|Robert Scheer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti|
The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who at 99 is still razor sharp, an ideological and artistic hero of mine, the writer of 'Two Scavengers', a poem which I've taught for a good few years, was sitting at his desk with the blinds guarding us from the heat of a San Franciscan noon on a Friday. My burning question of a man that has met and hung out with Castro, Dylan, Ginsberg and Kerouac? What was the reason for his layout in the poem 'Two Scavengers' - across the page - and the possible metre in the poem? Yes, I know, I could have been more broad, but I wanted to show him that I knew of his work... his reasoning was that it reflected the paintings of the time - the use of a divided page; when I mentioned 'beat' poetry with regard to the rhythm, he corrected me and said that was all really Alan Ginsberg, no more. But he agreed his metre had a definite internal, subtle rhythm (well at least I'd been teaching that bit right); still focused on poetry I mentioned how the final lines of the poem finished with the ironic 'of this democracy' and how this hard-edged ending that commented on the USA had stirred unrest in the classroom with a fellow American teacher; he smiled and said that the original line had been 'demi-democracy'; we agreed 'democracy' worked better, but before I could start bombarding him with further poetry questions and thinking I was right there in the 1960s (well, I was but about four), I was quite rightly reminded by Lawrence as to the reason we were here - to talk of his days with Robert Scheer, the acclaimed political journalist and the subject of a forthcoming documentary. Robert gracefully led the discussion and kept me on track, speaking of his being given a job by Ferlinghetti in the early 1960s at the famous City Lights bookstore in the town. It's still open until 10pm, now a national treasure and a wonderful source of literature from around the world. Robert and Lawrence talked of old times and how Lawrence had served in D Day, become a pacifist after flying into Nagasaki and shared their memories of a world in which political debate, in my view centred on San Francisco, was beginning to have world-changing repercussions for Vietnam, Nixon and Human Rights. These two individuals had given the Black Panthers a chance to speak, chatted with Fidel Castro and allowed the Cuban plight to be aired via the literature in City Lights. Whether you agree with the politics wasn't really the point, the aim was to let you decide by reading what all sides had to say.
Lawrence spent a good hour chatting to myself and Robert, but really I just wanted to let these two influential gentlemen talk and hopefully let something of their drive rub off on me. I was clearly out of my depth when Kenneth Rexroth was mentioned as a major influence, but with impeccable manners, both would listen to what I had to blurt out, neither dismissing my somewhat naïve and hurried questioning; but both had the good grace and patience to answer in detail before we descended into downtown San Francisco with Robert for a guided tour of iconic venues that still stand, such as Caffe Trieste, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope restaurant and bar Vesuvio.
|Stephen French and Mike Poore (DP) interview Robert Scheer|
I left Lawrence's flat with a firm shake of the hand in the muted colours of the room, down the dark, wooden corridor and out into the searing sunlight of the North Bay area of San Francisco. It was all so modest, quiet, considered and peaceful. Yet I was fully aware that my time with these two great men was a once in a lifetime experience for me, something that will inform my teaching - and my approach to people for the rest of my life. Openness, generosity, debate.
|Robert Scheer and Stephen French of CodeFrench in conversation|