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Cavalieri: Poetry in Motion

Radio Host Keeps Longest-Running Poetry Show Going

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Cavalieri has used her show to give voice to a range of poets, from the obscure to the famous.

Grace Cavalieri, host of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” doesn’t waste much time in getting to the point.

“Journalists love words,” she tells her in-studio guest on a recent weekday morning. “Why aren’t more of them poets?”

It’s a natural question for David Tucker, a 59-year-old editor at the Newark Star-Ledger, who was one of two individuals to receive this year’s Witter Bynner Fellowship for promising poets.

He’s careful to hedge his response. “It’s not a profession you can be cavalier about,” he says. “Really great journalists give themselves totally to what they are doing.”

Tucker, a mustachioed man with a thick mane of silvery hair and a relaxed, deliberative mien, goes on to read a few poems — several of which paint jarringly poignant snapshots of newsroom life — from “Late for Work,” his first full-length poetry collection.

Outside the studio in the control room, Kenneth Flynn, Cavalieri’s husband of 53 years and associate producer, sits with a legal pad in hand, taking timing notes.

“She’s an amazing woman,” he says of his wife.

She certainly is indefatigable.

The 74-year-old Cavalieri, a petite woman with short gray hair and distinctively hip eyeglasses, currently is celebrating the 30th anniversary season of “The Poet and the Poem,” the longest running poetry-only radio program in the United States. Over its three-decade run, the show has given voice to some 2,000 poets for an hour of discussion and readings.

Cavalieri’s program has come a long way since it debuted on Feb. 22, 1977, on Pacifica Network’s fledgling WPFW radio station, at the time located on the fifth floor above a drugstore at 15th and L streets Northwest. In the early days, Cavalieri, who was a founding member of the all-jazz station, had to juggle the roles of receptionist, host, poetry teacher and sound engineer.

“We were just building that station with Silly Putty and glue and love,” she says.

She remembers interviewing Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor when “somebody pushed the wrong button” and “all the people buzzing in” at the front door could be heard on air. Taylor, however, didn’t let it disrupt the program but instead “braided” the interruptions into his reading.

“He just used it sort of like performance art,” she says. “That was the program for 20 years. It was live and you died on the air, or you glistened.” (For a short time, Cavalieri, who has taught poetry classes at numerous colleges, also hosted “Dial-a-Poem” on WPFW, during which “drunks, grandmas, taxi drivers and prizefighters” would phone in with their own poems and “I would help them with their work,” she says.)

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