Grace Cavalieri

Poet, Playwright, Broadcaster
Headshot of a woman.

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd, Soul Sand.

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Grace Cavalieri: I’m very disciplined; I write every day and I write a poem in the morning—a morning poem—because I think discipline means being a disciple to something, not punishing yourself. So if you’re a disciple to something you do it as if you’re a monk.

Jo Reed: That’s Maryland’s poet laureate, Grace Cavalieri. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Grace Cavalieri is a one-woman parade for language in general and poetry in particular. She’s published 24 books and chapbooks of poetry and written 26 produced plays. She’s the poetry columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She’s taught poetry in schools throughout the DC region and continues to run poetry workshops. And she’s the creator, producer, and host of “The Poet and the Poem,” a series for public radio now in its 42nd year and produced at the Library of Congress for the past two decades. She’s organized poetry readings by the score, won prizes in poetry, theatre, and broadcasting; but this list of accomplishments, as considerable as it might be, doesn’t convey Grace’s enthusiasm for poetry and generosity to poets. Nor does it give a sense of the depth of her observations or the scope of her subjects. She writes about aging in ways that both tear at the heart and can leave you breathless with laughter—sometimes in the same poem. She’s written a series of work in the persona of Anna Nicole Smith, of all people. She navigates the subject of loss with an honest grace—and that really is the appropriate word here. And she takes on the conflict between domestic obligations and the need to create art. And always, always—the sheer love of the work, and of the words shine through. And now, at the age of 86, Grace Cavalieri is poet laureate of the state of Maryland. And for those of us who know her as I do, it was an appropriately marvelous choice. I sat down with Grace Cavalieri in her Annapolis home soon after she became Maryland’s poet laureate where she told me what the position entails.

Grace Cavalieri: Well, I’m the tenth poet laureate. It’s an honorary position but it’s a wonderful thing because it finally gives me the platform to go around and ding everyone with a magic wand and let everyone up on the platform with me and teach poetry and invite other poets to be with me. I am going to be visiting 24 counties in Maryland and each one I am going to choose a poet from that county to share the stage because it’s all about everybody. Everybody is invited to the party and I’m going to throw a party.

Jo Reed: And it’s a four-year—

Grace Cavalieri: It is.

Jo Reed: —position.

Grace Cavalieri: It is. At 90.

Jo Reed: How did you come to poetry?

Grace Cavalieri: I think poets are born; I truly do. I think that we are wired. I honestly believe that a writer is born and finally sees the world through language and understands the confusion only through those hieroglyphics that you decode. I know, I remember being very small and seeing Jane, Spot, and Dick and my heart burst—Jane, Spot, and Dick, and I knew that was for me.

Jo Reed: Tell me about your upbringing. Did you grow up in a house that had books and stories and poetry?

Grace Cavalieri: I think I was benignly neglected actually because in those days parents did not really care about your interior life so much.

Jo Reed: We were not precious. Kids weren’t precious when I was brought up at all.

Grace Cavalieri: It’s so true; it is. They didn’t read to you at night as is the custom now. My father did have the complete works of Dickens, but he didn’t talk to me about them. No one immersed me in literature. I think I was born to love books and in my little, teeny library on Hermitage Avenue that had little, teeny wooden chairs where we could sit, there were only male poets from England on the shelf and I used to memorize Kipling: “If you can be with all—when all men doubt you—

Jo Reed: —and make allowance for their doubting too.”

Grace Cavalieri: You had the same upbringing. So I had no women of course at that time were available to me but I loved the meter; I loved saying it. So I believe we come in with a blueprint and that is the blueprint I came with.

Jo Reed: One of the poems that you wrote in your book, Other Voices, Other Lives, you wrote a number about your father, but one gives such a picture of him in later life and it’s called “Moderation.” Do you mind reading that?

Grace Cavalieri: “Moderation”: One cigarette a day / is all my father smoked, / no more, no less, and a / single martini taken / before his dinner. You might / say he was the very soul of / moderation. / At eighty, he swallowed / nitroglycerin pills / not to trouble anyone, / first driving to the hospital / to park his car in the lot / happy that his papers were / lined in order at home, no inconvenience to family or / neighbors, no stepping over / the body. / I feel that last moment / as a loud sound written / beneath his life, / a bright spectacular moment / somewhat like a whistle, / his heart sounding like a / whistle, blasting high and clear. / a ship just docking from Italy / or a train / at the crossing / where he held my sister’s hand / on her way to music lessons, / looking back at me on the porch / in the silence before the whistle.

Jo Reed: And that’s “Moderation.” What a picture of your father. Tell me about him. Tell me about him when you were a kid and how that relationship must have changed over your lifetime.

Grace Cavalieri: You know, he would be so happy to have you say that because I don’t believe anyone’s ever asked about him before even though I’ve written about him. The fact that he came to this country at the turn of the century as one of seven children, and so there was poverty and living in tenements. And so my father grew up in circumstances that were very, I would say, spare, and he became stoic, and there is something about hardship—as corny as it sounds—that builds character, and he was the epitome of a man of character. After we were born as children he went to college and got his degree and rose finally to be an official of a bank, although he was offered that position if he would change his name to an American name years before but he would not do that. So he was a man of great character and he literally did not want anyone to be inconvenienced, so he was to the end the oldest of seven children holding it together in the tenement and there he was in the emergency room doing this to himself. So I also think there is an underlying theme here which is extremely painful, which is that he did prefer my sister because she was a certified genius and I was kind of this wild child, and their relationship was so tender and so precious and it was so painful for me that it’s indicated at the end that he left with her and I was always standing, watching them. So that’s folded into the poem and maybe not apparent; I’m not sure.

Jo Reed: I thought it was apparent. That was such an image of you standing there quite alone and longing.

Grace Cavalieri: You’re the kind of reader we dream of.

Jo Reed: You write about many things as this indicates including your own life, and while a poet has to be ready to reveal herself it can be a little trickier revealing relationships because that’s also about other people and other people’s lives. Over your career, how have you grappled with that?

Grace Cavalieri: Oh, you have hit the essential question of being a writer; this is the essential thing. Is it a moral life? Is it an ethical life? How much do you say? How much courage do you need or do you want to have? Now when I teach writing, I teach courage. I don’t teach language because anyone has language but I teach people to tell their truth. However, no art is worth a single person and of course I wouldn’t have written this if my father were alive. So the writer’s life is always weighing how much to say but it’s fiction but the feelings have to be true; it has to be true or it won’t work.

Jo Reed: And often it’s through fiction that you can get to the truth. You’ve also over the years written series of poems in the voices of others, two of which are Anna Nicole Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft. Now on the face of it, it’s hard to imagine two more disparate people. What compelled you to take on the voices of others?

Grace Cavalieri: I wrote “Anna Nicole Smith”—and I loved her because everyone thought she was a train wreck.

Jo Reed: Remind us of who she was.

Grace Cavalieri: Oh, yes. She was a Guess model who did their jeans, she was a Playboy bunny. She was a blonde babe that the men filled with drugs and propped her up and made her a buffoon and she had a dreadful life. She had been—had her arm broken by her brother and raped by her father and disowned by her mother and had a hateful story written about her after her death. She had a baby and I saw on television when she was in the hospital, this beautiful woman with high cheekbones and no makeup, and I saw her vulnerability and I knew what she could have been. I knew that no one had less of a network, even Jayne Mansfield, even Judy Garland, no one had less than Anna Nicole Smith, so I wanted to vindicate her and it got into me some kind of way. As Sterling Brown says of Ma Rainey, “She has got into me some kind of way,” and I wrote a play, and the play vindicates her. She really becomes a champion and it was called Anna Nicole: Blonde Glory. It was in New York off Broadway, and Sandy the hurricane wiped it out after the opening but it was still a wonderful thing to see. And then there was nothing to do but Mary Wollstonecraft, the first woman to write a serious book in English, argumentative prose, where others were writing fluffy things, so she also needed vindication because the men hated her and burned her in effigy for wanting education for women. So all of my stories are about women who want vindication. I wonder what’s going on with me.

Jo Reed: There’s a poem in the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft, “Overheard Today.” That’s where Wollstonecraft overhears two women talking about her and her work. Will you read that poem?

Grace Cavalieri: Well, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. So this is a story I imagine. The book is historically accurate, it’s based on her life, but the voice is my own because I thought that historians knew what she did but I believed I knew what she felt. So these are my words about her life and this is called “Overheard Today”: A vicious sound, / “Famous lady with her book / Telling us how to act…” / I could not hear the rest, / And leaned in closer / To the murmuring, / Until she straightened. / And then I saw she spoke of me! / Mary Wollstonecraft. / She held my book / “Vindication…” / And shook it at her partner. / My face flushed. / Were it a man speaking / I would not crumble / But now I fear my dream / Is uninhabitable. / All women are in danger / Unless we pick the / Bough from the trees ourselves / Yet a stranger was condemning me / In a public place / Why not grant me / The courtesy given male authors, saying / “It is controversial”— / Her fury ascends in my body / She said I made her quest for survival / All the worse! / Because I can read and write? / Does that give me a masculine mind? / Or just a mind?

Jo Reed: I love that, “Or just a mind.”

Grace Cavalieri: What she went through and she was interesting because she loved the man and that’s what gave me a great conflict for the play I wrote, Hyena in Petticoats, because she wanted their approval and she wanted to compete with her—did not work.

Jo Reed: I think it’s often easy to forget how recently it’s been for women to be able to have a public artistic voice, and as you mentioned, you didn’t even study women writers when you were in school so can you reflect a little bit on some of those obstacles that you faced?

Grace Cavalieri: I think that I didn’t even realize how hard it was when I was doing it.

Jo Reed: I believe that.

Grace Cavalieri: I thought that’s the way that life was. And I remember reading Anne Sexton and the first women that were really becoming public figures in the ‘50s, and of course Sylvia Plath was a star but she wasn’t a very good example of having a fulfilled life; but I found the greatest deterrent in the theatre because we were told that it would not get produced if you used language as men did, and so of course in the ‘60s all of us went barreling ahead to write every four-letter word we could think of. I mean I don’t want to see any of my plays now from the ‘60s because we were just trying to push that envelope back strenuously to say, “We’re going to do this too.” And so I have to say that the work I did in the ‘60s I’m not proud of as far as theatre pieces because it was a rant, we were trying to have our say, but as far as publications go in the ‘60s I started publishing and my husband was very practical. He would say, “It’s like selling used cars. One in eight will get accepted so you have to send out one a day” and I did for a year and it worked; thirteen got accepted. Of course in those days no computer, I was using a typewriter, typing them over, but I see now those early magazines—I was one of three women in them and I was teaching an anthology at Antioch of 600 pages and there were only three women poets at that time and that was 1970. But looking back I realize that history was being made with me and my friends because as an obedient child in the ‘50s, little girls didn’t even learn science and math in elementary school so I—it was my lot. And being a child of Italian immigrants you did not buck the program, so I accepted everything until finally all the sunshine came through and I just took my piece of the action.

Jo Reed: Did you think of yourself as a playwright or as a poet or as a writer? How did this work for you or are those categories dumb?

Grace Cavalieri: Well, it’s interesting because the critics who—or critics of poetry will say, “Well, she’s a playwright,” and the playwright theatre critics say, “Well, she’s a poet,” so nobody—I don’t get no respect.

Jo Reed: But they’re also so different. Theatre is so collaborative and poetry less so.

Grace Cavalieri: In the production, being a writer in theatre you’re a little piece of the pie and everyone can make it better or worse than it was and I’ve never—I had one play put on that was as I wrote it; the others have all been made better or worse. So you just are a collaborative part of it and you know that, but in poetry nothing’s at stake because there’s no stall in the marketplace; nobody wants it. You can write it but that doesn’t mean anyone has to read it. It is the most freeing, meditative part of my life. It is where I know who I am and finding out who I am as I go through the poem. It is truly an act of self-discovery, it is a very interior process, and if someone publishes it that’s wonderful, and if someone reads it you can’t believe your good luck because that’s not why you write it.

Jo Reed: How do you begin a poem typically? Is it with an image or a word, an idea?

Grace Cavalieri: I do have ways of jump-starting and when I was teaching at Antioch and trying to imagine ways of getting people to write, I came upon ways of actually triggering them because I’m very disciplined; I write every day and I write a poem in the morning—a morning poem—because I think discipline means being a disciple to something, not punishing yourself. So if you’re a disciple to something you do it as if you’re a monk and one way is language. Language will always lead you to the heart because your language is your source and is your heart so that I can open a book and pick up ten beautiful words and sprinkle them on a page but because I chose those words they are part of me, part of my DNA, and those words will speak to me and I can make a poem out of them. I’m going to make you do it.

Jo Reed: I’m not a poet but that’s alright, that’s good. There are certain words that I just love. I love the word, “Kandahar.” It is the most beautiful word. I find it so evocative, for example, and the other word I like that is almost the polar opposite—I love the word, “jeep.” It’s such a friendly little word—jeep.

Grace Cavalieri: I think you’re a poet, oh, yeah. We’re going to out you.

Jo Reed: We’ll do it. Do poems tend to come quickly and then you hone the words, writing and rewriting, or is each word like giving birth?

Grace Cavalieri: No. I’m pretty sloppy. Sometimes I write margin to margin, sometimes I just put fragments together and cut and paste, and I don’t have a classical background, that’s a good thing, and I just feel if you don’t like it so sue me. I just do whatever I want and mostly it’s collecting images first though. I do always start with a lot of scribbles because I don’t think that the poet is the source of anything; I think the poet is a beautiful funnel that goes through life picking up things and hearing— seeing that little red tree or hearing someone at the next room and collecting those things and weaving them together and that’s what I do. The poet is a noticer. The poet is someone who’s always observing and listening and that’s why it’s being fully alive; that’s why being a poet is to be fully alive.

Jo Reed: As you’ve gotten older, has your poetry changed or what has changed in your poetry?

Grace Cavalieri: I don’t think it’s gotten any better frankly. They say “the mellowed wine” but I look back at my first poems and I actually like them. I think I’m pretty much a free spirit and I don’t have a whole lot of stake in form. Although I can do a sestina, I can do a villanelle and I can teach them, I think it’s very organic with me and it seems that the same soul was there when I started writing in the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the same spirit is in me now and I don’t think actually that grows up; it doesn’t mature I don’t think.

Jo Reed: What do you find interesting about aging?

Grace Cavalieri: I think that I love it when somebody says, “Really? You’re still working?” And I say, “This is what 86 looks like. I work 12 hours a day, I love everything I do, and I’m starting a new chapter in my life. And this is what 86 looks like. And I like that—I like putting that out there.

Jo Reed: Has memory changed for you over time?

Grace Cavalieri: I find the past extremely painful because it is past. Loss is my thing. I have a line that says, “If you give up loss what will you have left?” I think it is the writer’s tool in the toolbox is that loss is the greatest writer’s tool and memory is all about loss. And that’s why I’ve embraced Buddhism so much because it is really living in the present moment and it has been a very big factor of my present life. I have just written a book—a new book called Showboat which finally closes a chapter of being a navy wife for 25 years, which was very difficult and extremely painful. And I have waited this long to write about it and it comes in images; it’s just utterances because it was so powerful for me I couldn’t even write a narrative line. So the whole book is just imagistic and that is the way I can describe memory; it’s just in images. And it is pointillistic because that’s what memory is, and it moves back and forth across time because that’s what memory is. I think it is the greatest gift we have but for someone who’s highly wired like I am I have to control it like a wild beast.

Jo Reed: How did you find the time with your husband away so much and four daughters, how did you ever find the room and the time to write?

Grace Cavalieri: I didn’t really write very much when they were little. I would say—let’s see—on Whidbey Island he was gone nine months and it rained all the time and I had three children and was pregnant with another. There are times in the day when you can’t watch cartoons anymore and there are times in the day when you do have a moment of solace and that is the time that I would just say something on the page because no one cared anyway, and I sent that manuscript to a wonderful woman who was in Canada and she gave me reason to go on. That is why I want to pass the baton to every writer I know because here I was a navy wife, like 30 or something with this book of poems and she said, “I can’t publish it but I will send you to someone who will.” Well, that particular book didn’t get published but do you know what that did to me? That gave me that kiss on the cheek that said, “You are a real person,” and I want to do that to everyone I meet and I will.

Jo Reed: As you mentioned, you met your husband when you were—

Grace Cavalieri: At Junior High School Number Three.

Jo Reed: —And he was a captain in the navy but then after he retired he was an artist and was a sculptor. Would he be a sounding board for your work? Was it a collaboration in that way as well?

Grace Cavalieri: I believe our arts are what kept us together. We were both artists; we were born artists. He became a naval aviator because he was skilled with the same hands that could make molten bronze. I mean I came to the world as a writer so we were always artists no matter what our roles were and he read everything I wrote and I was the greatest champion. I walked up Seventh Avenue with his portfolio showing all of his works to try to get him a gallery. Art kept us together. I think we would have kicked each other out long ago. It was the thing; it was what we had.

Jo Reed: You wrote a number of poems inspired by him including one called “Safety.” Can you read that?

Grace Cavalieri: I love that poem. I met my husband when I was in Junior High School Number Three and he was so cute, and this is called “Safety”: When you were in the 9th grade and I was in the 7th, you / were / a crossing guard keeping order at Junior High School / Number 3. No one / was disobedient when you wore that wide yellow strap / across your chest— / no one bruised another, caused trouble, or so much as threw / a stone— / no one cracked a joke about you, a man in uniform. How did / that yellow vest feed your soul to let you know someday / you’d / fly a plane just to feel the power of a strap across your chest. / What / liberation—to know how to be in charge—strong and / capable— / flying through gunfire and lightning again and again to come / back to me. / Although we were young, you were 15 and I was 13, since / then, I’ve never / known the world without you. Now I must be 12.

Jo Reed: That’s such a beautiful poem. That just gives just a sense of how profound that loss is; it’s deep and it’s wide. It’s good that you could do that. That’s poetry.

Grace Cavalieri: Aren’t I lucky to be able to write? I wrote three books about him. I think I have to stop before I get morbid. It was a good and difficult life, but like all people who are creative, it was vivid and imaginative, tumultuous, and I wanted to feel every feeling in the world before I died and I did.

Jo Reed: We have to talk at least briefly about “The Poet and the Poem.” Describe the show and tell me what you were thinking of when you created it.

Grace Cavalieri: I can remember the day. I heard of a new station going on the air and I had always felt even before this time that I could teach 20 in a classroom or 200 in a lecture hall, but what if I could get poetry to 200,000; this had always been in my mind and when I heard about this I went to the station manager, Greg Millard, and brought some poets with me and let them read out loud to him and said, “We need poetry on the air,” and he himself was a writer, which was good for me. And so we went on air in 1977.

Jo Reed: And that was WPFW.

Grace Cavalieri: WPFW-FM in Washington, DC. So from that time on we had a weekly show and “The Poet and the Poem” was on prime time—first time poetry had ever been on prime time—and that went on for 20 years live on WPFW regionally, and then after 20 years I took it to the Library of Congress where I could finally get it national. And it’s been there for 22 years.

Jo Reed: And who do you talk to and what do you talk about on “The Poet and the Poem?”

Grace Cavalieri: I have heard every poet laureate of the United States since 1987 speak to me and I have had every fledgling who wants to be a great poet speak to me so I try to mix match what’s happening in the world of poetry. I have had at least 2500 poets on air in 42 years because sometimes I had a bunch at a time and that is—been my hydration, my infusion, my life force, getting all that from them.

Jo Reed: In this age of miracle and wonder and bombardment of information and poetry is something that requires time not just to write but to read, you need to be in a quiet space for poetry, what advice do you have for people trying to just find the space and the time for poetry?

Grace Cavalieri: You have asked not only a question about literature but a serious cultural question, a very serious question. This is the problem of our time and if ever we are going to keep our civilization we have to answer this problem, otherwise we would just be people slogging through the mud of life. We are at a period of time where we are bombarded by every piece of information in every way and I don’t talk against electronics because I make my living that way and I think it’s beautiful to get something from one way to another place. I love that but if we keep racing with the clock we will lose; if you race with the clock you will lose. So that is what Buddhism has taught me and it is that the present moment cannot—cannot be impinged upon; when you are in the present, time stops and you cannot think of anything else. That’s what meditation does. When you get into your interior life and you just block out all of the clutters of the day it’s a choice of how to live. I mean, we make choices all the time. You have to make choices and I am choosing in favor of myself. And that is the most selfish thing I’ve ever done is to be a writer because it means that no one can enter that space that you’re in and I cherish that, I make room for it, and I love it; I love finding out who I am.

Jo Reed: Well this is just the perfect segue to the poem I was going to ask you to end with, “Work is My Secret Lover.”

Grace Cavalieri: This poem is the truth; it’s called “Work is My Secret Lover,” and it has an epigraph by Paul Zimmer that says, “Jazzmen even refer to sex as work. / Some primitive people believe / That death is work…” Work / takes the palm of my hand to kiss / in the middle of the night / it holds my wrist lightly and feels the pulse / Work is who you’ll find with me / when you tiptoe up the stairs / and hear my footsteps through the shadows / you’ll see me lift my arm / to stretch and then lean down / to put my head to it / Work threatened to die once / for all that was left unsaid / so I took to it like a young bride / flushed with excitement / adultery too yes I admit it / on all the holidays / when others gathered at the table I was dreaming of it / making love to the movement of paper / the words from my lips / the feel of it / sometimes when company came / I’d throw a tablecloth over my Work and set the plates and / everyone acted as if nothing were visible / pretending I was the good hostess that I was / while on the Christmas tree Work waited patiently / among ornaments gleaming like a groom / I am guilty as charged / for nothing else could buy my feelings / and why would I sell the only thing that ever loved me the way / I loved back / but my beautiful long-lasting / faithful lover, my friend who will never leave.

Jo Reed: That is a great summing up and I think a great place to leave it. Grace, thank you so much and just so many congratulations and I think Maryland is so lucky to have you as its poet laureate.

Grace Cavalieri: You have fulfilled my life.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

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Jo Reed: That’s the poet laureate for the state of Maryland, Grace Cavalieri. Her most recent book is called Other Voices, Other Lives.

You’ve been listening to Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Meet Maryland’s new poet laureate Grace Cavalieri. Grace is a language maven: she’s a poet (24 published books and chapbooks), a playwright (26 produced plays), and a broadcaster (creator and host of The Poet and the Poem, a public radio series now in its 42nd year). Her range of subject is matched by the depth of her observations. Her poems about old age can break your heart and make you laugh; she sometimes channels other women’s voices writing a series of poems as Anna Nicole Smith and another as Mary Wollstonecraft. She’s a poetic force to be reckoned to be reckoned with. Now, at the age of 86, Grace Cavalieri has been named Maryland’s new poet laureate. In this podcast, you’ll learn about where she’s been and where she’s going, how she made time for writing as a Navy wife with four kids, her long marriage to the boy she met when she was in junior high school, her loss at his passing, and her plans as poet laureate.