Tuesday, June 11, 2024

A chat with poet Gail Mazur- winner of the Golden Rose Award

 


Interview by Doug Holder


Recently, the New England Poetry Club awarded poet Gail Mazur its Golden Rose Award. The Golden Rose, one of America's oldest literary prizes, is awarded annually to a poet who has done the most for poetry during a lifetime. Gail Mazur, besides being a celebrated poet, and teacher, is the founder of the famed Blacksmith House Poetry Series.  Founded in 1973, the award-winning Blacksmith House Poetry Series brings established and emerging writers of poetry and fiction to Harvard Square. I got a chance to chat with Mazur, shortly after she received the award.


Doug Holder: Gail, when you started the Blacksmith House Series in 1973, were you connected with the poetry scene or was this an entry point for you? 


Gail Mazur:   I had moved to Cambridge with my husband, Michael, and our two children, Dan and Kathe, a few years before. The first place my oldest friend, Elsa Dorfman, introduced me to was the Grolier Bookshop. A whole (little) book store devoted only to poetry. I spent many hours there talking with Gordon Cairnie (the already elderly owner—he’d begun it in the late ‘20s) By then it had become an institution. I loved being there, being able to browse and chat with Gordon—When Gordon died in 1972, I thought the “poetry world” of Cambridge was over, so I got the idea to run some readings… (And of course, the poetry world wouldn't have ended, but that bookstore's hominess was gone .Now fortunately it’ s been rescued and that little poetry haven should be there a long time.



DH: You have stated in an interview that Robert Lowell was one of your earliest influences. Lowell was part of the "Confessional" school of poets. Do you feel your work is confessional? Isn't all poetry confessional in some sense?  

GM: I guess I think of it as autobiographical! But no, a lot of poetry couldn't possible be called confessional, unless you mean that we’re revealed somehow in every poems we write! Lowell experienced many episodes of illness and he wrote about the world of it, inner and outer, with brilliant craft and humanity.



DH: You have had a long teaching career. When you teach novice poets-- what books do you suggest that they cut their teeth on? This could mean on craft or poetry books themselves.

GM: It varies. It’s such a pleasure to introduce students to poems and poets they don’t know. To discuss the craft of poems. If I look at my shelves, now hundreds of books of poems—well, some days, some students, some weather—different poets!


DH: At the Golden Rose Reading the audience often crackled with laughter. Do you have fun writing poetry—is there a sense of play? I often use humor in my own work, even with poems with the darkest themes.

GM: Sure, sometimes! When it comes through, fun.


DH: Finally-- you have had a very accomplished career—with many accolades, awards, books, etc... What does getting the Golden Rose mean to you​?

GM: This award surprises and delights me, our community of poets in this area is so varied, we all bring our own stuff to it. As my grandfather would say, also our own mishegas (you can look it up!) I work alone, like all of us, and being in the room with so many writers I admire to receive the Golden Rose just pleases me so much.


Friday, June 07, 2024

Red Letter Poem #210

 The Red Letters

 

 

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

 

––Steven Ratiner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Letter Poem #210

 

 

 

 

 

The Gap  

 

 

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies...
 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
 He stared at the Pacific...
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

 

––John Keats

         “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

 

 

 

She grabbed her six-year-old daughter and ran.

She’d heard the USA would let them in––

a new rule; some special dispensation––

safe harbor, for hapless Venezuelans.

 

Smugglers herded them across rough mountains;

thick, sucking jungle mud.  A hostile land,

impenetrable Gap of Darien,

which engineers had tried––but failed––to span.

 

Separated for days, in abject fear––

mother and child, reunited at last.

They stumbled, but made it to Honduras,

where other migrants gathered.  It was here

they learned the news that US heads of state

had made sanctuary evaporate.

 

 

                                  ––Denise Provost

 

 

 

The subject at hand is complex.  What I’m about to do is far less so: I am making simple declarative statements, enumerating facts, raising questions.  I do not pretend to possess certainty; in truth, even clarity eludes me.  Strange enough, something as ambiguous as a poem can often provide the impetus for carving a new path through the emotional thicket, confronting our own conflicted opinions.  I am talking about the calamity of migrants massing at our borders, especially the fate of refugees fleeing from wars and disasters.  Clearly, this is one of the most divisive hot-button issues roiling the upcoming Presidential contest.  At the same time, I am thinking about the moral character of a people, as embodied by their laws and the officers charged with enforcing them.

 

Denise Provost’s new poem, “The Gap”, is what’s compelled me into this troubling place of self-examination.  Though it is written in the form of a sonnet––with all the artistry and complex history that calls to mind––it is a fairly straightforward piece of verse.  It conjures the presence of an unnamed migrant mother fleeing the political and economic upheaval of her homeland.  The woman has a young daughter she wants desperately to protect.  If she is to find safe harbor in the North, she needs to traverse a nearly impassable 60-mile swath of mountainous jungle known as the Darien Gap––so treacherous a territory, it is the lone break in the 18,600-mile Pan-American Highway.  Her journey has been inspired by a burst of clarity in the often-tangled history of immigration law.  Word had spread of a new American policy aimed specifically at the situation in Venezuela.  Simply by adding a brief epigraph, the poet has allowed us to liken this woman’s imaginative urgency to that of Keats, expressed in his 1816 sonnet––where Chapman’s luminous translation grants the poet sudden passage into the ancient world of Homer.  There are odysseys implied in both sonnets––geographical, metaphorical, emotional.  All this is clear.  But then what?  Republicans will rail against ‘open borders’ saying the first duty of every nation is to safeguard its citizens––but too often come across as lacking in humanity.  The Democrats will speak of the legal and humanitarian responsibilities for responding to any refugee crisis––but then they will quake at the political and economic consequences.  Simple statements.  Here is another: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, in 2024, there are 130 million individuals forcibly displaced by wars, famine, political collapse, environmental disaster.  Statistics do not convey the precarious situation of the human body and mind; poems often do.  Again, I ask: now what?  International maritime law demands that, when a vessel is sinking, any nearby ship must do everything possible to rescue survivors.  What must we do––legally, ethically––when it is a ship of state foundering in the storm?

 

Denise is a poet, lawyer, and former Massachusetts State Representative.  Her chapbook Curious Peach was published by Ibbetson Street Press, followed by a full-length collection, City of Stories, from Cervena Barva.  She was awarded the Samuel Washington Allen Prize in 2021 from the New England Poetry Club––perhaps America’s oldest literary association––and was elected its co-president the following year.  Today’s Letter is from a manuscript-in-progress with the alluring working title, Box Marked 'Other'.  With it, Denise has attempted to lay claim, momentarily, to our hearts and imaginations.  She has affirmed the power of articulation as a primary human impulse, fortifying our need to understand.   She has made an appeal to the ear and its intuitive emotional resources––while the conscious intellect is still hurrying to catch up.  Indeed, the poet has ably demonstrated the comfort that we find in form, orderliness, and the lovely chiming of spoken syllables (though the situation being described offers anything but.)  As I claimed at the outset: what I am doing here is easy.  What Denise has done––artful, restrained, while still challenging the conscience––is more arduous.  What you will do now in response––harder still.

 

 

 

 

Red Letters 3.0

 

* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          

@StevenRatiner

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

The Apartment

 




Just thinking.. I will be 69 next month and...

In a few years I will have to leave my apartment of decades-- my landlords have been great--but they are getting older--and need my space. So I am starting to downside--tomorrow I will take down this large table that has been a bulwark in my living room, and has accumulated all kinds of stuff--one friend opined, " Your apartment is a throwback to an old Greenwich Village Bohemian flat --a museum of Doug Holder"--with books littered all around it-- artwork, antique furniture, the severe bust of Dante staring at me every morning, a large framed photograph of the old elevated tracks above Harrison Ave, the ashes of my late wife, a row of framed photos of my beloved cats who passed over the years, awards, stacks of the magazines and newspapers where my work has appeared, pictures of my late father with Jack Dempsey and Yogi Berra. Peddlers from the lower east side, who are frozen in a perpetual pose--hawking knishes, men's wear-- Sig Klein's fat man shop, with a fat man in large white underwear in the store's window, there is a fit for everyman. I am looking at a painting of Toot Shores--as I write--with a signature from Joe DiMaggio, an ashtray from the Stork Club...in a way that bulwark of a table seemed to keep me rooted in the past--it held things together--but as I have learned in life--all things must pass. Eventually you have to let go. I don't think I will ever have a place that I loved so much, a dark refuge, a beaten couch listening to jazz every evening, the tapestries, the Chinese calligraphy, a lot of things will go-the way of all things-- to dust. I am probably going to have to move from Somerville-as the rents are outrageous.... but the years I spent here, the work I have done-- my love will always remain.... Slowly I will downsize, like we all do--whether body or home, and as Shakespeare said in the seven ages of man, " Sans Everything."

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Red Letter Poem #209

 The Red Letters

 

 

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

 

––SteveRatiner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Letter Poem #209

 

 

 

 

 

Branca  

 

 

Ralph Branca was the fifteenth of seventeen children.

This poem is not the poem of “the speaker.”

 

His father was an immigrant from Calabria.

These words are those of Robert Pinsky. Speaking.

 

Branca wore Dodger uniform number 13.

“Speaking” is the punch line of a Jewish joke.

 

Some Romans call Calabrians “Africani.”

Brooklyn had its own daily, the Brooklyn Eagle.

 

At eighty-five Branca learned about his mother.

He was twenty-one when Robinson joined the Dodgers.

 

At eleven I loved Robinson for his daring

Running the bases. Stealing home. His fire.

 

Branca was one of the few who befriended him.

I was too young to understand his mission

 

The fuel of that dancing to taunt the pitcher.

Robinson never forgot Branca’s kindness.

 

What the old man found out about his mother

Is she was born a Jew in Hungary. Kati.

 

After he gave up the most famous home run ever,

Back in the clubhouse Branca lay weeping face down.

 

Kati gave birth to seventeen Catholic children.

The Giants won the pennant. 1951.

 

Branca means “claw,” a fit name for a pitcher.

His teammates thought it best that he cry alone,

 

But “Only my dear friend Jackie, who knew me so well,

Came over and put his arm around my shoulder.”

 

The Nazis killed the aunts and uncles Branca

Didn’t know existed until he was old.

 

42 in itself a nothing of a number.

The Dodgers traded Branca to the Tigers.

 

Grief: with its countless different ways and strains.

Glory: a greater thing than success, but slower.

 

Some of the Tigers who had been Giants explained

To Branca how the Giants had stolen the signs

 

From opposition catchers.  The telescope

In center field. Wires, buzzers. Branca chose not

 

To talk about it.  It’s all in Prager’s book.

His research unearthed Kati, those aunts and uncles.

 

The Dodgers were taken from Brooklyn by their owner:

I, Robert Pinsky, choose not to say his name.

 

I didn’t live in Brooklyn but I knew the score.

I knew it was a kind of underdog place.

 

Nowadays once a year all Major Leaguers

Wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42.

 

In the joke, the person who answers the telephone

At Goldberg, Goldberg and Goldberg keeps replying

 

That Goldberg is out of the office. And so is Goldberg.

“Alright, then let me talk to Goldberg.” “Speaking.”

 

Robinson spoke to Branca: “Without you”

He said, “We never could have made it this far.”

 

 

                                  ––Robert Pinsky

 

 

 

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”  With this intriguing line, Homer introduces his famed protagonist, Odysseus; but, had the bard been born in a later time, he might have said much the same invoking Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Ralph Branca (especially if he’d ever attempted to hit his curve ball.)  Branca was a three-time All-Star whose dozen years in the Majors were completely overshadowed when he gave up a single fateful hit––baseball’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”  Coming into the decisive game of the National League Pennant race––October 3rd, 1951 at the New York Giant’s old Polo Grounds, ninth inning, with his team nursing a 4-2 lead––Branca gave up a three-run walk-off homer to Bobby Thomson, bringing his team’s glorious season to ruin and breaking hearts from Greenpoint to Sheepshead Bay. 

 

Aristocratic men in ancient Greece lived by the code of kleos, or “fame”, aiming to crown their names with the renown of a great warrior, while bringing honor to the tribe.  Again, not so very different from the situation of those baseball players back in the Forties and Fifties––way before today’s age of massive contracts for even mediocre talents.  To other New Yorkers, Brooklyn was seen as something of a tribal enclave who heartily embraced their ‘neighborhood team’––as I often heard from my father when I was small.  He’d tell me how he remembered sitting on his front stoop in Flatbush and seeing the owner of the Dodgers (I’ll respect the poet’s wishes and leave him nameless), strolling along giving out bleacher tickets to the local kids.  Life can often be unfair, and Branca’s name, if it’s remembered at all, is forever associated with defeat because of a single fastball.  Yet America’s bard, Robert Pinsky sings the praises of this good man whose faith and moral character were their own form of triumph.  One example: on opening day in 1947—which marked the major league debut of Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first player of Color—Branca lined up on the field beside Robinson, when all other players refused.  It took some courage to stand up for what was simply right, and a friendship quickly grew from it.  And so, in this poem from Robert’s about-to-be published eleventh collection, Proverbs of Limbo, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), his couplets unscroll deliberately slow, offering us their refracted meditation on honor, identity, and the private and civic experiences to which poetry remains an essential response.  The piece is a sly intermixing of remembered events, curious bits of biography, and even a corny joke; and only as we readers immerse ourselves in the poem, do the elements coalesce into a more unified vision, mirroring perhaps how the multi-faceted mind pieces together its reality.  The poem provides us with some insight into where we are today in our American journey, and what’s enabled us (as the poet phrased it in that concluding line) to make it this far. 

 

Robert has earned his own version of kleos, working as a poet, essayist, educator, and three-term United States Poet Laureate.  And, for goodness sakes, how many poets have on their resumé an appearance in an episode of The Simpsons?!  Fame indeed!  That attests to his public profile which he’s used again and again to herald poetry’s essential role in our cultural wellbeing.  Forty-five years ago, Robert published his book-length poem An Explanation of America, crafted as an elaborate letter to his daughter concerning the world she was entering.  Near the conclusion he writes: “If I could sail forward to see the streets/ Of that strange country where you will live past me,/ Or further even by a hundred years;/ And walk those pavements with my phantom steps. . .my courage/ Would fail, I think: best not to mount the steps/ Where I could leave no footprint in the snow…”.  It is fortifying to both poet and reader that such imaginative courage carries him onward, and his explanations of the tortuous American mythology continue––speech directed toward that unimaginable future.  And those footprints in the snow––they’ll belong to newcomers who are still carrying poems like this one.

 

 

 

 

Red Letters 3.0

 

* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          

@StevenRatiner