10th Anniversary: An Interview with Grace Cavalieri

This interview was originally published on October 30, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

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.”

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 8: Spirituality. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/current/

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Interview with Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

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.

Poetry Panic

nationalpoetrymonth-2358It’s April. National Poetry Month. First a confession: until recently, my limited exposure to poetry dated back to high school, where we focused on the classics —Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Shakespeare. Back then I even tried my own hand at writing poetry. What came forth was the typical angst-ridden teenage rants and love schemes with forced rhyming patterns. They’ll be perfect someday for inclusion in a Drivel-like expose.  My acknowledged later love for Robert Burns (Ode to a Haggis) evolved from a developed interest in genealogy and Scottish heritage. A month ago, I didn’t know a pantoum from a poetaster (though I admitted relief at not seeing my photo next to the latter for the aforementioned crimes against humanity).

Since assuming the role of online editor of Little Patuxent Review, I’ve come to realize just how lush the Mid-Atlantic region is with poetry readings and literary talent. If one wanted, one might attend every week, in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, a poetry reading, hosted at places like LitMore, Spiral Staircase, Busboys and Poets, to name only a few.

About a month ago, I attended a Spiral Staircase event in Annapolis where LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken read from her book The Altar of Innocence. She was one of two featured readers that evening. Leading up to the headliners were dozens of local poets, each of whom stepped up to the open microphone and read or recited his work before the audience, which threatened to overflow into the parking lot. Poets ranged from high schoolers to pensioners, and hit every demographic. Some wore pocket protectors, while others oozed beatnik cool. Topics made listeners swoon, gasp, cringe, and laugh. I sat in awe of the collective courage to openly share intimate words combined with the community’s warmth as each piece was embraced.

Seated just behind me were two rock stars in the poetry world: Grace Cavalieri and Le Hinton. Seated just next to me, the reason I’m writing this post: Laura Shovan (she recommended me for the online position). Submerging myself into their world felt like sinking into a lavender scented bubble bath after a long day. Never before have I felt so welcomed into a community.

I lamented to Laura later that evening on the ride home, “I’m surrounded by poets, and yet feel I utterly lacking in my knowledge of the subject. How did this happen?” She assured me I wasn’t alone and my ignorance curable.

Not one to shy away from learning, I threw myself into the task of filling in my educational gaps. I subscribed to Poetry, the oldest literary journal dedicated to verse, begun in 1912 by Harriet Monroe (might she be a distant relative of my Munro clan? I wonder in brief). I began to read poetry blogs, like AuthorAmok and Anthony Wilson, and paid attention to Aaron Henkin on WYPR’s “The Signal” as he interviews LPR contributor Michael Salcman. Naturally, I had to listen to Grace Cavalieri on her Library of Congress radio show, The Poet and The Poem. I studied Howard County’s own lost treasure Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”

I noticed that poets hid in plain sight. By day, they were geographers, neurosurgeons, army captains, teachers, professors, journalists, pilots. Yet they had in common a deep need to share their experiences with language so haunting, so beautiful that it stops us in our tracks. If we stop for just a moment and listen, what we hear might will forever change us.

When did poetry become so cool? Because that’s what it is. One of the poets who read at the Spiral Staircase event said —  and I’m paraphrasing here — poetry carries with it peace and love. As I reflect on that evening, here’s what the room was filled with: a community who came together from all walks of life to share words, thoughts and ideas over a common platform. The collective embrace felt palatable, uplifting, especially to this observer, a writer of prose. That’s just about as cool as it gets, pocket protectors not-withstanding.

Words — carefully selected, linked together, rhyming or not, with emphasis placed on syllables, drawn out for effect — matter.  You, too, can delve into Little Patuxent Review’s rich archives to listen to Clarinda Harris read, “Locust Songs” at a LPR launch and Little Patuxent Review panelists reading their poetry at the 2011 Baltimore Book Festival. Comb through the pages of the journal and find Anne Harding Woodworth and Kelli Stevens Kane poems. You’ll be glad you did.

Who knows, someday, somewhere you might even read a poem written by me.

 

A Lingering Taste: Two Interviews, Two Women

If you haven’t read Little Patuxent Review’s Food issue yet, it includes interviews with two unique women, one from California and one from nearby Annapolis.  Their stories can be savored, one after another, with the zest of Jane Hirshfield’s and Grace Cavalieri’s lives combining to create a lingering intensity you’ll think about days after you lay aside the Review.

Hirshfield_NEW_hi_res__color__credit_Nick_Rosza_-2

Jane Hirshfield. Photo by Nick Rosza. © Nick Rosza

“I learned that attention changes the flavor of things,”  said Jane Hirshfield, who lives and writes in Mill Valley, California. Hirshfield is a poet, translator, essayist and former cook at the influential Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.

Contemplate the power of her remark, “I learned that attention changes the flavor of things.” Depending upon context, she might be speaking about a stew, a poem, or a relationship. Hirshfield’s word choice in what appears on the surface to be a simple statement demonstrates her ability to layer meaning. All of her writing reads this way. I pulled apart each of her sentences, as delicate as phyllo dough, gasping at their beauty.

As I immersed myself in Hirshfield’s poetry, savoring her words, I found myself slowing down in the kitchen. Grinding pepper, tossing salt, licking the spoon, taking risks by going off book and steeping myself fully in the creative experience. I’m a foodie, but reading Hirschfield deepened my relationship with the cooking process.

Grace Cavalieri. Photo by Dan Murano, June 29, 2014. © Dan Murano

Grace Cavalieri. Photo by Dan Murano, June 29, 2014. © Dan Murano

No one knows the value of relationship like Grace Cavalieri. She and her late husband, Kenneth Flynn, were married for 60 years. “He gave me everything. He died so I could have the only gift he could not give while he lived, my independence,” the poet and playwright said.   Cavalieri interviews poets on The Library of Congress radio program  called The Poet and the Poem. “The love, betrayal, hunger, need, refusals, dependence, adoration—it was all ours.”

Cavalieri’s viewpoint that her husband’s death was his ultimate gift to her is a transformative thought. Her ability to comprehend and share a love so deep makes me yearn to sit at her feet, a student.

Like Hirshfield, Cavalieri’s words address the human condition. They both leave you with a lingering taste for living, hungry for new encounters. I wonder if whipping up Grace Cavalieri’s Spaghetti al Tonno is the magic ingredient to creating a love story like hers. Or will following the directions in Hirshfield’s spare but directive poem “Da Capo” teach me how to live more fully? What impact might these powerful women and their words have on you?

Special thanks goes out to all the women who contributed to the Food issue. You can read all about Jane Hirshfield’s insightful, creative life in the interview with Susan Thornton Hobby, a writer of prose and poetry and founding member of the Little Patuxent Review.  Grace Cavalieri’s interview by poet, workshop leader and LPR contributing editor Ann Bracken, speaks to the importance of  living a creative life breathing with possibilities.

Online Editor’s Note: Special thanks goes out to Michael J. Clark, LPR’s co-publisher for his insight, suggestion and seeds with which to sow this post.

 

 

Food for the Soul

Photography: Connie Imboden. Design: Deb Dulin

Photography: Connie Imboden. Design: Deb Dulin

Editor Steven Leyva writes in his Editor’s Note for this winter’s Little Patuxent Review Food Issue, “Before working on this issue I never realized how much enjoying food requires crossing different kinds of boundaries. The onion must give up its layers, the water’s surface must bend for the ladle, and even the worm must break the apple’s skin. Each has its tiny Rubicon.”

By examining up close that which sustains us, you are invited to experience food — with all its tastes, smells, and memories — differently. American activist Dorothy Day said, “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.” Food nourishes you, but what else feeds us? Offers succor?

As you sink your teeth into this winter’s issue, take time to savor each morsel. Tuck in your napkin. Shift in your seat. Lean forward. Turn the page to taste with deliberation the next offering. Contemplate the texture of food anew.

Your first course is Rose Fitzgerald’s sensual remembrance of consuming cherries for the first time. Don’t be surprised to find yourself wiping phantom juice from your chin. Then heap upon your plate a helping of shimmering anchovies served with grappa as you joyously revel in Pat Valdata’s “Prognosis.” Contemplate choice.

Cancer reminds you of the doobie in your pocket, so you excuse yourself for a smoke.  Suck in the sweet tang of illicit weed, hold your breath, and then exhale. Ever so slowly. Famished, you return to the table to devour each pale pasta strand in Barrett Warner’s “Pasta in the Nude.” In languid motion you reach for your wine, but Kelli Stevens Kane’s “runneth” sends you in search of another, less crowded glass.

The kitchen invites you in with “Emily and the Cookstove” by Stephanie Dickinson. There sits an old man with vacant eyes nipping into a smorgasbord of beets, marzipan, and sauerkraut, lovingly assembled by his daughter. You steep in your own memories before quietly slipping away.

Dip into Michael Salcman’s essay “From Darkness into Light” as he explores photographer Connie Imboden’s intense relationships with light, water, and subject reminiscent of the Old Masters.

For dessert you’ll enjoy Ann Bracken’s interview with poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri, who has not only lived a great love story, but has written and produced twenty-six short-form and full-length plays in addition to eighteen books. Cavalieri is the host for the renowned Library of Congress radio show The Poet and the Poem. She’s the perfect end to our meal.

Leyva writes, “Both metaphorically and literally I’ve gained weight while editing this issue. It was worth every pound.”

We’ve saved you a seat at the table. Won’t you join us?

Please come hungry to the launch of the issue at Oliver’s Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD 21044, on Saturday, January 24 at 2 pm. Some of our contributors will read their works.  Afterwards, attendees will have an opportunity to mingle with contributors and staff to discuss readings while enjoying light refreshments. The Winter issue will be on sale for $10, along with past publications.