You have a background in slam poetry. What led you to slam poetry in the first place? What particular challenges do you find in spoken word?
I fell into slam poetry by accident. I’m not your typical slam poet. One, my poems are too short. When I performed, I cheated by putting two or three poems together. Most slam poets speak in a loud voice; I mumble mine and try to show no expression. When I read, I pretend I’m a little kid again being yelled at. My friend Bob Holman, who ran slams, always started off with a disclaimer: The best poet always loses.
My poetry is very conversational, being mostly monologues. I like to speak in my parents’ or ex-girlfriends’ voices. I like making the audience laugh. Spoken-word poetry is writing for a room full of people, but I also care what my poem looks like on the page. The biggest compliment I get is when after a reading someone says, “We must have had the same mother.”
What factors were involved in your decision to leave New York City for Pennsylvania?
My wife and I left Brooklyn, New York, for the outer edges of Philadelphia about four years ago. It was a quality-of-life decision. In Philadelphia, we could afford a house. I grew up in a house and it’s nice to store stuff in the basement. Each time I venture into the basement, it’s like I’m stepping into the past. I was performing too much in New York, being a fixture on the poetry scene. It was hard for me to refuse a chance to perform. In Philadelphia, I don’t have the pressures to perform my work. I can focus more on my writing. I work on the dining room table, so I can be near my dog, a black standard poodle.
How does your environment affect your work?
I compose while I’m in motion — on the train to Center City. There’s something about being in motion that gets my creative juices stirring. I like to overhear people in conversation, then shape their part of the dialogue into poetry. I wouldn’t exactly call it “Found Poetry” because sometimes I revise the heck out of it and it ends up being more about me than the person talking.
You were a teacher for many years. How did you use poetry in the classroom?
I was a special education teacher for the public schools for the city of New York. I was in a program in Queens that took emotionally handicapped kids who couldn’t function in their district schools. Our school was the last stop. If they didn’t succeed at our school, they were mostly sent to schools inside hospitals. I taught at the same school for close to 25 years and retired due to my ongoing Parkinson’s disease. I worked with eight-year-olds — they weren’t able to beat me up yet. I mainstreamed my class with a regular second-grade class to teach poetry. I had my students write “Mother Said” poems until a mother came to see me to tell me that her son confessed that he distorted the truth a little in portraying her. The worst assignment I ever gave was to tell my students to imagine being alone in a “Toys R Us” store and being able to take anything they wanted. They all wrote that they would call the police or the security department. My assignment was in contrast to their ethics.
It’s been said that you’re the best-selling poet in translation in Norway; why do you think your work is so popular there? Any theories?
One Norwegian critic said about my work, “You don’t have to have a sad childhood to be a writer, but in Mr. Sirowitz’s case it helped.” I thought that was funny. I was translated by a popular Norwegian novelist and film writer, Erland Loe, who read about my poetry in a New York Times article. He felt we had a similar sensibility and started to translate me.
My theory why I was so popular in Norway versus a country with a warmer climate — Puerto Rico, for example — was because if your mother yelled at you in Puerto Rico, you could just walk away and go swimming and come back totally exhausted. But in Norway, the weather is too cold to go outside and you’re stuck with your mother yelling at you.
The Norwegian State Theatre did a dramatic play of my poems. A film company made a few animated cartoons. I’ve also been translated into Icelandic and Finnish.
Can you talk a little bit about your recent foray into essays? What triggered it? What do you think the essay can do that the poem cannot, and vice versa? What makes you decide that something needs to be an essay, rather than a poem?
The difference between a poem and essay is that a poem is a condensed version of reality like concentrated orange juice before the water is added — and an essay goes on forever. My mother didn’t yell at me in the essay form but used whatever image she needed to make her point, then moved on to the next criticism. Some of my ideas aren’t poetic and deserve to be written in the essay form. Length is one of the determining factors between what is a poem or an essay. I’ve written essays about teaching but very few poems on that subject.
You have a new book coming out soon. Can you talk a little bit about it?
My new book is called Stray Cat Blues. It’s being published by Greg Kosmicki, a poet I admire, through his Backwaters Press in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ve never been to Nebraska, so I’m delighted my poems will be there. Unlike my other books, I don’t focus on one voice but many — my mother, father, my own. There are a few poems in couplets, plus a few historical ones — time travel with William Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams, Charles Bukowski, etc.
All poets think their last book is their best and I’m no exception, though I’ve stopped competing with myself. I see each book as a different part of the journey. Where I’m going, I don’t know yet.
Interview by Holly Vanderhaar