This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

Read Part 1: HAL–O–MANIA

May 13, 2001 — It's been a year since I interviewed poet Hal Sirowitz, author of "Mother Said" and "My Therapist Said."

Sirowitz, you may recall, was one of the original stars of New York's poetry mecca the Nuyorican Cafe, where he was famous for reading his poems so slowly it was both funny and eerie, then strangely moving. At the appropriate moments, the crowd helped by shouting his catch–phrase, "Mother said!" — for example, during, "Thieves Among Us":

Don't count the money in your wallet,
Mother said, while someone is looking.
It might give him ideas. He'll want to steal it.
People are bad enough by themselves. They
don't need you to encourage them to act even worse . . .

But despite his popularity in New York, where one fan even started a fan–website (, and Sirowitz was recently named Poet Laureate of Queens, he was unprepared for what prompted our last discussion — that is, the fact that his books had inspired something akin to Beatlemania in Norway.

Just back from a tour of the country when we talked, 50–year–old Sirowitz was still clearly shocked at what he'd found: "Mother Said" was atop bestseller lists; mobs of girls waited for him outside his hotel; and people brought him pictures of Norwegian hero Henrik Ibsen to sign because, like Ibsen, they said, Sirowitz was the "voice of the people."

When I heard he was just back from Finland, I thought we should talk again.

DJ: Have your books come out in Finland?

HS: Yeah, they flew me over when "Mother Said" came out. They told me I'm the most popular translated poet in Finland.

DJ: Was there "Hal–o–mania"?

HS: Well, when I got off the plane, I had to do a press conference, and I saw these people standing there and I was wondering who they were waiting for. And then they approached me, and I found out — they wanted my autograph.

DJ: They were fans?

HS: Yeah. And this one guy had me draw a pig. He tries to get all famous people to draw a pig, then he has someone take a photograph of you next to him, showing the pig.

DJ: How many of these fans were there?

HS: Well, not as many as when I read at the Helsinki Poetry Festival. There were about 800 people there.

DJ: So, is this going on elsewhere?

HS: I'm about to be translated into Icelandic.

DJ: Icelandic?

HS: I'm going to Iceland in the spring. And then my book is going to come out in Swedish. It was translated already, by a Swedish translator. And then Denmark did an anthology of both "Mother Said" and "My Therapist Said."

DJ: So basically you've got Scandanavia covered?

HS: Plus Iceland.

DJ: Is it still intense? Could you walk down the street in Finland?

HS: People recognized me. What they did was — You know, even though I'm in Helsinki, I'm a New Yorker, so when I see a red light that means I go. And people would come up and say, "Don't cross at the red light," and then they'd go, "Mother said." I was getting paranoid, and then I realized people were pointing at me because I was in the newspapers and on the six o'clock news, and a Lutheran minister wrote a large piece about me.

DJ: A Lutheran minister?

HS: He's one of the most popular essayists there, in a magazine. And they did a road movie with me.

DJ: Who?

HS: Their cultural TV channel, like their PBS. It was the first time I was ever interviewed in a car. The cameraman sat in the back and they put a microphone in my collar, and the reporter was driving the car and interviewing me. I've never been interviewed by someone driving at the same time. We went to this high school where the whole school read "Mother Said," and they all wrote questions. Then these six Finnish girls got up on stage with me and asked them to me.

DJ: What did they ask?

HS: Stuff like, how come I used such forthright language? And whether it was true.

DJ: That's what they asked you in Norway, wasn't it?

HS: Yeah. They're just shocked that somebody would expose themselves. And I said, well, it's not like I'm taking off my clothes. But, um, when I got back, the woman who runs my website said that she got letters from these Finnish teenagers who wanted to know where they could find pictures of me naked.

Last Week’s Column: THE RETURN OF THE GREAT AMERICAN SHORT STORY? Ever since the great short story renaissance of the 1980s, it's been hard times for short stories. Has that changed?


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