May 28, 2012

A Look at NYC's Feast of Sant'Antonio da Padova

Viva Sant'Antonio!
The Feast is organized by the Society of Saint Anthony of Giovinazzo, Inc. The celebration will continue through Sunday, June 3rd. There will be a second procession on Saturday, June 2nd at 7:00 PM. 
This year's Queen of the Festival, Mina Desantis
These adorable little angels stole the show
Young maidens exiting Most Precious Blood Church
The procession made its way through the streets of Little Italy
A close-up of a member's medallion
The confraternity's standard
Most Precious Blood Church
109 Mulberry Street, NYC
(Between Broome St. and Spring St.) 
Proceeds to benefit Children's Brain Tumor FoundationMost Precious Blood ChurchSaint Jude HospitalAlzheimer FoundationsRed Cross USAMemorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer FoundationCoolies Anemia Foundation Inc.St. Anthony of Padova ChurchLeukemia FoundationsSt. Rocco Society and Public School #6.


Photos by New York Scugnizzo, Saturday, May 26

May 25, 2012

Horror in Brindisi, Apulia

Sixteen-year-old Melissa Bassi was killed by a terrorist bomb outside her school in Brindisi, Apulia.
By Niccolò Graffio

On Saturday, May 19th in the city of Brindisi, Italy, Hell was in session!  In what can only be described as a despicable act, someone detonated a powerful bomb that was left near a waste receptacle located just outside the Francesca Morvillo Falcone secondary school.  The blast has killed at least one person and wounded at least seven others.

The bomb detonated at 7:45 AM local time when students were showing up to enter the school.  Police report the timing and location of the blast, plus the fact the bomb appears to have been electronically detonated, strongly implies the perpetrator(s) meant to murder students.  It is being treated as a terrorist incident.

Killed was 16-y.o. Melissa Bassi.  Her friend Veronica Capodieci was critically injured, and reports are conflicting at this time if in fact she has since died from the injuries she suffered from the blast.  It is reported another girl may have to have both of her legs amputated, and another sustained serious injuries to her chest.  According to some police reports, the crude but powerful bomb was made of three gas canisters 

Surveillance videos showed suspicious individuals in the vicinity prior to the blast.  Police questioned two men but later released them due to lack of evidence.  No one has been arrested yet and authorities are entertaining several hypotheses.  Some speculate the blast may be the work of ultra-leftists linked to the shooting of a nuclear company executive two weeks earlier.  Others believe it may be the work of the Sacra Corona Unita (SCU) or United Sacred Crown, a Mafia-like organization that operates in Apulia.  Individuals known to be associated with the SCU have strongly denied this, however and have condemned the attack.

The Francesca Morvillo Falcone secondary school was named in honor of the wife of legendary anti-Mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone of Sicily.  She, like her husband, was also a crusading anti-Mafia magistrate and was murdered along with him and their three bodyguards on May 23rd, 1992.  The fact this new blast comes almost 20 years to the day of the one that murdered the Falcones and their bodyguards has fueled suspicions this may be the work of organized crime.

The attack has shocked Italy!  Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was in the United States for a NATO summit, cut short his visit to return home to attend Ms. Bassi’s funeral.  He ordered flags throughout the country flown at half-mast for three days.  Many in the country rightfully fear a return to the violence that plagued the country in the early 1990’s.

The vile nature of this attack, whoever did it, clearly demonstrates the haphazard style of law enforcement that has existed in Italy for decades has been a miserable failure.  No one is suggesting a return to the draconian excesses of the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, but it should be obvious capital punishment should be reserved for the most heinous offenses, such as the Brindisi school bombing.  Such a system works quite well in Japan.  

Polls show, however, the majority of people in Italy are opposed to capital punishment.  No doubt this is due to successful inculcation of Fabian ideals by the country’s educational system; another example of cultural hegemony.  Southern Italians like young Melissa Bassi suffer and die as a result.  Horrific incidents like this will be part of the landscape for quite some time, unfortunately, until our people can reclaim their independence and establish a sane system of jurisprudence.  Such a system would have zero tolerance for political extremists and Mafia-type thugs.

Remember Bitonto!

Charles of Bourbon, Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

May 25th marks the anniversary of the Battle of Bitonto (1734), the key engagement between the Spanish Bourbons and Austrian Hapsburgs over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1738).  The battle and its aftermath (the Treaty of Vienna) brought Austrian rule in Southern Italy to an end and won "the most beautiful crown in Italy" for Charles of Bourbon, the eldest child of King Philip V of Spain and his second wife, Elizabeth Farnese.

The Duke of Montemar, 
José Carrillo de Albornoz
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Under the command of Captain General José Carrillo de Albornoz, the Count of Montemar, the Bourbon forces defeated the Austrians (who had ruled Naples since 1707 and Sicily from 1720) on the field of battle near Bitonto in Puglia. For his part, Count José Carrillo de Albornoz was made a Duke. A towering obelisk was constructed in the town square in his honor and to commemorate the victory. 

After 230 years of provincial servitude to Spain and Austria, Charles of Bourbon, "The great restorer of the kingdom," made the Regno an independent and sovereign state once again. The Bourbon dynasty ruled the Southern Kingdom for 126 years until 1860, when Victor Emanuel II of Savoy conquered and annexed it to the nascent Kingdom of Italy.

For more see: 

May 24, 2012

Who’s Happier than Me?

The Biography of Eduardo De Filippo
“Eduardo”
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
By Niccolò Graffio
"What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity they are simply too tremendous." – G.K. Chesterton (as quoted in Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward; Sheed & Ward, 2005)
The process of centralizing the film industry in Italy, begun by the proponents of the Risorgimento almost from the time of that industry’s creation and expedited by the Fascists, virtually snuffed out the embryonic film companies that had sprung up in places like Naples and Sicily.  That and the advent of sound film (along with its vastly increased costs) insured that only films produced in the movie studios of Rome or Northern Italy would ever see the light of day.

The cultural hegemony of the Padanians succeeded in relegating the local cultures of Southern Italy into second, no, third class status!  This was due to the fact Northerners regarded the art, music, languages and cuisines of their newly acquired peons in the south as being inferior to even that of non-Italian Europeans.

What it could not succeed in doing, though, was extinguishing the inner spark that drove the creation of these unique expressions of ethnicity.  This was because that spark was due just as much to innate factors as it was to upbringing.  As has been commented on by a number of people including our adversaries like the early 20th century American nativist Madison Grant, our natural inclinations are to aspire to intellectual achievements, especially in the arts.  One would therefore expect to see Southern Italians achieve distinction in painting, sculpture, music, etc. and one certainly does.

Thus, it is no small wonder that even under the stifling, bigoted atmosphere of the Risorgimento and phony epoch of pan-Italianism that followed it, some of our people would still somehow find a way to rise above the restrictions imposed upon us by our northern conquerors to use our God-given talents as best we could under the circumstances.  Southern Italians, who could not for the most part operate film companies, could nonetheless become actors, playwrights, directors, producers, etc. In fact a careful examination of the history of Italian cinema shows an unmistakably large contribution by Southerners.

Is it just coincidence Italy’s most awarded actress (according to 2009 Guinness World Records) is the legendary Napoletana Sophia Loren?  Likewise, famed film producer Agostino “Dino” De Laurentiis was born in the province of Naples.  As mentioned in a previous article, Italy’s earliest and most prolific female film director, Elvira Notari, was Neapolitan.  Noted ‘Italian’ film director Giuseppe Tornatore (of Cinema Paradiso and Baaria fame) was born and raised in Sicily as was Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Luigi Pirandello.  

Those of our people born outside Italy do just as well if not better than their brethren who remain.  Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the most innovative and influential Hollywood filmmaker of our time, can trace his ancestry back to the regions of Campania and Basilicata.  The list goes on.

Though Italy has produced a large body of film works, surprisingly little of it has reached these shores.  This is no doubt due in large part to the language barrier (quick- name five German movies you’ve seen!).  Dubbing and subtitling are not cheap; neither are all the licensing requirements involved.  Film distributors want to be reasonably assured they will get a nice return on their investment.  As an unabashed proponent of free enterprise Capitalism I can hardly blame them.  

It is because of this, however, that many of the finer works created by our people in Italy never made it to America.  Making a good film is no guarantee it will do well at the box office.  If you want to see proof, just read the history of the critically acclaimed film The Buddy Holly Story starring Gary Busey.

As you no doubt have guessed by now, the subject of this biographical article is someone who was intimately involved with Italian cinema.  Actor, playwright and screenwriter as well as a published author and poet, in his lifetime he was hailed as one of the leading figures in Italy’s film industry.  Sadly, few people in America have ever heard of him!  It is time to right that injustice.

Eduardo De Filippo was born on May 24th, 1900 in the city of Naples.  According to reliable sources, he was the product of an incestuous union.  His father, Eduardo Scarpetta, a renowned actor and playwright himself, had seduced his own niece, Luisa De Filippo.  Luisa worked as a seamstress and costumier.  When the boy was born it was decided (no doubt by the father) that since Eduardo Sr. already had legitimate offspring, the lad would take his mother’s surname.

In spite of the stigmata of illegitimacy and incest surrounding his birth, Scarpetta provided for his son and ‘took him under his wing’.  Young Eduardo made his theatrical debut in 1904, playing a Japanese child in the operetta Geisha at the Teatro Valle in Rome.   Two years later the boy officially began his apprenticeship in the theatre.

Years later in an interview De Filippo would explain his rather bizarre tutelage.  “My father decided that the way to write for the theater was to learn the mechanics of playwriting and to do that you had to copy other plays.  He put me in a room for three or four hours a day just to copy out drama.  I should add mostly his own plays.”

By the time he reached the age of 14 he was working in Naples as a professional actor in the theater company of his half-brother Vincenzo Scarpetta.  In 1931 he achieved his first big success as a playwright with the production of his play Natale in Casa Cupiello (It: Christmas at the Cupiello’s).  

By this time, however, Eduardo was chafing under his father, whom he felt was too restrictive.  Though he was now a professional success, his private life was miserable.  In addition, his marriage to an American, Dorothy Pennington, was failing.  He decided to end his marriage and his collaboration with his father and half-brother Vincenzo.

A year later he formed his own company with his brother Peppino and their sister Titina.  The company was called La Compagnia Teatro Umoristico di Filippo.  It was an artistic success!  The actors toured all over Italy playing to rave reviews by critics and sold out performances in theaters.  Their main genre was comedy.  As a result of the success of this company, leading man Eduardo De Filippo would rise to such a level of fame and respect in the entertainment industry he would receive the ultimate honor – being referred to by colleagues and fans alike simply as “Eduardo”.

Eduardo’s popularity would protect him during the Fascist years from the wrath of Benito Mussolini – whom he hated.

Totò 
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Peppino would remain with the company until 1944, departing after becoming embroiled in a controversy with his brother.  He went on to collaborate on a number of film projects with the legendary Neapolitan/Sicilian actor, comedian, writer, singer and songwriter Totò.  In addition, Peppino worked with famed film director and scriptwriter Federico Fellini.  Titina would remain with the company until the early 1950’s.  Like her brothers, she would rack up an impressive list of movies in her filmography.  Like Eduardo, she was also a playwright.

At the end of World War II he wrote and produced the play Napoli Milionaria (It: Naples Millionaire).  The play received rave reviews and was a box office success.  Five years later Eduardo would co-produce a film with Dino De Laurentiis based on this play called Side Street Story that was entered into the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. 

A year after the end of World War II he wrote and produced the first of his major plays, Filumena Maturana.  He had intended this play to be a tribute to his sister, Titina, a famous thespian in her own right.  She took the title role in the play’s first production in Naples.  The play opened to a lukewarm reception by both critics and theater-goers alike.  Titina saved the play by following her own instincts and playing the part the way she saw fit.  Her performance became so linked to the play that for many years afterwards critics and fans alike affectionately referred to as Filumena.

18 years later Carlo Ponti would produce a memorable film based on this play starring the great Neapolitan actress Sophia Loren (who was also his wife) called Matrimonio all’italiana (It: Marriage Italian-style).

It has been said “You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”  In Eduardo’s case the “country” was his beloved Naples.  It was never far from him emotionally, even when it was in terms of distance.  Having grown up in the city, he saw both the best and worst aspects of it firsthand, and both made their way into his plays.  As with film director Elvira Notari before him, what made his characters so memorable was the simple fact they were real!  People could easily identify with them because they saw so much of themselves in them.  In addition, and unlike his “Italian” contemporaries, he insisted on writing his plays in the Neapolitan language.

It was this, his refusal to deny his Neapolitan heritage, more than anything else that made him so great!  He not only embraced it, he exulted in it!  It was this refusal to “Italianize” himself, plus his wild popularity with the Italian public that made him the vanguard of the cultural renaissance that was to come in Southern Italy.  Like the Neapolitan scholars of old, he not only wrote in the language but translated other great works (including William Shakespeare’s The Tempest) into it.

Sadly, it was his habit of writing in Neapolitan that no doubt contributes to the fact his plays are virtually never performed here in America.  If plays written in Italian get short shrift, how does one expect those written in Neapolitan, a language even most Italians don’t speak, to fare better?  Translators are hard to come by.  Then again, let us not forget the decidedly American prejudice against all things Southern Italian.   Thanks to generations of inculcation by a geographically feebleminded educational system, Americans, if they know anything at all about Naples, usually think of it as just a slum.  Try to explain to people about all the culture and history in the place and you’ll usually get indifference at best.

In 1974 Eduardo required open heart surgery; those close to him said it did nothing to slow him down.  In 1981, in recognition of his cultural contributions, he was appointed a life senator of the Italian Republic.  He died on October 31st, 1984.  Though he has been dead almost 28 years he remains a major literary figure in Italy.


Further reading:

• Maria Tucci: Eduardo De Filippo: Four Plays; Smith and Kraus, 2002

May 21, 2012

Napoli Win Coppa!

I'm sure by now this is old news, but I was too busy celebrating with friends to post something sooner. Yesterday (Sunday, May 20th) Napoli defeated Juventus 2-0 in the Coppa Italia Final (Italian Cup), winning the club their first silverware in 22 years. (In 1990 they won the Italian Super Cup)

In front of a packed and raucous Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Napoli took on reigning League champions Juventus for the coveted trophy. Having just won their 28th Scudetto, the Turin powerhouse were looking to win the double and complete their incredible undefeated season. Napoli haven't won the Coppa Italia since 1987.

Not surprisingly, Napoli's celebrated "three tenors" would play an important part in the outcome. Partenopei took the lead in the 63rd minute after Edison "El Matador" Cavani hit the back of the net in a perfectly executed spot kick. The penalty was awarded after Ezequiel Lavezzi was fouled in the box by Juve goalkeeper, Marco Storari. Marek Hamsik sealed the deal with a clinical strike in the 83rd minute, finishing off a patented Napoli counter attack. 

Unfortunately, the hard fought contest was marred in the final moments when (former Napoli) hitman Fabio Quagliarella was sent off with a straight red card for elbowing Napoli defender Salvatore Aronica in the face.

The victory was a fantastic finish to an entertaining campaign, which saw Napoli make it to the Champions League's Round of Sixteen (sadly losing to tournament winners Chelsea) and finish in (admittedly disappointing) fifth place in Serie A, thus failing to qualify for Champions League again next season.

Forza Napoli!  
Elsewhere

First the bad news: U.S. Lecce were condemned to relegation after a regrettable season. The Salentini finished third from bottom.

The good news: Pescara Calcio return to top-flight football, joining fellow Southerners Palermo, Napoli and Catania in the 2012/13 Serie A campaign. With their impressive 3-1 away victory over Sampdoria on Sunday (May 20th) the Biancazzurri secured promotion from Serie B, earning them the right to play against Italy's elite clubs. Not since 1992/93 has the squad from the Abrruzzo graced Serie A with their presence, and we welcome them back. Congratulations and good luck Pescara.

Avanti Sud!

May 18, 2012

Diogenes Need Have Looked No Farther

The Biography of Giovanni Falcone
P.M. Giovanni Falcone
By Niccolò Graffio
“The Mafia is a human phenomenon and as all human phenomena it has a beginning, an evolution and it will also have an end.” – Giovanni Falcone
"He [Diogenes of Sinope] used to call the demagogues the lackeys of the people and the crowns awarded to them the efflorescence of fame. He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, 'I am looking for a man.'" – Diogenes Laërtius: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VI (translated by Robert Drew Hicks), Loeb Classical Library, 1925
The American fascination with criminals has always been something of a mystery to me. Criminals rob, rape and murder with impunity, yet somehow the worst of them all too often manage to garner the best press. This is not a recent phenomenon in American history. As far back as the 19th century, “dime novels” chronicled the exploits, real and imagined, of various unsavory types such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Cole Younger and the Dolan Gang. Rather than denounce the anti-social proclivities of these sordid characters, more often writers held them up as people to be admired, if not in fact to be emulated. Continue reading

May 13, 2012

A Poem For Mother's Day

In loving memory of my mother I'm posting Mother's House At 3 A.M., a touching poem by Maria Terrone. The accompanying photo of Charity by Francesco de Mura (1696-1782) was part of a series of Allegories of the Virtues commissioned by Charles Emmanuel III of Savoy. Charity, representing maternal love, is depicted as a nursing mother caring for three children. In the foreground is a pelican feeding her young with her own blood. The painting is part of The Art Institute of Chicago collection, but as of this writing is currently not on display.

Mother's House At 3 A.M.*
by Maria Terrone

Foo dog snarls from his pedestal
like Cerberus guarding the portals,
while Diana, bronze-embalmed, poises,
her arrow aimed.

Your house is a temple and I a night visitor
wandering past ivory elders in repose,
jade blossoms, incense burners, cloisonné.

Everything is as you left it.

Grandfather clock, solid, upright,
went mute years ago.
His pasty moon-face glares at the pagan splendor

and me: Dazed, barefoot, I seek you
in this overgrowth of tapestry and topaz.
I light a candle
and whisper your name,
your first-born daughter, bereft.

* Reprinted from The Bodies We Were Loaned by Maria Terrone, The Word Works, 2002, p. 64

Also see:

May 11, 2012

Upcoming Poetry Readings by Maria Terrone

• Book release party at Cornelia Street Café

Wednesday, May 16th at 6PM 
29 Cornelia Street, Manhattan
(212) 989-9319
$7 admission includes a drink

This book release party celebrates the launch of A Face to Meet the Faces, which features poems in voices of characters ranging from mythology to tabloids to pop culture and everything in between. Featured poets include Matthew Thorburn, Tara Betts, Evie Shockley, Jason Koo, Greg Santos, Greg Pardlo, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, Maria Terrone, Jee Leong Koh, Matthew Hittinger, Leigh Phillips, Khadijah Queen, R. A. Villanueva, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and editor and emcee Stacey Lynn Brown.

 Poetry reading at the Voelker Orth Museum

Maria Terrone will also be reading at the lovely Voelker Orth Museum in Flushing, a historic home and bird sanctuary with a Victorian garden (reading takes place there).

Sunday, June 3rd at 3PM
149-19 38th Avenue, Flushing, NY
(718) 359-6227
For visitor information: http://www.vomuseum.org/

Also see:

"Anti-Italianism" Documentary at the IAM

The Italian Americam Museum Presents: 
"Anti-Italianism: Discrimination and Defamation in the History of Italian Americans"

Thursday, May 17 (6:30pm)
Suggested donation of $10

Featuring introductions by:

Dr. Manny Alfano

André DiMino
Past National President of UNICO National

Anti-Italianism: Discrimination and Defamation in the History of Italian Americans is a 30-minute documentary filmed at an international conference held at Seton Hall University.  Featuring actors Joe Piscopo and Tony LoBianco along with many scholars, writers, politicians and community leaders, the documentary introduces the American public to the discrimination faced by early Italian immigrants (which included gang violence and lynchings), and to the social and psychological impact that the stereotyping of Italian Americans still has today, especially on young people.

155 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10013
(Corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets)

PLEASE RESERVE EARLY  
To reserve a place for this event, please call the Italian American Museum at (212) 965-9000 or email: ItalianAmericanMuseum@gmail.com

Reprinted from the Italian American Museum press release


Also See:
The Unacknowledged Prejudice: Anti-Italian Sentiment in Modern America

May 9, 2012

Giovanni Paisiello

Giovanni Paisiello painted by
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun
By Giovanni di Napoli
Giovanni Paisiello was born on May 9th, 1740 in Roccaforzata, a small town near Taranto in the Apulian region of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The son of a veterinarian, he received his first instruction in music at the local Jesuit school, which he attended for eight years. The boy's musical talent soon attracted the attention of Don Girolamo Carducci, who, in 1754, succeeded in having the youth attend the Conservatorio di S. Onofrio, Naples' preeminent institution for musical training.
During his first year at the conservatorio the young Paisiello studied under the celebrated Neapolitan composer, Francesco Durante (1684-1755). Focusing mostly on sacred music (psalms, etc.), Paisiello eventually composed a successful comic intermezzo, which led to commissions from the Teatro Marsigli-Rossi di Bologna. In 1764 he wrote the opera Il Ciarlone, then I francesi brillanti, establishing his reputation in Northern Italy as a major composer in the operatic genre known as opera buffa. Continue reading

May 2, 2012

Crafting an Agency of Voice: Interview with Poet Maria Terrone

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Artists create as a means to understand and express. Through poetry, language evokes sensations of life unique to an individual’s state of being. Such experiences are valuable in the deep insights and transcendence that they offer, challenging the ignorance of generalizations and the discrimination that often results. In fighting the ongoing reduction of Southern Italian culture through toxic stereotypes, as perpetuated by the media, poetry reminds us of the truth and dignity of individual lives, and why they’re worthy to be heard. The work of Maria Terrone exposes readers to vivid  impressions of identity, family, migration and survival with refreshing originality, wit and beauty. She is the author of three poetry collections: The Bodies We Were Loaned (The Word Works, 2002), A Secret Room in Fall (Ashland Poetry Press, 2006), and American Gothic, Take 2 (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, Crab Orchard Review, Margie, Rhino, Rattapallax, Norte Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Poetry International, and many others. Winner of the 2005 McGovern Prize, Terrone’s poetry has received numerous awards, including the Willow Review Award for Poetry, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize from Passages North, and the Allen Tate Memorial Award from Wind. In 2007, she received an Individual Artist Initiative Award from the Queens Council on the Arts. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies, including The Heart of Autumn (Beacon Press), The Poets’ Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales (Story Line Press), The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture (The Feminist Press), and Sweet Lemons: Writing with a Sicilian Accent (Legas, 2004). Her first collection is currently being translated into Farsi by writer Mohsen Fathizade, and was profiled in the 2005 edition of Hengam, an Iranian literary journal. The Guggenheim Museum recently selected her among an elite group of artists to participate in the upcoming reading series Transhistoria. Terrone lives with her husband in Jackson Heights, Queens, where she serves as Assistant Vice President for Communications at Queens College of the City University of New York. I recently had the enormous privilege to speak with Maria about her work and perspective on craft.

Olivia Kate Cerrone: Your poems often take readers to a wide variety of historical and social landscapes, while portraying sharp depictions of everyday human sensations that embody the complexities of being and desire. In “Feeding Your Creative Spirit: The Circle of Stillness,” an essay you wrote for www.hercircleezine.com, you reveal how “almost all of my inspiration comes from allowing my senses to connect with the physical world while simultaneously allowing my mind, through close observation, to work its alchemy.” From a craft perspective, what is it about connecting to the physical that allows you to render such evocative and emotionally-charged work, free from sentimentality and cliché?

Maria Terrone: I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of over-intellectualizing, which can create distance from the subject. This kind of writing might be emotionally helpful when a writer is confronting painful material, but in my opinion, it doesn’t usually lead to good poetry.

Of course, we all experience the world with our five senses, as well as our minds and emotions. But the physical is basically straightforward and uncomplicated. As I write this on vacation, my face is absorbing sunlight through the window, my eyes are taking in the yellow-green leaves of a tree in early spring, I’m hearing the call of birds flying overhead. These sensations are real and concrete and seem to anchor me in the moment, which an effective poem does—anchors a moment, an experience or scene that might otherwise be lost.

Once you describe the physical, your heart and mind kick in and anything can happen. One example: a few months after 9/11, I was feeling as bereft and grief-stricken as ever, but didn’t know how I could write about this catastrophe without falling into gothic horror clichés. And then I happened to glance outside my kitchen window, which overlooks a maple tree, and a single line came to me: The last constellation of leaves lies like jagged stars. And that led to the next line: What did I expect this season of grief but the usual turning? From an observation based on the physical, “A Simple Cosmology” took off. If I’d seen this same tree in late November the year earlier, I’m sure I wouldn’t have described the leaves like stars about to fall. That’s where heart and mind enter, coloring our view of the physical, depending on our mental or emotional state at the time.

OKC: From Madame Curie to an ancient Egyptian queen and a young girl working in a glass factory, a disparate range of voices, driven by a compassionate and far-reaching imagination, often occupies the narratives in your poetry. How do you access character in your poems?
MT: The fun of writing is that it can get you out of yourself, into another place and time and the life of another human being. For me, this is likely to be someone from another era who is completely different from me. My sonnet, “The Egyptian Queen Gives Death the Slip,” published in The Hudson Review, was inspired by a visit to a special mummy exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took off from work to get there before the crowds. The rooms were eerily lit and in some, I found myself alone with the elaborate caskets topped with the dramatic faces of the dead within. I read every card and jotted notes, feeling as if I had communed with their spirits. When I got home, my mind was teeming and I found myself writing in the first-person, rather imperious voice of an Egyptian queen.
I love persona poems because of their endless possibilities. They allow your imagination to roam as you time-trip and try on various characters. It helps to know something about the era in which the subject lived because you want the voice to be authentic. In my poetic life, I’ve been that Egyptian queen; a 14-year-old girl in a glass factory (a poem inspired by a Lewis Hines photo exhibit on child laborers); Pontius Pilate’s wife; the slain spouse—now a ghost—of a lighthouse keeper who went mad; and a poet working in a customs house. Giving voice to these characters surprises and delights me.
OKC: Your poetry at times draws from your Southern Italian background, a heritage that you had little connection to until a business trip to Italy taken in your twenties, as revealed in an interview with writer Fred Gardaphe on the show Nota Bene. In your poem, “Vesuvius,” the harrowing, unlit car ride taken en route to Naples during this trip, was likened by Gardaphe as one’s passage through a birth canal. How did your perspective on the value of your roots change after this experience? Why do you find it worthy to explore in your work as an artist?

MT: That image of Fred’s is perfect—I hadn’t thought of the experience that way until he used those words.  So much changed for me because of that close encounter with sudden death in the land of my ancestors. I was on my first eye-and-mind-opening trip to Italy as a young editor at an Italian American magazine. I recognize that my reaction of awe, wonder and enormous pride is not unique for first-time visitors, but that doesn’t lessen its truth. I returned from Italy a changed person.

Inside that tunnel, black as obsidian, black as oblivion, my only thought was, “Can my husband find the light switch on the rented car that can save us from crashing?”  It was only much later that I could process the meaning and understand how closely that experience connected me to the people whose blood I shared—those ancestors buried by Vesuvius up through countless generations.

My roots in Southern Italy are part of who I am as an artist, although I didn’t realize that in such a visceral, dramatic way until my twenties. If I weren’t Italian American, I’d still be attracted to Bella Italia, but having roots there resonates for me on a deep, emotional level that goes far beyond my aesthetic appreciation for the country. In the too-few times that I’ve been to Italy, I’ve always been stirred to the core.

OKC: In the haunting poem, “Blood Oranges,” from A Secret Room in Fall, you write: “You would expect a thousand years / of conquest to produce a bitter / taste. Then how can this sweetness / be? Beware of Strangers, / my mother warned, joined / by her parents’ blood to a sun-blinded isle / of secrets. Never trust appearances.”  What inspired the writing of this specific poem? Are there particular aspects of Sicily’s complicated social history that compel you?

MT: I always knew that I had to write a poem about a fruit so evocatively named. Next came the exploration—again the physical—the unwrapping of the twisted tissue around the imported fruit, the cutting into its shockingly red flesh, the wet burst on the tongue. I hadn’t visited Sicily when I wrote “Blood Oranges,” but for 10 years of my life, I had the connection of my maternal grandmother, the only grandparent I ever knew. My mother, the baby of a large Sicilian family, was the only one born in New York. Although she was “the Americana,” my brother and I did hear her speak to her mother in Sicilian dialect. And her world view was, I learned only later, definitely Sicilian-influenced. As kids, Bob and I actually had a lot of fun writing “The World According to Concetta: Sayings of a Sicilian American Mother.” The first section, “On Dealing With the Outside World,” includes the warning, “Never trust anyone.” Not surprisingly, her influence made its way into the poem.
On my first and only visit to Sicily in August 2007, I felt its complicated history everywhere—in its Arab architecture, Greek temples, in the blue eyes of its conquering Norman descendants, and in the very sad town outside Palermo that my mother’s father fled over 100 years ago. It hasn’t changed since, except to lose population when the sulfur mines shut down. Sicily does compel me, but my feelings are so complicated, I haven’t yet been able to write any poems related to that trip—which wasn’t the case when I visited the Naples area, home of my father’s family.
OKC: Your poems often engage with a deep sensitivity and attention to the experiences of hard laborers and factory workers. In an interview with Oliver Lodge of Pirene’s Fountain, you revealed that your “mother’s father helped dig the New York subway when he first arrived from Sicily in the early 1900s. That could explain why even today I’m so interested in these laborers, called sandhogs” in the poem “The Passage” from The Bodies We Were Loaned.” What about such working-class experiences intrigue you in examining them through poetry? Do you feel a responsibility to address them through your work?

MT: It’s true, I am attracted to writing about sandhogs, garment and factory workers, a paraplegic beggar with great dignity in the subway—those I think of as “people of the shadows.” 

For example, in my fascination with the sandhogs who built the New York City subway, I read a book with a photo taken in a tunnel that I could not stop staring at. The smudged face of the little boy; the surveyor in his suit and cinched collar; the laborers with their high, laced boots that reminded me of rope ladders climbing the darkness—these details allowed me to imagine the full scenario of their lives, past, present and future.

The attraction may lie with my roots—the maternal grandfather who first worked on the subway; the paternal grandmother who tried to keep her husband’s lumberyard going after she was widowed with six children; the aunt with exquisite sewing skills who worked her way up to forelady for a fine menswear company in the garment district. My parents were down to earth people, especially my dear late father, who was orphaned as a young boy and experienced many daunting hardships, yet managed to acquire the education needed to become a teacher. Of course, he was a champion for the underdog. I’m sure I absorbed these values growing up, and they account for my interest in working-class experiences. 

Do I feel a responsibility to write about these subjects? I don’t deliberately write political poems intended to raise awareness of injustices. I believe that every artist’s responsibility is to be true to his or her own vision of what matters—in other words, the subjects that compel the work. If some of my poems illuminate social problems and move readers to action, so much the better.
OKC: The Guggenheim Museum recently selected you among a host of other accomplished Queens-affiliated artists as a contributor to Transhistoria, an exciting new reading series of transformative personal narratives exploring “how one finds calm and inner peace in a bustling environment such as Jackson Heights,” as described by its artistic creators, stillspotting nyc. How did you approach writing for this project? Is your new material flowing in the same vein as your earlier collections, or are you taking a more postmodern spirit, as demonstrated in American Gothic, Take 2?
MT: The 10 writers who were commissioned for the Queens debut of transhistoria: stillspotting nyc were asked to produce 20-minute-long narratives. Because I’m primarily a poet, I wrote a lyrical, descriptive essay—part neighborhood tour, part memoir—with some poems woven in. Being hired to write anything was a new experience for me, and needless to say, it felt wonderful. Maybe because of my Italian American love of cooking, I focused on food as the common human element that could, in my fantasy, bring together my Jackson Heights neighbors from 180 nations. One of my poems, “Knives,” begins with an epigraph, 
“In most kitchens all over Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, there are Palestinians and Israelis cooking together, shoulder to shoulder, with long knives.”  --A Chef for Peace, quoted in The New York Times
I found that writing my cross-genre story was very liberating. A year ago, my first essay was published in The Briar Cliff Review, and now I’m feeling the need to write more non-fiction. 

I’d like to make a clarification on what you call the “postmodern” spirit of American Gothic, Take 2. Some of its poems go way back. All along I’ve written some quirky, satiric poems but these didn’t fit the more serious themes of my two poetry collections. American Gothic gave me the chance to publish them together. So while these poems may appear to be a departure for me, they’re not. I continue to write these rather offbeat poems.
OKC: Outside of your work with the Guggenheim, are you working on any new series of poems or literary projects that you might feel comfortable discussing?
MT: For some time, I’ve been making notes related to the dual themes of flying and falling. At this point, though, I have no idea if these notes will lead to poems and a unified collection. I do love research and can easily see myself spending hours pursuing this as a possibility. I’ve also found myself writing more poems about the effects of technology on our lives, which is an inexhaustible subject. Only time will tell where my work is headed. Discovery is part of the journey.

OKC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences.  Any last thoughts?
MT: Just to say thank you very much to John Napoli, for asking you to conduct this interview, and supporting my poetry through the Il Regno website. Your questions were very thoughtful.


Please visit Maria Terrone at mariaterrone.com

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at: Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com
or visit her at oliviacerrone.com