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Thank you, Hal Sirowitz (15.01.20)

It must have been in 1998 when I first encountered Hal Sirowitz (born 1949). Or rather his poems. Well, not his entire oeuvre, but more precisely those 125 published in »Mother said« (New York 1996).

I remember exactly where the encounter took place: A pub called »Schnabelewopski« located on Bolkerstreet 53, the house where Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) was born in the old town of Dusseldorf. The city is the State capital of North Rhine-Westphalia in Western Germany and (by its own account) »liveable and loveable, modern and multicultural, traditional and tolerant« (www.duesseldorf.de/international). As the learned amongst you may know, the name of the pub is a take-off on Heine’s novel »Die Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski« (The memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski).

What drew me to this place were literary whims. In the late 90s, when I was working in Dusseldorf, an American poet by the name of John Linthicum (1948–2008) organized a so-called »Poetry Cafe« at the »Schnabelewopski«: Once a month both established as well as young unknown poets had an opportunity to present their works.

I very much enjoyed going to this pub, the air filled with verse and smoke, like a home to the consummate poet: I was drawn to the place because I myself was writing poetry. By the same token I felt disgusted. At almost 50 years of age and a full-time judge, I was rather too old and too established to fit in with those aspiring academics around John Linthicum; I barely understood the mostly depressing and hermetic writings. If I did dare to ask about the meaning of those verses, the young poets made it very clear to me by their verbal and nonverbal reaction that just asking that question revealed what a fool I was. Still I kept going, smoking like a chimney and occasionally even reading out loud some of my own poetry. Eventually I was accepted as that funny old oddball.

There were a number of rules with respect to reading one‘s ouevre, and spindly John Linthicum, his slim grey head more often than not adorned by a black top hat, enforced those rules sternly albeit with a sense of humor. The most important rule stipulated that whenever you read your own works you also had to recommend another author. One evening a student with an ethereal air presented three or four poems from »Mother said« by Hal Sirowitz. I was absolutely thrilled, and – it turned out – too stupid to figure out how to get a copy of the book which wasn’t available in Germany at the time. Those were the days before Amazon and it took me several months if not a whole year before I finally got a copy of the book, published in New York in 1996.

On almost 130 pages of poetry »Mother said« mostly describes everyday interactions between an adolescent boy and his parents. Sirowitz‘ short verses paint a sometimes humorous picture of his parents, both loving and at times simply overwhelmed. There are those parental tirades, occasionally sarcastic or profound, sometimes unintentionally ridiculous, reprimands as we remember them from our own childhood and which we probably passed on to our kids without even realizing it. Those parental diatribes, which Sirowitz introduces us to, are full of quirky everyday philosophy and seemingly rational words of wisdom and through small cracks and rifts reveal an abyss of fear and helplessness which is part and parcel of every upbringing, and even of human existence. There is a glimmer of a faint, almost romantic feeling of tragedy behind the laconic and amusing verses of Sirowitz, not unlike the poetry of Heinrich Heine. As an example I’d like to quote a more recent poem of Hal Sirowitz:

The Benefits of Ignorance

If ignorance is bliss, Father said,
shouldn’t you be looking blissful?
You should check to see if you have
the right kind of ignorance. If you’re
not getting the benefits that most people
get from acting stupid, then you should
go back to being what you always were –
being too smart for your own good.

die vorzüge der dummheit

wenn dummheit glücklich macht, sagte mein vater,
warum guckst du so unglücklich?
du solltest mal drüber nachdenken, ob du
die richtige art von dummheit erwischt hast. wenn du nicht
genauso erfolgreich bist wie jeder andere,
der sich blöd anstellt, dann solltest du wieder
so werden wie du sonst immer warst –
einfach zu genial für diese welt.

There was no doubt in my mind that I had to translate Sirowitz‘ poems the minute I held a copy of »Mother said« in my hand, and find a publisher. I did finish the translation sometime in 2001 but kept procrastinating the search for a publishing house, and eventually a major move got in the way on top of it. And in 2003 I realized that someone had beat me to it: A German translation had been available on the market since 2002. So I shelved my publishing intentions. Still the translation had not been a waste of time: I‘d enjoyed the process. And whenever I quote from the poems among friends or in lectures they’re received with great success.

A little while ago I ran across my German version of »Mother said«. And as it turned out the rival translation is no longer available and the original publishing house no longer carries Hal Sirowitz on their authors‘ list. So I looked for and found Hal Sirowitz‘ e-mail address, sent him my translation and asked if I could post it on my website. He responded within a day and in a short e-mail, simply saying yes. That’s why »Mother said« is now listed under the heading »Übersetzungen« (Translations) in German. The American edition may be purchased through the usual channels.

Thanks a million, dear Hal Sirowitz, for your poetry and for your generosity.

German version: Blog entry December 15th 2019.

Translated by Waltraud C. Phaneuf


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