A Female, Bone-Deep Obsession: Talking with Jennifer Martelli
On March 13, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens, Kitty Genovese was knifed and raped while witnesses did nothing. Fifty years later, Jennifer Martelli—another Italian-American woman—started writing poems about her. Those poems became the backbone of My Tarantella, out now from Bordighera Press. Martelli dances in and out of Kitty’s story in unlikely ways, weaving it together with other tropes of the modern age. She does so with language that’s precise and merciless, spinning truths that can’t be articulated with left-brain logic.
A graduate of Warren Wilson College—the Harvard of low-residency writing programs—Jenn Martelli carries herself with quiet intensity. She’s a warm person, willing to speak openly not only about her work but about her own personal experiences. I had the opportunity to share the stage with her at HUBweek this fall, where she read about eating an egg in the shadow of Boston’s City Hall, colloquially known as “the big ugly building” and officially known as brutalist architecture. That poem appears in this book, along with others that don’t seem directly related to the story of Kitty Genovese—until you see the slant-truth that binds them all together.
Martelli is the recipient of Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry, and her work has appeared in numerous top literary journals, including Thrush, Bitter Oleander, Glass Poetry Journal, and Sugar House. A former teacher at Emerson and in public schools, she’s now living the dream as a full-time writer and editor.
I spoke with Jenn via email about her evolution as a poet; what Kitty’s story tells us about race, sex, and gender in the United States; and how she keeps her writing practice fresh.
The Rumpus: What first brought you to poetry?
Jennifer Martelli: A while ago, I had some poems published in Menacing Hedge, and we were asked to submit an old poem from childhood. I found one from the sixth grade—hand-written with bubbles instead of dots over the i’s. So, I was writing very philosophical poetry at age eleven; my poem had the speaker walking down a diamond road, pondering life and death.
But the first time I actually sought out poetry was when I read Stephen King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. One of the sections begins with Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” I was fascinated. Why was this strange poem—which I didn’t understand—in a book about vampires? Maybe I was in middle school or early high school. I tried to find more Wallace Stevens, who wasn’t being taught in any of my English classes.
As an English major at Boston University, I studied the canon, but didn’t go any further than what was assigned in my classes. I really missed a lot of opportunities at that time—too many distractions! My real poetic education began when I moved to Cambridge in the late 80s, early 90s. There were so many poets who would open up their homes for workshops: Marie Howe, Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Karr. That’s when I actually heard poetry, felt it physically in a way I hadn’t before. So, I worked back from that, re-reading all my undergraduate poets with my new ears. This changed me; I wanted to write poetry.
Rumpus: How would you say your poetry has changed since the early 90s?
Martelli: I have more courage to express things in a simpler form, using simpler language. When I look back to my older poems, the most successful ones—not so much in terms of publication, but in how they’ve aged—are the ones that simply tell a story, that say what I mean, as opposed to relying on metaphor or symbolism. I think for a long time I thought a poem needed to be inscrutable to be good. Maybe I’m getting braver in terms of poetry—the poems don’t have to be about a dramatic truth, but just a truth (loneliness, joy, etc.).
I also wanted to be seen as a spiritual poet. The 90s loved angels! So, I was trying to write what I thought people wanted to read—and I was wrong. The poems needed to be difficult—full of metaphor and allusion because I wasn’t in the poem at all. I was watching it.
Rumpus: What did it mean exactly to be a spiritual poet? How did it impact your poetry?
Martelli: I was being somewhat sarcastic—about my own ambitions. I was in my first few years of recovery and in my first few years of interacting with poetry in a profound way. I was young and finding my voice. So I guess I wanted to sound deeper than I really was. I read a lot of Simone Weil and Rilke. I loved saying, “Every angel was terrible.” I probably shouldn’t make that much fun of myself, because I was absorbing Weil and Rilke—probably poorly copying them, too—which got their rhythms in my bloodstream. In that way, spirituality impacted my poetry—the rhythms of other spiritual poets.
But that’s such a strange word, “spiritual,” isn’t it? I so wanted to meditate and write poetry and know God. I’m not even sure what that means now. As I look at the term, “spiritual poet,” it sounds so strange, like I’m going to tell fortunes. Now, I’m a superstitious atheist poet, which might be a distant cousin of a spiritual poet.
Rumpus: What I noticed about the poems My Tarantella is that they’re full of surprising, strong language. So the truths might be simple and universal, but the way in which you displayed those truths is well crafted.
Speaking of My Tarantella, Kitty Genovese is a major thread throughout the book. Tell me what drew you to her story.
Martelli: My Kitty Genovese story probably started as far back as 2015. I was trying to write a poem about her being attacked in the hallway of her apartment: I have just about every detail wrong. I pictured her hallway like the one in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with the brass mailboxes, etc. So, that poem became something else and ended up in my first book, The Uncanny Valley. But she must have been hiding somewhere in my mind. Late 2015, early 2016, I began writing what I called my Kitty poems, which dealt more with the time—the early sixties, when I was a child. The first poem was “Things Kitty Genovese Should Have.” I gave Kitty things that I had, or that I remembered from my childhood. I think there was a certain nostalgia for me, not that these were better times, but both my parents are gone, and she was like this guide. Also, she looked like people in my family. There was an attraction. I began reading books about her and discovered a wonderful, modern woman: Kitty was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal—she lived with Mary Ann Zielonko; she was smart and ambitious; she was loved by her family; she was funny and hot-tempered. I saw the documentary The Witness, which is her brother Bill’s story and confronts some of the “fake news” around her death. Were there really thirty-eight witnesses? Or, even if there were only a few, why didn’t anybody come to her aid? So, by late 2016, I had a handful of these poems, which I submitted to the Grey Book Press open chapbook competition; this was election day.
After the election, the whole focus of the book changed. It wasn’t really a book before. I began conflating and weaving Kitty’s story with Hillary Clinton’s loss. They were—and remain—connected for me. This bordered on obsession in a very meta way. I created collages and wrote essays, prose poems, trying to untangle these two stories, or at least, find the emotional thread. I think it’s this: a woman was not listened to. The irony of the collection, My Tarantella, coming out around the time of Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony is not lost on me.
So my attraction began as a very superficial one, and ended up a far more female, bone-deep obsession.
Rumpus: That’s a fascinating evolution. I applaud you for all the research you’ve done about Kitty Genovese and the circumstances surrounding her death. You said that both Kitty’s and Hillary Clinton’s story are about a woman not being listened to. On more than one occasion in these poems you describe Kitty’s stab wounds as mouths—is there a connection there?
Martelli: Yes, the mouths represent stab wounds—similar shapes. But they also represent a woman not being heard.
Rumpus: Do you think that Kitty’s status as a single woman and a lesbian contributed to the fact that her neighbors didn’t come to her aid?
Martelli: At the time that Kitty was killed, homosexuality was illegal. The bars were underground. Kitty’s relationship with Mary Ann Zielonko was presented as a platonic one, as still-unmarried roommates. In fact, many people who wrote about Kitty didn’t know she was a lesbian. There was secrecy, which always invites danger, but also an unspoken acknowledgment of her sexuality: one patron of Ev’s Eleventh Hour [the bar where Kitty worked] said, “everybody knew Kitty didn’t date boys.”
But, as far as her murder, Winston Moseley didn’t know her at all. He had been driving around that night, looking for another victim. Moseley had already murdered two other women: Barbara Kralik and Annie Mae Johnson, both of whose cases were unsolved—which brings in the ugly facet of racism. Both women were African-American, and there is some question as to how deeply these crimes were investigated. There is a theory, which Marcia M. Gallo explores in her excellent book, “No One Helped: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy,” that there might have been some hesitation to call because of an inner fear or revulsion. For example, one of the witnesses who certainly could have helped, Karl Ross, who actually saw the second attack, closed the door, crawled out of the window of his apartment, and called another neighbor, probably knew of Kitty’s and Mary Ann’s relationship. Did that have anything to do with his not coming to Kitty’s aid? The number of actual witnesses has been disputed since the New York Times article in 1964, and some people who heard the attack didn’t know it was Kitty. Their belief that it was a lovers’ spat is cold comfort—as if knowing your attacker somehow makes it okay, or not anybody else’s business.
I think that this is a question that will never be answered. Part of the pain lies in the heart of Mary Ann Zielonko, who was not allowed a public grief, a gathering of comfort. Mary Ann didn’t talk about their relationship until the early 2000s. If you get a chance, you should watch LuLu LoLo’s show, 38 Witnessed Her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko.
Rumpus: I can really identify with Mary Ann Zielonko’s grief—there’s a special kind of anguish that comes from the end of a relationship that hasn’t been recognized or sanctioned by society. And to have your partner brutally murdered on top of that—truly horrible.
Another salient fact about Kitty is that she was Italian-American. You said that she looked like people in your family. And you have one extraordinary poem about a piece of street art you found, of Kitty’s face, in the North End, Boston’s Italian neighborhood. Your Italian heritage also features elsewhere in your work. How do you think it’s influenced your development as a poet?
Martelli: The poem, “Stencil of Kitty Genovese on a Cinderblock Wall,” is one of the spookier moments in my process. The street art was actually in Peabody, Massachusetts—the North End would have made a little more sense—on the side of an abandoned garage. Why Peabody? Why now? My good friend and brilliant poet, Jennifer Jean, lives nearby and noticed it one day. It was like Kitty was haunting us!
When I began writing the poems, they concerned themselves almost entirely with my (and Kitty’s) Italian-American heritage, for a few reasons. First, I guess I had a bit of nostalgia for a period in my life which was spent in a very Italian community. I am always cautious when I say this because I am not at all saying that things were better “back in the day”—they most certainly were not for most of the population, but this is what came to me when Kitty came to me.
There’s a great quote I use at the beginning of the book; it’s from Helen Barolini’s The Dream Book, an excellent anthology of Italian-American women writers. She writes,
…in a society in which belief in malocchio—evil eye—was present at all levels […] the taboo is against being seen as excelling in anything, or in that close seeing which is self-knowledge. Those who go too far—Tiresias, Milton, Galileo—go blind, or like Cassandra, go unheeded.
Two things are important: malocchio and going unheeded. The worst offense to my parents was feeling too good about yourself. This would cause envy, big-shot-ism, bad feelings, pain. And then, there is the whole experience of not being heard, being ignored, which is at the heart of my book. Think about Kitty: her relationship with Mary Ann had to be secret, which speaks not only to an Italian culture, but to a Catholic one, and her cries for help were ignored, or misunderstood.
In terms of my writing, I wasn’t raised in a literary community. I’m not sure if this is inherent to an Italian community or to a working-class community. I had no strong literary models until college, or perhaps after. And when I say that, I mean women poets, women writers, that spoke to me. But I was given beautiful imagery and sounds that continuously show up in my work.
Rumpus: Tell me more about the women writers and poets who spoke to you.
Martelli: I love Elizabeth Bishop, which is strange because she is so narrative—and yet her poems move me deeply. I can’t read “Poem” without crying. Add Sylvia Plath and Lucille Clifton. Clifton’s Mary poems are brilliant. These are my masters.
Marie Howe and Lucie Brock-Broido: I can pick them up and read them again and again.
Laura Jensen is an unsung genius.
These women taught me how to write, and when I can’t write, I turn to them.
Rumpus: Do you think this is a good time to be a female poet in America?
Martelli: Hmm. I hesitate at the word “good.” For white, straight, cis female poets, I’d say it’s a better time. For more marginalized populations, perhaps? I think that we’re slowly—slowly—coming to some awareness of horrific inequalities and traumas in the poetry world—in the world at large. So, there’s some attention, some accountability. For example, VIDA tracks journals’ acceptance rates for women; there are journals that solicit folks from the LGBTQ+ communities, from various ethnic and racial groups. This is all better, or getting better. I think this is a dangerous time as well; I think when power is questioned, the opportunity for violent resistance hovers.
Rumpus: How can white, straight, cis female poets be better allies to members of marginalized communities?
Martelli: I think the most important thing is to listen. Just listen. And be aware, pay attention, call out toxic behavior. Read more poetry written by folks in marginalized communities.
Rumpus: That’s a very good point. I think a lot of people forget that listening and witnessing can be a very powerful act. Even more so when you buy a poet’s book!
Martelli: Yes! Reading and reviewing are so important!
Rumpus: You’ve spoken about the way in which this manuscript evolved—from the Kitty poems to a chapbook to a full volume linking Kitty to the 2016 elections. Did your first manuscript go through a similar evolution?
Martelli: No, The Uncanny Valley was very different in its development. First, it wasn’t “topical,” meaning it didn’t have one single focus, like My Tarantella, which circled around Kitty Genovese. Second, it took so much longer to write—its seeds were planted during grad school, two decades earlier, although I see some of the same themes I’m writing about now: femaleness, Italian-ness. A large portion of the book was written after my parents died. I wasn’t able to write at all during their illnesses (which happened at the same time). After they were gone—I’m talking a few years—I was able to kind of examine their deaths, my relationships with them. The original title was Mal’Occhio which means, “evil eye.” The book is broken into sections that break down how I looked at my father, relationships, landscapes, my mother, “created women,” and finally, myself. And I also tucked in my first pre-Kitty poem!
Rumpus: What does your writing practice look like today?
Martelli: First and most important in my writing life is being connected to a writing community. When I unplugged years ago, I eventually stopped writing. I’m not just talking about workshopping, but a vibrant community that reads, writes, publishes, critiques within the literary world. I’ve been so fortunate and blessed to be surrounded by a strong community of writers.
I need to say that I find writing a poem terrifying, but I usually love revision, especially if it’s a poem that’s problematic. So, for that reason, I don’t write every single day. What’s worked for me the past year is being part of a monthly poem-a-day for one week. This helps because I am the type of poet who self-censors, meaning, I might think of a poem, but then decide that it’s not a great idea. When I am expected to email a group some type of draft, I’ll shush that voice and just write it. I also have a small group that I’ll show my work. At the end of the week, I usually have a few “poems” that might turn into keepers, and I’ll work on them for the month—or longer.
I also love cannibalizing my old poems. I think it was Sharon Olds who spoke about picking an ember out of the ashes. I have some poems from grad school that had a nice line or two still beating life.
Moving my body is also very generative for me. If I’m stuck on a poem, taking a walk—which is rhythmic—sometimes clears out the confusion. I try to do something relating to poetry every day: submitting, editing, reviewing, even just going through my files.