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By Emma Thom on

Review: ‘Red Poet’

Emma gives her verdict on Red Poet, a documentary exploring the life and career of American poet and activist Jack Hirschman.

Yesterday I attended the world premiere of Red Poet, a documentary exploring the life and career of Jack Hirschman, a ‘communist poet in America’. More than this he is a man who displays passion, a love of poetry, art and language, and an unfaltering desire to right the wrongs of corporate America and speak out against political injustice.

We were joined by producer Fran Furey (father of the director Matthew Furey) who introduced the film and stayed afterwards for a Q&A. He pleased the local contingent by mentioning that Aggie Falk, Swedish poet and wife of Jack Hirschman, lived in Hebden Bridge before moving to San Francisco, which drew a few cheers from the audience.

I must admit that I’d not heard of Jack Hirschman before watching this documentary, and I regret not having had the opportunity to delight in his stream of consciousness until now. Indeed, I went home last night and ordered some of his works—only wish that Jack himself would be there to deliver the words, an experience which compels a fellow poet and friend to remark that he is not performing, but proclaiming the poem.

We heard about a story that the 19-year-old Hirschman sent to Ernest Hemingway, one of his early idols. Hemingway replied, “I can’t help you, kid. You write better than I did when I was 19. But the hell of it is, you write like me. That is no sin. But you won’t get anywhere with it.” Hirschman sold the letter to the local paper and bought a station wagon with the proceeds. When Hemingway killed himself shortly after in 1961, the ‘Letter to a Young Writer’ was published by the New York Times.

All of Hirschman’s friends and peers interviewed in the film speak warmly of his passion, enthusiasm and talent. One recounts how Hirschman wants to immediately read his poetry upon completion, which not only reveals that he is in love with it, but its as if he is a child wanting to show something beautiful that he’s made.

There was a period during the 1970s when Hirschman wrote a poem every day in the Russian language—no mean feat, but a mere drop in the ocean when you consider that he has translated books from over nine languages!

This expertise has earned Hirschman a following in pockets all over Europe, despite remaining somewhat underground in his native USA. A possible explanation for this is his overt communist political ideology, of which he states: “I wasn’t born a communist; I was made one by the things I saw, the things that I studied, the things that I naturally felt.”

Hirschman’s political involvement is well documented in the film, from his role in the anti-homelessness movement of the 1980s, to his being fired from a lectureship at UCLA for alleged ‘activities against the state’ when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam. It seems to me that Furey wants his audience to focus not on the communist label which Hirschman proudly wears despite it keeping him from mainstream success, but on the successes of his social conscience and incredible talent, which must not go unnoticed.

After the film, we were due to have the Q&A session with Fran although this turned into an informal chat in the bar area—which was perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of the film. And if you missed the inspirational Red Poet, don’t worry; it’s showing again on Sunday 28 March 2010 at 15.00 with another Q&A taking place after the screening. We hope to see you there.

As a postscript, Film Programmer Tom Vincent told me that Jack Hirschman was initially very keen to attend the premiere of the documentary. However he was called away at the last minute after receiving an invitation to visit Iraq by the Minister of Culture. A rather unorthodox gig for a man with Hirschman’s history, but nevertheless a fitting gesture for a translator and poet so fascinated by myriad cultures around the world, both past and present.

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