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Jack Hirschman installed
as San Francisco Poet Laureate

Jack Hirschman
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Pat Murphy

January 13, 2006

Jack Hirschman, for 50 years the poet of internationalist revolution, accepted installation as Poet Laureate of San Francisco yesterday on behalf of the poor and homeless.

Surrounded by friends and literary greats in the City Hall ceremony, Hirschman sketched the essence of his works.

International Convention on Human Rights program director,
Mishana Hosseinioun, extends congratulatory embrace to Hirschman.

"Philosophically I'm an internationalist who knows that neither homelessness and poverty globally and specifically here in San Francisco, which the mayor is much concerned with, as well as war and violence will ever end until and unless the wealth of this world is redistributed and or appropriated for the benefit of all according to our needs as human beings," Hirschman explained.

"All of my poetry and intellectual expression is, in one way or another, directed to that end.

"And since I believe that all human beings are poets in fact, and the writing of a poet is the most powerful action given to humankind, because unviable and unsellable in essence, and because a child of five years and a man or woman of seventy years in the act of writing a poem evoke the quality that is love at the heart of the world.

"I write to unfold the future of that equality with all my brother and sister human beings.

"The simplest thing in the world, imagine, three lines in Japan, thousands of leaves of grass of our own American bard, millions of variations throughout the world even unto intricate rhymes hip-hopping down the street, in schools, in prisons, slipped under your door, on the page or off the page, published between your ears, the simplest thing is the greatest weapon against the chaos, the fear, and war."

Hirschman became the fourth Poet Laureate of San Francisco under the program Mayor Willie Brown initiated in 1998.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights publisher and writer, was the first to be so honored. Ferlinghetti was followed by Janice Mirikitani and devorah major.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, first Poet Laureate of San Francisco
embraces Jack Hirschman yesterday on Hirschman's installation.

City Librarian Luis Herrera headed the selection committee which forwarded two recommendations for installation by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

San Francisco Librarian Luis Herrera

Newsom, recipient of Hirschman stark criticism, said a better choice could not be made than that of Jack Hirschman.

Mayor Newsom

"I love the fact that Jack and Lawrence and others have been critical of me," the mayor began.

"I think that's healthy, and you know what, they've made me I hope a better politician, a better person, in that process…

"I really do think they have been the conscious of the public. They have been truly masters in many respects of dissent as well. They say what needs to be said in eloquent ways, in ways that are memorable, and at times…audacious."

Hirschman read an ode to the suffering of Hurricane Katrina entitled The House of the Setting Sun.

"I put my mouth to your misery, New Orleans,
inundated and soaking with death.
Here lies: war lies piled so high, this floating
prison of a cemetery cries out of rage
at the end of its breath. Here, in the last delta,
Desire lies on its side, is rolled, and rolled
over upon by its own government, and crushed.
Summertime is over and the livin' is dead,
and 'round midnight all hopes are looted.
No one will come clean of the Katrina
of New Orleans in this sinking
House of the Setting Sun.
Bodies so Black and so blue from loving
what wouldn't spit on their shoes if they
needed a shine. Let alone a dime. Or water.
America, you were always scorched earth
in our mouths, always a baptism of crap,
always a rain of disaster streaming
down the panes of our broken eyes.
Now our rags are the most torn,
our jazz the most blue, our poor the poorest
that can be worn in the soul's thrift-shop.
Now that all is lost and there's only nothing
to lose … "Long live the courage
and the sorrow and the innocence of the poor!"
The real flag's in tatters.
Begin to wave it."

Hirschman also singled out the Street Sheet, published by the Coalition on Homelessness, "as the best paper vis-à-vis addressing the question of homelessness and extension to enter the dimension of poverty."

A tribute to Hirschman written by Street Sheet Editor Chance Martin is republished by permission, which includes a Hirschman selection entitled Mother:

By Chance Martin

Following is a tribute to Jack Hirschman that I read at City Lights as part of LaborFest 2004.

Sometimes I lose my perspective. I forget what a truly incredible place San Francisco is, and how very fortunate I am to rub shoulders with the artists who have always been beckoned to this City. There is an undeniably unique quality of inspiration to be found here in the sparks that fly from its spectacular collision of such obscene wealth with so much life-threatening poverty.

I discovered my passion for justice from Jack Hirschman, along with a host of others more obscure, too many of whom 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 when I was only a few weeks out of psychiatric incarceration. Jack, Sarah, 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 of Justice.

And Justice is the Lady I Love.

Sometimes she's still the same smiling, rosy-cheeked, round-hipped maiden she was when I first laid eyes on her.

Her expressions nurture my passion.

But there's a story to be told in my 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 Street.

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 or underutilized federally owned property should be designated for housing homeless people--the building could be put to good use, serving the needs of the homeless people in the immediate community.

1211 Polk Street had sat vacant for some time already, under the dual--and dueling--auspices of two federal agencies: The IRS had seized the building for the taxes owed by a kiddy-porn ring that had operated out of the adult bookstore on the ground floor; but its claim was contested by that of the DEA, which had closed down a meth lab in one of the upstairs units.

Naturally, this ongoing dispute between governmental entities served no purpose so well as to keep 1211 Polk Street vacant, even as scores of teenaged street kids who provide the human grist for Polk Street's drive-by sex mill sought shelter nightly beneath the tattered remnants of the now-defunct adult bookstore's awning. Homes Not Jails recognized the need and took action--repeatedly.

By this time, my support of Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails activities had gotten me arrested 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 theater; 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 on your own recognizance--typically a one- to six-hour process.

The day that Jack and I were arrested, we marched from the front of City Hall to the Polk Street 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 Justice to be "processed."

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 freed from those nasty plastic handcuffsŠ 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 trespassing--a misdemeanor). We were all segregated and didn't see each other again for 72 hours. My lady friend even 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 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 in lockup, about the action, and his comrades. I don't have it here with me now, but still I remember the last line: "Šwe fully intend to BE"

And now Jack Hirschman is the Poet Laureate of San Francisco and it's about time... but Jack has always belonged to us: The People.

The following selection was published in STREET SHEET for the December '03 Poetry Issue.

MOTHER (1984)

We are not in this world
a long time ago
it happened it was over:
the world the war the world war.
I took you by the hand
through it,
tiniest hand, tiniest star.
You didn't move then
I was dead, then you were dead.
In the open mouth of grief
there is a candle.

I am not with my breath,
I am the slow peeling away
of the skin
and all that all the deaths
I've seen registers
in my eyes.
I have been a laughing tree
beside a stove
of honeyed bananas,
I have been a silver fox
and the elegance of heels,
I have been what has
brought you down
and the words you look up,
I have been the spit-upon
and the ganged,
the slain and the invincible,
the bitch of moons,
the whiplash of compassion
behind the drug of sluts,
the red thread that
liberates all convicts,
the thimble that balances
your jiggers,
the kalimba that wraps
your nightmares in lullabies,
the power of birth
when a child dies.

We are not in this world
a long time ago
it happened it was over:
the world the war the world war.
I took you by the hand
through it,
tiniest hand, tiniest star.
Why should I weep now
that you have entered the darkness?
Many like me are around you.
Our ether is without end.
Should we never speak again
you shall write our conversation.
Should my voice fall short of your heart
(but that is impossible,
you're still a child,
I'm weeping at a window),
other voices will lift mine
and carry it to the center
of your breathing.

O my beloved, when you burst into flames,
when your bones were blistered,
at those precise moments,
who drove the seeds in a rapid
torrent of thighs and targeted
the yearning eggs with glory?
When you grew like a primer
into a text of rage
at all the injustice of this
profiteering hell,
when your mind was broken,
when your sex was split
like Korea, Vietnam,
like the North and South,
when poisons came with pleasure
and the antidote was dead,
who cut through the air
as if wringing a chicken's neck?
who tore the feathers and flung them
to cushion your fall?

I am the creature who runs through the streets
screaming your name against the mockery,
I am the sleep of the suicide
and the cataract of immemorial hair,
I am the attack of liberty on the hard of heart
and the poem on the hard of hearing.
The solitude, the grace, the smile
that returns your smile
from the depths of the biology
of a labor and joy
only the heartbeats of the dithyramb approach,
only the soul thrums of the cosmos define.

We are not in this world
a long time ago
it happened it was over:
the world the war the world war.
I took you by the hand
through it,
tiniest hand, tiniest star.

(From the anthology FRONT LINES)




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