Interview with Hal Sirowitz and Minter Krotzer
WG: Hal, I have been fortunate to be able to hear you read on several occasions and one of the things that impressed me is how you are able to at once make a deadly serous point and yet have the audience laughing. How important to you is humor in your writing? has it always been a part of your poetry?
HS: Humor is an important aspect of my work. I like making people laugh at me. Yet at the same time I want the audience to have doubts about what they're laughing at, like maybe they should be sad instead. One comedian I've always liked was Henny Youngman. He was called the king of one-liners. I call him the originator of the comic haiku. Here's a line from Youngman's "Take My Jokes – Please": "He's in dire need of surgery; he needs about half his ego removed." We all know someone Youngman is describing. And that's what makes this line funny – its commonality – also its simplicity. That's what I try to achieve, but unlike Youngman, I mainly turn the humor on myself. I make fun of myself, not other people. Like my line from my book "My Therapist Said:" "If ignorance is bliss, father said, how come you're not feeling blissful?" But I don't want you to think I'm totally praising Youngman, because I consider him sexist. He doesn't rise above the current prejudices of his era. Take this Youngman joke" "When all is said and done – she keeps on talking." I appreciate the play of words but I don't like the sentiment. He implies that a woman can't keep her mouth shut – that what's wrong with the world is that women are talkers. Hopefully, my poems are fairer to the female sex. One reason I became a writer was to tackle generalizations. James Joyce once said from the personal you get to the universal. If you start off at the universal – implying that women are talkers – you don't get to the universal truths. You get to personal caricature.
WG: Can you give an example from one of your poems about how you start from something personal that leads the reader to something more universal?
HS: If you start from the universal you get bogged down in general statements. But if you write in personal terms, you bring the reader into your particular world. Let me illustrate this by using an haiku by myself:
I gave her my heart
This is a personal summation of a relationship I was once in. Yet, at the same time I'm exploring the nature of relationships. I'm saying unless there's an equal exchange of giving instead of a competitive bargaining, the relationship won't last. Some people argue that you should write about what you know. I think you should do that to a certain extant but at the same time you should be writing about what you want to know. When I start writing a poem, I seldom know how it's going to end. I let my unconscious decide. The novelist Graham Greene used to go to bed each night and dream about what his characters did next. I don't go to such lengths. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little when I say my unconscious finishes the poem. All I'm saying is that I try to give up control and let the poem write itself. It brings to mind something Robert Frost once said: "No surprise in the writer; no surprise in the reader," meaning that the author of has to let go of the conscious part of creating and allow the poem to develop independently.
WG: In speaking about poems as a way to explore the nature of relationships, I think of your poem "Avoiding Rigidity?" Would you say that this poem illustrates your exploration of the equal exchange of ideas? Did letting your unconscious decide the direction of the poem play a part in how you eventually wrote it?
HS: "Avoiding Rigidity" is a poem of mine about dealing with Parkinson's disease. A neurologist in Maryland said that Parkinson's disease is a misnomer because it's so individualistic. It affects people in different ways. No one has the same symptoms from the disease. The good thing about Parkinson's is that it can't kill you by itself. It just slows you down. You have to die from something else. My running joke is that if cancer cells ever invade my body, they might go somewhere else because they'll feel that my system is otherwise occupied.
"Avoiding Rigidity" is about one phase of my Parkinson's. The pills helping my body deal with my Parkinson's had to be raised and increased until they became a problem – made me shake. I composed the first few lines in my head, then I finished it at the computer. I have micrographic handwriting – it is so small even I can't read it. I used to write my poems by pen in a notebook. The speed of the pen across the page slowed me down and helped me formulate my imagery. Mark Twain was the first writer to compose using a typewriter. Somerset Maughn was against writers using typewriters, fearful that the invention might cause the decline of writing as an art form. Now it's very frustrating to try to write poems out by hand. I still do it occasionally when my handwriting is not as affected by my disease. Parkinson's made me make many adjustments as a writer. I've read for the Helsinki International Poetry Festival and the Vienna Literary Festival. Now, because of my speech problems due to a Deep Brain Stimulation Operation, I have to practice before performing. Avoiding Rigidity is about dealing with one aspect of Parkinson's. It's a relationship poem that's basically about me. One composer I met at Yaddo, a colony for artists, claimed that one of the important qualities of any artist is knowing when to stop. I think I stop at the right moment with that poem. Anything more would have been overkill.
WG: I'm guessing that Minter is the other speaker in this poem and, if so, Minter, I'd be interested in your reaction to the poem.
MK: The woman in this poem is someone Hal dated before meeting me. It shows the response of someone who doesn't really "get" his illness. I see it as an example of the frustrations a disabled person encounters in a world where not many understand disability. I do have a poem Hal wrote about me that's called "On One Side She." It's the poem I'm using at the beginning of the memoir I'm writing about Hal's Parkinson's.
I've been a Parkinson's patient for so long
HS: As Minter just mentioned, the woman in my poem "Avoiding Rigidity" is not my wife. That person is a composite of different women I've known. A playwright once told me that writing a play is just like having a fantasy out loud. Some of my poems are true. And some should be true but aren't. One French critic says about photography, "It doesn't lie but it doesn't tell the truth, either." One could say that about a lot of writers' works. That is why J.D. Salinger fought so hard against critics, because he claimed an author's life is different from his work. Graham Greene claimed that an author's life is inherently boring. He said his life was tedious. Thomas Mann had the same schedule for forty years. He wrote a page in the morning, read in the afternoon, and spent time with his family after dinner. He lived in Princeton to escape the Nazi government. He lived near Albert Einstein, who also fled Europe. I would walk by their homes when I was in Princeton, hoping some of their genius would land on me, even though they were both long dead. I don't think it did. What I'm saying is that I, like many writers, play peek-a-boo with their readers. Now you see my life. Now you don't. It's the writer's precognitive to reveal as much as he/she wants. That's why I don't expect all writers to be as nice as their work. I'll end this question with a quote from one of my poems that appeared in the online magazine Animal Farm : "You're a lot nicer on the page."
WG: Minter, tell us more about the memoir you're writing.
MK: It's a memoir of illness starting with when I first met Hal and ending with the period after he had electrodes put in his brain. It covers a ten year period starting with when his disability was not apparent and ending with it being so apparent and advanced that he needs the electrical stimulation of the electrodes. It's a love story too, about how illness has brought us closer together and helped us to make more meaningful decisions about our lives. I'm still working on it, have about a quarter done so far. Some of it has been published too. An excerpt from it which was featured in a Hollins Critic article about Hal.
WG: Hal, I want to ask you a rather obvious question, one that you are probably tired of answering, but in what ways has Parkinson's affected your poetry writing. I'm not speaking of the content – which I think is pretty obvious - but of the way you go about composing and the forms that you use in writing? Does your poetry look and feel any different than it did before Parkinson's. Is writing a different process for you?
HS: Having Parkinson's is learning to live with limitations. The poet Stephen Dunn has Parkinson's. I heard he tries to read late in the afternoon, hardly ever at night, when he's benefiting from his meds. Gerald Stern has Tourette's but amazingly he keeps it out of his poetry. Like Nietszche's, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," I think the Parkinson's has made me stronger. I'm putting together a book of prose poems. I started writing in couplets and triplets.
Having Parkinson's isolates me somewhat. I used to be asked to read three to four times a week. I don't do that anymore. In some ways what I lose in terms of performing, I gain in terms of having more time for my writing and reading. For me Parkinson's Disease had several different phases. In the first phase it was invisible – no one knew I had it unless I told them. I was still a special education teacher at a New York City Public School. Then I reached a phase where it was obvious I had something. That was when I started writing poems about Parkinson's. I'd start off a reading with one of them. I found it an easy way to tell the audience I had Parkinson's, rather than having to explain it to them out of context.
The hardest thing is that having Parkinson's is not my identity. And yet it becomes a large part of who I am. It's like a walking contradiction. It has become a very mental disease. I have to count my steps when I walk. It helps me to keep my balance and rhythm. I have to make sure I take big steps. But at the same time I'm grateful to God that I have the creativity and the stamina to keep writing. Like the song says, "There's a purpose for everything under heaven."
WG: You mention the effects upon your public reading and the subject of your poetry, but I'm curious to know if Parkinson's has affected either the form of your composition or the manner in which you write/compose your poems.
HS: Parkinson's made me change my whole approach to writing. I remember a Sherwood Anderson short story* that I read over forty years ago in which the character jotted observations on pieces of paper. At the end of the story he had all his jottings but no stories. I vowed to get my thoughts published. I've gotten published a lot, but at the same time I got plenty of rejections. You could imagine my chagrin when I jotted down poems only to be unable to transcribe them on the computer because I couldn't read my handwriting. I took the Zen approach – tried not to feel sorry about the loss of a poem. But not being able to handwrite my poems took a lot of personal adjustments. I remember getting into haiku – short poems that I could memorize – to solve that problem. Sometimes I wrote a poem down, even though I couldn't read it afterwards, as an exercise to remember and to clear my head for the next poem.
In my middle years of the disease – I've had it for eighteen years – I used to have to wait a half hour until after taking my medicine to eat. It was only after I ate that the medicine began to work. In that half hour I felt like a zombie. I couldn't write. I couldn't move. Though, with all the difficulties I've been able to write.
I think my writing got better, but it's not up to me to say for sure. I leave that to the critics. I was able to retire early in my fifties on disability, which gave me more time to write at first. But at the disease progressed, I felt a lot of my time was spent hibernating, waiting for images to come.
WG: I'd like to switch gears a bit and ask you both what it is like to be married to another writer? Do you bounce ideas off each other and ask your spouse to read through your work for feedback or do you each move in your separate realm?
MK: I love the fact that Hal is a writer. Being writers is part of what defines our relationship. Who else could put up with the writer's life but another writer? So, we definitely share work with each other and give each other feedback. It's always been that way. Hal is one of my editors of the few that I have and he is my number one cheerleader. I would not be where I am now as a writer if it weren't for Hal. He is such an inspiration in so many ways. We also share our experiences in the reading world, suggesting books to each other, reading certain passages. Hal also really helps with suggestions about contests and publication calls. The house, too, has become a real writer's retreat. We have two work areas and endless bookshelves. I'm working on creating a home library now, a project that should take years. Even the dog knows to be quiet when we are writing.
HS: There's no sense of competition as writers in our marriage. I believe in my wife's writing it was one of the things that brought us together. We met at a book party at the New School Creative Writing Program in celebration of a KGB anthology of poems I was in. When I come upon a contest or magazine that I think she should send to. At one point she was my main editor – I wouldn't send a poem out to be published unless it passed her inspection. She helped me a lot with verb tenses – I get confused a lot about which is the right tense to use. We've taught workshops together on poetry. She's the more organized as far as teaching is concerned. But now that she's very busy with her own writing and teaching, I don't show her everything. She's more handy with the computer and helps me in that area. When I met her I had never operated a computer – I still used a typewriter. I still had a rotary phone. I'm slow to accept changes. But having Parkinson's has been a series of changes she has helped me get through. She attends most of my doctor appointments. She has taught me a lot. I'm grateful that she has entered my life. I have less fear of the future knowing she'll be there with me.
WG: Can we talk about your writing a little bit more, Minter? You mentioned the memoir that you were working on about Hal. Tell us about some of your other writing, too.
MK: I've written, a good part of another memoir, a collection of first experiences, as short non fiction. My MFA is in creative nonfiction and it's what I mostly write – personal essays, autobiographical prose poems, memoir pieces and nonfiction shorts. I also, a while ago, wrote about growing up in the south. It's been a while but I've also written some short stories. Examples of some of my work can be found on my website at www.minterkrotzer.com.
The Voyage Across the Room is the title of the memoir I'm writing about Hal's illness and the title of a short piece in the book. One chapter of it, the one referred to in the Hollins article, is about Hal's operation. Both aren't published yet. I sent them to Liz Rosenberg so she could get a sense of the book I was working on.
I also should mention that part of why Hal and I moved here to Philadelphia from New York was to teach and write. We often teach poetry together. I kind of see my teaching as separate from the writing. I teach a multi-genre life stories workshop that includes memoir, personal essays, autobiographical prose poems, nonfiction shorts, and some flash autobiographical fiction. I also teach a revision workshop for revising life stories based prose and then Hal and I teach free verse poetry from time to time. The next multi-genre life stories class I'll be teaching starts in September and will have a prose poetry section taught by Hal. We do in class and out of class writing exercises and I also give related readings and assignments. We discuss the writing in a workshop fashion. The workshop includes a public reading of students work as well as a private consultation with me. All workshops are held at the Big Blue Marble bookstore in Mount Airy. If people are interested in studying with us or working with us privately they can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WG: Hal, I just heard that you have a new collection of poetry coming out soon called Stray Cat Blues. I'm sure that with each new book of poetry, any poet hopes that he has grown or added in some way to what he has already accomplished. What do you think Stray Cat Blues adds to your body of work? What have you done here that my differentiate it from other books you've written?
HS: What I've done in my new book, Stray Cat Blues, is let my poetry evolve – not stick myself in the corner imitating myself but challenging the form of poetry. My book after Stray Cat Blues – I always work ahead – will be a collection of over 65 prose poems. Stray Cat Blues has what I call a few time machine poems where I have conversations with William Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams, and others. Greg Kosmicki, a poet/social worker who lives with a social worker in Omaha, Nebraska, was a fan of mine and asked me if I wanted to do a book of poems. I accepted his gracious offer. Picasso once said that the worst sin is not imitating others, but imitating yourself. I agree with that. I've always written mostly in prose, then made it into a lineated poem. In my opinion, most line breaks of other poets don't make sense. What I do I call the diving board effect – when the previous line propels you to the next. I think most poets only use line breaks to make the poem look like a poem. I argue that the interior imagery make the poem a poem, not the line breaks. At the same time I claim that the personality of the poet determines the form of the poems he writes. My personality reflects my poetry. I don't waste words getting to the point. My poems are like that. Also, I attest that the purpose of a poet is not to get better – which is totally subjective – but to survive – to keep producing poems at as high a standard as possible. You have to write bad poems in order to write good ones. Hopefully. I'm smart enough to publish only my good poems. My new book will have a great cover by the artist Tom Cocotos, a New York/Miami based artist who portrays me with a Medusa like head but instead of snakes, beds come out of my facial hair.
WG: A Hollins Critic feature article about you from December 2011 begins: "with the publication of his seminal book of poems, Mother said, in 1996, Hal Sirowitz changed the sound of American poetry." That's quite a statement, and one I think that few poets are likely to ever hear said about their work. What was your response when you read it for the first time? Do you think your poetry has changed the sound of American poetry?
HS: Whether I think I changed the sound of American poetry is not fair for me to answer, because I am the writer of my own work, not its critic. I graduated cum laude from New York University in the Honors Program in English literature. One of my professors was the author of The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. I was accepted into doctoral programs in literature at Columbia University, Brown, Northwestern, University of Madison. I decided not to accept the scholarships, but to be a classroom teacher at public schools. I made a decision to be a writer on the side with no academic pressure to follow a certain trend. I stayed as far away from the poetry business as much as possible. Therefore, your asking me to agree or disagree with criticism about me is going back on my choice. I never got an MFA. I've been compared to Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Joe Brainard, among others. Whether those comparisons are helpful or misleading is for others to decide. My job is to keep writing.
I liked the movie "Field of Dreams." It says that if there's a need for people to believe in something, people will come. If there's no need, people will not respond. I've achieved phenomenal success in my career. Yet, not a lot of people have heard about me. One of my purposes in writing is to do it so clearly and simply, other people will write. That is the test of good writing. I've watched songs, like the Doors' "Light My Fire," which was once memory indexes in my life, become commercials. That is one of the things I learned from Ellison, whatever you create, society can usurp and use for different purposes. One of my rules, which I don't always follow, is not to write about writing, because that's done by only the few. I'd rather write about falling in and out of love, because more people do that than write. There's a fine line between the writer and critic. A writer shouldn't be the critic of his work but to take chances, to let his material flow.
WG: I want to thank you both for taking the time to do this interview. Good luck with your writing and your upcoming workshops.
*Editor's note: The story Hal refers to is "Paper Pills" in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.