Marilyn Zuckerman has published five books of poetry, Personal Effects, Alice James Books, Cambridge, 1976, Monday Morning Movie, Street Editions, N.Y., 1981, Poems of the Sixth Decade, Garden Street Press, 1993, and from Cedar Hill Publications, Amerika/America, 2002, as well as a chapbook from The Greatest Hits series, Pudding House Publications, 2001. Her newest book, In the Ninth Decade, was published from Red Dragonfly Press in 2010.
She has received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award and an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.
From Marilyn Zuckerman Greatest Hits 1970-2000, published in 2001
Of Divorce, the Fox, the Movies
I received a BA in 1971 from Sarah Lawrence College after studying in the Horace Gregory Writing Program. In 1974 I was awarded an MA in poetry and teaching from Goddard College’s graduate program.
Coming out of what Tillie Olson calls “foreground silence,” I was in my forties when I first went back to school and was fortunate to have teachers who provided me with some of my deepest experiences in literature. Among them were Kenneth Koch and Kay Boyle at the New School in New York City, where I lived with my family. Then later at Sarah Lawrence College, I studied with Grace Paley and Jane Cooper, and at Goddard with Jean Valentine. Through them I was introduced to and influenced by an amazing range of poets, from the Beats to William Carlos Williams, from Lowell, Sexton and Plath to the French Symbolists.
At Sarah Lawrence, I heard Adrienne Rich read her translations from the Ghazals of the Persian poet Ghalib, as well as her own poems in the form. Hearing them inspired me to write my “Ghazal,” which was then published by the New York Quarterly. In 1976 it appeared in my first book, Personal Effects (along with the work of Robin Becker and Helena Minton). The book was published by the Alice James Poetry Cooperative, Inc., a collective of poets with an emphasis on publishing poetry by women. As a collective, we shared the work of choosing and producing the books for publication, and for me this was a wonderful introduction to the vigorous world of Boston area poets. At the peak of the women’s movement, many doors opened to us. Libraries had been shut fast before, as well as book reviews and reading venues. We were the new girls in town, and it was exhilarating to be a part of it. Another inspiration was teaching poetry to children through a Poets in the Schools Program.
Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, divorce soon followed the publishing of this book and many poems about this experience led to a new collection, Country of Divorced Women. These poems spoke of the bitterness and rage of breaking up, and were very angry and somewhat sensational. Though the manuscript remains unpublished, many of the poems were favorites at readings that year when deep feminist ideas such as “…the personal is political” were abroad. “Prologue,” a poem of that collection, along with others, did show up later in my third book, Poems of the Sixth Decade.
All of this was an indication of the vast changes in my life that had taken me from the lifestyle of a fifties housewife with an underground dream, like so many film heroines of the time, to the protagonist in a bildingsroman. From now on I was to move about a great deal, and it is hard to know whether I took poetry to new places or the poetry took me. Within the next ten years, I moved from Boston to Cambridge, back to New York, then Cape Cod, and finally back to Boston, where I have stayed.
Like my physical restlessness, each new book seems to enter a different terrain. I moved from the anger of Country of Divorced Women to the mixed media format of Monday Morning Movie–a pullout artist’s book that “…chronicles the rise and fall of romantic love in the movies since World War I.”* The collaboration with visual artist Barbara Cesery uses photographs from our respective family albums. Published in 1981 by the artist’s collective Street Editions in SoHo, it brought me back to New York–to (where else?) the Chelsea Hotel. This was the era of Sid and Nancy and the punks, and my many adventures included finding blood and vomit on the marble stairs, punks with dead rats around their necks and safety pins piercing their ears, the pimp next door, and Tom Waits’ voice coming up through the heating vents in the bathroom while two mice perched on the curtain railings above the tub.
“Billie Holiday,” along with two other poems from Monday Morning Movie, was set to music and performed at the Encompass Theater, off Broadway, by a dancer from the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe and a jazz singer at Reno Sweeney’s, a well known Greenwich Village night spot. I believe I achieved my 15 minutes of fame when, walking down 13th Street one day, I ran into this woman. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve just been singing ‘Billie Holiday’ to myself.” Another poem from the book, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” was much requested at readings, several of which were performed at art galleries, and later the poem was published in an anthology of movie poems.
Very much on the road in those days, I landed next on Cape Cod where I went to recover from the sensory overload of New York. There, landscape poems such as “Letting Down Roots” naturally seemed to follow from my life of chasing sunsets, discovering the many ponds and endlessly walking the beaches in all weather. “Totems” was born out of a chance encounter with a fox near where I lived.
During this period of part time solitude–for winters on the Cape were long and lonely–I’d escape to The Cummington Community for the Arts in the mountains of western Massachusetts, where I enjoyed the company of other writers. There, while snowed in one February, I confronted a problem of late blooming, which is that one is often in mid-career while at the same time–aging. This idea resulted in the poem, “After Sixty,” which celebrates the “strong older woman,” and became my most popular and most anthologized poem. Among other things, it is the central theme of Poems of the Sixth Decade. It clearly struck a nerve, and was often read at various women’s conferences.
Poems of the Sixth Decade included the Cape Cod poems, but many were written for my ex-husband who had died of cancer by the time the book was published. “Ceremonies,” which won an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, is part of an elegy sequence dedicated to him. “Brooklyn,” on the other hand, is an elegy of sorts dedicated to the lost, legendary, Brooklyn Dodgers. This poem was published by The Long Islander, a newspaper founded by Walt Whitman, and it was also published by Fan, a baseball magazine.
“The Cherry Orchard,” “My Aunt Belle,” and “Phosphorescent Bay,” will appear in a new collection, Amerika/America, Cedar Hill Publications.
It usually takes me a decade to put together a new book and the poems always seem to develop an obvious narrative structure. Thus, Amerika/America came partly out of the frustration and fascination of watching the evening news on television from 1989 to the present, and partly from traveling the country during that time. Most of the poems are very political, but throughout there is a clear dialectic between political consciousness and enjoyment of nature. Both “My Aunt Belle,” and “The Cherry Orchard” have been published in journals that reflect the radical spirit of the poems, Rethinking Marxism and Cedar Hill Review, while “Phosphorescent Bay,” though about a part of the controversial island of Vieques, is published in Knowing Stones: Poems of Exotic Places, travel anthology.
*Monday Morning Movie was at the Franklin Furnace archive for Artists Books in SoHo until the collection was turned over to the Museum of Modern Art, where it is now. It also appeared in Artists Books, a critical anthology and sourcebook where it is included in the article, “Words and Images,” by Shelley Rice, featuring a reproduction of our title page, a discussion of the book; it is the source of the asterisked quotation.