Jewishparents Disease: The Silent Epidemic
An Interview with Hal Sirowitz
By: Evan Dashevsky
Hal Sirowitz is the liquid concentration of anxiety-ridden
New York. When they make a movie of his life Jeff Goldblum
will be the obvious candidate to fill the tall awkward leading
role. With the syrupy voice of a Joey Ramone and a nervous,
but not self-hating Woody Allen mentality, Sirowitz eminates
a positive aura that has fought long and hard to break through
a miserable situation in this case, caused by, and
as he is glad to announce to any available ear, his mother.
Hal is one of the most successful contemporary poets to come
out of the New York downtown arts scene. He is the best-selling
author of two collections of poetry, Mother Said, and
its sequel My Therapist Said. They have been big sellers
domestically and abroad, and has earned him a curious rock-star
type of success in Norway. He is the current Poet Laureate
of the borough of Queens, a full-time Special Ed teacher,
and most of all to his disbelief, engaged to be married early
Evan: Just because it's an unavoidable topic these days
--what's your take on what's been happening in the world since
Hal: It's sad. And Giuliani said you can't be afraid
and you should do what you always do. So, I used to just stay
home and write about my mother. So, now I continue to stay
home and write about her. I'm not sure that's what he meant,
but that's what I've been doing.
Evan: Switching topics --there's a very definite Jewish
Family Dysfunction which leads to the stereotypical anxiety-ridden
New York Jew that we all know and love. Where in the Torah
does it say that Mothers should be overbearing and obsessed
Hal: I always like to say that God couldn't be everywhere
so he created Mothers. He's too busy so he can't be watching
us all the time so he created the mother to watch us. I think
all mothers are Jewish -in a way. It's not just connected
to Jewish families, but all families. I read in Scotland,
Paris, Finland -you can say there's a Scottish Mother, Persian
Mother, French Mother.
Evan: Are you still a practicing Jew?
Hal: Well, I'm secular. But like I pray all the time
and I talk about God to people, but I don't go to Temple.
There were bad experiences when I was little. And I kind of
feel that I'm in this dialogue with God - I feel like we're
talking to each other. And it's hard to know what God likes.
Would God like you more if you go to Temple every day or if
you banter with him? My parents used to say I was stubborn
- so I decided to give them a break and be that way with God
and give him a hard time instead.
Evan: Will there be a God Said book?
Hal: Um, no. Because I don't have direct contact.
I have to know the person to write about them. And I don't
even know if God is a person, but he's something, though I'm
not quite sure what he is... [He stutters and becomes lost
in thought for a moment] I mean I talk to him, but he
doesn't always talk back -I mean, he talks in silence.
Evan: In the KGB Bar Book of Poems, you mention how you
were reading at a punk club and had a bottle thrown at your
head. Are you a punk fan -because I can't help but think of
Joey Ramone when looking at you or hearing you speak?
Hal: One of my favorite songs is "I want to be
sedated" because sometimes I act like I'm sedated, and
sometimes when I get too excited I keep saying that to myself
- "I want to be sedated". I like their songs, but
I grew up with Bob Dylan who was Jewish -but hid his Jewish
name. And for years I thought Bruce Springsteen was Jewish,
but he isn't -he's Dutch. It's really hard to figure out whose
Jewish now by their last name. There's David Broser, a Jewish
performer, he's really good I like him a lot. I listen to
some of the punk bands, but I wasn't quite a punk, I wasn't
quite anything. I grew up in the hippy age, but I wasn't quite
a hippy. I tried growing my hair long, but I kept getting
knots in my hair.
Evan: What do you listen to these days?
Hal: I listen to Mary Black. I like the old stuff
too. I like Leonard Cohen -people like that. Even Tim Buckly.
I like to hear words.
Hal: I never really got into rap, but I've performed
with some rap people. - A Tribe Called Quest. I always preform
with one of the members whose mother is Cheryl Boyce Taylor
-she's a poet. Once I preformed with Fishbone at the Nuyorican.
I don't rhyme -though rap is getting away from rap a little
bit. I'm just bad with rhyming.
Evan: Your poems work on paper as well as being read.
Are you writing them for a reader or for a listening audience?
Hal: I have this audience in my head because I come
out of a graduate writing major -though I went into education.
So, I write for a crowd of people, but I want it to look good
on the page -so I'm writing for both. But I'm always trying
to connect with people --when I first started out as a poet,
I was pretty bad. Even I didn't understand what I was writing.
I was like 'Wow, this is such powerful stuff since I'm the
writer and I can't even understand it'. But then people would
turn their heads and look at me weird -so I started to write
a bit clearer and I wrote about my mother.
Evan: How long does it take to complete a poem from when
you have the idea to when you can say 'that's a done piece.'
Hal: It depends. Sometimes I write half of it in my
head and then I take out a pen and paper and write it down.
Sometimes the title takes longer than the damn poem. Like
my poems aren't that long -I usually get tired and sometimes
I just struggle over the title. It's hard to say -sometimes
I start a poem and I'll finish it months later, so it changes,
it varies from ten minutes to three months.
Evan: You don't work with a computer or typewriter?
Hal: I do everything with a pen and paper. I can only
think as fast as my hand moves across the page --that's my
speed. I only type with two fingers. I write it in a note
book, I revise it and then I type it on a typewriter.
Evan: You're a best seller in Norway -and it's hard to
get any less Jewish than that, so why do you think you've
been such a hit there?
Hal: I think they must have a lot of mother problems
in Norway. And I think I'm the other -there's very few Jews
there. The Jews who were there left. It's an interesting story
-Edvard Munch who did "The Scream". He was very
conservative like with Knut Hamsun. And Hamsunactually went
to visit Munch and asked him to help form the arts committee
of the party, but Munch didn't want anything to do with them
-he just kicked them out. So, I thought that was nice.
Evan: There was a Norwegian play based on Mother Said?
Hal: It was a lot of fun because for a whole hour
I got to hear my mother yelling at me in Norwegian and I couldn't
understand a word she said. So, I enjoyed hearing it. They
had someone playing my father who only said one poem the whole
play --he just sat and played the piano. He was very quiet
which is just like my real father.
Evan: You learned to stop stuttering as a child --is your
reading poems aloud a way of conquering that?
Hal: Yeah, I think one of the things that helped me
stop stuttering was just getting in front of people and performing.
But stuttering kind of changed my life. It made me an outsider,
it made me a writer. It was harder to approach people, I had
no control over it. It made be a witness of my own life. Instead
of getting involved in life I would step back and watch it.
So, I became an observer which is good in a way, because you
keep a record of your life. I have a record of who I am, I
have a history.
Evan: Did it just go away naturally or was there some
kind of speech therapy?
Hal: I went to speech therapy since I was in the first
grade because I have trouble pronouncing sounds but I became
a stutterer later when I was sixteen -and as soon as I could
pronounce sounds I started stuttering, which was a real drag.
But I think it was confidence and performing which helped
me stop stuttering.
Evan: It sounds more like anxiety is causing a mental
block than a short circuit in your brain.
Hal: I think it has more to do with too many thoughts.
I wouldn't mind a block. I just worry about the end before
the beginning even happened. One of the reasons I became a
writer was I would talk on the phone, but after I hung up
the phone I would have the best conversations with the person
even though they weren't there. I'm better when they're not
there --I react better to people's absence than their presence.
When people are around I become quite confused and dumbfounded,
I don't really know what to say. But as soon as they're gone
boom, I have long talks with them, except they're not there
to hear it.
Evan: Poetry is a release for a lot of people, what are
your releases now?
Hal: Well, I'm not sure if I really have a release.
As a child I would walk around the house and be by myself.
The last two years of high school I went to private school
and the reward for making honor role was you could go home
some weekends. But I didn't. A lot of the students were shocked
and wondered why I wouldn't want to go home. I just needed
to be apart from my mother eventhough we loved each other
I just needed to be apart from her. And now I guess my release
is music and being involved in my job. And sometimes there
isn't any release, sometimes you throw yourself into whatever
you're doing. I guess time and distance is a release.
Evan: Let's talk about your job --your a Special Ed teacher.
Is that a regular Nine-to-Five job?
Hal: Eight-thirty-to-three o'clock specifically. I've
done it for over twenty years. I like working with these students.
I was trying to teach a lesson about cucumbers and pickles.
I was trying to explain that a pickle comes from a cucumber.
And this one kid said 'No, no --pickles come from diners'.
And he's convinced, he's seen proof, he's been to the local
diner and seen pickles and he's been to his grandmother's
diner and he's seen pickles and he's been to his cousin's
diner and he's seen pickles. And he's absolutely convinced
that pickles don't come from cucumbers, they come from diners.
So, I get things like that which is a lot of fun. I identify
with them, I was a stutterer, I was an outsider. And these
kids are outsiders. They don't have any social skills, they
don't have any friends, they can just get along with each
other and with themselves.
Evan: And you're the poet laureate of Queens? What have
you done, and what are your plans to do?
Hal: I do a lot of readings. I'm writing newspaper
articles, I promoting poetry. I'm hoping to get together a
poetry festival within Queens -hopefully within district 26.
I just plan to get more kids involved with poetry.
Evan: Will you ever write short stories or a novel?
Hal: I've been writing these prose poems. And they
keep getting longer and longer until they're like prose pieces.
I've been challenging myself and trying to write in different
forms and so I could see a novel consisting of short pieces.
Now that I'm getting married I can write about my former relationships
--it doesn't bother me now. I'm working on a manuscript called
Former Lovers and the Ones In Between. I've been doing
lots of different styles.
Evan: Woody Allen announced that he's no longer seeing
a therapist. Do you ever see yourself giving up therapy?
Hal: I'm semi-retired from therapy. I stopped seeing
a therapist for a while. I told this therapist that I got
better, but then I didn't. So, it would be embarrassing to
have to go back and say I made a mistake. One time I had a
male therapist who thought I had a mother complex -I don't
know why. He wanted me to get more macho, he wanted me to
watch Clint Eastwood movies, but that's just not my thing.
I like going to women therapists because it's like having
a second mother, a supportive mother. I think it's necessary
because even success leads to problems.
Evan: Should mothers of the world be afraid of you?
Hal: Not at all. I'm pro-mother. Any time I have a
chance I claim that I'm for mothers. I've also become a mother
as a teacher. I tell my kids don't stand on your desk, don't
stick your head out the window. I think we're all mothers
--to a certain extent.
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Last month, Evan Dashevsky interviewed Nardwuar,
The Human Serviette