The People’s Poet
by Ron Kolm
I met Hal in 1980 when he was emceeing the poetry readings at St. Clement’s Church on 46th Street in Hell’s Kitchen. Hal did a terrific job in mixing the knowns and the unknowns, and then making the unknowns feel like they could end up in the pantheon of New York City poets. At the conclusion of each event Sirowitz would read some of his own work. The first time I heard him I was instantly hooked. His poems were short and funny, and in them Hal was able to project himself through his mother’s eyes. To her everything was a potential threat — especially to her family’s belonging to the mostly assimilated Jewish middle-class. Religion still played a part in his work, but almost more as a set of superstitions, than as a link to the ineffable — and it was more through the sensibility of the father than the mother. Hal’s poems were also incredibly concrete — they were filled with real things; real cats, real girlfriends, real condoms. And many of them began with the mantra, “Mother said…”
In 1980, I edited an anthology entitled the Low-Tech Manual. I figured if I featured some established Downtown writers and artists, I could slip in Sirowitz’s work and maybe he’d be able to get greater recognition that way. So I gathered together material by Richard Kostelanetz, Max Blagg, Janet Hamill and John Yau, among others, and asked Art Spiegelman to do the cover, then I loaded the thing up with Hal’s poems. We were able to place the book in some bookstores, and we did some readings to support it, then I waited for the world to discover the giant talent I knew Hal Sirowitz was. Unfortunately, things don’t work that way. In fact, I’d probably unknowingly aped the big boys like Granta, the Paris Review, etc., where famous writers always salt the mix as unkown talents are given a lap around the track under their protective cover…
Disappointed in the resounding silence that followed, I figured I’d publish a chapbook of Hal’s work — maybe putting a bunch of his poems in one place would create a critical mass impossible to ignore. I printed the ones featuring his father which Hal wouldn’t use again until his recent book, Father Said. These same poems, now seen in their second incarnation, have obviously retained their pungency through time. Anyway, I gave the chapbook the title Girlie Pictures and sent it out into the world in 1982.
All during this time, Hal continued to read his work wherever he could. He read extensively in New Jersey, where he was published in Lips, Laura Boss’s fine poetry mag, and Footwork, Maria Gillan’s journal, as well as in The Hoboken Terminal. Most of the time he read with the poet Barbara Holland, who Hal would befriend right up to her death. Many times I was lucky enough to tag along with them. We would take a bus from Port Authority to the reading, and then jump in Laura’s car to careen off to some restaurant for drinks afterwards.
One time Laura and Maria Gillan decided to have a conversation with each other while they were speeding down a narrow street, so Laura jockeyed her car up next to Maria’s, rolled down her window and shot the shit. Hal and I were sure we’d be killed — Hal joked that it would be “the end of the Low-Tech Poets.”
In the mid-eighties, a group of writers Hal and I were part of were invited by David Life to do a reading series at his Lower East Side bar/restaurant, the Life Cafe. The Life Cafe was located on the northwest corner of 10th Street and Avenue B — you could look through its windows and watch the junkies at play in Tompkins Square Park. Back then the Park was still pretty dangerous — this was before the Tompkins Square Park Riots and the resulting police crackdown on the entire neighborhood.
For this series, David named us ‘the Unbearable Beatniks of Life’ in honor of his eatery, printed-up terrific flyers to promote the event, and gave us all free berets. The readings were a total success — New York Press gave them an award in one of their ‘Best Of’ issues. After that, we simply became known as ‘the Unbearables.’
Following that literary initiation, we read all over the East Village — the No Bar, the Poetry Project, the Nuyorican Cafe — you name it and we read there. Hal and I even read in a burned-out bodega on Avenue B — I think the place was called ‘One Stop.’ We followed a band of four young women who wanted to be known as ‘Something Farted‘ — one of the girls ripped off her glasses and stomped on them — heady times indeed! This was during one of those rare periods when poetry readings became a hip thing to do — largely due to the slams Bob Holman brought with him from Chicago and installed at the Nuyorican.
Hal became one of the regulars there, reading his short, funny ‘Mother Said’ poems amid the long-winded and usually over-the-top material the other slammers featured. Somewhere in the midst of every Friday night Slam, Holman would call on Hal, who was always sitting quietly in the audience, “to read a couple.” And Hal always obliged, to the delight of the packed joint. By then, everyone knew who he was, and the crowd would shout out the words ‘Mother Said’ when Hal got to that part of his poem — usually in the first line. These poems were his greatest hits, and they made up the bulk of his first real book, Mother Said, published by Crown Press in 1996.
Bob Holman is a key figure in the Hal Sirowitz story. Bob’s slams at the Nuyorican became such a big deal that in l992 PBS did a documentary on spoken word, calling it The U.S.A. of Poetry. Hal was featured in the ‘Day in the Life’ section. Hal read on Randall’s Island in ‘93 for Lalapalooza, and in ‘94 he made it to MTV.
Before all this, in the late ’80s, Hal was discovered by the New York Jewish press. There were articles about him in the Forward by Gary Shapiro, among others. He was also written up in the Jewish Tribune and Jewish Week. At about this same time Hal read his wonderful poems on National Public Radio and this, along with the articles in the Jewish press, enabled him to reach a fair segment of the American Jewish Diaspora. I got phone calls from lonely Jewish men and women in Arizona, New Mexico and California who had been moved by hearing his voice and had taken the time to research his work because they wanted more. They were calling me because I had never officially declared Girlie Pictures to be out of print — though I had long since gone through the press run. They would have to wait until Mother Said was published to get their fix.
To bring the Hal Sirowitz story up to the present, we would have to mention that he was named Poet Laureate of Queens in 2001, and one of his poems, ‘I Finally Managed to Speak to Her,’ was part of the Poetry in Motion series, whereby poems are posted in the New York City subways to take our minds off the fact that we are, in fact, in a subway car, with all that entails. In May of 2007, Hal sold his archive to the New York University Library, where his work will continue to resonate with Jewish and non-Jewish lovers of literature alike down through the ages, amplifying the voice of the Lower East Side Mother through all time.UG
Hal Sirowitz — Chopped-Off Arm (Fourth Annual National Poetry Slam, San Francisco, CA, 1993)
Ron Kolm is a member of the Unbearables, and an editor of several of their anthologies; most recently The Unbearables big Book of Sex! Ron is a contributing editor of Sensitive Skin magazine, and the editor of the Evergreen Review. He is the author of The Plastic Factory and, with Jim Feast, the novel Neo Phobe. A collection of his poems, Divine Comedy, has just been published by Fly By Night Press. Kolm’s papers were purchased by the New York University library, where they’ve been catalogued in the Fales Collection as part of the Downtown Writers Group.