A few days ago, during the inauguration of the new President of the United States in Washington DC, there was a moment when the whole world rediscovered, if ever there was a need, the power of poetry. It was when 22 years old Amanda Gorman, the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate, delivered her beautiful poem "The Hill We Climb".
2021 is also the year that Italy dedicates to the greatest poet in the history of mankind, Dante Alighieri, whom we in Italy call “il sommo poeta” ("the supreme poet"). And it is also for this reason that, in our search for successful excellences of Italian origin in all fields of American society, today we are particularly happy and proud to host a beautiful person, a magnificent poet, Maria Lisella. Welcome to We the Italians, Maestra!
Maria, please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Growing up in an African American and Caribbean neighborhood afforded me a certain liberty that other Italian Americans living in white suburban enclaves may not have known: there, I could be Italian-ish unself-consciously – I could eat my garlicky foods, I could speak a foreign language, I did not think about not being “white enough or American enough.”
Our household was a babble of Italian, Calabrese and English. I learned dialect orally, never wrote or read Italian until I went to Italy as a college student, which was a turning point in my life.
Once we moved to an all-White neighborhood, I discovered racism: we were called guineas and spics, they used the N-word. Most of the kids in the new neighborhood had never met a Black person or a Puerto Rican but had assumptions about them.
My late husband and I wrote essays about these dynamics in What Does It Mean to Be White in America and in Italian Canadiana, the AICW Conference Anthology of the Conference in Padula, Italy, held on August 2016.
What part of Italy are you from?
Most of my family is from Reggio and Cosenza in Calabria and Sepino in the province of Campobasso, Molise; one cousin lives in the Val d’Aosta. I have since discovered that both sides of my family were Jewish before the Spanish Inquisition when Calabria was almost 50% Jewish. I wrote about this in the Jerusalem Post.
My husband’s family came from Lanciano in Chieti province, Abruzzo and Capo d’Orlando in the Messina province in Sicily.
The Academy of American Poets has recently selected you as a 2020 Poet Laureate Fellow, and you will spend the fellowship hosting a curated series of readings and writing workshops for senior citizens in Queens, New York. A lot of Italians live there…
My workshops are designed for underserved senior communities. I’ve developed a series for SAGE, the advocacy group for gay seniors under the auspices of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative; for the Greater Astoria Historical Society; The Isamu Noguchi Museum and an ongoing series with the Queens Library opened to all seniors.
It would be fun to approach Italian social clubs for instance, so if you have any links to them, I would appreciate if you would share.
I know that your italianità in New York is not limited to the Queens neighborhood or just to poetry, right?
When I dated my late husband, Gil Fagiani, he and I were very much interested in integrating our Italian American sensibility with our progressive politics. More recently, we co-founded the Vito Marcantonio Forum, an educational organization dedicated to perpetuating the historic memory and significance of the most electorally successful progressive Congressman in American history - Vito Marcantonio.
In 1998, Distinguished Professor Phil Cannistraro and other academics, activists such as myself and my husband, helped produce a three-day conference at CUNY entitled The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism: Labor, Politics, and Culture. That event showcased scholars from Italy and the US, spurring conversations on both sides of the Atlantic.
My husband is buried in Historic Woodlawn Cemetery near his two heroes: Fiorello La Guardia and Vito Marcantonio.
The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is also a progressive initiative I am involved in: its mission is to establish a memorial to the victims of the Triangle Fire that took 146 lives of young immigrants - and to keep us aware of the need for fair labor practices such as the need to raise the minimum wage. Until the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was considered the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City and had a profound influence on building codes, and labor laws and by extension, OSHA regulations.
Also, you are the Queens Poet Laureate, the first Italian American to have this honor. What does it mean and how does it feel?
I was over the moon at the appointment: to be recognized in your own home is a gift. The position has afforded me access to people I would never meet otherwise and a chance to share my work with those who might not be on the literary circuit, thus giving me a chance to turn people on to poetry. The most important ingredient is access to poetry.
The Queens Library circuit has provided me with venues in every neighborhood in Queens where I have run readings and my current workshop series has been really well attended, which is very gratifying.
The duties of the poet laureate are not specific, and the position includes no office or salary, but it has been a jumping off point to reach out to Queens’ citizens through the library system through events such as readings, poetry contests, a bilingual series with my late husband at a local bookstore; and at a wide array of venues.
One of the biggest accomplishments was the Summer Poetry Contest that we conducted through the 65 branches of the Queens Library. That initiative drew more than 200 submissions each summer of work by people from children to adults. It was thrilling to see and hear Winners and Finalists read at the Flushing Library as their parents and families from all over the world filed in to witness their accomplishment. Most were first generation Americans, making the experience even more significant.
You are the co-curator of the Italian American Writers Association literary series. Please describe this wonderful initiative
IAWA was born out of the Yusuf Hawkins murder in Bensonhurst in 1989; it was in part a response to the fact that the media focused only on the most malignant and racist Italian Americans, a gesture that actually maligned all Italian Americans.
Unfortunately, it was indeed Italian American youth who attacked Hawkins and the incident became a watershed for Italian American authors and the intelligentsia to deliberately gain visibility in the media to counter the idea that all Italian Americans were ignorant and racist.
The late Professor Robert Viscusi of Brooklyn College called a meeting of Italian American authors and went around the room asking them: “Who is your favorite Italian American author other than yourself”? He recalled this anecdote often: “You could hear a pin drop.”
For him, this illustrated that Italian Americans writers were not paying attention, not reading or listening to each other. Thus the three initial rules of IAWA are: 1) Read each other, 2) Write or be written, 3) Buy our books, to which I have added 4) Review each other.
Many Italian American authors were present, but it was Viscusi and the recently deceased Vittoria Repetto whose dedication led to the reading series in 1991, made it the most democratic forum in our community as it features emerging and veteran authors who read their work out loud before an audience. It is a very affirming act to do so.
The series continued at the now defunct Cornelia St. Café with Vittoria Repetto until she started her own series at bluestocking’s bookstore. Viscusi asked my late husband and me to co-curate maybe 15 or 16 years ago. At one juncture, our schedule at Cornelia St. was curtailed and we organized readings at Sidewalk Café, both venues have since been the victims of the fiercely competitive and devastating real estate market in NYC.
We moved the readings to the New York Public Library - Mulberry St. branch, in the heart of Little Italy, a wonderful free space.
Three years ago, a second series began in Boston at I AM Bookstore curated by Julia Lisella and Jennifer Martelli. The bookstore has closed but its online business is flourishing.
Since the pandemic, the three of us have been co-curating monthly IAWA readings virtually. The series is 30 years old this year, and may well be one of the longest running literary series in New York and Boston.
You have three poets in your family, how does that work?
Yes, my sister Julia Lisella, and my late husband Gil Fagiani are poets and the delightful aspect of this is that when any of us achieves some success or publishing advance, it is as if all three of us have won that accomplishment.
I learn from both of them: all three of us observe the world through very different lenses, and have had very varied life experiences and education so while our voices move through a common ethnic filter, they are very distinct. Our work habits are also very varied, yet we are available to each other.
I lost my first editor when Gil died in 2018; we were the first readers of anything we both wrote and kept a folder called Scambio in the living room where we would each drop a new work in and the other would read it at their convenience and drop it back in with suggestions or edits. It was a great system that I miss greatly. Since my husband died, I shepherded his seventh book of poetry, Missing Madonnas, the third in his Connecticut trilogy and with the assistance of his mentor and friend Luigi Bonaffini, his bilingual collection is in the works. I have a chapbook that is pending publication and Gil and I were working on a collection together.
Italy has given birth to many poets and poets over the centuries. Why do you think Italians are drawn to poetry, art, and culture in such a rich way over the centuries?
I think of Italians and Italian Americans as expressive people – the early immigrants excelled in developing theater, so drama comes easily to us. By extension, I think of our community as being less afraid to express emotions and address real life events, personal and political.
We can see from the recent inaugural poem Amanda Gorman wrote and read that poetry is not a passive art or necessarily romantic, though it can be; it is very active and can incorporate current events in a way that can be understood.
Recently a writing prompt I wrote to was “Who or what inspired you to write?” Surprisingly, I credited my Calabrese grandmother, Filomena Calabro, with enriching my life with her own language and I believe poetry begins with just a love of language, sound, the puzzles you can solve, and the messages and stories you can tell.
Poetry is read at funerals, weddings, baptisms, moment of public, emotional significance. It can be a healing art in a sense, it can also stir the soul, revive old memories, in short, take you where you have not been before.
Within our community a few stand out in terms of influence. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who has published more than 20 books of poetry and received many awards, has been a tremendous influence. As founder and Executive Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ and editor of the Paterson Literary Review, Gillan was the right voice at the right moment: her work opened the gates for writers to emerge with their own identities and voices intact. Many other voices in our community like Maria Fama who are so very intimate with regional culture.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the increasing importance of translation: Luigi Bonaffini, Michael Palma have given us great translations of Dante, Mario Luzzi among many other Italian poets we might not access in the original language. The late Alfredo di Palchi who produced Chelsea literary magazine also supported the Bordighera Prize for many years that provided the winners with a translation of their work from English to Italian.
We the Italians serves as a way for Italy and the Italians who live here to better know and appreciate the wonderful Italian American community and its fantastic members. What can we do to help promote Italian poetry in the U.S. and Italian American poetry in Italy?
I am going to take a very sharp tone on this question: Italian Americans complain vociferously about stereotypes in the media, but they do not buy our books or support writers: our books are filled cover to cover with a plurality of characters who are not stereotypes. One of our distinguished scholars suggested to an important Italian American organization to buy our books and send one out with each new membership. The organization refused to do this because they claim to only support scientifically-based causes. Developing a tradition of cultural philanthropy tops the list of my wishes for the Italian American community.
By contrast, an example of the community coming together to support an effort was the landmark translation and publication of ItaloAmericana (Fordham University Press), edited by the late Francesco Durante, Robert Viscusi, and Anthony Tamburri and entirely funded by Italian Americans.
Almost entirely translated by Italian Americans, this collection brings an English-speaking audience and a new generation face to face with these long inaccessible pieces: from poetry to drama to journalism, political advocacy, history, memoir, biography, and story. A must-have on your bookshelf.
And as a travel writer, I suggest traveling to your roots – where your relatives really came from - not just high-toned Italy of Rome, Florence and Venice, but the small, modest and sometimes forgotten or abandoned towns and villages - it is one of the most enriching experiences one can give oneself.
I have done presentations discussing how very important it is to Italian Americans to know who they really are – their backgrounds have much less to do with the Mona Lisa and the Medici than they do with village life, crafts, folktales, music, myths. Admittedly, most have lost their mother tongue, but studying Italian also enhances the culture and keeps our links to who we are very much alive. Further, Italian Americans need to enroll in Italian courses if they expect schools to add them to programs.
In a way, those who miss these opportunities are like cultural orphans – they are neither Italian nor American.
You are also a travel writer, and I imagine you have traveled a lot to Italy. What’s your favorite place in Italy? Is there a hidden gem only few Italian American probably know about, that you’d like to share with our readers?
This is a funny question because if there is a place I loved that much, I would want to keep it for myself. This is how I felt about Sicily the moment I visited on my honeymoon. Of course, Sicily is a place that would sooner or later be discovered. Years ago when I was giving a talk about Southern Italy to a group of travel agents, I gave a presentation about Sicily. Mario Perillo was in the audience at the time and jumped up and said, “Going to Sicily is like taking people to visit Alabama instead of the big sights.” His son Steve laughs at this because not much later, Perillo Tours developed programs to Sicily and they are among their best sellers.
I would also mention Calabria’s magnificent and unforgiving landscape and small mountain towns of Albidona or well-preserved borghi such as Morano Calabro, two places worth visiting, one with a view of the Ionian Sea. I was recently introduced to these locales when I took the Italian Diaspora course sponsored by the University of Calabria in 2019.
Every region of Italy has its incredible gems, it is truly one of the most multi-cultural destinations on the planet.
My work as a travel writer and editor has taken me to 60 countries in the past 20 or so years affording me incredible opportunities to not only meet people of different ethnic groups, which I already do at home in my own neighborhood, but meeting them in their home countries.
Much of my poetry are outtakes of articles in the words of guides, cooks, waiters or colleagues I have encountered across the globe. I try to give voice to their stories in my poetry.
I’ve asked this last question to many Italian Americans, but never to a poet. I would like to try to mix sacred and profane, high and low, if I may... I can't resist, I am going to ask: sauce or gravy?
My grandparents called it la salsa … gravy for us was brown and likely American, but my sisters remember my mother moving on to calling it gravy. And this is kind of funny because my Calabrese grandmother always accused my mother of trying to be more ‘merican like her Irish friends were. This led to a battle about my attending Catholic school because my grandmother insisted, the nuns being mostly Irish would not understand us. In a way she was right – my first public rebellion was correcting a nun who tried to anglicize my name to Marie or Mary. My father was called to the school and he miraculously defended my position, “Maria is a very easy name to pronounce in English and it is after all, the name of the Blessed Virgin”. Those nuns were the most educated women I knew, they lived without men in a communal society and they taught me how to read and write.
My after-school snack was not cookies and milk but a crusty piece of Italian bread dappled in golden olive oil, salt and oregano. The American kids said it looked like “bugs on bread,” but I knew better.
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