Maria Lisella, vice president of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, was recently named Poet Laureate for the Borough of Queens, New York City.
Shortly thereafter, Lisella was interviewed by Anthony Julian Tamburri, dean, Calandra Institute, Queens College, City University of New York.
Tamburri noted that Lisella is the first Italian-American and only the second woman named to the Queens poet laureate's post. It is worth noting the author of Thieves in the Family, was not appointed, rather won a competition.
In the interview, Lisella tells Tamburri she, “always had a fascination for language, of which poetry is a more natural expression based on breath, talking and sound.”
She says much the same, verse-wise in, “How ever did you know” from Thieves:
“My lips form words
my ears hear whispers
of phonetic harmony,
accents, my favorite vowels
while riding trains past
the Postojna caves in the snow,
lacy edges of the Adriatic.”
This predilection as practice is found in “Bats,” eight pages later:
Italian word for bat that sounds
like the sounds they make when they fly
in black formations over our heads
almost invisible, always audible.”
“Comfort Zone” represents a “how-to” find those sounds:
“She shadows people's sounds
in bars, restaurants,
charts their courses
across crowded rooms.
Peopled subway cars, a mine
of foreign bodies violating
the eighteen-inch comfort zone,
flesh pressed against flesh,
against steel, poles protect.
Conversations spoken nose to nose
erupt and simmer.
She sneaks up behind them
a Mata Hari of the spoken word.
Non-sequiturs seep into her pen,
appear on her pages,
compel her to scribble,
stealing strangers' whispers.”
Lisella told Tamburri that the study of African-American poets such as Langston Hughes gave her a sense of the outsider's voice, a voice she could relate to: “I was not totally American, not really Italian, but I had this otherness, and that poetry really spoke to me.”
Her verse confronts her otherness – or some other little Italian girl's otherness – in “No Earrings for Tina” :
“I was seven when I realized
none of the girls in school wore pierced earrings.
My mother, insisted,
said it was buona fortuna for girls to start off life with a piece
of gold in their ears.
She didn't understand this was America,where only the zingare wore gold in their ears and told
American girls never put holes in their ears.”
Later, Tina throws her earrings out the window of the elevated train, breaking with a piece of her rootedness, anxious to become an American girl.
Thieves in the Family looks outward, considers the otherness of others than the storyteller. Understands.
Of “Las Andeanas en Astoria,” the poet laureate writes:
“Built low to the ground
like squat mountain climbers,
their bodies are silent.
high-pitched notes rattle.
Gray squirrels scatter
in black branches above.
If these women were back home
across the Mita del Mundo at noon,
they would not cast a shadow.”
Tamburri observed how Lisella's work is shot-through with depictions of class, expressions of gender and ethnic remembrance.
“I learned from the feminist movement,” she said, “not to be ashamed of where you came from. Understand that the private skills you learned from your grandmother and mother – negotiating – could be used publicly; that these skills were transferable. That helped me learn how to write about it in poetry.”
“In the name of the father
and of the son, but what of
the daughters, sisters, and mothers?
It's an Italian woman's trick
to look just so, ears sealed.
Like a bitter clerk
you tally your inventory of grievances.
Your discontent starts
with the women of this house.”
“I Listen” strikes more optimistic notes, blends food-making, the affect of industrial apparel sewing upon a certain class of woman, and the hierarchy that reigns in the New World echo of the southern Italian cortile.
“I see them in a heaven steaming with kitchen vapors.
Zi' Catuzza rolling her napkin into cigarillos
repeating her mantra, 'No man is good enough for any woman.'
She had a bad husband I tell myself.
Zia Raffaela presses vanilla pizzelle
Cugina Lisabetta beats an octopus into submission,
cooks it pink, sprinkled with olive oil, lemon, oregano.
I hear laughter among them, I am
on the other side of the curtains one of them sewed--
it matches the tableclothes, the aprons made
of remnants gathered from the sweatshop floor.
Forbidden to banter, I am invisible, but I see them.”
Maria's work in the recuperation of Vito Marcantonio's legacy, she said, “is an expression of my progressive politics and my consciousness about community. Italians are often seen as just taking care of home just being centered around the self and family.”
“Uncle Joe is flanked
by garish fans of gladiolas
in Neopolitan reds, Sicilian magenta
My non-Italian sister-in-law
calls them 'Italian flowers.'
My mother's Manhattan cousins
a sub-tribe of the larger tribe –
huddle, live together, eat together,
never leave W. 4th St., never marry.
One sneezes and they all catch cold.”
Said Lisella: “I didn't grow up with parents like that. My parents were very active.”
One of her parents may have been like the humble chevalier depicted in “Romance.”
“I stand beneath
the Eiffel Tower's black steel netting
knowing my father's French past
kept him one step beyond
the surly brood of Italian men
filing into the parlor on Sundays.
A WWII vet, he taught the Senegalese, Algerians,tutored me in an ethical landscape
of honor, loyalty – old fashioned words.
He and his friends Yves, Viggo, Rolanda
never belied their resistance days,
ordinary heroics in a living room in Queens.”
Introverted and personal, Thieves in the Family simultaneously covers a geography wide as the world tracked Lisella as a travel journalist, poetry pad in tow.
Havana, makes an appearance as do Venice, Palermo, Dubrovnic, the Algarve, The Bronx, and Rome where the “Lovestruck” Bernini sculptures:
“assuming their positions
in time to gape
at us studying them.
They've returned breathless
from a Bacchanalian feast,
careful not to stain
their marble bodies with blood rich wine.”
To wander the world is to walk with the Gods.
Wherever she has gone, and even when she has been home, Lisella has made it her particular craft to seek out and listen to exotic voices, “stealing strangers' whispers” for the benefit of her readers.