Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
Maryland poet Grace Cavalieri has written 24 books of poetry in the past four decades. She has also penned over 26 works of theater since the sixties.
Kojo sits down with Cavalieri to discuss her work, her inspiration and her plans to bring poetry to the public consciousness as Maryland’s 10th poet laureate.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Grace Cavalieri Poet Laureate, Maryland
ANNOUNCERSupport for Kojo's 20th anniversary comes from Chase, celebrating the people and communities that shape the Washington region. Chase, now open with more locations opening soon.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Do you have a favorite poem? How were you first introduced to it, and why does it mean so much to you? Who's your favorite poet? Grace Cavalieri is one of Maryland's most prolific poets. Over the past 50 years, she has written 24 books of poetry and 26 plays. In addition, she has also been a champion for her fellow writers and has hosted around, oh, 2,000 episodes of her radio show, “The Poet and the Poem.” Her experience has propelled her into her newest role, Poet Laureate of Maryland. She was appointed by Governor Larry Hogan to the position in December, and is the 10th Marylander to hold the role. Grace Cavalieri, so good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
GRACE CAVALIERIKojo, I'm thrilled to be here. As I've said, I've known you since you were on television in the '80s.
NNAMDIYes. I am more than thrilled to have you here. You are, in a word, prolific. You've written poems about pizza, prom night, hot dog factories, Anna Nicole Smith and more. What does your diverse body of work say about you as a poet and what do you draw inspiration from?
CAVALIERIWell, I think we're all every complex people, and we have a lot of things going on. First of all, memory is very important, and that's a database that never goes away. All you have to do is find access to it. So, that's where I go back and I remember things. And the hot dog factory actually happened in 1940. So, it was a childhood memory I remembered. Then, I write a lot about women, and most of my plays are about women. Anna Nicole Smith is one of those, and she was an icon. People may not remember who she is. She was this blonde model, the Guess model. She was a Playboy Bunny, and everyone thought she was a train wreck. But I saw the vulnerability in her, and I saw that what she could've been where the men propped her up and filled her with drugs and made her a buffoon.
CAVALIERISo, I couldn't get that out of my mind. I wrote a book called “Anna Nicole Smith,” where she's a bimbo. She actually is a bimbo. But my play Off Broadway vindicated her, and I wanted to do that.
NNAMDIAnd I think you saw really clear the influences on Anna Nicole Smith, and those are captured in a poem that's on page four of your collection “Other Voices, Other Lives.” I was particularly impressed by that. Could you read that for me please?
CAVALIERIThank you. It's about the influences, as you say, that shaped her, not in a good way. It's called "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 way far behind us.” Trainer: “In life, there can only be 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 a pink azalea outside, so pretty the color, so perfect. It must be fake.”
NNAMDIIt must be fake, because everything else around her is. We're talking with Grace Cavalieri. She's Maryland's poet laureate and radio host of "The Poet and the Poem.” You grew up in New Jersey. You loved writing as a child. What was it about words and language that you fell in love with, and why were you draw to poetry, in particular?
CAVALIERIGood question. I think poets are born that way. I think we're wired at birth. I've never met a poet who didn't say, “You know, I wrote as a child.” And I say, “No, really?” Because every single one of us came out and saw the world through language, and that was the way we understood language. And it seemed that that was the paradigm where everything could make sense. If I could see it in words, I could understand all the confusion of childhood and all the emotions. It was a way of clarifying. Words create a clarity in chaos. That's what they say. And that is where I think all poets begin. But poetry is really the most challenging of all language, because it's upon us to rinse off language and make it shine, otherwise we sound like the nightly news or Jerry Springer.
CAVALIERIIt's our job to keep it clean. And then you guys, you can say you're welcome. (laugh)
NNAMDIMany of my favorite prose writers spent time writing poetry because they said it helped them to refine their prose.
CAVALIERIWow. Good news.
NNAMDIYou are of the opinion -- and you said that writing was your way, as a child, was your way of understanding the world. That's fascinating. You're of the opinion that Washington is the poetry capital of the world. Why? What makes this region so special?
CAVALIERII believe it with all my heart.
NNAMDIWhat makes this region so special?
CAVALIERIWell, first of all, there are about 200 published poets in Washington. We have five universities with great, big poetry presence. We have poetries that come in and out, but most of all, Washington is a community of poets like no other in the country. We are not like New York with the backbiting.
NNAMDINot that competitive.
CAVALIERIThere's--No. I really moved in this vicinity in '68, and we, two of us did the first, actually, poetry program outside of the Library of Congress. And now there is a poetry reading every single night of the week, three or four. It gradually proliferates. Poetry is like light. You can't hold it back. And I have -- we have the most astounding people in this area, Maryland, Virginia, Washington. It's the hub. It's the hub of poetry.
NNAMDIIn addition to writing poetry you are a firm supporter of fellow poets on your radio show, “The Poet and the Poem.” What is your mission of this show and how has it evolved since it began in 1977, 42 years ago?
CAVALIERIYes, it was. First of all, I was teaching at Antioch College, teaching poetry. And then, I thought, well, my dream was you can teach 20 in a classroom or 200 in a lecture hall. What would it be like if you could really get it from here to there? And so, I realize that there was no way. I mean, everybody else owned the airways. They didn't want us. We were not useful. Then WPFW, I heard about it. It was the last FM band on the FM dial, very political. It had been in litigation for nine years.
NNAMDIPart of the Pacific group, yeah.
CAVALIERIThat's why. (laugh) So, I worked with them to get it on the air for two years, fundraising, and was able to put poetry on the air. So, that was my subversive reason for on it.
NNAMDIThat show was called “Dial a Poem.”
CAVALIERIWell, that was one of them. "The Poet and the Poem" started prime time.
CAVALIERIYes, and “Dial a Poem” was during the day, and that was hilarious. Because having been in Antioch, I thought I knew what poetry was like. Everyone had a poem and called it in: drunks, bus drivers, prize fighters. I never knew what there was out there. But the thing is that we didn't have a bleep system.
NNAMDIDidn't have a seven-second or a 10-second delay on that show.
CAVALIERINo, and it got scary.
NNAMDIAnd it was live, right on the minute.
CAVALIERI(laugh) It was. And I was afraid the FCC was going to pull the plug any minute.
NNAMDIYank the license of the station. (laugh)
CAVALIERIHowever, it was a beautiful thing, because I saw that poetry was in everyone, and that everyone was entitled to express themselves. And that, then, was part of my mission. I mean, it is why I'm here, because I believe that it is a force that is absolutely important in the world.
NNAMDIWe're speaking with another life force, Grace Cavalieri. She is Maryland's poet laureate and the new host of "The Poet and the Poem.” Let's go to Ray in Fairfax. He has an interesting question. Ray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAYHello, good afternoon, you guys. I'm just curious. I'm not looking for a job or anything or anything like that, but is that a paid position?
NNAMDIIs poet laureate a paid position?
CAVALIERI(laugh) No. There is no budget for the poet laureate. It's holy work. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhat there is is exposure for the poet laureate, and the poet laureate's going to have to expose other poets.
CAVALIERIVery--it's actually an honorary position. And there's no place for poetry in the marketplace, really. There's no stall in the marketplace, and I think it's a good thing. Because once money gets into it, all kinds of bad things can happen. So, the poet laureate is not paid, but there is a budget for travel, and it's a beautiful thing, because you get to pull everybody along with you.
NNAMDIRay, thank you very much for your call. On to Aria in Manassas, Virginia. Aria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARIAHello. It's such an honor to be on the air. I'm calling from Manassas, Virginia, and my question is about how to negotiate the process of poetry, which requires time and thought and meditation with our current climate that inundates us with information. And there's so many things that I feel like require our attention, and as poets, we want to respond, but I feel like there can be a lag sometimes. So, I was wondering how you negotiate that.
CAVALIERIThat is a wonderful question, because we're being barraged on every front and assailed on every front. But poetry is a matter of meditation. So, what do you do? You have to set apart a certain amount of time, which is a discipline, and it doesn't mean that you're being disciplined. It means that you're being a disciple to something. And that time, I write very early in the morning. You can set aside any time of day. I had a full-time job. I have four children. I managed to find time all over. You can expand time if you really want to write poetry. You can find 15 minutes in the morning. You can find something before. Instead of watching trash TV, perhaps, you can write 30 minutes at night. You can find time to do it, and it will refresh your soul.
NNAMDIIn order to write, you got to write. Thank you very much for your call, Aria. There are some people who believe poetry is “not for them,” but you disagree. Why?
CAVALIERII do. I think we have been soiled by the teaching of antique poets that didn’t talk about our present condition. So, when I teach, I make everyone read poetry from this year, 2018. And I insist they read a new, contemporary poem every night. Because they're part of a fabric of history now, and that is very hard to turn away from. And then I would go back from here to Shakespeare. But to start with people that are not of your time is really off-putting.
NNAMDIYou believe quite firmly that language can change lives and that everyone has a poem inside of them. You've obviously learned that in part from “Dial a Poem.” But how do you feel that language can change lives?
CAVALIERIWell, language is from thought, and what we think is who we are. Therefore, if we give an example of elevated language, which has something to do with our vulnerability, which tells us who we are -- for instance, poetry is about authenticity. It's about telling the truth. It's about being genuine. Now, how can that hurt to be in that way and to talk that way? First of all, it makes you vulnerable, and that is a good thing, because then that's where people can enter your sensibility. So that language is more than just words on a page. It's literally the way we touch each other and how we touch each other, and we need to do that more.
NNAMDIA lot of your poetry recently was inspired by the passing of your husband, the sculptor Kenneth Flynn. Would you read the poem “Safety” that was inspired by Kenneth Flynn?
NNAMDIGrace Cavalieri, “Safety.”
CAVALIERIThank you. “Safety. When you were in the ninth grade and I was in the seventh, you were a crossing guard keeping order at Junior High School Number Three. 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.
NNAMDIGrace Cavalieri reading her poem "Safety” inspired by her late husband, the sculptor Kenneth Flynn. Email from Chevy Chase: “My 12-year-old writes and reads poetry, including books in verse. Beyond Busboys and Poets Poetry Slam for middle schoolers, where can I find other resources to encourage her interest in poetry?”
CAVALIERIOh, that is a wonderful -- now, are we talking about the DC area?
CAVALIERIOkay. Parkmont School has a wonderful series for young people, and there are -- many teachers can put you in touch with poetry groups. Also, the DC Arts Club is going to start an initiative for workshops for children. But the Parkmont School is doing just a wonderful thing, and it's a citywide competition where young people get to have their poems read, for one thing, which is very important for young people.
NNAMDIHere now is Jerry in Arlington, Virginia. Jerry, your turn.
JERRYHi. I want to recommend “Poems of Evolution” by Langdon Smith. I got it out of a little blue book called “Radical Press” back in the '70s. But what I really want is this poet laureate and sit down and finish the epic poem, “Kojo,” for your 20th anniversary. We need--
NNAMDI(laugh) I'm sorry I accidentally cut you off. Maybe that was deliberate. I don't know that I'm sure that I want a poem. Check in "Other Voices, Other Lives" by Grace Cavalieri, and you'll find something in there that you might be interesting. (laugh) Facebook comment from Frank: “My favorite poet is Dr. Seuss. Makes more sense than any other. I am 67 years old.” You're also a playwright. How do you nurture a poem into a play?
CAVALIERIOh, four of my books are about women. So, Anna Nicole, which we talked about, stayed with me after the book was written, and I couldn't get rid of her. She just hung around the house and hung around the house, and there was nothing to do but put her on the stage, because I already had the backstory, with the book. And all I had to do was turn it into dialogue that had the characters. The same with Mary Walston Graft, who was the first woman to ever write a book in English, from the 18th century. And I wrote a book on her in her voice, and I just was able when I finished that book of poems I couldn't get rid of her. I needed to put her on the stage and let her go.
NNAMDIYou taught poetry at Antioch College you mentioned in Baltimore and DC before you were a radio host. What lessons are best taught as an instructor in a classroom?
CAVALIERIWhat good questions. Courage. Everyone can use language. We all learn language as children, but it's the courage to tell your truth, to really go into yourself and open it up and say what other people just think. And that's what I teach, is courage.
NNAMDIHere is Ashley in Reston, Virginia. Ashley, your turn.
ASHLEYHi, Kojo. Happy 20th.
ASHLEYSo, I've always loved children's books, and specifically Shel Silverstein. And there's a particular poem that I always remember. It's "The Sitter.” “Miss McTwitter was the babysitter. I think she's a little bit crazy. She thinks a babysitter's supposed to sit upon the baby.” So, that's the whole entire poem.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. We heard from Chad, “I'm loving this discussion. I released a poetry collection on Kindle back in 2017, and I'm working on a follow up now. I'd like to know about other opportunities to work with other poets, to help sharpen my skills.
CAVALIERIIs that in Washington, as well?
CAVALIERIWell, first of all, I think you need to read, as I say, a new poem every night. You can't have more going out than is coming in. Then, next, check out the poetry scene. Call the Writers Center in Bethesda and get a list of all the readings in Washington, and then show up. Most of them have open mics. I know Café Muse has an open mic. That's a monthly thing. Of course, Busboys and Poets is great. But you need to have a central place that knows, and I would call the writer's center in Bethesda.
NNAMDILast week, the beloved poet Mary Oliver died of lymphoma at the age of 83. Her death provided an opportunity for fans of her work to share their favorite poems of hers. What did Mary Oliver mean to you and what were your favorite poems of hers?
CAVALIERIOh, she is...
NNAMDIThe people's poet.
CAVALIERIShe is. You know, it's very strange. The critics did not value her, and that, I think, is a good thing for us to look at, because everybody in America who can read a book has loved Mary Oliver. And when she says, “What are you going to do with your own wild life,” we should remember that. What are we going to do with our own one, wild life? Are we going to just buy television sets, or are we really going to reach out and try to touch something? And, of course, you know, she had a very bad childhood, so she spent her life outside in the forest and the woods, and she became very acquainted with nature. And those were her symbols. But she spoke so clearly and accessibly. We all loved her.
NNAMDIGrace Cavalieri is Maryland's poet laureate, radio host of "The Post and the Poem" and a lifeforce in her own right. Grace Cavalieri, so good of you to drop by. Thank you.
CAVALIERIThank you, and happy 20.
NNAMDIHappy tenure as Maryland poet laureate. Good luck.
CAVALIERIThank you. I'm just starting my stuff.
NNAMDIOur conversation with Grace Cavalieri was produced by Ruth Tam. Our interview on the impacts of the federal shutdown on the TSA was produced by Julie Depenbrock, and our update on the protest on capitol hill was produced by Sydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, Virginia is debating the meaning of meat. We'll discuss what effects a new bill will have on the market for vegan meat alternatives. Plus, we'll talk with two black journalists, including the Washington Post's first black woman reporter, Dorothy Gilliam, about the lack of diversity in local media. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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