Introduction to the Poet:

Louisa Calio Louisa Calio is an award-winning poet and writer whose work has been translated into Italian, Sicilian and Korean. She won First Prize in the 4th International Poetry Competition, City of Messina, Sicily, November  2013, for her poem “Bhari”, in this collection, was a finalist for Poet Laureate of Nassau County in 2013, Winner of the Connecticut Commission of the Arts Award and Grant to individual writers 1978, the Barbara Jones and Taliesin Prizes for Poetry (Trinidad & Tobago), an ECA arts grant for a multimedia production of her book, In the Eye of Balance, Women in Leadership Award 1987, and honored with Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, and others as a Feminist Who Changed America (1963-75) at Columbia/Barnard in 2006. She taught English in Philadelphia and Creative Writing in Connecticut, was Co-founder and first Executive Director of City Spirit Artists, Inc. (1976-1981) a non- profit arts organization in New Haven, Ct. She directed the Poets and Writers Piazza for Hofstra’s Italian Experience, 2002-2013, and is on the Advisory Board of Arba Sicula. Journey to the Heart Waters her latest book was published by Legas Press in 2014.

For details go to Wikipedia:


Alok Mishra: Dear Louisa, I would like to start this conversation by saying thanks to you for accepting my request. I would like to ask you the first question that is how do you see yourself?

Louisa Calio: You are most welcome. I thank you for your interest in my work. Mirror mirror/s can be so limiting an expression of our true being. I was born an Italian/Sicilian American woman in Brooklyn, New York. Yet, from childhood, I’ve often seen a rush of images, past lives perhaps, aspects of me I was called to explore through other cultures, meditation and yoga practices and dancing. This soul call, to go beyond images that to explore, inquire and finally express, is where my writing comes from.

This SELF, the I that is WE, has sourced my life and work. I guess I am a seeker, yes, more than a physical body, more than what you see before you and yet also particular to a time and place and gender. Perhaps in this go round, gender has been a vital part of my call to writing and creativity. I do feel drawn to articulate the new feminine rising, after generations of oppression and abuse.

My first collection of poetry and public performances in the mid 1970’s was called: IN THE EYE OF BALANCE, a quest for the union of opposites, it was initially inspired by the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, who, according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, made herself a God like Ra. She was able to put the broken pieces of her masculine together (Osiris). At the time, I was in the grips of powerful unconscious forces that called me to renewal or initiation. Turning inward for guidance, I also discovered a copy of E.A. Wallis Budge’s Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection. There was the image of the great eye of Horus I had been drawing since I was a child. There was the name of the Goddess who was initiating me: Isis! Hers was a story of a feminine being, who was making herself and not a cursed, sinful fallen female ancestor like Eve. She was powerful and also loving. She dared to call for her equal place in the world, as well as for a healing. She was putting the pieces of our collective broken soul back together for all humanity to benefit. In the poem Isis, she is the seer, the soothsayer, not quite masculine, not quite feminine and not quite in between.” She is beyond limiting definitions.


In a later poem, “Signifying Woman”, published in the anthology: Sweet Lemons 2 edited by V.Fazio & DeSantis and inspired by my Sicilian roots, which include 16 nationalities among them, North African, I expressed it this way:

“The dark bark betrays our true origins.
Straight from the core she’s come
with silvery lips, wide hips, menstrual blood and Oracular Vision.
Part witch and bewitching,
she refuses to be from one place or one race.

SHE travels . . .

in any skins, many skins,
spotted like the leopard
black as the panther
white as the milk in her mama’s rosy-red breasts.

She is red tongues licking fire,
a bold soul, an old soul,
backyard worshipper and gypsy wanderer.” ( Sweet Lemons 2 Legas Press)

Alok Mishra: You have a versatile set of talents – you sing; write; perform and teach. Please explain to our readers how do you see yourself?

Louisa Calio: Being raised in a Catholic tradition, gave me an appreciation of ritual and a respect for our need for collective expression, but I never imagined I would be creating my own rituals. It was when all the familiar doors seemed to shut and I found I couldn’t keep working or loving in the old ways, which kept me exhausted with “saving” or mothering others at the expense of my health, I stopped. At 27, I took stock of my life and questioned my activities. I felt beaten and swallowed by a huge darkness in which I could only wait. I never expected a response after weeks of silence when the Egyptian Mysteries came to life and I understood the words of Isis: “Cannot I make myself, make myself,”?”

Those words echoed at my core. They told me the time had come for me to create my own life consciously and that life was good and worthy and worth living. With the words, sounds and movements coming through me, I began to repair my own body and soul, and look for a more humane way of serving in the world, a way that allowed for self love while still learning how to love others and I’ve been working on that ever since. That was the birth of my life as a writer.

 The birth of creativity began in childhood. I made up dances, plays and stories, sang and danced them with friends and then, like most children, went to school and was stifled by hours of sitting. I came from a family of artists including my Grandfather, Rocco, a sculptor and furniture maker and my Grandmother Luigia, a musician, poet and fashion designer. I found my journey to West Africa in the 1970’s offered me direction. I witnessed Shamanic rituals filled with poetry, song, music and dance and longed to create some myself. I had by then studied with Professor of African Art and Religion, Robert Farris Thompson, and befriended African American Scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who authored the PBS series Wonders of the African World and Finding Your Roots. I visited Ghana, Togo and Nigeria and discovered, like the ancient Sicilians, Greeks and Africans, I needed all genres combined to fully express myself. Poetry became a dominant form and continues to be when I feel something stir deep within my bones that needs expression. When my first book was published in the mid- 1970’s, I created ritual performances with jazz composed by Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake, Michael Gregory, and a back drop of paintings by Terry Lennox and Pheoris West. This was a way of speaking to the world and maybe beyond.

Sharing my creative expressions is a form of teaching. I did teach both English and Creative Writing in the schools and in many venues including prisons, senior centres, and shelters.

Alok Mishra: You have been denoted as the Feminist Who Changed America Second Wave 1963-1975.

Louisa Calio: In the 1980’s, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire by author/scholar Barbara Love. (Barbara J.Love’s Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975 a comprehensive directory to document many of the founders and leaders (including both well-known and grassroots organizers) of the second wave women’s movement. It tells the stories of more than two thousand individual women and a few notable men who together reignited the women’s movement and made permanent changes to entrenched customs and laws. The biographical entries on these pioneering feminists represent their many factions, all parts of the country, all races and ethnic groups, and all political ideologies.)

I completed it and never expected to be among those honoured as a feminist who changed America! I was deeply honoured to be named among so many fine women, those known, like Ruth Beta Ginsberg and Alice Walker, and others less known like me, who were using their gifts to contribute to the community and empower women.

I believe, not only my performances of poetry which expressed the point of view of women historically were of value, but so was the fact that I was a founding member and first woman executive director of an arts organization in New Haven Ct. that offered programs to the community free of cost in a variety of settings from jails, to hospitals, schools, old age homes, women’s shelters etc. Writing was included among all the art forms. This organization, which was originally funded for one year by an NEA grant, through our efforts, lasted 25 years. Known as City Spirit Artists, Inc. it was designed to empower artists as well as serve the community. The National Endowment of the Arts in Washington DC just posted my story in celebration of their 50th anniversary on Facebook.


Alok Mishra: I am curious to know more about this title and your experiences pre&post the title.

Louisa Calio: This title has at times been a means of introduction to other like minded and committed women who share my concerns, as well as a reminder of all that still needs to be addressed for women. I’ve had the good fortune to have met and worked with feminists, spiritual authors and scholars from America, like Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Karen Tintori, Chickie Farella, and from Italy, Elisabetta Marino and Lina Unali, be on panels, attend conferences that discuss empowering women, collaborate on books like She is Everywhere and most recently participate with Korean feminist, Helen Hye-Sook Hwang in She Rises Vol. 2. I am especially inspired by the dedication of Malala Yousafzai. Her courage, life and work continue to change the world and I like to see my work within this matrix. My dream is to do for women’s psyches what Alice Walker did for women’s bodies, when she wrote Possessing the Secret of Joy, exposing the horrors of genital mutilation to the world.


 My ideas were emerging in other women poets, artists, writers, historians, dancers, and mothers as well, in the late sixties and early seventies. This is well documented now, but was not so then. On reflection, this was a very lonely and perilous passage. Initiation, even when guided by instinct and archetypal memory, challenges the stability of the ego. Yet, it seemed as if a seed, planted by our ancestors and the dark mother a millennia ago was bursting forth and about to give birth.

Alok Mishra: You have authored a much-celebrated work Journey to the Heart Waters. Please give our readers some insight into that book.

Louisa Calio: When one is awakened by a soul call, we may find ourselves going to faraway places, and in my case, making a second journey to Africa this time, Sudan in 1978, was essential. At the time, I had no idea my Sicilian Aunt, Mariann Calio, had made a similar journey to Libya at the same age (28 years old) or how close Sicily was to Africa historically, as well as geographically. My father’s sister went to visit her Cousin Suzette and a part of our family who lived in Libya, then called Tripoli in 1929. They had worked as translators for the Italian government and also for the Bank of Sicily in Libya. I learned many Sicilians were also sent to Eritrea in the late 1870’s as cheap labour after Italian Unification. These labourers would help develop the railways of Eritrea and eventually build Asmara, its famed capital, which looks like an Italian city, Palermo, which has a boulevard named for Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

I had come to the place of the long view of history, where one seeks to better know herself and the causes of her story. I was immediately made more aware of my feminine struggle and its sources on arrival in Khartoum. The sense that women are not seen as fully human, becomes quite palpable in a place where women were chaperoned wherever they go and would later be forced back into being covered from head to toe to be made invisible.

 Journey to the Heart Waters is divided into three sections: Part1, Poems of The Arrival: Khartoum 1978 when I am almost barred from entering and worse, by immigration, Part 2, the memory of what inspired the journey and Part 3, the actual journey which involved stopping over in London where I was guided and prepared for the trip by 3 women mystics.

The experiences in Sudan would open me to a higher vision, beyond the confinements of ordinary time and limiting duality. Each poem exists within this narrative context. Several like “Sky Openings” and “Bhari” have won awards in Sicily. The call to East Africa began unconsciously in my youth with childhood images of the great eye of Horus and dreams of the desert. The trip was inspired by matters of heart, a profound alchemical passion that would evoke what Jung refers to as matters of soul proportion, where the seemingly impossible splits that come with conflicting opposites, seek reconciliation. With love, also came loss and separation, introspection and finally clear guidance and understanding.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”Louisa” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When one is awakened by a soul call, we may find ourselves going to faraway places[/perfectpullquote]

In Sudan, prompted by these highly charged environs: the desert, the blue and white Niles, the cultures of Nubia and Eritrea, I would recognize the archetypal nature of my trip tied to Sicily, the land of my paternal ancestors. Going to Sudan also brought me face to face with many families seeking a better life, an escape from refugee camps, from the horrors of war, the pain of separation and the confusion of cultural clashes which I carried in my own DNA. This book is a poetic expression of these experiences. As author, historian Stanislao Pugliese put it: “Louisa Calio’s Journey to the Heart Waters is a searing personal work of eternal return and transformation. Calio sets out on a quest that unites southern Italy and east Africa through the image and bodies of the black madonnas who encourage her to seek, to question, to love, to grieve, to revel and to dance. These poems are a profoundly poignant and well-earned liberation from all that is oppressive in the modern world.”


Alok Mishra: Your book has been described as the journey through different cultures. How do you see the cultures throughout the world?

Louisa Calio: Culture is a delicious prism from which and through which we look and express our larger selves, our souls. It is not who we are, but more like clothes we wear. Some we try on and wear a while and others we discard quickly. For some of us, we try on several cultures at once, while others may find one only fits in this life time.

Alok Mishra: It does separate us in a sense that I am an Indian and you an American. But how did you manage to use the same culture in your book to bind things together?

Louisa Calio: What separates also unites! America is a multi cultural nation and I grew up feeling part of many cultures and people, but more importantly I felt like a larger being, a child of the universe who belongs as the yogis say, to everything.

In my poem, “Foreign Affairs” from the book, IN THE EYE OF BALANCE (1978, PARADISO PRESS) I wrote: “In our differences we are made more alike/your jungles are so like mine. From a common sea we come, we meet, we find…doubles, ironies abounding.”

A very vital part of my life’s journey came through your country, India or at least the Yogic tradition of India. In my latest manuscript, a novel Lucia Means Light, I hope to publish shortly, an experience I had through meditation, guided by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, caused a life changing event. This drew me to study yoga, become a certified instructor, and seek out other spiritual teachers and experiences that fed my soul through this tradition.

In Journey to the Heart Waters I saw myself in the women of Sudan who were bound by the past, in the women of Eritrea, who like my ancestors fled oppression. Their voices became my voice. In the poem “Eritrea, My Ithaca” Khartoum Telatta, a refugee camp becomes the sacred place where words come as a deep impress. A woman I meet who did not even speak a common language telepathically inspires poetry from that deeper level that unifies us all.

Alok Mishra: Now coming to your poetry, Louisa, how do you see poetry today?

Louisa Calio: Poetry is also a way of knowing, much like dreaming. The poet/artist often lives at the borders of internal experience and outer revelation. She values the inner and the imaginary, because it is the source of our creativity. Poetry explores the far reaches of the psyche and the depths of feeling in a heightened language carried by breath. At its best, we can call poetry a language of the spirit or soul. Many women were wrestling with issues of soul proportion and daring to express the most personal and intimate experiences of being human and female in our time. After two thousand years of patriarchy, a history marked with periods of persecution, witch burnings, torture, severe punishment and repression of all dark others, especially women, the silence of repression was about to be broken wide open.

This drove me to return to nourishing silence where poems are born or to dance again, another place where poems are born, to observe and contemplate again where poems are born or read Dante, James Merrill and David Whyte and be inspired to write.

Alok: We have no rules and no regulations and anyone can come up and write poetry. Is it good that people take interest in writing or it is bad that readers will have simply ‘anything’ to read?

This is a provocative question for a writer. I will quote Hemingway here when he wrote “a writer should not judge, but understand.” I am taking the position of the writer rather than the critic or editor. I believe Ernest Hemingway was encouraging the written word and that is a good in itself. People are more aware of poetry now than before. For some it will be a pass time, but there will always be the writers who were called and will continue to hear their inner voice and leave a legacy for future generations.

Alok Mishra: The literature past the last celebrated figures like Eliot, Hughes, Pinter, Plath and others – how do you see it?

Louisa Calio: Well my list might be a little different and more inclusive of international writers who are now more accessible, women and minority writers who are more often published and of course those who were raised on and from the British Empire. These writers were/are great shoulders to stand upon, but we also have to offer our gifts for future generations. The writers you mentioned, like most writers, struggled within as well as outwardly to be heard and stay in print, to make a living while writing and survive in a very difficult market place where writers have often fallen by the wayside.

Alok: This side of the fence, how are the writers doing?

Louisa Calio: I still believe writers need more funding and support. It is often a miracle for a writer who spends his/her life creating to make a living. Today we have a very broad range of writing, because of how things have changed. We have writing that may last for an evening, and some longer, but we also have writers who will over time be the voice of our age and be savoured and offered as inspiration to future generations. Books have come to my rescue more than I can say and sometimes an obscure author falls into my hands at the right time answering a haunting question.

Alok Mishra: Name some poets who have influenced you to taking on poetry. The legendary saying – read if you want to write, how much validity you see in this? I am talking in a broader perspective. I think it’s rather a paradoxical argument. If you read too much, you tend to follow the greats and perhaps lose your own free-thinking. Please elaborate.

Louisa Calio: There are conscious influences like Dante, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath and Ntozake Shange, Ann Sexton, Mirabai, Kabir, Tagore and Rumi to name just a few, who I was drawn to read and still do. While working on my struggle as a woman, a lover, a poet looking for meaning and a tradition I could relate to, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel inspired my soulful exploration of the feminine. Her daring exploration of archetypes like in “Daddy” challenged familiar roles women felt overwhelmed by.

As a writer, I can get too influenced by logic sometimes or persuasion to mistrust myself. But when someone supports the writer/artist’s intrinsic worth and then encourage her to open the self beyond limits without shame, guilt or group censorship which is so inhibiting, a great writer may be born. I have rarely enjoyed listening to critics because they have often been censors of the creative process, much like my least favourite relatives or those who reflect negative tribal voices that long to silence deeper less palatable truths.

When I initially read some great works in the past, I loved them until I allowed the critics to distort my original feelings. This has happened to me with my own work as well. I find under the wrong influence, I can destroy some of the best music I have written while in a hermetic space.

 I too was paralyzed by the great ones at first. I remember writing a poem when I started taking writing seriously as a profession at about age 20 that went something like “how will I dare to ride the coat tails of the great?” Like any fine art one wants to learn, you have to be patient and persistent, keep going and not judge or condemn yourself for being who you are at a moment in time.

In high school, I was most fortunate to have the most wonderful teacher of creative writing, Mr. Charles Calandros who knew the art of gentle criticism, and huge encouragement. He helped the fledgling writer to grow into their potential. He never hesitated to have us read Shakespeare, Kazantzakis, Dostoyevsky and feel, if even for a moment, we too could be that great if we persisted. Writers need encouragement, dedication and persistence, because it is not really a group work or very public for that matter. Perhaps it is a calling. I always appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s dedication to writing as a daily way of life. Writers need to believe they have something vital to say and let that guide you through, even when you get rejected by an editor or a group or relative!

I just attended a wonderful bi-annual writing festival in Jamaica, WI. It is a marvellous gathering of creative people from all over the world who read their work aloud in Treasure Beach, beside the beautiful blue/green Caribbean Sea. One of the guest writers, a Nigerian poet, novelist, essayist Chris Abani said in an interview, that lasting as a writer is often tied to your tolerance of rejection. I might also add it is tied to keeping faith in yourself, even when editors try to persuade you to write differently for another type of audience who may become more lucrative.

The danger in our day is we may lose our genuine free thinking by the seduction of commercial success, which after years of writing without much commercial success we may be tempted to pander and write pulp fiction to make a few million. It may work for some writers who can do both.

Alok Mishra: Going towards your other professions now – multimedia performance artist and teacher, please tell our readers what are you doing there?

Louisa Calio: Last year I finished a book tour in the USA for Journey to the Heart Waters which entailed many public readings. Initially however, I presented the book in the context of a photo exhibition in Jamaica called “A Passion for Africa” which included my photos of Sudan. At the opening I had African music and of course did a reading.

Now I am back into my hermetic phase of writing.

Alok Mishra: Louisa, do you think this digital revolution has helped art? Or you are also the old school who believes the digital age has added nothing to the art?

Louisa Calio: I do. Well it has certainly helped me in my ability to reach out to others, sell my work via the internet, create digital photos that needed to be worked upon that would accompany some of my presentations and record my readings. It is a tool and can be used to aid, but it’s not substitute for creative expression. Connectivity has been better than ever before. That is how I get to “meet” you in India and you discover my writing too.

Yet, the writing still comes from within and demands the time alone and consistent discipline and playfulness to bear fruits of value.


Alok Mishra: Louisa, do you have any projects going on? Please tell our readers about your future books.

Louisa Calio: My two exciting projects are a novel, Lucia Means Light, which is in its final stages of revision and a collection of poems, essays, stories and reflections on my life in Jamaica, West Indies tentatively entitled A Day in the Tropics.

 I like to describe my novel as a contemporary woman’s journey to consciousness that spans the character’s life and relationships from childhood through her mid-thirties. Opening at a pivotal point of questioning and self doubt, the heroine experiences dramatic transitions in career and marriage, as well as new concepts of self. Her quest is to find the key to understanding the shape her life is taking. Re-entering childhood through imagination, memory and dreams, she recognizes crucial life patterns. Nurtured on polarity in an extended, temperamental Italian-American family filled with contradictory opinions about church/state, male/female, right/wrong, has provided her with the essential ingredients for a mythic journey. Torn between the poles, she realizes by the age of six, she unconsciously chose a path of passion:

 “Despite father’s words, the oddest thing would happen each time he told me the story of the black knight and the white knight. There I was leaping and flying at top speed on the back of a black stallion with the dark man cloaked in a long black robe. I never told my father of the vision, instinctively sensing it would disappoint him, as my life eventually did. In the distance, I could see the white knight approaching, a rather stiff and slow figure clumping along on a white horse up to an empty castle tower.”

 As an adult she learns to understand life patterns with the help of a new friend and spiritual guide, an African-American woman, Nova as they examine life from the 60’s-1980’s. There are lovers, experiments with new ways of living and political involvement too. Learning the artist Lucia tried to make others, longed to be born in herself, she leaves her past and the conflicts of the arts business world to journey inward. Three climactic events, including the untimely death of her estranged father, push her to the edge where she discovers a true self. This story is about the Great Tale in each of our lives waiting to be revealed when we shift our familiar perspective to one that opens us to more of who we really are. After hours of meditation, she is awakened by…an earthquake”…I don’t want to give too much away.


A Day in the Tropics: poem, stories, and observations of my life in Jamaica.

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to stop and take stock of our lives, enter the silence of our true being, rediscover who we really are and the purpose of our earthwalk on this beautiful planet, which offers us a remarkable mirror to the natural wondrous patterns within. These pieces are a celebration of the realizations that came as a result of my personal journeys both inward and outward. The wonders of the galaxies, the stars, the enchantments of the forest, the powerful currents that flow in the rivers, waterfalls, seas are also within me. I too am electricity.

I first came to Jamaica to visit my Aunt and Uncle Val and Christina LoBianco, who had moved to Montego Bay from Staten Island in the early sixties, but whose land of origin was the Isle of Sicily. They fell in love with the beauty of Jamaica and so did I. An idyllic setting for restoring one’s natural rhythms and health, it was also an excellent opportunity for business as well. My Uncle opened a garment factory and eventually bought Ruth Claridge, an outlet of fine women’s wear. They welcomed my family and I to their new found home in Great River, overlooking the sea, which felt a lot closer to our roots in the Mediterranean than New York ever had.

I had always been drawn to places of great light, perhaps as a result of the many stories I heard my Grandparents tell about the beauty of moon light on the Bay of Naples and the sunlit fragrant gardens of Sicily which I visited recently. My bones ached for warmth and light, something New England’s long winters did not provide. When I first arrived in the late 60’s, I felt at home at once and found a source of inspiration. Here was the light I had longed for, a light that filled one’s spirit. Philosophers say that, the Soul dwells in light, and this environ was the closest expression of my soul I’d discovered with the exception of Sicily and Africa. After living in an era that seems to be suffering from a type of soul loss, in the hurried pace of a high tech world, computers, tv, fast foods and lanes, I discovered that Jamaica’s sunshine and clear skies, incredible variety of intense colour and varied lush landscape, made it easy for me to get in touch with my deeper nature, the poet within me.

Each return to Montego Bay became my re-member-ing or the coming together of lost parts of myself within the greater whole. Jamaica’s generous bounty filled me with a rush of exquisite colour at every turn, blossoms, scented-flowers, greenery, hillsides, ocean vistas, rivers, lagoon views, mountains almost as high as those in Ethiopia, and a fertile garden of exotic fruit trees, plants, herbs and vegetables that all seemed to call, “Come and walk with me, get to know your true nature that you make treasure it and keep it sacred.” Surrounded by water and sunlight’s shifting play, I need only awaken and look outside at the beauty of the dawn to remember who I was. Here, my writing flourished and my creativity overflowed. This may also account for the many fine artists, painters and sculptors who are Jamaicans. I wrote the poems and stories to express what happened each time I visited and experienced an expanded awareness without any effort on my part. Over time my work would include photos which I have exhibited in “A Passion for Jamaica” at Round Hill Resort and Villas. So too did I add the shadow aspects of life on a beautiful island where women, children and the vulnerable are too often abused.

Alok Mishra: And this is the last question that I have for you. What is your message to poets and artists who are willing to make their career in it?

Louisa Calio: You may have to juggle several careers to make a living unless you find a patron. I am an example of the former option that included teaching, arts administration, festival organizer etc.

Immerse yourself in the best writings, but spend more time listening within to hear your inner voice and speak from that, grow to trust that still small voice within you above the din and noise of the outer world, and if you love words as I do, make your own music no matter what others say or don’t say. Writing is the music of YOUR soul.