“Poetry is the heart of being,” Jack Hirschman tells me, his New York accent dancing over the phone. He’s at Caffe Trieste in San Francisco, where he’s been a patron for nearly 50 years; it served as an epicenter for he and fellow Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The renowned, English-, Italian-, French- and Russian-speaking author, translator and political activist has an archive of wondrous stories to tell.
This week, he’ll leave his home in North Beach to host three free events in Las Vegas. He’ll not only read from his work but lead discussions following screenings of And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, a documentary about the life of Hirschman’s close friend, legendary Beat poet Bob Kaufman.
How did you come to know Bob Kaufman? I came [to San Francisco] in 1972 from Los Angeles. I met Bob Kaufman on the street. ... We thought the same things politically and poetically. We read together at venues here in North Beach, and we had a mutual respect for one another. He was an extraordinary poet. Bobby would enter a place and you could hear a pin drop, and then [everyone would] burst into applause.
Bob had been a very political man in his early life. You can imagine a black Jew in the 1948 election. He was really at the heart of what the Beat Generation did not want to accept. The Beat Generation was an antenna that came up simultaneously with the most important movement in this country in the last generation—the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King.
What works do you plan to read here on the 20th I just published my master works on two big volumes that my wife calls ‘a doorstop.’ One [The Arcanes] appeared in 2006, published in the American language in Italy. It’s almost 1,000 pages. The second book, [The Arcanes II], which is 900 pages long, appeared only last month, and I am bringing a few of them. I’ll also read a poem that I know by heart.
I cannot, my dear, bring too many [books], because they’re so big. They weigh so much: 3 pounds, 10 ounces each book. [My] translator Raffaella Marzano said, ‘Jack, I’d love to translate all your Arcanes, but I don’t have that many lives; so, we’ll publish them in the English language only.’
About how many works have you written? I have books coming out all the time. I’ve published more than 100 books. Some are very small; many are bilingual translations. I have books translated from Italian, Greek, Albanian, Haitian, Yiddish … I learned Russian and wrote in Russian every day for 11 years.
You were also a college professor. I heard that you taught Jim Morrison of The Doors. He was a student in the film department. I had a class of 440 people, a one-credit class in European literature. He came in with his good friend Michael Howard, who was studying film with Jim Morrison; he’s 85 years old now. After class was over, students would walk up the steps to the stage…[Morrison] asked me a question, and another student nearby said ‘That’s Jim Morrison!’ He had just made the first disc of The Doors, but my music is experimental jazz. So naturally, I said ‘Who’s Jim Morrison?’
A couple of years later, I was no longer was at UCLA, but I was asked to give a reading during the Vietnam War. People were burning the American flag outside the theater at that time. I gave a reading, and [Morrison] upstaged me! He came in and upstaged me while I was reading; I could not finish the poem. He read “The Star-Spangled Banner” ironically. I was very angry and left the theater. Two days later, he had his secretary send me two volumes of writing that he had published, one was poetry, and the other was lovely essays about film. He was a good prose writer. I think they came out in another volume later on.
And that’s the story of me and Jim Morrison.
Speaking of famous individuals, tell me about the letter Ernest Hemingway wrote to you. When I was in City College in New York, I studied writing with Leonard Ehrlich. He wrote a book called God’s Angry Man, which was about the greatest revolutionary in the United States in the 19th century, John Brown. In his class, I wrote stories, and I imitated Hemingway. I sent them to Hemingway, being precocious and pretentious as I was when I was young, and he responded.
The letter he wrote [“Letter to a Young Writer”] is quite beautiful. It was such a beautiful, warm and loving letter. ... After the announcement of Hemingway’s death, the letter that he wrote to me was published all over the United States in the Associated Press, where [I worked as a copyboy in college.] It’s very touching that they did that.
Jack Hirschman Poetry reading: January 20, 7 p.m., Winchester Cultural Center. Film screening/discussion: January 20, 1 p.m., Nevada State College Building 200; January 21, 7 p.m., Adelson Educational Campus.