Grace Cavalieri is just as comfortable in the kitchen making gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms as she is in the radio studio interviewing, Juan Felipe Herrera, the new Poet Laureate of the United States. When I talked with Grace about the role of myth in her life and work, she moved easily between making me tea with honey and sharing her latest poetry reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books—a labor she performs faithfully every month.
During the interview, we talked about her home life, her life as a Navy wife, and her early years as a writer when she was raising her four children. Here’s a brief teaser from a section in Grace’s memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, where she explores the function of work in our lives:
“The workplace is a laboratory for the human spirit that allows us to overcome the obstacles we need to overcome to find what we want. The ‘wall’ people put up for us is a perfect way to find what we want on the other side. It focuses. Desire is made better by the wall. I never said it was easy.”
Ann Bracken: I’ve just finished reading your memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, and want to thank you for sharing so many details of your life with your readers. I found the work engaging, funny, and inspiring. What made you write it at this point in your life?
Grace Cavalieri: You make me so happy! Ken always wanted me to write about my adventures and I thought he was crazy. What would I possibly write about? How to cook chicken cacciatore? But after he died, he appeared to three psychics telling me to write “that book.” I just thought well I can do two pages a day…and that’s what I did.
AB: How long did it take you to write the memoir? What was the most challenging aspect of talking about your life?
GC: It took not quite a year from first my scratchings to the fourth proofing and production time. I kept criticizing my writing, not my life. That I could not change—but I knew I could not reach lyricism with the form I’d chosen, which was reportage. There are some nice moments in it, I’m sure, but being a practicing poetry person, the prose seems to like wearing a suit of armor while trying to fly. The chapter (three) about birthing my daughter Angel, under great duress and negative conditions, made me cry. I got acquainted with my PTSD kept so nicely undercover all these years.
AB: Throughout the book, you talk about breaking through boundaries in the arts, especially related to women’s roles. Can you describe the first boundary you crossed? Perhaps when you got the DC Arts Commission Grant?
GC: AR Ammons (winner of the National Book Award in 1973 and 1993) said “If you are nothing you can say and do anything.” He even misspelled “do” to make his point. So I knew, in 1966, that I was below everyone’s radar, and I had Ammons’ credentials. I learned that the DC Commission said it supported artists, so I wrote to them: I NEED SUPPORT. Ken and I had four children, and I was not working at a job, so I felt guilty spending money trying to mail my daily poems and plays out. The Arts Commission surprisingly invited me to tell my story. And I got $200. From that day forward, they set up a mechanism for funding artists. But I bought a maxi coat with the money. I figured they’d certainly want me to look like an artist instead of a homemaker.
AB: You grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and then married your high school sweetheart, Kenneth Flynn. You and Ken lived all over the United States as a result of Ken’s Navy service. You also raised four daughters and became an acclaimed poet, playwright, and radio host. Were there any cultural myths that shaped your early years? Your years as a Navy wife? What myths were you determined to challenge?
GC: Remember that I grew up in the 1930’s, and movies ruled our lives in the 1940’s, and beyond. The idea that someone could make up a story, and make us believe—it enchanted my imagination. I wrote to all the movie stars. I wanted to get backstage and see how it felt to tell a story.
And I believe writers are born wired to language, so any book I read could sail me to dreamland –wanting to understand how that book worked on my heart. What was the process of inventing those hieroglyphics on the page that could change my feelings so much? That was childhood.
The Navy was pure survival for me; alone for nine months, books were my friends. I was both parents for my children and very much alone.
As a practicing artist, after that tenure, I was ready for action. All the energy building up in me wanted out. I, once again, didn’t care what people thought of me (because I was nothing) so I was free to write what I wanted for the stage. Very few women playwrights were seen in 1967, and 1968, and those of us who were writing plays had to step on people’s feet to be heard. Our voices were too loud, and not ladylike. We were breaking walls. I don’t know if we made art or just noise. But desire can give writer lots of power.
AB: You were a working artist while you raised your children and ran a household. What advice can you offer women who struggle to do the same things today?
GC: I don’t even know that answer yet. Balance is what we try for, but it isn’t what we achieve.
I was a product of a 50’s marriage, so I was into structure. And I couldn’t write until the children were in school, and the meat defrosted for dinner, and ”real life” things were accomplished. Then I would give myself to myself.
When I needed to be out in the world, I missed some of my daughters’ events. Ken was both parents on those occasions. It is said, “Women can have everything they want, just not all things at the same time.”
I think Art is a dark horse we ride, and we have no choice, and we have to forgive ourselves for that.
AB: In your memoir, you say this about your dual challenges of writing and raising children: “If I was guilty of anything, it was sewing the light of poetry, and some days, leaving the children only the cloth.” Say more about this.
GC: Even when I was physically in a room with my children if my mind was elsewhere, was I present? Even if this is only at times — if you are staring at the ceiling thinking of that last line, what must that be to a little girl waiting for your attention? Being present is something I came to, thankfully, not too late.
AB: Your poetry book, What I Did for Love, deals with the life and career of Mary Wollstonecraft. What was it about her story that spoke across the centuries to you?
GC: She’s my girl. First, I could not believe, when I discovered her in 1974, that very few people knew she was the first woman to write a serious book of prose. Now she’s quite well served, thanks to some interim biographies. She stood shoulder to shoulder with men in the 1700’s! She was very real to me; she suffered trying to be a decent mother; she wanted the love of a male partner, and she was constantly living without financial means. In the beginning, she supported herself in London writing for a newspaper. Imagine her small room. The first 18th-century female journalist. She died in childbirth, frankly because doctors didn’t bother washing their hands, unless of course, a woman was a bluestocking.
AB: What myth is yet to be written?
GC: What a great, great question. The myth that needs to be explored is that this life is all there is; that our dimensions are physical: length, width, depth, breadth ,height; that there is no invisible world surrounding us; that the dead have gone away; that eternity is not somewhere colored blue and far away, instead of around us every moment in the living room.
AB: Much of your memoir is woven with stories about your marriage to Ken Flynn and how the relationship fed you both personally and professionally. In the memoir, you talk about the afterlife and messages from Ken. What led you to write these lines in the poem “Messages From the Other World”?
“…I agree I’d put everyone’s mind at ease to call it
coincidence, or parallels to life
from undercurrents of thought, but did I tell you that tonight
I put the last log in the fireplace—although
it’s well into Spring—and without a match, I returned and
it’s already alive with flames?”
~from The Man Who Got Away
GC: As I’ve already revealed “I am a believer.” And that’s because every time I get lost from that, something will happen to let me know that all energy— past, present, future— exists at every moment. And Ken went nowhere at all.
AB: At the very end of your memoir, you paint a memorable scene, and you relate that event to learning to do the impossible. Tell us about that event and how it has shaped your perspective.
GC: I think you’re referring to Ken’s return from his first 6-month cruise to the Mediterranean. I hadn’t seen him since our honeymoon. We wives welcomed the aviators from the carrier, and the Admiral did us a huge favor by saying we could tour the ship. I, of course, had spike high heels on and a pencil slim skirt. I followed everyone until we got on a metal ladder hanging between decks over the Atlantic Ocean— NO backs to the steps–just a view of the water. I climbed and froze. Everyone was stuck behind me with a 30-meter view of the waves beneath. I have no memory of how I got up or down. I must have, because, here I am.
AB: How did that experience prepare you for the life and work still to come? What is your current paradigm?
GC: Frankly, it was not an act of bravery but stupidity. I have learned how to opt out of any area I cannot manage. It’s ok to say “ I cannot climb 30 meters over the ocean, thank you. I’ll wait here.” It’s ok to say, “I can’t play chess, speak Chinese, or program your computer.” In years past we were taught we had to climb every mountain, never admit limitations. Some people need to stay in the camp at the base of the mountain and cook delicious food for the climbers.
My present paradigm in life is to be mindful, connected to the moment, and admit the work I have on my desk is the greatest gift one could imagine. Whether it’s radio production, poetry, editing, or reviewing—imagine how great it is getting to do what I’ve been practicing for 50 years. That’s the definition of happiness. I have a poem titled “Work Is My Secret Lover.”
AB: Grace ends her memoir with these lines. They serve as powerful inspiration for all who strive to follow their dreams.
“In a way, that is where I am today. Between levels. Not frozen now, and able to do the impossible, as we all are able, making art, creating some new things that never existed before; trusting that there’s something at the top of the stairs, and a hand to pull me in. It’s what makes me take the next step.”
Online Editor’s Note: Poet Grace Cavalieri is an Italian-American writer and host of the radio program The Poet and the Poem, presented by the Library of Congress through National Public Radio. Life Upon the Wicked Stage: A Memoir (New Academia Publishing/Scarith Books, 2015) is available now. You can read a another interview with Grace Cavalieri by Ann Bracken in our Food Issue.