Tuesday, July 06, 2004

interview with poet MARIA FAMA on the SDS, the Catholic Left, and the Camden 28 

It was the mid to late 1980's when I first met Maria Fama. Actually, we didn't meet, the first time I saw her. It was at a poetry reading in Jimmy Tayoun's old Middle East in Philly's Olde City area. My first chapbook THE HANDSOME DEAD (really awful book to be honest) had just been published, and I was reading from it that night. A good part of the book was about my boyfriend Jason, who had just killed himself a few years before. Anyway, Maria walked out in the middle of my reading, not something you forget about someone.

But then I heard her read at Moonstone series a month later, and she read a poem about her girlfriend Anita, who had very recently killed herself. I'll always remember sinking in my seat, a bit of dread and a bit of an ill wind passing through me. It's one thing to read, to get behind the gumption needed to get in front of folks, but it's another to sit in the audience and hear this stuff. Also, it was very clear of course why Maria had walked out on my reading.

We became friends, and have remained friends all these years since. Every once in awhile Maria would bring up her days in the SDS, and her girlfriend Anita's politcal past (I mistakenly thought, as you'll see in my questions, that Anita was also part of the SDS). Recently, I asked Maria if she wouldn't mind answering a few e-mail questions about those years for this blog. The results are below.

Maria Fama is the author of several books of poetry, including IDENTIFICATION, and CURRENTS. She has been part of many documentaries and panels about the rich culture of Italian American writers. Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and she is a member of IAWA (Italian American Writers Association). She lives, writes and works in Philadelphia.

Maria, you've mentioned that you were the first person in your family to go to a university. And while there, you joined the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which you say was interested in including working class students. You've also said that it was class issues which kept you on the sidelines, as more of an observer. Please share with us your views on some of these class issues in the SDS?

When I was in high school in the mid-sixties I had followed what the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, was saying and what it represented. I understood that SDS sought to empower all people to share in the social decisions that directly affected their lives. The Vietnam War was raging, the young men of my age, who did not go to university, were shipped off to fight and die in a stupid, quagmire of a war. When I got to Temple University, I joined SDS because I believed what our student leaders, all male, had to say about improving the conditions of the cities, about how the United Auto Workers gave SDS a grant to awaken political sensibility in working class neighborhoods, and how students could end the War. SDS talked about outreach, but the war galvanized it to organize anti-war protests, draft card burnings, and disruption of ROTC classes on campus. There was always talk of manning the barricades and I was in a couple of minor skirmishes with police.

I participated but did not feel comfortable with my fellow members all of whom seemed to me to think my working class Italian immigrant family background quaint and exotic. They were middle class, suburban youth, privileged, with money. I was working a part-time job as well as studying hard to maintain my scholarship. I went to meetings and observed and eventually drifted away from the group. From my perspective, I saw that the boys were always in control, while the girls got the coffee, the food, and followed orders. After all, everybody reasoned, the boys were the ones whose lives were at stake. Also, the slogans such as "Make Love Not War" and "Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No" (No to the Vietnam War as in "Hell No We Won't Go!) were used by the boys to pressure the girls to sleep with them.

As for me, I felt uncomfortable being physically intimate with men. I thought maybe I should try, but I just could not and this was putting a strain on my interactions with my fellow SDS'ers. I felt marginalized not having a radical boyfriend. Yet, I had not reached the point where I could say outright that I was a lesbian. Moreover, the militant rhetoric was starting to bother me as I was reading more about pacifist ways and Eastern philosophy. I also was very much aware of the Gay Liberation Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the Ecological Movement which were then gaining strength. I gravitated toward the Ecological and Feminist Movements on Campus. I worked at the newly feminist student organized Temple Day Care Center. I marched and occupied with other workers to the President's Office when the University threated to close down the Day Care Center. I also was part of the first Earth Day.

Though I tried to be an activist, I longed to be a poet and a scholar, so I stayed on the Dean's List and had as my goal to study abroad in my senior year. I got a scholarship to study in Italy for my last year at university and I took it. It changed my life because it allowed me to develop myself as a writer, to see the USA and its policies from the outside, to come to terms definitively with my sexuality, and to see other cultures as I traveled through Europe and the Mediterranean.

You and your girlfriend Anita were both in the SDS, am I right about this information? What was it like for lesbians in the SDS in the late 60s?

Anita was not in the SDS. She won a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, while I was on scholarship at Temple University. Anita only went to Penn for two months. She really felt the class differences there in the Ivy League. She said all the students were snobs and she hated it. Although she was brilliant, she felt herself to be a hippie, too, so she dropped out and went to work at Bell Telephone. Through friends she got involved with young people who were part of the Catholic Left, led by the Berrigans, who were actively working to end the Vietnam War. Two years later, Anita came to Temple to take courses, but she never completed her degree as she became more radical.

Anita was part of the "Camden 28." Tell us about this. What were they doing, and what about the trial, and the reactions from your families and neighborhood while Anita was in the news during this?

Anita Ricci was a part of the Camden 28, young, activist, anti-war persons of the "Catholic Left", including Father Doyle, now pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden and still an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised. The Camden 28 broke into the Camden County Courthouse, shredding draft records and pouring blood on the files. They were betrayed by a young man of their inner circle who had tipped the FBI to everything. Therefore, they were arrested on the spot. Their arrest made all the papers. I was in Sicily when it happened in August, 1971. My friends sent me newspaper clippings of it all where photos of Anita and our classmate, Cookie Ridolfi, were shown. The papers used their high school yearbook pictures with the drape and the pearls.

Some people in the neighborhood said they were "bums" I learned; but many said they were "good kids" who did "the wrong thing for the right reason." This was what my family and the families of our friends and also of Anita's and Cookie's families said. By this time, many people were starting to be against the war as more and more soldiers were coming home in bodybags or crippled or sick and the war was seen on TV in all its gory details. People were starting to wonder why in the world we were in Vietnam and for what.

The trial of the Camden 28 was held in 1973 and again I was out of the country, although I read of it. There is also a documentary being made of it soon to be released. It was an unconventional trial in the sense that poetry was read and songs were played and sung. The fervor, the strength of their convictions, and the truth of the anti-war feelings prevailed and the Camden 28 were acquitted.

Later, Anita told me that her mother wanted her to comb her hair better since she was on TV on the News. Anita's mother brought her a suede jacket to wear to court rather than her jeans jacket so she'd look "nice." Anita said she refused the jacket, telling her Mom, "Ma, I'm supposed to be a revolutionary!" Also, Mrs. Ricci used to say how she made a big pot of sauce with meatballs making meatball sandwiches for Anita and her friends on the day they went to Camden and busted up the draft board and got arrested.

When Anita went underground, where did she go? And for how long? The FBI was going through your garbage and mail during this period, and after. How long did this go on, and what was the extent of the prodding?

I always thought Anita went underground after the trial. I do not know where she went nor exactly for how long. I reconnected with her in the late 70's when she told me she had "amnesty." She told me she had lived in Mexico and Latin America. She also had lots of brochures from Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and other iron curtain countries. Nevertheless, she would not discuss this with me nor would she answer any of my questions on this topic. She would say it was not good for me to know. In 1980 she visited China just as the country was opening up. She said she was going with a group from Penn. I asked the minimum of questions of her because I understood that she wanted to protect me. She often told me she felt I might be in danger because of her because she "wasn't a good friend" for me to have. I always would tell her I loved her and I didn't care since I held a job, had a regular schedule, going to work each day. Anita would then tell me that I was naive and that the government knew "everything" and went through the trash, etc. My mail was sometimes opened and put in plastic bags with labels, reading "inspected by U.S. Government." I learned in the mid-eighties that my letters to friends in Europe were also opened. My mail continued to be opened on occasion for a few years after Anita's death in 1986.

Your friend Cookie is the one who you say was the bravest among your friends. Tell us about her, and her involvement with the various political activism going on?

As for Kathleen "Cookie" Ridolfi, she has always been very brave, hard working, and determined to be a part of society. She also was one of the Camden 28. She went on to Law School, got her JD, passed the Bar, and worked for many years as a Philadelphia Public Defender. She was a prosecutor for a few years before moving to California where she had her own law practice and began to teach Law. She was out before the rest of us, continued to be involved with political activism, and created a stable homelife with her partner, raising three children. She is now a Law Professor and Director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University.

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