Schwartz became Somerville’s third Poet Laureate in 2019. This two-year nomination is an honor that unites his talents as an educator and poet. Although the pandemic altered Schwartz’s literary plans for the city, he adapted with the support of a recent $ 50,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets. The in-person seminars he gave on the careful reading of a poem migrated to Zoom, which significantly increased his audience from a dozen to almost 60 participants. Schwartz is excited to attract a crowd that loves to talk about poetry. It also has an anthology of poems in the works of students at Somerville High School.

Schwartz grew up in Queens, New York, speaking Yiddish to his grandmother, who lived with her family. His mother encouraged his literary and musical ambitions by reading poems and introducing him to Broadway. Ahead of his Dec. 17 event with the Jewish Arts Collaborative, Schwartz recently spoke to JewishBoston about his poems, his early influences, and his late mother’s unwavering support.

One of my favorite writers, Natalia Ginzburg, has said that everything we write is a bit autobiographical. You have a line in “Self Portrait”, one of the first poems of “Who’s on First? It reminded me of Ginzburg’s observation. You write: “Each painting is a portrait. Can you expand?

“Self Portrait” is one of the first poems I wrote about my best friend, the painter Ralph Hamilton. A detail of his painting “Soccer Players” is on the cover of “Who’s on First?” Something changed in my writing in the early 1970s. I was teaching and still in graduate school, preparing to become an academic. I also wrote poetry and wanted to be an actor. I played a lot of plays, mainly in Cambridge in the late 60s and early 70s, and I met some wonderful young actors. I loved teaching, university work and acting, but I could see that some of my very talented colleagues couldn’t even find jobs in advertising. I was just too scared to risk everything to become an actor.

So I started to write poems with other people’s voices. And one of those early poems was “Self Portrait” on Ralph Hamilton’s Self Portrait. When he said, “Every painting is a self-portrait”, it had to do with what I was doing as a poet. My poems were either real or completely imaginary. It’s like the actor who becomes another character. Acting was a way of both escaping and stretching out. I played roles that I could never be in real life. Suddenly I wasn’t playing anymore, but I was writing these poems that were in other people’s voices. Whatever impulse I had as an actor, I shifted it towards writing poems.

(Courtesy photo)

In the poem “The Faces of Ralph Hamilton” there is the line: “Looking at the portrait of Hamilton,” observed one viewer, “as if you were in the middle of an intimate conversation. »» Do these lines reflect what you are trying to accomplish in poetry?

I wish that were true of my poetry, which is so true in these portraits Ralph did much later in his career. And he did a hundred of them, including portraits of my mother and father. Ralph took photographs of the people he painted. Some were stars, some were family, and some were just people he knew. Once he felt he was in conversation with the figure he was painting, the painting was finished. I think, in a way, this is true of these poems. These are conversations or feature someone speaking.

The poems about your mother are very moving. “She Forgets” captures a universal experience, as well as the sadness and tragedy peculiar to you and your mother. I would like to underline the first lines of your comment: “Whoever told me about the Holocaust, who taught me moral distinctions, who gave me music and told me jokes is in a nursing home: alone, scared, surrounded only by people so much worse off (inarticulate, incompetent, drooling, she thinks she’s in a mad house. ”The lines also talk about how your mother raised you. Tell me about your mother.

The poems about my mother are very important to me, and I think they are some of my best work. I don’t know anyone in the world that I admire as much as my mother. She was a wonderful, generous and interesting person. She was the youngest of five children and, like her siblings, was born in Russia. She had to leave school when she was barely a teenager. Her older siblings were married and she was the only one who could take care of her parents. It was in the 1920s. My mother was the first woman to drive a car in her neighborhood. She loved Broadway shows, and it was all before her wedding. I think of her as a sort of boyish – someone who was having fun outside, someone who knew about the latest inventions. When she finally got married, she was almost 40 years old.

My mother taught me to read and write before kindergarten. She also taught me English and, of course, Yiddish, which we spoke at home. The saddest thing about my mom’s dementia in the late 80s was that she always felt like something was missing. Her identity was slipping away, and there was nothing to replace it, and it was heartbreaking.

How did your mother influence you as a poet?

She had a book of great poems in English, which she read to me. She liked popular music, which I like too. So she was still singing or playing records, and I learned the lyrics to popular songs by listening to her and on the radio.

You won the Pulitzer Prize for your music review published in the Boston Phoenix. Looks like your mother had something to do with it.

My mom was the first person I called when I found out I had won the Pulitzer. I said to him, “Do you know what the Pulitzer Prize is? And my mother said, “Yes. Do you have one? The next day there was a picture of me in the Boston Globe on the phone with my mom. I had excellent writers at the Phoenix who cared about writing and journalism. I learned a lot from them. I also had a week to write a song for the Phoenix rather than the time I had when I was reviewing concerts for the Boston Herald daily.