Ann Falcone Shalaski
The Documentarian engages the poet in conversation about life and art.
William Luke Parker is a student at Christopher Newport University. He is majoring in English with a writing concentration, and plans on pursuing a career in the Peace Corps upon graduation. His hobbies include reading, writing poetry & fiction, talking to strangers, and going on small adventures.
"The Poet & the Documentarian"
by Luke Parker
ANN, RELUCTANT TO GIVE ME HER AGE, reminds me that she is trying to promote a book. She is 72 and a poet. She tells me that she would feel more confident if her name were “Allen.” I don’t understand, but she explains: “in men, age is a sign of wisdom” and an older woman is subjected to the double-whammy of ageist and sexist stereotypes. She is afraid of being dismissed as one who is supposed to be “knitting.” I ask her why she feels this way. Encouraging the insecurity doesn’t help to cultivate the story. I’m being exploitive. “Well...” she says, from the corner of her mouth rises the illusive smirk, “let’s talk public relations.”
Her evasion of the subject is discouraging, but she is (somehow) acutely aware of my intentions. Our talk is limited to the expected banter of making acquaintances, but I’m all-too-eager to get to the big questions. What is it that got her out of bed this morning? I’m given the poet’s story: I write that she lived in East Hartford, Connecticut. In the seventh grade she entered a writing contest that was run by a local department store. As the winner she received a bottle of perfume. “I was already doing it [writing], but now I had a purpose. That was like a pretty special thing to have. You didn’t go out to get nice perfume every day; you got the drips and drabs from mom’s bottle.” She tells me that she continued writing, but “no one saw it” until eight years ago.
Ann is presented with another difficult question: What happened eight years ago that caused her writing to resurface? She answers tentatively, folding her hands, “I felt like my poetry had an important message for women.” I ask her “the message.” Her answer, muddled in a lengthy description of her retired years, confirms an obvious disdain for such questions. She admits that she had always felt “bad” about not receiving a college education, so she signed up for piano lessons, writing workshops, and other classes to occupy her time. I admire the intensity of her artistic endeavors, but I want to know why she bothers. I’ve done enough research to know that she’s nuzzled in a network of writers through the Virginia Poets Society, and Word4Word Poets. What I’m interested in is Ann, not the poet but the person. The one with white hair and makeup that looks like 72 years of practice makes perfect.
So I ask her who she remembers sharing her poetry with: “I probably shared it with my father, simply because mothers are busy. My grandparents [Italian immigrants] most definitely had a high respect for anytime you were sitting at the kitchen table, with your pad and pencil, and were doing anything academic. These were people that didn’t read or write [in English], so there was this great reverence for schoolwork.” I ask her if her grandparents nurtured her passion for writing. She smiles wryly, as if to tell me that I’m being redundant. “I taught my grandparents how to use the telephone and how to sign their names.” She draws an X on a napkin to show me how her grandfather signed his name before she began tutoring him. “Salvatore Lucca,” she says, and then writes it with an arrow pointing to the X. “I would sit down with him, with a paper and a pencil, and have him practice writing his name. And I remember the first time he signed a paycheck.”
I begin to understand why it seems as if Ann is avoiding some of my questions. We are speaking in different languages, and she is trying to teach me as she did her grandfather. She tells me that, in order to give others insight, one must be reflective. The fault in my methods presents itself: I’ve been searching for conventional answers in the face of an unconventional reality. I wanted a simple story; instead I’m told that “there is no easy thing,” meaning, of course, that I have to change my approach. So I ask her about her grandmother.
I meet Ann at a Starbucks in Barns & Noble on Mondays. The mock Parisian café, ironically, smells more like microwave pasta (a dish sold there) and Formula 409 than coffee and books. I try not to think about it, but Ann jests at the hyper-real environment. She doesn’t like it here, but as she once told me, “complacency is the superhighway to dying.” It’s as if she’s hinting at a muse that works through discomfort – Truth buried in alienation. I want to get her to talk about being an outsider, but it’s not an easy process.
I start where we left off last time (tutoring her grandparents). Although I’ve come with a list of questions I follow her lead. “I taught my grandmother…how to use the phone” she begins with a look that speaks to my child-like hunger for a story. “She wasn’t so interested in learning to write. She wanted to call all of her friends! So I taught her all of the numbers on the phone.” I think of my own grandmother, who had difficulty learning the difference between her cellphone and a CB radio. Ann continues with her story, at an excited pace, as if to avoid the possibility of my intercepting the conclusion with a question (Ann is a talker; I find it best to save my questions).
“I also taught her how to ride the bus (how to read the destinations). She was different than my other grandma. She was like Dora the Explorer! She wanted to get out and go shopping, so I taught her how to come to our house (we lived in East Hartford).” She imitates the diction she used as a teenager with her grandmother, “this is the bus you have to get on, grandma. This is the sign for our house.”
“And so she learned to use numbers, and then she learned to use the phone, and that was like the begging of the greatest thing ever. Now, what she would do was (because she didn’t write names) she would write, say, one of my aunt’s phone numbers. She would write their number down, and it would be on a piece of paper. And she had a system with the way she folded that paper.” She holds up a large Post-it note to demonstrate as she talks. “If she folded it this way [she folds the paper hot-dog style]; if she pulled this part up [she creases the paper to make a flap]; if it was a different color paper… That was her filing system. She had a little box, and she would know who she was calling.”
Ann folds her hands, and, looking up from the folded paper, is silent to tell me that her story is over, and that it’s okay to ask questions now. I’ve found a point that she can harp on – a conventional wisdom of sorts. I ask her to reflect on a particular experience that she has mentioned before:
“What gets me through the day is getting to the end of the day. I’m not sure that it’s this huge thing. It’s feeling like you’ve contributed to bringing the day to an end.” She pauses, pulls a pen from her bag, clicks it, and begins scribbling on a piece of paper. “It happens that I’ve gone down the slope of the defeated and wondered what the hell this is all about…It’s like the cash register is out of singles.” Her language is pointed, a kind of escape routine. I don’t want to be insensitive, but I need to know her feelings. She is trying to get out of talking about the years when she had “gotten pretty small.” We’re getting back to the subject of isolation. I ask her for an example of “feeling like you’ve contributed.” I’m told that there was a high school student who she helped out of a tight spot. She asks me to conceal this person’s identity:
“She is now 26 years old. In a month she will be graduating with a degree in engineering. In apprentice school, she beat the crap out of every man that stood in her way.” But before that Ann tells me that “things did not go so well for this person.” I ask her about how they met. She tells me that it happened at a poetry workshop that she coordinated at Warwick High School ten years ago. I’m confused; she seems to forget telling me that she didn’t do poetry until eight years ago. Perhaps the lapse of continuity is accidental, but even as such it signifies a sense of repression in the way that she draws upon her memories. I ask her how she came to be the coordinator of this project:
“The Path that lead there [Warwick High School] was actually through the Poetry Society of Virginia. And one of their major tenets, in undertakings, is to get poetry into the schools. I was asked to be on a committee at that time, and it was a group of people, both men and women, who agreed to give of their time, and to find avenues to be able to go into the schools and present poetry. Either a reading or work with the kids on introducing a poet that might interface with where they were in English class, &etc. I ended up being introduced to a teacher, who taught at Warwick High School, who then said, ‘I’d love for you to come [to Warwick High School]. We have a poetry club.’ And there is a group of kids, I thought, that goes to meet after school – that shows their commitment. Whenever I hear of kids meeting after school for poetry, I think, that’s who I want to meet!”
“I went to Warwick High School a couple of times. It was productive, and it was fun. It was kind of a different environment to be in because school had let out… and we were in school.” She makes a point to emphasize the fact that this was an extracurricular, optional, decision. “And one of the young people, my friend, was a junior then. We formed such a bond, and such a neat relationship that we would meet together from time to time to have lunch…or near Christmas time to exchange a gift. And then she graduated and was ready to go to Thomas Nelson [community college] and I was 100% for that.”
Ann tells me that she introduced her friend to a contact from the Poetry Society of Virginia and co-founder of Word4Word who was to be her creative writing instructor. It was from Pruitt that Ann found out that her friend had dropped out. “When she started her freshman year things in her life and her family’s life…went south. There were financial problems and her father was incarcerated. Her family broke up, their family lost their lovely little home, and she was sent to live with a grandmother, and then an aunt, and then back to the grandmother…The mother never had the best coping skills in the world. The mother was not strong. Ultimately she [her friend] became the backbone of the family.”
I’m taken with awe at this testimony to the resilience of human-kind – a description of a time when, for most college students, day-to-day ideology is muddled in the comfortable notion of a just world. I choose not to record the entire list of pitfalls Ann gives me. She’s willing to talk, but more apt to ask me which parts I’m going to use in my story. It’s obvious that she’s less comfortable speaking on behalf of another. I do, however, consider what I’ve recorded as enough to show that this individual was in a particularly rough situation. Now I’m curious as to find out exactly how Ann helped. She answers my question in two sentences:
“I was there. I listened and I reminded her of her worth.” She is silent, notices my silence and, perhaps, understands that I was expecting more of an answer, but does not elaborate. I ask her how she went about demonstrating this person’s worth. She pushes her back against the chair, noticeably amused, and tells me, quite simply, that listening is all one has to do to make someone feel their worth. I reflect on that for a moment, realize what it means, and regurgitate her exact expression. She nods in approval. Aha! So this is what all of the work is for - the writing, the mentoring…the “message.”
The irony in our meeting place doesn’t hold a candle to that of our conversation. Ann’s last statement makes intelligible the ambivalence that accompanies this sort of project. I feel dualistic, like Ann doesn’t see me as the student that I am, but as someone that will listen to her talk about her grandmother and friends. Maybe that is validating.
Ann and I are silent for a while. I’m shuffling some notes that I’ve made on one of her poems, “Invisible.” I ask her about a stanza that goes, “Told me to smooth the folds/in my neck, ragged margins/of my lips, rewind years.” She tells me that “women have this innate level of passion and understanding that they don’t realize,” and that it doesn’t wane with age, so naturally “women feel invisible at times.” I wonder if this is more of an affirmation of Ann’s particular feelings than of women in general – a sort of beacon to finding the self in a youth centric society. I ask her for an example of feeling “invisible.” There’s a creak in her voice as she lets out a sigh, then she looks at me as if to say, “we knew we’d get here eventually, huh?” She begins, almost whispering:
“Let me back up a bit. I had been employed for eight years at Fort Eustis when my first husband died.” I want to tell her to stop there, and that we needn’t talk about anything that she’s uncomfortable with, for I feel immediate remorse at the sight of this person, whose life I’ve invaded, so close to tears. Plans of deprecating prose warrant my conscience to bid her continue. It would be even greater an offense to cut her off. I hold my tongue and listen, interested but saddened by the sense of necessity in her voice. She rephrases her first statement:
“When I lost my husband…When I lost my identity…When I lost my thread…I was pretty bitter. I had to pass the Bravo Center, where my husband worked, to get to work. I kept thinking, ‘It’s a big joke!’ I was also stuttering. I found myself hating people…My job was working with people.” She pauses to collect herself. It’s as if Ann, in reflecting on this particular memory, is reminding herself of how much she has changed. She tells me, “One day I just left. Figured I’d find my way. So I started over.”
I’m told of a period when Ann was silent (I, however, find this hard to believe having spent nearly three months listening to her talk). She lost her voice. “I knew what I wanted to say but couldn’t say it.” Although I identify with a loss for words, I’m not comfortable with making a comparison. I do, however, want a more lucid description, so I ask her how long she remained silent. She gives me a few vague answers, and then tells me, definitively, that it was “a long time.”
Ann, after telling me that she eventually got another job, notes that her wounds were not yet healed. I ask her, rather naively, when the hurt stopped. Never. Her response isn’t sharp, but matter-of-fact. She tells me that “time is what made me who I am today.” I know that it was during this time that Ann started publishing regularly - when she began several projects that would occupy her time indefinitely (Word4Word, The Writers’ Conference at Christopher Newport University, The National League of American Pen Women, and The Virginia Poets Society). This is, of course, suggesting that she’s created diversions out of these tasks to keep her from feeling the full force of her grief. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. I ask her what it is that sparked a revival of this magnitude. “I wanted to be irreplaceable – because I wanted to belong to something. Other than that, my world had gotten pretty small.”
Her response doesn’t exactly answer my question. I want to know what made her want “to be irreplaceable.” I rephrase, ask the same question, however, it’s disguised as one regarding her interests at the time. She tells me about the creative writing classes she took: “The first thing I learned in creative writing is that you can’t access your brain in chronological order. It’s slices of life.” I ask her how she would cut her own slice, and wonder, exactly what it is I’m getting at. “I’m content knowing that whatever curve comes my way I will survive. I’m still trying to figure out who Ann is.”
I have an ‘Aha’ moment. The sense of alienation that Ann describes in her poetry is, in fact, an account of her feelings as I expected, but to another end. I ask what tools she uses in this life-long search for identity. “You have to learn from your mistakes (it doesn’t come out of books). The puzzle is life. The solving of life is sharing experiences so that others may learn.” Ann’s poem, “Invisible,” is a particular experience, transcribed in verse, that she feels is something that other women, like herself, might encounter. The catalyst to her current zeal was the possibility of helping someone through her life reflection. She writes so that her mistakes may teach others to never feel “invisible.”
I ask her if I’m correct in my analysis. She nods, again in silence. Her silence is, at least this time, in recognition of my grasp at the crux of her writings’ purpose. It’s as if I’ve graduated from a private lesson in emotional transcendence. Silence is the reward – there is no more to teach.
by Ann Falcone Shalaski
No one notices gray hair spilling
like milk, or pale legs that disappear
under an ankle-length skirt.
It explains why I’m left waiting
in lemon-scented salons as girls,
bleached by the sun, sashay
ahead of me. I’m invisible.
Shrinking spine and fine lines
Hidden behind a curtain of age,
I flicker and fade like an old movie.
Someone should have warned me
a woman is a woman just once
before flat belly and perfect breasts
vanish like a lover’s kiss.
Told me to smooth the folds
in my neck, ragged margins
of my lips, rewind years
and let birthdays go unclaimed.
But the memory of where I’ve been,
that I am more not less
than who I am, rises
and I soar like a starling.
Sweet taste of blue and white icing
on my tongue.
Sheer summer blouse opened
at the neck.