This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

April 16, 2000 — The rumors about Hal Sirowitz are all over New York — at the city's funky underground literary hotspots, like the Nuyorican Cafe and Tonic, places where he's a mainstay. You could hear them at Poseman's, the great poetry bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Sirowitz is a local hero. Or perhaps you read the comments beneath his picture in National Poetry Month's hottest anthology, ''The KGB Bar Book of Poems.''

Or maybe you're Norwegian.

In which case, you already know: Sirowitz, the poet from Flushing who's the author of ''Mother Said'' (Crown), ''My Therapist Said'' (Crown), and the forthcoming ''Hal Said,'' is so popular in Norway that something akin to Beatlemania — Hal–o–mania — has broken out there.

It seems bizarre. Sirowitz's books sell extremely well in America — ''Mother Said'' has sold 20,000 copies, for example, which is superb for poetry — but he's a poet, after all, not a rock star. Around the city, he's most well–known for giving ultra–slow readings of his strange, funny and moving poems — such as the ever–popular ''Chopped–Off Arm'':

Don't stick your arm out of the window,
Mother said. Another car can sneak up
behind us, & chop it off. Then your father
will have to stop . . . .

I tracked him down to ask about the rumors.

DJ: Is it true that your book was on the Norwegian best–seller lists before you knew it had even been published there?

HS: Yeah. It came as a complete shock to me. But it was really helpful, because I had just broken up with someone — actually, she broke up with me. So it was a big boost.

DJ: So what does it mean to be a big hit in Norway?

HS: Well, they've sold 30,000 copies of ''Mother Said.'' My publisher says in a country of only 4 million people, that's the equivalent of a million–copy–seller here.

DJ: Is it number one on the best–seller list?

HS: No, it's right behind a book called ''Jesus Says'' or ''Jesus' Sayings'' or something like that.

DJ: So you're not that popular?

HS: Jesus had a lot more connections than I do. I can't complain. I'm going to tour there again in September.

DJ: So what was the first tour like? HS: I did a TV show with John Irving, and I read at a rock concert hall with him. It was sold out, and my editors had to surround me. They told me that everyone was saying to me in Norwegian they wanted to touch me. People would stop me on the street, a lot of high school girls. It was weird — sometimes they were waiting around for me when I would leave the hotel. And then when I did a book fair, people had all these photographs of Henrik Ibsen they wanted me to sign.

DJ: They wanted you to sign pictures of Henrik Ibsen?

HS: Yeah, they said I was the ''voice of the people'' like him.

DJ: What did they like best about you?

HS: They connect me with Woody Allen. They connect me with the Jewish tradition. The reviews said things like I was a lyrical answer to Jerry Seinfeld.

DJ: So they liked your sense of humor?

HS: Yeah. It was strange. At readings, I would read something, and then my translator would say it in Norwegian and people would be laughing like crazy. I had no idea what he was saying. But they would also tell me that I was brave to write so autobiographically. In interviews they would ask me, ''How much of this is true?'' And I would say, ''Unfortunately, it's all true.''

DJ: What do you think about it all in retrospect?

HS: It was just all so shocking. On the airplane back, the stewardess walked up to me and said, ''Are you Hal Sirowitz?'' I like it a little better in America, where I'm ignored.

DJ: Wasn't there an upside?

HS: Well, about 18 years ago I went out with this Norwegian woman. There's a poem about it in ''My Therapist Said.'' It was this disaster where we went out on a date and I took her back to her apartment and she said, ''I'd invite you up, but my ex–boyfriend stole my bed.'' So, you know, I went home.

DJ: Ouch. You wrote a poem about this bed line?

HS: Yeah. And then 18 years later I got a message from her on my machine.

DJ: She was angry about the poem?

HS: No, she sounded really impressed. She said I'm famous in Norway.


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