Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Hal Sirowitz: The Stand-Up Poet King of Queens

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

Hal Sirowitz: The Stand-Up Poet King of Queens

Article excerpt


With the publication of his seminal book of poems, Mother Said, in 1996, Hal Sirowitz changed the sound of American poetry. As is the case with many of art's most radical experiments--consider the seventeenth century invention of the haiku-it's easy to feel as if something simply happened spontaneously, growing like a weed in a garden of flowers. Yet in Sirowitz's seemingly casual and offhand poems, free verse poetry let its guard down and entered a new phase of democratization. The style of Mother Said, and of other books that followed--notably his Father Said and My Therapist Said--concocts a brilliant blend of monologue, colloquialism, Zen koans, lyricism, memoir, and Borscht Belt stand up comedy. The poems are deceptively simple. One has the sense not so much of reading poetry as of eavesdropping on something intensely personal and private. Reading one of the painfully funny, achingly honest poems in Mother Said feels like inadvertently listening in on a conversation between mother and child in the next dressing room over. "You're a disgrace to the Jews, / Mother said, if you don't tuck in your shirt."

While Hal Sirowitz writes in the classic tradition of the persona poem, it is a poetry utterly without apparent artifice, the voice of those nearest if not always dearest, those dire parental warnings forever haunting our brains. Nowhere is this clearer than in the poems of Mother Said, which put a new spin on the old cautionary tales of children's literature.

    Don't swim in the ocean while it's raining,
   Mother said. Lightning can hit the water,
   & you'll be paralyzed. You don't like
   to eat vegetables. Imagine having
   to spend the rest of your life being one.
                                            "Damaged Body"
or again,
   Don't stick your finger in the ketchup bottle,
   Mother said. It might get stuck, &
   then you'll have to wait for your father
   to get home to pull it out...
   And if you ever get a girlfriend, &
   you hold hands, she's bound to ask you
   why one of your fingers is deformed,
   & you'll be obligated to tell her how
   you didn't listen to your mother, &
   insisted on playing with a ketchup bottle,
   & she'll get to thinking, he probably won't
   listen to me either, & she'll push your hand away.
                                            from "Deformed

Well before the publication of Mother Said, Sirowitz had become the unlikely darling of the spoken-word community. His poems are brief and understated, possessing the straight-man quality in a comedy duo in which the mother runs brilliant, crazed pyrotechnics around her son. They lack the intense drama of much spoken-word poetry. "To be frank," he noted in an online interview, "I'm not a typical slam poet. My poems tend to be on the short side. When I slammed I would add two poems together, and even then I wasn't near the time limit." While other slam poets evolved a highly charged theatrical style, Sirowitz won audiences over by undercutting his own material, delivering his poems in a near-monotone. His humor is subtle and suffering and Kafka-esque. (It's said that Kafka, reading "The Metamorphosis" aloud to friends, could barely get through the text because he kept laughing.) Sirowitz, who had always struggled with speech pathologies, suffered from stage fright, but trained himself to get past his performance anxiety. "I had an important epiphany at a slam event. I was scheduled to read in front of a few hundred people ... So I went back in time, like I had a time machine, and read the poems as if I were the age that they really happened."

In 1993 Sirowitz competed in the National Poetry Slam as part of the Nuyorican Poetry Slam group. Video clips show Sirowitz's audiences roaring his signature line "Mother said!" in chorus, like fans at a rock concert. In fact, he has served as the opening act to rock groups--the crowd, he noted, threw empty beer bottles at his head to show their approval. …

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