I have a photograph, someplace, that I took of the occasion. Its got everyone in it but me, of course.
 Jack lead us around the corner to an Italian restaurant where Jack was acknowledged to be the celebrity of the moment. We were lead to a private room. I sat next to Larry but I could never bring myself to call him that. The two young kids were enthralled by Jack. I don't know if they even knew who Lawrence Ferlinghetti was.

I love poetry and I love history and, sometimes, I can talk intelligently about both but I am not a scholar. Talking about poetry with Lawrence Ferlinghetti required at least three large glasses of Italian red wine before I dared to bring up the subject and voice an opinion. Before that point was reached, however, we talked about his time in the U.S. Navy during WWII. His first assignment was on a yacht re-purposed as a sub-chaser. A few short lived assignments and he was put in command of a Destroyer Escort (DE). These clumsy little vessels could steam at twelve knots, fifteen if they had to, while the convoy they were protecting sailed along at eight to ten knots.  Of course, they had a five inch gun on the fore deck but without continuous target practice there was little chance of hitting a target as small as a surfaced submarine. His ship wasn't equipped with depth charges because it wasn't fast enough to drop them and get out of the way of the resulting explosion. They would have been hoist on their own petard. But the real purpose of the DE, Ferlinghetti concluded was to take a hit from a torpedo launched by a German sub to protect the convoy. On D-Day his ship was part of the anti-submarine screen. Ironically, Ferlinghetti never fired a shot in anger and was never fired at, as far as he knew.

Three large drinks later we were ready to tackle poetry. We rambled around various topics until we came to Haiku. Ferlinghetti claimed that we misunderstood it in the West. He said it was a lot more than just a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable form. Indeed it could be any number of syllables as long as it kept to the Hegelian, point, counterpoint, exclamation model. As an example he offered:

Look, a cloud.
No, a flock of birds.

After a mildly heated debate, and several more glasses of wine, Ferlinghetti admitted that he had made it up. Then, with a gleam in his eye he announced that he had just invented a new form of poetry: American Haiku.

For the next few months I wrote dozens of bad American Haiku, every one of them read at Stone Soup.

A bed of wet leaves
on solid rock?
Lookout, Ouch!

Frogs in the pond
bad news for bugs
Slap, not bad enough

You get the picture. 

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