(Photograph by Kim Soles)
In our Writers and Music series, authors either discuss the music that has been included in their novel/poems or the influence music has had on their work overall.
Hal Sirowitz first began to attract attention at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe where he was a frequent competitor in their Friday Night Poetry Slam. He was a member of the 1993 Nuyorican Poetry Slam team and competed in the National Poetry Slam.
He is best known for 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 is the best-selling translated poet in Norway, where Mother Said has been adapted for the stage and turned into a series of animated cartoons. Sirowitz worked as a special education teacher for 23 years.
Gena Anderson at Bookslut called you “a poor man’s Woody Allen.” What do you think she was suggesting?
I thought of adopting a Bob Dylan persona for interviews and attacking the interviewer. But I like being interviewed. It makes you define yourself. I have a love/hate relationship with Woody Allen. “Manhattan” is one of my favorite all time movies. I hated “Interiors.” Just like Bob Dylan, I expected Woody Allen to reflect my life. I consider them brothers in the arts.
I was devastated listening to “Lay Lady Lay” when it was first played on the radio. That song didn’t have the angst of his previous ones. It didn’t teach me anything about relationships, except to look for sex – something I already knew and wasn’t helpful in keeping the relationship solvent. I thought Dylan was selling out. Now I know he was only being human.
The good thing about poetry is there isn’t much money in it. That gives you freedom to do what you want and to become incognito while doing it. I was never under the gun, like Woody Allen and Bob Dylan, to compete against myself. I wrote some bad poems, like “Lay Lady Lay," but they have gone unnoticed. I think I’m smart enough not to put any of my real bad poems in one of my collections.
How has music informed your poetry?
I compose my poems while listening to music. I like Paul Williams, Mikail Gilmore, and others who wrote about music. I like Townes Van Zandt, and was surprised to know that someone who got more depressed than me was able to put his depression into song. You can’t separate music from my work. I started out wanting to be a poetical version of Bob Dylan, only to give up that fantasy to find my own voice.
You've been a “slam” poet. Do you view yourself as a performer?
I was selected to be on Spoken Word Unplugged with John Hall, leader of the band King Missile and Gil Scott Heron. Performing has always been part of my act. I do a dead-pan performance. Then I developed Parkinson’s Disease, which slurred my speech. I had a brain operation – batteries and electrodes put into my chest and head. I’m the authentic electrical man the poet Walt Whitman wrote about.
Tell me about your relationship with They Might be Giants.
I was the opening act for They Might Be Giants when they were first starting out at a lower East Side club called Darinka. I remember performing four sets in two nights. I was called the “Mother Said” poet, but I never told my mother I was writing about her. I was afraid she might hit me over the head.
John Flansburg brought me to his studio - his old apartment where he lived before he got married - to record me performing my poetry. In those days they had their own music label and would record friends and bands that they liked.
On the radio show “Studio 360,” John Linnnel claimed that their song, "Palindrome," was influenced by my "mother" poems. They were great guys. John Flansburg had a lot of energy and while his main band was resting between gigs, he’d put together another band to perform. He had a show at Mercury Lounge and had me as their opening act for old- time sake. It was a standing room only crowd.
I got on stage and said, “I forgot to bring my guitar. I guess I’ll just have to read this stuff.” There was total silence in the room. Then a few people started laughing. I read my golden oldies – old poems guaranteed to get a reaction from the crowd. After my reading a couple of women declared they were fans and gave me rocks as presents.
What song/album/musician/band has directly influenced your writing?
When I was young I got blown away by the song “Purple People Eater” and Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy to Fall in Love.” He was right. It’s harder to find someone who falls in love with you. I always liked Leonard Cohen because he was a poet first and became a songwriter later. He’s not as good live as he is recorded. I liked the compilation albums of other singers recording his songs.
I love the blues – Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, etc. I like Billie Holiday – she sings depressing songs in an uplifting manner. I like Cleo Laine – she sings Broadway classics with soul. I like J.J. Cale. The list is endless. I even like early Neil Diamond.