This is the fifth in a series of blog posts I am doing this week to honor those whom I call star-makers, meaning those who help make others’ literary lives possible, and sometimes wonderful. I don't know of anyone who gives as much to other writers and poets as Grace Cavalieri. I am so looking forward to reading her next book, due out next fall . . .
Every now and then I come across someone who does it all, and I think, How does this woman sleep? Grace Cavelieri is one of those people. Every few days I receive an email from her including a recent interview, podcast or feature on a poet or artist, or a set of book reviews, recently published in The Washington Independent Review of Books. I am just so grateful every time I hear from her. She is the embodiment of the gift horse that never stops giving. After all, there are so few good reviewers these days, and even fewer as dedicated as she is to promoting poetry as a part of her daily life.
Whatever Grace Cavalieri does, she does with brilliance--and great love. Whenever I read her work or hear her interviews, I feel briefly enlightened and uplifted. There is always a kind of laughter and/or delight in her words, whether written or spoken. Not surprisingly, her own poems are insightful, personal, deeply imagined, and entertaining. A natural playwright, she has turned some of her poems into plays. I think her beautiful poem, “Letters,” from her collection, The Mandate of Heaven, speaks of her particular gift—of how and perhaps why she writes. Cavalieri is a poet who tells stories in verse that are the very stories that we’re not finished with.
If you ask what bring us here,
Staring out of our lives
Like animals in high grass,
I’d say it was what we had in common
with the other—the hum of a song we
believe in which can’t be heard,
the sound of our own
luminous bodies rising just behind the hill,
the dream of a light which won’t go out,
and a story we’re not finished with.
We talk of things we cannot comprehend
so that you’ll know about
the inner and outer world which are the same.
Someone has to be with us in this,
and if you are, then,
you know us best. And I mean all of us,
the deer who leaves his marks behind him
in the snow, the red fox moving through the woods.
The same stream in them is in us too
although we are the chosen ones who speak.
Please tell me what you think cannot be sold
And I will say that’s all there is:
the pain in our lives
. . . the thoughts we have . . .
We bring these small seeds.
Do what you can with them.
What is found in this beleaguered
and beautiful land is what we write of.
While some of her poems, like “Tomato Pies, 25 Cents” tell of her Italian childhood and Trenton, New Jersey, others enter the imagined lives and dreams of others, lives as varied as Mary Wollstonecraft, an eighteenth century feminist, Anna Nicole, and the amorous residents of a nursing home. When reading Grace Cavalieri’s poems, I can sometimes see the beginnings of a dialog or drama, and the future of her poems as a play, as in this one about Anna Nicole:
NOTES FROM A DISTANT GLACIER
Interviewer: Do you want to be someone of worth?
Or do you want to be famous?
Designer: if they photograph you nude,
It’s called ART.
Critic: They should project her on the wall, the one WAAY far behind us.
Trainer: In life there can be only one winner.
Mother: Would you please sit like a normal person?
Manager: Take a pill, for God’s sake - any pill. Just do it.
Doctor: No medicine can make you stop feeling.
Lawyer: Don’t even think about it, Anna,
Death doesn’t care about you. You owe it to the world to make it pretty.
Director: Give them heart, Give them breast.
Lover: Being a blonde beauty doesn’t make you a whore, necessarily.
Anna looks out the window.
She sees the pink azalea outside. So pretty. That color.
So perfect. It must be fake.
And then there is this poem from the Anna Nicole series. I love how Grace captures the very aura of Anna Nicole:
At the ½ star hotel
the lower lip is painted bigger, to match
the dreams of being a star.
She blessed the lumpy beds, bought her own silk sheets.
This was before the moral issues, the legal issues,
the spirit of the law, the letter of the law,
the causes of death, junkies, drug addicts,
probable criminal cause, bodies exhumed,
frozen sperm, mystery sons,
living in sorrow, wrongful death,
Before the opalescent and oceans
where she could never find the truth in things,
where she wanted a photo album so bad,
so she wouldn’t die without memories--
one day, standing at the free continental breakfast
dragging her sleeve in the jelly,
someone walked by, touching her waist like a prayer,
like an enfranchisement,
and she was on her way,
in a dress made for someone much smaller,
trusting a stranger because he said,
The Good Lord can’t see what happens at Hollywood.
Very different in temperament are Cavaleiri’s poems about Mary Wollstonecraft such as this one:
I CAN THINK OF FAR WORSE THINGS
Than to be a governess-
saying “that’s that” and hustling children
To the bath-
Oh yes, far worse things…
Like prostitution, for example,
Or embroidering, for that matter…
Or marrying someone I do not love.
And although I’ve never had the pox,
And one eyelid droops a little,
I am not ugly. If I lack sparkle
It’s just because
There’s such a narrow light in this room.
Do people think I should be a squirrel or a rabbit?
In the shed eating wood? Unworthy of my work?
No, with twelve guineas saved
One could start her own school,
Or by some self respect,
Or even start a dowry.
If I have to work for people whose
Fortune was not made in this lifetime,
Then I will tend to them sweetly,
Saving this beautiful handwriting for night.
Clearly, whatever series she is working on, Cavalieri’s poems are rich in detail and enchantment.
So I thought I’d ask Grace a few questions:
- Grace, first of all, how do you do it? How do you have time? You are also a mother and grandmother and a cook and . . . ??
I have a magic wand. I can expand time whenever I love something. Your contacting me gives me so much good energy. It was 3pm before. Now it’s 2:45. See what a difference a happy event makes!
2. I have this idea that you were born writing poetry. Tell me how you became a poet.
I have interviewed about 3,000 poets in 40 years and almost everyone said “You won’t believe this but I wrote as a child” I say “NO. Really?” It’s true, I believe all poets come out wired that way and see the world through language, and the edge of words rather than the words themselves. A neurological disorder perhaps.
3. How does a poem come to you?
It starts with a feeling, then there are words. I rely on my nighttime mind a lot because who could make up stuff like that? I also like to play with language randomly and let it lead me “to the heart” as Jane Hirschfield says. I don’t mind memory and I often enter the building of my life to go up and down the elevator, stopping on floors to see what happened—turning that to narrative.
4. Are currently you working on a new series of poems or a play? And how does a poem become a play?
Good question. As an example, I have 3 specific books of poems: one on Anna Nicole Smith, one on Mary Wollstonecraft, one on old folks at “Pinecrest Rest Haven.” After the characters were so alive, there was nothing to do with them but put them on stage and let them slug it out. They would not go away. My husband said he never knew who was coming down for breakfast any one day: an 18th century feminist, a playboy bunny, or an ex-slave quiltmaker.
My new play is Millie’s Sunshine Tiki Villas. I’m trying to transform it from my novella-in-verse by that title. But it wants to go nowhere in a hurry.
5. Tell me about one of your favorite interviews? Can I have any quotes from an interview? Links?
Allen Ginsberg was so rude. He’d been marching all night in 1976 to protest something in DC and had no sleep and when I got him on tape he hammered everything I said and I stopped the interview and said “who would want to be with you for an hour?” And he did a 180, we became friends finally. Louise Gluck (my favorite!) stopped half way through and said she was through. She was tired, but I still had 30 minutes to fill so fortunately I remembered a book we hadn’t mentioned and we went on. A.R. Ammons arrived for an hour interview with NO BOOKS. Fortunately I had some of his. There were countless moments of breathlessness in the past 40 years.
6. How did you start working with Didi Menendez?
A friend was published in MiPOesias years and years ago. So I sent in some work. She’s my cultural hero and I cannot say enough about what she’s done/ and been/ as a cutting edge curator of art in America. She mentioned making books (Casa Menendez Press;) and then published five of mine. She inspires me to give up fear. BE DIDI, I say to myself every night. Just change the world. No problem. Be DiDi.
7. And the Library of Congress?
I was core staff co-founding WPFW-FM in DC where poetry was really the news that stays news. My show “The Poet and the Poem” was “live” for 20 years.
As a writer, I knew folks at the LOC Poetry Office and through that office, and its Public Relations, “The Poet and the Poem” was contracted with a handshake to run nationally*(*If I could find the funding. The Witter Bynner FDN came through and has stayed for 20 years.) It was agreed that if I could sustain the show, the Library would offer soft services—a room in THE HOUSE OF MEMORY. And I cherish every marble step there.
8. I’d love to close with another poem or an excerpt of your choice.
(From an early book Why I Cannot Take A Lover, Washington Writer’s Publishing House, 1976.)
Don’t Undersell Yourself
Consider the brown cow
Eating green grass
Giving white milk.
Grace Cavalieri’s new book is WITH (Somondoco Press 2016.) She’s the author of several books and produced plays. The most recent play, “Anna Nicole: Blonde Glory.” (Theatre for the New City, NYC 2012.) She celebrates 40 years on public radio with “The Poet and The Poem” now recorded at The Library of Congress. She’s taught at Antioch College and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She’s the founder of two poetry presses in DC, still thriving, and is presently the poetry columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books. Cavalieri was awarded the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from WASH INDEP REVIEW. She received the George Garrett Award from AWP for Service to literature; two Allen Ginsberg Awards ; Paterson Award; Bordighera Poetry Prize; and the inaugural Columbia Award; A Pen Fiction Award; plus CPB’s Silver Medal. She was married to the late sculptor Kenneth Flynn. They had 4 children 4 grandchildren; and now there’s a new greatgrandchild.
Nin Andrews is the author of several poetry books, most recently Our Lady of the Orgasm. Her next collection, Miss August, is due out in a few weeks. Her website is Ninandrews.com