Nestled in between where Chinatown ends and North Beach begins is a humble-looking bookstore — now infamous for its progressive politics, arts, and literature. Growing up in San Francisco, I spent every Saturday morning accompanying my parents on their grocery-shopping trips in Chinatown. We’d park on Broadway Street, near the strip clubs and tourists, and walk down towards Pacific Avenue where I’d see the sign: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Truth be told, I hated going to Chinatown as a child. I thought it was crowded and loud, but on good days (and when there was time) my parents would end our trips with a visit to City Lights. We never bought anything and the only stories I was interested in reading back then were The Baby Sitter’s Club but I still loved getting a peek at this foreign world — a world of adults, creativity, and curiosity. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in 1953, he probably never expected a young Chinese girl to find refuge there. Similarly, I never expected Ferlinghetti to make marks on my life and yet he has time and time again.
As a teenager, I no longer had any desire to spend weekends with my parents. And so, my visits to Chinatown and City Lights ended. At the time, I was a student at Balboa High School and a voracious reader. However, even though I loved fiction, I did not understand the point of poetry. Or at least I felt that way until Mr. Wilcox, my English teacher, distributed a poem to us called “What Could She Say to the Fantastic Foolybear…,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
What could she say to the fantastic foolyber
and what could she say to brother
and what could she say
to the cat with future feet
and what could she say to mother
after that time that she lay lush
among the lolly flower
on that hot riverbank
where ferns fell away in the broken air
of the breath of her lover
and birds went mad
and threw themselves from trees
to taste still hot upon the ground
the spilled sperm seed
I was awe-struck by how Ferlinghetti could so succinctly describe the complexities and pangs of being an adolescent girl. To this day, I am impressed by how he was able to convey the strangeness of puberty and illustrate how challenging it is to not exactly be a child anymore and yet not know how to grapple with seemingly adult things such as sexual relationships. I read “Foolybear…” during a time in my life where I felt very alone and yet, Ferlinghetti seemed to understand me. Through this experience, I began to see that poetry can cultivate empathy and offer viewpoints on the world. To keep things short: This is the poem that made me fall in love with poetry. This is the poem that made me want to read more poems and I never stopped. I went on to study English Literature at CCSF and UC Davis and began writing poetry of my own.
Ferlinghetti has done much more than simply write a poem that influenced my life path. He supported countless San Francisco-based writers, published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” was arrested for publishing “Howl,” fought for our First Amendment rights in court due to “Howl,” and continued to publish the writing of outsiders even after the frenetic media attention of the Beats era passed. He relentlessly cultivated a literary culture where freedom of expression, community-building, and rebellion are valued over academic prestige and individual reputation. Ferlinghetti augmented the DNA of San Francisco’s literary landscape, and San Francisco as a whole, for the better. Although I am devastated by his death, I am inspired to continue his legacy by contributing to the community we have here today. I hope that others are inspired as well. In “I Am Waiting,” Ferlinghetti wrote, “I am waiting/for a rebirth of wonder” — let’s not keep him waiting any longer. Let’s take the blueprint that he crafted for us and create something beautiful.
Alison Zheng was born and raised in San Francisco, CA. She’s a former Poetry Editor for City College of San Francisco’s Forum and a Poetry Reader at Non.Plus Lit. She has been published in Honey Literary, Sine Theta Mag, Sidereal Mag, and more. She received her BA in English Literature with an emphasis in Criticism & Theory from University of California, Davis. She will be starting her MFA – Poetry at University of San Francisco in Fall 2021 as a Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow.