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Queens laureate owes neuroses, success to mother

Is Hal Sirowitz a momma's boy?

He's the first to admit it. But rather than going through life trapped within the boundaries of what his mother has told him to do and not to do, he capitalized on it. He became a writer and poet - as well as the just appointed poet laureate of Queens - that he likely never would have been had it not been for Dear Ol' Mom.

"I always wanted to be a writer," said the 52-year-old Flushing resident. "I just didn't know what to write about."

But it wasn't hard for Sirowitz to follow the old axiom "write what you know." If he knew anything at all, it was about what it was like to live with his mother.

"I was a captive audience" to his mother's continuous admonitions, advice, and philosophy of life, Sirowitz said.

One result of this was his 1996 book published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, "Mother Said." Some examples:

You're going to be a bum, Mother said,

if you're not one already, but you'll

soon find out that even a bum

has to work hard convincing people

that he's really poor...

...I hope you know that you were a planned child,

your father & I really wanted you, even though

we weren't sure what we were getting.

You weren't an accident, though before

you were toilet trained you had plenty

of those. And I had to clean it up,

though I never once held it against you...

...And when

you leave the house & get a wife,

she won't be related to you , except

by marriage, so she won't be as tolerant

as I am... And

once she realizes how much more enjoyable it is

not to eat with you, & not to have to hear you

chomp on your hamburger, she might try not to

live with you too, which means divorce.

Actually, his mother - whom Sirowitz never names in the book, simply calling her "Mother" - was always warning him against getting married, predicting that it would inevitably end in divorce. He never did marry, but he's not sure this was due to his mother's influence, or because he just hadn't found the right person. He said he may eventually marry his current girlfriend.

Being successful with women has not been Sirowitz's strong point. Of course, saying things on a date like "My mother wouldn't want me to do that" hasn't helped.

Although his writings strongly suggest it, Sirowitz said he's not entirely bitter toward his mother. Much of her advice has kept him out of trouble, forming a kind of vivid conscience, he said.

Like the vast majority of writers, even if widely published as he is - some 35,000 copies of translated "Mother Said" have been sold in Norway - Sirowitz cannot make a full living with his books. But unlike many of his peers, he enjoys his day job - as a special education teacher dividing the school day between PS 26 and PS 710.

"I like working with kids," he said, which he'll get to do more of as Queens poet laureate, since a key function of the honorary post is to attract people, particularly youngsters, to the art of the printed word.

"There are a lot of talented kids who need to write to express themselves," he said. " The grammar and spelling can come later - they just need to have the chance to write." That, he stressed, applies to his-special-ed students as well.

Sirowitz started writing relatively late in life at age 39. His mother was not particularly encouraging.

"She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I didn't like blood, and I couldn't argue very well."

Even when he became a special ed teacher, she couldn't fully accept it. "She would tell everyone I was a regular classroom teacher. She was always trying to reinvent my life."

But she was indispensable as his muse. "I never had writer's block," he said. "All I had to do was call her up, and I'd have material for another poem."

But if she were alive today to see his work, she would be pleased "because it's about her," he said.

Sirowitz also is a recipient of a $20,000 national Endowment for the Arts fellowship. And, his work has been a treat for straphangers' weary eyes as part of the Transit Authority's "Poetry in Motion" series of placards on trains.

David Cohen, one of the five members of the committee that made the poet-laureate selection, described Sirowitz as a "people's poet."

Sirowitz is the borough's second laureate, succeeding 85-year-old Stephen Stepanchev.

Runners-up this year were English Professor Anne Paolucci, and Ernest Slyman, who has written poetry for some 35 years and created a website - - showing works of many poets.

The new Queens laureate can be contacted by e-mail at halsirowitz@ "Mother Said" and another collection of poems, "My Therapist Said" are available at libraries and book stores.

Reach Qguide Editor David Glenn by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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