Richard Hoffman

An Interview with Poet Jennifer Martelli


I want to jump right in to a consideration of your latest book, My Tarantella, and the figure at the center of that book, Kitty Genovese. Tell us how you came to write about her.

My obsession (and that’s what it became) started with two very self-centered motives. First, Kitty Genovese looked like people in my family: all dark-haired Italians; second, I think I was trying to re-create a period in my life: early to mid-sixties (Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964), with all the colors and music of that time. I need to say that I don’t think that things were better back then—they weren’t—but it was my childhood, and I guess I was missing it! During that writing period, Kitty’s brother Bill co-produced a documentary called The Witness which examined the myth that over 30 people watched her being killed and did nothing. It’s a wonderful, moving film. I read everything I could about her, about the murder—those last horrifying 30 minutes of her life is really how we know Kitty Genovese—but also about her (that she was in a profound relationship with Mary Ann Zielonko, that she was extremely close to her younger brother, Bill). By November, 2016, I had the minimum number of poems for an open chapbook reading for Grey Book Press, so I sent the poems in. That was Election Day. After that day, the poems changed. They became about voice, primarily, a woman’s voice being ignored.



My Tarantella is a very deep dive into not only the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese, but the contour and textures of our culture’s view of women, of violence, of brutality. I imagine you had to come up with ways to care for yourself during that process. Could you speak to that?

It was an intense writing period, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I’d never written a group of poems that was “themed.” So, thinking about this one topic, daily, was, at first exciting, and then spooky, exhausting. I felt like the whole story of her murder, and then the inaccurate reporting, seemed to foreshadow—or reflect—what was happening in the country. I really didn’t take a break from writing until the summer of 2017. But, in terms of self-care, I did a lot of walking. There was something very calming in the rhythms of a long walk. I found myself mixing poetry cocktails: a little bit of Laura Jensen with some Lucie Brock-Broido; a little bit of Plath mixed with some Marie Howe. I absolutely could not watch movies that cost me any amount of emotional pain; I stuck to comedies. But I was angry a lot of the time.



I’m knocked out by the insightful understanding of sexual violence in these poems. You keep away from abstraction, from any kind of commentary that would put you at one remove from the brutality that Kitty’s murder represents. You stay with the body. Her body. Your body. You make no pronouncements, nor do you sermonize about the famous inaction of Genovese’s neighbors. As a result, the poems reward readers with new insight with each reading. They somehow challenge us with only what’s real—no ideas but in things, and all that—and demand that we feel a grief even deeper than outrage. Is that something like what you hope a reader will take away from the book?

I was very worried about this. How do I write about such sexual violence that isn’t mine? How do I look at her body? One of the poems, “Kitty Genovese Names Her Fourteen Wounds,” was originally titled, “Kitty Genovese’s Fourteen Wounds.” A friend read it and thought that by giving her the naming power, it would be giving her a voice, agency. I wanted to show the brutality of the crime without turning it into more cruelty or use it gratuitously, with no other point but to shock. I revised a lot of the poems that I felt did that. I had to remember that the story was not only the story of witnessing, but it was also the story of a person, with people who loved her. It was a very fine line!!



I’m struck by the variety of forms and tones you use throughout the book. Your range is truly remarkable. Can you talk a little about the way single poems come to you and how they find their shape in relation to their subject?

My default is to write in couplets. Sometimes it’s the right choice, but a lot of times, it’s simply “what I do.” Some poems, though, became increasingly “meta,” that is, they were attempts to figure out why I was writing these poems. A lot of these poems, then, were written as letters or prose-poems. One of the poems, “Winston Moseley and Kitty Genovese Talk About Transformations,” is a conversation between Kitty and her killer; someone challenged me to write a poem in his voice, which I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want him to have a voice, so I wrote it, and then crossed out his words. I allowed myself a structural freedom: if I wanted to write a list, I wrote a list; if I wanted a form, I used one. I learned so much from an amazing book, The {Walled} Wife, by Nicelle Davis, where she not only told a horrible story, but examined her own connection to the story. It’s a devastating book!



The book has an integrity many collections do not. Some of that is doubtless the result of having a central event around which all the poems orbit, but that unity of feeling also comes from the recurring imagery: bats, black gloves, Queen of the Night tulips, wounds as mouths, praying mantises, gold jewelry. How did you come to the exquisitely coherent organization of these poems into this singular work, My Tarantella.

I think the cohesion was due to my obsession. I was constantly moving images from Kitty’s world into my own: her black gloves (which had defensive slices) became bats from D.H. Lawrence’s poem; The Gold Bug, a bar in Greenwich Village where Kitty and Mary Ann hung out, became gold bug jewelry that my aunts wore back in the 60’s, became the “praying mantis” that Winston Moseley was compared to; lavender was the “lavender menace,” lesbians, that Betty Friedan wrote about in the 60’s; Queen of Night tulips blossomed in my neighbor’s yard while I was writing the book. I felt surrounded by her!



Join the conversation