Gail Mazur is the founder of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series and author of six collections of poetry, most recently Figures in a Landscape, published by University of Chicago Press in 2011. I sat down with her at Zing to talk about her work and what she’s up to now.
I wanted to ask you about Blacksmith House. What is your role as director of the poetry series?
I founded it and now I go to it. When I started the poetry series in 1973 it was because the owner of the Grolier Bookshop had recently died, and the shop had closed. It was a shame because everybody, a lot of poets, had converged in that tiny space, there’d been a sense of sharing poetry and poetry news. Even though I wasn’t planning on hosting anything myself, I ended up asking the Cambridge Center for Adult Education if I could have a space for readings. They gave me the Blacksmith House to use on Monday nights. I thought, Well, I’ll do it for a few weeks, until I’m over this. And I did it for twenty-nine years.
How has running that event for so long affected you?
I was so young when I started it. I was kind of shy. I had published two or three poems. I didn’t start the series out of any ambition for myself, I wasn’t thinking Oh, I’ll network and meet people and that’ll be good for me. I just wanted a place to gather for poetry. That’s probably the reason I could run it for so long.
On the first night, the room was too small for the number of people who came. I had two poets, Fanny Howe and Bill Corbett. I thought Wow, people really want this, I guess I’ll do one next week. That was how I did it for the first year or so. I was planning two weeks in advance, and I advertised by running around putting posters up on lampposts and trees. It was amazing.
The economy was different then, too. You could get people to fly up from New York for almost nothing. Travel was cheap. I passed the hat to pay the poets, and I sold books if people had them. Some of them did, some of them didn’t. A lot of poets who are well known now gave their first readings at Blacksmith House because I knew them from the Grolier. The series became—for a long time, I think—the center of poetry in Cambridge. I had Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, John Weiners, Jorie Graham, Pinsky, Hass, Frank Bidart—everybody. Everybody that you could want, that you could dream of, read poetry there. There wasn’t much else going on. It was the only poetry reading series outside of the universities, which always seemed to have this invisible wall around them for many of us. (Though now I always say that Harvard is our community college and we take advantage of it.)
And you know, I really love poetry readings. I feel as if you can get some idea of how the poet hears the poem that she or he is writing, which is really helpful for people who are still uncomfortable reading poems silently to themselves. They don’t take long enough, that’s my theory: they take fifteen seconds to read something and don’t understand it. But the same poem that takes fifteen seconds to read to yourself takes place in a different kind of time when read aloud.
We had some great readings, and there are still great readings there. I’m so grateful for Andrea Cohen, who’s a wonderful writer and worked as my assistant when she was a senior at Tufts. She has done such a great job with it. She’s marvelous. And Porter Square Books sells the books now.
How do you feel about performing your own work? Are you ever nervous doing it?
No, I actually love it. It’s funny because I’m very nervous when I’m just speaking. If I have to give a talk, I pray for death. But somehow with my poems there, it’s different. Blacksmith House made me so comfortable with being on the stage—you know, that’s probably the great thing it did for me. It was as if I made a world that I was comfortable in, that was exciting, that was always interesting. I didn’t make it interesting, but I made the place.
Was it mostly poets showing up for a while, or were there random people off the street as well?
There were random people! And there were so many people over the years who told me it was their first poetry reading. I made a mailing list and it was really interesting how geographically widespread the audience was. You would think that people would just tumble in from Harvard Square, but that wasn’t so. People came from North Andover, Everett, Lowell, Plymouth, sometimes from the Cape and the South shore. It was obviously mostly local, but sometimes if a special guest was reading, people would come down from New Hampshire. At the time, I could also count on the Globe every Sunday. They had a longer events list then than they do now.
Do you write in a notebook, or on a computer?
I write on a lined pad that’s yellow.
Does it have to be yellow?
No…though I’m used to yellow. Years ago I bought a stack of about twenty-four of these yellow legal pads from Bob Slate’s while in a panic that I wasn’t being particularly productive. I’m down to only a couple now, but I keep refilling my shelf. I also have a journal that I keep on my night table which I don’t write in regularly, but at maybe two this morning when I couldn’t sleep—and this is one of the many ways that poems start—a line just came into my mind with its line break. When that happens, I know I’m not going to be able to go to sleep until it’s written down, and usually I keep going. But after the first draft I go right to the computer.
Does working on the computer change your process at all?
The lines don’t always have the same relationship once you type them. The written poem doesn’t look at all like the typed poem. Also, I’m old enough to have made the transition from typewriter to computer. Unfortunately on a computer you can lose your earlier versions, whereas with a typewriter you were like somebody trudging uphill to work every day: you typed the poem, you realized it’s not right, then you typed it again. These days that seems like really hard labor, but it was just what we did. I think the computer makes you a little less lazy. You fiddle more, and more easily. I don’t think it’s faster, but there’s something lively about it that I like.
Every time I think I’m done I print out a draft. Typically I’ll have twenty-four to forty printed drafts. And that’s rather funny because the first twenty-three are monuments to what I thought was a finished poem. They’re marked in pencil. I asked my graduate students a couple of years ago how many of them used a pencil—this was twelve students, not one of them raised a hand. I use a pencil.
How do teaching and writing relate for you?
In a conversation I had with some very marvelous, wildly successful poets, someone asked why we would teach if we didn’t have to. And everyone agreed it was a stay against depression. Sometimes it’s wonderful not to teach, but then life can get very formless, particularly if the writing isn’t going well. And I actually love talking about poetry, but not everyone out there in the world wants to hear me! My students do want to, because I teach graduate students. I don’t think teaching does anything for my poetry except make me that much less isolated. I don’t know what you do if you’re a poet and you don’t teach. I don’t have any other hobbies, really.
Do you find yourself working every day?
No. Maybe in a perfect world, I could. I share an office building at Radcliffe with fourteen other writers. We each have an office, and I go there on the days I don’t teach. Even if I think I only have an hour, I go there anyway because I know that I’m my most invigorated self when I’m writing. Life is better when I’m writing. I mean, I have friends who say they can tell by looking at me whether I’m writing or not. It makes me wonder what I look like when I’m not working on something.
How do you navigate those periods when you’re not working feverishly on a project, what Maggie Nelson calls, “soggy, ill-defined, but probably necessary periods between monsoon and drought”?
There’s a strange thing that happens, and it has a lot to do with bookstores. This is my bookstore, along with Harvard Book Store and the Grolier. When I realize that I’ve hit a wall and I’m not writing, I’m not reading poetry, I’m reading other things. For years I used to divide my subjects among the dozen bookstores that I shopped at, and I still do that to some extent. I get some of my poetry here and my nonfiction, and I always get my mysteries here. Sometimes I come in here and I want to wear a disguise because I’m coming in a few times a week to get a mystery. But I realize that I’m not the only writer with a mystery addiction. And I try to maintain some standard of excellence in the mysteries! But I have to say I do feel my best when I’m revising, which is really what writing is to me.
Well, yeah, because when you start a poem you’re almost not responsible in it. (That’s what seems so great about fiction writing to me. When you get up in the morning you know what you’re supposed to be working on.) You know, the stand-up comics have a line when they’re bombing, they say, “I got nothing.” And often I think, Wow. I got nothing.
Three years ago, I had a fellowship and spent the whole year at Radcliffe writing. I had never had a writing year like that. And I know there were two reasons, but one is that I was listening to talks every week by people in different fields who were supposed to make those talks accessible to each other. It was probably the first time in my adult life that I listened to a talk on cosmology or physics. And I think the novel (to me) language of those different subjects was going in my ear and coming out my keyboard. It was wonderful, but I knew it was an unusual year. I thought I might go to a lot of lectures the next year, and I haven’t been to one since. I spend time reading science that I can understand, and I read a lot of history, but I don’t know what it’s doing to me. Whereas when I went to those talks, I’d be writing everything down and hoping I could read it afterwards, and a lot of it went directly into my poems.
There was a biologist who was doing research on the music of the creatures on the ocean floor that no one had heard before. Just that phrase itself—“the music of the ocean floor”—I was completely in love with it. It’s in Figures in a Landscape. And at the time, there had been a nineteenth century shipwreck uncovered on the Cape. The pictures of it were amazing because it was just a skeleton but it was a whole skeleton—there was a spine, and ribs. The language in the newspaper describing this boat was all so new to me. And then suddenly this person was giving a talk on the music of the ocean floor, and I had the poem. Not all of it, but I went back to my office after the talk and there was the sound of the shrimp, all that really rich language.
Do you have any advice for young poets?
I wasn’t published until I was forty. My first book was published when I was forty and I think my first poem was published when I was thirty-two. But I wrote my first poem when I was twenty-eight.
I think reading poetry is the best trigger and the best impetus for writing poetry. The music of it gets in your head.
Do you remember a particular poet or poem that really showed you poetry’s potential?
I was at the Grolier Bookshop—I think I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight—and a very young poet named James Tate came in. We went for a walk along the river and he recited, from memory, poems from this manuscript which was about to be his first book, The Lost Pilot, which was probably the greatest first book of our generation. He was twenty-three and he was just wonderful. And I went home and wrote a poem. It was just one of those moments. Somebody that I knew and thought was adorable wanted to share his poems with me; that transformed me. I had heard Robert Lowell read and Robert Frost read and T.S. Eliot when I was in high school, and those were thrilling, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with me becoming a poet. And for a long time I don’t think I was sure that I would become anything.
At the time that I had my revelation, my kids were starting school, too, so for the first time since I’d been a student I had some window of time to do something. On the other hand, I know plenty of people who write from six to seven thirty in the morning and then go to work at nine.
In my experience writers often return to, and sometimes even obsess over, particular images and ideas. Do you ever feel as if you have exhausted a subject? How do you keep your work from becoming repetitive?
Well that’s the sticky part. I have had times, and I’m in one now, where every poem really came back to the same thing. But I have to think in terms of details and approaches, since the poems cannot be the same. I’ve only really been truly repetitive once—it’s in Zeppo’s First Wife. I have a sequence of five poems that all start with the same line, which is, “What is my purpose in life?” and the whole thing is that every poem tries to figure out the answer after that. But when I wrote it, it was because I was thinking, That’s not it! That’s not the answer! I’m going to try again. Then I realized I had about eight poems and three of them were repetitive. And of course I wanted to just go on for the rest of my life, trying to answer that question.
I have to try in my revisions to bring everything I can into the poem while getting as much of myself out of it as I can, because I’m not trying to tell the world how I feel. I’m trying to make a poem that I love. I sometimes go back into the poem and think, What city is this like, what famous murderer is this like? Is this like Lizzie Borden? Where am I, and what am I looking at, really, if I’m not looking at myself?
And I think that when you look at the work of a productive poet or even a not so productive poet (I’ve been teaching Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell this term) there are recurring images and recurrent language, which still sometimes surprises me because those poets are so original. There are just givens in a life. We all have our particular kind of music, which we push against and change. Me, I have a horror of being mournful.
On the other hand, I really believe that you should write it out, whatever it is. And that’s why I say that revision is most of the work, and it’s most of the inventive work. Sometimes you write something and then you see it later and wonder how you could have written it. Revision is really interesting and the first draft is sometimes just luck.
Do you save the first drafts? Now that you’re working on a computer, do you have them, or do they normally disappear?
You know, I do save them but I never save them in a systematic way. So when I’m asked for my papers, I sometimes say I don’t have any. I’m sloppy and I don’t have an archival mentality. But when I save them, I save them for a long time. And sometimes I save them for teaching. I like to teach revision because very often I find that my students begin with a sort of helpless attitude towards it. There are some wonderful drafts in library collections that I have Xeroxes of. There are seventeen drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Art.” I love to bring it in to the students and say, “See what a mess the first draft is? See where she started to think this might be a villanelle, and she just wrote ‘ABA’ at the end of the page? And look, how did she have this horrible third line for so long, and it wasn’t until the sixteenth draft that she got rid of it?”
My own revisions, I have to say, are less interesting to look at now that I work on a computer. Even though I make little notes on them, it’s not like making extensive notes on the typed drafts before dragging yourself back to the typewriter to retype the whole thing. But still, I find it fascinating to see another poet’s drafts. It’s good to see that someone doesn’t just do a first draft and think it’s no good and give up. It’s our work. And sometimes it’s torture but it’s interesting… especially when you’re not stuck, which isn’t all the time.
You’ve now been in Cambridge and Provincetown for…
I’ve been in Cambridge for decades, and it has changed so much since I first came here. It seemed like there were twenty bookstores in Harvard Square and maybe seven independent coffee shops. And there was rent control. There was a rent-controlled building that always had six or eight poets in it, because the super was a fiction writer, and he put poets high on the waiting list. It was a dream neighborhood. But there is still a great community here, and I can’t imagine what I would do without it, now that I’ve lived with it. In fact, this bookstore is a miracle to me. Bookselling was already a really tough business when Porter Square Books opened up, but it happened at just the right time for those of us who were watching all the bookstores close. Not to slight Harvard Bookstore, they are absolutely wonderful, but this is my neighborhood—I live about two blocks away. That’s why I can run over here at eight o’clock at night and get the new Donna Leon mystery.
Do you think a writer can live anywhere? How does your community influence your work?
Some people can write anywhere. I’m so fussy that I can’t even write in my house. I have to make myself go elsewhere to really get any work done. But I think that there are poets all over the country, particularly who have taken teaching jobs in places where there are no other poets, who are just as productive as people are here.
I’ve always felt that an artist is something of an outsider in the world, and it’s a great comfort to have times that you don’t feel like one. If I walked towards anyone in my family with a typed poem, they would look panicked. That first night at the Blacksmith House was one of those turning points in my life when I realized that everybody, all those people, really wanted to see each other’s work. And that was really great.
Do you find that sort of community in your current work space?
When I had the fellowship, the college provided computers and a printer in the hall. I actually brought my own printer and convinced the IT people to connect it, since I didn’t want my drafts out in the hall for everyone to see. But it wasn’t done quite right, and my drafts were going out into the hall anyway. One day, an historian who worked in the building said to me, “I saw a wonderful poem of yours out on the printer.” Of course I was appalled, and at the same time I thought: an historian, who never would have read anything of mine, who wouldn’t have seen a magazine that it was in… this person likes my poem! But for the most part, no. For me it’s about going to an enclosed space where I can’t fritter my time away with anything else. So if I’m not writing, I’m reading poems. There are certain poets that really do get me writing, and they change.
Who are you reading right now?
The poet that has been very reliable for me lately has been Milosz. Those poems are in translation, and the translations are mostly by Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky. There’s something about the expansiveness of his position as a speaker that is very freeing to me; I think that when you’re reading poems because you want to be writing them, you need something like that. You need something frozen to be broken up.
Pinsky is also a real inspiration to me. His work is a reminder that everything you know, everything you’re curious about, can fit into a poem if you put it in the right place. That if you start thinking about a subject and push as far as you can, it will take you somewhere else. I wrote my first ode this year, to the Charles River, but it was really an ode to everywhere. I know that Robert’s work was behind that in a way. I could have Leif Erikson and a Jewish grandfather on the Day of Atonement and the growths along the riverbank and the governor who ordered the river to be cleaned all together in one poem.
If you think of an image as a jumping-off point, you can do so much. The poem isn’t hermetic, it’s reaching out. The first poem in Figures in a Landscape, about the hermit crab, isn’t really about a hermit crab. It has marine information, tarot, and Aristotle, but it’s really about loneliness. Hermit crabs are a little horrifying, really. Often they’re not alone in the shells they borrow, they don’t have their own, and sometimes when they outgrow their shell they bring its previous owner with them. That’s pretty complicated, isn’t it? You don’t have to write the connection between them and us. It’s all there.
One of the things that is so wonderful about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England” is that she has Crusoe quoting Wordsworth, but Robinson Crusoe was written before Wordsworth. You don’t have to worry about chronology or anachronisms in poetry, you can do whatever you want. It’s your poem.