Interviewed by Lang C. Miller
Photo by Kim Soles
Hal Sirowitz is an internationally known poet and the author of five books of poetry: Mother Said; My Therapist Said; Before, During and After; Father Said; and Stray Cat Blues. His work has been translated into thirteen languages and published in many anthologies and magazines. He was awarded the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. He is also the former Poet Laureate of Queens, New York. Hal has performed and appeared on MTV’s Spoken Word Unplugged; Lollapalooza; Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival; the Helsinki International Poetry Festival; the Jerusalem Conference of Writers and Poets; PBS’s Poetry Heaven; NPR’s All Things Considered; PBS’s The United States of Poetry and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Garrison Keillor has read many of Hal’s poems on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and he has included Hal’s poems in his anthologies Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times.
Hal Sirowitz is a retired New York City public school teacher. He lives with his wife, the writer Minter Krotzer, in Philadelphia.
Your poems always seem to be lightened up with humour, and that especially comes through when you perform them. How important is comedy to you in your writing?
I always saw myself as a poet, though some people in the audience thought I could make it as a comedian. Once, I met a radio personality from upstate New York who owned a comedy club in Binghampton. He arranged for me to perform with a comedian. The guy was a hypnotist who would get women in the audience to get on stage to pretend to strip. His audience – he was the opening act – didn’t like me. That was the end of my comedian career. I think there’s a fine line between comedy and my work. Unlike most comedians I only make fun of myself, never others. I’m thinking of Joan Rivers’ Elizabeth Taylor’s jokes. My poetry is a blend of humor and seriousness. When I’m writing I usually don’t try to be funny. My work has to look good on the page, unlike most comedians who couldn’t care less.
How long were you writing before you started to perform and take part in the poetry scene?
I wrote first, then began performing later. I was a late starter. My writing didn’t really start until I was about twenty-nine. I took part in the poetry scene to get feedback. Once you read a poem out loud to an audience, you can tell if it got the required results. It was like I was testing out my poems. I would go to open readings where everyone got three minutes to read. One person who I became friendly with at open readings was the artist, Keith Haring. I was his favorite poet. He mentions me in his diary, but he spells my name wrong. It took courage to get up in front of a large group of strangers and read your work.
Everything I’ve ever known about you has been based on your already being a recognized poet; I’d like to know more about where you found your start. When did you begin the attempt to get published? What made you decide it was time? How much time did it take you to be published after this? Do you still deal with the issue of rejection from publishers?
I still deal with rejection from publishers and editors. I read once that the poet James Dickey once used his rejection slips as wallpaper. The hardest thing to deal with is getting rejected after you were solicited. What I’m saying is that no matter how famous you become as a poet you’re always vulnerable to rejections. I prefer to send my submissions by snail mail, so if I get rejected the rejection doesn’t pop out at me on the screen.
I got my start as a recognized poet by sending my work out blindly to magazines. One of my first early acceptances was The Beloit Poetry Journal. It’s like I started on the top and have since worked my way down. A couple of times I got real crazy letters blasting my work. I took the anger in stride. It’s all about ego. Some poets become editors, because they like the power it gives them to reject people. At the same time, I was getting very good acceptances, so you have to take the good with the bad. Not that a rejection is bad. It may be the simple fact that the editor didn’t have any space left or was looking for a famous name. It didn’t take me long to get published in magazines, but it took a long time to get published in a book.
Have you developed some secret to avoid rejections after all the previous ones?
Rejections don’t bother me like they once did. I’ve developed a second skin. I see sending out my work as a game of lotto. It’s hard to figure out what a magazine is looking for. I once sent wild stuff to a magazine called Total Abandon. I figured with a name like that they’d be on the wild side. They weren’t. I got a long letter saying what I sent wasn’t poetry. I never responded. I’ve solved the problem of dealing with rejections by being prolific and sending out a lot of poems. If you only send to The New Yorker, for example, there’s a tendency to obsess about the magazine. But if you have your work out to five different magazines, you tend to increase your chances of acceptance, and tend to obsess less. I refuse to pay to send out a submission. I’ll pay for a contest. One big prize that I won, I decided not to accept. I won the Miller Williams First Poetry Book Contest, judged by Rachel Hadas for 1996. But the day before, Crown Publishers asked me if they could do a book of mine. I went with Crown. I don’t regret it. I’ve been published by a magazine called Asinine, which shows I don’t care what the name of the magazine is. It’s no reflection on me or my work. I feel it’s the job of the writer to get his work out there. A poet friend of mine, D. Nurkse, once put together a press. We published Sharon Olds and Eleanor Wilner in an anthology but quit because of distribution and time problems. Jamaica Kinkaid promised us she would send us a story, but she never did. I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. I still send out my work.
At what point did you decide to be a poet by trade? Were you wary of relying on a career as a poet?
I never supported myself through poetry. I’ve always had a job as a special education school teacher for the New York City Public Schools. I understood early that there wasn’t much money in poetry – that’s what I do best – so I made a career change. I graduated with honors from New York University. I was selected to be in a special honors program with the writer Ralph Ellison. I got accepted into all these doctoral programs in American Literature – Brown University, Columbia University, Northwestern University, but decided I didn’t want to be a scholar but a writer. Instead of going to graduate school I got a job at a day care center and found out that I liked teaching kids. I decided to go to Hofstra Graduate School in Education and become a writer/teacher. It worked. I had two jobs – writer and teacher. At first, I kept them separate. Then some teachers would show up for my readings. I never worked summer school, using that time to go traveling and go to writer studios, like Yaddo, MacDowell, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, where I used the summers to devote myself to my writing.
In a lot of poetry workshops I’ve heard professors ask, “Is this poem achieving what it means to?” or “Who is this poem speaking to?” Do you usually write poems with goals in mind? If so, could you give an example of a poem which you feel fulfills such a goal?
I write poems to communicate. At first I used my mother’s voice, because I thought my life wasn’t interesting that much. Then, I gradually started writing more about myself. I met the poet Ai, who did a similar thing, wrote using the voices of famous people. We would talk on the phone and became friends. She lived in Arizona. When I write I follow the dictum of Robert Frost, “No surprise to the writer, no surprise to the reader,” which meant that once I started a poem, I had no idea where it was going. but let the power of the language take me to the end. I was an exponent of Natalie Goldberg’s philosophy – just move your hand across the page and don’t try to edit until you are finished. I remember meeting the writer Mark Leyner, who told me that there were two types of writers – those who write alone in a corner of the room and those who write for a crowd. I’d say I have an audience inside my head that I write to. “Lending out Books” is a poem that I wrote, which I thought might be helpful to me and other people.
Can you describe your writing process? Like, from scratching out a line, to having a complete poem. Has this process changed over the years?
I usually try to write half the poem or at least the beginning in my head, then I open a notebook and finish the poem. Because of my Parkinson’s I can no longer read my handwriting, so I type the poem on my computer. It was frustrating not being able to read my own handwriting. But it hasn’t stopped me from writing. I try to write early in the morning. That’s the best time for me, because my head is relatively clear. I read books of quotations as prompts to get myself writing. Reading gives me ideas. Also, when I’m in motion, in a car or bus or train, I feel more poetical. When I’m sitting or standing still, nothing seems to come. Every day I try to spend a small amount of time doing nothing. That’s when creativity comes.
Do you feel that your approach to writing has changed at all since your Parkinson’s diagnosis? Are you writing to different readers?
My Therapist Said, my second book, came out just before I was diagnosed. I wrote the poems not knowing I had Parkinson’s. A reviewer of my last book, Stray Cat Blues, felt even the poems not directly about Parkinson’s were innately about it. I don’t think my readership has changed. My approach to writing has undergone some change. My Parkinson’s has made me perform less and concentrate more on my writing. That was also a conscious choice. Some of my experimentations were working on the prose form, and tiny poems like haiku.
Lang Miller moved to Vancouver from Oakland, California in 2011, and has no plans to leave. She is an undergraduate student at UBC studying Creative Writing. Her main genres are poetry and non-fiction.