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Writers Talk About Writing

Poetry: The Power of "Hal-ku"

Hal Sirowitz's special education students in the New York City public school system were doubly lucky: Their devoted teacher was also an award-winning poet. Now retired after 25 years as an educator, Hal is the author of four books of poetry including Mother Said and Father Said -- delicious dry humor based on his parents' harping. From 2001 to 2003 the borough of Queens honored Hal by naming him their "Poet Laureate." We spoke to him about his poetry and how he incorporated it into his teaching.

VT: What is the value of teaching poetry to students?

Hal: The value is that you can design words. When you write prose you have to be linear, you have to follow a pattern -- one thing goes after the other. But in poetry you have this freedom to cover the whole page or parts of the page. You can make it a concrete poem or a poem that resembles the object you're writing about. I do haiku where there's a lot of space between the lines, which makes you realize that what you don't say is just as important as what you do say.

VT: Were your students responsive to poetry?

Hal: Very responsive. Since Mother Said is a collection of poems about my mother yelling at me, so they could relate to that. They wrote lots of poems about their mothers telling them not to do certain things. One of my students wrote a really good poem about his mother telling him that if he didn't brush his teeth, his teeth would fall out. The mother called me to say her son exaggerated. But I believed the son.

VT: I guess poets don't lie.

Hal: Well, that's what I try to teach too, that writing is a way to get at the truth. I once kept telling a girlfriend that I loved her. She said, so why don't you write a love poem about me? But when I tried writing the poem what came out was, you're a pain in the neck, you bother me too much. I realized that I couldn't lie, I couldn't write her a love poem.

VT: That's funny. Well, do you think poetry is still relevant to students in today's Internet-charged world?

Hal: Definitely. Poetry's made for people with short attention spans. I mean, it's easier to read than a book. When you read a novel you're stuck, you're like a prisoner of it. When you read poetry you can get a life story on one page, it's condensed. And you can skip around, too. People need to express themselves in different ways. The good thing about poetry is that doesn't cost any money to do, unlike, say, painting, where you need brushes and pigment. It's the cheapest art, and I think it's the most survivable.

VT: What are you working on now?

Hal: My next work is a book of haiku called "The Couch Wasn't Big Enough," but it's not out yet. My wife gave my haiku a new name: she calls it "Hal-ku." I don't like to count, and I don't like to count syllables, so I had to make up my own form.

VT: Can you give us an example?

Hal: Sure. Here's a short one:

On Monday, two bugs.
By Friday, ten more.
Bad family planning.

Here's another one:

I gave her my heart
She gave me lunch
Thinking back, I got the better bargain

VT: Thanks for sharing these, Hal.

Hal: My pleasure.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 15th 2007, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Paul B.
I enjoy most aspects of your e-mag., but let me comment on a continued irritant. The structure of your "word of the day" is maddening. For example in today's word, Theurgy, if you are going to refer to two other words that end with "urgy", for god's sake, provide the words somewhere in the article.

Thursday March 15th 2007, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Noël P.
(laughs) I have to agree with the comment above, even if it is a bit off-topic.

Don't know if I can agree with Hal that poetry suits a short attention span (lack of patience and diligence?) better. Sure, poetry occupies a shorter form than a novel, but it generally makes for a far more intense reading experience, one that demands a lot more of a reader in that short span of time...
Sunday December 16th 2007, 11:01 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
Why do too many poets think a good short poem of theirs must be said to be a haiku when it isn't. Hal's wife was more honest calling them hal-kus, and even that is not fair. Why not call a short good poem a short good poem and leave it at that. BTW, a good poem speaks for itself.
Tuesday December 18th 2007, 9:36 PM
Comment by: charles G.
Seventeen sylables make a Haiku
one more no longer.

No matter how long
can always make it longer
add one more letter

No more Haiku, but a poem.
Wednesday December 19th 2007, 1:05 PM
Comment by: J. G. K.
I feel Haiku is an interesting form of art. The constraints placed on it as to structure are very demanding. For me, Haiku, first learned in Japan, seems to fit the Asian mind more effectively.. Like a rock garden showing what the artist wants; leaving the other space for the imagination of the viewer. Also like "good fences make good neighbors." I just wish I knew more about poetry and now at the stage of my life, I am able to spend more time in study.

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