In Japan, Jack Hirschman would surely be designated as a “Living National Treasure.” In America, he should at least receive honors at the Kennedy Center. But alas, it is America after all. But San Francisco, I am happy to say, appreciates its own treasure: Hirschman was appointed San Francisco Poet Laureate from 2006 through 2009, and continues to be honored as poet in residence for the Friends of the San Francisco Library, for whom he curates and hosts the reading series Thursdays At Readers as well as organizes Poets 11 and the San Francisco International Poetry Festival.
A few days after attending Thursdays At Readers on Aug 4, he and I sat down together at Cafe Trieste in North Beach (famously, his “office” for many years) to talk about the series and the poetry scene in general. His manner was courtly and completely attentive. Here are some snippets of our conversation:
LITSEEN: Jack, what attracts you to curating a reading series? How did you come to be doing this now?
JACK HIRSCHMAN: Well, when I became the poet laureate of San Francisco in 2006, I proposed some things for the city. One was the organization of an international poetry festival, of which I have organized two. And we are going to have one next year as well. And then I also organized a series of city wide branch library readings where poets submit work and three are chosen from each district to read. This is called “Poets 11,” for the 11 districts. The chosen three are featured poets, but everyone who submits reads poems also, at least one. We’ve had two of them also, and there will be another one next year as well.
Then, after my term was over in 2009, the Friends of the San Francisco Library (sponsors of the International Poetry Festival and the Poets 11 reading series) made me the poet in residence for the Friends of the San Francisco Lbrary. It turns out they were setting up a cafe in their bookstore at Fort Mason, so the thought was, well, “let’s have a ‘Readers’ Cafe‘”, and that’s how I came to organize a year of readings, beginning this year. And it’s been great so I’m in the process of organizing next year’s readings as well.
It’s basically not to showcase so much as to get some important work out there. I consider myself a rather engaged social and even political poet and that’s what I like most, but people read what they want to read, I’m not telling them what to read.
LITSEEN: Would you say that the purpose of a reading series is mostly to get good work out?
HIRSCHMAN: Yes. To get GOOD work out, not just anything. Hopefully, when people read they will read the best work they can. I want them to read the best work.
LITSEEN: I wonder, then, how you feel about open readings? Is there a place for them?
HIRSCHMAN: Oh, yes. Let me put it this way. Open readings have to do with the dimension of free expression. And they should exist. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I like to concentrate my concerns, as it were, so that one doesn’t come away from a reading with a head full of a whole bunch of poems—this, that and the other—saying nothing more than “Oh, wow, aren’t we free!” I mean that, for me, that goes without saying. That exists.
So what I try to do is to point in a direction which relates to things like class struggle, to minority voices, to voices engaged with social and political struggle. That’s my favorite kind of poetry. That’s personal to me. Others read all kinds of different poetry, but that’s where I focus.
With this series, when people are invited to read, they know I’m the organizer and so they give thought to that, and that’s good—I like that. Because that’s why I do this, so that more of that engaged poetry gets out into the community. Well-written, engaged poetry.
LITSEEN: May I share a pet theory with you? I would say that good art is, by definition, subversive and engaged. Even if that is not the conscious intention. Art is by nature subversive.
HIRSCHMAN: I agree with you, yes. Well, that does bring up some questions. For example, I’ve written against Ezra Pound. Because Pound was a fascist. And, moreover, he was a fascist in a kind of way that I could not forget. Pound was also a vicious anti-semite. He contributed to the jailing of human beings.
LITSEEN: Did his poems directly contribute to that?
HIRSCHMAN: Yes, there were antisemitic poems in the cantos. And his radio speeches directly contributed to the incarceration of Jews
LITSEEN: Is it possible, then, for those poems to be good art? I’d say that to the extent that they are good art, they must also have subverted those very purposes, even if that wasn’t his conscious intent. The very existence of the artist subverts fascist tendencies, even if the artist is insane.
HIRSCHMAN: That’s correct. I’d agree with you there. And of course, there will be people who don’t agree with my particular political philosophy who I will invite to read. They don’t have to agree with me to be worthwhile.
LITSEEN: But you like articulate political and social thought in your poetry.
HIRSCHMAN: Well, yes. For example, if someone wrote a poem today about what is happening in Syria or the demonstrations by Israelis against their government on economic issues. Those are poems I would want to read. That’s what I’m interested in.
LITSEEN: That would be more appealing to you than a poem about sunrise on Twin Peaks.
HIRSCHMAN: Well, of course, someone might also read a poem about sunrise on Twin Peaks, but my tendency would be to like the poems that are politically and socially engaged.
LITSEEN: May I go to another question? I’d like your thoughts on how you would describe the ideal reading series. What would you want to be there?
HIRSCHMAN: I have the answer to that because that’s what I try to do when I organize the International Poetry Festival. I invite, say, 20 poets. And they read in their original languages. That’s very important. Bringing original languages from all over the world is in itself a very important political thing. Because there are many languages that are going to cease to exist, before mid century.
LITSEEN: Then you would say that an ideal series must have languages beyond English?
HIRSCHMAN: Oh, yes, that’s very important. I regard that as a political act. And it is a subversive act.
In the next festival, we will have at least 15 or 20 poets and will try to get nearly as many languages. There is going to be a poet reading in Maltese, a magnificent poet who writes in Maltese whom I met in Paris. And there’ll be Asian languages. And I want to have Greek and Turkish.
[At this point, we were interrupted by the arrival of Jack’s next appointment, whom he clearly did not want to keep waiting. Firmly but graciously, he announced, “Well, we’re finished, now, right Charlie?” And gently turned the focus of his attention to the new arrival. I left feeling I’d had a privileged audience with a force to be reckoned with.]
At Thursdays At Readers, Jack practices what he preaches. Here are the videos of distinguished Arabic translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid reading his own translations of Tarek Eltayeb, Najway Darwish, and Mohammed Achaari in both English and the original Arabic. As an added bonus, we also include the evening’s performances by master jazz musician (and painter), Georges Long.
Jack Hirschman « Introduction
Georges Long « Musical Interlude #1
Kareem James Abu-Zeid « Tarek Eltayeb in Translation
Georges Long « Musical Interlude #2
Kareem James Abu-Zeid «Najway Darwish in Translation
Georges Long « Musical Interlude #3
Kareem James Abu-Zeid « Mohammed Achaari in Translation
Georges Long « Musical Interlude #4
Kareem James Abu-Zeid « Tarek Eltayeb in Translation #2