Hal Sirowitz: Being Human
In our “Writers and Music” series, authors discuss the music that has either been included in their poems/novels 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.
Sirowitz has performed his poetry across the country and on television programs such as MTV’s Spoken Word: Unplugged and PBS’s The United States of Poetry.
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.
We went to Dan Lynch’s, & listened
to White musicians pretending that they
were Black. And the people next to us jumped
up & down, pretending that they were rock stars.
And I put my hand on your knee, pretending
that I was your lover. You remained aloof. Why
did you have to be the only one who insisted on being yourself?
Riffraf: “Pretending” is set in Dan Lynch’s, a classic NYC club. Have you ever been there? If so, did you go specifically to see a band?
Hal Sirowitz: I was actually at the music bar Dan Lynch on a date. She was a German artist. I put my hand on her leg before the music started. She told me her female roommate was her lover. That was news to me. I took my hand off her leg. She asked me why I didn’t go for men. I told her that men never attracted me. I don’t remember the band much, except for the fact that they were all male and their loud music made it very difficult to continue our conversation, which I was grateful for.
Riffraf: The line “white musicians pretending that they were black” brought several musicians to mind. What white musicians do you think pretend to be black? Why do you think they behave in this manner?
Hal Sirowitz: Elvis Presley purposely sounded like a Black man. He sang that way to make money and meet a need. I always liked the film, “Field of Dreams.” There was a line in the movie. “If there’s a need, people will come.” There was a need for the White race to meet the Black race on different terms. Music reflects what goes on in real life.
The Black Panthers were popular while I was going to college. At Washington Square College, New York University, I was in an honors seminar with Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man. He kept saying that society was going to appropriate Black culture. That’s what Elvis did until he took so many pills and got too fat—he had to wear a girdle—to shake. I don’t mean to put down Elvis. I felt sorry for his later life. He had a bad manager who exploited him—put him in too many second-rate movies.
Riffraf: I was struck by the line “the people next to us jumped up & down, pretending that they were rock stars.” They’re the audience not performers and yet they’re “pretending to be rock stars.” Why do you think some people have such a desire to be on stage? What’s the appeal of being a rock star?
Hal Sirowitz: The appeal of being a rock star is fame and more fame. People think it’ll be easier to meet others if you’re already famous. That may be true. But then again did anyone really know Elvis? He was surrounded by his bodyguards. He had very little privacy. When Elvis got married the first thing his wife did was to make a bonfire to burn his books. She was trying to change him. People change slowly.
I’m famous but my fame is only spread among the poetry scene. I have limited fame. That’s the best kind. When I was in Paris—I went there partly to meet a Parisian girlfriend but ended up meeting an American one—I met a young woman who told me she was going to be famous. I said in what area. She said she didn’t know yet, but whatever it was, she was going to achieve fame. I felt sorry for her. She was too driven.
It reminded me of the Phil Ochs’ song, “Chords of Fame.” There’s a line that goes, “Whatever you do, don’t play the chords of fame.” This woman was strumming them a little too loud for my taste. It’s like Zen. If you strive for fame, you don’t achieve it. You can only get true fame by not seeking it.
Riffraf: Two of the poem’s central themes are pretense and duplicity. How do you think clubs/bars contribute to a person’s desire to be somebody else or something they’re not?
Hal Sirowitz: The music scene is set up for pretending you’re someone else. Look at Janis Joplin—she was a star and yet she still pretended she was popular. If the stars pretend they’re popular, so will the audience. I’ve always liked the Judy Collins’ song, “You make up your memories and think they have found you.” Or like The Kinks wrote, “It’s a mixed-up shook-up world where boys pretend to be girls and girls pretend to be boys.” Bob Dylan wasn’t his real name. Or like the Stones sang, “What can a poor boy do but join a rock & roll band.’ Mick Jagger wasn’t poor. He went to the London School of Economics. In fact, I fantasized about being a rock & roll star along with thousands of other fans.
One of my most memorable moments was when I was told by the owner of an East Side book store that Bruce Springsteen walked in, took my first book from a display, started reading it, then began laughing. Then he bought two copies of my book by check. The owner promised to give me the cancelled check, but he never did. Now the store is closed.
Riffraf: What has been your most memorable live music experience?
Hal Sirowitz: When I went to hear Barry Harris play piano at the Jazz Cultural theatre. Harris used to live in the same house in New Jersey with Theolonius Monk and the Countess who took care of them. Monk was a genius pianist and composer who had severe mental problems. Some days he would wake up and not recognize his wife and kids. He acted like they were strangers. Barry would play Monk compositions, like “Around Midnight.”
I empathized with the jazz world, because they were at the lowest end of the music world, like poets being at the lowest end of the writing world. Barry would play Monk’s songs and it felt like they were touching my soul. I felt close to Monk, even though we were entirely different personalities that came from totally different backgrounds.
Riffraf: What are your favorite spots for live music/performance?
Hal Sirowitz: I’ve been to Webster Hall with a date to hear The Smithereens. They didn’t impress me. They sounded like a modern day louder version of The Monkees—canned music.
I went to Madison Square Garden with a friend to hear Ike and Tina Turner open for the Rolling Stones. I fell in love with Tina. One of the first questions I asked a woman whom I was interested in dating was who did she like better—the Stones or Beatles. If she said the Stones, then she passed the test. If she said the Beatles, I’d ask her who was her favorite one. If she said John Lennon, I’d still ask her out. If she said Ringo Starr, I wouldn’t even bother getting her phone number.
I went to hear Chubby Checker perform at the Fillmore East. I was impressed by his piano playing.
My biggest regret was not going to Woodstock. The friends I was planning to go with chickened out, because they thought they would be busted for drug use. They got paranoid.
I heard Holly Neat and Sweet Honey and the Rock at Carnegie Hall. I remember Holly liberating the men’s bathrooms, telling the women in the audience that they shouldn’t be afraid to use the male facilities. I agreed with her until I had to use the bathroom and had to wait while liberated women cut ahead of me in line.
Riffraf: On Writer’s Almanac, you mentioned your book Stray Cat Blues. Can you talk a little about the title and why you appropriated The Rolling Stones’ song?
Hal Sirowitz: Titles cannot be copyrighted. Therefore, anyone can use them. I have another poem, in which I use a popular song title as my title—“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”
“We don’t have anything in common,”/ I said. “We’re two completely different people./ It doesn’t make sense to stay together.”/ But then she started to rub my penis/ through my pants, & I suddenly remembered / that we both did like Indian food.
“Stray Cat Blues” is the title of a poem in my new collection. I like stray cats, though I’m allergic to them, which is one of the themes in my work—the mind is sometimes a step ahead of the body.