Language and Love: The Work of Grace Cavalieri

September 29, 2017

We are happy to announce the publication of Other Voices, Other Lives: A Grace Cavalieri Collection, in October 2017. This is the second volume in the ASP Legacy Series, devoted to career-spanning selections from writers who also give strong and consistent support to other writers. ASP poet and fiction writer Rose Solari edited the volume and wrote the introduction. Here is a sample:

Before I met Grace Cavalieri, I had already fallen in love with her voice. I was in my early twenties when I began tuning into her weekly radio show, The Poet and the Poem, broadcast then on Washington D.C.’s blues and jazz station, WPFW. Grace is a nimble interviewer—erudite and playful, sassy and wise—but what struck me most about her was the passion I heard in every word she uttered. This was clearly a woman for whom poetry was an urgent necessity, a sacred art. I was just beginning to take my own poetry seriously, to believe, despite family pressure, that I too might establish a life for myself devoted to its practice. Do it, she seemed to be saying to me. What could be more beautiful or more important?

I began to look for her at literary readings and events around the city. She wasn’t hard to spot. Wherever Grace is, there is always a lively crowd around her. When she reads from her own work, she manifests that same brilliant combination that had won me over on the radio: she can be puckish and witty when setting up a poem, but when she reads it, she speaks simply, from deep inside the poem itself. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, but she gives poetry the weight it deserves.

One afternoon, shortly before my first book was published, I spotted Grace in the audience at one of my own readings. Her presence made me stand up a little straighter; I wanted, even more than usual, to do my best. Grace made a point of speaking to me afterward, commenting with great specificity and insight on the work I’d presented. Her praise made me glow. She said she’d be keeping an eye on me.

Soon, she was sending me encouraging postcards, suggesting I send work to this magazine or that grant program. These were written in what I soon came to recognize as Grace’s signature style, with colorful inks and peppered with stickers of hearts, butterflies, and birds. And I was far from the only one receiving such treasures. When meeting other writers, I’ve found that Grace’s name functions like a calling card. Poets from Seattle to San Francisco, from Miami to Manhattan not only admire her work but have stories to tell about her generosity, her enthusiasm, her wise critique of poems that haven’t quite found their final form. Her gift for friendship and for building community is legendary, yet her attentions always feel very personal.

What is most astonishing to me is how she finds time for so much outreach and nurturing in the midst of a busy career she’s built by hand. While many other poets of her stature have found perches at universities or foundations, Grace has carved out an independent path, guest teaching here and there, forging connections between diverse literary groups, launching off-Broadway plays. She’s a tireless reviewer of poetry, prose, and drama. And of course, there’s the radio show, which she prepares for meticulously every week. A constant refrain from those who have been interviewed by Grace—me included—is how deeply and thoroughly she has read their work. Her interview subjects range from poet laureates to as-yet-unknown writers, and she gives each the same warm, rapt attention.

The range and variety of Grace’s career is mirrored in the work itself. Like Anne Sexton and Carolyn Kizer, she is a fearless explorer of female experience. Whether writing in personae—as the twentieth-century pop star Anna Nicole Smith, say, or the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—or from her own life, Grace’s work plumbs, with precision and not a little anger, what it means to live in a world still mostly shaped and ruled by men. Many writers might build a career on this alone.

But Grace moves swiftly among themes, forms, and schools. Take for example her suite of experimental poems, “Cora,” in which she riffs off of William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations, a dreamlike, book-length sequence first published in 1920. Grace navigates Williams’s avant-garde territory with a playfulness not present in the original. Another sequence, “Millie’s Sunshine Tiki Villas,” veers from surrealism to slapstick in its depiction of a Florida retirement village.

Grace’s work also gently and movingly navigates that subject considered to be a specialty of poets: loss. John Keats, the great celebrant of nature’s promise and its passing, would surely find a kindred spirit in the author of the poem “Carciofi,” who writes,

One by one things fall away,

everything but the sweet earth itself.

Already this year he has watched the nest’s

careful brush of twigs lose a summer song.

This elegiac tone comes through perhaps most beautifully in Grace’s poems for her late husband, the Navy pilot, artist, and inventor Ken Flynn. The poem “Everything Is Smaller Than the Truth” begins “Knowing the worst, he is gone, / I still try to learn the way of sleep,” and traces the writer’s grieving through a restless night to the breaking dawn. The poem concludes with lines that will ring true for anyone who has lost a loved one:

…What language is this

with its different group of birds

telling me the day, its terrible truth,

is going on before me.

Other Voice’s Other Lives: A Grace Cavalieri Collection, is the second volume in ASP’s Legacy Series, following 2015’s The Richard Peabody Reader. This series is devoted to career-spanning collections from writers who meet the following three criteria: The majority of their books have been published by independent presses; they are active in more than one literary genre; and they are consistent and influential champions of the work of other writers, whether through publishing, reviewing, teaching, mentoring, or some combination of these. Modelled after the “readers” popular in academia in the mid-20th centuries, our Legacy Series allows readers to trace the arc of a significant writer’s literary development in a single, representative volume.