The year was 1983. Lloyd Schwartz was living in Cambridge, working as classical music editor for The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly periodical with a nationally renowned music section. He was also teaching full-time at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
At the time, Conde Nast Publications was reviving the magazine Vanity Fair, which had been popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Susan Sontag, a fan of Schwartz’s work, recommended him to the editors at the new magazine. He wrote a feature for the magazine on the state of modern conducting in the classical music world. This was the only time Schwartz had ever received a contract for his critical writing.
Though the first editor of the new Vanity Fair was happy with the piece, the leadership of the magazine changed rapidly. Later editors characterized it as “[not] the sort of thing anyone would want to read at the beach,” Schwartz says. They decided to drop him—but he had a contract, so they bought him out of it.
This gave Schwartz enough money to put a down payment on a house in East Somerville. He set out to navigate the literary life of his new home city. Josie Wrangham, the librarian at the small East Branch of the Somerville Public Library, asked him to do a reading.
“It was a great introduction … between me and Somerville, but I still kind of felt like I was an exile and I no longer had my Cambridge parking sticker,” Schwartz says.
Harvard Square was a hub of literary activity in bygone eras, Schwartz says.
“Moving here in 1984, I felt my literary center was still in Cambridge,” he says. “And in some way, it still is. Somerville is more grassroots. It’s so lively. You could say [there is] something wilder about it.”
Schwartz, who has written his share of both music criticism and poetry, says that he has channeled his poetic sensibilities while writing music reviews. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his arts criticism in 1994.
“There’s two ways to write about music,” he says. “And one is to write about music technically. You know, did this violinist play all the notes? Were they all in tune? Was it the right tempo? Or you can write about music in the sense of … the experience. I’ve learned how to write prose in a way that conveys not only information, but feeling.”
The City of Somerville named Schwartz its poet laureate, a two-year appointment, in January 2019.
“I feel very honored, and feel that my connection to the city and the city’s connection to me have been cemented by this,” he says.
Schwartz co-hosted his first event with the Somerville Arts Council in April. It was a reading at the Armory entitled “Poems We Love.” Attendees were invited to read poems or song lyrics they had enjoyed. He says that 30 people read poems—including Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Representative Denise Provost, former Representative Mike Capuano, a Somerville High School student, and members of the City Council. Schwartz says he organized the event around the mayor’s availability and was pleased to find that Curtatone came early to set up the event and stayed until the very end.
Readers were explicitly unpublished poets, with the exception of Provost, whose first book, “Curious Peach,” came out last summer.
Schwartz also holds monthly poetry discussions at the same East Branch library where he held his first Somerville reading in the 1980s. On one Saturday morning each month, Somervillians are invited to the library to talk about their impressions of poems.
“We’ll talk about … what you liked about this poem, and … did anything bother you? Or were you confused? It’s not like a class. I lead the conversation but it can go anywhere,” Schwartz says.
Schwartz is currently the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing. He is retiring at the end of December 2019, though he hopes to return as a visiting writer someday. As a retiree, he will have more time to invest in poet-laureate projects. For future events, he hopes to have poets read their original work in addition to poems they love. He also hopes to pursue a translation project with Somerville High School students.
Last year, Schwartz was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for his poetry.
“It’s the best award I’ve ever gotten in poetry,” he says. “It was a … wonderful, thrilling confirmation that my poems can reach other people.”
An avid reader, Schwartz fills his life with prose. He recommends picking up Denise Provost’s “Curious Peach,” Somerville poet David Blair’s book of essays “Walk Around,” and Malden-born poet David Surrette’s “Malden.”
Schwartz’s next book will include both previously published poems and selected newer works. It will also include the translated works of Brazilian writers.
The online version of this article has been updated to reflect that the mayor present at Schwartz’s first event was Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, not Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern.
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