Chad Frame Interviews Jennifer Martelli
I recently had the good fortune to sit down with the inimitable Jennifer Martelli, our inaugural Spotlight Author. For as brilliant a talent as she is, Jennifer is refreshingly down-to-earth, easy to talk to, humble, and funny.
CF: What do you consider your strongest cultural influences? Do you feel it was your experiences as a woman, as an Italian-American, or as a Catholic that helped shape you most as a poet? Or a necessary combination of all of them?
JM: What a perfect storm! I grew up the middle of three girls, and I have an affinity for all things female, so I guess that would be my strongest influence: my female-ness. My parents had those “traditional” roles of that time (60’s, 70’s), so I was with my mother and my grandmother a lot. Catholicism definitely influenced me: the imagery, the iconography, the misogyny! But mostly, I think the thing about Catholicism that left its mark was the ever-present statue of Mary: this veiled woman, this wounded woman. She was on so many lawns; there was this giant gold statue of Mary in East Boston—35’ high! I was terrified by her and obsessed with her. Fear and obsession—story of my life! And, of course, I grew up in an Italian city (a city of immigrants, predominantly Italian). To me, being Italian and being Catholic were the same thing. Both were very thin veneers over paganism.
CF: [Your 2016 full-length collection] The Uncanny Valley has many recurring themes that continually resurface and intersect—Catholicism, womanhood, mythology, the occult, and Italian heritage, to name a few. Your poem, “Mal’Occhio,” in particular, features all of these themes prominently. Curses, evil eyes, and superstition are more than metaphor to many Italian Catholics—what do they mean to you?
JM: The evil eye, the curse of being seen, being envied, I think shaped my whole psyche—and not in a completely healthy way. There was a definite sense of not standing out, not bragging, not bringing attention to oneself: this would cause you to be seen, to be the object of envy, of a curse. The Mal’Occhio. And, of course, there is this strange concern with Catholics about the virginity of women, with “modesty.” I love superstition! As much as I say I’m a rational, modern woman who rejects so much of that old-world Catholicism, how can I resist a red horn or a set of rosary beads? As I was writing about Kitty Genovese, I found this old prayer card with St. Maria Goretti on it: she was stabbed to death as she fought off being raped. On her death bed, she forgave her killer. And they beatified her! How can I not respond to that?
It’s funny that you chose “Mal’Occhio”—that was the original name of my book! My editor thought people wouldn’t know what it meant. I agreed, but that was one of the first poems written in the collection. It’s the heart of the book.
CF: I could tell! Or maybe I read it in the cards. But I’m glad you mentioned writing about Kitty Genovese! Let’s talk about the genius of your chapbook, After Bird. I first heard about Kitty Genovese the way I suppose most people have—in an intro Psychology class. What was your first experience with her? And what made you choose Kitty Genovese as the subject for these poems? Did you set out to write a whole collection about her, or did one poem lead to another? [On the off-chance someone is—somehow—not aware, Kitty Genovese was a 28-year-old Italian-American woman who, on March 13, 1964, was brutally sexually assaulted and stabbed to death gradually over a long period of time while screaming for help in full alleged view of 38 witnesses in the street outside her apartment in New York City.]
JM: I probably heard about her the same way you did: a psychology or sociology class, “the bystander effect.” She started to enter my “poetry” sphere a few years ago: I tried to imagine the hallway where she was caught the second time. I imagined it wrong and wrote a very different poem. Then, last summer, a documentary came out, “The Witness,” which featured her brother Bill, and his need to discover what was true from that horrible night in 1964, and what was “fake news.” I wrote my first poem, “Things Kitty Genovese Should Have,” with no expectation of writing a chapbook or full-length. I was taken by two things: first, she looked like people in my family; second, I was trying to “collect” all the images, all the things from my very early childhood. Kitty was murdered in 1964, when I was two, but I wanted to surround her and myself with the music, the colors, the “things” of that time. The first few poems were list poems, almost invoking a long-ago time! And then the poems kept coming! I submitted the chapbook to the Grey Book Press open reading on November 8, Election Day. After this election, the poems changed, but were about violence and about women.
CF: Many interviews ask you what projects you’re working on now. I like to think about the projects you’re not working on. What is something you’ve always wanted to do as an artist, but haven’t yet? A dream project, a taboo subject you haven’t—yet—dared to brooch, or a gem of an idea you had scrawled in the margins somewhere? What aren’t you up to?
JM: Okay, this sounds crazy, but I’ve had this idea for a story for over a decade. Here it is: the daughter and widow of a hangman poses as a man and takes on her family’s trade (she has no other way to support herself and, because of her family’s “job,” she is somewhat of a pariah). She is a genius hair-braider, which aids in her making nooses, etc. She comes to America just in time for the Salem Witch Trials. While there, she befriends and ultimately falls in love with one of the accused—whom she’ll have to execute! She doesn’t know what to do. She tells the town minister the truth: that she is a woman in love with a condemned witch. He tells her to kill herself. In the end, she does execute this woman.
I can’t write a novel. What do you think of that story?
CF: I love it! I’d totally read that. Or watch a Netflix series about it. How about “Bad Noose?” Sorry, I can’t resist a terrible pun.
So, some people might not realize you’re a visual artist, too. And a good one! When people work in multiple media, it always begs the question: how do you decide what form a given piece will take? What makes an idea better suited to a poem than, say, a collage or photograph? And what puts you in the mood to do one thing over the other?
JM: Thank you for saying I’m a visual artist. I cut things out and glue them! My first “collage” really came out because I couldn’t get an essay to work! In the movie “The Witness,” there’s a scene with Kitty’s brother: he has bulletin boards and white boards with newspaper clippings and notes and arrows connecting everything. His family would ask, “When are you going to let this go?” So, I decided to re-create this with pictures on a bulletin board. My theme was how I connected Kitty Genovese’s murder with Hillary Clinton. In my mind, they connected. So, I bought a bulletin board and thumb tacks! I think because I’m not a visual artist, I didn’t feel pressure to come up with anything “good.” But, I discovered that when I was creating these collages, every image had to matter and mean something (to me)—just like a poem. I couldn’t be gratuitous or careless. I’ve made four more collages since—it’s very freeing, and for some reason, I was able to express something visually that I couldn’t in a poem. I don’t know why. This happens sometimes with creative non-fiction: I go through periods where I’d rather write prose, so I just go with it.
CF: On your webpage, www.jennifermartelli.com, after that wonderful featured poem, ”White Birches”—totally digging the mythological inspiration there, by the way—you invite the reader to visit your Poetry page for more.
Upon doing so, I was taken to what turned out to be a 404 Error with ads, which was curiously formatted to look like a list of titles. “Free Restaurant Coupons,” “Jennifer Aniston,” “Jennifer’s Body,” and “Totally Free Stuff” were among them.
My first thought was, Hmm. If this were my website, I’d totally take this as inspiration from the cosmos to write these poems. So, my taking-forever-to-get-to-the-point question is: Since you love prompts so much, might any of these titles spark a poem? Which speaks to you?
JM: Oh my gosh, I’m so inept when it comes to websites! I have a brilliant sister-in-law who did the whole thing for me, and unfortunately, I never touch it. Thank you for letting me know about that—I asked her if she could link it to my Facebook poetry page! Anyway, someday I’ll fully enter the 21st century!
I love these choices! So hard—who doesn’t love Totally Free Stuff? But I also love both “Jennifers.” How about “Totally Free Jennifer?”
CF: That sounds wonderful! Here’s a promise—you write “Totally Free Jennifer,” and we’ll totally publish it.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was a pleasure!
Jennifer Martelli is the author of The Uncanny Valley, Apostrophe, and After Bird. Martelli, a third-generation Italian-American, is currently working on her second full-length manuscript about Kitty Genovese. Her work has appeared in Thrush, [Pank], Glass Poetry Journal, Five-2-One, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. Jennifer Martelli is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is a book reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, as well as a co-curator for The Mom Egg VOX Blog Folio. Find her (as well as Totally Free Stuff!) at http://www.jennifermartelli.com