with GRACE CAVALIERI, one of the founders of WWPH

If you could pick one book that has changed your life as a poet, what would it be and why? If you could pick one book that has changed your life as a poet, what would it be and why? How do you view it? Is it a source of comfort, inspiration, or envy?

The poet who allowed me to be a writer was Edna St. Vincent Millay. From my teenage years, I was in love with her passion, lyricism, and bold truth. Remember, this was in the 1950’s when women didn’t speak publicly so honestly; and I championed Millay’s verbal ability and formal intelligence. Male critics ridiculed her, even my college professors, but I knew if something could penetrate the heart, its power could not be denied. I have many poets who guide me today, but I will never forget Edna St. Vincent Millay.

What would you caution your younger writerly self (or emerging writers) against?

I made every mistake in the book, on paper, and in-person, and I counsel everyone to do the same. Caution would kill the page. The opposite is what we wish for. Say it! Then remember every reader has felt the same: regret, ecstasy, shame, humiliation, vanity, hope. So why should we be afraid to name it? I think it is important to push oneself to write and push oneself to “present.” No one is going to invite the writer to the party so s/he/they must throw the party. Caution is anathema. Failure is better.

Do you have any writing quirks?

Yes, I have to have a cup of tea at my side. Shows my dependent personality.

Do you believe in muses? Have you ever had one?

Oh yes! We are not three-dimensional creatures sloshing about in the mud of civilization. We are divinely connected to the invisible, which is filled with voices and spirits and guides and angels who keep whispering. I pray to always listen—and better still, to hear.

You have written 26 collections and chapbooks of poetry. Looking to the horizon, what is your next project?

Twenty-six sounds like a lot, but several are chapbooks that house maybe 15 poems, and my strength and weakness is that I publish almost everything I write. Anyone can build a pile of paper (or litter) that way; it’s no great accomplishment. When I look back, however, I’m glad I did this as a record or emotional calendar. And I try not to feel shame at the unevenness. Howard Nemerov said we must love even “The short and ugly ones,” and so it was better to produce than hide the work, I think. But what’s next? I am struggling with Haiku, the most difficult of all poetic forms, and practicing this every day. My Selected & New Poems: THE LONG GAME is forthcoming this year, and that is my way of clearing the desk. Most of all, I intend to go on connecting disparate phrases and images I call poetry as that seems to be my necessity—my life force.

More on Grace Cavalieri here.


Can your writerly life be summed up in a phrase or motto? If so, what would it be?

Pure chaos. There was a time when my day would begin with sitting down and writing and then I was teaching which was very busy. Now I am occupied with many different kinds of projects, and I also have a life in science. It’s much more chaotic now. The internal dynamics of the brain are what create the chaos.

Your work is said to inquire about outsiders, longing, and belonging to the margins. You tackle questions about the existence of home and the clash of religion and culture. What draws you to this subject matter? Have you ever felt exiled in your own life or longing for another place?

This is the complex question of my entire life. Where do we belong?

I speak Greek, and with my husband and two little ones, we lived for a time with a Greek family. For two years we spoke Greek to one another and lived the Greek tradition. I began to go to a village by pure accident—there was an advertisement in a journal that talked about a mountain village—and because I spoke Greek, I could go into a place that was not particularly full of tourists. When I arrived, the village elder took me around to visit every family—about 15 of them—and when they saw me coming alone, the elderly women were very dismissive of me because they felt a woman shouldn’t travel alone, but later when my family and various relatives joined me, the old women patted me on the shoulder and told me I was “legitimate.” I went back to the village 4-5 times and those experiences made me think about going back to my Lithuanian heritage.

That place of longing for me is Lithuania, which is a small country with a small population and a very complex history. I found that walking through the villages and talking to the people who lived there changed my life. I only regretted that my own parents weren’t alive to share it with me. I went back several times, staying for long periods, and essentially reclaimed who I was. The joke about me in Lithuania is, “We are going to rent her a little wooden house so she can move in.” And it was true, the little wooden houses which had been there hundreds of years were, for me, enchanting.

I walked from one end of this place to the other, “walking through the archives of the feet,” and was lucky to be taken in by many people who shared their life stories. It became a second home, and the journey was all about trying to locate who you are and where you are from.

What would you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Children. I have a son and a daughter. It’s a singular gift we are given.

What qualities do you most admire in your favorite pieces of literature?

When I read poetry, I’m listening to the voice. I want to feel the voice of the poet, the living presence of the poet. When I read people like Dante and Rilke in the original language, no matter how poorly, I hear their voice, I want to hear their voice. It’s not just something on the page, it’s a soul, a body, it’s something else.

I was looking today at a poet that I really have loved over the years—a Polish poet named Tadeusz Różewicz. He wrote during a very difficult time in Poland and in the world. There’s a poem called “Leave Us Alone” which goes: Forget about us / about our generation / live like human beings / forget about us / we envied plants and stones / we envied dogs…I would like to fall asleep / and wake up after the war / … and so on.

There was something spare about Tadeusz Różewicz’s work. He is probably not known by many today, but I was raised during WWII, and it was a time in the country where Americans went to great lengths as a people to help. Most of us had family fighting in that war and it was a very different time than it is now. So that in a way, my thinking was shaped as was my understanding about what peoples suffer. We live in a very complicated world.

Rilke writes: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” I think translation opens the world.

How would you describe a successful writing life?

I’m 88, so I’ve had different episodes of how the writing gets done and how I think about it. There is no definition of a successful writing life; it is simply something that is always there. Writing for me is instinctive; it’s like breathing; it’s an immovable part of my life. I don’t know why but I know it’s like teaching. It’s the same. I feel a calling to it.

More on Myra Sklarew here.

Lindsay Forbes Brown is currently enrolled at American University’s MFA program where she serves as Editor in Chief for FOLIO and Assistant Editor for Grace and Gravity. She is a Kenyon Review workshop alumnus and has work featured in JMWW and forthcoming in Sonora Review and So to Speak. The Washington Writers’ Publishing House was thrilled to have her as our first WWPH Fellow. The program is made possible by a generous grant from Dr. Jean Feldman.

The Top Five Interview with our 2022 Award-winning authors


author of THE WITCH BOTTLE AND OTHER STORIES, winner of the 2022 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers Publishing House

#1 Do you have a literary quote that you keep near your desk (or a favorite quote)?

I have two. One has to do with Keri Hulme, who wrote The Bone People, a book I admire very much. It isn’t her quote—it’s something I wanted to take from her experience of writing a single book over a long period of time. So, what I have written on my whiteboard is ‘Keri Hulme took twelve years. No rush.’ Those were words to live by when I was writing Absalom’s Daughters, which took me a decade to complete. The other quote is from Somerset Maughn. He said “There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I’ve never read any of his books, but it sounds like he had a great sense of humor.

#2 What advice do you give new writers about publishing their work? 

There are so many options for publishing fiction these days, it’s hard to keep track. I’m pretty old school, so I suggest traditional routes—enter contests, try to get your work in small magazines, and so on. Once you have a few credentials, it’s easier to get the attention of an agent who can guide you through the minefield of traditional publishing. I would also advise anyone who is self-publishing or doing it the traditional way to find a publicist they can talk to. My experience has been that getting your foot in the door is one thing. Keeping your foot in the door is quite another, and a good publicist makes all the difference in the world.

#3 If you were on a desert island and could bring only one book with you for a year, what would it be (and why?)

After giving this a lot of thought, I decided that the book I really want to read, reread, and learn from is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love that book so much. I try to read it every couple of years just to be on vacation inside Marquez’s mind. 

#4 Do you have a word or phrase or image that you keep returning to in your writing (and why)?

I write about the relationships between women, both straight and Lesbian. I tend to default to the love and tension between sisters. I never had a sister, but I’m obsessed with this particular dynamic.

#5 What is the most essential thing about your new short story collection, “The Witch Bottle and Other Stories” you want readers to know?

I hope everyone enjoys these stories. I wrote some of them just for laughs, but a few are about people struggling to make the best of their given circumstances. I tend to write optimistic outcomes—which doesn’t mean that every story has a happy ending—as in life, they don’t. But I always try to give my characters the benefit of the doubt.

Learn more about Suzanne Feldman here.


winner of the 2022 Jean Feldman Poetry Award for YOU CANNOT SAVE HERE

#1 Do you have a literary quote that you keep near your desk (or a favorite quote)?

All over my home I have poems and quotes that are meaningful to me hung up. Sometimes they’re more permanent, sometimes they’re meant to be temporary. Like, we have a felt letter board that I update every couple of months, and I have literary quotes written in dry-erase marker on several mirrors around the house. (I even mention this in one of the poems in You Cannot Save Here!) Even at work, I have some of my favorite poems hung up on the door of my office. Like so many writers and readers, I also have a favorite quote or two tattooed into my skin.

I’m the sort that has a hard time picking favorites, but one I come back to often because it offers essential lessons in both life and in writing, are those famous lines that come from Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” translated by Joanna Macy:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.

#2 What advice do you give new writers about publishing their work? 

It sounds pessimistic, but what I’m about to say is really about the resilience needed to find the right home for your work: be emotionally and intellectually ready for “no.”

Incredible authors at every level of their career get rejections from journals, agents, grants, jobs, etc. Rejection is a normal part of the publishing journey, no matter how skilled a writer is. Writers who take this poorly sometimes end up making fools of themselves on social media or in nasty email responses to editors (which often then find their way to social media). Instead, acknowledge that “no” is a normal part of publishing, and let it light a fire to strengthen your work and/or bolster your efforts to find the right audience for it.

Because “no” isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be a blessing in disguise for work that isn’t ready to have a particular platform yet. (I’m thinking about myself as a [not very skilled] writer still in college, fruitlessly submitting my end-stopped, rhyming sonnets to Ploughshares.) Other times, strong writing can just not fit with the particular vision of an issue, an editor, or a publication. When I’ve worked on journals, I’ve had to reject plenty of absolutely gorgeous, skilled writing that just didn’t fit, even from writers who I admire or who I know and love.

So don’t dwell on any “no”—just keep writing, submitting, and moving forward.

#3 If you were on a desert island and could bring only one book with you for a year, what would it be (and why?)

The more I think about it, the more I consider how 2020 made questions like this less hypothetical for many of us, how we found ourselves isolated and scared and turning to literature to get us through a precarious year. What got me through that desert island year were the works of Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Vivian Gornick.

#4 Do you have a word or phrase or image that you keep returning to in your writing (and why)?

Part of what You Cannot Save Here is about is how, for years, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to be a writer during a period of disaster. Apocalyptic literature has been an obsession of mine as both a reader and a writer since I read The Stand at a much-too-early age. Now living in a period of war, climate disaster, political unrest, and a global pandemic, it’s hard not to be preoccupied with the images and tropes associated with collapse. It’s hard not to ask oneself ‘why spend my days writing poetry when the world is on fire?’

So I keep returning to apocalypse, as a word, as an idea, as a trope, in my writing. Of course, 30 of the poems in You Cannot Save Here are titled “You Cannot Save Here,” so I guess I’ve been returning specifically to that phrase for a few years now too.

I’m also sort of fixated on what we call collapse and the end of a world or civilization. There are so many gorgeous names across cultures, histories, literatures, and mythologies for how we refer to the end times. Something that I didn’t realize until I start researching apocalyptic narratives in earnest was that the term “millennial” is related to end-times mythologies (eschatology). We’re a generation named for the end of the world!

#5 What is the most essential thing about your new book you want readers to know?

Apocalyptic poetry is not as pessimistic or gloomy as it sounds! You Cannot Save Here joins a recent trend (and a long history) of poets writing about what it means to be observing collapse. Many writers find that beauty, community, and art can thrive in the ashes of another thing. Apocalyptic poetry can be cautionary, sure, but it can also be epicurean, as in: things are bad, so how do we continue to find joy? Even more urgently, it can be optimistic or futuristic, as in: this is ending, so what are we building to replace it?

Some endings represent the radical possibility of what comes after.

Learn more about Tonee (Anthony) Moll here.