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Poetry Friday: Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Today marks the birthday of poet, playwright, publisher, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died in 2021 at the age of 101 at his home in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.

Ferlinghetti founded San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore in 1953 and launched City Lights Publishers two years later. Ferlinghetti and his publishing house became national news following his arrest in 1957 for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.

When Ferlinghetti visited the NYS Writers Institute in 1994, the event drew an enthusiastic crowd eager to meet the poet and cultural icon who brought the Beats -- Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, novelist Jack Kerouac and so many others -- to American literature.

Writers Institute Executive Director Tom Smith was overjoyed at the prospect of bringing one of his favorite poets to Albany. In a letter dated March 18, 1994, Smith wrote:

"I have been a great fan of yours for a very long time -- I go back to the Village days in the mid-1950s -- so it is a special pleasure for me to invite you to come here to the New York State Writers Institute..."

The event was featured in an advance story published in the Times Union by reporter -- and current Writers Institute Director -- Paul Grondahl in early September. Grondahl's story began:

"Lawrence Ferlinghetti hasn't been back to Albany since he took the night boat up from New York City in the late 1930s. Before that, the Yonkers native ventured as far north as Coxsackie during a Boys Scouts canoe trip up the Hudson when he was 14 years old. That was in 1933, a journey he recounts in a poem "Wild Dreams of a New Beginning" in which Indians 'retake their canoes.'

It's hard to imagine that this man -- born during World War I, commander of a ship during the invasion of Normandy, arrested for publishing Howl nearly 40 years ago, catalyst of the Beat movement, whose work has been read by more people in more countries than that of any other living American poet -- stills feels restless and in need of searching for the great truths.

'The enormous popularity of the Beat writers today is partly due to this huge nostalgia for an America that no longer exists,' Ferlinghetti was saying one morning recently by phone from his office at City Lights Books in San Francisco."

In a second letter to Ferlinghetti dated Sept. 22, 1994, Smith wrote:

"I just wanted you to know how very much all of us here at the Writers Institute are looking forward to your visit on September 29th. You have many, many fans in the Albany area, and your public reading is generating much interest."

Tragically, Tom Smith died suddenly four days later on September 26 while swimming in the university pool. He was 63.

Before a packed house at Page Hall on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 29, 1994, Writers Institute Assistant Director Suzanne Lance opened the event with a moment of silence in honor of Tom, "the perfect boss and the instant friend of everyone with whom he came into contact."

Read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem "I Am Waiting" below the photo gallery.

Paul Grondahl's Times Union story published on September 13, 1994.

Ferlinghetti's postcard to Tom Smith dated April 4, 1994

NYS Writers Institute event poster

Tom Nattell's postcard invitation for an after-hours event at his home.

Dan Wilcox, Ferlinghetti (second from left), Charlie Rossiter, and Tom Nattell at Tom's house following the Page Hall event. Dan Wilcox wrote on his website: "He ended up staying at Tom Nattell's house because he didn't like the motel he was in & the water in the pool burnt his eyes... I don't remember who took the picture, perhaps Mary Anne Winslow.")

I Am Waiting

By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier

and I am waiting

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder