This past June, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz swore in Astoria resident and Queens native Maria Lisella as the new Queens Poet Laureate. Maria will be joining us at Central Library on Sunday, October 11 at 2:00 p.m. for our Open Mic for Poets.
Maria Lisella is the sixth poet to serve as the borough’s Poet Laureate. Born in South Jamaica, Queens, Maria moved with her family to Bellerose and lived as a student in Flushing before she settled in Astoria 40 years ago. Maria graduated from Queensborough Community College and Queens College, earned a Master’s degree from NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering, and studied Social Media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Maria is the author of three books of poetry: the recently published collection Thieves in the Family and the chapbooks Amore on Hope Street and Two Naked Feet. Her poetry has also been published in Feile-Fiesta, LIPS, Paterson Literary Review, Skidrow Penthouse, The New York Quarterly, First Literary Review East, and Pirene’s Fountain. Maria won Honorable Mention in the 2014 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award competition and is a charter member of brevitas, an online poetry circle.
Maria has also been a travel writer and editor for 30 years, visiting 60 countries during her career and developing a familiarity with many different cultures. Her travel writing has appeared in numerous outlets, including USA Today, Travel + Leisure, The Dallas Morning News, and FOXNews.com. She also contributes to La Voce di New York, an Italian and English bilingual online newspaper.
We were pleased to speak with Maria recently about her career, her plans for her new position, and more.
You were born and raised in Queens. What role has Queens Library played in your life?
When I was a young child, my father went to night school to study engineering. Each night after dinner, he went to the library to do homework, and I joined him. I can still recall the comforting aroma of the library's furniture, oak chairs and tables; the silence in the reading room; the enormous comfort of being able to read anything I wanted; having a million books around me. One of the first cards I ever got was a library card—it was my ticket to be with Dad, to learn new things, and spend time with books...the light was always quite golden, the voices hushed, the atmosphere welcoming. Today I sometimes forget and buy a book instead of borrowing it; I feel I should get back to the tradition of reading a great book and passing it on to the next person.
How did you decide to apply for Queens Poet Laureate? What was your reaction when you learned you had been chosen?
I competed for the position several years ago, but wasn’t chosen. Since then, I have published two chapbooks and NYQ Books published my first collection of poetry, Thieves in the Family. Additionally, I have been curating a reading series that has become quite successful—so all those facts together convinced me I might have something more to contribute to promoting poetry, particularly in Queens. I was over-the-top thrilled to find out I had won.
We’re excited to partner with you and the Borough President’s office to bring new literary events and programs to the people of Queens. Can you tell us a little about what you have planned, even if it’s in the initial stages?
I think traveling the library circuit with small, intimate readings may reach the most people. A larger project I have planned is a website that would feature poems by Queens poets, some of whom may speak and write in two languages. I proposed that we could run those poets' work in both their native language and English, with an audio component so we can hear the author read the poem in his or her native tongue. No one reads their work in their second language with the same passion as they do in their first, and even if the audience doesn't understand the words, they will feel the intent.
You’ve lived in Astoria for the past 40 years. How do you feel about the changes happening there and the new wave of popularity that Queens is enjoying?
Seeing your neighborhood transform into a real estate investor’s dream brings a confusion of feelings.
Lonely Planet's recent observations about Queens are terrific, and so is the influx of an energetic new population. At the same time, the new arrivals have chosen Astoria more often for affordable rents than for its charm and European quality of life. It’s great Queens is getting some new-found attention, but not if it threatens the people and cultures currently here.
Maybe, as a poet, I read between the lines. Queens neighborhoods are growing, but is it an artificial energy propelling that growth? If this means we can get better schools, libraries with longer hours, and a multitude of enhancements that improve all our lives, that is wonderful, but by and large my own neighborhood is being surrounded by luxury housing, which threatens the current residents.
Can you describe how your work as a journalist and your world travels have inspired your poetry?
I’ve had incredible opportunities to meet people of different cultures and ethnicities, not just here in Queens but in their home countries. Much of my poetry reflects the words of guides, cooks, waiters, or colleagues I have encountered across the globe. I try to give voice to their stories.
Who are some of your favorite authors and poets, and who are you reading now?
This is a hard question, because I read everything, from cereal boxes, to signs on subways, to novels and poetry and short stories. The last few books I’ve read have been by friends or other authors I have featured in the literary series I curate at The Cornelia Street Café and at Sidewalk Café. Those books have included a mystery novel, a historic novel, and a memoir, and I have learned something from each of them. My husband is also a writer and poet, and from him I have learned the art of continual revision.
But those who inspired me as a teenager included Rod McKuen, e.e. cummings, and W.B. Yeats. When I entered college, I took one of the first Black Literature courses offered, and there I encountered Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes, all of whom spoke to me, as we were all outsiders. I think James Baldwin is among America’s finest, most searing authors. For poets, I would choose Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Paola Corso...and so many others.
What advice do you have for aspiring poets who are trying to find their voice, and for people who find poetry intimidating?
Read everything; listen to everything; edit everything over and over. Follow living authors you love; if you live in New York City, you are so close to other writers. Don’t be afraid of any of them…but go to their readings with the intention of listening. Take notes, ask questions. Find a workshop suited to you; or ask if a poet you like will be offering a workshop, and study with him or her. Keep a journal; write notes that do not have to make sense; write down your dream fragments. Keep fit physically, as it clears your mind.
Sometimes the most important poem takes you a decade to really complete. For instance, you may have a conflicted relationship with someone, but find it hard to write about it. You might be surprised—that scrap of a note to yourself that you write now may kick off a feeling in five years related to the relationship that is troubling you so, and, bit by bit, you will find the words to fit that relationship. And when you do, you may be opening the door for another person who has a similarly tough relationship, and you may show that person how to deal with it just by giving voice to your experience. Just letting others know they are not alone in the way they feel is a very gratifying accomplishment for a writer.