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
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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?

It's not so much the naming, it's seeing that the "unimportant" isn't unimportant. It has significance. The "name" could sound unpromising for any number of reasons, but when you've found how to place it in a line and it works, it helps a poem to find its way into meaning. At my best moments of working, the poem feels as if it's walking hand-in-hand with me, and we're finding our way; sometimes I pull the poem along, sometimes the poem pulls me where I didn't have any idea I'd go, or any idea I could go.

In "Five Poems Entitled 'Questions' " you ask, "What is my purpose in life, if not to..." and then you develop a question or series of elaborate questions that you don't go on to answer. What role do you think questions and questioning play in your poetry?

The question is always more satisfying to me than an answer. I think the often-incessant questions enable me to get at ambiguities without pronouncements or rhetoric, which are not natural to me. The works of my favorite fiction writers—I'm thinking of Isaac Bashevis Singer particularly—are driven by, riven with, questions. In the five poems, I like the impossibility of coming to a conclusion that's implied by the "if not to...." And each successive poem shows that the poem before didn't answer the question, and I'm trying yet again. So the poem doesn't say "These are the answers," but rather, "This is the question." As Rilke said, "Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart—learn to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign tongue."

In one poem, you write about another relation, a mother-in-law who "became my education, fathomless, immaterial, unfinished." And later you ask, "unfinished work, what is it?" Do you consider your poems "unfinished"?

Yes, often I do. I think I prefer unfinished to "untrue."

You've been in Cambridge for your whole career, and managed a very important poetry series here. How has the city affected your work?

When I was 27, we moved to Cambridge. I thought, if I'm not happy here, I'll never be happy. (I had an oversimplified notion of happiness.) But I loved it here, I loved the—at the time—two dozen bookstores, and the occasional poetry readings. There weren't many at the time—the '60s—and the only venues for readings here were college campuses, uninviting. One day, my friend Elsa Dorfman, the photographer who has chronicled the lives of her poet friends like [Allen] Ginsberg and [Robert] Creeley, brought me to the Grolier Bookshop. There Gordon Cairnie had presided since 1927 over a small, messy room filled with poetry books and pamphlets, his famous couch stuffed with letters from the likes of T.S. Eliot and Omar Pound and Conrad Aiken. Within days, I was writing poems. I met everyone there: Robert Lowell, Frank Bidart who was a graduate student, Creeley, Jim Tate, most of the men who were writing poetry. Ginsberg would stop there when he was in town. It was before many women had emerged at all, and people said the Grolier was a "men's club." Somehow, I'm sure because Gordon was so fatherly and loving to me, I thrived in a way I never had. My life as a writer began there.

When Gordon died in 1973, and the Grolier closed to be reopened a year later by Louisa Solano, I worried that the foundation of my writing world would crumble. I wasn't teaching, or publishing. I took care of my family, wrote poems, and hung out at the Grolier during the school days. I approached the director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and asked if there was a space I could use for poetry, having no particular plan. When she granted me one evening a week at the Blacksmith House, the reading series was born. I ran the weekly reading series there until 2002. It was a great time, a less expensive era, and poets came from all over the country to read there. Many poets now well known to us all gave their first readings there, and many first books were celebrated. Over the years, I also organized group readings there: a Halloween reading, where five or six poets would read poems not by them; Valentine's Day; readings of the work of Fernando Pessoa, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop. We read Frank O'Hara's poems to an audience that included O'Hara's brother, sister, and nephew. Last year, we gave a reading of the poems of Thom Gunn by poets who had known him. It was a memorial, a celebration, and for many poetry students, an introduction to Gunn's work.

I joined Lowell's undergraduate workshop in, I believe, 1972. But more importantly for me, my friend Lloyd Schwartz brought me to Lowell's famous office hours—the dialogue, the "company," which sustains and stimulates. I went to those morning gatherings, and to lunch with Lowell, Frank, and Lloyd—and often others—until that ended with Lowell's early death in 1977.

What influence do you think Lowell had or has on your work?

Lowell was my first "muse." His voice electrified me, the voice I'd hear when I began to write. It gave me a sense of what I wanted to do, although at the time I hardly knew that. Brilliant as he is, his work has everything—history, family history, politics, a profound knowledge of tragedy, civic engagement, great range of feeling, wit and despair. Heartbreaking—and exhilarating, the voice I loved. When I went to his office hours, which were really sessions with other poets in a seminar room, it was a chance to join in some of the most dazzling, associative conversation I've ever been part of. Knowing him was a turning point for me. I'm still discovering new things in his poems, I think I always will.

You're married to the painter Michael Mazur. How does his work influence you in your choice of forms or subjects?

We share what we look at, and have learned to love many of the same things—art, movies, landscape and streetscape, people. The odd little discoveries, the great finds, of a life spent looking. I love his work, and he has been a model to me of artistic integrity, his almost visceral, thrilling inability to repeat himself—to ever "phone it in." The fact of what you might call his restlessness as an artist has been invaluable to me. His indefatigable creative energy. In terms of process or practice, it seems to me entirely different to be a plastic artist than to write poetry. He looks forward to all the physical tasks in the studio with relish, whereas I have to climb a mountain of dread to get to my desk! But it's good to share life with someone who isn't too mystified by the life of art. One needn't always be explaining one's abstractedness—only some of the time!

You write, in the final poem in the collection, "The game of baseball is not a metaphor." Why do you go to such lengths to insist that you're not using baseball as a symbol for something else?

Saying that baseball "is not a metaphor" was actually a strategy to get around the fact that baseball in fact is such a perfect metaphor for life, or for creative work. To have said it is a metaphor would have left me embarrassed by the cliché. The strategy, I'm sure, came out of my feeling of being stuck with the truism. When I uncovered the missing "not" in the declaration, I could go on to deny everything in the poem, an ironic denial, a trick to say what I wholeheartedly felt in the writing—that the world of baseball, the players, the park, the fans, is a world and a microcosm of the greater world. Sometimes I think that the longer a thing that is "not a metaphor" lives in a poem, the more of a metaphor it becomes.

You didn't publish your first book of poetry until you were forty. Any thoughts on the arc of your career—on the process of coming to poetry later, rather than earlier in life?

The poems in Nightfire were written in my late thirties. The years before that were the period when I raised my son and daughter and did my "apprentice" work as a writer. I was twenty-three when my second child was born, and my twenties and thirties were years of total engagement with my kids. At forty I had children beginning college, I was beginning to teach, I could be less vigilant about everyone else. Running a poetry reading series for many years gave me a great deal of satisfaction, and the community of poets in Boston has enlarged my life and my work. Hard to imagine what would have happened if I hadn't met them. As Stanley Kunitz said, "Art withers without community." That may not be true for everyone, but it's true for me, and for the writers I know. What one hopes is that the work grows deeper and more interesting the longer one lives. That's certainly what I hope for myself.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a chapbook published by the Poetry Society of America.
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