A chat and mango juice with new the Queens poet laureate
by Holly Bieler
Jun 24, 2015 | 5105 views | 0 0 comments | 130 130 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Few New York-centric pastimes have been hit quite as hard by the smart phone’s ubiquity as has subway people-watching, says Maria Lisella. Whereas once a subterranean commute held the potential for an overheard conversation or a fraternity forged between the bored and book-less, for those raised in the era of Candy Crush, even the lady announcing the street names feels obtrusive.

Times, indeed, are tough for eavesdropping poets.

“I liked listening to people on the subway, but people don’t talk to each other,” says Lisella, the recently named Queens poet laureate, over mango juice at a Colombian bakery in Astoria last week. “It’s like, ‘I’m losing material here, could you please talk?’”

For the Jamaica-born Lisella, who has published three books of poetry and has been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize, listening to people on the subway or otherwise has played an integral part in the development of her work.

“I’m listening to people a lot,” she said. “Sometimes you can find yourself in other people.”

And in this regard Queens, one of the most diverse places on the globe, has proved an endless source of surprising inspiration.

“New York City has always been where people come to start a new life, and I think Queens is sort of taking that over,” she said. “What has developed is this conglomerate of all the influences of the people who came in. I think poetry as a form plays into that. It’s based on sound, dialogue, the ability to communicate to each other.”

For Lisella, who grew up speaking Italian in her grandmother’s home and visits the country often, immigration and the preservation of her family’s stories has played a pivotal role in much of her work.

She recalled the inspiration of a poem years earlier, when she watched a group of friends speaking in Chinese with one another on a quiet, crowded subway and was reminded of her mother, an immigrant from Italy.

“I felt they were like my grandmother, they were refusing to blend in,” she said. “There’s a kind of resistance, they want to keep who they are.

“People feel less self-conscious about holding on to who they are in Queens,” she added. “Everyone here’s different, everyone’s been here half an hour.

She said the tremendously diverse landscape served as a telling, rich portrait of cultural relationships.

“We don’t really have crime here that involves a misunderstanding of culture,” she said. “There’s this Israeli guy I know and his favorite meal here is from a Palestinian guy with a food truck. I asked him how he felt about that and he said ‘Well, it’s our food.’ Here, they really are cousins.

“It’s interesting to me that ethnic groups get along so well here,” she said. “So when you have that, it would be a shame not to expose their stories to each other.”

Lisella says that growing up in her grandparents’ home, where both Italian and English were spoken, her ears were intrinsically piqued to sounds, eventually leading to a proclivity for language and ultimately poetry.

“I was always attracted to poetry and I’ve always been attracted to language,” she said.

This love of language and an affinity for new experiences inspired her to pursue a career in journalism after graduating from Queens College, and later the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“I always wanted to do journalism,” she said. “You get to meet new people, you have to learn things quickly. It always seemed like something that would be interesting and intriguing your whole life.”

This passion eventually developed into a 30-year career as a travel journalist, with articles from her travels in over 50 countries published in outlets such as Travel and Leisure and Fox News.

Looking forward, Lisella says she hasn’t yet decided on how she’ll utilize her new role as the borough’s official literary figurehead. Having been Queens poet laureate for all of two weeks, she has decided that she wants to do something that “will continue after me.”

As with any lover and creator of poetry, she’ll have to contend with a public oftentimes seen as apathetic to the form, although Lisella says many don’t realize just how pivotal poetry is in their lives.

“People look to poetry in the most difficult times in their lives,” she said. “They read the psalms, they go to a funeral and read poetry, they go to a wedding and someone reads a poem, at a birth someone reads a poem. Poetry is delivered at really critical times in people’s lives and they forget that.”

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