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Isabella Calisi Wagner

 

Isabella Calisi Wagner is an interdisciplinary artist/poet, social activist, and educator. Born and reared in Flushing, she lived in Fresh Meadows for many years before moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Isabella is a member of IAWA (Italian-American Writers Association) and 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Her poetry appears in The Wingless Dreamer Journal, Book of Black and is archived online in the NYPL Pandemic Diaries (2021.) Her writings about women sculptors appear on the www.womensactivism.nyc website.

She is a member of Thursday Morning Poets, a prompt-based poetry group formed through the Queens Borough Public Library and Queens Poet Laureate Maria Lisella’s online writing events.

In addition, her AARP/New York and Islip Arts Council-produced Art to Graffiti Poetry Master Class series is on the Islip Arts Council website: www.isliparts.org. She also conducts weekly Meditation Drawing and Poetry workshops for her UWS community association, BAiP (Bloomingdale Aging in Place.) In addition, she serves as a volunteer Zoom host for various other BAiP programs.

Giustina (vimeo.com/170552004), Isabella’s co-authored short film screenplay, won over 25 national/international awards, including The Focus Awards and The NY Focus Film Best Short in 1980 and was broadcast on HBO and PBS.

Isabella’s pencil drawing entitled Duty will appear in the March 2022 edition of the American Journal of Nursing.

Isabella has an MFA from New York University School of the Arts and an M.S. Ed. from Queens College. She is a retired social studies and library teacher, working for over 27 years in Flushing. She recruited and organized annual school-wide ReadAloud programs with 50+ volunteer readers from all walks of NY political, media, cultural groups. Her ReadAloud programs included outreach, fundraising, networking events, and student usher programs.

Follow her continuing artistic journey on Twitter @isabookladyNYC, Instagram @isabooklady, and LinkedIn.

NB: What did you love most about living in Queens? How have you seen Queens change over the years?

ICW: When I think of my lifelong connection with Queens, many things quickly come to the fore, but above all else, I believe my interactions and relationships with its people have made me who I am today.

I can still picture myself, decades ago, sitting on the polished floors of the Francis Lewis Public High School gymnasium in Fresh Meadows, together with representatives seemingly from every part of the world. I celebrated the sharp departure from my previous sheltered Catholic elementary school experience. My long wavy hair proved to be a conversation piece with the other girls in my group who lived in Jamaica. Before you knew it, we became well-acquainted with each other, and while we waited to take our turns on the uneven bars, they braided my hair in beautiful cornrows. I was proud of my new “do” and my new friends. This memory is quite vivid and continues to warm my heart.

Of course, I could not ignore the impact that my fellow jazz band and orchestra members I met at Lewis, some with which I still communicate. Of particular note is my treasured music teacher, Larry Feldman, who freely gave up his lunch periods to teach me how to play the sax and clarinet since my parents were reluctant to pay for private lessons. Mr. Feldman also provided me with crucial assistance in gaining a scholarship to NYU School of the Arts. My move to NYU proved to be a seminal experience in my development as an artist. He became one of my inspirations for pursuing teaching myself later on in life.

Francis Lewis H.S. on Utopia Parkway also provided me with another stellar mentor, Jean Weil, my AP English teacher. He was a philosopher and Walt Whitman scholar who encouraged me to become a writer. He led the school Poetry Magazine, Ellipsis, as faculty advisor and subsequently entrusted me with its leadership as editor during my final two years of high school.

From my early years and beyond, my hometown community of friends has remained close throughout the years, all Francis Lewis grads. Since then, each one of them has expanded their careers in education, philosophy, international intellectual property law, sales, green urban planning, indigenous healing traditions, and martial arts. Our Queens connection continues to this day.

My twin children, Greg and Marisa, have also benefited from having lived in Queens and were lucky enough to attend my alma mater. So they, too, had the opportunity to study with equally excellent teachers and students. There Greg began his lifelong love of music and Marisa in film studies at Lewis.

NB: What did you love about teaching in Queens?

ICW: My love of teaching began in Queens, a career based upon my foundational relationships with Queensites. After graduating from NYU and working abroad in Florence, Italy as a freelance photographer, I re-established my Queens connection. Then, as a single parent of twins, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in early childhood education at Queens College. Upon my graduation from QC, I spent my entire teaching career in Queens as a teacher at PS 107Q in Auburndale, with 19 years as the early childhood social studies/school library teacher and six years as a 5th grade departmentalized social studies teacher.

During my long years spent administering my school’s early childhood library, I devised and co-organized school-wide annual ReadAloud programs, again leaning on the good people of Queens. The volunteer readers I recruited came from various fields. They came from the political arena, cultural and immigrant societies, law enforcement, medicine, journalism, and entertainment, to share their love of reading with the children of my school. Those dedicated volunteer readers were extraordinarily generous people who returned year after year for the children. Some reading volunteers even donated goods from their Queens businesses for our ReadAloud Networking Breakfasts. In addition, many readers such as Rocco Vertuccio of NY1, Congresswoman Grace Meng, NYS Assemblymember John Liu, Flushing activist John Choe, Director for Public Impact Jorge Fanjul, and Blood Sweat and Tears trumpeter Jerry Sokolov still have deep roots in Queens communities.

 

NB: How has your work with the Thursday Morning Poets impacted your writing?

ICW: Others like to say that Queens has changed, and yes, especially during my tenure as a neighborhood teacher, I did notice a demographic change, but I argue that the People of Queens have never changed. Going back to the brave people who signed the Flushing Remonstrance, demanding freedom of religion from its Dutch rulers, the people of Queens are unique in their place in the United States for its diversity.

To this day, I am reminded of the rich well of talent residing in the borough of Queens by my membership in a Queens Borough Public Library-sponsored Zoom poetry group led by the brilliant Queens Poet Laureate Maria Lisella.

It has been a life-saver during my recovery from brain surgery and seclusion due to the Covid pandemic. Call it kismet. Call it luck. But the group made it real and decided to continue and formalize our association on our own and call ourselves Thursday Morning Poets or TMP for short.

In addition to giving ourselves a name, we call each other poetry siblings; that’s how deep our connection has become.

Our meetings take place every Thursday Morning on Zoom, and each member leads workshops for the group, round-robin style. We also take turns in organizing socially-distanced poetry readings. So far, we have performed our poetry for the New York Poetry Society on Governor’s Island and the NYPL Jefferson Market Garden branches’ website for 100 Thousand Poets for Change.

NB: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

ICW: Persistence is vital in any field in the arts. However, artists must steel themselves to rejection. As such, one must recognize that putting your creative babies out into the community for financing and support is challenging – especially these days.

An eye for excellence and inclusion is also essential as these qualities exemplify who we are as Queens artists. We must never give up, never give in, and always must put our best foot forward for the sake of our roots in the community.

A great leader in the arts in the borough of Queens is, as it so happens, another participant in one of my ReadAloud programs is Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer, author of the children’s book Rabbit Mooncakes. Ms. Krakauer is the inspired Executive Director of the Queens Council on the Arts and provides direction and networking opportunities for artists. If I were a young, aspiring artist, I would seek to connect with this fantastic organization as it includes material, educational and financial support to Queens artists of all genres. In addition, this organization has made necessary adjustments for social distancing, as I understand.

NB: What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

ICW: Best Writing Advice: Be brave. Be bold. Be true to yourself.

NB: Who are some of your favorite writers with a Queens connection? What are some of your favorite films with a Queens connection?

ICW: It goes without saying that Poet Laureate of Queens, Maria Lisella, is by far my favorite writer from my hometown borough. Her ability to craft poems of great depth and meaning is extraordinary. My favorite one of her books of poetry, Thieves in the Family, absconded with my cuore (heart.) Its subject matter digs deep into who and what it is to be a fellow Italian-American. Beyond her prowess as a writer, I have experienced firsthand her considerable skills in guiding and inspiring others to write in her poetry workshops. I await her next book of poetry. She is a true treasure of our borough.

Another favorite writer and activist, Dr. Juan Nicolás Tineo, is an educator, poet, translator, and personal friend from Queens. We worked together for years at the Queens office of the UFT, helping members navigate the bureaucratic waters of working for the NYC DOE. He is a strong voice in the Hispanic/Latino community, and his works were recognized at the XVIII International Book Fair of Santo Domingo in 2015. His most recent work, The Three-Legged Cat and Other Short Stories, is a delight to read.

Hands down, the film Maria Full of Grace is my favorite Queens-based movie. It delves into the troubling drug trades running out of Queens and is one of the most heartbreaking films I’ve ever seen. In addition, it poignantly shines a light on some problematic societal issues, including the exploitation of women, one that doesn’t receive enough attention and recedes into the shadows according to the whims of politics and the media.

Conversely, I would not endorse films such as The Godfather and Goodfellas partially filmed in Queens. In my opinion, these films sensationalize and glorify the anti-social behaviors of Italian-American crime families. Moreover, besides their excellent acting and cinematic performances, they possess no redeeming qualities.

NB: What are some of your favorite places to be inspired to write in Queens?

ICW: The Queens College campus is one of the most inspirational locations in Queens. Who wouldn’t want to write a symphony while gazing at the Manhattan skyline from the lofty Queens campus, Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library? Besides. my father was the head mason in charge of setting the concrete staircase running down its tower. It was his swan song, and its story would inspire any artist.

NB: What are some of your favorite Queens open mics or venues for giving readings?

ICW: I heard some excellent things about the Newtown Literary organization from my fellow Thursday Morning Poets poetry siblings. It is a fantastic nonprofit organization that supports the literary arts in Queens, exclusively for Queens writers. Newtown Literary provides free writing classes for adults and publishes the poetry of Queens residents. The current Queens borough president Donovan Richards also endorses Newtown Literary.

NB: How would you reinforce your connection to Queens?

ICW: I would endorse a young person’s writer cooperative in the borough, reaching out to young people to encourage the joys of writing, making connections with established writers as mentors.

 

—Nicollette Barsamian

This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian.

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