Hal Sirowitz

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Hal Sirowitz performing his poem "Chopped Off Arm" on MTV's Spoken Word: Unplugged, 1994

Hal Sirowitz is a poet and spoken-word performer from New York City. He has been an opening act for both They Might Be Giants and Mono Puff, and in 1996 he released a self-titled album with selections of his poetry for John Flansburgh's Hello CD Of The Month Club. His poetry also helped inspire John Linnell to write "I Palindrome I."

Sirowitz's books of poetry include Mother Said, My Therapist Said, and Father Said. Most of the selections on his Hello CD are from Mother Said, his most famous poetry collection, which versifies cutting commentary from his mother, Estelle Sirowitz.[1]

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Sirowitz became known in the downtown Manhattan arts scene for reciting his poetry in his trademark Queens-accented deadpan style. He opened for TMBG at Darinka on June 28, 1985 and also performed with them at the Darinka benefit show at 8BC on August 7, 1985. Darinka owner Gary Ray talked about Sirowitz's poetry performances in 2020 on Episode 30 of the Don't Let's Start podcast.

In a 2012 interview with Richard Fulco on his RiffRaf blog, Sirowitz recalled:

I was the opening act for They Might Be Giants when they were first starting out at a lower East Side club called Darinka. I remember performing four sets in two nights. I was called the “Mother Said” poet, but I never told my mother I was writing about her. I was afraid she might hit me over the head.

On WNYC's "Studio 360" in 2001, the Johns spoke of performing with Sirowitz:

Flansburgh: I remember the very first shows we did with him, he wasn't the "poetry slam" guy. He was a guy who was basically kind of reading to you out of his journal. It was very shocking. I mean, at the time when we first started working with him, it was in the mid-'80s, and he would come on these stages — a lot of which had really classic performance-art kind of baggage attached. And he would just start reading. And inevitably there would be this strange silence, sort of stunned silence at the beginning of a show, and then the audience would kind of recognize what he was all about.

Linnell: The thing about Hal is he's just so utterly naked when he's reading. Basically the audience would be laughing at a lot of it, but it was nervous laughter, you know, because he's just telling you stuff that's devastatingly sad and weird. And some of it is really hilarious, of course, but for that reason it's very black. I always think of the one where the mother complains about - I can't recite it for you, but it's the one where she's complaining that he feeds crumbs to the bugs and he never gives anything to his mom. And now that I have a son, I think about that even more.
Sirowitz performing his poem "Crumbs" on PBS's The United States of Poetry, 1995

Linnell went on to credit Sirowitz's Mother Said poems with inspiring the opening lyrics of "I Palindrome I" on the 1992 album Apollo 18.

I'm trying to remember whether I wrote "I Palindrome I" after I saw — I guess I must have written it after I saw Hal. It starts with the line "Someday Mother will die and I'll get the money." Except for the fact that Hal's mother didn't have money, I think that would fit in with his work.

Sirowitz opened for Mono Puff at the Mercury Lounge on June 29, 1996, and Flansburgh released Sirowitz's Hello CD that September. He told Fulco:

John Flansburgh brought me to his studio - his old apartment where he lived before he got married - to record me performing my poetry. In those days they had their own music label and would record friends and bands that they liked.

John Flansburgh had a lot of energy and while his main band was resting between gigs, he’d put together another band to perform. He had a show at Mercury Lounge and had me as their opening act for old-time sake. It was a standing room only crowd.

I got on stage and said, “I forgot to bring my guitar. I guess I’ll just have to read this stuff.” There was total silence in the room. Then a few people started laughing. I read my golden oldies – old poems guaranteed to get a reaction from the crowd. After my reading a couple of women declared they were fans and gave me rocks as presents.

Sirowitz's poetry was also featured on Episode 47 of the They Might Be Giants Podcast.

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