Cavalieri has used her show to give voice to a range of poets, from the obscure to the famous.
From the outset, Cavalieri says she wanted her show to represent a range of voices — such as blacks and women — that up until the “cultural revolution” of the 1960s had “no medium” for expression. Among her guests were “a lot of [black] militants,” Sufi poets and even the blind Trinidadian poet Wilfred Cartey.
“I was scheduled a year in advance; there were that many hungry people,” she says.
Cavalieri sat down with the famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who arrived at her studio after being up the previous night at a protest.
“He was a mess,” Cavalieri recalls. “Every question I asked him he’d be very negative and sarcastic. So I stopped the program. I said, ‘Allen, why would anyone want to sit in a room with you for an hour?’ He just did a 180 degree turn and became as sweet as the afternoon sun.”
In 1998, “The Poet and the Poem” made the move to the Library of Congress — Cavalieri says she wanted “to do more national outreach” — and today it is recorded in a studio at the Jefferson Building with primary funding coming from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. The show is no longer live but instead is uploaded to the Public Radio Satellite System and made available to roughly 300 public radio affiliates across the country. (Cavalieri says it airs on about 20 stations, including ones in Yellowstone and Santa Fe, N.M.)
Recordings of the programs, which are also accessible on the Library’s Web site, are then given to the Library, Pacifica’s archives in California and The George Washington University’s Gelman Library. And while the show’s more national focus has meant fewer black poets, Cavalieri, the child of Italian immigrants, says she strives to keep a diverse menu of guests that is “50 percent or more” female.
“The Poet and the Poem” is a natural fit for Cavalieri, who first appeared on the radio in the 1940s when she was “9 or 10” and penned her first poem even earlier. Cavalieri, a one-time aspiring ballet dancer, saw her dreams of going on the New York stage thwarted by a protective father. So instead she went to college, married Flynn and spent two decades as a Navy wife and mother to four daughters.
“After the fourth was born I could no longer keep the lid on my creativity,” she notes, emphasizing that she was “awful” at such housewifely pastimes as bridge.
Flynn, then a naval officer, was serving in Vietnam when Cavalieri received “that kiss on the cheek that opened every door in the universe” — positive encouragement from a prominent poetry editor about a poem she had submitted. By 1966, she and her family had moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where Flynn was assigned to a branch of the Bureau of Naval Personnel.
“I entered the land of Oz. A real city with real people. The first thing I did was enter a playwrighting contest in Baltimore,” Cavalieri says. She won.