with Hal Sirowitz
third collection of poetry, Before,
During, and After, is a kind of poetic experiment in the
vicarious experience of female sexuality. Told in the assumed
voices of his real-life ex-girlfriends, the collection marks the third
in a trilogy written in the voices of women. From Mother
Said (Crown Press, 1996), to My
Therapist Said (Crown Press,1998) and finally Before,
During, & After (Soft Skull Press, November, 2003) Sirowitz
terse, humorous monologues have won him a faithful readership from
New York to Norway.
Hal Sirowitz is the poet laureate of Queens, the recipient of a National
Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a 2003 New York State Foundation
for the Arts Fellowship, and the 2003 New York City All-Borough Slam.
He has recently retired from his job as a special education teacher
at PS 224 and has embarked on a coast-to-coast tour promoting Before,
During, and After. His fourth collection, Father Said,
also from Soft Skull
Press, will follow in June.
Q: How would you compare Before During & After to the
relationship poems in Mother Said?
Hal: Well I think it might be more human. Im trying to say people
have problems with sex, and Im trying to make sex humorous and
show that sex is like acrobatics without getting the training. So
its more about afterwards. I joke with people and say that the
before and after are the longest parts and the during
is the shortest part. Ive been writing very obsessively about
sex because I think thats important. There isnt very much
stuff about it thats funny. I like the rabbit stuff that Updike
wrote. He covers sex very well. But its more from the mans
point of view, more from a macho view, a
conservative view. And I try to give more voice to the woman. The
poems are mostly
in the womans voice. Im not sure I can write as a woman,
but I still start with that purpose. Its still from the
other, and then it gets back to me. Even though I dont
make an appearance, you still know a lot about me through the voice.
Q: Youve said that Martin Bubers "I and Thou"
has influenced your writing about relationships.
Hal: Well hes humanistic and hes saying that God is abstract
and you dont know God and so the only way you know God is through
personal relationships. You get close to another human being. Thats
almost like sacredness. For him, thats a god experience.
Humans are physical, and so you can know them somewhat, but an attempt
them deeply is a spiritual act. Death is something that we havent
experienced. God is protection and you cant ever really know
protection. And the closest you can know it is by putting your life
second to another persons. I think thats what I and Thou
is about. Judaism is a social religion. You dont pray alone
you pray with other people. Even if God is silent, he doesnt
talk to us, but if you get close to another person, its almost
like the closest you can get to God.
Q: So, you agree with this?
Hal: Yes and no. He was a great philosopher, but I kind of feel that
hes stuck in abstractions. Like what does he mean by eternity?
Hes using these general words but he needs images. I see what
hes trying to say, I just feel like his abstractions are like
weights on his feet. Its almost like a horoscope. Its
very broad, its very general, and so everyone can relate to
it, but everyone relates to it differently. Thats how he writes.
I write more of these individual moments. Hes on the side of
the universal. He needs to give me some more examples. He needs to
tell me about his wife, his friends. He
needs to tell me about his relationships so I can follow it. Hes
man, I like him, but I think hes stuck with philosophy. Hes
stuck with a
distant view, an abstract view.
Q: So, in a sense, you combine that with good poetry and then maybe
you have the
ideal sacred text?
Hal: Thats what poets assume. Poetry is almost like philosophy
in a way. Its a
personal philosophy. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, I thought they were better.
Philosophy is almost like autobiography. Buber, although I like him,
I never felt he was as autobiographical as them. Kierkegaard, he gets
off the subject. His own philosophy was based on his not getting married
and about what it felt like. He got engaged and then broke off the
engagement and thought about it for the rest of his life. Buber is
not quite as personal. I think hes slightly abstract. But I
Q: In Mother Said and even in My Therapist Said,
theres a power dynamic built into the structure of the relationship,
and so the silence of your character isnt quite as obvious.
And sometimes the character seems like hes being acted upon.
But in this new book, its more like the character is actively
ruining things. Hes kind of a jerk, self-serving and not responsive.
Would you think of that as a true reflection of you?
Hal: I use humor and so a lot of times Im self-denigrating.
And I do that in the Mother Said poems where my parents put
me down and I still do that in the relationship poems. I do make fun
of myself and blame the relationship on me. I may come off as a jerk,
but the aim is true. Im stuck in situations where the relationship
is just not working. I dont know how to get out, and I dont
want to hurt the person. And so I talk about the alienation of sex
and about how sex takes over. A French woman, Catherine Texier, wrote
a memoir of her break up with her husband. She said while they were
breaking up it was the best sex they ever had because they were so
angry with each other. So its about that. And about being afraid
of silence, being afraid of loneliness, losing someone, youre
lonely again. Youre back where you started. Its like wanting
this progression and not quite getting it.
Q: Would you agree that the character in this book is perhaps less
likeable than the ones in the other books?
Hal: Its me, so I cant say that. I actually think I may
have grown because in Mother Said I was trying constantly
to get sympathy. Poor, poor me. Like that Warren Zevon song, Poor
Poor Pitiful Me. So now Im kind of saying, no more poor,
poor pitiful mebut messing up me. Im trying to put in
more power, make more choices, be more assertive, and its not
poor, poor me anymore. In Mother Said I was causing a lot
of these lectures. You can tell by her personality that Im actively
Q: This is the third book now that youve written in womens
voices. Youre representing a group of people whose experience
you dont share. Is there the fear of getting it wrong or offending
Hal: Men think they dont know women. The woman is a mystery.
And yet theres
something in there they think they understand because women are similar
Theyre not just alien creatures. Men are from Mars and women
are from Venus but they both live on the same planet. They both live
Q: Im thinking about what Amy Sohn [author of *Run Catch Kiss*]
wrote about your book, *Before, During, & After* is sad,
hilarious, and so true it makes me ashamed to be a broad. And
I dont imagine that shaming women was your intention.
Hal: No, I think she was trying to have fun at my expense. Which is
good. I think shes just saying that in some of the poems the
women are giving the men a tough time. Sex is like a piano. Sometimes
I play it too loud. Sometimes I play it without any hands. I think
the book is important because there arent that many books where
sex is humorous. Most books are trying to be erotic. There are all
these self-help books of rules that dont do any good because
rules dont work. When you meet someone youre all alone.
Its existential. Youre stuck in your instincts and nothing
works. These poems are about that, about convincing myself that Im
in love with someone and getting ahead of myself. Relationships are
like my God, like my "I and Thou." Its
something we all have to do, and its the most difficult thing
we have to do in
life. I think, Tom Deller [author of The Seduction Artist]
said that I was relentless. I have these themes and I go on and on
about them and I just dont stop. Which I think is true.
Q: Whats it like for you then, to be writing something thats
Hal: Kierkegaard said that you live life backwards. You go forwards
and live life backwards. You only understand things after theyre
over. You dont understand them in the moment. In the moment,
youre too busy just trying to make sense of it. Like when you
break up, thats when you understand the other person. But you
cant do anything. You cant say, lets go out, after
you break up, and let me explain you to yourself. It just doesnt
work. Youre alone with all your observations, the sense of understanding
these relationships for the first time, understanding the womans
view. These monologues are kind of hard to write. Writing is a great
experience. I get into this role and I just go with it. I dont
know where Im going with it. I get up early in the
morning and I just start writing, and I have no idea of whether its
good enough. I just go forward.
Liz Webster writes essays and reviews, and come
springtime, she plans to start writing haikus on her walk to work. She
lives in State College, PA where she teaches composition and creative
writing at Penn State. She thanks Hal for his unfailing graciousness.
Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org