The Marvelous Mrs. Mae

(Reprint of “Reviews and Reflections” from Light‘s Spring-Summer 2009 issue, in which Mae Scanlan was the featured poet)

If you’re a fan of Mae Scanlan—and it’s hard to imagine a longtime Light reader who isn’t—it won’t shock you to learn she’s a pianist. Who but a seasoned musician could give so many poems such a catchy, rollicking beat? “It’s not that I’m a great player,” she says, after mentioning that every month for 22 years, she has played during happy hour at a nursing home. “It’s that I just happen to know all the old songs of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, and this brings smiles to the faces of even those who can’t speak or move.”

You’ll also find it makes perfect sense that for 28 years, Scanlan has been a photographer. Like a well-developed picture, her poems tend to have just the right balance of subject and background, telling detail, and (of course) light. Until 2004, she worked full time as a stock photographer—shooting what she liked, then selling to clients such as Hallmark, Fodor’s, and the National Park Service. She and her husband, Tom, traveled widely as a result, and also produced a book about their hometown: Beautiful America’s Washington, D.C. (Scanlan, who has lived in D.C. most of her life, took the photos; Tom, a retired journalist, wrote the text.) As in Scanlan’s poetry, some of her favorite subjects are animals and—when their parents aren’t around—children. “Parents always want kids to comb their hair and smile for the camera,” she says, “but sometimes they’re much cuter with a stray piece of hair or a sagging pant leg.”

What may amaze you, though—what defies logic—is that Scanlan has found any time to write. Not only is she a photographer and pianist, she’s also a mother of two grown children; a grandmother of three; a caretaker to her husband (who has suffered a stroke and other health problems); and a “surrogate grandparent” to the 10 or so kids who live on her block. Nonetheless, Scanlan’s output so far—published and not—is probably enough to paper every room in her house, plus the rooms of all 10 of those kids. “I have boxes and boxes,” Scanlan says, containing poems that date clear back to her childhood.

A partial inventory of her work: about 1,000 limericks; hundreds of poems for children (some have been anthologized); dozens of poems in Light; scores of contest-winning poems in The Washington Post and such British publications as Literary Review, Lighten Up Online, and The Spectator (in which she was the first American ever to win highest honors); at least 100 song parodies, some of which have been performed by the National Press Club; and about a dozen mostly political poems that appeared in The Washington Times from ’98-’99. (The Times gig ended when the paper switched editorial directors. “It was just as well,” Scanlan says, “since I take a different view from the paper on most things.”)

What’s her secret to productivity? Simple, she says: she writes almost everywhere. On planes, trains, and the Metro, for instance. In doctors’ waiting rooms. On park benches. In restaurants. And, of course, at home. The only place she rarely writes is on a computer, which she finds incompatible with poetry’s starts and stops and thinking spells. “I write longhand on a drugstore pad,” she says. “I sit in my chair with my cup of tea. … If I have to sit and think, I prefer to be in an easy chair. I’m big on rewrites. I do a lot of crossing out, substituting words, sometimes tossing out an entire verse. It goes through a lot before I feel like, ‘OK, this is the poem.'”

Her effort shows in her seemingly effortless results, which range from epigrammatic to nearly epic, from peevish to praising. In the praise department, Scanlan has memorably extolled such subjects as oysters, dogs, spatulas, bathtubs, London fog, cats, and the humble mop:

A Quiet Thank You

Here’s to the man who invented the mop,
For this simple tool is the cream of the crop.
There’s nary a person, in city or village,
Immune to the prospect of breakage and spillage.
Oops! There goes the coffee all over the floor,
Out comes the mop and the coffee’s no more.
Pulverized Cheerios, snippets of snacks,
Puddles of raindrops and wet muddy tracks,
Dropped cones of ice cream, and tipped cans of paint,
Mop to the rescue. Big mess… then it ain’t.
Mankind’s mistakes: things that spill, break, or drop,
All are erased by the swish of the mop.
It’s lovely to know that when thing go awry,
There’s always a sturdy old mop standing by.
I wish some inventor would make it his goal
To try to come up with a mop for the soul.

Among topics Scanlan has, conversely, singled out for scorn: Abbott and Costello, Sonny and Cher, lost luggage, croquet, skimpy girls’ clothes, lead-tainted toys, and politicians—often in the form of song parodies. Songs come naturally to her, after all. She has written more than 20 original ones since early adulthood—lyrics and music—and published three. One of these, a “tear-jerker” about a shipwreck that she penned soon after college, was nearly her ticket to fame. “It was a country-western type song,” she says, “and was supposed to be recorded by Eddy Arnold, who was then the No. 1 singer in his category—and always sold a million or more records of any song he recorded. I was beside myself with glee. But, at the last minute, it turned out he had a contractual problem and couldn’t do it till the next year, and my publisher [RCA Victor] didn’t want to wait, so gave it to a young unknown. It got good reviews, but never really made it; I got a small royalty check for a few years and that was that.” Bad news for Scanlan, perhaps—but excellent news for light-verse fans. If she had gone on to write full time for the Eddy Arnolds of the world, we probably wouldn’t be getting gems like the following (one of several parodies Scanlan has done on Sarah Palin, whom she calls “the gift that keeps on giving”):

I’m Just Like You*
To the tune of “The Band Played On”

I’m gonna win ’cause I’ve managed to spin that I’m just-like-you;
I chat with my neighbor, I go into labor, I’m just-like-you;
I’m so darn plebeian I’m picturin’ me an’ you huntin’ and hoistin’ a few;
Don’t go for the pearl; I’m your ornery girl, and I’m just-like-you.
My values are flawless, I’m a little bit lawless, I’m just-like-you;
I don’t like elitists, hey, we are red meatists! I’m just-like-you;
I’m not hoity-toity, I fight down and doity, my bloodlines are red ‘stead of blue;
So give me your vote and I’ll paddle your boat ’cause I’m just-like-you.

*First published in The Washington Post Style Invitational.

Whether she’s skewering a subject or saluting it, what unites Scanlan’s work is her contagious sense of play. “I am a total punster,” she says. “It can’t be the lowliest of puns, though. A good pun is a pretty clever thing.” She also believes in the power of Nashian made-up words and run-on lines—and scoffs at the widespread notion that these belong exclusively to the man himself. “He did develop a different style and I think it’s a fun style to write in,” she says, noting that poets seem to have no qualms about writing Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. Other influences you may spot in Scanlan’s work are Phyllis McGinley, Tom Lehrer, Richard Armour, Lewis Carroll, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Parker. And one you might not: her late mother, Lucretia Zabilsky—an unpublished poet who always encouraged Scanlan to do her witty best, and doubtless would have approved of these:

Historical Vignette

Attila the Hun
Was a terrible man,
Somewhat akin
To the vile Genghis Khan.
He massacred hordes
And he vented his spleen
On nations entire—
Oh Lord! He was mean.
But when with his wife
He was sweet as a bunny,
And that’s why she called him
Attila the honey.

My Lover Lies Over the Ocean
To the tune of “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”

My lover lies over the ocean,
My lover lies over the sea;
My lover lies over his cell phone,
He always is lying to me.

Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back the rack and the pinion, too;
Bring back, bring them back,
Then bring back my lover, please do!


I wonder, did Julius Caesar
Ever tweak out stray hairs with a twaesar?
Do any of the plays of Aristophanes
Involve riots or cacophanes?
Did Deborah Kerr
Ever go into a berr, or was she too big a sterr?
After being saved from the sea monster, did Andromeda
Take to her bed and need a thermomeda?
Was the fate of Tahiti
Ever solved by triti?
I don’t wonder, however, if Amerigo Vespucci
Ever did the hucci cucci.

As may be obvious in the above verses, another key to Scanlan’s prolificacy is that she truly enjoys writing—”especially when the ‘aha’ moment comes and you think, ‘This might be a good poem!'” No angst-filled writer’s block for her. No procrastination-fueled bingeing on the Home Shopping Network. Instead, when she isn’t busy versifying for potential audiences of hundreds or thousands, Scanlan cranks out “doggerel” with an intended readership of one (a granddaughter with a cold, say; a son who refuses to wear a hat; a “ticket lady” who—despite the 48-line lament Scanlan sent her—did not let Scanlan into a sold-out performance of the British Music Hall, an annual variety show she adores). “Poetry has helped me to cope,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way to escape from something that occupies the common mind. When my mother was dying and we could no longer communicate, I sat beside her and—it sounds bizarre, but I was writing a poem called ‘The Theft of the English Language.’  … I thought, ‘This is a very serious moment in my life and the way I’m dealing with it is to write something funny.'”

Scanlan—who believes light verse can be as high a calling as any other form of poetry—hopes her poems help others cope as well. “One purpose of writing is to inform,” she says, “but what’s wrong with making somebody laugh? Particularly in these times, a laugh is, gee, hard to find!” Though not, of course, when you’re reading Mae Scanlan.

~ Melissa Balmain