Scene4 Magazine-inView

january 2007

Currency of the Heart
Interview with Grace Cavalieri

by Kathi Wolfe

When award-winning poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri was in college, few women poets were published.  Her professors told her that the work of Edna St. Vincent Milay was like "little pools of green vomit."

Today, Cavalieri, author of numerous books of poetry and plays, is in her 30th year as producer and host of the radio show "The Poet and the Poem," which is recorded at the Library of Congress and distributed via NPR satellite.  Her books of poetry include "Pinecrest Rest Haven," "What I Would Do for Love: Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft," and her newest work "Water on the Sun" (translated into Italian by Maria Enrico).  Among the many awards, she has received are: the Allen Ginsberg Award for poetry, the Pen-Fiction Award for Short Story and the Silver Medal from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Cavalieri is married to sculptor Kenneth Flynn and they have four daughters and four grandchildren.  Her new play "Quilting the Sun" premieres in February in Centre Stage, S.C.  She conducts workshops on poetry throughout the country.

Over the years, Cavalieri has interviewed poets from former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass to David Wagoner to 2006 Pulitzer Prize Winner Claudia Emerson. Recently, she allowed Scene4 to turn the tables.  By telephone and e-mail, Cavalieri talked with me about a wide range of topics–from growing up in Trenton, N.J. to radio to writing about the war in Iraq.

In the full disclosure department: I have heard Cavalieri read her poetry twice, participated in one of her workshops and greeted her at a few Washington, D.C. area poetry events.  I do not know her well.  But, anyone (with a heartbeat) falls under Cavalieri's spell.  She is a Renaissance women with the warmth of the sun.

I invite you to meet Grace Cavalieri.

    "I stopped.  The wheels froze
    on the rug as I looked
    at my foe
    'ME wants the bike?'
    I felt the sweet pleasure of
    superiority, the first ache
    of it, age three.
    There would be no contest.  I
    could play as long as I liked.
    I had him by the pronoun.
    It was the happiest day of my life."
    from "Language Lesson in Water on the Sun"

Cavalieri, who was born in 1932 and grew up in Trenton, N.J., said that she had a "blessed childhood."  Her father and mother were from Italy.  "My father was an intellectual.  He didn't want us to grow up in the Italian section.  I'm Jewish," she said, "we didn't live in the Italian ghetto."  It was a "merciful life," Cavalieri recalled, "Trenton in the 30's was beautiful.  We walked everywhere without fear."  People lived within walking distance of each other, went to the same schools, and for a dollar could ride Trenton transit all week, Cavalieri remembered.  (Today, she noted, things are different in some of her old haunts.  Recently, a decapitated body was found on High Street in Trenton, Cavalieri said.)

Life inside her home was "chaotic," she said, "but outside the house everything was fine."  A childhood friend Jan (who died in 1993), gave Cavalieri the stability she needed to thrive.  "All my poems are about her....I was so chaotic emotionally, that if I hadn't had that outside structure," she wouldn't have felt such a sense of "rootedness" in her youth, Cavalieri said.  "Jan...symbolizes the back yard, flowers, going to the library–the simple things," she said.  The emotional chaos inside of her and inside the dynamics of her family, "was difficult to balance with the energy of the outside world which was good to me," Cavalieri recalled.

She grew up without TV, let alone video or the internet.  Yet, Cavalieri had her imagination which early on began to grow by leaps and bounds.  "We went to this progressive, experimental elementary school.  We made our own paper to write with...I wrote this play for our junior high school," she said, "most of the people that came out of the era and that school are...all in the arts."  Cavalieri began to "make a lot of my interior life" which is on the page now, she said. 

Radio was hot in the 1930's, and Cavalieri (who said that from birth "a blueprint for communication" was in her DNA) jumped at the opportunities to be a part of this medium.  She did a high school radio program in Trenton and "when I was smaller, we did magical shows," Cavalieri recalled.

Throughout her life, she has used her art (whether poetry, writing plays or being a radio host) to communicate and to help others communicate. "The minute I was born, I smelled it {communication}.  I was able to jump on any opportunity I saw to communicate," Cavalieri said, "it showed up on the stage.  The stage extended itself to extended itself."  

With one hitch.  "My whole life was overcoming the people who tried to thwart that," she recalled.  Her father wanted to prevent his daughter from "the world, from being harmed," Cavalieri said.  She couldn't take a scholarship to drama school or do an all night radio show in college.  "Because there was no, no, no!  There was always no!  That was the first word I learned," Cavalieri recalled.  Her father said, "if Grace went to New York, she'd have a nervous breakdown the first week," she remembered, "my mother-in-law, who was fabulous and married six times, said, 'so what?' But, now I know so well that he was really right," she added. 

Her mother died when she was 53.  "I found her body two weeks before I had my first baby, " Cavalieri said, "most of my father's 'no's' were to protect her from the devastation I was bound to run into." She felt "completely accepted" by her mother and that her father was "so authoritarian," Cavalieri recalled.    

But, she isn't bitter about this now.  "I make my students write a writing exercise...where they have to list...everything they can think of about their fathers and mothers," Cavalieri said. She does this so they can "for their own spiritual development" understand why they chose what they chose and stop blaming their parents.  "Positive always attracts negative," Cavalieri said, "the negative is always going to come in there for you to overcome."

    "You asked why I was studying botany.
    It came from visiting Eton.
    They were
    Discussing the need for gentlemen
    To know such subjects as
    The theory of whales."
    from "I Gave You My Work, Gilbert" in "What I Would Do for Love: Poems in the Voice of Mary Wollstonecraft"

Despite the obstacles, Cavalieri went on to college and graduate school (she has an M.A. in writing from Goddard and did post graduate work in English at the University of Maryland at College Park).  It was hard though for her as a woman to enter the arts, she said.  "I still feel as if I'm behind the eight-ball," she mused.  When Cavalieri was small, Rudyard Kipling was in the library.

"In 1970, I go to Antioch and I have an anthology, of I think it was 900 pages.  There were five women in it," she recalled, "I'll never forget it."  The cultural revolution had occurred, but publishing didn't catch up with the voices that emerged in the 1960's until the end of the 1970's, Cavalieri said.  "The glass ceiling for Mary Wollstonecraft {the 18th century feminist and author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women"} was very low and very thick," she noted.  Though very grateful for the progress that has occurred, Cavalieri said that it's still a bit harder for women.

    "Mrs. P had never had much nurturing,
    she admitted that to the soft-spoken lady in a pink smock with a badge.
    In fact, she didn't know what the word meant. She thought it
    meant chewing or something furry..."
    from "Pinecrest Rest Haven"

To Cavalieri, art comes from the personal.  "Those things are the things that I am obsessed with, the things that start in the kitchen," she said, "the betrayals before you're five years old."  The artist makes her or himself vulnerable by saying what he or she believes "from the heart," Cavalieri said, "that is a dangerous way to live."  The "currency" of the heart leads either to triumph or downfall, she added.  "I don't achieve it all the time.  But I know some poets who do," she said. 

Artists have a role to play in speaking out about injustice such as the war in Iraq, Cavalieri said. But "if it's political from the standpoint of you have a platform, then it isn't even yours," she added.  On the day of our interview, Cavalieri started writing a poem about a little boy holding his father's finger in the mall. "With such obedience that it scared me," she said, "That may not sound like it has to do with the war in Iraq, but it does." Any time anyone squeezes someone's arm not out of love and it hurts, that "all becomes Iraq," Cavalieri insisted.  Artists make consciousness, she said.   "It may not sound like we're saying important things, but everything we say that is different..from what's in the newspaper" is important, Cavalieri added.

Though Cavalieri uses her personal life in her art, there are limits on what she will reveal.  "I go to the point where it won't hurt a relationship," she said.  Cavalieri and her husband have been married for 54 years. "Fortunately, the reason we're together is that we support each other's art," she said, "so I can say anything I want. But I will stop where it would hurt him or the children."  There are some things (such as male poets talking about "the deliciousness of making love" when their wives are in the front row) that are just better off not being art, Cavalieri opined.

Cavalieri, is not only one of the most productive, but one of the most joyful creative artists on the planet.  When asked what she liked about teaching, she joked, " I get high with a little help from my friends."  The fear of failure is my greatest fuel, Cavalieri said, then laughed, "high test. I recommend it."  She loves hosting "The Poet and the Poem."  "I adore looking at my poet and having that poet talk just to me," Cavalieri enthused.  It's like having a magic wand, she said.

To savor the magic of Cavalieri's work, go to or

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About This Article

©2007 Kathi Wolfe
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet
and a regular contributor to Scene4 Magazine.
Check the Archives for more of her articles.

Scene4 Magazine-Special Issue-View of the Arts 2007

january 2007

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