By Ildiko Polony
It is tradition for Jack Hirschman - 2006 Poet Laureate of San Francisco and one of the last living Beat Generation poets - to welcome in the New Year with a poem. At a small art gallery in North Beach on New Year's Day, surrounded by friends and fellow artists, he and his wife, Aggie Falk (who will be featured in an upcoming One Night Music session), host an annual New Year's Day, Bring-Your-Own-Plate brunch. Following Jack, others stand and share their poetry, their acappela ballads, or their bluegrass guitar jams. Topics often take on the political, the silly and the deeply personal. Jack's ode to 2010 is the first of five poems that he shared with One Night Music from his North Beach apartment on January 2, 2010 for our new Poetry Series.
Ryan and I had dreamt of filming a One Night Music session with Jack Hirschman since I introduced Ryan to Jack last New Year 2009. That year's poem was cheerful and optimistic; President Bush was soon to be replaced by the first African-American President. Jack's poem for 2010 stands in stark contrast, referring to Washington politicians as "those living out the true lie best" and expressing liberals' faltering hope for Obama. The New Year poems serve as a reflection of the year as it comes to an end and, with a hint of the cynic or with a touch of the dreamer, turn a critical eye on current events and the American socio-political system.
The session was filmed in Jack and Aggie's North Beach apartment. It is set off from the street and to get to it, one must pass through a locked door placed between two crowded Victorian buildings. These create a path that leads to a little courtyard upon which their house sits. Their house is modest and covered with art, artifacts, and thousands of books strewn about in a sort of orderly disorder. Aggie served dinner as Ryan and I sat in humble gratitude while we discussed art, caught up on neighborhood gossip, sought advice on decisions of youth, and prepared the two of them for the filming that was about to take place. We shared a bottle of wine and Jack drank his Stolichinaya, declaring that vodka never makes him drunk.
Jack classifies all his poems as love poems. Creating art is an act of love and deep compassion for the work and for the inspiration of the work, whether the inspiration is political injustice or a broken heart. Jack's poetry reflects not only his radical leftist views, but also his empathy for the human condition and that which is so simply overwhelming. His subjects range from the curve of his lover's hips, to war profiteering, to stories about his grandmother and family betrayal. Words -- their rhythm and sound -- are Jack's tools and poetry his medium; he has the ability to manipulate language to convey a multiplicity of meanings in a single word or phrase.
This mastery of language is illustrated beautifully in the second poem Jack read for us that evening. Path begins, "Go to your broken heart, if you think you don't have one, get one. To get one, be sincere" and continues as an homage to humility, to pain and to the lesson of vulnerability. His voice teases out each word like a drum roll, gaining in volume and in speed and, then, slowing down. Holding his poems at nose length while he reads, he lets the words speak for themselves while allowing the emotion that the poem invokes carry his voice.
Jack Hirschman is my father's close friend. As a small girl I would hear Jack's big voice booming through the house as I, fearful of this gregarious character, would lurk in my room. He always brought some gift of bizarre abstract art he had painted and dedicated to me, and in return, rather than hug him, I would offer him my back and let him give me a little squeeze from behind. A big mustache hid his nearly toothless smile. I would marvel at this at the dinner table, and shamelessly ask him how he could eat with no teeth.
As I grew up I began to appreciate Jack's eccentricity -- his bigness both in physique and character, his wealth of stories and of life. I grew from being afraid of him to being intrigued by him and to realizing that I am unusually fortunate to have a role model such as him in my life.
By the time he and my father had become close friends, Jack had given up his life of relative comfort as a university professor. UCLA had fired him from his position as professor of comparative literature for granting A's to students in an effort to help them avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. Because of Jack's popularity amongst the students and changing political tides, he was invited to return to the University. Instead, he chose to move to San Francisco and focus on his art. He moved into a North Beach residency hotel and spent the following decades in an artist's poverty, refusing to live off of anything but his poetry.
Now, for the first time, he is relatively comfortable (though he still keeps his hotel room to work out of) and enjoys international acclaim. He and Aggie are regularly invited to read their poetry at poetry festivals in Italy, Venezuela, and Iraq. Jack works tirelessly and has published over one hundred books and translated countless others. He also organizes the annual International Poetry Festival hosted by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.
When Jack isn't working in his hotel room, you can find him frequenting the bars, cafés and galleries of North Beach, reading his poems, arguing art and politics and pedaling the People's Tribune, the monthly magazine published by The League of Revolutionaries for a New America.
Recorded in North Beach, San Francisco, CA on January 02, 2010.