A Conversation with Gail Mazur
This interview about the Blacksmith House Poetry Series, which will celebrate its fortieth anniversary in 2013, was edited and condensed from a tape recording made as part of the Cambridge Historical Society’s oral history initiative.
Gail Mazur is the author of six books of poetry, including They Can’t Take That Away from Me, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award; Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Paterson Poetry Prize; and Figures in a Landscape, published in spring 2011 by University of Chicago Press. She has long played an active role in the Cambridge and Boston poetry communities, as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College and as the founding director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series. Sarah Ehrich, a student of Gail Mazur, received her MFA in poetry from Emerson College in May 2012 and was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize.
Sarah Ehrich: Could you begin by telling me some of the basics about the Blacksmith House and how the Blacksmith House Poetry Series began?
Gail Mazur: The Blacksmith House was the home and workshop of the village smithy in Longfellow’s poem. We now know that it also became the home of a former runaway slave, Mary Walker. During World War II, it was the Window Shop, which was begun as a Viennese restaurant to help support people who were escaping Nazi Germany. A lot of German Jewish women in Cambridge had started this restaurant as a way to give employment to refugees and survivors from the Holocaust.
At a certain point, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, The Cambridge Center for Adult Education bought the building. For a while, the bakery of the Window Shop, which was a great bakery, famous for its Sacher torte, was continued, but the upstairs rooms were classrooms.
In 1973, I had been part of a group that met weekly to talk about the future problems of Cambridge. Gordon Cairnie, the owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, had just died and I thought, there’s not going to be any central, physical focus for poetry here; the Grolier had meant so much to me because it was not inside a university. So I went to the director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Alida O’Loughlin, who also met with this group at the Unitarian Church every Thursday, and I said, “Can I have a space for poetry?” I don’t know what I was thinking of, a poetry room or something. Alida said, “Well I can give you the Blacksmith House one night a week. On Monday nights.” And I said OK. And I thought, I’ll do this for a couple of weeks.
SE: What were you doing in Cambridge at the time?
GM: I was writing poetry and hanging out at the Grolier and raising my family. I mean, I didn’t have a job. I had taken a couple of courses in filmmaking and thought I would be a filmmaker, but I was really too shy for the entrepreneurial business.
SE: How did you discover the Grolier?
GM: My oldest friend is a photographer, named Elsa Dorfman, who had worked at Grove Press and was very close to Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Denise Levertov, and that whole group of poets. She had discovered the Grolier because of Ginsberg. And when I moved here, she brought me there. It just seemed like heaven to me. There was Gordon Cairnie, this old man who immediately liked me and who sat on the couch all day by the window, and there was all kinds of stuff between the cushions. There was a letter from Ezra Pound’s son, Omar Pound. It was pretty raffish. Gordon had photographs of some poets on the wall, but it was very haphazard. There was a black ribbon around William Carlos Williams’ photograph and he had probably died four years before. I thought, this is all really alive here.
I met everyone at the Grolier. One day, Robert Lowell came in and I was breathless. Gordon, who was crotchety, said, “Cal”—that was Lowell’s nickname—“Cal, this is Gail Mazur, she’s a poet too.” And I thought, I never in a million years would have said I’m a poet. I thought, you know, there’s got to be a long apprenticeship before you can say that, and you’ve got to be past even that. I don’t remember the conversation. All I remember is that Gordon was tongue-tied around Lowell, and when he left, Gordon said, “Poor Cal, I can never think of a thing to say to him.” [Laughter.]
After Elsa brought me there, I went to the Grolier every day. I was just addicted to it really. My kids were in day camp and I would go there. At four o’clock I would fall into a bar with some other regulars, and at five o’clock I’d be home making supper. Because I had gotten married when I was an undergraduate, it was almost like a second childhood. Something like the way I would have imagined living if I hadn’t gotten married. For those few hours every day. And I thought I was on my way to becoming a street person because I hung out all the time. But in fact, I was a Jewish mother. And a Jewish daughter. [Laughter.]
My children were born twenty months apart, so they were very close, and I was very involved with them. Life was pretty engaging. But I think that running the series, I couldn’t have predicted that it was going to put me at such ease in the poetry world. You know, if the Grolier was going to close, I really wanted there to be something in its place, because I had found where I really wanted to be.
SE: What were the first few weeks like at the Blacksmith House?
GM: I had my first reading with Fanny Howe and William Corbett, both poets whom I knew. There were tables and chairs, and the only obvious place where we could see and hear a poet was at a table that faced the bathrooms. So that’s what we did.
That first night, there wasn’t room for all the people who wanted to come. I always say they were hanging from the rafters. It was an incredible success. So I thought, well, I’ll do it again next week. And after that, I thought, this is really great, people really want this. And it became a weekly reading series.
I remember the first week I stood up and said, “Fanny Howe,” and sat down. And then I stood up and said, “Bill Corbett,” and sat down. [Laughter.] It kind of went on like that until I got so I could say, “Please welcome…” Or pretty soon, I could say something about them. But for a lot of poets, it was their first reading. And a lot of people whose work you would know now gave their first readings there. Which is a testament to the community of poets here. There was a community building, and that was very gratifying to me. And that became clearer and clearer every year. Frank Bidart once said to me at the Blacksmith House, “This is my home, this is my poetry home.” Which to me was wonderful. And the great thing about those first five years, before they redid the building, was that people came in, and since it was crowded, they had to sit at tables with other people, whether they knew them or not.
I felt really a mission to have people get comfortable with poetry. To have this storefront, rather than a university, where you could come. Not only poets, but people’s friends who weren’t poets. There were often people who would say to me when they were leaving that it was the first poetry reading they’d ever been to. That pleased me as much as having a glittering audience of people you were almost terrified to read to because you admired their work so much.
SE: How did you spread the word about the series and who came?
GM: Well, I wasn’t very organized, since I was doing it week by week the first year. Really. [Laughter.] It was always breathtakingly last minute. It was a continuation of my college career of doing everything later than last minute. It seemed like I needed to keep myself scared. I made posters and I put them up on lampposts and telephone poles all over Cambridge. That was the publicity. And now I think, how did people know to come?
The first few weeks, it attracted a lot of people who came every week for several years. They were people who took poetry courses at the Adult Ed. They were poets who lived around here. A lot of them lived in one building. There was rent control then, and there was a building on the corner of Linnaean Street right on Mass Avenue where the super was a fiction writer. There was a huge waiting list for the rent-controlled apartments in there, but writers always moved to the top of the waiting list. So it was like a little beehive. Marie Howe lived there, Stuart Dischell, Askold Melnyczuk. Steve Cramer. It was amazing.
Before a reading, I would walk down Church Street. There was a bookstore, Reading International, on the corner of Church and Brattle, and their literary magazine section was in the window right at the corner. And sometimes you’d look in there and see Robert Lowell browsing before he came to the Blacksmith House, or other poets browsing, and I would say, “Oh, it’s going to be a good crowd,” and I’d run to arrange the tables.
I have somewhere a photograph of Frank sitting with Elizabeth Bishop and Octavio Paz at one of the little tables.
SE: I’m curious to know more about the logistics.
GM: While I was running it, the series was about thirty readings a year. As time went on, people started asking me for readings and would say so-and-so was coming to read at the University of New Hampshire, can she come read for you first? So it got to be pretty much a national thing. I see that in the anthology I published from the readings in 1974, there were very few people who weren’t from the Boston area. Then that changed to be more balanced. And it was exciting. It was exciting and people knew about it all over the country.
But I didn’t have a budget! I passed the hat. If you realize that in those years the plane from New York was sixteen dollars, I could ask anybody. By the first and second years, poets like Mark Strand and Alan Dugan were coming to read. Just practically everyone said yes because nobody was getting money. And you know, after I passed the hat, sometimes they would get enough for their transportation and twenty or thirty dollars.
The hat was actually a basket with a handle that my aunt had sent filled with fruit and jellies one Christmas. [Laughter.] I still have it. And I would go around to the tables after the reading, weaving in and out, and people would put a dollar in. Every once in a while, a real grown-up who wasn’t a poet would put a five or ten in. That was really enough for those first few years.
When Reagan became president, the cost of everything went up. He deregulated the airlines, so that was the end of that ease of travel for me to invite people without being embarrassed that I didn’t have real money. And I think that’s probably when I started having a budget and raising money.
There were other ingredients to the situation that were historical. The Vietnam War was winding down. A lot of us had moved from global activism to local activism. I did a lot of political stuff at the Blacksmith too. Also, in the Johnson era, the National Endowment for the Arts had really developed, so Alice James books started around that time and Ploughshares had started right before then.
SE: What was the connection between Ploughshares and the Blacksmith Series?
GM: There were, for me, real parallels between them. I think because DeWitt [Henry] and I worked on things together. When DeWitt and Peter O’Malley started Ploughshares, it had a collective aspect. DeWitt was very much a community-oriented person and was wide open to everything really. Ploughshares had more women writers in its contents than any other magazine at the time. It had more African Americans. He had African American and women guest editors before other established little magazines did.
SE: What was the Blacksmith House’s role in being politically active at this time?
GM: We had an antinuclear reading. I had AIDS readings. The third week of the series, I had a reading to protest the imprisonment of three women in Portugal, called the Three Marias, who had the nerve to publish a book on feminism and had been imprisoned. It was just a natural part of what I was interested in. I tried to have and did have an open attitude toward what kinds of poetry we would have, so there was a sort of wild range of poets reading. All of that was important to me. And is important to me.
SE: Maybe you could think back to some of the most memorable readings?
GM: One of my favorite readings in terms of introducing a poet was Eavan Boland’s reading. We didn’t know her work. I didn’t even know her work. But Seamus Heaney had suggested that she contact me and I was delighted. Her presentation of self was just beautiful. She’s a strong woman and she was writing beautiful lyric poems, and there was a sense of something really happening there that night. It was this incredibly unselfconscious presentation of the poetry—confident, unapologetic. And a few years ago, I had Major Jackson introduce a terrific group of young poets from Cave Canem.
Another poet who was an absolute American original was Alan Dugan. He read for me two or three times. I remember he insisted there be a six-pack of beer on the podium and that was sort of disconcerting for me the first time. [Laughter.] But he read his poetry like nobody else. “This is a job,” he would say at the beginning of a reading, “I am going to work for an hour.” That is exactly what he would do. One hour, six bottles of beer. And Dugan was through.
I think it was the first season that Dugan and Mark Strand had a sort of face-off about whose basket was fuller of money. One of them, and I’m not going to say which, took home sixty dollars and the other took home thirty-eight. And the one with sixty made sure the one with thirty-eight knew it.
Probably the most memorable for me were the readings of the work of dead poets. I loved introducing Pessoa to an audience and introducing Thom Gunn. Thom Gunn wasn’t that familiar here, but there were people in Boston who had worked with him or studied with him and who loved his work. We had a fantastic Frank O’Hara reading—Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Lloyd Schwartz, Eileen Myles, Maureen McLane, and Bill Corbett read—and O’Hara’s sister and nephew came. I remember also a beautiful Akhmatova reading with a huge audience that included many Russians. Those readings were memorials and a way again to make us feel the sense of community and that the community wasn’t only geographical, it was a community of poetry. Just a few years ago, I organized a reading combining Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night with Lowell’s antiwar poems and “For the Union Dead.” And of course, this past fall, Andrea Cohen opened the season with an Adrienne Rich tribute, and those of us who read were pleased that one of Adrienne’s sons came.
SE: What influence did the Blacksmith House community have on your poetry?
GM: Doing the Blacksmith House made it so much easier for me to love reading aloud, to love it as part of the process. I felt more at ease up there.
One of the great things that happened to me because of the Blacksmith House was I met my friend Lloyd Schwartz, who called to ask me for a reading the first season. After we talked for an hour—he’s just an incredibly warm, lovely man—he said, “Would you like to go to Lowell’s office hours?” I don’t know if you know about Lowell’s office hours. Every week at ten in the morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you could go to this seminar room in the basement of Quincy House at Harvard (where he had an apartment) and talk. It wasn’t like a seminar exactly, it was almost like a salon. Except it was totally unpretentious. I mean, there was no hierarchy except Lowell was it. One day, after John Berryman’s suicide—they were such close friends—he brought in the brand new copy of Berryman’s posthumous book, Henry’s Fate, with the suicide poems and he read them. But another time, we talked about Broadway musicals. It was just amazing. The associative leaps of his mind were an education, an education about thinking like a poet.
So all those things fed into my work. But one of the ways it fed into my work was I made friends who were invested, generous critics. We were invested, generous critics of each other’s work. There are certain friends who aren’t competitive and really are invested in you getting your poem to be the best it can be. And that’s what you hope for.
It’s so hard for me to imagine what would have happened if Mike and I hadn’t gone to those Cambridge Now meetings and met Alida. In fact, I was so shy that Mike had to come with me to meet her to ask if I could have a space for poetry.
I feel lucky to have found what I wanted to do in an atmosphere in which I can do it. And not in a careerist way, but for me personally as a poet, everything grew out of the Blacksmith House and the environment. Because I think to write good poems, you have to have some kind of crazy confidence.
SE: It sounds like running the Blacksmith House Series, you were able to develop that confidence.
GM: Yeah. And I don’t know how to put this, because I don’t mean to be immodest. I had a stage presence, which was completely natural after a while. That it was just me. I was as at ease as I could possibly be. As I am now, talking to you. And the fact that people could rely on me to be witty in a situation where they might be overawed, contributed to the informality. And you know, just seeing people you recognize at readings is great. I love that sense of community, so I feel lucky to have landed in it. And tried to keep it going.
I didn’t grow up knowing there was such a thing as poetry readings. I don’t think I grew up knowing there was such a thing as living poets. Most people don’t. But as Frank O’Hara says at the end of “Autobiographia Literaria,” And here I am, the center of all beauty. Imagine! I love that. And I have felt that.
Sarah Ehrich earned her MFA in poetry from Emerson College in 2012. She is a writing instructor at Emerson College and Boston College and coordinates emersonWRITES, a free creative writing program for Boston Public School teenagers. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.