A poet’s path from Trenton to the cosmos, and some spaces in between
Grace Cavalieri ’54 is rarely at a loss for words. But when the Maryland poet laureate was recently awarded an alumni membership to The College of New Jersey’s chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society, it gave her pause. “Phi Beta Kappa is a treasured institution in our culture and I never dreamed of being so honored.”
A prolific poet, writer, and teacher, Cavalieri hosts The Poet and the Poem, an interview show presented by the Library of Congress through National Public Radio, where for more than 40 years she has been talking to America’s most adored poets about their art. Taking a page from her book, TCNJ Magazine spoke to Cavalieri from her home in Annapolis, Maryland, about her life, her poems, and how her words are about to land on the moon.
TCNJ Magazine: Was there a moment in your life when you knew you would be a poet?
Grace Cavalieri: I think poets are born. We’re wired a certain way. I think writers, before they even go to school, are fascinated with the hieroglyphics on the page. We want to decode it. We see the world through language, then, as we learn more about it; it’s the way we clarify the world. I think every poet I’ve ever interviewed has always said she or he wrote as a child. In junior high, I had a teacher who said, “Write a play.” And I thought, “Oh, somebody’s giving me permission to write a play.”
TM: You’ve written dozens of plays and books and thousands of poems since then. What makes poetry special?
GC: Poems are about feelings. They can do anything they want. They can tell a story, they can just be language on the page, they can be fireworks, they can be an utterance. It is a wonderful thing for a poem.
A FIELD OF FINCHES WITHOUT SIGHT STILL SINGING
That song comes from sorrow there is no doubt.
Bullfinches in ancient times had eyes put out
so they would sing more sweet. Think of
those black beads dropped to earth coming
to seed flowers turning inward every single
one of them without its sight.
Stories say that moving in the wind they
made up song as if nothing had been lost and
this rings long into the night. Every sound
we hear turns to a bigger one and each is
true. We add our own until it is the first
din ever heard, the way poetry begins.
TM: In “A Field of Finches,” you played with space. Why did you choose to write it that way?
GC: That’s a very enlightened question. I think the aesthetics on the page are very important and space says a lot. To me, this poem was about breath and sound. And the birds singing. But also, it was about loss. They gave their eyesight so they would sing more sweetly. I found that penetrating. And there’s just something about those spaces that honor that. Like stopping a moment and saying a prayer almost.
TM: Tell us about yourself. You are a Jersey girl, right?
GC: I was born in Trenton, yes, 1932. We lived in the western part of Trenton, not the Italian section. That was unusual for a native-born Italian. We lived in the more Jewish and Anglo area. I never knew why until after my father died and I found out he was Jewish.
My father’s side, they were very intellectual — doctors, lawyers, and physicists. My mother’s family, they were all from Sicily, and they were entrepreneurial because people had to make a living. So there was a class difference in a way.
My grandmother owned The Venice Restaurant on Warren Street. It was the first Italian restaurant in Trenton. So there was all our Italian-ness.
Every word in “Tomato Pies” is from my blood. My grandmother was the first feminist I ever knew. She had seven children and started the restaurant in a man’s part of town. She never held me on her lap or baked a cake. But look what she did.
TOMATO PIES, 25 Cents
Tomato pies are what we called them, those days,
before Pizza came in,
at my Grandmother’s restaurant,
in Trenton New Jersey.
My grandfather is rolling meatballs
in the back. He studied to be a priest in Sicily but
saved his sister Maggie from marrying a bad guy
by coming to America.
Uncle Joey is rolling dough and spooning sauce.
Uncle Joey, is always scrubbed clean,
sobered up, in a white starched shirt, after
cops delivered him home just hours before.
The waitresses are helping
themselves to handfuls of cash out of the drawer,
playing the numbers with Moon Mullin
and Shad, sent in from Broad Street. 1942,
tomato pies with cheese, 25 cents.
With anchovies, large, 50 cents.
A whole dinner is 60 cents (before 6 pm).
How the soldiers, bussed in from Fort Dix,
would stand outside all the way down Warren Street,
waiting for this new taste treat,
young guys in uniform,
lined up and laughing, learning Italian,
before being shipped out to fight the last great war
TM: You like to capture women in history in a unique way, it seems.
GC: I do. I always give them a good pass. That’s where the power of the writer is. Women in history — they’re a part of us.
I learned poetry by reading Rudyard Kipling in the Heritage Library. I learned from white male poets because no women were published.
My first love for poetry was Edna St. Vincent Millay. I have all of her first editions. In college, we ran around campus quoting Millay.
TM: At TCNJ, Herman Ward, an English professor, had a big influence on you. Tell us about him.
GC: Ward was a Princeton graduate and came with his tweedy thoughts, you know, with his Cambridge/Oxford attitude. He brought that to New Jersey State Teachers College and we were his protégés. He took us under his wing for four years, and he introduced us to the best. We knew the canon and every great author: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert.
He handed me a magic baton of poetry that has lighted my life. I was always kind of in love with something that I didn’t know I was in love with. I would say he presented us with the key to the door and then gave us the canon to study. It takes just one person.
Herman Ward taught my soul. When you practice an art, that is the closest you are to discovering who you are. I wanted to be that person. And I am.
THE LONGEST STORY IN THE WORLD
For Phi Beta Kappa Induction, 2021
And for Herman Ward
The longest story in the world is
Sunrise to yellow
Rushing waters to waterfall
Seeds breaking earth
Bird’s beak breaking seed
All in service to the earth
Once 71 years ago
There was a professor
Who without having to say
Showed us how
To rinse off language
Study nature’s magnificence
Slow down because
No one can dream in a hurry
By finding out who we are
Reread books and then write new ones
Tell everyone a poem
Make the world less lonely
For this is the heart’s motion
And our deeds are all we can own
Sunrise to yellow
Rushing waters to waterfalls
Seeds breaking earth
Bird’s beak breaking seed
All in service.
TM: Do you model your own teaching after how Ward taught you?
GC: I always say I teach people, not poetry. And so that says it all. It’s always a good journey.
TM: How do you do that?
GC: I have a prompt that is a killer.
TM: And can you reveal it?
GC: It’s like a recipe [laughs]. My prompt is: Our lives are buildings and each floor is a different year of our lives. So I’m a skyscraper, because I am old. But if students are 18 years old, they have 18 floors, and every floor has a story. Accessing the story is really important, that makes them realize their power. If they come and go and don’t tell their story, we will never know them. And I talk about how to make that story into a poem.
TM: Do you feel you’ve transformed, or are you still in motion?
GC: Oh man, I’m just beginning. I have three books coming out.
TM: And then what’s next for you?
GC: The moon.
GC: I am poetry editor for a magazine called PoetsArtists and the curator, Didi Menendez, has been invited alongside 1,200 other curators to gather material [for the Peregrine Collection, a project scheduled to launch works of art to the moon in July 2021]. So she will send some of my poetry to the moon.
GC: I really just wanted to go back to Trenton. But I’ll go to the moon instead. Listen, for someone who didn’t have TV as a girl, for her poetry to go to the moon, it’s significant.
VIEWS FROM THE WINDOW
A COVID-19 Poem
My sacred space, a bird flying to the feeder
the shade of a tree, berries in the forest
heat from the sun on the pane
flames of experience
lashing on glass
the clear path of vision
the straight edge of sky
a parting of water
picking us up placing us exactly there
history has been shattered into pieces that will not fit together
how large is loss
how much does it take to fill
how do we gather it in our arms
when the city was destroyed with illness there was a place I could not reach
right now a small animal is breaking free in the woods
the milk of the moon is shining on these words that come from me
and do not return empty.
Photo: Mike Morgan