Giving Poetry a Voice
In 40 years, Grace Cavalieri has interviewed and recorded more than 2,000 poets
Anne Arundel County neighbor Grace Cavalieri is poetry’s answer to NPR radio talk show host Diane Rehm — with this exception: Rehm retired last year after 37 years on air. Cavalieri is still going strong.
For over 40 years, Cavalieri’s radio program, The Poet and the Poem, has read the role call of poetry. Cavalieri has interviewed and preserved the recorded voices of more than 2,000 poets, including all of America’s poet laureates since 1987, among them Billy Collins and Rita Dove, plus former Maryland Poet Laureate Lucille Clifton and Beat Generation revolutionary Allen Ginsberg — twice.
If you don’t recognize all those names, you’re not alone. Twice-Poet Laureate Billy Collins told Cavalieri that, “Many of my students don’t know who I am, actually, and I kind’a like it like that.”
You may not know Collins or double Pulitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin, either, but poetry may still speak to you. Whether you listen to rap or nursery rhymes, Beyonce or the blues, you’re enjoying poetry.
Enlarging the audience for all kinds of poetry was Cavalieri’s inspiration. As a college teacher, she reflected, “I had 20 students in a course, 200 students in a semester. What if I could get 200,000 folks thinking about poems? That’s when I began to think about a radio program.”
As well as motive, she had opportunity. Since 1975, she’d programmed shows for the District of Columbia’s WPFW 89.3fm. The focus of the nascent station was all jazz, but she convinced general manager Greg Millard that poetry was a great fit with the rhythms of America’s music.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts funded the first three years of her program, 1977 to 1979.
“I didn’t take a salary so the funds would last,” she said. “In fact, I’ve never earned any money from my shows.” That’s another difference from Diane Rehm.
Her weekly hour-long interview programs “featured not only the literary greats who lived and performed in D.C.,” Kenneth Carroll wrote in an article for the Smithsonian. “It also featured our neighbors in Anacostia and Brookland who wrote poetry to raise the everydayness of their lives to art.”
Since The Poet and the Poem moved to the Library of Congress in 1997, there have been 10 programs per year. Find and listen to them all at www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html#skip_menu.
“I try to present a portrait of the poet through the interview,” says Cavalieri in her breathy voice. “I want it to be casual and organic.”
Typically the interview is also intimate, propelled by Cavalieri’s intelligent enthusiasm.
Interviewing Lucille Clifton in 2003 (www.gracecavalieri.com/significantPoets/lucilleClifton1.html), Cavalieri led the poet back through Clifton’s poems of childrearing, illness, loss and discovery.
“I was a housewife with six children under seven years old,” Clifton told Cavalieri. “How did I do that? I have no idea. I read about [poet Robert Hayden] and I thought, well, now that’s a black guy, I think, or, no I said, that’s a colored guy! I think I’ll send him a poem and see what he thinks. And so I did.”
Cavalieri noted that that poem won the YMHA Poetry Center Discovery Award.
Like Clifton, Cavalieri was writing — and mothering — as well as recording. Cavalieri and her husband of 60 years, sculptor and retired Naval officer, Kenneth Flynn (who died in 2013) raised four daughters, settling eventually in Annapolis.
One of her own deceptively simple poems may best sum up Grace Cavalieri and her impressive accomplishments:
Don’t Undersell Yourself
Consider the brown cow
Eating green grass
Giving white milk
Cavalieri’s accomplishments include 20 books of original poems and 26 plays produced on various American stages. She is a founder and poetry critic for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Awards for her poetry, plays and broadcasting achievements include the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Medal.
“Grace has just been such a poetic force,” says Maryland poet Hiram Larew. “She has made the only recordings of some of our poets, giants of the late 20th century. Thanks to Grace, we can hear great poets reading their works. That would have been lost to us without her.”
Cavalieri’s recordings have been digitalized and her archival collection shared with libraries and universities, including The Library of Congress, George Washington University, Harvard, and the University of California at Irvine. Hear some of the audio recordings at www.gracecavalieri.com.
A new volume of Cavalieri’s poems, interviews and play excerpts — Other Voices, Other Lives: A Grace Cavalieri Collection — comes out in October.
Find the text of past podcasts on her website: www.gracecavalieri.com.
Upcoming on The Poet and The Poem at loc.gov:
• April 12: Muslim seventh-grade writers from the Washington International Academy in Alexandria.
• April 19: E. Ethelbert Miller
• April 26: A. Van Jordan
• May 3: Jim Reese
• May 10: Judith McCombs
• May 17: Indran Amirthanayagam
• May 24: Mark McMorris
• May 31: Eleanore Heginbotham