for Eugene Smith
by jack hirschman
She was on her knees
in a Tenderloin doorway
eating chunks of darkness
out of a small tin can.
As I passed, a photograph
of a Haitian man crawling
on a Port-au-Prince sidewalk
30 years ago came to mind.
There was no difference.
I’d like to hold the nape
of capital down to a plate
of dogfood on a street
with the mange.
I’d like to see capital
with lacerated knees crawling
from one reality to another
for a change.
— from “The Back of a Spoon” (1992)
He sits at a table at the back of Caffe Trieste in North Beach, a place he has frequented for almost four decades, a place he has penned a poem about, a place that perfectly suits all that Jack Hirschman — an internationally renowned poet and local social justice advocate — was and is and the legend he will become.
What is he? Charming, iconoclastic, unkempt, scholarly, angry, courtly, edgy, melancholy and unsentimental. And, by his own definition, an unlikely interview subject for J.
“I’m a bad Jew,” Hirschman, 80, says. “Why do you want to talk to me?”
Regardless of this self-deprecation, Hirschman — poet laureate of San Francisco from 2006 to 2009 — will read from his vast body of work at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 6 at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma. The reading will include Hirschman’s meditative reflections on his early life in the Bronx, his poems influenced by jazz and by Kabbalah and also his translations of the work of Yiddish poet Hirsh Glik.
So why does Hirschman think he is a bad Jew?
“I’m a Communist, and the Zionists came out against the Communists,” he says. “I haven’t been to a seder in 35 years, but I have intently studied Kabbalah. Not the mumbo jumbo; the theosophical dimensions, the works of [early kabbalists] Isaac Luria and Abraham Abulafia. The poetry of Judaism, the language of Judaism, lies in the Kabbalah, which is the inner soul of the Bible.”
Hirschman pauses to consider whether his political activism, his work on behalf of the homeless, the poor and the disenfranchised, might be considered acts of tikkun olam. Suddenly, he beams. “Marxism is the ultimate healing of the world in that through Marxism, war can end,” he says. “So I am not religious, but I believe philosophy is key to the reparation of the world.”
In blunt, no-holds-barred language, Hirschman has voiced his philosophy both on the streets and in more than 50 published volumes of poetry. “The Arcanes,” released in 2006, runs more than 1,000 pages.
Alan Kaufman, a poet and writer based in San Francisco, called the book “as unlikely and historically significant a literary production as, say, the appearance of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ or James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’” Other reviewers have compared Hirsch-man to Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg.
Hirschman salutes San Francisco, his home since 1972, for naming a Com-munist as a poet laureate. “New York doesn’t have the guts to do that,” he says, smiling conspiratorially.
Hirschman also is credited with the rebirth of the San Francisco International Poetry Festival and he serves as poet-in-residence for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, helping to organize readings and poetry festivals in several languages. He is active with the Revolutionary Poets Brigade and curates the Poets 11 Anthology, which collects poetry from each of the city’s 11 districts. Hirschman is married to Agneta Falk, a Swedish poet, writer and artist.
Born in New York City in 1933, Hirschman grew up in the Bronx, the son of second-generation Russian Jews. “My father was a creative writer, self-taught, a man who loved the word, and he inspired me in that,” Hirschman says. He earned an undergraduate degree from City College of New York, and a master of arts degree and Ph.D. from Indiana University.
His first book of poetry was published in 1960, when he was 27. Eight years earlier, when Hirschman worked as an editor for the Associated Press in New York, he sent a story to Ernest Hemingway, asking for advice. Hemingway wrote back, saying that Hirschman was better than he had been at 19 and so he had no advice.
Hirschman later sold that letter to buy a car and head for California, where he taught at UCLA until he was fired for encouraging his students to take part in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War.
In 1976, Hirschman started writing poetry in Russian, a language he says he learned sitting in Caffe Trieste.
“For 11 years, I wrote a poem a day in Russian,” he says. “Before that, usually I would write three poems a day.” Hirschman also speaks French and Italian, and has translated more than two dozen books from German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Albanian and Greek. Hirschman also is a painter and collagist.
After just 20 minutes into the interview, Hirschman collects his things and rises from his seat. “I have to go to work,” he says. “I am still writing. I am also preparing new translations of the Russian poems. I want to put them in a book before I die.” He takes his empty cup to the counter and heads out the door.
Jack Hirschman will give a poetry reading at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 6 at B’nai Israel Jewish Center, 740 Western Ave., Petaluma. A discussion of Yiddish poetry will follow. Free. (707) 762-0340