I don’t just love Lloyd because he loves my cooking, but some of my favorite memories of this Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and poet are not of anything literary – his books or readings, or his loyal attendance at mine – but of him and his partner David laughing (and eating) in our tiny Somerville backyard. Or raving about my gumbo (thank you). Or discussing old movies. Or the latest literary gossip… Of course, I also remember his response to learning that he’d won a Pulitzer for his music criticism (for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix). I may be paraphrasing, but I can hear his dry, droll voice lamenting, softly: “Maybe now someone will read my poetry.” In the hope of that coming true, I give you today, my friends, Lloyd Schwartz.
How does a book start for you?
Since most books of poems don’t have a storyline, each new book inevitably begins with the first poem I write after the last poem that went into the previous book. Of course, since poems don’t necessarily go into a collection in chronological order, readers can’t tell which poem in a book is the first or last poem to get written. These are pleasant secrets between poets and their muses (i.e., themselves). Some poets have projects—the exploration of a single subject or even a sketchy plot. But I’m not one of them. I just have to have a bunch of new poems and then figure out how to organize them—sometimes a harder job than actually writing the poems.
What in your latest book has surprised you most – and why?
I suppose the thing in my last book that surprised me most was translating a poem from the Ukrainian, a language I don’t know a word of. But I suppose the bigger surprise is actually the same surprise that comes with each new collection—being able to find an order that makes sense, in which the poems not only all fit together, but fit together so that each poem seems to illuminate—and in a meaningful and revealing way be illuminated by–the poems around it.
When and/or where is your latest book set and is there a story behind that setting?
My books have had had some unusual and varied settings. My previous book, Cairo Traffic, was set, as you might guess from the title, in the Middle East, but also in Brazil, and Maine, among other less specific places. My most recent book, Little Kisses, includes poems that take place in Paris, in a nursing home, in outer space, in Brazil again, in Queens, and in several parking lots. I think mostly they take place in my head or in some sort of dream world. And mostly in the present or the recent past.
What are you working on now?
My next book of poems—which I hope will be a selection of both new poems and poems from my earlier books. A bunch of my new poems have been about art, paintings and prints by some pretty well-known artists. There’s one long poem called “Unexpected Oracles” that’s a kind of collage of things I’ve overheard, some of them pretty absurd. In some way it’s a kind of template or prototype for each of my books.
I’m also trying to put together a collection of my articles and reviews. I have more than thirty year’s worth of pieces that I wrote for the late Boston Phoenix, mostly about classical music. Andthere are also pieces I wrote for the new Vanity Fair (when it was new) andthe old Atlantic, and some of these seem worth saving. But would anyone want to read them?
Which question didn’t I ask you that I should have?
How about: Is writing a review very different from writing a poem? Or: Why would anyone want to write stuff that the “general public” doesn’t seem very interested in, like poetry or reviews of classical music? Or does that already answer its own question?
Lloyd Schwartz is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the 2019-2021 Poet Laureate of Somerville, Massachusetts. His poetry collections include These People; Goodnight, Gracie; Cairo Traffic;and, most recently, Little Kisses (University of Chicago Press).His poems have been published in, among many other journals, The New Yorker, Poetry, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Agni, and Consequence, and have been selected for the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Poetry (three times), and The Best of the Best American Poetry. His poetry awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. An authority on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, he co-edited the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, & Letters and edited the centennial edition of Bishop’s Prose (FSG). He’s also the classical music critic for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and the Contributing Arts Critic for WBUR’s the ARTery. His reviews for FreshAirare collected in Music In—and On—the Air. For many years, he was the Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix, for which he was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.