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Ferlinghetti turned poetry haters into poetry lovers

Celebrating a long life of passion and provocation

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Mia Henderson, gay news, Washington Blade
Dan White, Remembrance, Black Caucus, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

I thought poets were stuffy bards on Mount Olympus with no connection to the passions, provocations or language of earthly mortals. Until, in the 1970s, I came home from college for the winter holidays. Like many, I was appalled by the commercialization of not only the Christmas season but of society at large, and furious at the ongoing Vietnam War. One evening, I found a poetry book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in my parents’ bookcase.

“Christ climbed down/from His bare tree/this year,” Ferlinghetti wrote in the poem from the collection “Christ Climbed Down,” “and ran away to where/no intrepid Bible salesmen/covered the territory/in two-tone cadillacs.”

From that moment on, I knew that good poets, like rock stars, are practitioners of provocation: great poems speak directly to our hearts and minds, and infiltrate our DNA.

Ferlinghetti, a renowned poet, died on Feb. 22 at 101 at his San Francisco home. For decades, he was the proprietor of City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore and publishing house. Ferlinghetti wrote dozens of books from his first collection “Pictures of the Gone World” published in 1955 to the novel “Little Boy” published in 2019.

“A Coney Island of the Mind” has been carried in backpacks and read aloud accompanied by jazz by generations of queer and hetero students and still-hip elders. It has been translated into nine languages and is one of the best-selling poetry books in history.

City Lights, as a bookstore and publisher, from the get-go has nurtured writers and readers. It’s been a place where authors could meet, talk, and find community. Since the 1950s, it has published writers and poets who would receive little or no attention from mainstream publishers. It fostered the work of the authors and artists who became known as the Beat Generation. Like millions of acolytes, I visited City Lights when I was in San Francisco. It felt like being on holy ground.

Long before people talked about being an ally or hetero grandmas marched in gay pride parades, City Lights published queer writers. Ferlinghetti became famous after he published gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collection “Howl and other Poems” in 1956.

In “Howl,” a political manifesto, Ginsberg writes explicitly of gay sex “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists” and of “who were burned alive in their innocent flannel shirts of Madison Avenue.” In 1957, Ferlinghetti was arrested. He was charged with “willfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings.” In a significant victory for the First Amendment, Ferlinghetti was acquitted. The judge ruled that “Howl” wasn’t obscene because it “had redeeming social importance.”

City Lights also published “Lunch Poems,” the acclaimed and beloved poetry collection by gay poet Frank O’Hara. His poem “The Day Lady Died” (written after the death of Billie Holiday) will move you to tears. His poem called “Poem,” an outpouring of love to Lana Turner, will sweep you off your feet with joy. Yet, O’Hara, as his friend queer poet John Ashberry said were dashed off “at odd moments.” Without Ferlinghetti’s careful attention and nurturing, we might not have “Lunch Poems.”

In 1979, Maryland’s tenth Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri traveled to San Francisco. There, she interviewed Ferlinghetti in his loft above City Lights for Radio Paris. He was “sitting cross-legged,” Cavalieri, producer of the public radio show (recorded at the Library of Congress), emailed the Blade. He “was so connected to his Italian heritage that he was writing a book on Italian women feminists,” Cavalieri said. “At 60 years of age, he was immersed in social action and making significant change.”

Ferlinghetti turned poetry haters into poetry lovers, Clarinda Harriss, who taught English for decades at Towson University, told me. He transformed the “reading-resistant” into “‘give us more poetry people,” she said.

Sarah Browning is the former executive director of Split This Rock, a poetry organization that works for justice. “We built Split This Rock on his shoulders,” Browning told me.

The group was modeled on City Lights as being “a gathering place – for writers, thinkers and activists,” she said, “and one that was welcoming of queer people from the outset.”

Thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for your passion, provocation, and poetry! R.I.P.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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The future of lesbian bars

Resolve to support our queer spaces in 2022

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lockdown zone, gay news, Washington Blade

This New Year, I hope you wish for more lesbian bars across the country. The story of lesbian bars in the U.S. has been slightly tragic of late: as of January 2021, there were only 15 clubs or bars dedicated to queer women across the country. 

That’s right—only 15. Across all 50 states. 

In Washington, D.C., my hometown, A League of Her Own stands out as the only lesbian bar in the city, dedicated to queer women. Located in Adams Morgan, A League of Her Own, also known as ALOHO, is a small mecca for queer ladies to pass through, socialize, and flirt. ALOHO is a chic gathering point for all queer folk, with posters of softball players dotting the walls and gender neutral signs lying about. 

Several years ago, another lesbian bar called Phase 1 existed in Southeast, where queer women could slam eight balls in pool games and engage in raunchy yet ever-so-hot jello wrestling competitions. 

Unfortunately, Phase 1 shut its doors in 2016. 

So what explains the closure of so many lesbian bars, while bars for gay men continue to flourish? Perhaps many queer women view gay bars as a space for their own as well, whereas gay men view lesbian bars as less of a place for them to socialize. 

Either way, we need to give support to lesbian bars now more than ever. Tokens of support can take many forms. 

For one, make sure to socialize in spaces dedicated to queer ladies. There are three lesbian bars in New York City: Cubbyhole (281 W. 12th St.), Gingers in Brooklyn (363 5th Ave.), and Henrietta Hudson (438 Hudson St.). Next time you visit the Big Apple, make sure to give these three spots some love. Maybe drag your experimenting bi friend to these locations. Or your pansexual roommate. 

Back in D.C., you can buy unisex shirts in A League of Her Own’s merchandise store, available online. 

Proceeds will go toward funding the bar, and making sure it stays afloat, especially during this COVID economy. 

Most of all, I hope you encourage your queer lady friends to keep on frequenting queer lady destinations. After all, there is only one thing that will keep lesbian bars afloat—and that is attendance. 

I, for one, will be frequenting many lesbian destinations this new year.  

Isaac Amend is a Yale graduate and participated in National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ documentary. He also is a member of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia, and contributes regularly to the Blade. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @isaacamend.

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Breaking barriers as an out trans ‘Jeopardy’ champion

Amy Schneider’s run inspires us all

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Amy Schneider (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Television)

“When was the last time anybody said ‘wow!’” a friend asked me.

I couldn’t remember the last time anyone I know (including me) had any “Wow!” moments. Until I heard about trans woman and software engineering manager Amy Schneider’s 29-game winning streak on “Jeopardy.”

You wouldn’t think anything could dispel our COVID exhaustion and political divisiveness. Yet, news about a champion on “Jeopardy,” a quiz show that has been on TV since 1964, has broken through our gloom.

In our culture, there are few things that everyone loves. But, “Jeopardy” is beloved by many, from theater geeks to 80-year-old sports nuts. A progressive friend was over the moon when his brother was a “Jeopardy” contestant. A buddy, a hetero (non-Trump) Republican, is a “Jeopardy” fanatic and a gay librarian pal is a “Jeopardy” freak.

Many of us daydream about being on “Jeopardy.” But we know that we wouldn’t have a chance on this legendary quiz show with its deceptively simple format: You give the answer to the (often incredibly hard) clues in the form of a question. You have to have a strategic military commander’s and a world-class athlete’s coordination: so you can press the buzzer to answer the clue.

The game’s categories run the gamut from opera to mountain ranges. Most of us, mere mortals, would be lucky to know even one category in the first round of the game. Let alone in the “Double Jeopardy” round or the “Final Jeopardy” clue. I might jump on clues about Katharine Hepburn movies or M&Ms. But that would be it for me.

It’s exciting to watch a “Jeopardy” contestant become a long-running champion. You marvel at the player’s intelligence, endurance, and nerve. It’s thrilling when the contestant on a winning-streak is part of your community.

Many of us LGBTQ “Jeopardy” fans are thrilled by Schneider’s record-setting winning streak. As I write this, Schneider has won more than $1 million in 29 games of “Jeopardy.” She is the fifth millionaire in “Jeopardy” history, and only the fourth player to reach this milestone in the regular season. She has won more than any other female “Jeopardy” contestant.

Schneider, like so many of us, doesn’t want to be defined by her gender identity or sexuality. Schneider’s life is multi-faceted; she has many interests. Schneider lives with her girlfriend Genevieve. They have a cat named Meep.

Yet, Schneider doesn’t want to hide that she’s trans. On “Jeopardy,” Schneider brilliantly dealt with this dilemma. She didn’t make a big deal about being out. She just wore the trans Pride flag pin.

“It was something that I wanted to get out there and to show my pride in while not making it the focus of what I was doing there,” Schneider told the New York Times. “Because I was just there to answer trivia questions and win money.”

As a cisgender lesbian, I can’t speak to how Schneider’s record-setting “Jeopardy” streak feels to transgender people.

But, as a trans ally, I’m cheering for Schneider. Kudos for her bravery! At a time when many states are passing anti-trans laws, it takes guts to be out on TV and the Internet.

Few things are as mainstream as “Jeopardy.” I bet that many “Jeopardy” viewers who are frightened at the idea of trans people, will become more comfortable with transgender people after watching Schneider on the popular quiz show. Because folks on TV come into our living and bedrooms and we feel as if we know them after watching them for a while.

“Amy looks like everybody else,” my neighbor said when I told her Schneider was trans. “She doesn’t act odd. She’s not strange.”

Transgender people encounter violence and discrimination in everything from housing to health care to employment.

I know Schneider’s “Jeopardy” triumph won’t end transphobia. But her winning streak will go a long way toward jumpstarting a change in hearts and minds.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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SCARY: Tucker Carlson now the conscience of GOP

Cruz bows down, kisses ring of Fox host

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Tucker Carlson (Screen capture via Fox on YouTube)

The Republican Party has sunk to a new low, hard to do, when a sleazebag like Tucker Carlson is now their conscience. Seeing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) groveling before him is laughable, disgusting, and frightening all at the same time. 

As reported in Rolling Stone, Cruz said, “We are approaching a solemn anniversary this week. It is an anniversary of a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol where we saw the men and women of law enforcement demonstrate incredible courage, incredible bravery, risk their lives to defend the men and women who serve in this Capitol.” Then “Cruz was lambasted by Tucker Carlson that night, prompting him to hop on Carlson’s show Thursday and beg for forgiveness. “The way I phrased things yesterday, it was sloppy and it was frankly dumb,” Cruz said before Carlson cut him off and said he didn’t believe him. Cruz took it up a notch, stammering through an absurd bit about how he wasn’t talking about the “patriots across the country supporting President Trump,” only those who assaulted police officers, and that he’s always described anyone who assaults a cop as a terrorist.

Carlson has made a career of being a pompous commentator. Interestingly he worked at CNN, PBS, and MSNBC, before finally landing at Fox in 2009. According to his Wikipedia page he went to Trinity College where he earned a bachelor’s degree and Carlson’s Trinity yearbook describes him as a member of the “Dan White Society,” an apparent reference to the American political assassin who murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. After college, Carlson tried to join the CIA, but his application was denied, after which he decided to pursue a career in journalism with the encouragement of his father, who advised him that “they’ll take anybody.” Reading this clearly raised my opinion of the CIA and based on what we see in some media today I agree with Carlson’s father on his view of journalism. 

When you have a moment of silence in the House of Representatives to honor those who lost their lives on Jan. 6 and only two Republicans show up, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and her father Dick Cheney, the former vice president, one understands the influence Carlson has on the GOP. The rest were afraid of being criticized on-air by him or lambasted by Trump. 

Dick Cheney remarked on the GOP, “It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years.” He spoke to ABC News saying, “I’m deeply disappointed we don’t have better leadership in the Republican Party to restore the Constitution.” 

There is a leadership void in the Republican Party today. Their so-called leaders are afraid to say what they think if it differs in any way from Trumpism or Carlson’s view of the world, which requires total fealty to Trump. He found a home on Fox where he can lie with impunity and have millions believe his lies. 

President Biden said, in what many think was the best speech of his presidency so far, these people are “holding a dagger to the neck of democracy.” He went on to say, “For the first time in our history, a president not just lost an election, he tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob breached the Capitol.” 

Tucker Carlson and his ilk have never bothered to answer a question the president threw at them, which is how they can accept all their down ballot victories, governors, and members of Congress, which occurred on the same ballots, cast by the same people, on the same day, as those for president. Of course, Carlson has no need to make sense, tell the truth, or speak rationally because of his platform on Fox, which doesn’t require that.

My question is whether Carlson is as dumb as he makes himself sound or is he brilliant and this is all a big act? Either way the acolytes that follow Trump don’t seem to care and are bowing down to Carlson’s big audience. It’s as if he can tell any Republican senator or congressperson, or Republican candidate for those jobs, to just ‘bend over and take it’ and they do. All we can do is mourn for the GOP of Lincoln and Eisenhower. Non-Trumpers will have to work hard and speak out if they ever want to resurrect a GOP that can be respected.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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