Hal Sirowitz, poet: You Can Thank His Dad for That Dry Wit

Father-son relationships. So critical to a boy’s development. How he sees himself in his father’s eyes. And yet all too frequently in families, so much of what a father feels for his son goes unsaid. Communication becomes a matter of reading between the lines.  Listening to what was not said as much as to what was. The affection underneath.

Perhaps nowhere is this dynamic more wryly captured than in the poems by Hal Sirowitz, many of which make an appearance in the aptly titled collection, Father Said (Soft Skull Press).

The Benefits of Ignorance (watch video)

If ignorance is bliss, Father said,
shouldn’t you be looking blissful?
You should check to see if you have
the right kind of ignorance. If you’re
not getting the benefits that most people
get from acting stupid, then you should
go back to what you always were—
being too smart for your own good.

~The Benefits of Ignorance” by Hal Sirowitz from Father Said © Soft Skull Press.

For Hal Sirowitz, a self-described, “serious quiet kid,” humor seemed be the key to gaining his father’s elusive respect and attention. If only…

“The funniest thing I did as a kid was say goodnight to my parents at a grown-up party at the house and while walking to bed, my pajama bottoms fell. I was half-naked to my parents’ friends. They thought it was funny. I thought it was humiliating.

My father had a similar experience. He went to work one day and in his rush not to be late he forgot to change out of his pajama tops. He decided to tell his employees he was just following the new fashion trend. They didn’t believe him.

So that was the extent of our family humor – pajamas. I’d go to sleep at night and hear my father laughing to the Red Skelton TV show. I wanted to make my father laugh, but I didn’t know how.”

The Joke That Got No Laughs

You should have enough courtesy
to laugh after I tell a joke, Father said,
even if you don’t find it funny.
You might find it funny later.
It’s like you’re giving me
your laughter in advance. You
shouldn’t be asking me to tell you
where the punch line was. It’s
always at the end & my joke
was no exception. I apologize if I
didn’t tell it as well as I had heard it.
Or maybe it was the audience
that was at fault. You just didn’t
get it. It might have been too low brow.
Maybe I should just find another family
to tell it to. I chose mine because
of the convenience. But I might have
done better if I had told it next door.

~”The Joke That Got No Laughs” by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Did your father ever see the poems you published in your collection, Father Said?

Hal Sirowitz: No. He passed away after my first book, Mother Said, came out. My mother had died two years before the first book was published. He said she must have been smiling at me from heaven because I was making her famous. But I wasn’t sure if that was the fame she wanted.

Cover of "Mother Said"

Watch: Hand-drawn Animation, Poems by Hal Sirowitz

I think she’d have been happier if I had become a doctor. But I’d faint at the sight of blood. Then she decided I could be a lawyer. But I liked to agree with people. I wasn’t very argumentative. Then my father came up with the perfect job for me – since I didn’t like to socialize, I could be a mortician, work with dead people. I finally became a teacher for the New York City Board of Education.

Reusing Words

Don’t think you know everything,
Father said, just because you’re good
with words. They aren’t everything.
I try to say the smallest amount possible.
Instead of using them indiscriminately
I try to conserve them. I’m the only one
in this household who recycles them. I
say the same thing over & over again,
like “Who forgot to turn out the lights?
Who forgot to clean up after themselves
in the bathroom?” Since you don’t listen
I never have to think of other things to say.

“Reusing Words” by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Are you still a New York City public school teacher?

Hal Sirowitz: I retired from teaching about seven years ago because of the symptoms of my Parkinson’s disease. I was a special education teacher, working mainly with the emotionally challenged.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Which has been your favorite grade to teach?

Hal Sirowitz: I liked teaching second grade best, because those kids couldn’t beat me up yet. I taught ‘Mother Said” poems until the mothers kept calling me to claim that their kids confessed to making things up.

Watch: “Mother Said…”

Crumbs

Don’t eat any food in your room,
Mother said. You’ll get more bugs.
They depend on people like you.
Otherwise, they would starve.
But who do you want to make happy,
your mother or a bunch of ants?
What have they done for you?
Nothing. They have no feelings.
They’ll eat your candy. Yet
you treat them better than you treat me.
You keep feeding them.
But you never offer me anything.

Hal Sirowitz: One lesson I did was a complete flop. I asked the students if they found themselves alone at Toys R Us, which toys would they play with. They all wrote that the first thing they would do is go find the security guard or call 911 to get out of the place before they got shot.

When they were taken outside for gym their favorite game was to pretend the monkey bars were jail. They kept putting each other in prison and encouraged their prisoners to escape. Their game reflected the streets and neighborhoods where they were from.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Which came first for you, poetry or humor? Who have been your inspirations?

Hal Sirowitz: Poetry has always come first, humor second. I don’t try too hard to be funny, because then I’m sacrificing the truth for a funny line. I like the power of making people laugh. I feel closer to poets than comedians, because most comedians select someone to make fun of. I mostly make fun of myself, leaving the audience alone.

I once read at a comedy club. I was the opening act. I followed a comedian hypnotist who got women to come on stage and hypnotized them to
pretend they were dancing without clothes. I was the wrong act for that night.

I always liked the line in Rick Nelson’s song “Garden Party,” – “You can’t please everybody, so you might as well please yourself.”

That’s what I do. I try to write poems that please me. If they make me chuckle slightly, then I know it’ll probably make the audience laugh.

Wedged

You were the one who followed me
into the elevator & asked
for my phone number, she said.
I didn’t lead you on. In fact,
I tried discouraging you.
I told you I had lots of problems.
I was used to being alone. But now
that you’ve wedged yourself into my life,
don’t think leaving me will be as smooth
as our first elevator ride. It’ll be
like walking up a flight of stairs.

~”Wedged,” by Hal Sirowitz, from, Before, During & After. © Soft Skull Press, 2003.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Favorite Poem?

Hal Sirowitz: “London Bridges falling down.” Loved that poem as a kid. I loved the action of the poem, falling down. If I had a crush on the girl whose hand I was holding, I’d be sure to fall on top of her, but in the most innocent way as possible.

“Take me out to the ballgame.” I admired the song or poem after I had read that the two guys who wrote it did so without ever going to a game.
After they wrote it, they went to games, but could never improve on it. A good example of fantasy being better than reality.

Here’s one of my haiku:

“I gave her my heart/ she
gave me lunch – thinking back / I got the better bargain.”

Another haiku:

“On Monday, two bugs./ By Friday, ten
more./ Bad family planning.”

An extended haiku:

“By the time I got /the condom
open, /I wasn’t able to use it. /A little later, I saw her /cat playing with it. /I was glad
someone /got some use out of it.”

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Funniest person you ever met?

Hal Sirowitz: Sparrow. His real name is Michael Gorelick. That’s also the musician’s Kenny G’s last name. What is it about that name that no one wants to use it? I don’t know. He likes Madonna and Howard Stern, though not in that order. He listens to Howard Stern via ear phones, because his wife can’t stand Stern. Here is one of his poems:

“I am listening to my /wife peeing. It is a delicate sound, like /straws
dropping.”

Leave it to Sparrow to make humor out of a typical bathroom scene. He’s a howl. He once ran for President. I was honored to be his campaign manager. We lost. He took the defeat in good stride, never blaming me. Last I heard, he’s very busy with the Occupy Movement, trying to figure out what he could occupy that’s metaphor friendly.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you think Americans take themselves too seriously? If so, what suggestions on how to loosen up?
Hal Sirowitz: I do think Americans take themselves too seriously. Just turn on the TV and count how many programs are contests – cooking, sports, singing and dancing, finding a house, a spouse. I suggest that once a year the major networks televise a sports game where both sides don’t keep score. Or broadcast a cooking show where the cooks make one big meal instead of competing against themselves to see who can make the better individual meal.

The Wind Throws Back

I lied when I told you I didn’t have
a phone number, she said. I wasn’t
sure about you, but now that I know
you’re sane & responsible—aren’t you?—
I’m going to throw caution to the wind
& hope it doesn’t blow back in my face.
But if you ever spent any time in a mental hospital
I’d like to know. I won’t let
it prejudice me against you.
I’m willing to give you a chance,
provided you get a letter from a psychiatrist
stating your case was closed.

Hal Sirowitz: I think the role of a writer is to write so simply that his/her audience start thinking, We can do that, too. If you read Charles Bukowski, for example, you think that if you can only attend a horse race or a sleazy bar, you can write about it, too.

Fun, Fun, Fun When the Guy Goes Away

That’s a strange question to ask
a woman at a bar, she said. “Are
you having fun?” If I wanted
to have fun I wouldn’t have come here.
This is a lot of work. I have
to decide which guy, out of
all the jerks here, has the potential
of becoming my future husband.
I mostly just have looks to go on,
since the conversation is usually
minimal—like the one we’re having now.

“Fun, Fun, Fun When the Guy Goes Away” by Hal Sirowitz, from Before, During & After. © Soft Skull Press, 2003.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you write your poems immediately after an event? Or do you need to let some time pass first?

Hal Sirowitz: No, I wait for time to heal the wounds. I always liked Will Rogers comment, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else.” Some of my poems were painful to experience, but fun to listen to. As long as the Three Stooges were slipping on banana peels, and not me, I shall laugh. Writing is like a time machine. It takes you to the moment, then you come back to real time.

Red, Red Bra

I bought a red bra, she said.
I knew you’d like it.
The only problem was I didn’t
have a red blouse to wear with it.
I bought that & red pants
& shoes, so it wouldn’t stand out
so much. I also thought of getting
red panties. But I said to hell with that.
I’m not going to worry if one small part
of the outfit doesn’t match. And who’s
going to see my underwear? Just you.
what do you know about fashion? Nothing.

~”Red, Red Bra” by Hal Sirowitz, from Before, During & After. © Soft Skull Press, 2003.

Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Does writing poetry for you serve a similar function as good stand-up comedy?

Hal Sirowitz: No. I try to make my audience laugh, but then think about what they are laughing at. One critic said about my book, My Therapist Said, ”Sirowitz comes up with phobias that haven’t been classified yet.”


Hal Sirowitz (born 1949) is an American poet.

Sirowitz first began to attract attention at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe where he was a frequent competitor in their Friday Night Poetry Slam.

Sirowitz would later perform his poetry on stages across the country, and on television programs such as MTV’s Spoken Word: Unplugged and PBS’s The United States of Poetry.

He has written six books on poetry and is best known for the volumes Mother Said, My Therapist Said and Father Said.

Sirowitz is a 1994 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and is the former Poet Laureate of Queens, New York. He worked as a special education teacher in the New York Public school system for 23 years. He has been married to the writer Mary Minter Krotzer since 2002. The Couple reside in Pennsylvania.

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