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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.)

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.

From then on, she threw herself into the D.C. literary scene. She has since published 14 poetry books, including pamphlet-style “chapbooks,” and has had 21 plays produced. Her drama “Quilting the Sun” recently was performed in Greenville, S.C., where the mayor proclaimed Feb. 16 “Grace Cavalieri Day.” Another play, “Hyena in Petticoats,” about the life of 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, is in development in New York.

Looking ahead, Cavalieri, who hosts the show for free, says she’s “toying” with the idea of writing her memoirs and would title them “My Life with the Laureates.” She’s already written several essays related to her Trenton, N.J., childhood.

Ultimately, Cavalieri, who has interviewed nearly every U.S. poet laureate since 1979, attributes the show’s longevity to knowing her subject matter. “This could not have lasted if I really didn’t feel I knew what I was talking about,” she says. “It takes away my terror in speaking to these big cheeses.”

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