Celebrating the milestone of this Passager co-editor with an interview. Featuring poems by Mary Azrael and Jean Connor.
Chanuka, Christmas, Kwaanza, New Year’s . . . They all pale this year and recede to the background. Because this month, we’re celebrating Passager co-editor Mary Azrael’s 80th birthday. And because we couldn’t find a cake big enough to hold 80 candles — and one to grow on — we’re commemorating the event by featuring Mary on this week’s Burning Bright.
Mary’s been with Passager almost from the very beginning, over 30 years. I asked her why she’s stuck with Passager for so long.
“It’s just so enriching in every way in terms of the people, the people who work together and the people who come into our lives through what they send us to read. And a lot of that comes from their cover letters and the way they talk about their lives and — I’m about to cry because I cry about everything now; I think it’s ‘cause I’m almost 80. But really, there are just so many ways to live a life and to come to the place where you find that writing does something for your being that nothing else does.”
Here’s Mary Azrael’s poem “The Young Mother.”
My mother tells me a story
—not a story—
a few treasured facts
of my life before I was
in it on my own.
I lean closer to hear
things that happened to her
when she and I were one.
How I thrill to the words
where you were conceived
in the house full of clocks and dinosaur bones,
a stranger’s house in a strange landscape
in the middle of Texas in the middle of the war.
1943. Nobody knew how it would end.
Sixty-two years ago,
and now she’s beginning to say
There’s not much time.
I always thought there was plenty of time
but there isn’t.
We sit, our arms touching, at the seder table
with everyone talking around us disappearing,
and inside me the young mother she was
stretches out at the foot of my bed
leaning on her elbow, telling the little girl I was
stories of the adventure she lived
before I was born,
when she and I were one.
Mary Azrael’s poem “The Young Mother.”
In our conversation, Mary talked about things she liked about working on Passager, but we know that there’s no job that doesn’t have its drawbacks, too.
“One thing I really feel awful about is having to say ‘no’ to so many wonderful writers because we can’t afford to publish every terrific thing that comes in. And that’s a big one. Another thing is that sometimes because we are so connected by our phones, it’s kind of like we’re always working; we try not to be, but we are. I think, ‘Well, do I really want to do this? I’m almost 80; I have all these other things I love to do. I have my own writing. I’ve read three books in the last four years; I used to read three books a week! But then when I think about it, I think, ‘No, I don’t want to stop doing this! It lifts my spirits so much, and I would really miss it.”
Mary said that of all the many Passager writers she loves and respects, one stands out.
“Jean Connor is the one that lives the largest in my heart because she was our first book and such a gift to us in the way she helped us become book publishers with her wisdom and her wonderful sense of humor and everything. I miss her. I drink out of her coffee cup that she drank out of when she was in Baltimore. She’s like my goddess!”
Here’s my favorite Jean Connor poem, “Of Some Renown.”
For some time now, I have
lived anonymously. No one
appears to think it odd.
They think the old are,
well, what they seem. Yet
see that great egret
at the marsh’s edge, solitary,
still? Mere pretense
that stillness. His silence is
a lie. In his own pond he is
of some renown, a stalker,
a catcher of fish. Watch him.
“Of Some Renown,” Jean Connor from her first book — and Passager’s first book — A Cartography of Peace.
One more poem by Mary Azrael, this one from her book Riddles for a Naked Sailor. See if you can guess the subject.
Sound or unsound
I am crumpled and bent,
cupped to catch
what no hand can touch.
Shallow and small
I can hold the thunder
and swallow great waves
though far from water.
My power quivers
between two partners;
a talking drum,
a listening snail.
Did you guess what Mary was describing? If you guessed an ear, you were correct.
“I think working on Passager has had an effect on how I feel about turning 80. I’m kind of excited now; I feel like a little kid — ‘I’m going to be 80!’ I don’t say I’m 79 anymore; I say ‘I’m almost 80’ like little kids do — they want to be older. And I’m pretty sure that came from Passager, just seeing all these fabulous people who discovered more about themselves in their 80s and even their 90s. It’s amazing!”
The best way you can help us celebrate Mary Azrael’s 80th birthday is to make a donation to Passager in her honor. You can do that by going to Passagerbooks.com and clicking on “donate.” You can also mail a check to Passager, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, MD 21208.
Passager’s offices are shutting down for the holidays, but we’ll be back shortly after the first of the year.
For Kendra, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, not to mention The Birthday Girl, I’m Jon Shorr.