A chat and mango juice with new the Queens poet laureate
By Holly Bieler
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.
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