I. B. Singer, Pinsker the Poet, and Me


From high school onward, I thought of myself as a poet, or more correctly, as a person who wrote poetry. I certainly did not come up with the odd moniker, "Pinsker the Poet," but Isaac Bashevis Singer did, and truth be told, I was flattered by this strange phrase.

The confusion between Pinsker the Poet and myself began during the summer of l967, when I was in Manhattan trying to turn my doctoral dissertation about literary schlemiels into a book. Singer figured prominently in one of the chapters, and when a friend suggested that I give him a call—"He’s got a listed number, for heaven’s sake, and loves to talk to his reviewers"—I nervously did. We agreed to meet the following week at a dairy restaurant around the corner from his Upper West Side apartment.

Unfortunately, my lunch with Singer quickly turned into a disappointment. He obviously didn’t care what critics, including myself, had to say about his work. He didn't think much of Freudian readings, even less of Marxist readings, and I sensed that he regarded my schlemiel shtick as yet another piece of academic foolishness. “Say about my writing what you will, that is the critic’s business," he said. "But," and here he became animated, and dead serious, "leave my biography out of it.” Apparently, a recent book had ventured a few opinions about sibling rivalry and his older brother, I. J. Singer. He protested so loudly that I thought he might be protesting too much, but I kept that opinion to myself and simply said that I was a literary critic not a biographer. "Fine," he said, but on the matter of whether Gimpel was a schlemiel as well as a fool, Singer was, let us say, evasive.

On other subjects he simply clammed up. The bald truth is that our strained conversation had come to a full stop. That’s when Singer asked me to remind him of who I was. Talk about being mortified! Singer hadn't bothered to remember my name! "I’m Sandy Pinsker," I said. "Ah, yes… Pinsker. I told Alma [his wife] that I was having lunch today with a young man named Pinsker. Are you perhaps the son of Pinsker the Poet?"

I was caught entirely off-guard. "No, I’m the son of Pinsker the Pants Presser. Why do you ask?"

"Because," Singer replied, "a few weeks ago I saw a poem written about me by Pinsker the Poet, and I showed it to my friends. It was a very good poem."

Now I was flabbergasted. “That was my poem."

"You’re Pinsker the Poet? Not the son of Pinsker the Poet?" he said, hardly able to believe that such a thing was possible. "And you would be in New York all summer and only now do I get a chance to talk with you?"

And talk we did—over cups of coffee and more Danish than I care to remember. To his public audiences, Singer cultivated the persona of a colorful Yiddish grandfather. He had quips by the dozens and knew how to unpack them. But with me, the me who was, to him, always Pinsker the Poet, Singer dropped most of the posing and made it clear that our planet was soaked in blood and our world little more than a slaughterhouse.

We met perhaps a half dozen times over that summer, and when I returned to my teaching post at Franklin and Marshall College, I invited him down for a visit. "Fine," he said, and then asked me which stop to take on the IRT. "You’ll have to take a train from Penn Station," I told him. "It’s about a three-hour ride from there to Lancaster, Pennsylvania."

So he schlepped ("For Pinsker the Poet, anything," he said), but the visits were worth his aggravation, not only because there was always a packed house for his public readings, but also because he gave the students in my creative-writing workshop great advice. For example, he told them this: "Every writer needs a friend, but that friend cannot be your mother or your roommate, or even your teacher. You must make the wastebasket your best friend. Fill it up with your words, then empty it and fill it up again." And this: "When you begin a story you must believe in your heart that nobody else could tell this story."

A few years later, I asked Singer if he would write a recommendation for a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship I was trying to land. "Absolutely," he replied. "For Pinsker the Poet… anything." I handed him the form and held my breath. Would he be able to comment on everything from the worthiness of my proposal to his sense if I would be able to complete it? A few months later, the English Department secretary told me that Singer had sent his recommendation to the college rather than to the NEH, and asked if I’d like to see it before she mailed it off to the right place. How could I resist?

Singer used his fountain pen rather than a typewriter, and wrote in his weird, third-grade handwriting. “Dear National Endowment,” the letter began, “Pinsker the poet [sic] is also a professor. He is a friend of mine. You should give him the money,” and it ended with his large scrawl of a signature. Not surprisingly, I made a Xerox copy and kept it in my records.

By the way, I got the money.