Saturday, October 20, 2018

How and Why I was kicked off the Editorial Board of VIA

When I was invited to be on the editorial board of VIA I was happy to say yes. When I found out that it didn’t mean I’d have anything to say about what they published, that all they wanted was lots of names on their masthead, I didn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, I felt left out; on the other hand I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to do any work. I could just mention in my curriculum that I was on their editorial board and it would make me look good.

Fred Gardaphe and Anthony Tamburri and the third founding editor, whose name I can never remember and who I always thought of as the shadow man because he never did anything for the magazine that I could see, immediately began offending me. I think that half the time they were unaware that they were offending me partly they were oblivious to the ethics of small press publishing and partly because they were just too arrogant towards someone as unimportant as I was.

They sent me a copy of each issue of VIA and so I sent them a copy of each issue of la bella figura. My little magazine, what you might call a zine, consisted of ten sheets of letter size paper stapled in the corner and then folded in half so that some pages were presented in the common size of a little magazine and some pages were presented in the common size of a letter. It certainly didn’t measure up to VIA in regard to visible prestige. VIA was bigger, thicker, printed on glossy paper, lots of full color illustrations and full-page, half-page, and quarter-page ads.

I always had the impression that they were more concerned with power than with literature and it took a while before I realized that VIA wasn’t a small press publication; it was an academic publication. It took even longer before I realized that these three men wanted to be the mafia bosses of Italian-American literature and didn’t want to be contradicted by a little lady nobody. They demanded compliance, sniveling ass kissing, and flattery from everyone around them, which they apparently got from everyone around them, except me, and which they thought was respect, and saw no need to show any respect to me and my crappy little two-bit zine.

I folded la bella figura to go live in Italy, leaving for my second trip here. My first time here I was a tourist. The second time I was here, for almost a year and a half, I was an illegal alien. This time I’ve got citizenship.

They had a special page in which they claimed to want Italian-Americans to write in about whatever was on their mind. But nothing ever appeared on that page except their lament—Why don’t Italian-Americans write?

They said in VIA that lbf had folded for lack of subscriptions. They never bothered to ask me why I had folded. I guess they thought that a crappy little zine couldn’t make it and you had to be a real magazine, bigger, thicker, printed on glossy paper, lots of full color illustrations and full-page, half-page, and quarter-page ads. It was their idea of a sales pitch—subscribe to VIA to keep it from folding.

I wrote and told them that I folded lbf because I wanted to live in Italy, thinking they would publish it in VIA on their special page.

When I started lbf, I bought a copy of The Directory of Poets and Writers, or whatever it’s called, and I sent flyers to everyone listed who had an Italian last name. Not only did I get a lot of submissions but I had 200 subscribers before the first issue came out. This number was maintained throughout its run and I ended with a mailing list of 800. This is very successful for a zine of its kind.

I mentioned this when I wrote to them, also saying that I didn’t think that preventing a magazine from folding would serve as an incentive for people to subscribe.

They never printed what I had sent them for their special page. Instead, they just continued to say on that page, issue after issue—Why don’t Italian-Americans write?

When I mentioned this to Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, who, like me, was on their editorial board, she said that they received lots of things for that page; they just didn’t want to print them. She also mentioned to me that, at that time, VIA had only 100 subscribers, something that they never mentioned when they asked people to buy ads. An ad that reaches only 100 people, at $1,000, is way overpriced.

The policy at VIA was to print only unpublished work. When I noticed in one issue that they had included a poem by Maria Gillan which had previously appeared in lbf, I wrote to Fred Gardaphe. He wrote back in anger, wanting to know why I hadn’t told him. (Excuse me, Fred, but I just told you. That’s how you found out and why you’re writing to me now.)

In the small press community, and I’ll bet in the academic community, it’s the writer’s responsability to inform, in his cover letter, the editors of the magazines to which he’s submitting work, whether or not the work being submitted has already been published. Little magazines especially, not having too much money and wanting to publish as much unrecognized stuff as possible, often don’t like to reprint work. But sometimes this isn’t mentioned in their calls for manuscripts and the writer is expected to mention it just in case.

Did Fred make up this rule just for me? Did he mean to ask why I hadn’t told him, before they had agreed to publish it, that Gillan’s poem had already been published? Did he even wonder how I would have known that? Did he actually think that all editors follow their writers around to see whether they’re sending out work that they had already published in their magazines?

A normal editor would have printed, in the next issue, a little notice saying that Gillan’s poem had been previously published in lbf, with a reminder that VIA prints only previously unpublished work, and a little apology for the oversight. But they printed nothing.

Fred Gardaphe doesn’t seem to know the difference between power (Gillan could do things to help his career along and I couldn’t. Therefore, she was right and I was wrong.) and reality.

This was a slap in my face, one among many. But I didn’t say anything.

Although $1,000 was a lot of money for me to spend on any one thing, including advertising, I had a full-page ad put in VIA for my first book of poetry, Vendetta. It wasn’t as impressive looking as the other ads but it said what it needed to say. That’s been a big part of my goal as a writer—not to impress on a superficial level but to say what needs to be said.

I noticed that they moved the other ads around, each ad getting a chance to be in a more visible space, while my ad was always stuck in the back where people rarely look. I wrote to them and asked whether they could please put my ad in a more visible space once in a while, as they did with all the others.

I received a letter from Anthony Tamburri saying that if I didn’t like where they were placing my ad they’d be glad to drop my ad and refund my money. Apparently, he was offended by my gall in requesting the same treatment that they gave to others who had ads in their magazine. I thought it was a completely unjustified response and even abnormal.

I was unemployed at the time and I could find other uses for that money. So I wrote back and said, okay, drop the ad and refund my money. In any case, I added, that ad had only sold about two or three copies of the book.

They dropped the ad and refunded my money. Tamburri sent me what I thought was a strangely worded letter, saying something about how he was sorry that I had chosen to leave them. He also said that they would be reporting this expense when they did their taxes and so I’d better be sure to report this income on my own tax returns to be sure that I didn’t get into any trouble.

But that $1,000 was the only money I had received that calender year so I wasn’t required to pay income taxes. I just laughed and threw the letter into the trash.

A few months later I received the usual letter they sent out to everyone on their editorial board asking me to vote for what I thought was the best piece in the most recent issue.

I looked at the list of the names of everyone on their editorial board, printed on the left hand side of their letterhead. My name was no longer on the list. Apparently they had sent me this letter using the accidently-on-purpose method of getting even.

Accidently-on-purpose was what we, as children in the neighborhood, called subconscious revenge. For example, if someone you were playing stickball with insulted you, the next time you threw the ball you’d hit him on the head with it. When he complained, you’d say, “I did it accidently,” and he would say, “Yeah, accidently on purpose.”

I guess that that $1,000 I paid was not only for my ad but for the honor of being on their editorial boad, although I’d bet that no one else had to pay $1,000 to be listed on their editorial board.

One of the first times I spoke to Fred, he asked me whether I had a university degree. I said no. He said, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” If it didn’t matter, why did he ask? Because he wanted to know whether I belonged to their little club.

Anthony Tamburri very rarely spoke to me first and very rarely even answered me when I spoke to him. He would usually just grunt or ignore me completely. And he always did it with a look that seemed like a combination of self-satisfaction and disgust.

But once, when he saw me at a conference of the American Italian Historical Association, he ran up to me and with a gleeful look in his eyes, happily told me that an Italian-American newspaper had laughed at the idea of an Italian-American radical poet.

He also advised me not to write so much about prejudice against Italian-Americans. This is very important in both Italian and Italian-American culture: forget the past if it’s negative.

For both these reasons, the lack of fancy initials after my name and my complaining, one of the most serious sins in both Italian and Italian-American culture, I was becoming an embarrassment to them.

They did other things to offend me. I guess they were expecting me to complain, giving them an excuse to take me off their editorial board. But I didn’t complain about those things. Apparently, my request to have my ad rotated as all the other ones were, seemed like a good excuse to them.

So they kicked me off the board, pretending it was my choice to leave, and didn’t even bother to tell me.

Maybe they’re unaware that in the small press community there are a lot of editors who publish their little magazines because they think that certain work, which they thought was worthy of being published, would not be published in the mainstream press. These people have integrity and they’re honest. They make up reasonable rules and expect everyone to follow them.

One rule is that, if you lie in your cover letter in the hope of impressing them, they will not publish your work and they rarely bother to tell writers why their work is being rejected. If I had put in my cover letters that I was on the editorial board of VIA, and these editors found out that I wasn’t, I would have my work automatically rejected. It might have even spread around that I was a liar and my work would always be rejected and I would never know why.

Maybe they didn’t know that. Or maybe they did.

If I had complained about those other times that they had offended me, I probably would have been kicked off their board a lot sooner. It just goes to show you that you should never keep your mouth shut when you’ve been insulted.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

They can dish it out but can they take it?

One thing about literary critics that has always disappointed me is that they very rarely write about the craft in my work.
All literary critics ever talk about is what I say and never how I say it. I busted my butt writing those poems. If you like them, don’t you think maybe there’s a reason, besides just what I’m saying? Don’t you think maybe I know what I’m doing? Don’t you think it’s not just chance?
But those days are over. At least, I like to think so because I found, on the internet, an essay that mentions my work.
It’s called “Italian American Poetry Today: An Appreciation in Prog-ress” and was written by George Guida, one of the few literary critics I know of who actually knows how to read. And I mean read and not just correctly recognize words often enough to satisfy a third-grade teacher.
Although he starts off with the usual stuff about what I said in my poems, he seems to be aware that how I said it contributes to the meaning of what I said because he goes on to talk at least a little about my “skill.” He says: “The range of the poem [“Wop Talk” originally from my book The Wop Factor, now included in Neither Seen nor Heard, both published by malafemmina press], and of Romano’s Italian American poetry in general, is remarkable, as is her skill (especially with line breaks in this poem) . . .”
I copied his essay off the internet and put it on a word document in my computer. I read it at home. I’d been waiting so long to see someone write about how I said it and not just what I said. And of all things, he chose my line breaks! If I spent five hours writing a poem, at least one full hour was spent on the line breaks alone. They’re very important to me; I use them as a form of punctuation; as a way of putting an emphasis on what I’m saying; as a way to allow for two or more interpretations of the same word or expression—not to confuse, but to increase the meaning by including different aspects of that meaning.
If other literary critics don’t know that, well, what are they talking about when they talk about what I’m talking about?
But George mentioned my line breaks and when I saw that, I cried.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay that good. Sometimes it gets a little less good.
Now we go down a notch or two.
Mary Jo Bona’s essay “Learning to Speak Doubly: New Poems by Gianna Patriarca and Rose Romano” is a little difficult for me to write about because it’s well written and makes it obvious that Bona read at least some of the work and understood some of what she read. Ask any-one who knows me; I like to complain. Even pairing me with Patriarca makes me feel as though Bona has a better understanding of my work and I’m really happy to share an article with Patriarca. But I’m going to give writing about Bona’s essay a shot anyway because there are a few things I don’t understand, one of which hurt me.
Bona starts with a brief introduction that mentions my poem “The Wop Factor.” She says, “In her title poem, ‘The Wop Factor,’ Rose Romano takes the joke made against her—‘when you slap the magazine on the table—. . . / it goes WOP!’ and revises the meaning to suit her purposes as a poet: ‘and when you slap us down we make noise.’ ”
This is the whole poem:

The Wop Factor

So when I brought the magazine
over to the printer
I asked him can I save a little money
by using a thinner paper.
He said well, you know, not much,
a little, but not much. But,
you know, he said, you want
that extra weight, a magazine
as small as this, to give it more
substance, make it good and
heavy, give it what you call
your wop factor.
I said, I beg your pardon . . .
How was that again . . .
He said, you know, when you slap
the magazine on the table—
and he demonstrated—
it goes WOP!

So I’ve been thinking about that
a lot
and I think maybe
la bella figura
should be enhanced
by the wop factor—
we want that extra weight—
prose of substance,
good and heavy poetry
and when you slap us down
we make noise.

Although Bona got the point, she reads ‘wop,’ probably because that’s what I wrote, and says the guy made a joke against me. He didn’t make a joke against me.
My own experience with anti-Italian bigots is that most of them are oblivious to Italian-American culture and experience. They don’t even recognize Italian names as Italian and some of them think that “pasta” is a word coined by American yuppies, which makes sense, according to them, because, according to them, most pasta dishes were created by American yuppies. They don’t see anything insulting in anything. After all, Italian-Americans are all short, dark, hairy, stupid criminals, and lazy good-for-nothings. A lot of the anti-Italian bigots either don’t know the difference between culture and stereotypes or they think that Italian culture is oppressive and should be changed to suit what they think is right. Besides, stating simple facts is not bigotry. This makes it really difficult to fight anti-Italian bigotry because you can’t just fight anti-Italian bigotry. First you have to convince the bigot that he’s a bigot. And bigots don’t like that.
And I don’t think that’s changed since I left the United States to live in Italy more than fifteen years ago. A few months ago, I got onto an internet forum, used mostly by Americans, to ask whether anyone might happen to know of a lawyer in Italy or maybe an organization of lawyers so that I could get some legal advice. No one really knew what to tell me but they all, with one exception, seriously tried to help me, suggesting sites that I might look at or write to or people I might ask for advice. Only one person left a message saying that, in Italy, you don’t use a lawyer. You use the Mafia. He then proceeded to list every cliché found in American Mafia movies. I really don’t believe he knew he was being offensive. The tone of his message seemed gleeful, like a little boy who thought he was impressing his mother with his ability to accept and memorize information. I think he thought, very sincerely, that he was being witty. Bigots aren’t known for being too bright.
Then there was the time I got onto a forum for writers with a message that used the word “wop.” The message, which asked for submissions for an anthology I wanted to do, was removed because it was found to be insulting and one of the moderators sent me a private message to explain that the word “wop” is offensive. She suggested, this woman who knows so little about my culture that she didn’t even recognize the name Romano, which I used in the message, as an Italian name, that if I didn’t know that “wop” is an offensive term, I should look it up on Wikipedia.
As it happens, I figured out that “wop” is an offensive term when I was six years old and standing in a schoolyard. So, wops were censored once again, not by a regular bigot but a jackass bigot.
The point that this moderator missed is that when someone outside a group uses an offensive term for that group, it’s offensive. When a member of a group uses an offensive term for her own group, it’s a term of endearment.
Bona makes it clear that she understands this. She says: “Riappro-priating the negative word, giving substance to insult is a gesture of re-fusal to be named hurtfully, a powerful tool of minority cultures in their attempt to maintain their integrity.”
But I still don’t see why Bona thinks that’s a joke. I don’t think he was making a joke. I think he was an oblivious jackass like the guy and the moderater on those forums, because the printer didn’t say “wop.” He said “whap.” It’s a perfectly innocent little onomatopoetic word that means the sound “whap,” a word that I’ve heard many times in many contexts and that couldn’t possibly be interpreted as being offensive to Italian-Americans or even having anything at all to do with Italian-Americans.
When I got to the place in the poem where I needed to write “whap” or “wop,” I hesitated for a moment. Should I write what the man said or should I write what I heard? Well, I decided, it’s my poem so I’ll write what I heard. Anyway, I figured, the whole point of the poem, that tiny spark of power, would be a little stronger, and a little clearer, if I wrote “wop.”
Has Bona never been up against a bigot who’s more an oblivious jackass than a bigot? If she hasn’t, she’s luckier than I am. I don’t know how much breath I’ve wasted trying to explain my culture to idiots. As least if they’re already aware that what they’re saying is insulting to us overly sensitive and over emotional Italian-Americans, you can skip over the explanation and go directly to cursing them out. That can save a lot of time, especially if they decide afterwards that they don’t want to talk to you anymore. And maybe they won’t be so quick to insult the next wop because, although most bigots are truth-resistant, the rest of them don’t like taking the risk of looking at the truth.
Aother question, the one that hurts me, is what she says about my poem “Final Stages.” She says: “For example, in the final stages of AIDS, Romano’s ex-husband, Donald asks forgiveness for having left the poet and their daughter.”
He didn’t leave me; I left him. And that’s not pride talking. So where did she get this idea from? I just read the poem over.
Okay, I say: “He wants me to forgive him for / not being there for / seventeen years. . . .”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he left me; you could also interpret that as meaning I left him. No matter which one of us left, he still wasn’t there, even if the one who was left is asking for forgiveness. You know how complicated life is and relationships are more compli-cated than life. Obviously, there was a lot more going on that I didn’t mention in the poem. (I’m pretending now that I think poems are autobiographies, as many literary critics seem to think. But I don’t think that at all.) I think it was big of him to ask for forgiveness, in spite of the fact that I left him, and it made me feel guilty, because I could have tried to keep in touch with him, and hopeful, because I was thinking, as I say in the poem, “maybe that means he’s forgiven / me for taking his daughter / away,” that is, when I left him and he didn’t leave me. Right after that I say: “. . . We panicked. We ran. . . .” We is not he.
I say: “I think, after I left, you went back.”—after I left him. Maybe I should have said “him” but it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be necessary.
So why does Bona’s idea that my husband left me and our daughter hurt me? It’s not in the poem because Donald wasn’t like that. The only explanation I can think of is the racist stereotype of the black man who abandons his family. But why would Bona, who thinks that poems are autobiographies, believe a racist stereotype when it is contradicted by what is said in the poem?
Then she goes on to say: “What remains essential about their relation-ship is not their separation (because of abandonment, race difference, and illness) . . .”
No abandonment. A man abandons but a woman leaves. I think that’s a rule, but I could easily be wrong. And isn’t abandonment a type of separation? Is Bona saying that one of the reasons we were separated is that we were separated?
Race difference? There are lots of similarities in differences. I say in the poem “. . . He / didn’t believe me when I told him / we had spaghetti and meatballs for / dinner every Sunday. But I didn’t / believe him when he said / they had chitterlings and black eyed / peas for dinner every Sunday. We / used to goof on each other that / way. . . .”
Those are just two different recipes. The important thing that we shared is that we grew up having special foods from our own culture on Sunday—the most special, even if the most boring, day of the week.
Our race differences brought us closer; you share a lot of heavy stuff when you’re part of an interracial couple, stuff that people like Bona seem to be unaware of. Or, if Bona’s not unaware of it, she doesn’t seem to give any importance to it. And maybe Bona doesn’t know what dissing is or how much fun it can be to goof on your friends.
The poem that appears on the page immediately preceding “Final Stages” goes like this:

Like an Echo

I was young
and didn’t see any difference.
A two-story home filled asymmetrically
with family, mostly aunts and
cousins, a couple of uncles, the
grandmother. It was the only
American family I’d ever seen
that looked so much like mine.

I was happy
and didn’t think how different
reasons can sometimes bring results
that only look familiar.

I was eager
to grow from cousin to aunt to
grandmother and when I married him—
Italian woman to black man—I took
the same place in his home
I’d had in mine.

Now, I watch
my daughter, a cousin
who has promoted me to aunt. The grand-
mothers I remember are gone,
the aunts have become grandmothers,
reasons are chosen by people with power,
and the cousins look familiar.

Re-read the first two lines of this poem. I was there and I didn’t see a difference. Where did Bona see a difference?
Illness? I didn’t feel as though his illness separated us. Actually, we were separated long before he got AIDS. As I say in the poem: Today I found out / my ex-husband/ is in the final stages / of aids. . . .
If I call him my ex-husband, doesn’t that make it clear that we were divorced? Don’t you usually separate from a spouse before you get a divorce? How could this illness have separated us if we were divorced before he was diagnosed and before I found out about it?
What does Bona mean when she says “separated”? I’m not sure be-cause she uses two other words incorrectly.
These “race differences” she talks about aren’t as insurmountable as Bona seems to think. People are people and they have the same needs and feelings. The details of their history might be different, but the people are the same. Ignoring the sameness of different people is something that racists need to do in order to justify their racism.
Instead of reading the poems carefully, she “evaluates” them according to racist stereotypes and clichés. Why? Is she a closet racist or just un-able to think original thoughts?
I thought maybe she hadn’t read “Like an Echo,” which, as I said, appears immediately before “Final Stages.” But she did read it; she mentions it in her essay. If she’s so convinced that poems are auto-biographies, why doesn’t she take it into consideration when she talks about “Final Stages”?
When she gets to the poem “The Family Dialect,” Bona refers to Santa Rosalia as my namesake. How could that be if Rosalie and Rose are two different names? Does she mean to suggest that Rosalie is my saint? No, she’s not. I know of three saints who go by the name of Rose: Saint Rose of Lima, Saint Rose Venerini of Viterbo, and Saint Rose from Viterbo. I prefer Santa Rosa da Viterbo because, although she only lived for about 17 or 18 years and I shared very few of her beliefs, she had the guts to say what she believed no matter who was listening, knowing all the time that it could get her killed by the people in power.
And if Santa Rosalia was my saint, what relevance would that have in my decision to join her? You don’t pray to a saint because she’s your saint. You pray to a saint according to what you want and what their area of expertise is. You pray to Saint Anthony when you lose something. You pray to Saint Rocco when you’re in a hopeless situation and you can’t stand it any more. If I told Santa Rosalia that I was coming to join her, it was because she was a hermit who lived in a cave.
Or maybe, like many people, she just doesn’t like repetition. But I don’t think this justifies using a word incorrectly.
Bona says I was “. . . willing to be literally flayed . . .” Where did she get the idea that I’m willing to be “literally” flayed? Not me. I’m not as brave as my saint; I don’t want to be “literally” flayed. And, although I like a good fight, I don’t even want to be figuratively flayed; it’s a pain in the butt and leads to useless agita. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people use the word “literally” without meaning it literally, as though it’s just an intensifier. Maybe that’s how Bona meant it.
Bona says that “. . . Rose Romano believes that poetry is not a luxury . . .” Where did she get this idea from? Letters we exchanged? We didn’t exchange any letters. An essay I wrote? I never said this in an essay. In my poems? I never said this in a poem. I think she just invented this in her own head because it suited what she wanted to say in her essay—and for another reason which I’ll mention later.
As a matter of fact, I think that poetry is a luxury and I think that suggesting that any form of art is a necessity is offensive to people who don’t have enough of the necessities. Eating, drinking, sleeping, some other stuff, are necessities. The necessities are what we do so that we can live to enjoy the luxuries we like, such as poetry.
Before writing this essay, I sent Bona an email to ask her to explain some of the things she wrote in her essay. After waiting more than a month without a response, I sent her the email again. After waiting another month without a response, I sent her another email telling her why I wanted this information. Altogether, I waited for more than three months and never received a response. Was she too busy to have even at least enough respect for me to acknowledge my emails? Apparently, she thinks she has the right to decide what my opinions are and I’m just a problem that will go away if she ignores me long enough.
I’ve noticed that some Italian-American literary critics don’t care about the truth, aren’t responsible about what they write, and think that their ideas about what a writer thinks and feels are just as valid as what the writer says she thinks and feels.
And I’m beginning to think that this attitude is one of the reasons that Italian-American literature doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves. A non-Italian reader might read this stuff, and read the work it’s supposed to be about, and conclude that wops don’t know what they’re doing.
There are two essays that I read in VIA, I think. I don’t remember the names or what issues they were in or who wrote them, but I’m going to go ahead and mention them anyway—if literary critics can write without giving sources, so can I. At least I know I’m telling the truth, whether you believe it or not, and I’m not just making stuff up. In any case, I wrote to VIA to ask about these essays and got no helpful information.
One essay talked about me and a few other Italian-American women poets. I think the author got the poems she talked about from the anthology I did, la bella figura: a choice, published by malafemmina press in 1993. The women she wrote about, including me, were all third-generation Italian-Americans, that is, they were born in the United States of parents born in the United States. Their grandparents had been born in Italy and had gone to the United States as immigrants, the first gener-ation. The author of the essay noticed that we wrote mostly about our grandmothers and, for reasons that I’ve never been able to understand, she concluded from these few poems that Italian-American women reject their mothers. Why not conclude that Italian-American women reject their grandfathers or their fathers? Or their mail carrier? Beats me.
If the author of this essay had taken the trouble to read my bio notes, she would have found out that my mother died when I was eight years old. I don’t have a clue about what it’s like to have a mother beyond that age. I was raised by my Neapolitan grandmother. That’s why I wrote about my grandmother—she was the closest thing to a mother that I knew and my most important direct connection to Italy. I never knew my other grandparents.
I don’t really know why the other women wrote about their grandmothers, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say that they were also third generation and, in writing about their history and culture as Italian-Americans, they wanted to write about their closest direct link to being Italian and, in writing as women and feminists, they chose their grandmother instead of their grandfather. I don’t think they were re-jecting anyone or anything; I think, instead, they were accepting some-one and something, that is, their grandmother and the culture she gave them.
The other essay claimed that I was influenced by a certain four or five writers. I always thought that, in order to be influenced by writers, you have to read them. I don’t remember who these writers were but I remember that I had never read any of them and one of them I had never even heard of.
If the author of this essay thought my work was similar to these writers, if my work reminded her of the work of these writers, if my work seemed to her to fit into the same “family” as the work of these writers, she should have just said that. But where does she get the nerve to say that I was influenced by them without even knowing whether or not I’ve read them? A similarity in writing styles is not the same as an influence. Doesn’t the author of that essay know that?
But it gets better. I mentioned this to another literary critic, without mentioning the names of the writers and only saying that I had never read any of these people and one of them I had never even heard of. He put on his knowing smile and said, “Oh, I’m sure you were influenced by them.”
Sure based on what? His complete ignorance of who was an influence on me? His not even knowing who these writers were that I was talking about? He seemed to have the feeling that, when it comes to literary critics and writers, it’s us against them. That’s possible when you consider what nonsense some literary critics write about writers’ work. If the artists’ complaints about critics is a cliché, well, there’s a reason for that.
Now we plummet.
While Bona’s article makes it obvious that English is her native language and she didn’t sleep through her grammar lessons in the third grade, Chiara Mazzucchelli writes English as though she learned English in Italy from Italian teachers who can’t speak English, something very common in Italy, and, in English, Mazzucchelli is just barcollando nel buio.
But when you’re reading a literary essay, you expect correct grammar and punctuation, insightful reading, and an understanding of the text. I used to expect that, too. Now, after reading what some people have written about me, I just keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.
Now comes the fun part.
I’ve met people who are under the impression that venting and writing poetry are the same thing. Some people seem to think that every poem a poet writes is about her and gives an accurate account of some event in her life.
When I lived in San Francisco, where there are poetry readings almost every night of the week, I did a lot of open poetry readings. You see the same people at these readings and you become poetry-reading friends, the way, in Italy, you become cafe friends with the people you always see at your cafe, that is, the cafe you always go to. In San Francisco, you sit with your poetry-reading friends, you comment on the poems being read and you talk about your own writing. You get to know some things about each other.
One night I read a poem about the loss of the culture of origin, something I wrote about pretty often as an Italian-American. The poem spoke about a woman whose son used to call his grandmother “nonna.” When he grew up, he called her “grandmother.” His mother is a little saddened by this, although she doesn’t seem to be sure why. I wrote the poem in the first person because I thought it worked better that way. At the end of the poem, she says, “He has a son who calls me Grammy, but it’s not the same.”
After the reading, when we were all standing around eating our cookies and drinking our apple juice, one woman came up to me and said, “I didn’t know you have a son.” I was in my mid-forties. Did I look like I was old enough to have a grandson who can talk? What made her think this poem was about me?
But a literary critic can be expected to be more sophisticated and to know better. A literary critic should be educated at least well enough to know the difference between a poem and an autobiography. She should be honest enough to admit the limitations of her knowledge of the writer’s personal life and deepest feelings, especially if she has never met that writer. She should have enough understanding of literature to know that the authors of murder mysteries aren’t necessarily murderers. She should have the intelligence to be able to distinguish between an inter-pretation of a piece of writing and a description of what’s going on in the mind of the writer.
She should have learned in grade school that a poem is the same as any other work of literature—some of it is true of the poet, some of it is true of other people, some of it is symbolical, some of it she read in a news-paper or magazine, some of it she saw on television or heard on the radio, some of it is just made up to make a point.
So, Chiara Mazzucchelli wrote an article about me called “The Scum of the Scum of the Scum: Rose Romano’s Search for Sisterhood.” First published in the Journal of Lesbian Studies, and later in her book The Heart and the Island, published by Suny Press, this article is a load of crap.
If a critic thinks my work is no good and backs it up with reasons that make sense, that doesn’t bother me. But when a critic makes up a bunch of lies about me to suit her own ideas (or, in Mazzucchelli’s case, ideas taken from other people) and to further her own career, that really pisses me off.
According to the title, Mazzucchelli’s article is about me and right from the get-go it’s wrong. I wasn’t searching for sisterhood. I wanted recognition of me and my people. I wanted respect for me and my people. I wanted lesbians to understand that even wops have a history and a culture. I had no desire to be the sister of ignorant racist con-servatives who disguised themselves as enlightened progressives who welcome all women as equals.
I’ve already described the hierarchy of pain in the lesbian community. If I’m forced to be shoved into the white cubbyhole, my history and culture are annihilated, because to a politically correct lesbian white means wasp. They learned their beliefs out of a supposedly radical catechism, memorized it and barfed it up whenever they needed to score points. If they really believed the things they said, they wouldn’t have needed to be told by every new group that comes along that even the new group is made up of people who have a history and a culture and who deserve respect.
When I first read Mazzucchelli’s article on the internet, I had no idea that it had also been included in a book because the article begins with a quote from Booker T. Washington, a black man who said that the situation of blacks in the United States is better than the situation of Sicilians in Sicily. From my experience in the lesbian community, I took that as an apology, a politically correct request for permission to commit the mortal sin of talking about Sicilians as though they’re people, maybe even worth as much as black people. I thought Mazzucchelli, as the typical politically correct lesbian who’s too cowardly to see with her own eyes and think with her own brain, needed to call me Sicilian in order to be granted that permission and to write about me in the lesbian press. I figured she couldn’t find a similar quote about Italians.
Politically correct lesbians consider Sicilians, and other Italians, to be white. They consider black people to be equal to white people, at the same time that they consider white people to be inferior to black people. If I say that Italian-Americans are just as good as black people, this is considered to be insulting to black people. Politically correct lesbians apparently don’t have the brains to see that their own response is insulting to Italian-Americans because, in the politically correct lesbian community, it’s okay to insult Italian-Americans if you consider them white.
I had to take algebra five times before I finally passed it with the lowest possible passing grade, so maybe what I’m about to say isn’t trust-worthy. But I don’t remember any of those algebra teachers saying that A is equal to B but B is not equal to A. Yet this is what passes itself off as rational discourse in the politically correct lesbian community.
Then I found out that there was a book. I know that academics need to publish and now I know that some academics, and some academic presses, don’t care what they publish. All they want is to further their own careers and have their names remembered.
Here’s her “interpretation” of one of my poems:

The contestatory potential of Sicilian Americanness as a discourse in Romano’s hands is easy to discern when one introduces the element of choice in the poet’s process of self-ascription. In fact, Romano is the daughter of an inter-regional couple, so to speak.

The lines themselves look pretty good. Her grammar’s okay and she uses big words. She really sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. But the stuff between the lines doesn’t add up.
I wrote the poem and I happen to know she doesn’t have a clue.
She doesn’t bother explaining what this easily discernible process of self-ascription is, how it happened, or how her conclusion was reached. She doesn’t even mention what her conclusion is. She just expects us to get it.
I wrote the damned poem and, far from finding this process of self-ascription to be easy to discern, it took me two days to figure out that all she was really suggesting is that I was so ashamed of my lying Neapolitan aunt, that I decided to be Sicilian. Maybe it took me two days to figure it out because I’m stupid. Or maybe it took me two days to figure it out because I wasn’t ashamed of my aunt, she wasn’t lying, and I never decided to be Sicilian.
This is the whole poem:

Just Two More

My aunt, keeper of the family history, says
my grandparents were Neapolitan
nobility, owned property on the bay, named my
father Victor, after the king—they knew him
personally. They seem to have come over
accidentally. My aunt can’t offer a satisfactory
reason why they would leave a home of
respect and riches—a count and countess—
to come so far to this classless
society, where they were just two more
wops. I try to imagine the bay, the hills
rising in green steps around it,
Mt. Vesuvius smoking. But when my aunt
explains that my grandparents owned a
villa in Castellammare, which she describes
as a suburb of Naples, all I can see
is my cousin at his barbecue in his backyard
in Staten Island.

If you can show me a “process of self-ascription” as Sicilian-American in this poem, I will eat my computer. In fact, I think if you showed this poem to a ten-year-old and asked her to find the lines that indicate a self-ascription to Sicilianness, she would first ask what self-ascription means. Then she’d look puzzled and say, “But Sicilians aren’t even men-tioned in this poem. And if she belongs to a Neapolitan family, doesn’t that make her Neapolitan? And wouldn’t she know that?”
I understand that as the writer of the poem, I’m not allowed to interpret it. As everyone knows, literary critics know everything and writers are all a bunch of assholes who don’t know shit from Shinola. But as long as you’re reading this, you might be condescending enough to allow me a few paragraphs to give my own interpretation of one of my own poems.
According to my own interpretation, the poem is about assimilation, particularly in the way it’s accomplished in Italian-American culture, a culture born of Italian culture. The first generation, arriving in the United States, would have left half their culture behind and lived in what they were able to salvage and to hide in their hearts, even from their own children. (I call this “wop omertà.”) The second generation, who typically wanted only to be American, would not have investigated much, only dropping a few crumbs to their own children. The third generation is already replacing Italian images with American images.
The poem is not about my family. To think so means that you read only the words and don’t know what the words mean or imply. There’s more to poetry than what you see on the surface.
My family history is just the “occasion” of the poem. And I left out half my family history because it wasn’t necessary to the poem. The subject, as I said, is assimilation.
You’d think an Italian literary critic who understands what it means to be a wop and knows English well enough to evaluate English-language literature, would have seen that very easily. You’d think any competent literary critic would be aware that a poem is more than just the words used in it. I think the meaning of that poem is pretty obvious.
I think that my being me gives me the right to discuss myself and my family history. Unlike Mazzucchelli, I’m not making suppositions. I was there. I’ve met me. I’ve known me all my life. I’ve been everywhere I’ve ever gone and I’ve done everything I’ve ever done. And, unlike Mazzuc-chelli, I’m in an excellent position to read my mind.
It’s a little funny, too, that the only time she recognizes my being Neapolitan, which she manages to ignore at the same time, is when she tries to use my “Neapolitanness” to back up her claim that I identify as Sicilian. The expression double-think comes to mind.
You want my family history? I got my family history right here, I got my family history.
My grandfather, Nicola Sorrentino, was the ward of King Vittorio Emanuele II. He was a count; his wife was a countess. My Neapolitan grandparents went back and forth between Naples and New York and happened to be in New York when they ran out of money. But they had enough money left to buy a house and to open a business. Only rich people would think they were poor because they couldn’t afford to live in a castle. And, considering what was going on in Italian politics at the time, there were good reasons for a Neapolitan count to want to stay out of Italy, reasons that my grandfather would not have wanted to tell his children.
You’d think that someone in Mazzucchelli’s position would know that not all of the immigrants left Italy because they were poor.
I wrote to Mazzucchelli explaining my feelings. I’m was damned polite enough. I wrote to her several times. All I ever received in response from her was her claim to be willing and ready to discuss these things with me. But she never discussed anything.
Her emails were always brief, curt, dismissive messages, the equivalent of tossing me into the garbage. Her tone was that of a little girl who’s trying to be a bully because she’s afraid that someone will find out she’s incompetent.
I waited about two weeks for a response to my last email to her. Maybe she thought I would just disappear and she wouldn’t have to treat me with respect and deal with the problem. I’m pretty sure she thinks, as politically correct lesbians think, that I have no right to define myself or even offer my irrelevant opinion about what I am or how I feel.
After two weeks without a response to my last email, I threw a fit all over Facebook about Mazzucchelli’s article, and sent emails to a bunch of people I know.
I received an email from another literary critic who said, “You can fight against interpretation all you want, but you’ll never convince anyone that their’s [sic] is wrong.” He said, “Sorry to hear about your problems, but don’t expect any response from anyone on this.”
I’m a high school dropout; I don’t know how academic people do things. I thought he was talking from his own general experience in the academic community.
But several other people sent understanding emails to me. One literary critic, who is also a writer, mentioned that, although he didn’t know how Suny Press does things, there should be a “series editor” and that I had “a right to ask that the essay be corrected and reprinted or removed.” An academic, who is not a literary critic, said, “I am very sorry. This is obviously a case of misinterpretation.” The woman who had originally sent me a copy of the article, who is an academic but not a literary critic, expressed her sympathy, saying, “Gee, I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Then I found out that there is a series editor in this case and that the critic who told me not to expect any response was the series editor, a man I’ve known for a long time. Then I understood that what he said wasn’t coming from his general experience in the academic community. Instead, he was just saying “Shut up and put up.”
I referred, above, to my “interpretation” of my poem. I only used the word “interpretation” to mimic Mazzucchelli. A writer does not interpret her own work; she explains it. Readers interpret. Maybe this series editor is confusing readers with writers. To be told that the writer can never convince anyone that the reader’s interpretation is wrong, is not just plain ridiculous; it’s also presumptuous. The poet knows what she meant. The reader does not tell the poet what she meant, unless he’s more arrogant than God.
Both the series editor and Mazzucchelli have informed me that this article is about my work, and not about me. Maybe they think I don’t know how to read. Or maybe they don’t know how to read.
Reading a poem and concluding, for God knows what reason, that I identify as Sicilian, is not an interpretation of the poem. How I identify is about me, not my work. Calling my aunt a liar is about me, not my work. Suggesting that I’m ashamed of being Neapolitan is about me, not my work.
In this article,” Mazzucchelli says, “I will explore Rose Romano’s poetry to show how she uses especially her Sicilian Americanness . . .” In other words, as Mazzucchelli just said herself, the whole article is going to serve as proof that I identify as Sicilian. In other words, the article is about me. It is not an interpretation of my work. Whether or not I’m Sicilian is about me and not my work.
She quotes only what serves this purpose. She quotes this part of one of my poems:

I grew up
in a Neapolitan family,
always silently
defending Sicilians. . .
If I misbehaved
or did something
stupid, it was because
I’m Sicilian.

She leaves this out which should appear where she sticks her ellipsis:

(Sicilians were
my sainted mother.)

Sicilians were my sainted mother; Sicilians weren’t me. If I identified as Sicilian, the two lines in parenthesis wouldn’t have entered my head. These two lines were obviously intended to “un-identify” myself as Sicilian. But that doesn’t suit Mazzucchelli’s ideas.
Mazzucchelli is also not above changing direct quotes, something, I’ve noticed, that some Italians have no problem doing when it suits them.
In her opening quote asking for permission to write about a “Sicilian-American” lesbian, she tells us that Booker T. Washington wrote: “The condition of the coloured farmer. . . .” She quotes me twice as having written “colour” instead of “color.” I don’t know about Booker T. Washington, but I wrote “color” not “colour.”
Before you decide that I’ve reached new heights of persnicketyness, let me explain, because it’s not just a tiny, unimportant change in what I wrote. It’s not even, in itself, the problem; it’s a result of the problem.
Italians, as I’ve already mentioned, are, in the majority of cases, taught English by Italians who learned English from Italians who learned English from Italians, from here to the dawn of time. Some of them even spend a summer or two in England to “perfect” their English. From what I’ve seen, most of these teachers are laughably incompetent. Even the best of them don’t know English as well as they think they do. And they don’t teach American English. They don’t know American English. They teach British English, which they don’t know too well, either. And they certainly don’t know American slang or American culture.
Mazzucchelli’s use of British English (Maybe she thought she was correcting my mistake or maybe she doesn’t know what “sic” means.) just tells me she has little real life experience with English; it’s just something she learned out of a book and has no gut level understanding of it.
But then there are the editors at the Journal of Lesbian Studies. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that suffering is more important than merit in the politically correct lesbian community. In one email that I received from someone at the Journal of Lesbian Studies, I was informed by the writer, whose name, both first and last, weren’t even Indo-European let alone English, that the problem would have to be “discussed to the director.”
All mistakes made in any language can be divided into two main categories: native speaker mistakes and foreign speaker mistakes. No native speaker of English would say “discuss to.” It wouldn’t occur to a native speaker to make such a mistake. Any native speaker who’s that ignorant would more likely have written “talk to.”
So, we’ve got the blind leading the blind, or, to be more precise, the ignorant leading the ignorant.
Mazzucchelli also said that, in my “coloured” essay, I “lamented” about being censored in the lesbian press. I wasn’t lamenting; I was protesting. I was speaking out against bigotry. I was denouncing the fantastically con-voluted bigotry that tries to pass itself off as an open-minded welcome to all lesbians who accept being crammed into their cubby holes. I was bitching. But maybe Mazzucchelli doesn’t know what lamenting is.
But I say in the poem “it was because I’m Sicilian.” If Mazzucchelli knew English well enough to evaluate the literature, she would be aware that such a modo di dire, used in contexts such as this, is intended to express the feelings of others, and not of oneself. In other words, my Neapolitan family, because of their prejudice against Sicilians, blamed all my faults on their idea that I’m Sicilian.
The poem is called “Mutt Bitch.” I have never denied that, by blood, I’m half Sicilian. To do so would be to deny my mother, not myself, and I have no more intention of denying my mother than I have of denying myself. The point is, and maybe it’s too subtle for some people, is that I have never felt Sicilian. I have never identified as Sicilian. I have always felt myself to be Neapolitan. I have always identified as Neapolitan. I was raised by my Neapolitan grandmother. A great pride in being Neapolitan always glowed around her, while the aunts and uncles found being Italian to be embarrassing. I decided long before I even knew that such things could be decided, that I wanted to be one of the ones who are proud of what they are and not one of the ones who are ashamed of what they are. I wanted to be my Neapolitan grandmother.
Having grown up in a Neapolitan family, I have no notion of “Sicilian Americanness,” as Mazzucchelli says. In fact, I don’t have a clue. I did not use my “Sicilian-American woman identity.” I don’t have one to use. I am not aware of anything “as a Sicilian American.” She says, “The process of identity construction in [my] poetry involved the recovery of [my] Sicilian heritage.” This is about me and not my work. But I don’t have a Sicilian heritage to recover; I have a Neapolitan heritage. I’ve always had a Neapolitan heritage; I still have it so I’ve never needed to recover it.
Heritage is not in your blood. Heritage is in your head.
But she knows I grew up in a Neapolitan family. How the hell would I get a Sicilian heritage from a Neapolitan family?
You learn heritage from what you hear in your family, what you see, what your family tells you, how they raise you, how they behave.
I know that many people use the word “heritage” a little loosely in a casual conversation with friends. So do I. But an academic essay about poetry is not a casual conversation. A competent literary critic is expected to use words precisely.
[My] notion of Sicilian Americanness springs from many factors and personal considerations.” What factors? What personal considerations?
Mazzucchelli doesn’t tell us what these factors and considerations are, maybe because she doesn’t know what they are. If Mazzucchelli, or anyone else, read my poems and concluded that I wanted to be Neapolitan because of my strong Neapolitan grandmother, because I wanted to belong to my Neapolitan family, because my Neapolitan family was always insulting Sicilians, I wouldn’t throw a fit on Facebook. And it’s not just because they’re declaring me Neapolitan. It’s also because their reading of my poetry would make more sense, because this conclusion would show that they read the poems first and then came to their conclusion, instead of coming to their conclusion first and then digging through my poems to justify themselves—although declaring me Neapolitan would still be writing about me and not my poems.
According to the poet, in fact,” she says, “Sicilians are a racially defined group.” According to the poet? It seems to me like Mazzucchelli doesn’t want Sicilians to be a racially defined group. In fact? What facts does she know about me? Not too many. In any case, there are a lot of people who consider Sicilians to be a “racially defined group.” I’m only one of many and I’m not the first.
At one point she even “interprets” a part of my dedication to one of my books, just to prove what she thinks I am. But my dedication is not my work. How does this “interpretation” of my dedication qualify as an interpretation of my work, if my dedication is not even my work?
She says, “Romano’s first collection of poems, Vendetta, is also dedi-cated to her daughter, with a bitter-sweet explanation that leaves no room for doubt as to the poet’s degree of awareness of the familial expectations of Italian-American culture: ‘to Megan, my daughter, / for proving I can do what’s necessary.’ ”
Although she thinks she knows how I feel, I don’t know why she calls the dedication “bitter-sweet.” My dedication was intended to show gratitude, as all dedications are; that’s what they’re for. “Familial ex-pectations of Italian-American culture”—Why is she calling it Italian-American culture? It’s true of Italian culture as well. Italian-American culture comes from Italian culture; I guess she doesn’t like that idea. I think she’s trying to distance herself from the wops. “Also dedicated”—without a referent, the word “also” doesn’t mean much.
This is the whole dedication:

to Emilia, my grandmother,
for showing me it’s good to be Italian;
to Beatrice, my mother,
for teaching me to write my name;
to Megan, my daughter, for proving I can do what’s necessary.

I dedicated my first book to these three women because they each gave me something very important. I raised my daughter completely on my own, with no help from her father or my family, and when I saw her growing up, not only normal, but strong and able (which is what the word ‘Megan’ means), I was damned proud of myself.
Taking seriously the raising of your children is something normal parents do in all cultures. It’s not unique to Italian-American culture or to Italian culture or to Sicilian-American culture. It’s considered a pleasant responsibility. Raising your children is not a dreary chore, as Mazzucchelli makes it seem. I’ve known people who think it’s the most important job in the world—and some of them weren’t even Italian.
I’ve noticed, too, that most of what is said about different cultures can be said about any other culture. I think it has something to do with the fact that people are people. We all need the same things and we all have to learn how to get along with each other. If I’m Italian and I like to eat well, it’s not because I’m Italian; lots of people who aren’t Italian like to eat well and lots of people who are Italian don’t spend all their time sitting around stuffing their faces. If I’m Jewish and I’m cheap, it’s not because I’m Jewish; lots of people who aren’t Jewish are cheap and lots of people who are Jewish aren’t cheap. If I’m black and I’ve got a good sense of rhythm, it’s not because I’m black; lots of people who aren’t black have a good sense of rhythm and lots of people who are black couldn’t dance if their life depended on it.
If you slip from describing a culture to thinking that everyone who lives in that culture lives by that culture’s rules, you’re sliding into stereotypes. If you insist that all these stereotypes are the only people who are the “real” members of a group and any others are just abberations, you’ve landed yourself right smack dead in the middle of bigotry.
You’d think someone who’s qualified to read writers’ minds would know the difference between a stereotype and a culture.
But Mazzucchelli doesn’t even seem to understand the difference between reality and culture. In her bit about my poem “There is Nothing in this World / as Wonderful as an / Italian-American Lesbian,” she says, “Be she a lesbian from Bensonhurst, shouting profanities to a bunch of men hitting on her in the streets; . . .” Where did Mazzucchelli get the idea that these men were hitting on that woman? It’s not in the poem and it’s not a part of American culture. American men don’t go around in packs picking up women in the streets by shouting at them. I was really puzzled by that one for a while. Later I found out that many men in Italy pick up women like that, in packs and shouting from a distance. Apparently, she hasn’t got enough understanding either of American culture or of what it’s like to be a lesbian to judge an American poem about lesbians.
Mazzucchelli’s not too hot on logic, either. She says, “Before that time, though, she too had been a victim of—to use Adrienne Rich’s famous formulation—the ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ of her community, as proved by her marriage.” I wasn’t a victim. Mazzucchelli has no clue why I got married.
But the point is, marriage is an act. Lesbianism is a feeling. You can’t prove a feeling with an act. In fact, you can’t prove a feeling with anything. This isn’t logical.
And why I got married is about me, not my work.
Another example of her lack of logic is contained in the following sentences.
She says: “Romano’s poetry celebrates pride in her lesbian identity, but it also explores the difficulties engendered by her sexuality.”
And then: “In fact, Romano’s poetic project particularly focuses on the difficulties engendered by her sexuality.”
Difficulties are not engendered by any oppressed group. Difficulties are engendered by the oppressors. I do not accept the blame for my own oppression. You might as well go ahead and say that Afro-Americans cause racism and the Jews are responsible for the Holocaust. Where is the logic in that? Where is the sanity in that? If you try to resolve a problem, and you go looking for it in the wrong place, you’re never going to resolve it.
But, to be honest, I’m not really sure how much her misinterpretations are due to her inability to think logically or to her limitations in English. She’s constantly throwing in little expressions that don’t mean much, and don’t add anything to what she’s saying, as if she’s trying to make us think she knows English better than she does. Her choice of words is often a little awkward. A couple of times, her syntax is a little screwy. She uses what I call coward quotes, quotes intended to say, “Hey, don’t look at me. I didn’t say that.” And sometimes it gets insulting.
She says, “Romano approached the multicultural lesbian community to resignify the term ‘of color’ so as to encompass the experience of a self-styled ‘Olive’ ‘Sicilian-Italian-American Lesbian.’ ”
The quotation marks around her words here suggest that these concepts aren’t real, that this Olive stuff is something I just made up, that I was just kidding myself, and trying to kid others, when I called myself olive and said I’m a Sicilian-Italian-American Lesbian. This is about me, not my work.
Twice she calls me self-styled. The second time she says, “this self-styled ‘Sicilian-Italian-American-Lesbian.’ ” Does she know what that means? The 2011 fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says, “As characterized by oneself, often without right or justification.” How often? Does Mazzucchelli think I’m one of the ones who have no right or justification? This is about me, not my work.
Mazzucchelli sprinkles her article with a lot of suspicious words. She says, “Rose Romano’s work needs to be inscribed in the complex historical and cultural climate of her time” and refers to “Rose Romano’s legacy.” Of my time? My legacy? Uh-oh. You don’t suppose I’m dead, do you? I mean, you can have a time and a legacy without being dead, right? You just have to be finished, over, done, ended, concluded, terminated, kaput.
I hope I’m not dead, because if I’m dead, I’ve been going through a lot of crap for nothing. On the other hand, now that I think of it some more, since I get a pension from Italy based on the pensioner’s inability to work, the amount of which is, at least in part, determined by just how unable to work the pensioner is, if I can prove to Italy that I’m dead, maybe I can get my pension increased.
In any case, the “cultural climate of [my] time,” from what I’ve seen on Facebook and read in emails from Italian-Americans, is still pretty much the same: many Italian-Americans are still ignorant of their own history and culture, think that ignoring problems is the way to resolve problems, write mostly about those big family dinners that they enjoyed in their childhood, and that we’re all American at this point. This is why so many of them have taken the hyphen out of Italian-American.
Even the quotes Mazzucchelli uses in her article talk about me and not my work. According to Mazzucchelli, Helen Barolini “compares [me] to a ‘stand-up comedian,’ who ‘stresses a blue-collar past and present, . . . and presents herself defiantly vaunting all her differences.’ ”
Although I don’t know where Barolini got that from, I know she couldn’t have gotten that from my poems and I don’t recall that she ever came to one of my poetry readings.
In fact, most of what people say about me is gossip spread by people who have never even met me.
And what’s really cute is that, in spite of Mazzucchelli’s desperate need to label me as Sicilian-American; in spite of the fact that she forages through my work looking for justifications for labeling me Sicilian-American; in spite of the fact that I’ve written poems about Sicilians and their culture, she never once mentions any of those poems in that essay. You have to wonder why.
So, Mazzucchelli’s article talks about me, and only mentions my work when she needs to justify her definition of me. So why don’t I write a little interpretation of Mazzucchelli’s article?

Chiara Mazzucchelli’s Search for Recognition as a Literary Critic
In this article I will show how Mazzucchelli uses her first-generation Northerner status to score points in the Italian-American literary community at the same time that she distances herself from those pesky and inferior wops, a problem that is common among first-generation Northerners. As the typical politically correct lesbian, she begins with an apology and a justification for talking about Sicilians. Unsure of herself in writing English, she tosses fancy words and phrases around to justify herself, assuming her subject will never find out and protest, and other writers, scared of literary critics, will never dare to say she’s just a naked emperor who thinks she has the right to define people and those people have no right to define themselves, just like the typical politically correct lesbian that she is.
It’s evident that she chose to participate in the Italian-American literary community, instead of the mainstream American literary com-munity, because she feels unsure of herself in writing in English. She writes as though she has a stick up her butt; she doesn’t seem to know the difference between academic writing and constipation; most of the words and phrases are just a little imprecise, usually when she tries to convince us and herself that she knows what she’s doing. And, although she feels that Italian-American culture is not like Italian culture, she shows the same confidence that an Italian-American won’t complain, just as Italians never complain; that an Italian-American will pretend to resolve problems by ignoring them, just as Italians do; that an Italian-American will bow down to any authority figure that shows up, just as Italians do; that an Italian-American will believe anything any authority figure tells her, just as Italians do; that an Italian-American won’t be able to follow simple logic, just as Italians are unable to follow simple logic; that an Italian-American cares more about maintaining bella figura than she does about the truth, just as Italians do; that an Italian-American wants prestige at any cost, just as Italians do.

But Mazzucchelli isn’t the only one who has decided I’m Sicilian. I’ve seen stuff all over the internet putting me into Sicilian-American literature. I don’t like it and I’ll bet that Sicilian-Americans don’t like it, either. Another literary critic said in an email to me that you don’t have to be Sicilian-American to be included in Sicilian-American literature. How can he not see how offensive that is, not only to me, but to Sicilian-Americans as well? Try going into the politically correct lesbian community and saying that you don’t have to be black to be part of black American literature and let’s see whether you get out alive. Better yet, go to Harlem and say that. I’d like to see the newspaper headlines the next morning. Politically correct lesbians say that we all have the right to define ourselves and they (the politically correct lesbians) have the right to define everyone. Double think is not uncommon among politically correct lesbians who, instead of reading our histories, write them to suit their own convenience, just like the straight white men who do that to lesbians, and about whom the politically correct lesbians complain all the time.
One literary critic, many years ago, wrote a nice review of Vendetta. But he included the “information” that I was a “ragazza madre.” My Italian was very limited then and I couldn’t find the expression in my bilingual dictionary. Although I was about forty years old at the time, I guessed that it meant young mother. I figured that if he wanted to think that forty is young, God bless him.
When I waas living in Sicily among my mother’s family, I thought of showing this review to my mother’s cousins as a kind of introduction to me. It’s a damned good thing I didn’t because I could have gotten myself into a lot of trouble. As I found out later on, “ragazza madre” means unwed mother.
What made him think that I wasn’t married? Was he too unsophis-ticated to know that lots of gay people get married, not only before they come out but sometimes even afterwards?
I’ve been told that literary critics aren’t required to do research. In other words, they don’t have to know what they’re talking about and can just make up anything they want. But if that’s what they want to do, if they want to make up the thoughts and feelings of people, if they want to make up information about people, if they want to make up things that people have said or done, they shouldn’t be writing literary criticism—they should be writing novels.
So, what was that other reason for Bona’s claim of knowing my opinion that poetry is not a luxury?
Bona says, “Like poet Audre Lorde, Rose Romano believes that poetry is not a luxury.”
The poems Bona was talking about in her essay were in a book that was then out of print; no one would have been able to read the poems to judge for themselves whether Bona’s affirmations were valid, and I wasn’t around to complain. Is that why she made an unfounded state-ment which wasn’t really necessary to the essay? What other reason could she have?
Bona wanted to throw in Audre Lorde’s name as a way of asking for permission.
Mazzucchelli’s quote of Booker T. Washington was obviously a request for permission.
Another literary critic uses this information about Marcus Garvey to begin a review of my novel You’ll never have me like you want me, “In the nineteenth century African American leader Marcus Garvey led a Back-to-Africa movement encouraging those of African descent to return to their homeland.” And this was in spite of the fact that he was talking about a novel, a work of fiction, not about memoirs that spoke of my return to my homeland. He was asking for permission.
Why do so many Italian-Americans need permission from other people in order to be a people? Do they not have their own feet to stand on and, instead, think that they can sneak past reality by tip-toeing with some-one else’s feet? If the bigots are too stupid to figure out for themselves that even Italian-Americans are a people with a history and a culture, it’s going to take more than a bunch of lip-flapping wops with a passing grade in Creative Reality 101 to change their minds.
I think that these are just two of the many reasons that Italian-American literature is getting nowhere fast: excuses and apologies, adding up to a desire to glom onto other groups for a free ride as though we can’t make it on our own, because we’re not real people like the other people are.
What all literary critics need to remember is that the literary critic needs the writer. Without a book in her hand, a literary critic would have nothing to criticize. Without a book in her hand, a literary critic wouldn’t be able to teach literature. Without a book in her hand, a literary critic would have nothing to talk about at conferences. I personally know one literary critic who wouldn’t have been able to evade the police if it hadn’t been for a library full of books.
Remember this, dear literary critics: writers can do everything they do without literary critics, while literary critics could not even exist without writers. You need us. We don’t need you.
I have a friend who’s intelligent, well-read, normal, and nice. Every once in a while, she lets me whine about literary critics. She just lets me go on and on, listening patiently with a little smile. When I’m finished, she laughs and says, “Ah, questi critici. Sono tutti artisti mancati.” Then I feel better.
I think I’ll give her a call.