The renowned poet reflects on her re-issued collection.
The day I was to meet Grace Cavalieri for this interview, it was raining a torrential, flood-warning rain. With this time-bending rain, 9 in the morning could have been 9 at night. I had an hour’s drive to Grace’s in Annapolis, a home she bought many years ago with her husband, Kenneth Flynn, a noted sculptor and former Navy pilot, and where she now lives alone as a widow.
I was sure Grace would want to cancel our lunch by the water. She did not. She would, of course, reschedule if the rain kept me home, but I should not do this because of her. Later that morning, as I pulled into her driveway, Grace greeted me by bounding out and waving me in, and I realized that she is one of those people who never get old.
I stepped carefully from my mini-SUV and dashed up to her walkway, apologizing for my presumption that she wouldn’t want to go out in the rain. I told her my in-laws are afraid of weather events, afraid to go out even if there is a threat of rain, and she said, “A thought for a poem.” I somehow think everything is a thought for a poem for Grace Cavalieri.
This interview took place on schedule at her home and over lunch at a lovely seafood restaurant looking out onto the rain-soaked bay, the tied-up boats, and the docks bucking in the wind. Grace wore a black leather coat and a steel-grey pixie haircut. She had a table reserved for us, and I felt like I was in the presence of literary royalty — or just the mother I never had.
I wanted to talk with her about Why I Cannot Take a Lover, a slim collection of poems first published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 1975 for two dollars. Its 26 narrative, imagistic poems with a voice and cadence and heart still resonate today.
Tell me about Why I Cannot Take a Lover. What inspired these poems?
There’s a little melancholy in this book. I wrote this in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was trying to balance being a wife and mother to four. I was also a Navy wife for 25 years. My spirit was free, but my body had to make dinner. I adored my children. But the artist in me was beating against the walls until I started writing. The world was beckoning me. I was first a playwright. In 1966, I had my first play produced, “What Shall We Do Yesterday.” Then, I started writing poetry, this poetry.
When you look back on these poems now, almost 50 years later, what do you think?
About the past. The past is where grief is — the past is where so many of the poems are. The reason we write is because we are separated from the past and we want to exist in it again for a moment.
What advice do you have for writers trying to balance their lives these days?
Take five minutes. Take 10 minutes, if you can. Take this time in the morning for yourself. Hold a space for yourself, mentally and physically. If you can do this for 10 minutes, you can write anything. I really believe everyone has a story. If you can speak or imagine speech, you can write. When I teach writing, I say give yourself courage. That’s the advice I give: Courage, writers.
The literary world focuses much attention on young writers, and I love reading young writers, but what about writers of a certain age? What specific advice do you have for people like me?
Like all really alive people, we want to know what we can do next. Poetry is the water for me. It’s hydration for me. I’m immersed in poetry every day of my life. I am either reading, writing, broadcasting, or teaching poetry. I am in the flow that is always enriching me. I do think writers fail to take chances — because of a lack of courage, because of fear. My fear? If I read or see bad writing or art, it raunches me out. I think I can never write again. And then I think how, one day, we will be separated from everything we ever loved — so I say, grab on, grab on. Go forward. I’ve tried to do a book a year or a project a year for the last 20 years. I just clear the deck. The people — especially women — who are artists and writers never grow old. If you create all the time, you are bringing in such energy, such radiation; it’s a currency.
In one of the poems, “The Good Life,” you reference DC as “the poetry capital of the world.” Do you still believe that?
The writing community here, especially the community of poets, is a tribe. It was back then, and I think it still is. I don’t know why the DC area is different from New York or San Francisco, but it is. We created a universe and we populated it here. And now the old guard is in the wings, but there is a structure that exists of compassion and camaraderie.
In another poem, “The Abortion” the narrator is speaking plaintively about the most personal and difficult choices a woman can make. Is this poem about you?
Yes. I would have been dead at 35 without this operation. Read the line closely, “Says ‘Why you cry?’ (name?).” Those three one-syllable words, “why you cry,” are so powerful. I don’t have to say much more, do I? The power of single-syllable phrases. The poem says it all.
How would you describe this collection — and the great body of your poetry as a whole?
My work is mediative, surreal, coming from a deep pool. It’s about holding the space — and time.
You have interviewed so many poets for your past public-radio program, and these days for your current “The Poet and the Poem” podcast. Who is your favorite poet?
If poetry is the context for the wound…no, poetry is the context of the wound — Louise Glück describes the wound better than anyone I know. All of us writing are just describing the wound, but how do you want to hear it expressed? Louise Glück expresses it better to me than anyone else. So minimal. So unadorned. A lack of artifice. It’s just primal. It’s like a howl. But we resonate with different people. Her wound might not be your wound. I have the only radio recordings of Louise Glück that exist. I’ve done 25 years of interviews without interruption with the Library of Congress, and before those, 20 years with WPFW-FM. George Washington University Gelman Library Special Collections, which has the “Grace Cavalieri Papers” and archives, is working to digitize all my interviews for [posterity].
In your recent Grace Art: Poems and Paintings, you share your new medium: vivid abstract painting. You have a poem in there, “Tell Me a Story in Any Language,” which starts, “Tell me about that ‘God’ again.” I feel I can ask you this without irony: Tell me about God.
You know that God is the one stream of light that animates everything in this world. The brain and the mind are the animations and the light. It’s within us. How else could we possibly do this?
Does painting give you something different than writing?
I have to wake up and create. I have to create anew, and since the pandemic, it’s included painting. It’s included poetry. It’s about creation.
[Author’s note: Washington Writers’ Publishing House is proud to present a new edition of Why I Cannot Take a Lover. This small, nonprofit, cooperative, all-volunteer press would not exist without its co-founder Grace Cavalieri and her courage, her words, her love.]
Caroline Bock is co-president of Washington Writers’ Publishing House.