Sunday, January 15, 2006

Jack Hirschman, poet of the people

A poet laureate of the people
Newsom taps Jack Hirschman to 'challenge the status quo'
Rachel Gordon, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Two years ago, Jack Hirschman, a social activist and communist, backed
Matt Gonzalez's run for San Francisco mayor. On Thursday, the business
community's candidate and victor in that race, Mayor Gavin Newsom, will
officially name him the city's new poet laureate.

Hirschman, who at 72 has been a prominent figure in American poetry
with a half-century of published work, is scheduled to accept the post at
noon at a City Hall ceremony. Four hours later, he plans to be reading
poetry on the steps of the State Building in San Francisco at a
demonstration against the death penalty.

That should surprise no one. For Hirschman has used his words and his
body to protest injustice for decades.

What may be more surprising is that Newsom selected him to serve as San
Francisco poet laureate.

Hirschman, who has been arrested numerous times in social protest, was
a notable supporter of Gonzalez, the then-president of the Board of
Supervisors and Green Party member who was Newsom's chief opponent in the
2003 mayor's race. Hirschman described his candidate as a political
leader dedicated to transforming "the system of same-old machine politics
and corruption.''

Despite comments like that, or maybe because of them, Newsom, a
dedicated Democrat who came into office endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce
and real estate developers, said Hirschman was the right person for the
poet laureate post.

"I want that position to be more audacious, more exciting, to shake
things up,'' Newsom told The Chronicle. "I want someone who will challenge
the status quo.''

Hirschman's reaction: "That's excellent. I like statements like that.''

The San Francisco poet laureate program began under Mayor Willie Brown
in 1998. Since then, three poets have held the title: Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Janice Mirikitani and devorah major. Hirschman is Newsom's first
appointment to the non-paying post.

The mayor was presented with a list of three candidates selected by a
search committee headed by City Librarian Luis Herrera that included
poets Bob Booker and Jewelle Gomez, and Joyce Jenkins, editor of Poetry
Flash, a poetry review focused on the West Coast. Newsom said he had
reviewed the panel's recommendations, read the finalists' work and
consulted with his father, retired state judge William Newsom, who holds a
master's degree in English literature from Stanford.

"On the basis of all that I made my decision," Newsom said. "I know
Jack Hirschman's obviously a charged pick, with all these layers of
intrigue. But it's not like I'm appointing him planning commissioner.''

"That he chose me I find really admirable,'' Hirschman said of Newsom.
"But then he's done some other things in office that, if not
provocative, certainly got people's attention.''

Topping his list: Newsom's decision in 2004 to grant marriage licenses
in San Francisco to same-sex couples. Hirschman praised Newsom's gay
marriage stance, describing it as forward-thinking and bold, and also
lauded the mayor's efforts to help some segments of the homeless

The role of San Francisco poet laureate comes with few guidelines. He
or she must deliver an inaugural address on the state of poetry in San
Francisco, read at Litquake -- an annual literary festival in the city
-- and work on poetry programs in the community.

To be considered for the post, the person must be a San Francisco
resident who has written at least one full-length book of poetry -- not
self-published -- and has had at least 20 poems appear in well-established

Hirschman, a North Beach resident who embodies the bohemian lifestyle
that made the neighborhood famous, is prolific. Emerging as a poet
during the Beat Generation, he has written more than 70 books -- his first
was published in 1953. He has translated dozens more from Spanish,
German, Greek, French, Hebrew, Russian and tongues not so common, such as
Haitian Creole and Albanian. His work, as an editor and a poet, has been
published in literary journals, magazines and newspapers.

Gonzalez said it didn't surprise him that Newsom had chosen Hirschman.

"It would be hard to pass over a writer like him,'' said Gonzalez, a
friend of Hirschman's and his bibliographer. "It's sort of like
conferring on him this title that people have already given him. He is the poet

Nancy Peters, who runs City Lights Publishing and edited Hirschman's
book "Lyripol" 30 years ago, agreed.

"Jack is someone who lives for poetry,'' said Peters, who co-owns the
venerable City Lights bookstore in North Beach with Ferlinghetti. "He
has a wonderful ability to combine social justice with a lyric voice.''

Hirschman believes the greatest poets are those who are provocative and
prophetic and who, as Newsom says of him, challenge the status quo, he

Hirschman called his being selected San Francisco poet laureate an
honor for him personally "and I think a very small victory for the people's
movement, which has had very few victories recently in this chaotic

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