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.