gail mazur: poet and reading series founder inspired by community

by Sandra Storey | September 2016

Gail Mazur. Photo by Morgan Lacasse.

Gail Mazur. Photo by Morgan Lacasse.

Gail Mazur—award-winning author of seven poetry collections and a finalist for the National Book Award—launched her poetry life in an unusual way—through friendship and community.

Years before she published a book of her poems, the Massachusetts native created a poetry reading series in Cambridge that was an instant hit and soon became a literary institution. The influential, popular Blacksmith House Poetry Series that Mazur started in 1973 and managed for 29 years continues to this day. Her seventh book, Forbidden City, was published by University of Chicago Press in March. The evolution of the series and her own poetry are closely intertwined.

Grolier inspires
Neither she nor anyone else would probably have predicted she would put herself forward to promote and absorb poetry. “I was very shy,” she said in a recent interview.

It all started in 1966 when her best friend since childhood, photographer Elsa Dorfman, took to her to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square.

Mazur and artist husband Michael Mazur had married when she was a senior at Smith College, and she had two young children at the time she first went to the Grolier. Mazur, 28, said she had “tried to write fiction” and was studying filmmaking.

“I walked into the Grolier and it was ‘Eureka!” Mazur recalled. “It changed my life.” The Grolier had such a powerful effect, she wrote her first poem that night.

She started “hanging out” at the Grolier every day while her kids were in day camp. Over the months she met Robert Lowell and James Tate, among many other working poets. Tate’s The Lost Pilot had been selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets but not yet come out.

Gail Mazur and Gordon Cairnie, owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, in the late 1960s.   Photo by Elsa Dorfman.

Gail Mazur and Gordon Cairnie, owner of the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, in the late 1960s. Photo by Elsa Dorfman.

Mazur said she still remembers owner Gordon Cairnie sitting on a couch as poets gathered around. “It was a man’s world, but it was changing,” she said. She soaked in the atmosphere, the conversation and the poetry.

In those days, the late sixties and early seventies, Mazur remembered, there were “lots of  street people” in Harvard Square. “It wasn’t a buttoned-up world.” She described the poetry-friendly scene precisely: five coffeehouses and 17 bookstores in the area. She and her husband rented their third floor to a poet.

When Cairnie died in 1973 at the age of 79, Mazur was sad—and worried. She was concerned the conversation and camaraderie she and other poets found at the Grolier were going to disappear. She began looking for “a space for poetry” in the area without a clear idea of what it would be.

Mazur was politically active and belonged to a civic group called “Cambridge Now.” When she told people there what she was looking for, they suggested she talk to Alida O’Loughlin, head of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and also involved in the group.

Mazur said she felt so shy she took husband Mike to the meeting. O’Loughlin offered use of the first floor of the Center’s Blacksmith House—famous as the site of the village smithy and spreading chestnut tree in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1839 poem “The Village Blacksmith.” Mazur decided it would be good for poetry readings, although she had never organized such a thing before.

Blacksmith House series starts
At that time, the first floor of the Blacksmith House was occupied by the Window Shop Cafe, a coffee shop featuring Viennese pastry. During World War II it had been a Viennese restaurant started by German Jewish women in Cambridge as a way to give jobs to refugees and Holocaust survivors.

The audience drank coffee and ate pastries during the readings, sitting at the small cafe tables in a decidedly non-academic atmosphere. “People would sit with people they didn’t know,” Mazur said. “It was everything I wanted.”

The first readers were William Corbett and Fanny Howe, like most of the readers at the start, poets she knew. At the beginning all Mazur said in introductions was the poet’s name. The first night, for example, she said, “Bill Corbett,” later, “Fanny Howe” and sat down.

At every reading she had a basket at the door and would also carry it around at the end asking for donations for the poets. Since airline fares were quite low in those days, she said, $16-20 was a good take for each poet.

“I didn’t mind asking for donations,” Mazur said. “That didn’t seem like an aggressive thing to do.” The first reading was crowded, and the Monday night readings continued to be “mobbed every week.”

Mazur planned one week at a time and did the most basic type of publicity for 30 readings a year. (There were no readings mid-December to mid-February.) She went around and taped flyers to poles and trees. People teaching and taking classes at Cambridge Center knew about the series, too. Mazur said, in those days it was “the only game in town,” so people paid attention.

Mazur had no budget and kept no archives during those years. “If I had to keep archives, I couldn’t have kept it going.”

Mazur celebrated the series’ success by issuing The Blacksmith, an anthology of poetry from the Blacksmith House readings 1973-1974. The 66-page paperback featured poems by 33 mostly local poets.

“It was a great time for poetry, and poetry was not part of academia,” Mazur reflected. “Small presses were blossoming everywhere.” Ploughshares and Alice James Books started around then, she pointed out.

Great poets, great audiences
The readings drew hundreds of poets—famous, soon-to-be famous and just starting out—to read and listen.

“People loved to read there because it was a great audience,” Mazur said, so the series got terrific readers—and great audience for decades. Mazur said somewhere she has a photo of Frank Bidart, Elizabeth Bishop and Octavio Paz sitting at a table together at a reading.

As Mazur described the series, names of well-known poets naturally fell into the conversation. Poets who read at the Blacksmith included Bidart as well as Eavan Boland, Sam Cornish, Alan Dugan, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Seamus Heaney, Richard Hugo, Major Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, Margo Lockwood, Maureen McLane, Eileen Myles, Joyce Peseroff, Marge Piercy, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, Mark Strand and James Tate.

Her social consciousness showed in her reading choices. Mazur said she made “a conscious effort to include women and people of color.” The third week of the series she had a reading to protest the imprisonment of three women in Portugal called the Three Marias. The women were being punished for writing a book on feminism.

She organized anti-nuclear and AIDS readings. She held readings by Cave Canem poets and poets from the Darkroom Collective.

She organized readings of poems by dead poets, too, including Anna Akhmatova, Thom Gunn, Frank O’Hara and Fernando Pessoa that drew friends, family and fans of the poets. Several years ago, she organized a reading combining Mailer’s Armies of the Night with Robert Lowell’s anti-war poems and “For the Union Dead.”

Mazur’s poetry life expands
Mazur enjoyed poetry before the Grolier epiphany and starting the Blacksmith series. She studied it in school. She heard Robert Frost and E. E. Cummings read. She even got to hear T. S. Eliot. Her brother gave her a variorum William Butler Yeats as a wedding present. Nevertheless, she said, “I didn’t have the sense that I could be a poet.”

Strand was a classmate of her husband’s at the Yale School of Art and he was supportive of Mazur’s poetry and the readings. After a while she said she thought, “Maybe one day I’ll publish a poem.”

Lloyd Schwartz, who is now a good friend, called her at one point to ask to read in the series. Soon he invited her to attend Robert Lowell’s “office hours” where Lowell talked about poetry once a week to a select gathering of local poets. That and sharing her work with other poets she got to know helped her own poetry grow, she said.

In 1978, the cafe closed, and the readings became more auditorium style with chairs lined up in rows for the audience in the same space. Mazur got assistants. She began introducing poets with entire sentences. Most important, her first book, Nightfire, came out from D.R. Godine. Mazur was 40.

Here and now
Mazur is soft spoken in person today, but she doesn’t seem so shy anymore. She has introduced and had discussions with countless poets over the years and has given scores of readings of her own and others’ work. She is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College and teaches at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

The Blacksmith House series continues at the same 56 Brattle St. location, directed by poet Andrea Cohen. Mazur said she stopped managing the series in 2003 because Cohen agreed to take it over.

“If I didn’t write poetry I wouldn’t have done it so long,” she remarked and reflected on the pleasure of writing. “When everything is right, it’s like being in the zone.”

Looking back, Mazur said starting the series “seemed like a modest thing to do at the time.” She paused, adding, “I’m proud of it.”

“I’m grateful to Andrea for keeping it going, grateful I moved to Cambridge and Elsa took me to the Grolier. Elsa took me to the Grolier, and my life has not been the same since.”

Neither has the life of poetry in Massachusetts.

Sandra Storey is the author of the poetry collection, Every State Has Its Own Light, a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award and published in 2014 by Word Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in New Millennium WritingsTHEMA and the New York Quarterly, among other journals. Storey was founder, then editor and publisher, of two bilingual Boston neighborhood newspapers for 20 years. A member of Jamaica Pond Poets and former teacher, she now leads poetry workshops for people over 62 established by Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges. Sandee got the idea for this article talking to Gail Mazur at an event about the early days of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series, which Storey attended in the 1970s before she wrote poetry.