[HPN] I know a provoker everytime I look up at greatness
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Tue, 4 Apr 2000 23:46:32 -0700
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Sometimes I lose my perspective, I forget what an incredible place
San Francisco really is, and how very fortunate I am to rub shoulders
with the artists who have always been beckoned to this City. There is
an undeniable and unique quality of inspiration found only in the
sparks of friction that fly from the spectacular collision of such
obscene wealth with so much life-threatening poverty.
I discovered my passion for justice from Jack Hirschman, and from
others more obscure, and from some few who are with us no more.
Justice for the People. Jack's example always instructed me that I
was one of the People, that I was part of the WE.
I first volunteered alongside Jack serving soup to other homeless
people with Food Not Bombs, SF when I was only out of my last (final)
psychiatric incarceration for a few weeks. Jack, and Sarah Menefee,
Keith McHenry, and a host of others demonstrated for me a way to take
the despair that fueled my headlong race to suicide and transform
that impotent, self-directed rage into the Love for Justice.
Justice is the Lady I Love.
Sometimes, she's the same smiling, rosy-cheeked, round-hipped maiden
she was when I first lay eyes on her.
Her expressions nurture my passion.
Sometimes, I am forced to witness her being turned out by her
exploiters, and debase herself to survive for their interests.
My rage awaits Justice's pimps, greedily.
OK, there's a story to be told in all these posturings.
Jack, myself, and 8 or 9 other men and women were arrested at a Homes
Not Jails housing takeover in San Francisco more years ago than I
care to remember. It was the umpteenth time we had taken over a
vacant three story building at 1211 Polk St.
We felt we had a case for acquiring the building via direct action.
Under the language of the Stewart B. McKinney Act, specifically the
part that states that unused and underutilized federally-owned
property should be designated for housing homeless people, we felt
the building could be better used to serve the needs of the homeless
people in the immediate community. 1211 Polk St. had sat vacant for
quite a while, largely due to the fact that the IRS had seized the
building for unpaid taxes from a kiddy-porn ring operating out of the
adult bookstore on the ground floor, while the DEA had also seized
the building after closing down a meth factory in one of the upstairs
Naturally, this internecine dispute between governmental entities
over potential revenues served no purpose so well as keeping 1211
Polk St. vacant, even as scores of the street kids who provide the
human grist for Polk Street's 24-hour drive-by sex market sought
shelter nightly beneath the tattered remains of the now-defunct adult
bookstore's awning. Homes Not Jails recognized the need, and took
action - repeatedly.
By this time, I'd been arrested supporting Food Not Bombs and Homes
Not Jails activities often enough that I had acquired a fairly casual
attitude toward risking arrest - civil disobedience in San Francisco
as I had experienced it was mostly theatre, and if you were lucky you
could frame your message despite the attendant chaos. Punishment
consisted of a trip to Southern Station and waiting in handcuffs to
be released to your own recognizance - typically a 1-6 hour process.
When Jack and I were arrested we led a march from the front of City
Hall to the Polk St. address, where we applied prybars, sledgehammers
and the will of the People to rip down the barriers the City had
tacked onto the building. About two dozen of us made it in and
assembled on the second floor. When the cops gained entry, we sat in
a circle on the floor and linked arms - if they were going to arrest
us again they were going to have to work at it.
Some bruised ribs (and pride), and indelicate treatment later, we
were all handcuffed and pressed into the back of a paddy wagon
waiting for the cops to clear a path through the crowd of supporters
so we could make the trip to the Hall of (In)Justice to be
Here's the beauty part:
Jack turns to me and starts lamenting about how if his hands weren't
cuffed behind him, we could all share from his stash of
"airline-sized" bottles of Schnapps that still lay hidden deep in the
breast pocket of his parka. Such a dilemma!
Well, that's when Jeremy, an androgynous upstart, decides to show us
his "trick." Seems his boyish build permitted him sufficient
flexibility to slip his cuffed hands over his skinny ass, then
around his folded legs so that his cuffed hands were now in front of
him. An intimate moment while he rifled another arrestee's pocket for
a leatherman tool later, and Hey Presto! everyone's hands were free
from those nasty plastic handcuffs and we were swilling Schnapps and
chanting chants to our well-wishers still assembled outside the paddy
wagon. Then we started rocking the paddy wagon back and forth on its
axles in an achingly pure demonstration of untamed human spirit.
Big surprise! when we get to the booking desk we learn that we were
charged with a felony: CONSPIRACY (to commit a misdemeanor). We were
all segregated and didn't see each other again for 72 hours. My
soon-to-be (now-ex) girlfriend was bailed out by her mom, and she
then recruited a couple of members of the Green Party County Council
to put up their homes up against my "flight risk" to get me cut
loose. But when SF Sheriff Mike Hennessey came to work Monday, he
condemned the SFPD's charges as "an abuse of process" and released us
on our own recognizance.
Jack wrote a poem to while away his time locked away; about the
action, and his comrades. I don't have it here with me now, but still
I remember the last line:
"we fully intend to BE"
Jack didn't get selected "poet laureate" of San Francisco, and I'm
glad... Jack will always belong with us - The People.
Dean of S.F.'s Marxist Poetry
Jack Hirschman is lauded abroad, unknown at home
Mike Weiss, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle
I know a provoker everytime I look up at greatness
"the Pasolini Arcade"
He may well be, as an admiring fellow poet calls him, ``the greatest
living poet in America.''
He is without doubt a brilliant translator of poems from Russian,
Spanish, German, Hebrew, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Italian and
Feted in Italy. Respected in France. Invited to tour England.
But at this precise moment, Jack Hirschman cannot pay for his bagel and
cream cheese and double espresso at Caffe Trieste in North Beach. ``I've
got 46 cents in my account,'' he says without a trace of embarrassment
or self-pity when a visitor shows up just in time to pay. ``That's all
For a quarter century, Hirschman, 66, has roamed San Francisco's
streets, and cafes, and readings -- the city's most active poet and
poetry's most peripatetic activist.
But if he resembles an Old Testament prophet with his careworn, craggy
Jewish features and flowing hair in which there remains streaks of
brown, his devotion and international reputation have profited him not
at all. Not in the ways in which we tote up success in America.
His fame locally doesn't begin to rival that of Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
the city's first poet laureate and the proprietor of City Lights Press,
which published a 1976 selection of Hirschman's works called
``Lyripol,'' now out of print.
``Jack's a very American voice,'' Ferlinghetti says. ``He certainly aims
to be the voice of the people -- of course, he would define `the people'
in Marxist terms.''
``Lawrence is a legend,'' Hirschman says, having finished his espresso
and wiped his thick mustache. ``Lawrence has sold a million copies -- I
don't think I've sold a thousand. I've lived my life hand-to-mouth.
``Put it this way,'' he continues, grinning in anticipation of the words
he's about to sling: ``I've circulated in the bloodstream of this
country in different ways from those with big names and big fames.''
Luke Breit, a legislative aide who used to write speeches for Mayor
Willie Brown, was tending bar at Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach in 1973
when a brown-eyed, wide-shouldered man offered to trade him a poem for a
glass of red wine, a la Vachel Lindsay, who roamed America bartering his
poems in the early part of the century.
Hirschman had recently arrived in town in the wake of the breakup of his
tempestuous first marriage to Ruth Seymour, then the program director
for the National Public Radio station in Los Angeles.
Soon after that initial bar meeting, Pablo Neruda died, and Breit, a
poet himself, heard Hirschman read his own translation from French of
Louis Aragon's appreciation of the great Chilean poet.
``It was a 45-minute piece, the room was packed, and Jack held that
audience with the timbre and tone of his voice. So powerful,'' says
Breit, who reckons that Hirschman is America's best living versifier.
``The room was hushed, the most attentive, rapt group of people I've
ever seen at a reading. When he finished, a standing ovation. Jack reads
poetry the way the heart is supposed to hear it.
``I think he's a greater poet than (Allen) Ginsberg. But because of his
politics, it's scary for anybody in the mainstream to embrace him.''
The mid-1970s transformed Hirschman's life. He had been a journalist and
then spent 12 years in academia before reaching the conclusion that
``It should really be a form of communication in a giving way, rather
than sold,'' he says, in a voice in which his native Bronx has been
softened but not effaced. ``What I mean, everything that helps to
market, to sell, is in a certain sense false, belongs to capitalism.''
It was in the Caffe Trieste in 1976, with its weekend morning operatic
performances and old-fashioned phone booth, that Hirschman found his
metier, the marriage of poetry and politics. ``Perhaps the most
important political day of my life,'' he says. ``I started to write in
Russian, on the streets, in the U.S.A. And for 11 years I wrote a poem
in Russian every single day, and translated it into American.''
And then he declaims in Russian, so expressively it seems impossible not
to understand, at some level. Finishing, he says: ``You know what I
``You are not a slave/And I am not a machine/And this ain't no opium
During those 11 years until 1987, he also drew 120,000 small posters,
art works that were collages of abstract images and words in the
languages of both superpowers. If you knew Hirschman in those days and
ran into him, he would read you his day's output, and give you a poster.
He was also likely to toss you a pink rubber ball across a crowded cafe
by way of greeting.
Dr. Marvin Sackner of Miami Beach, one of the country's foremost
collectors of poetry, has amassed hundreds of Hirschman's works, and
commissioned others, in essence supporting the artist during that
period, in the style of a Renaissance patron.
But most of what Hirschman created during this decade he gave away on
the streets to everyone from businessmen to beggars. ``I gave away the
art works as a form of cultural propaganda,'' he says. ``I'm an American
who's not afraid of propaganda.
``Because, in fact, most of what's created is propaganda. Poetry is
really a weapon. It's a spiritual weapon for the transformation of the
world. And, of course, all my poems are love poems. The nicest thing in
the world is to propagandize for love.''
In June, Hirschman married the English calligrapher Agneta Falk.
At his wedding at the home of a friend, Jack sang ``The
Internationale,'' and recited a love poem to his bride. Aggie sang to
her new husband from Dylan Thomas' ``Under Milkwood.''
The couple did not go on a honeymoon but returned to what Aggie
good-naturedly calls ``The Shoebox:'' The 8-by-12 room where Jack has
lived for 16 years in the Columbus Hotel, a third floor walk-up.
``Jack was a joy, an absolutely beautiful boy,'' says his sister,
Cynthia Ackerman, a South Florida businesswoman. ``Everyone adored him.
And he was kind, even as a kid.'' Kind is the word those who know him
well most often use to describe him.
Their mother Nell loved to sing the popular songs of the day, and like
Cynthia, doted on Jack.
Her lips swam in the Como song with rose red strokes, reaching the end
with a shiny glow like the waxy cameo of her mother on the brooch in the
drawer She'd hold out her hand and say, `Come, darling--'
All his life Hirschman has been drawn to women, and they to him. ``I
don't like to be alone,'' he says. ``I've literally only been alone two
weeks since I was 17. And I've been very fortunate, I've had companions
who've been very helpful.''
Hirschman's lovers have supported him and have been celebrated in
exquisite, erotic love poems.
Hirschman's relationship with his father, on the other hand, was
prickly. ``Jack was always at war with my father, they didn't see eye to
eye on anything,'' Cynthia says. Steve Hirschman, a frustrated comedian
who sold insurance, was, according to Cynthia, jealous of his only son.
Naturally, the complexity of that difficult relationship -- ``New York
was too big for both of us,'' says Hirschman, who credits his father
with his love of words and his abundant energy -- has produced greater
poetry than his adoration of Nell. This excerpt is from an epic poem
called ``Shepsul Arcane,'' about his vigil at his father's deathbed in
`I wish you well' I hear said I see heard The thought is it Mine to him
Or his to me I hear softly I feel felt `You know I always have'
At 15, Hirschman went to work as a reporter for two weekly newspapers in
the Bronx and, while attending City College of New York, worked as a
copy boy for the Associated Press.
His fame as a journalist was not from something he wrote but from
something written to him. When he was 19, he sent a story to Ernest
Hemingway. ``I can't help you, kid,'' Hemingway wrote back. ``You write
better than I did when I was 19. But the hell of it is, you write like
me. That is no sin. But you won't get anywhere with it.''
Hirschman left a copy of the letter with the Associated Press, and when
Hemingway killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961, the ``Letter to a
Young Writer'' was distributed by the wire service and published all
over the world.
Hirschman heard the news of the suicide on his car radio as he was
driving through Yellowstone Park on his way to Los Angeles, where he had
accepted a teaching job at UCLA. He had written his dissertation at the
University of Indiana in five days.
Hirschman needed a job but he knew he was a poet. ``Even when I was a
copy boy, always a poet.''
His first slim volume in 1960 included an introduction by the eminent
poet/critic Karl Shapiro: ``What a relief to find a poet who is not
afraid of the vulgar or the sentimental, who can burst out laughing or
cry his head off in poetry -- who can make love to language, or kick it
in the pants.''
The war in Vietnam would soon put an end to Hirschman's academic career.
He was a charismatic, unorthodox and popular teacher. Hundreds of
students took his lecture course on American literature.
``I turned the class into one where everybody wrote poetry, and we
demonstrated against the war. I gave everyone eligible to be drafted an
A grade,'' Hirschman says. ``I was fired the week I was given the
distinguished teaching award by the student body.''
His friend David Meltzer, a poet, teacher and an ordained minister in
the Church of Man who married Jack and Aggie, describes Hirschman as,
``rejecting so many avenues in which he could have been successful.''
``He's a great teacher who refuses to work in the university, a scholar
of great merit who refuses to publish in the mainstream presses; most
everything is published by himself, 150 copies.''
``You have to understand,'' Hirschman says. ``When I left the university
I simply made my mind up I was going to be a creator the rest of my
life. And it didn't matter if I made money, or got fame.''
In his mishmash thrift-store clothes, with his tobacco-stained hands
clutching a plastic bag containing his papers and copies of ``The
People's Tribune,'' which he sells on the street for a quarter,
Hirschman could be mistaken for a homeless person.
Nonetheless, time and again when he is panhandled he digs into his
pocket for a buck. He may be the only poet to write a funny poem about
homelessness, ``Human Interlude,'' which recounts the time when passing
a woman holding out a plastic cup in the rain:
I dug for a coin, walked
Up to her And dropped it in.
It fell to the bottom Of an orange drink.
It was, say several of his friends, a 15-year relationship with the poet
Sarah Menefee that turned Hirschman into a tireless ``cultural worker''
for the dispossessed.
``Sarah got Jack grounded in terms of participatory politics instead of
coffeehouse politics,'' Meltzer says. ``Her involvement with the
homeless,'' through groups such as Food Not Bombs, ``deepened him a lot,
and deepened his poetry without in any way subverting his mystical and
philosophical orientation. Often what happens with poets is they stop
growing, and Jack hasn't.''
``I don't look at Jack as a political thinker,'' says Breit, the
politician/ poet. ``He's someone who cares desperately about humanity.''
Unlike some people of the left, Hirschman does not ``foist his political
beliefs on you,'' says Dr. Marvin Sackner, his patron. ``He has this
tremendous equanimity, living in that little room -- he's not
complaining. There is a naivete about him that's charming.''
His friends don't merely like him, they find him inspirational. Matt
Gonzalez, a public defender who recently ran for district attorney,
spent many weeks compiling a biography of the significant dates in
Hirschman's life and a bibliography.
``He's just a very beautiful person,'' Gonzalez says. ``He has a
comfortable confidence. He's not out there trying to correct some
misapprehension other people have about him. And it shines out.''
His sister Cynthia recalls a visit to her home in South Florida. ``I
have a big swimming pool. So on my patio he took off his clothes
bare-a-- naked to put on his bathing suit. I said, `Jack, you can get
arrested.' And he said, `What, d--s aren't good?' ''
Like all great artists, Hirschman has access to all his layers of
experience: linguist, Bronx stickballer, AP legman, scholar, husband,
father, son, lover. At the same time, he keeps moving forward, applying
his words to shifting experience. He is not only of the world, but in
``The best experience I had reading in San Francisco,'' he says, ``was
reading my poem `Home' to 250 homeless people in the Civic Center. The
changes I saw in their faces, their eyes, their weeping:''
Winter has come. In doorways, in alleys, at the top Of churchsteps,
Under cardboard, under rag-blankets Or, if lucky, in plastic sacks,
After another day of humiliation, Sleeping, freezing, Isolated, divided,
penniless, Jobless, wheezing, dirty Skin wrapped around cold bones
That's us, that's us in the USA, Hard concrete, cold pillow, Where fire?
Where drink? Damned stiffs in a drawer Soon if, and who cares?
For the past 15 years, Hirschman has been compiling his masterwork, an
interrelated series of longer poems he calls ``The Arcane,'' many of
them eulogies. Ten were recently published in Solerno, Italy, in English
and Italian, by MultiMedia Edizioni, which has published his last five
The collection opens with a poem to his son David, who died of leukemia
in 1982 at the age of 25. The first line, written in Russian, translates
Strong comrade My first words to you,
after death, in the thicket of mourning, in the plasma of the blood of
the poem which couldn't suffice.
``Jack is a megastar in Italy,'' says Aggie Falk. ``We would arrive for
a reading in some small place back of the beyond and see these enormous
posters. All these Italian kids would come up and say, `Hi, Jack.' It
was so heartwarming.''
In France, Meltzer says, ``they consider him a major Communist poet.''
Since Jack and Aggie paired up, they have spent about half their time in
Europe, using her home in Huddlesfield in Yorkshire as their base. It is
a far more comfortable existence than The Shoebox, in ways metaphysical
as well as material. ``In England, in our house it's like this whole
burden falls off Jack's shoulders: It's his. Not in a property sense
but: Here's where I belong.''
It is the final paradox for this paradoxist, that a poet whom Joyce
Jenkins, editor of the newsletter Poetry Flash calls, ``a true American
character,'' says he must go to Europe to feel at home.
And yet, of course, San Francisco is in another sense his home, the home
he chafes against in his poetry, his geographical father just as Europe
is his geographical mother.
``It's a city where he's flourished,'' says David Bonanno, editor of
American Poetry Review, which put Hirschman on its cover a decade ago
and since has published his poems. ``And I don't know where else in
America he'd feel as comfortable. There's an openness that doesn't exist
in Boston or New York.''
Or, as Hirschman puts it: ``They're not going to give me poet
laureate.'' He pauses for effect. ``I already am the poet laureate. I am
the poet laureate of the city.''
Jack Hirschman laughs out loud at his own joke.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle Page A1
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