Photo by Michael J. Lutch
Acclaimed poet Lloyd Schwartz’s long-awaited fourth full collection of poems, Little Kisses, has recently been released by the University of Chicago Press. From the opening title poem, he again proves himself to be, as the New York Times has praised him, “the master of the poetic one-liner.” The journey of Little Kisses is a constant discovery of the lost and found: conversations between the poet and his mother, who no longer recognizes her own son; the study of a forgotten family history through the inspection of a photograph; the loss and near return of a favorite object; the recollection of puzzling dreams (or of a dream within a dream); questions demanding more bewildering questions; the reprieve of unexpected jokes. Schwartz’s poems are as unsentimental as they are heartbreaking—and with an ample amount of serious humor interwoven throughout. Little Kisses also includes a section of translations: a meditative and timely selection of poems by Brazilian poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna. (Another selection can be found in Memorious 5.)
Lloyd Schwartz’s previous poetry books are Cairo Traffic (2000), Goodnight, Gracie (1992), and These People (1981). An esteemed Elizabeth Bishop scholar, he is the editor of Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011) and coeditor of the Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (1983). His many honors include a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, and Classical Music Critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.
We’ve been waiting a long time for Little Kisses, your new collection of poetry—this book has been about 17 years in the making. You’ve been known to edit and revise a poem for years, so this wait makes sense. How did you realize the poems you’d been writing over such a long period of time had come together to form Little Kisses?
Unlike some poets I admire, I never know what shape my books are going to take—how the poems are going to come together—until I’ve written most of them. I started writing the poems in Little Kisses before my previous book was published, so a few of the poems are actually older than 17 years. “City of Dreams” started in the early 1990s as three separate poems that I put together under the title “Three Dreams” (published in AGNI). But when I was putting my book Cairo Traffic together, it didn’t feel right. I still needed to do something that would make the parts come together, have more resonance, and fit into the whole. It was a poem I liked to read aloud (I love to read poems aloud), but even then I could tell it wasn’t working quite right. In 2010, when George Kovach, a former student of mine, was beginning his new magazine, Consequence, he invited me to contribute something, and I didn’t have anything new. This became my chance to re-work the three dreams. The most crucial new addition was the quotation at the end from Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song”— the poem Mahler set to music in his Third Symphony: “The world / is deep—deeper than Day had thought. // I was asleep. I’ve awakened / from a deep dream. // I have to tell you my dream.” I think it’s now one of the main connecting links between all the poems in Little Kisses.
I’m a slow writer to begin with, and there was one long poem I was working on for years that I felt I had to finish before I had a book. This was the poem ultimately called “Unexpected Oracles,” and it was mostly a compilation of things I overheard or stumbled upon, many of them hilarious, some of them heartbreaking. For me it seemed it was going to be a symbol of the whole book, a tonally complex compendium of interweaving “little kisses.” It was eventually published in the Kenyon Review—my first publication in the journal where Robert Lowell published his first poem. Finishing this poem really allowed me to see all the poems I’d written since my last book and was extremely important in helping me find a shape for the whole manuscript. As things turned out, I eventually cut the poem from the final version of Little Kisses! I hope it will be in my next book.
One other explanation for the long delay between my last two books. During this time, I was also editing two collections of work by Elizabeth Bishop: the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (which took eight years to put together), and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s centennial edition of Bishop’s prose. Aside from my love for her work, these projects were in large part labors of love and gratitude for Bishop’s kindness to me in the years I knew her. But it turns out it’s really hard to write new poems while you’re working on Elizabeth Bishop.
In your last book, Cairo Traffic, your mother is ever present. “The Dream During My Mother’s Recuperation” is a poem that documents snippets of her dialogue and written notes, such as: “Well, your mother came back.” And your mother comes back in Little Kisses, in the title poem on the first page. This time, she can’t recognize that she’s speaking to her son until the poem is about to end—the precise moment in which she also remembers the song “Little Kisses” and that she’ll soon forget all of this all over again. Will you tell us a little bit about Little Kisses and “Little Kisses”—the book, the poem, and the song to which they refer?
The first section of the poem “Little Kisses” was originally the first section of a longer poem called (not the subtlest title) “Grief.” I knew I hadn’t said everything I needed to say about my mother’s sad decline. Her caretakers in the nursing home where she lived were sure she’d reach a state of blissful forgetfulness, as many people with dementia often do. But she never did. She was always aware that there was something missing, that she wasn’t who she was. One of the most devastating moments in my life was the first time she didn’t know who I was. I was her only child—she had devoted herself to making me happy. Then suddenly, she didn’t know me. But every so often, she would have some uncanny illumination—things would come back to her in some moment of recognition. And often through music. “Gimme a Little Kiss” was a song she would sing to me when I was a child. A song she taught me. When I returned to this poem, I knew instantly what I would call it, and knew that it would also be the title poem of my next book. Maybe “little kisses” is the best any of us can hope for—“the little of our earthly trust,” as Elizabeth Bishop writes in “Poem”—“not much.” Aren’t all our poems “little kisses”? Some sudden gift or blessing from the past? So there’s my mother on the cover, in the late Ralph Hamilton’s wonderful portrait of her, giving us her benediction.
“My Other Grandmother,” the second poem in Little Kisses, explores, through a photograph of your paternal grandmother “pasted to a piece of cardboard,” an image of the other half of your family history—one mostly unknown to your readers. Meticulous observations and questions replace the interactive dialogue that makes up so many of your poems. Will you tell us how this poem came to form?
That photograph of my father’s mother had always been a mystery to me. I didn’t have a good relationship with my father (this is an understatement!). We never—ever—had a conversation about his early life, his family, his parents. I think he ran away from Romania to escape being drafted, or to escape pogroms. No one from his side of the family ever talked about their “origins,” as opposed to the vivid family history on my mother’s side of the family. That mysterious photo had always remained a mystery. So if poetry is some attempt to explore mysteries, here was a perfect subject. Maybe there are more questions in Little Kisses than answers (as in what I think is my saddest poem, “To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death”), and here was another subject that I had no answers to. My father’s three siblings were so different from one another. One aunt was even nastier and meaner than my father, one aunt was the salt of the earth. How could they be from the same family? What key did that photo of my mysterious grandmother hold? So there’s now this poem…with no answers.
Speaking of forming poems, some of the poems in your new collection are form poems. “Is Light Enough” is a golden shovel, “New Name” is a sonnet, and the end words of “La Valse” come from a sentence in a Jean Genet novel. The forms you use range from traditional to contemporary and invented. What I find particularly striking about your form poems is that they read as if they’re naturally formless. How did you navigate form in the writing of Little Kisses?
I’m an English lit teacher. I’m fascinated by form and love thinking about the form of the poems I love. One of my favorite courses to teach is Poetry and Poetics, which is all about form and meter and what happens when poets make certain formal choices and why they make them. I don’t think of myself as someone who can write poems on demand, but over the past few years some interesting formal challenges have come my way that have captivated me. I think the first one was from The Paris Review, challenging poets to write a new poem reusing an old title. One of the titles was “Howl,” and I couldn’t resist writing my own poem with that title.
David Trinidad, a poet I love, had a “bouts rimé” challenge, and “New Name” was my answer to his list of 14 rhyming words. Everyone who participated had to come up with a sonnet with the same rhyme words and it was amazing how different each poem was. I particularly relished the challenge of having the name Garbo in the poem and that became the excuse to get my favorite movie hero, Buster Keaton, into a poem. I think The Playhouse is his greatest short film, and in it he actually plays all the characters, including every member of the orchestra and everyone in the audience—even both the snooty husband and wife in a box seat. My real challenge for this poem was to get Keaton into it.
When the Golden Shovel challenge came up, I wanted to participate because I admire Gwendolyn Brooks so much (I got to meet her twice—once when she read at Radcliffe’s Hilles Library and she was introduced by Elizabeth Bishop; once when we invited her to read at UMass Boston). And since I seem to have a particular penchant for sonnets, I chose a 14-word line from her poem “garbageman” for my end words.
“La Valse” was a “commission” to write a poem about “Liberation” for an anthology published by the Terezin Foundation celebrating the liberation of the concentration camps. I was stymied for a while, and then I remembered a line from Genet’s The Lady of the Flowers that was the title of a poem I tried to write years ago, when I was still in school. Suddenly this poem came together. Some of the imagery comes from George Balanchine’s scary choreography to Ravel’s famous score, and the plumes at the hip come from another movie, Preston Sturges’s hilarious dark comedy Unfaithfully Yours.
The sestina “Six Words” was also the result of a challenge. This time from my students. I like to assign a challenging form to my poetry students, one that I hope will stretch their capacities and get them to see how much writing in a form can be a release rather than a prison. Whenever I suggested a sestina, someone would always ask me back if I had ever written one myself. I finally had to write one to avoid further embarrassment. So “Six Words” (which I also ended up translating into five other languages) was my response to that challenge. I wish more sestinas were this short. A few years ago, The New Yorker published a one-word-per-line sestina by someone who said in an interview that she had been inspired to write it because she so thoroughly disliked “Six Words.”
I like having all these poems that play around with form in their own section. They’re my own “little kisses.”
The fourth section of Little Kisses is comprised of translations: a selection of poems by Brazilian poet Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna and an adaptation of a translation of a poem by Ukranian poet Viktor Neborak. Why these poems by these poets?
I think translation is not just a literary act but a moral act, so I always want to include translations. Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna is an important and distinguished Brazilian poet and journalist whom I met on my first trip to Brazil in 1990. He’s a prolific writer and a cultural hero in Brazil. I’ve translated a bunch of his poems (several have appeared in Memorious), and he seems to like my translations. He sent me some new poems just after he returned from visiting Iran during the uprising. I was blown away by them. Just as I’ve been deeply moved by his more personal poems. For a long time, I had a long collage-like poem about 9/11 that I included in Little Kisses, and I thought these eye-witness poems about the Iran uprising would fit in perfectly with my own poem. I wanted something that looked farther out into the world than my own poems usually do. Then I dropped my own poem, which I hope will also be in my next book.
Back in 1996, the late Ed Hogan was editing an anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry. A bunch of American poets, who didn’t necessarily know any Ukrainian, were each invited to choose a Ukrainian poem from a group of literal translations and turn them into “real” poems. I picked Viktor Neborak’s grim poem partly because it inspired me to write one line that really tickled me: “No fish is an island.” (Humor is so crucial to serious poems—Ukrainian poets know that.) So how could I not include that in my book?
In a recent interview for Breakwater Review, you were in conversation with poet and longtime friend Gail Mazur. About writing poetry, you said something so memorable: “There isn’t anything you’d rather be doing, even when there is anything else you’d rather be doing.” You and I have talked many times about how we can’t not write our poems—even when we don’t want to write them. So, now that you’ve completed Little Kisses, what can’t you not write at the moment?
It’s true—I have the bad work habit of resisting the ideas for poems that come to me. Then when I can’t resist them anymore, that’s when I start to write. A long time ago, before my first book was published, I was writing mainly poems about myself and my frustrating personal life. Eventually, the question occurred to me: Why should anyone be interested in reading about me? When I started writing the dramatic monologues and dialogues that became my first book, These People, I thought I found an answer. I needed to write poems, but my poems didn’t have to be about myself (although as the artist says in one of these poems, “Every painting is a self-portrait”). Since then, I’ve been trying to use the techniques of narrative and “drama” I was discovering in These People in my more recent poems, hopefully in a more sophisticated and surprising way. (I have no desire whatsoever to write short stories, novels, or plays, but I’m fascinated by how poems can employ the devices of fiction and drama—the way Chaucer, Browning, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell did.)
I’m scared to talk about poems I’m still working on. But lately, I’ve been writing poems about some of my favorite paintings—images that I can’t get out of my head. There were two sets of “ekphrastic” poems in my second book, Goodnight, Gracie—one series about Vermeer and, more sonnets, a series called “Fourteen People”—sonnet-like poems about Ralph Hamilton’s series of fourteen life-size portraits of friends and family, including some poets (Gail Mazur, Frank Bidart, Joyce Peseroff, Robert Pinsky, Margo Lockwood). These paintings gave me an excuse to write about friends I would have been too inhibited to write about more directly. When that book came out, the word “ekphrastic” was so new to poetry, the publisher “corrected” the spelling of it on the back cover to “ecphrastic.” So the poems I couldn’t not write lately are about two Vermeer paintings that have recently come to the US and Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, one of the great tragic paintings and one of the great paintings about the suffering that goes into the creation of art.
Interviewer Tara Skurtu is a Boston-based poet and translator currently living in Romania. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University and a double degree in English and Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a two-time Fulbright grantee, and she has received two Academy of American Poets prizes, a Marcia Keach Poetry Prize, and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. Her poems are published and translated internationally, and recent work appears in The Kenyon Review, Plume, Poetry Review, and Poetry Wales. Tara is the author of the chapbook Skurtu, Romania (Eyewear Publishing, 2016) and the full poetry collection The Amoeba Game (Eyewear, 2017).
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