The Kitty Poems: An Interview with Jennifer Martelli

I am intrigued by the cover of this amazing collection. Tell us about it.

This is an eerie and fascinating true story! I started writing my “Kitty poems” last summer. About six months after I’d be writing--and bringing poems to my writing group--my good friend, Jennifer Jean, showed me a picture she’d taken of this graffiti stencil on a wall near her house. It was Kitty Genovese. Why would this show up on the wall of an old garage in Peabody, Massachusetts?? Over fifty years after the murder?? My publisher and I decided to Photoshop out the words surrounding her: What is true? Who will tell? Kitty’s image showing up was one of many emotional coincidences while I was writing these poems! I have a prose poem about it that was published in Pithead Chapel:

The title is an interesting one. In the poem "Dear Kitty" the following lines made me think the title was somehow connected:

What is it about us/Italians? We fear birds and we fear eyes, but mostly we whisper.

Am I right?

I wrote “Dear Kitty” before I wrote “After Bird.” Here’s another coincidence. The reference to birds in “Dear Kitty” is about this superstitious fear of birds--actual, or in paintings, on fabric, etc. I remember being at mass with my grandmother and a bird flew in through a window and circled around the apse. People were horrified! In “After Bird,” the original word was “afterbirth,” but this was autocorrected to “after bird.” As I was reviewing, I thought, “hmmmm, interesting,” and let it stay. So, yes, I was pleased with the resonance. Also, so much of the Genovese murder was about seeing, or not seeing, or refusing to see, and then refusing to tell what was seen.

The poems are so strong and evocative of a different time. The details are like a time capsule: black transistor radio, white go-go boots, black metal trays with gold roses (we had those in my house, too!) ----so clearly your memoir and your imagination make the perfect marriage. The details are so spot on: tell me what you remember of that time and what the impetus was to write the Kitty Genovese poems.

My first Kitty poem was “Things Kitty Genovese Should Have,” which is really a list of items from my memory! I had just watched the amazing documentary, The Witness, and I had her on my mind. I felt an identification because she looked like people in my family! I was two when she was murdered, and was raised in Massachusetts, so this obviously wasn’t something I remember as a child. But, I was touched, as an adult, by a yearning for that time in my life--I guess when my parents were alive and young, when I was young! I grew up in a very Italian/Irish/Jewish city just outside of Boston, with lots of first and second generation Italians from the North End and East Boston. So, the first few Kitty poems were almost incantations, trying to invoke spirits from that time in my life (the sixties) when I was a kid. And then, the election of 2016 happened, and the poems took on an even more ominous meaning for me.

In "Taut Blue Hammock" the speaker claims "My heart has scoliosis." How much can this line be attributed, in some way or another, to women everywhere, in relation to, in Kitty’s time, being a lesbian, hunted or waiting to be chosen?

For me, these poems are all about women: women hiding and hunted, friendships and communities of women. Kitty Genovese was totally on the cutting edge: staying in New York with her “roommate” Mary Ann Zielonko after her family had moved to the suburbs, hanging out in the Village, going to gay bars, which was illegal. And I also think about Sophie Farrar, the only person who came to her aid as she lay dying. Again, a woman.

I think, too, there’s something unique to the experience of growing up in an Italian household or community, especially mid-twentieth century. Helen Barolini’s excellent introduction to The Dream Book talks of this insidious message many of us hear: don’t be the envy of others, don’t disconnect from one’s immediate group; she talks of the mal’occhio—the evil eye.

It’s heart-breaking, too, when I read about the inability of witnesses to respond or to understand what was happening the night Kitty was killed. Some thought they were hearing a lovers’ spat—as if knowing the person who is hurting you makes it OK. There is also the theory that some folks might have responded a bit slower because they knew Kitty was a lesbian. I think too of Mary Ann’s grief: she was an unacknowledged widow; where did she go for comfort?

For many reasons the poems can be described as "coming of age" poems as they reveal a gradual awakening of the speaker as well as being ground zero of social chaos. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, so many of the poems address my own childhood—the colors, the mythologies. I was almost two when Kennedy was assassinated, and though I was a child, lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights, Vietnam. It was an angry time. And I feel that all the subtle lessons I learned about being a woman manifested in this past election, when a woman was heard and rejected.

You mention Albert DeSalvo, the alleged "Boston Strangler" in the poem "Dear Kitty." How aware of his crimes were you? How was the fact that he was Italian-American affect your and/or your family?

My first memory of DeSalvo was when I was at my cousin’s house, and my aunt (never married, lived in my grandmother’s house) heard on the radio that he had escaped. We ran from window to window, making sure they were locked. I remember being excited and laughing at my aunt!

In a very strange way, DeSalvo was a celebrity, which sounds awful, but I don’t remember anybody feeling ashamed of being Italian like the Boston Strangler. As I’m thinking about this, it seems horrid!

Which poem was the hardest to write? The easiest?

“After Bird” was hard; it almost seemed like I stayed too long at a party. “Dear Kitty” might have been the easiest because it had the least amount of artifice. I wrote it as a letter, and I was able to address my own aesthetics in this epistle.

What is your writing process like?

I do best when I’m writing in a group. I’m part of a terrific writing community—The Salem Writers. We are brutal and generous and honest. I can’t write in a vacuum (I didn’t write for over a decade). So, I like to take part of Poem-a-Day marathons, or Poetry Cleanses (a poem a day for a week). I like these because I don’t censor myself; I know I have to produce a poem, so I don’t say, “Oh that’s a dumb idea for a poem.” I write it—and then I decide to revise or not. I like revision; it feels like I’m turning a wheel tighter and tighter.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m completing a full-length manuscript about Kitty Genovese; I’m expanding the chapbook. It’s been wonderful to see this arc develop! I also have another “manuscript” that I’ve neglected because of this one, but every time I think that I’m done writing about Kitty, I’m moved by something I see, or remember!

Keep writing the Kitty poems, Jennifer. They are amazing!

After Bird

Greystone Press


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