A Review of Other Voices, Other Lives: A Grace Cavalieri Collection

(Bethesda, MD: Alan Squire Publishing)

Grace Cavalieri is a living legend you may have never heard of. Other Voices, Other Lives: A Grace Cavalieri Collection is an old fashioned “reader” of her literary works that serves as a fine introduction to this remarkable woman of letters. Organized with sections of her poetry at the beginning and at the end, in the center are her plays and interviews. The poems, dramatic texts, and transcribed dialogues with authors create an interesting correspondence between people and personae both real and imagined.

Cavalieri’s life and accomplishments on and off the page are enough for many lifetimes. She is the author of over 30 books in many genres. Much of her life is documented in her 2016 prose memoir Life Upon a Wicked Stage. As a young Navy wife in the 1950’s with four children under the age of five, she still sent her first poetry manuscript to journals. She was disciplined in her writing rituals and completed a poem each morning. When an interviewer asked her if her writing dreams were deferred because of her domestic duties she said, “Writing you can do after you defrost the meat for dinner.”

She later served as the Assistant Director of Children’s Programming at PBS during its formative days in the 1970-80s. She even had a hand in creating the PBS documentary series “Voices and Visions,” hour-long portraits, well known as the freshman composition instructor’s go-to companion for teaching the lives, times, and works of great, dead writers. Later she worked at the National Endowment for the Arts.

She was one of the founders of the enduring Washington DC public radio station WPFW, a jazz and blues mecca where many great musicians stepped into the booth in person. It was in this atmosphere that she produced her long-running radio program “The Poet and the Poem” as a volunteer. Its production later migrated to the Library of Congress. Each week she interviews a poet live on the air, and has done this for over 40 years. She claims to have interviewed 3000 poets and personally knows 20,000. Three of these interviews are in Other Voices, Other Lives.

Last year at the age of 86, she was named Maryland’s tenth poet laureate. In addition to her family, day jobs and poetry, she also produced plays and criticism. She is a champion of poetry, and an advocate for children and all forms of artistic endeavor.

This bold multiplicity is present in Other Voices, Other Lives as it moves between genres. More than anything else these writings serve as a vindication of women’s lives through the ages. Some of the juxtapositions are entertaining, and some are more challenging.

The collection opens with “Anna Nicole” a series of poems about Anna Nicole Smith, the 1990’s model who married an 89-year-old millionaire. Cavalieri introduces her as “a contemporary Aphrodite.” By raising this particular besmirched and dead pop culture icon to the subject of literature right at the start is one of the more difficult moments of the volume, because we bring our own attitudes and preferences to the page, leaving a lot uncertain. In “And Even More Than That” Cavalieri writes:

Anna tried to pry his fingers off. But it was no use…

her hunger flapped like a wet towel…not his

and later in “Where Love is Meant to Be”:

When she was little and too scared to talk,

she held out a hamster in her hands, so people could relate.

Then in the next section of poems “What I Would Do for Love,” the author presents a similarly sympathetic look at Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, both insightful and full of rage. This Mary is the mother of the Frankenstein author, someone our culture now takes seriously as the first feminist author, penning A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, but in her day she was as scandalous Smith.

By putting Smith and Wollstonecraft side by side, Cavalieri makes a statement about every woman, and everywoman. Both women were devalued and disrespected, for vastly different reasons, in different eras. I was able to warm to the idea of spending so much time with Anna Nicole after dipping into other parts of the book.

Both Smith and Wollstonecraft return in the “Passionate Debates: Plays” section of the book. In the short excerpt of “Hyena in Petticoats: the Mary Wollstonecraft Story” Mary and her sisters argue about her half-burnt manuscript, and Punch and Judy bicker in rhyme, a battle of the sexes:

Judy: (Jumps up and down) The vindication of women! Evolution!

Punch: Ha! Books do not change anything!

Judy: Then neither does man, church, or sin!

The point taken, with humor, left me wanting to read the whole play. It is a soap-operatic situational comedy, that teaches history in a tangible way. It is an excellent and timeless choice for a college theatrical production. (It is too bawdy for high school.) Another play here, “Pinecrest Rest Haven” is a romantic comedy. Think of “Groundhog Day” with dementia involved.

Kora in Hell by William Carlos Williams is reinterpreted as “Cora,” a series of poems placing a character named Cora in a love triangle in a diner in the late 20th century. It gave me a strong urge to reread the original, which I discovered was not included at all in my New Directions edition of Williams’ Selected Poems. The poetics in this section are most daring and evocative, as Cavalieri carries the form of Williams’ two halves of the page, one observation, one commentary, but makes her own choices about where to carry the two.

The poem from her Cora sequence “Dorothy Counts Plastic Lemons” begins with the line

I speak of broken toilets.

and ends with

Lies engaged in

when dealing with gorillas.

There is a satisfying arc to the narrative in these, the most experimental pieces in the volume.

The interviews from “The Poet and the Poem” Cavalieri’s long-running radio show are the highlight of the book. It is the spontaneous and revelatory exegesis by a reader who is an aural learner, one who lives in the world of voice. These interviews read like dramatic texts, so a correspondence of language takes place when moving from the plays to the interviews. The interviews themselves are orchestrated with all of the rise and fall of action of a play or well-edited documentary. Here is where all her worlds seem to come together into an art that may be much rarer than poetry: the well prepared and responsive interviewer.

At one point in the midst of her conversation with Robert Pinsky she surprises with her quick and candid on the spot revelations from their discussion:

Robert: … for me the core of it is that air inside a body…So I would say the kind of poetry I write is the kind that emphasizes the physical quality of the words.

Grace: You’ve just changed my mind. I was thinking that poetry could not do what Cleo Laine did yesterday. I heard her hit a G above high C and I thought, now we just never can get that high… It’s just on the page and a poem doesn’t do that. And you are saying ‘oh yes, it comes through the body, oh yes.’ … I am happy about it, because I was just thinking a little about limitations yesterday. So you make the poem everybody’s property.

Cavalieri’s masterful art of the interview perhaps cannot be emulated, but should be studied and considered, especially as they air on live radio, not recorded in advance. Fans of Howard Stern and Terry Gross will both appreciate this quality.

I fell asleep reading this book and dreamt I got to meet Grace Cavalieri in the hallways of WPFW where she once broadcast “The Poet and the Poem.” On the walls were 5-foot high pencil sketches of the faces of poets she had interviewed on the show: a wall of fame in progress. She’s talking quickly and gesturing to the drawings, explaining how she has recruited art students to complete the portraits, creating murals of the poets on the curved walls of 1970’s architecture in the radio station. The dream felt like the essence of her generous and community-building nature and was reminiscent of that golden age of PBS children’s programming I grew up with, which she had quietly shaped as well.

The Library of Congress has many dozens of her interviews to upload as podcasts. Her website transcribes many. It is an almost infinite plunge and a definite education. The two dozen poets laureate she interviewed might be a good start for anyone wanting to encounter a poet, or a poem. What I felt was missing from this book was an interview with Cavalieri herself. E. Ethelbert Miller’s interview with her on WPFW provides a good deal of background on Cavalieri’s life and work. After reading the interviews in this book, I wished to be as well prepared for writing this as Cavalieri was for each of the subjects she interviewed.

It seems necessary to understand this depth of personhood and scholarship when approaching this book, which beginning with a poem about Anna Nicole Smith, may seem shallow. Rose Solari’s introduction is in the voice of a loving friend, focusing on tender specifics of that relationship, and the warmth of Cavalieri’s mentorship. Alan Squire Publishing, an imprint of the Santa Fe Writers’ Project, says their Legacy Series “allows the reader to trace the arc of a significant writers’ literary development in a single representative volume.”

A collection of this size, 235 pages of small, single-spaced, non-serif type, invites dipping in, out of order, based on preference and mood, and invites re-reading, giving it a lasting appeal. It opens doors to so many other authors’ work, it creates a reading list to last even longer. Trust we are in good company, and it is a lively party.

 

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Karin Falcone Krieger lives and writes in Oyster Bay, NY.  She frequently writes for Able News, covering disability rights. “This is a Permanent Book” a referenced history of Dover Publications appears in Contingent Magazine. Her poems appear in BlazeVOX 20. Her literary criticism can be found in LITPUB, The Laurel Review, and The Literary Review. She holds a BA in Social Sciences from SUNY Stony Brook, and an MFA from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. She taught freshman composition as an adjunct instructor at several area colleges for 20 years, and in 2020 took a self-imposed and self-funded sabbatical.