Lloyd Schwartz, poet laureate of Somerville, Massachusetts, is the author of Who's on First?: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press, 2021) and the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston. In 2021, Schwartz received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to continue his projects as poet laureate of Somerville, including “Let’s Talk About a Poem,” a monthly discussion group with Somerville residents, as well as workshops and discussions with Somerville High School students. He will also conduct interviews with poets on Somerville Community Access Television, launch poetry and translation prizes, commission Somerville musicians to set student poems and translations to music, visit nursing homes and assisted living facilities to read poems to the residents, and encourage them to find poetic inspiration in their own experiences.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Somerville and what support do you hope future poets laureate in Massachusetts have?
LS: Massachusetts may be famous for its universities and its impressive history of prized and admired poets (including, more recently, its numerous city poets laureate). Yet I’m still shocked that Massachusetts doesn’t have its own state poet laureate. So, the local laureates have to do more than their share to hold up their end of the state’s commitment to poetry. I hope the Academy’s Poets Laureate Fellowships will help encourage our state officials to support the idea of a statewide laureateship, to encourage more of the local communities to have their own poets laureate, and to show others who can help the arts that a national arts organization regards poetry as important enough to provide extremely generous support for it. Somerville itself is a densely populated, diverse, largely working-class city, a relatively more affordable “bedroom community” than Boston or Cambridge for all the nearby universities and high-tech and medical industries, with an impressive per capita array of artists (not only poets, but also musicians, visual artists, and theater artists) and an extremely active and supportive, if under-funded, arts council. In some way, what I hope for the future of poetry in Somerville is, at least on one level, something like the status quo, that all the poets who live in Somerville now can afford to remain here. What’s even more crucial would be to see an expansion of arts education, in both elementary and high schools. Education in the arts inevitably spreads into the community at large. The current teachers are doing a great job, but they could certainly use some increased public support and enthusiasm. That’s why it’s an important part of the work of the poets laureate to interact with the schools, the libraries, and the students.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
LS: Most people have some poetry in their background, poems they might not have thought about for years that have somehow filtered themselves into our blood, into our hearts. But everyone can use a little reminder. The very first event I planned as poet laureate of Somerville was a reading called “Poems We Love.” I invited people from the community—citizens who were not poets or part of the poetry world—from the mayor and a former congressperson to city counselors and state reps, to the chef/owner of a favorite restaurant, a psychiatrist, an artist, a composer, the founder of a women’s support group (who also happened to be Miss Black Massachusetts of 2018), a high school student from Latin America, and even the head of the Somerville Arts Council.Some thirty people each read a poem they had kept in their memories and said what it was about that poem that remained important to them. Some of the poems they chose were great, some were corny. But everyone’s love for them was genuine. The reading drew a huge crowd, over a hundred people—the largest audience I’d ever seen at a poetry reading in Somerville—and nobody (nobody!) left early. It was one of the best poetry readings I had ever attended—riveting and moving and funny. And everyone conveyed the sense that poetry was actually important, meaningful in their lives, even though most of them seldom talked about it. Both readers and the audience shared—shared!—a common love for poetry that some of them probably didn’t even know they had.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
LS: I’m a retired professor. Being a poet laureate has kept me so busy, I’ve actually had less time to write than when I was teaching full-time. But, I know I now have the impulse to write more public-spirited poems, more poems about the value of art in the community, and especially to do more translating, which I’ve always regarded as not just a literary and personal act, but also a public and moral one .
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
LS: I’ve just used some of my Academy of American Poets Fellowship money to put together an anthology of poems by Somerville high school students titled The View from Somerville. Some of these poems are remarkably skillful and were composed by practiced, sophisticated young poets.Many are by students who’ve never written a poem before. Some are by students for whom English is a second language and who aren’t used to writing in English at all. I’ve been working with two of the Somerville High School teachers and a small Somerville press, Cervena Barva, whose editor is my immediate predecessor as Somerville’s poet laureate (I’m Somerville’s third), and it’s just about to be sent to the printer. Each student contributor will get ten copies and I’m hoping to arrange a public reading. It will make a tremendous difference to these young writers to see their work in print for the first time. And I’m convinced that the people who read these poems will get some new insight into the minds and hearts of our gifted (and brave) young writers, and some new and maybe greater understanding of the city itself.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
LS: COVID, COVID, and more COVID. The Somerville Arts Council, the city government, and especially the teachers and librarians—everyone in this city who cares about the arts—have given me their fullest cooperation. But, a number of my plans had to be either put on hold or were canceled because of the pandemic. I had planned to follow up my initial reading by non-poets with a public reading by some of Somerville’s distinguished published poets, where they would read both their own poems and choose a poem they admired by someone else. But we couldn’t hold this event in person. So, with the help of the Arts Council and a group called the Somerville Art Beat (as in “heart beat”), we video-recorded the poets and posted their readings online. A Somerville artist designed posters, each of which would include a poem. These posters were then placed in parks, on bicycle paths, in school yards, in front of our libraries, and on random street corners all around the city. In some way, the obstacle ended up providing greater access to poetry for even more members of the community.
An important plan I had was to meet with senior citizens—to read poems with them and encourage or challenge them to write poems about their own experiences. But these meetings kept having to be postponed. With the recent reduction of COVID cases in Somerville, however, we finally now have a date to meet in person. I can’t wait! And the student reading now seems really possible and likely, although there’s no definite date for this yet.
Poets.org: Your book, Music In—and On—the Air (PFP, 2013), is a collection of music reviews that appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, where you are a classical music critic. You were also the classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix, for which you were awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and are a contributing arts critic for WBUR’s the ARTery. You’ve merged both poetry and music throughout your career. How has all of your work reviewing music influenced your poetry?
LS: I’ve been asking myself this question for years. Most of my poems are not exactly “musical” in the conventional poetic sense. I think my own most characteristic poems—maybe my best poems?—are in the speaking voices of a variety of people, both real (like my mother) and made up. And I especially enjoy reading poems that “speak” to me, both figuratively and literally—poems with narrators who seem to be talking to or confiding in me (Chaucer, Herbert, Keats, Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop) or with characters who are actually talking (Chaucer again, Browning, Frost, not to mention Shakespeare). With music, I’m especially partial to performances that sound like they’re speaking to me. I don’t mean just vocal music. A violin or a piano or an orchestra can have its own distinctive voice just as much as a singer does. And when I review a recording or a concert, I’m not especially interested in analyzing the performance technically, or in showing off my vast knowledge of music. I just want to “talk” to a reader, to tell any reader what the performance was like, how it felt to me. So, in some mysterious ways, my poetry and my reviews have something in common, even overlap, in the sense that it’s important to me that they both really bring the reader into the conversation. Just as I, as a listener to music, want to be part of the conversation. This probably all goes back to my mother reading to me when I was a child, stories and poems, and playing records for me, especially popular songs with interesting and lively lyrics. I’m sure this is why poetry and music are both so dear to me.
Poets.org: How have the monthly “Let’s Talk About a Poem” discussion groups helped readers, writers, and lovers of poetry during the pandemic? What are some of the poems chosen and what have the conversations been like between so many people?
LS: One of my primary projects has been a monthly discussion group I call “Let’s Talk about a Poem.” I wanted these meetings to be un-intimidating and un-academic conversations about poetry. I choose a poem—usually, a well-known poem, but one the participants might not have read or even thought about since they read it in school— with the hope that it will lure a few people into the smallest of Somerville’s three library branches. At first, a handful of nearby residents showed up, mainly people who weren’t poets or part of the regular poetry community. Just people who thought it would be fun or interesting to talk about poetry, or had nothing better to do on a Saturday morning. When the pandemic shut down the libraries, the inspired librarian asked if I might be interested in doing the discussions on Zoom. I was! And the amazing thing was that the number of regulars suddenly increased exponentially. There’s now an email list of some eighty participants. Our monthly discussion groups usually number around forty or fifty people—some poets and teachers but mostly not, and suddenly not just from Somerville but from across the country and even around the world—people are now tuning in from as far away as England, Brazil, Romania, and Armenia. We talk about word choices, meter and rhyme, line breaks and imagery, why we like something or might be bewildered by something. Anything! And if people are too shy to talk, they put their comments in the chat box. The discussions are interesting, surprising, fun, and invariably moving. I always learn something new even about poems I thought I knew inside-out. And people end up with some rediscovered respect for good poetry that they thought they had lost touch with, and discovering that it’s actually deeply satisfying—not to mention enjoyable—to spend time reading good poems and talking about what makes them good and enjoyable and why they move us. The poems I’ve chosen have been mostly classics. The very first poem we discussed was Robert Hayden’s heartbreaking poem about his father, “Those Winter Sundays,” and we’ve done landmark poems by Keats, Yeats, Coleridge, Andrew Marvell, Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg. Some of the poems have actually been about writing poems and what writing poems can mean for their authors (and for us)—poems like George Herbert’s “The Flower,” Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem.” One month, we did Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” just to see if it actually works as a poem (that question got a very mixed but interesting response). I’ve also started to include poems by living writers: an exciting new poem by Robert Pinsky from a recent New Yorker; Gail Mazur’s “Baseball,” which she read to us at the start of baseball season; and Yusef Komunyakaa’s devastating poem about the VietnamMemorial, “Facing It.” We talked about a poem by Louise Glück the week after she was awarded the Nobel Prize. For this past Black History Month, I chose an amazing poem by the young Black poet Krysten Hill ironically called “Nothing” that appeared last year on the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day and is on the Poets.org website. I invited Krysten to read her poem to us, which was an enthralling and moving experience. Krysten was wonderful and her answers to the questions people asked her were not only illuminating to us but also illuminated some of her own thoughts about her poem. The reading and conversation gave me chills. I’m still getting emails about it. Talk about bringing the community together! I think I’ll be choosing more poems by living poets.
Poets.org Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in the Somerville community? How?
LS: Since I live in Massachusetts and have worked on and love the work of Elizabeth Bishop, maybe the poem among all the great poems on Poets.org that most inspires me, and especially my work in the community, is Bishop’s poem about her childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, “In the Waiting Room,” It’s not just a poem about a child discovering her identity, but about discovering that she has an identity, and how that discovery—of being both an individual, her own self, and also being part of a greater human community, part of the world, which is a threat to her individual identity—can be thrilling but also terrifying. “What similarities… held us all together / or made us all just one? / How—I didn’t know any / word for it—how ‘unlikely’. . .” Isn’t that really what every great poem helps us discover, the great moral lesson: that who we are is unlike anyone else, and also just like everyone else, no matter how far away they are or how different they seem? As a child, Elizabeth Bishop made this discovery in Worcester, Massachusetts—a place not very far away and not so very different from Somerville.