Poets Laureate Across Massachusetts
A note from the interviewer, Alice Kociemba
Many years ago now, I attended a panel discussion at a Mass Poetry Festival in Salem by New England poets laureate from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Sadly, then as now, Massachusetts is the only New England state without its own poet laureate. What I learned from the panelists was how each poet laureate created innovative and inclusive programming that was as distinctive and diverse as their states.
Although there is no statewide laureate, many Massachusetts cities and towns currently have their own local poet laureate posts. Especially during this time of social distancing and increased stress and hardship, poetry can serve as a means to connect, even while physically apart. How do these ambassadors for poetry view their position and engage their neighbors in the appreciation and exploration of our common dilemmas and pleasures that poetry uniquely expresses? This is the first in a series of articles that will showcase how each local poet laureate across the Commonwealth, has used poetry as a means of creating community.
Meet Lloyd Schwartz, Somerville’s Poet Laureate
When did your city or town decide to establish a poet laureate position? Is there a length of time the poet laureate serves?
The City of Somerville started the position of poet laureate in 2015. It’s a two-year term. I’m the third Somerville poet laureate, now in my second year, following Nicole Terez Dutton and Gloria Mindock.
What was the selection process like? (Who was involved, who made the decision?) Did the city/town have requirements and goals for the position? If so, how do they reflect your own priorities and initiatives?
The selection process was quite open. A general invitation was announced for poets who lived in Somerville to apply. Those who were interested were invited to meet with members of the Somerville Arts Council. My committee was deeply interested in how poetry could play a bigger part in the city. I was asked to say why I had applied, what my goals were for the position, and could I mention any particular ideas or plans I might have. The committee seemed especially interested in my idea about having regular meetings at the public library to discuss poetry, and also asked me to read one of my poems. I read a poem of mine about Somerville. After the interview, the committee met, and then notified me that I was their choice, and kindly asked if I was still interested, I was!
Among the national poets laureate, which initiative have you most admired?
I admire the programs that have allowed the poets laureate to meet with widespread constituents and offer readings, workshops, public discussions, and various writing challenges across their states. One project I especially admire is the one started by Arlington, MA poet laureate Steven Ratiner, whose “Red Letter” poem project—often poems about our current situation but also poems offering comfort and insight— get emailed weekly to readers all over the country.
Have you been in touch with other poet laureates around the Commonwealth? What lessons have you applied to your own tenure?
Unfortunately, with our already complicated lives and obligations, and then the pandemic, there really hasn’t been much time for serious discussions among the poets laureate. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is—embarrassingly–one of the few states not to have its own state poet laureate, there has been no one at the top to attempt to organize any gatherings among the various city laureates, which would be extremely useful. I’ve given readings with my Somerville predecessors and with poets laureate from neighboring communities, but for the most part, I think each of us is winging it on our own, discovering what works in our own communities in relation to what interests each of us individually.
To what community organizations and facilities do you bring poetry (i.e., schools, senior centers, libraries, health, mental health, addiction and correctional facilities)?
Alas, with the arrival of the pandemic, all of my plans to go into schools—especially high schools—and other health and correctional facilities—have had to be put on hold. Before schools were shut down, I started a discussion with a young poet from Somerville High School about various projects and events that could take place there. I’ve worked out a program with the Somerville libraries, especially a recurring program with the East Somerville public library, that I think has been very successful, and with the help of the librarian, we’ve been able to continue on Zoom, even when the library building itself had to be closed. When the library was open, the people who attended my monthly “Let’s Talk about a Poem” discussions have been mainly local, people who could just walk or drive over to the library. But since the advent of Zoom, we’ve had many more people participating, not just from Somerville, but also from around the country and from as far away as Romania and Armenia!
I really believe that poetry is a way, as Wordsworth put it, of “seeing into the life of things.” And since a poem can be about anything—or everything—I’ve discovered over the years that people who aren’t necessarily poets or poetry specialists still really enjoy discovering what’s going on in a poem. That what makes a poem tick is both fascinating in itself and is also a way of understanding our own lives better. And the more we talk about it, the more we see.
What do you think poetry can do in the civic sphere? Have you written occasional poems for your city or town?
As a longtime teacher of the writing and reading of poetry I profoundly believe in poetry as a major civilizing experience, by its very nature encouraging both readers and writers to illuminate and empathize with their subjects, and therefore with their communities. I’ve been asked to read poems—both my own and by others—at reading and various civic events. I read my translation of a famous Brazilian poem (there are many Brazilians in Somerville) at the mayor’s inauguration. I haven’t been able to write any new poems at all and thankfully no one has forced me to write an “occasional” poem.
What events have you organized, physically or virtually? Do you find more engagement in your city/town with reading/appreciation events or writing/creative events?
All of the events that I’ve organized or contributed so far have had to do with reading and appreciating poetry. My first event as poet laureate was called “Poems We Love,” and it included the mayor and former mayor of Somerville, congresspersons, state reps, city councilors, organizers, librarians, members of the Somerville Arts Council, high school students, artists, doctors, beauty-contest winners (e.g., Miss Black Massachusetts of 2018), restaurateurs, and a variety of other members of the community who were not “professional” poets—all Somerville residents. I asked them to choose a poem that has meant a lot to them over their lives, read it aloud, and say why it was important to them or what they liked about it. It was riveting. An incredible variety of choices and approaches. There were about thirty participants and over a hundred people attended this event at the Somerville Armory, and even the mayor, who was the first to arrive, and the first to read (and even helped set up chairs), stayed to the very end. The Armory was able to serve snacks and drinks.
The next event I planned was a reading exclusively by Somerville poets (who were not allowed to participate in the first event). Each poet would read both something of their own and a poem they loved by someone else. But the pandemic had already set in. So with the help of the city of Somerville and the Somerville Arts Council, the reading itself took place on Zoom, with a diverse range of Somerville’s poets (including both former poets laureate), and thanks to the city and the Arts Council, there was a poster made of a poem by each of the poets who read, plus several posters of poems by the other poets they read. These poetry posters were “planted” all over the city. There was even a poem about George Floyd by Ross Gay that was written in chalk on the main Somerville bike-path.
The other project I started immediately and which continues, and which I hope may even continue after my laureateship is over, is called “Let’s Talk about a Poem,” in which, at first, people were invited to come to the East Somerville library and now, thanks to Marita Coombs, the East Somerville librarian, is taking place on Zoom. Every month I choose a poem or group of related poems to discuss in a friendly, non-academic, and freewheeling atmosphere. Before the discussion takes place, we send copies of the poem or poems to be discussed that month to all the participants. The poems so far have all been my own choices, great and sometimes very famous poems, sometimes more obscure but still great, and the poets have mostly been from the past—recent or distant—but with an occasional poem by a living writer. This may change. I find it amazing month after month how many new and fresh ideas people come up with. The constituency for these discussions has grown considerably with the advent of Zoom. At first only a handful of people showed up at the library, then maybe a dozen. Now we have some sixty people signed up, and they Zoom-in from as far away as Romania, Armenia, and Utah. I get messages from the participants saying how much they look forward to these discussions and often they ask if other people they know can join in—which they can!
What is your favorite question that people have asked you about poetry?
Perhaps surprisingly, there’s been a general assumption among my constituent community—a kind of given—that poetry is a worthwhile endeavor, both to write and to read. So I’ve had few questions about the value or the meaning of poetry. The people who are interested in poetry but who don’t know my own work sometimes ask me what my own poems are like or about, and sometimes my answers give them new ideas about what a poem can be or their own writing. On at least a couple of occasions, I’ve been asked for prompts. And although as a teacher I tend to avoid prompts, I’ve come up with a couple of prompts that I’ve found interesting, including one for the Mass Poetry website. Several people have asked if I’d be willing to look at and comment on their poems, and I’m usually pretty open to that.
Do you think your city/town has benefitted from having a poet laureate?
YES! At least, I hope so. Somerville has for years been regarded as a working-class backwater to Cambridge and Boston. There’s still no real bookstore in Somerville (the best ones closed years ago). But the very fact that Somerville has a poet laureate suddenly seems to help make Somerville more respected as a community of artists and people interested in the arts, which it most certainly is!
If someone in your city/town wanted to become more involved in poetry, what would you recommend to him or her?
Go to poetry readings and poetry festivals. Visit the bookstores that have reopened. Tell them about the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, and, once it has reopened, recommend that they visit the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, which many people don’t realize is open to the public. Take a course—there are many possibilities now online, such as at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Find out about Zoom poetry events (they now occur almost every day). Meet other poets or people who love poetry. Organize a poetry reading or writing group—in person or online—even if it’s just with one other person. And read, read, read
Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Boston, the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, and a noted scholar and editor of the works of Elizabeth Bishop. Among his awards are NEA and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships for his poetry and a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His poems have been selected for a Pushcart Prize, the Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. His most recent poetry collections are Little Kisses and next year’s Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press). He is the current Poet Laureate of Somerville, MA.
Alice Kociemba is the Founding Director of Calliope Poetry for Community. She is co-editor of From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry, which will be published by Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) in 2021. In 2015 and 2016, Alice guest edited Common Threads, the poetry discussion project of Mass Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Bourne Bridge (Turning Point, 2016).