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