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Learning to Be

by Sarah Sherman on October 9, 2013 · 3 comments


Sparrow. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“When you go to heaven,” Sparrow says, “they won’t ask you how many books you’ve had published. And if they do, fuck heaven.”

Born Michael Daniel Gorelick, Sparrow, as he is better known, is a published writer, poet and novelist, who seems to both love and hate the field he’s been engrossed in since he was 10 years old.

“It’s completely unimportant, writing,” he says. “Writing is one of the least important things in the world.”

So, then, why write? Certainly not for the money, as he claims he’s made only $80 off his three published books: Yes, You ARE a Revolutionary! Plus Seven Other Books; Republican Like Me: A Diary of My Presidential Campaign; and America: A Prophecy: A Sparrow Reader. He says he writes because “it has the power to uplift.”

And Gorelick—who lives in Phoenicia and currently is the visiting writer for the College of Saint Rose’s MFA in Creative Writing program, teaching an advanced nonfiction class on Tuesday evenings—insists that there’s no special gift or training involved in unlocking that power.

“Anyone can do it,” he says. “There’s no real secret to writing. It’s quite simple. It’s basically the same as talking. If you write enough, you will figure out how to write well.”

Heaven & Hell”
Heaven is full of singing.
Hell has enormous shopping malls.

Sparrow’s approach to his graduate-school class is different, to say the least, from that of most other professors. Before starting class he removes his shoes, asks for the temperature to be raised, and briefly meditates. Always nervous about time, he makes sure the class begins right at 6:15 PM. Next he reads the “procedures” for the class, which consist of a list of maybe four to five things, sometimes with numbers doubled, and include some of his “speeches.” Topics of his speeches range from literary success to choreography.

“One of my personal fascinations is choreography,” he says. “Whenever I see a dance performance—on the average, every 19 months—I imagine that I am a brilliant choreographer trapped in the body of an aging Catskills hillbilly. I picture myself directing 300 lithe women with long red hair in a four-hour dance on an aircraft carrier. The television audience, watching on four continents, will be dumbfounded by my genius. In a sense, my poems are choreography by other means.”

Students spend the first 10 minutes or so of Sparrow’s class listening to speeches like this, then move on to workshopping their own pieces of writing. One of the students, Josh Sheridan, explains what he finds unusual and invigorating about the experience.

“I think what strikes me the most about being in class with Sparrow is the energy, the air; the room is completely calm,” Sheridan says. “In a TV world, it’d be easy to seize on his name, to ruminate about a man named after a songbird, but if you begin to know the man, you begin to realize that it fits him in a genuine way, that he’s not being ironic or trying to incite debate about anything. He just . . . is.

“And he’s very good at letting the students in his class just be, as well. For my part, I find his loose attitude toward guidelines invigorating, and also challenging. He has a funny way of making you want to work harder, even though his directions make everything seem so stress-free.”

Juliet Barney, another student, talks of Sparrow’s open-mindedness and unstructured curriculum. “I’m not being told what to do and when. I’m given the freedom to do what I want to do, and it turns out I usually don’t know what I want to do. I had no idea freedom would be that challenging.”

There certainly is freedom in Sparrow’s class. For example: “I want you to read something by Gertrude Stein. You may find it on the Internet, in a book, auto scroll, or a wall plaque. I would like it to be at least one page long. You could write a long exegesis about it,” he says, “or write nothing.”

More Sparrow. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

In December 1995, Sparrow headed uptown on the New York City subway to address the repeated rejection of his poems by The New Yorker. He picketed the magazine’s offices, carrying signs that read “Give our poems homes,” “I’m Dorothy Parker with a magic marker,” and, most famously, “My poetry is as bad as yours.” He was joined by some friends—other poets, artists, and novelists—and the gathering did not go unnoticed. About a month later, one of Sparrow’s poems was accepted by the magazine. He claims this was the first time a “real human being” was published in The New Yorker, which went on to publish five of his poems.

Not surprisingly, he downplays this hard-won achievement just as he downplays The New Yorker’s literary status, insisting that he finds more beauty in ordinary things than in the words of star writers. He talks about walking through Albany on his way to Saint Rose and passing a man and a young girl on a stoop.

“As I’m passing, he says to her, ‘Gee, you’re pretty smart. What’s five divided by five?’”

He laughs his hard, loud, three-beat, ha-ha-ha laugh and continues, “What a great thing to say. What a beautiful statement.”

I ask, “What makes it beautiful?”

“Its beautiful rhythm, so simple, so generous, sweet. . . . And he said it with this beautiful smile sort of spreading over his face. Of all the great poets that are published, you know, the so-called famous poets that are published in the fucking New Yorker every week, have any of them written a line as beautiful as that?”

He reads two lines from a poem in a recent edition of The New Yorker and says one of his favorite things to do is to attack the magazine whenever possible (even though it has published his work).

“It sucks,” he says. “It’s pretentious, pompous. It’s dead. It has none of the beauty of ‘Gee, you’re pretty smart. What’s five divided by five?’”

Sparrow says he actually prefers love poems by kids in middle school over almost all contemporary literature.

“Most bad writers I like better than good writers. I hate James Joyce. I hate Whitman. I hate Eliot. I hate these fancy-ass writers, pompous and self-important writers. Literary status is meaningless, it’s bullshit.”

Drama Sparrow. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

It’s not important, he says, “What’s important is doing good for other people, goodness, love, kindness. . . . This is what happiness looks like: sitting with friends, talking, slowing down time.”

Time is of great concern to Sparrow, and he discusses how time impacts writing.

“One problem with writing today is that no one has any time. Everyone is busy writing to each other on their phones. Real art takes vast amounts of time.”

Sparrow finds time to write every day, even if only on Twitter or Facebook. Actually, this is where you can find a lot of his writing—short poems, mainly, like his recent “Driveway.”

The wind flips over a
leaf, like a dealer turning
over the three of spades.

Michael Daniel Gorelick grew up in Manhattan in a middle-income housing project in Inwood. He likes to call himself “100-percent ethnically Pennsylvanian, being that his mother is from Scranton and his father comes from outside Elizabethtown. His childhood was “idyllic,” he says. He remembers playing games of tag, sometimes with 120 kids.

“We played games like ‘Hot Peas and Butter.’ If you lost, someone would take off their belt and whip you shouting, “Hot peas and butter!’ It was a little like growing up in the 12th century.”

When he was around 10 years old he often visited his grandparents in Scranton, where he became friends with a girl his age. “Our main topic of conversation was the marks on our waists made by our underpants. We had similar types of undergarments, which left red indentations in our skin. We called them ‘train tracks.’ Every day we would meet and compare our markings.”

While visiting his other grandparents in Philadelphia, Sparrow came across Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

“My fucking intellectual curiosity led me to Lao Tzu. Reading Lao Tzu, I had this kind of spiritual,” he laughs, pauses, searches for the word.

I say, “Awakening?”

“Yeah, that’s good,” he says and continues, “Suddenly I realized I would not become a doctor. I would not become a success, as I had been planning, and as my parents had really been planning, but I would become a humble street sweeper or something humble, something highly humble and ordinary. I wanted to be a hippie. I discovered hippies and immediately I realized, ‘This is the greatest thing.’”

Sparrow considered himself to be a “smart little Jewish kid” who did extremely well in school—well enough that he was accepted into Cornell University, though he did not want to go.

“I didn’t want to go to college,” he says. “But I couldn’t quite inform my parents that I just wanted to grow turnips on a mountainside somewhere in Montana, so I went to Cornell.”

If it were his choice he would’ve gone to SUNY New Paltz, but his parents wouldn’t allow it because they thought it was a “drug college.”

“But they didn’t realize,” he says, “that I had already flipped out on acid at this Grateful Dead concert at the Manhattan Ballroom on April 4, 1971.”

After taking LSD, Sparrow says, he realized he was not good at taking drugs.

“It’s not my talent,” he laughs.

The summer before he went to Cornell, Sparrow decided to challenge himself. He was going to unlearn how to read—because, he says, he had recently realized that the root of all problems in Western civilization was literacy.

“I’m about to go into the fucking Ivy Leagues and I decide I’m going to unlearn how to read. Not just stop reading, but try and forget how to read. That summer I wouldn’t look at any writing. I got to the point where I could look at a sign and not read it. It would just be shapes.”

When he was contemplating majors for school, his father insisted on biology. He thinks this directly influenced his failing out of Cornell after two years. Fortunately, he wasn’t alone. Several of his friends failed out, too.

“I don’t know what was going on with us, except we were having a lot of fun,” he says.

After the “Flunkout Movement of 1973,” Sparrow decided to become a poet. “But was I a real poet?” he asks. “I was uncertain.”

“One day, someone gave me a cigarette. . . . I lit the cigarette and sat at my desk. At that point, I didn’t smoke, but I discovered that the cigarette burned by itself. Sitting at the desk, the white smoke rising up over my shoulder, I felt like a writer. Clearly my internal definition of a poet was a man sitting at a desk with a lit cigarette. Even without producing a word, I felt entirely Wallace Stevens.”

Aside from aspiring to be a poet, Sparrow had a constantly changing idea of who he wanted to be, including a “working-class, sort of country-western rebel,” and a truck driver living in a trailer park with a guitar, playing Elvis Presley songs, “even though I hated Elvis Presley.”

In 1974, Sparrow set out on a hitchhiking trip with his girlfriend, Joan, and her cat. After a brief stay at a boarding house in St. Petersburg, Fla., surrounded by criminals and 80-year-olds playing shuffleboard, they eventually found themselves in Gainesville.

“It was paradisiacal,” he says. “We met these wonderful people and it was like a dream. It was where the other people like us were. It was a magnet for spiritual dropouts. Here were all these happy people that would hug you. It was kind of like being in a musical comedy. It was almost like a place where people were about to burst into song at any moment.”

He spent his free time reading the complete works of William Blake, which he says he didn’t understand at all. After breaking up with Joan, he moved in with the spiritual group Ananda Marga, becoming very involved with yoga and meditation.

During what he refers to as “The Spiritual Spring of ’75,” he was working at a natural food store, which he considered “the height of perfection.” To his dismay, there was another Michael working at the store.

“I went to my friend Jenifer, the Princess of Love, who always wore purple and didn’t live anywhere. She slept in a sleeping bag wherever she could find a spot. She was a panhandler, an acid head, and a beatific being,” he says. “I went up to Jenifer and I said, ‘I need a new name,’ and in like a fraction of a second she said, ‘You be Sparrow. You look like a Sparrow.’”

And he’s been Sparrow ever since.

After a few years in Gainesville, Sparrow decided it was time to go back to school and get his Ph.D. in creative writing. He returned to New York City, where he worked at the 92nd Street Y. There, he started and directed a recreation program for developmentally disabled adults, which would end up being his career for nearly 20 years.

In 1981, Sparrow graduated from Empire State College. He then went on to graduate school at City College, where he received his masters in creative writing. Since then, Sparrow has done a wide variety of things, like substitute teaching, which he found very rewarding.

“I thought it was maybe the best thing I’ve ever done in the world. The most good I’ve ever done. Just being a substitute teacher in this school, just being me. I just felt that it was very helpful to the human race for me to be there.”

He also has run for president six times since 1992.

“It may have had something to do with my daughter’s birth,” he says. “Suddenly I’m responsible for this other human being, and I’m sending her forth into this horrific world and I felt, on some unconscious level, I felt I should purify the world for her. But mostly I did it because I thought maybe I would write good poems if I ran for president. . . . So it was purely a literary decision. It turned out to be true, that when I ran for president, I did write successful poems. It unleashed in me a political idealism. When you run for president, it gives you what is called a poetic conceit; it gives you a reason to address every issue.”

He insists, though, that he doesn’t want to do it again.

“Every time I run I try to swear off running again. I hope I’m not going to run the next time. It’s pathetic, in a way, to be a 62-year-old person running for president for the seventh time, which I will most likely be in a few years. It’s pathetic, but I can’t seem to stop. Its kind of an addiction.”

He also insists that he doesn’t want any votes.

“I always tell people not to vote for me, to vote for the Democrats.”

But if he were elected, what would he like to do?

“Create a world that’s free of racism and money and all evils.”

Most comfortable Sparrow. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Teaching at Saint Rose is “an enormous change for me,” Sparrow says. “It’s unlike anything that’s ever happened to me—being a real academic, if only for one semester.”

Daniel Nester, a professor in the MFA program, was one of the people responsible for bringing Sparrow to Saint Rose. They both have the same publisher, Soft Skull Press, and Sparrow was one of the first guests at Nester’s Frequency North reading series back in 2006. When the department started making a list of potential visiting writers, Sparrow was on it.

“Over the years,” Nester days, “he’s come up from Phoenicia to visit Saint Rose classes, taking off his sneakers and drinking water from Snapple bottles, and generally offering our students a different way of looking at the world: namely, wonder, surprise, giving in to chance, looking at words and ideas as shiny and dumb things, holy and suspect.”

He adds, “Sparrow is not an academic. Whatever that means, he’s the opposite of it. Most MFA programs bring in visiting writers who are traveling rock stars, guns for hire that go to the highest bidder. Sparrow is here to tell our writers that it’s a long road, being a writer. It’s a way of life, not a way to make a living. He teaches by example.”

Asked about his goals for the semester, Sparrow says, “My greatest hope is that each of the students will get closer to being the writer they are supposed to be and stop worrying so much about whether or not they’re a writer. It’s a meaningless question. It’s like worrying about whether or not you’re a human being.”

He views himself as a “humble slave,” and insists that whatever the students want to do is fine with him. He does, however, reveal an ulterior motive to his teaching. “One of my generalized interests is stealing from other writers. I’m very curious about the private lives of everybody and you know,” he laughs, “sort of spying on people’s private lives.”

With his unconventional approach, one might wonder how Sparrow is going to evaluate his students. “I wish I could just bestow on you all certificates saying that you are writers, the way the Wizard of Oz gives the Tin Man a little ticking heart and the Scarecrow a diploma,” he says in one of his classroom speeches.

Disclosure: I am taking the class. After a discussion with my editor about possible perceived conflicts of interest, I ask Sparrow directly if he thinks people might suspect I wrote this article in an attempt at a better grade. He responds, “Good luck getting a better grade! I am relentless in my ratiocination! Though, to be honest, I’ve never given out grades before.” He adds, “What if I hate the article? Maybe I’ll give you a D!”

Sparrow lives in the Catskill Mountains with his wife Violet Snow. After their daughter, Sylvia, was born, Violet made Sparrow leave New York City, where he had been living for almost 20 years.

“I like things like performance art, art galleries, and punk bands,” he says. “I like lots of activity and artistic weirdness, but my wife is the exact opposite. She likes talking to fucking marigolds.” After all this time, though, it seems his wife’s love of nature may have gotten to him, or at least that’s something I see in his poem “Poetic Secret.”


But he still finds beauty in the unexpected. “I tend to find ugly things beautiful. . . . I like decay. I like shacks that are falling down. I like slums. I think slums are really beautiful . . . old, dilapidated buildings.”

Phoenicia looks like a postcard, he says. It’s an area a lot of people would describe as beautiful, yet he finds it boring. He would prefer to live somewhere else, like a place he once saw on the cover of National Geographic while sitting in a laundromat. He found pictures of a red desert and rocks to be really beautiful, and then read the headline: “New Photographs from Mars.”

“That’s when I realized I’d like to live on Mars,” he says.

Sparrow, full of surprising answers to ordinary questions, has done and been many things in his life. His own vision of who he is has changed numerous times. Today he’s a teacher, a husband, a father, a musician, a politician, a vegetarian, just to name a few. And of course he’s a writer, but then again, there’s nothing special about that.

“Who’s to say if someone is a writer or not? I think everyone can be a writer.”

I ask him, “Do you think some are better than others?”

“No doubt,” he says. “But who’s to say? Who can say what is great writing or bad writing? All you can say is what you really like, and what you really like changes every day. If you want to be a writer, write.”

Sparrow will read from his work at the College of Saint Rose, as part of the Frequency North reading series, on Nov. 15 at 7:30 PM. Admission is free.



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