Interviews March 2006

You Bet Your Life

Poet Gail Mazur on Robert Lowell, "the textural richness of the ordinary," and the value of artistic community
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book cover

Zeppo's First Wife : New and Selected Poems
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Gail Mazur
University Of Chicago Press
264 pages

"Sometimes a shift in tone is all you'd need to make you happy," writes Gail Mazur in "American Ghazal," a poem in her new book, Zeppo's First Wife. This sizable volume showcases new poems and gathers selections from her four previous books—including They Can't Take That Away From Me (a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001). In the course of its 264 pages, its tone shifts many times. The opening poem, titled "Enormously Sad," explores the smallness of personal grief in the world, while the concluding poem, "Baseball," is a three-page ode to the game's "firm structure with the mystery / of accidents always contained."

The poetry in between is restless and canny, penned in the voice of a tough-minded, comic speaker who names the minute disconsolations of daily life and then urges herself to engage this named world more wholly or more deeply. "Gail, you can't choose to run away—so, be alive to the work / in this room," she writes at the end of "American Ghazal." Some poems ask but don't answer extended questions, others grapple with fraught concerns like suffering parents, while still others explore dreams, railway stations, war, and—more than once—the Red Sox. Throughout, Mazur accepts happenstance with intermingled gravity and wit, as in the memorable opening line of "In Houston": "I'd dislocated my life, so I went to the zoo."

Poems by Gail Mazur [with audio]:

"They Can't Take That Away From Me" (March 1998)

"Young Apple Tree, Decmeber" (December 1999)

"Bluebonnets" (March 1995)

Mazur, who is married to the painter Michael Mazur, works from a 1910 gabled, crenellated brick apartment complex a few blocks from Harvard. Her studio is sparsely furnished, with a daybed, a couch, two desks, a computer without Internet, and bookshelves that hold what she describes as a somewhat unrepresentative selection of what she is reading these days: Robert Lowell's notebooks, Chekov's letters, a book about the mysterious lost Russian "Amber Room," and The Marx Brothers' Encyclopedia. A longtime Cambridge resident, Mazur studied with Lowell in the 1970s and for more than twenty years directed a celebrated reading series she founded at the Blacksmith House Poetry Center in Harvard Square. She is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence in Emerson College's graduate writing program and teaches in the summer session of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

We spoke late last fall in person and via e-mail.

—Tess Taylor



Gail Mazur
Gail Mazur

The title poem in your new collection is about Marion Benda, your grandfather's half-brother's cousin, who married Zeppo, a little-remembered Marx Brother. You describe her as a footnote to a footnote. I'm intrigued by the attention you pay to these less-remembered people and facts. Why do these things seem like good subjects for poems?

How do we know for certain what's insignificant? Or to paraphrase Robert Lowell, nothing is insignificant in a poem if it's in the right place. Well, in this poem there's an irony that the unimportant, uncharismatic Zeppo was actually famous, and also surprisingly accomplished. A real layered life. Until last month I knew nothing about his wife except for her name and the dates of her marriage. Then I discovered, in the obituary of a 100-year old Ziegfeld Follies star, that Marion Benda was in fact a "renowned Ziegfeld Follies beauty" and had starred in several shows—a celebrity herself. Yes, a lesser one, and finally, like most of us, unremembered.

But when a subject chooses me—in this case, it was actually Groucho Marx (one of my grandfathers died laughing at You Bet Your Life)—the process of writing itself usually leads the poem afield from its original triggers. I'd been wanting to write something about the textural richness of the ordinary. As I read about Groucho, I was amazed to discover the sparks in Zeppo's story, and the layers of it were charged with meaning for me, much of which is not explicit in the poem. The Marx Brothers were, among other things, a paradigm of first-generation Americans' bravura and nerviness, of the amazing and exhilarating force of immigrants and the children of those immigrants, which my own parents were.

Zeppo is a Marx Brother, a comedian. Do you consider yourself a comedian?

I suppose I do. As a child, I liked to do routines on long trips—of which there were many—from the back seat of the family car. It was a kind of nuttiness, the monologues I'd invent, and great to actually make my mother laugh, to have the car fill with laughter. I do take delight in funny scripts, great jokes. The tradition of Jewish humor is laced with sadness, with tragedy, with what I call the undertow. I think of that wit as the practice of courage. And with friends, what a pleasure to make each other laugh. The inter-splicing of humor and heartbreak seems to me essential to expressing anything real.

I'm intrigued by the way your poems dwell on seemingly unimportant objects but end up exploring large, all-encompassing ideas. "Enormous Sadness" begins by describing "unloved socks and charmless underwear," but toward the end, you're writing about the outside world of "savage organized iron" and how it doesn't care for human feelings. Why did you choose to move from the intimacy of old socks to the apathy of the industrial age?

Both worlds are part of my own world. What interests me is the tension between them, the paradoxes. It's bracing to acknowledge that the "you" addressed in the poem is struggling with "enormous sadness" whose causes seem terribly trivial, even as there actually are significant reasons to feel emotionally overwhelmed. The poem wants to enact a kind of progress from melancholic self-pity to what you might call a braver acknowledgment of the cruelties and injustices tyrannizing so much of the world. It's an admonition from one part of the self to another to have some perspective. And it's that quarrel with the self that, as Yeats said, makes poetry.

In the poem "Blue Umbrella," you mention a friend, Kai, "who makes his art from what you might call nothing," and then you make a list: "toothpicks, mussel shells, buttons, discarded books, garlic stems." How about you? What do you make your art from?

Toothpicks, mussel shells, buttons, discarded books, garlic stems!

I didn't realize until you asked that question how close the poem comes to saying that Kai and I both make our art from what you might call nothing. In that poem, an umbrella was the object the poem became woven around. I begin my poems with a line, and the line could be abstract, but its particular music is what gets the poem going. The world of the poem is also made of stories and artifacts and detritus that punctuate and illustrate life—maybe a squirrel eating a piece of bread and looking as if he's reading, or a discarded lilac blossom, or someone hanging onto a subway strap saying something casual to a friend, or any strange or broken or cherished or abandoned thing.

So unimportant things named properly have a kind of music to them?

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