Interview: Gail Mazur & Lloyd Schwartz
By Bob Sykora and Brooke Schifano
In 1973, Gail Mazur founded the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, MA. For forty-four years, the reading series has been a vital part of Boston’s poetry scene, hosting both established and emerging writers. This past spring the Blacksmith House featured readings by Jorie Graham, Tyehimba Jess, and Alex Dimitrov, just to name a few. At an early Blacksmith House reading, Mazur met Lloyd Schwartz, when they were both just starting their poetry careers, and the two formed a lifelong friendship.
In the forty years since they became friends, Mazur and Schwartz have published a combined eleven collections of poetry, most recently Mazur’s Forbidden City (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and Schwartz’s Little Kisses (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Gail Mazur has won the Massachusetts Book Award and was a finalist of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Award. Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Breakwater Review sat down with them to talk about their friendship and the importance of community for artists. We’re excited to share our conversation covering the early Blacksmith House readings, Robert Lowell’s office hours, Elizabeth Bishop's impact, and much more.
Lloyd Schwartz: How do you want to get started?
Breakwater Review: Let’s start with how you two met and became friends.
LS: I mean, we had an unforgettable meeting as far as I’m concerned.
Gail Mazur: We did. Me too, me too. You tell it, then I’ll tell it.
LS: You can correct me if I misremember. Gail had already started the Blacksmith House series. I was starting to read and I had just published my first couple of poems, and I really wanted to read at the Blacksmith House. So I asked Frank Bidart, who was my classmate in graduate school, and I knew he had read at the Blacksmith House. I asked if he had any advice about what I should do. He said to just call Gail and she’ll probably want to see a manuscript of some poems or something.
GM: Probably not.
LS: (Laughs) Anyway, she did. And Gail said just drop something off at my house. (To Gail) I guess you just called me back and said, you know, sure.
GM: When I started the Blacksmith House, there were dozens of young people. Young like we were, young and writing poetry. Nobody had a book! At that time, almost nobody had a book.
LS: Oh! they should know who the first readers were when you started.
GM: Well, the first week it was Bill Corbett and Fanny Howe and I thought: this is it. The venue didn’t have rows of seats then—it was a coffee shop. So, the thing was you came in and you sat at tables with strangers. It was wonderful. But the only logical place for the person to read, because it had been a restaurant, was facing the bathroom.
LS: In fact, you couldn’t read directly in front of you because there just was a wall there. I remember you were reading to the group on your right or to the group on your left.
GM: But it was so intimate.
LS: Oh, it was wonderful.
Gail Mazur and Lloyd Schwartz at the Blacksmith House
GM: It was wonderful. And the third week, I had a reading—I love this—of the work of three Portuguese feminists who had written a book of feminist poetry and were in prison for it. So there were five women reading the work of the three Marias. And at that point I thought okay: I’ll do it one more week, I’ll do it one more week, one more week. But then, it was so obvious that people really wanted it and wanted to come. And there wasn’t one aesthetic or anything. It was really more about the community of poets and it got to be so popular that by the end of the year I could invite, you know, Alan Dugan and Mark Strand, and I can’t remember who else.
Some of my favorite things, and Lloyd and I were the centers of this cast, were the Halloween and the Valentine’s Day readings. The thing was, we didn’t write our own poems. We chose poems that would be, in the case of Halloween, sort of sinister and fun.
LS: Every year Frank [Bidart] read Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” There were people who came just to hear him read it. And one year, Robert Pinsky announced that he’d found this old poem by a Hebrew scholar and he’d translated it. He read this poem and it was hair-raising, and we found out later that he’d written it that afternoon. It was entirely a hoax. Because we weren’t supposed to read our own poems. I know I read Poe.
GM: A couple of times Lloyd and I read Frost’s “The Witch of Coos.”
LS: But, how we got to be friends.
GM: I mean for me in my life as a poet I’d say there were three stages. When I was twenty three I had two children. And I was a child of the fifties so I wanted to write but—when we moved here in ‘64 I went into the Grolier bookshop and I think I was like the guy who had a stroke and woke up an artist. I woke up a poet. But it wasn’t like I was going to be a professional. I remember thinking: boy if some day in my life I could publish a poem that’d be enough. That’d be great. Sincerely, I’m not even making fun of myself because it wasn’t even in the realm of reality that I could think of myself as doing that.
And the next thing was starting the Blacksmith House and meeting Lloyd, who you know is incredibly warm and funny and he also likes to talk on the phone. One day, early in our friendship, he said would you like to go to Robert Lowell’s office hours with me? That was step three. And to me, that was magical.
LS: Do you know what these office hours were? These office hours were really a kind of a seminar, a kind of unofficial workshop. Anyone could come.
GM: And there was no agenda! In my memory, Lowell would often bring in the thing he was reading and start talking about it. So the conversation was kind of ranging. But you really got Lowell’s mind, how it worked on funny things, trivial things—gossip, Whitman’s frenchisms, Broadway musicals, and so forth. It was a joy.
LS: And there were regulars, and there were people who would just show up. I mean, you didn’t have to stay—You could come at 10, if it started at 10, or you could come at 10:30 and leave at 11. It was office hours! Very informal.
GM: It was in a seminar room in the basement of one of the Harvard houses.
LS: Quincy House. A windowless room. Very indicative of how Harvard treated its poets!
GM: Right near the river. It could’ve been a beautiful room.
LS: But it was under the cafeteria and it—you know, people smoked in those days.
GM: Lowell smoked!
LS: So you can imagine, in this little airless room.
GM: I don’t remember it being airless—I don’t remember even being bothered by cigarette smoke then.
LS: Well, I think we weren’t! But I can remember, especially if—because people brought their poems in—if it wasn’t a very interesting poem, which it often wasn’t, that I used to sit at one side of the table and Lowell always sat there (points to the head of the table) and that I would start watching the ash on his cigarette get longer and longer and longer. Was it going to fall on the table? Was it going to fall on the floor? Was it going to fall on his pants? And it did all of the above at one point or another. I mean, there’s even a poem! That wonderful sonnet about Randall Jarrell where he’s smoking a cigarette or smoking two cigarettes.
GM: And falling asleep.
LS: Yeah, Jarrell comes to him after he’s died. And it has these cigarettes!
GM: But the day that’s most memorable to me is one day I brought in a poem—I was so innocent—and he kind of tore it apart. It all took place in maybe five minutes. And at the end of tearing it apart he said, so sweet, he said, but it sort of haunts me. You’ve known it for five minutes and you don’t think it’s any good, but okay! I mean, I immediately abandoned the poem, as was my wont.
LS: He didn’t like almost anything that people brought. Including, you know, Frank Bidart and Robert Pinsky.
GM: The greatest thing—I’m sure you remember this, was after Berryman died and his posthumous book of dream songs came out.
LS: And he said I don’t feel like talking about your poems today, I’m really thinking about Berryman.
GM: I wish I could remember the conversation because it was thrilling. Maybe thrill damages your memory.
LS: Well, we were so in those moments. And there were several people who came, who took notes, and who have written about it and made poems about it. But for most of us, we were in this amazing presence and it didn’t matter if he didn’t like your poem. Robert Lowell was reading your poem and thinking about it.
GM: And being haunted by it.
Gail Mazur and Lloyd Schwartz in Provincetown, MA
Breakwater Review: I was thinking, because you were hitting on the idea of the importance of community, about this time when you met that you’re describing—the early Blacksmith House, Lowell’s office hours. I think you both appreciate how magical it was and how magical it sounds.
GM: Yes. I really believe that for most people who write poetry friendship is essential. Because most other people don’t want to read poetry and they especially don’t want to read it if you want to know whether it’s working. Everybody turns into a deer caught in the headlights, except another poet. What we’ve been talking about, from the Blacksmith House to Lowell, is really about something that Stanley Kunitz wrote that I’d like to quote, which is that “art withers without fellowship.” And I’m sure it’s essential to both of us.
LS: Oh yeah, and we show each other our drafts, and there aren’t a lot of people we do that with.
GM: No, we can’t. It’d be terrible. It’d be like in your workshop where you get everybody’s notes back on your poem. My heart sinks when I see that. How are you ever going to revise a poem if you’re looking at everybody’s notes?
BR: How do you think cultivating that kind of community has changed?
GM: The interesting thing is that, although Lloyd and I were 30-ish, it was more multi-generational. But since the grad programs have started, people have a cohort and they stick together. One of the things that’s happened here [in Boston], that’s really cultural economics, is that at a certain point rent control ended and this young teaching community, teaching adjuncts, they just had to move and they moved to better jobs. But Lloyd, when you started teaching you knew you wanted to live here. So the first jobs were kind of grueling in terms of schedule.
LS: Yeah, in terms of schedule. I actually turned down a job in New York, and I really thought I wanted to go back to New York. But when I was offered the job I really didn’t want to leave Boston. And it was, to a large degree, friendships that I’d established here and poetry.
There were also little rituals around the Blacksmith House. There was a little sort of cheap but good cafeteria on Brattle Street.
GM: There were four cafeterias. Seventeen bookstores.
LS: That was the amazing thing. The Blacksmith House was kind of at the center of what were all these bookstores and socializing. Gail and I would go to this bar afterwards, Casablanca. It’s not there anymore, but you would basically fall out of the Blacksmith House to Casablanca.
Really one of the great things Gail inaugurated, were these readings devoted to other poets. Mostly memorial readings. Most were at the Blacksmith House, but some had to be in another room.
GM: Somehow we got big rooms at Harvard.
LS: But there were extraordinary readings.
GM: Frank O’Hara.
LS: Frank O’Hara, where his sister and brother attended. After she died, there was an Elizabeth Bishop reading. There was a Lowell reading. There was a Ginsberg reading. A Pessoa reading. There was an Akhmatova reading. There was, more recently, an Adrienne Rich reading which her son attended.
GM: And these were really well attended. It was a community. People felt things about these people dying or felt things about them not being heard anymore. And it wasn’t didactic at all, it was like going to a beautiful memorial.
LS: And it was why you loved poetry. It was a wonderful opportunity to say, this poet was somebody I loved and I love this poem.
GM: The great poets, the poets we’ve revered, all devoured poetry.
Gail Mazur's Forbidden City (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
BR: I know both of you are influenced by other art. Can you talk about how you’re influenced? I know, for instance, that Lloyd you’re influenced a lot by music. Can you talk about how these influences come into your work?
GM: You go first, I’m atonal.
LS: Yeah, but for you, it’s all about art. All the stuff about Mike and artists, and you have a wonderful line about Van Gogh’s colors.
GM: I do?
LS: “Bedroom at Arles?” Something about the yellow…
GM: Lemon yellow, maybe its butter yellow. It’s because my most solid influence of a way to live was being married to Mike. And he was just two years older than me, and we met when we were twenty and twenty-two and got married when we were twenty and twenty-two, and it wasn’t like I didn’t know that you didn’t have to do that. Actually, he was so fierce about wanting to get married. And I just didn’t want to not have a boyfriend. You know, it’s like, if I say no then what’ll happen to me? I mean, I was in love, but it was so shocking to be a junior in college and then, is it that or nothing? I never asked! The temperament of an artist, and we were very different, but we shared that sort of restlessness. The always pushing, pushing, pushing to make the thing better and being impatient with yourself and not wanting to repeat yourself. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t have a voice, but if you repeat yourself, you shouldn’t do it exactly. I have a poem now that I really like and I’ve shown it to [Lloyd] and I’ve shown it to Robert [Pinsky]. It’s called “Flea” and I keep looking at it. I think, really, its not doing anything I haven’t done before. It’s just that I like the stuff at the flea market and I don’t know what else to do with them besides put them in a poem.
LS: You’re allowed to do that.
GM: I know I can do it. But then my mind keeps going: what can I do to sort of ratchet this slightly? Fifties china and whatever else you see in a flea market. The thing about this market is that the year-rounders at the Cape call it "The Flea." And I just really like that. I believe there’s a great poem called “The Flea,” but it isn’t about the flea market.
LS: John Donne.
GM: So that tickles me, and I can’t stop being tickled by the fact that my poem called “The Flea” is about junk. But I don’t ever mean to write ekphrastic poems. Except for the “Bedroom at Arles,” I don’t think I have another poem about a painting.
LS: Well, in a way, “Figures in a Landscape” is imagining a painting, and it’s imaging your life as if it were in a painting. In a way, maybe that’s more the question.
GM: And that wouldn’t have been a poem that the Gail who never met Mike [Mazur] would’ve written. Over the years, things that artists have said and done just get into my way of thinking. There’s not much difference between a way of looking and a way of thinking about words.
LS: I have a series of poems I wrote about a series of paintings that my late partner painted some years ago. It’s a series called "Fourteen People." Gail’s in that series. I am, Frank [Bidart], Robert [Pinsky], Joyce [Peseroff], Margot Lockwood, and a couple of other artists. And those paintings gave me permission to write a series of poems about my friends.
GM: That’s interesting. It gave you a way.
LS: It gave me a way. It wasn’t exactly that I wanted to write about those paintings, even though I like writing about paintings. But those paintings, these were 14 life-size standing figures, they gave me a way. My relationship with the arts, as I understand it, with music or dance or whatever I do that I really love, has to to do with, in almost a literal way, the way it speaks to me. So, poetry that I really love has to do with the way it talks to me. And it doesn’t have to do with a simple, conversational style, because it can be with both Lowell and Bishop, and with Gail and Frank [Bidart] and Robert [Pinsky] and Joyce [Peseroff], and the poets that I love. And I’m not a musician, I’m not a musicologist, I didn’t go to graduate school in journalism. When I started writing about music, I had something to say that I didn’t think other people writing about music, who knew a lot more than I did, I didn’t think they were saying what I wanted to say, which had to do with the way music spoke to me. In the way that I want, not only singing, but someone playing an oboe or a clarinet or a violin. I’m not interested in something technically dazzling or impressive. I’m more interested in the way music speaks to me. And so, I think something about the way I write poems, which is really more important to me than anything else I do, has something to do with the way, over how many years, I’ve tried to get my poems to speak, to talk. And sometimes it’s just characters talking. But it’s not only that.
I really wanted to be an actor. And I did some acting. When I was acting, I was also writing poems, I was also teaching. I was writing not interesting poems. They were interesting to me, but I don’t know if anyone else found them especially interesting. Kind of lyric, autobiographical lyric poems. But then I lost my teaching job and I had to teach at night. I had this huge crisis about whether or not to take this teaching job because if I took it I’d essentially have to stop acting, or at least stop acting in theater, because theater took place at night. So, I took the teaching job and started writing poems that were in the voices of other characters. Some were real and some were completely made up. My first published poem was in the voice of a prostitute, or someone like that.
GM: Made up.
LS: Totally made up. My first published poem, Richard Howard published it in New American Review. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting! And my first book is mainly a series of monologues and dialogues in these other characters’ voices because I was having success with those poems, and it seemed much more interesting to me than just writing about myself.
But it wasn’t until years later that I made the connection: that I stopped acting, so I couldn’t play other characters, but then I’m writing poems that are in the voices of other characters. And I thought, Oh!
GM: We’ve never had this conversation.
LS: No, really? I’ve had it in my head a million times.
Lloyd Schwartz's Little Kisses (University of Chicago Press, 2017)
Breakwater Review: Can you talk about what you admire about each other’s work?
LS: We tend to like each other’s work.
GM: Thank god we do. I guess, in the first place, in both of our work there’s variety. “Leaves,” his poem about foliage, is so intense and so beautiful and over the top in a way, but it’s about looking for the best view of autumn leaves. It’s a whole journey of aesthetics and about how he’s not cool, I mean, not cool about it. Because we tend to be 21st century people, we tend to understate.
LS: Irony is important, but it isn’t everything. I think Gail is one of the most honest writers I know, and that honesty comes through, in a way, because you’re also a master of technical things. And of interesting technical things.
LS: Yeah, and what you were saying about variety, and I would like this to be true of me too. We’re both very interested in traditional forms and using traditional forms, but not slavishly. The poems have to come alive, they have to speak, they have to talk to you. Gail has a very distinctive voice in her poems and it’s a voice of tremendous variety and culture and wit. There’s a poem called “My Studio” which has all these ooh-rhymes and they’re hilarious.
GM: You can’t miss it after awhile.
LS: It’s relentless. It's hilarious and then it's breaking your heart by the end. You realize what’s been breaking your heart, and at the end it’s a kind of lament, and it’s so moving. And it’s all real. It’s not just a trick and it's not just manipulating language.
GM: I think we both spend a lot of time on a poem. Because we are both relentless about whatever our honesty is, we want to be truthful to the poem, to not pull a cheap one. To not be glib and fall in love with the sound of our voice and be fooled into thinking that’s profound.
LS: Not that anyone else writes like that!
GM: Yeah, no, but that’s what we admire, so that’s what we strive for, but it’s also in our nature.
LS: One of the poems I had the hardest time with was “Six Words,” the sestina. That was written in ten minutes and took me, what, three or four months to get the voices right. And all the commas and semicolons and italics and dashes, just to get it to sound right.
GM: Was it Frank [Bidart] who said years ago that punctuation is like musical notation, that it tells you how to hear the thing? That was a model: to not be sloppy with punctuation. Because even though many people might miss it, might not get it, that’s not the point. The tone is in punctuation.
LS: I don’t know if [Gail] ever saw this, but it’s the best present Elizabeth Bishop ever gave Frank [Bidart]. She made a collage out of pebbles and seashells and sticks and it’s all punctuation marks.
GM: You might say that we’re relentless with ourselves, but we also love to be charmed. Bishop was charming, but she was also powerful and tough minded about her work and she famously spent longer than we do—twenty years, because she knew she didn’t have it right.
LS: There’s a wonderful thing. The big news in the Bishop world is a very long letter she wrote to her psychiatrist in 1947 after she’d finished what many people say is her greatest poem, “At the Fishhouses.” A twenty-page letter that’s mostly about her sex life, which she didn’t write a whole lot about. And she’s so liberated in it. It’s so much fun, and it just came to light two years ago. What’s wonderful is she’s being so uninhibited about everything. And she says something in passing, it’s not even a complete sentence, but she’s talking about how she came to write “At the Fishhouses.” She says she was a little drunk in Nova Scotia on a bicycle and she stopped, sat on some rocks, and she saw this seal. And she says in passing: “and then I saw the poem.” And I think this says more about Elizabeth Bishop and her poems than anything else. It might take her however many years to write them, but the poems just came to her. Literally a kind of epiphany. And that’s what’s behind it.
GM: I didn’t really get Elizabeth Bishop or even try until I read “In the Waiting Room” in The New Yorker, and that was late. And then it took the top of my head off. It was late, but it was before I met [Lloyd], so I didn’t know what any poet was talking about. And even if you hung out in the Grolier it was mostly guys talking about each other. So there had to be more than one fan who heard about her from The New Yorker. But its true, she was a poet’s poet—what is it?
LS: A “writer’s writer’s writer” — John Ashbery.
GM: A poet’s poet.
LS: She was. That’s who knew about her. That poem was the doorway to all of her previous work. It was the last thing you ever expected her to write. A poem that says, “you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.”
GM: I think that a lot of people have had that moment. I mean, that was how I felt. I was twelve and I was with my family and I thought why am I standing here, at this fence, with these people? And I never forgot it because it was so—it was disturbing. So disturbing. But I was probably eleven, not twelve, because by twelve I was saying who are those boys?
LS: I was spending the summer in Santa Fe in 1971. My girlfriend was an apprentice at the Santa Fe opera, and things had been falling apart, and I went down to Santa Fe to see if we could fix things up. And it was a very interesting summer. I learned a lot about opera and I was a kind of hanger-on at the Santa Fe opera and I was actually in an opera. I didn’t have to sing, but I got to arrest the hero. I had a costume, and a sword! I had no money and I had just lost my teaching job and every, I don’t know, maybe once a week, I would call Frank [Bidart] collect from a payphone in a parking lot at a shopping mall outside of Santa Fe. So, I’m on the phone with him in the summer of 1971, and he asks me if I’ve read The New Yorker this week. And I said no—I’m in Santa Fe, and it’s $1.75! And he said, Elizabeth Bishop has a new poem, can I read it to you? So that was my first experience with that poem: I’m standing there, in that parking lot, and I’m weeping. Tears—I was so, you know, I had just met Elizabeth Bishop, but I had loved her work and this was just, it was overwhelming.
GM: And completely unexpected.
LS: Totally unexpected.
GM: Also, you know, you find this always, there are times when you need this specific piece of music or this specific piece of art or this specific piece of fiction. Turns out, that was just what you needed. And it will always have that place after it happens. And I think that’s what happened. I’m sure that that poem changed my work.
LS: It was an amazing poem.
GM: I taught a Bishop Lowell seminar at Emerson, and I’m not as deeply involved with Bishop’s work as Lloyd is, but they’ve influenced my work. I’m sure Lloyd and I have influenced each other’s work without knowing it. Even our critical voices are probably in each other’s heads. I think one of the things about that poem is that it’s so surprising. You’re reading this scene setting, description, and then she goes somewhere that no one had gone. No one had gone there. And its very funny, because if I say that I had the same experience, who’s going to write about it after “In the Waiting Room?” But I didn’t resent that, it’s something that happens to you that you can’t even tell anyone about because it’s so abstract, in a way, and so intense. And you can’t even get that into a poem. And also, but this a reduction, there’s the surprise of it. To surprise yourself when you’re writing is a thrill. It’s one of the great thrills, isn’t it?
LS: Yeah, and it all goes away when you’re really working on it.
GM: And then, when you finish, you think how’d I do that? I don’t think I can do it again. I’ve got that “Flea” poem, but I know, when I think about it, that I think I’ve got to put a bomb in this poem. I’ve got to explode it with something I haven’t done before. What’s the poem really about? And sometimes you find that when you’re reading poetry. I don’t mean you take those lines, but I mean you do what that poem did. You find how it somehow ruptured the surface. It’s not about the subject, it's about how to break it.
Sometimes you love the details of your poem, but you haven’t got the thing, the heart, the thing that makes it matter. And from Bishop you learn how fantastic observation and description can be. And figurative language, you know, how she describes the fish. I think, I wish I could see like that, I wish I could see like that. Sometimes, that carries it. Sometimes it doesn’t.
LS: Really, maybe the best kind of feedback, and this has to do with being a teacher as well as a friend, you know, a fellow in the art, it has to do with helping a poet get out of this groove, this rut, that you really can’t get out of on your own. And there’s really no other way.
GM: And sometimes you’ll say to me, what’d you mean by this? And I’ll try to say what I mean and it isn’t what’s in the line obviously or else I’d just repeat the line. And that’s really helpful.
LS: Yeah, things like that. If you’re dealing with students, how do you help them? How do I help you? How do I help you make what I think is a very good poem into something that is as good as your best poems. Because if it weren’t as good as your best poems, then in a way it doesn’t matter. But I know what you can do.
GM: But, I have to say, that working on a poem is mostly fun. I mean, it’s torture.
GM: But it’s sort of fun. You know, the part that isn’t fun is if you’ve finished it and you don’t like it. I’m having that problem. And when it’s fun—when my husband died, he was a very good friend of a cartoonist from The New Yorker named Ed Koren, who does those sort of shaggy animal figures. And Ed spoke at his memorial and he quoted something Noel Coward the playwright said, which is “work is more fun than fun.”
LS: There isn’t anything you’d rather be doing, even when there is anything else you’d rather be doing.