Interview with Rafael Alvarez

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Rafael Alvarez’s new book, Basilio Boullosa: Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, just released this September, explores the lives of 20th Century European immigrants and their descendants during the 1960’s and 70’s in Baltimore and its surroundings. A native Baltimorean, Alvarez draws on his own background and experience to depict a world whose vestiges have disappeared, only to be replaced by the vicissitudes of gentrification.

I asked Alvarez some questions about his life and the influences that came to play in writing the short stories that make up his new book. Below are his responses. You can read my review of Basilio Boullosa: Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Maggio: Tell me about yourself and your background. What was it like growing up in Baltimore in the 1970’s?

Alvarez: I entered the 9th grade of Mt. St. Joseph, a historic all-boys Catholic school in southwest Baltimore in the fall of 1972, a neighborhood called Irvington, on the “other side of town” from the family home on the eastside. My grandparents were still alive, and my Spanish grandfather had just retired from the shipyard. I wasn’t paying as much attention to the world beyond my desires as I should (shortly I would discover Frank Zappa, begin drinking more than my share of the homemade wine at dinner, start chasing herbal enhancement and girls who reminded me of my cousins in Spain.)  I had no way of knowing it was the beginning of the last gasps of industrial Baltimore. If I did, I might have taken notes the way I started sketching Baltimore architecture with words about the same time. When I started high school, the city had 905,00 residents, almost 300,000 more than today and was still a majority white city. It is much smaller in population now and about 70 percent African-American.”

Maggio: You are a lifetime resident of Baltimore. How has it changed over the years? Do you see those changes as being for the better or for the worse? What’s been lost and what has been gained over the years?

Alvarez: All you need to know about this stands at the corner of Clinton street and Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, ground zero of my fictional Holy Land. For seven decades at that location (since 1926) there was a German restaurant at which generations of Baltimoreans from all walks of life celebrated birthdays and graduations and anniversaries, everybody having strawberry cream pie for dessert. The greatest influx of immigrants in Baltimore, by far, were the Germans but they don’t get the dramatic rendering in our histories – outside of H.L. Mencken – that the Italians, Poles, Greeks and Jews do.

Rafael Alvarez in his grandparents’ bedroom
Photo Compliments of Macon Street Books

The restaurant was called Haussner’s and it was as indelibly Baltimore as a fried soft crab) which they served along with more than 400 other offerings (one of the last places you could get Terrapin stew.)  After it closed in 1999 (almost as many tears were shed as when the Baltimore Colts left for a cursed and insignificant midwestern burg in 1984) the building stood vacant for 20 years. No one was interested in reviving the old building (a series of about six rowhouses that expanded the original ‘grocery’ over the years) and it was decided it was too expensive to bring up to code.

So what happened? It moldered and then it was razed and now there’s a very modern “mixed-use” apartment / condo / first floor retail building there. A very nice building mind you, very forward thinking like you might see in Brooklyn, NY these days. But it ain’t Haussner’s. And nothing could be and the Beatles ain’t getting back together and that’s how it goes.


: In your new book, Basilio Boullosa: Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, you create a very clear picture of a time gone by: a time when immigrants and their descendants built lives and neighborhoods that were comprised of elements from the old world (Greek restaurants, Italian bakeries, etc.) mixed with popular Americana (Elvis Presley and, later, the Beatles).  The scenes you create are vivid and the emotional attachment is poignant.  In general, do you think these individuals were happy in their lives or were they disappointed? Which do you think weighed more heavily?

Alvarez:  I think we all have secrets and in the old days it was people’s wounds – even those visible for everyone to see – were their secrets. You didn’t talk about it. And I think it is the rare human being in any generation (at least in this country) that goes to his/her grave fulfilled.

I have seen the ego fulfillment of Greek immigrants who became wealthy in this country by standing over a short order grill 18 out of every 24 hours and forfeited a relationship with the very same children for whom they “sacrificed everything.” They not only went to their graves disappointed but bitter and, perhaps worst of all, wondering where they went wrong.

I am blessed to be the son of a kind and gentle man who knew the rewards of a balanced life, a man who said to me the other day (age 83) that he “accomplished everything he wanted in life.  By that he meant raising three sons who honor him, want nothing from him but his happiness (as he only wants from us), rising to the top of his profession (chief engineer in the maritime industry), saving for a comfortable retirement (thanks in part to a union pension) and staying married to his high school sweetheart – no matter the bumps in the road – for seven decades. My father never wanted for the shiny things in life, he had the wisdom to be grateful for the things that endured.

In general, I think the typical character that I write about may not be completely happy with their lot in life but even the Greek whose family was in nearly free-fall dysfunction as he relentlessly pursued wealth had it better in this country than the literal starvation experienced in his country of origin. [This is dramatized in the story A Banquet of Onions in the new book.]

I try to portray characters somewhere between the two poles just mentioned (my father, Henry Boullosa in the Holy Land mythology) and the hard-headed Greek who felt good about himself because his kids always wore the latest fashions but those same kids honored him out of obligation not love.

Maggio: Your stories, while rooted in Italian, Spanish and, to some extent, Lithuanian immigrant experiences, seem to have implications for other groups, particularly newer immigrants: Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. What lessons, if any, do you think these groups can learn from the experiences of those who came before?

Alvarez:  I’m not quite sure. But when I see families that obviously just landed here (mostly Spanish in my part of East Baltimore) and hear them speak their native language – an overburdened Mom pushing that stroller up Eastern Avenue with a kid on each arm and a wagon of laundry behind, I try to imagine that they are my father’s Italian forebears or my mother’s Polish ancestors just getting a footing in the New World – “My mother would iron shirts

Alvarez’s grandfather, Rafael, and his wife Francesca, on their wedding day.
Photo compliments of Macon Street Books

for a penny a piece,” an elderly Czech woman said to me a few years ago — and I wonder if at some point it’s all the same process – take’em from anywhere, pushe’em through the red, white and blue funnel, see what pops out the other side in a generation or two – all the same except the language and the food is different for each group.

The biggest thing they will not experience that previous waves of immigrants to Baltimore had access to is good paying factory jobs with (sometimes) union wages and a bit of job security. Be on time and pay attention and you can make a decent living I am not sure that the level of resentment new immigrants face by people who consider themselves “American” is any greater than that faced by preceding immigrants, many of whom now support Trump and his brutal ideas. When my father was young, Italians were considered just half-a-click (if that) above African-Americans by “real” (non-Catholic, white) Americans. That seems to be part of the immigration experience: Get here anyway you can, make good and then – in a generation or two – forget how it happened because you reaped the rewards worked so hard for by those who came before you.

Maggio: Immigrants cling to old world customs and values yet strive, in their own way, to be American. Their children are in-betweeners, accepting both the new and the old while becoming more “American,” often to the distress of their parents. And the third generation seems to want to reject the old ways, though they ultimately come to terms with them. What are your observations regarding this phenomenon?

Alvarez:  Growing up, my Spanish grandfather used to tell us not to be “like the Americans.” Which always made me wonder just exactly what we were. Perhaps the “in-betweens” you mentioned earlier. I have seen it time and again — most profoundly within the Greek community in which they strongly urge and sometimes demand their children to marry other Greeks. This is in large part due to wanting the family to remain rooted in the Orthodox Church.  In my family, my Spanish-Italian-Catholic father married my Polish Catholic mother and in the 1950s in Baltimore’s ethnic community (Germans marrying Italians, Irish marrying Poles) this was considered a ‘mixed-marriage’ but the bond of Catholicism smoothed things over. Where you will really see tears in the family fabric occurs when the immigrant generation has made a great success and whatever business it was made in gets taken over by the second generation. By the third generation, things often turn to shit with greed and envy.  The saddest for me is how the original ethnic foods slowly but surely by the third generation become assimilated into the crap most Americans call dinner.

Maggio: What is your next project? Have you ever thought of making a novel starring Basilio?

 Alvarez: I am now at work on a novel about two other characters who dominate my “Holy Land” fiction: the young Greek immigrant beauty Leini (short for Eleni/Helen) traded by her village to America in 1918 for 14 sewing machines and her “American” lover, Orlo Pound, a waterfront salvage king, a man who finds treasure in the debris of other people’s lives. It is called “Orlo the Chicken Necker” and it addresses almost every question you have asked in this interview. I’ll be working on it for about another year. Probably longer.




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Interview on Empire Radio Now

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On Friday, August 4th, I will be interviewed on Empire Radio Now at 4:12 PM EST. I will be discussing The Appointment as well as The Wizard and the White House. The interview can be heard live at or



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Interview on Kong Monster Rock

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Yesterday, I was interviewed by Alan Lohr on his Kong Monster Rock show. It was an especial honor for me since the program is devoted to musicians. The interview involved my poetry and fiction and, most notably, my new novella, The Appointment.

Click here to listen.

For signed copies of the novella, click the buy now button below.









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Interview with Alan Lohr

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Today at 6 PM ET, I will be a guest on Alan Lohr’s Kong Monster Rock  where I will be discussing my novella, The Appointment, published this year by Vine Leave Press.

The interview can be heard live on  Kong Monster Rock  and will be recorded for social media for future listening on The SpareMin App (AndroidOS: and iTunes

Please tune in and spread the word.


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The Poet and the Poem

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Library of Congress
May 23, 2017

On Tuesday, My 23, it was my pleasure to be a guest on Grace Cavalieri’s “The Poet and the Poem.” The program is recorded at the Library of Congress and is broadcast, at a later date, on Pacifica Radio and archived on the library’s website.

Here is a recording of the program:

This recording contains a reading of Lamia Abbas Amara’s “If The Fortune Teller Had Told Me” in both Arabic and English. Apologies to my Arab friends if have mangled their language.

Many thanks to Grace who is one of the most gracious individuals I know.

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Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and the Poem

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It is my great honor to be a guest today on Grace Cavalieri’s “The Poet and the Poem,”  hosted at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. I will be reading some of my poems, discussing poetry as well as reading some Arabic poetry (and my translations) by the Iraqi poet  Lamia Abbas Amara. Amara is one of the leading modern day Iraqi poets who has lived here in the United States since the 1980’s.

Here is one of my translations:, originally published in 1982 in Pig Iron.

Lamia Abbas Amara

I was sitting in the lobby
of the Shaateh Hotel
in Tripoli, Libya
when she passed by
in a long dress
hair bound in a kerchief
carrying two bundles in her hands
as if she had just arrived from a journey.

At her side
two young men
–two moons or two angels.
I guessed they were her sons.

I knew this woman
I knew the luster in those eyes.

I started to call her-
I forgot her name.
My face smiled at her.
She noticed me
her gaze penetrated mine-
she also was trying to remember.

She did not stop
did not let on to her sons
but kept walking across the lobby
as I continued struggling with my memory.

She disappeared
but everything about her came back-
except her name.
My college classmate in Baghdad.
Daughter of a diplomatic official
in the Iranian Embassy.

I remembered her witty comments
and her strange behavior.
the English teacher entered
while some students were drawing
ugly figures on the blackboard.
He shouted angrily
what are you doing?
Quietly she answered
they are drawing themselves.

she had a fit of epilepsy in the class
and started writhing on the floor.
I held her and smoothed her clothes.
She rested against my breast
between my arms.
And the first thing she said was
how kind you are!

Everything about her was strange
even her name which I had forgotten.
I remembered everything about her-
except her name.
How difficult it was to recall
after more than thirty years.
it came to me:
Frouzanda Mahrad.
I even remembered her sister’s name:
Drakshanda Mahrad.
I repeated this impossible name
so I would not lose it again:
Frouzanda, Frouzanda, Frouzanda
but she had already disappeared
down the long corridors of the hotel.

I considered asking reception
for her room number.
Then I backed down
and I asked myself:
after greeting her
what would we talk about after thirty years?
About work?
When both of us were retired?
About our marriages?
When we were at that age
where we were either widowed or divorced?
There remained one other question:
our sons.
What would she say to me?
Or I to her?
Would she say she had come to Libya
so her sons could train for combat? 1
Would I say that my son
is a soldier in the Iraqi army?
Then we would be quiet.
Silence and glances would be our talk.
Who would kill first?
Would my son kill hers
or hers mine?

Two mothers prepared for bereavement
meeting on the razor’s edge.

Frouzanda would remember me
no doubt
after a while
as I had remembered her.
Her companion, the beautiful poet.
The kind person who had embraced her daily.
Perhaps she would even see my face
soiled with battledust.
And on the loving breast
piercing claws
clinging war medals.

The same loving breast
that had nursed the soldier
alert on the battlefield
threatening the life of her sons
defending himself and his land
exactly as her sons were doing.

I hoped she had not recognized me.
Perhaps she had not remembered.

I did not encounter her again.
What a blessing forgetfulness is!

Why should we hate the people we once loved
because of a war which mars even our memories?

Translated by Mike Maggio

1 Libya, although an Arab country, supported Iran in its war against Iraq.


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Music and Language: A Confluence of Influence

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Music has always been an intimate part of my life. Perhaps it goes back to the time when, as a child of perhaps 5 years old, I would sit in front of the record player and just listen and listen and listen. And rock back and forth, of course. Or maybe it’s that I began to take piano lessons at 9 years old and dreamed of one day becoming a performer. Or perhaps it relates to the fact that I would hear melodies circulating around inside my head while riding the bus on the way to school – melodies that I always thought would grow into an original score – a piano concerto or a sonata. Or, perhaps, more relevant to my current efforts, that I would hear voices behind the music I was playing – voices that were trying to communicate with me, to tell me their story – voices that emerged from the notes and chords that my fingers executed. Where, I would ask myself, did those voices come from? Who were they? What did they want to tell me? What was their story?

Fast forward to my adulthood when poetry and fiction took over my life. Music was still there: the particular rhythm of a line in a poem, or a poem that started with a rhythm to which I had to supply the words. Or the cadence of a line or a paragraph, or even a chapter, in a work of fiction — a bit of dialogue, perhaps, or the crescendo of a scene that was working itself into a climax, like the finality of chords in the finale of a Brahms symphony.

It is music that has often inspired the shape of my characters, the arc that a particular story takes, or a poem that I silently sing. While I do not write to the accompaniment of music nor specifically use music for inspiration, it is the music that I listen to on a daily basis that provides an unconscious backdrop to what I am creating, And while there is no music in most of the stories I write, it is the musical nature of language itself that is always my focus, for a story or a poem is more than just words and characters and actions. It is comprised of feelings and tone, of mood and atmosphere, of all those intangible elements that can only be conveyed by how the language is implemented – by the very music of the linguistic experience.

The Appointment, my newest book, is a novella that takes place in the 20th century but has the feel of a 19th century work. It is European in nature though it is firmly an American story. Professor Withers, the main character, spends his waning days (or, more accurately, his post-waning days) in a quest for self. Could he have possibly been defined by the Elgar Cello Concerto most famously performed by Jacqueline Du Pres, a piece of music that has haunted me for years? And what about the other characters I create?   The characters that come to me? Fazzalludin Chowdry, for example, a Pakistani immigrant, a butcher by trade who gets unwillingly involved with the President of the United States in my novel, The Wizard and the White House?  Or the Reverend CJ  Willis, the wily preacher in the same story? And how about Sister Lucretia, the evil nun in my Gothic novel-in progress, a dark, cruel character who is as elusive as she is wicked? What music helps me create such characters, such stories? Or, maybe I should ask: what music leads me to discover them somewhere out there?

And so I think back to what I listen to on a daily basis. Yoko Ono is constantly on my playing list and has been an unending source of inspiration for me. Surely her musical creations like the incredible “Hirake (Open Your Box)” or the John Cage-inspired Cambridge 1969 2007,  both of which take me musically to a place where I’ve never been, have allowed me to create the wild, surreal environment that makes up The Wizard and the White House. Or Shostakovich;s Cello Concerto No. 1, a piece of music that is as disturbing as it is irresistible and which I’ve been listening a lot to lately – could it be helping me create the dark, threatening environment that makes up my evolving Gothic novel?

Music, that most abstract, intangible art form, can lead the spirit to places unpredicted and unforeseen. Fiction and poetry, at their best, should do that same.  A reader should come away from a poem or a story with a feeling that they have been transported to a world where they have never before been or that they have never before imagined. And once they return, with a breath of wonder, they should feel like they were on a journey which was both elucidating and rewarding. One to which, the author hopes, they will often return.

A composer friend of mine, with whom I just worked on a project, recently told me that he hears strings of music in his head. He then transcribes them using software on his computer. And that’s how he composes. He does not sit at a piano or with cello in hand and work out melodies. No, he connects to another world – channels would be the proper word – and allows that world to occupy his being. Similarly, when I write, I channel – perhaps to the same place as he – and listen and record. Could it be that we connect to the same place?  Could it be that artists, musicians, and writers have a secret place where they all go – a secret garden where that famous muse instills us with music, story, art? Or is it that we all go to our own private Innisfree, a place that guides us to the art we carefully render?

The answer is as elusive as the very source of inspiration. Regardless, music and language and art are inseparable and who is to say which inspires the other?

Mike Maggio, May2017

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Author Special

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To celebrate the publication of my new novella, The Appointment, I am offering  a copy of The Appointment at the regular price of $9.99 and a copy of The Wizard and the White House for just $7 plus handling and shipping of $5 for a total of $16.99. Offer available in the US only. Both books will be signed by me.

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On the Air

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Reading “LA Central Library”  from Garden of Rain

Dennis Price Show
May 9, 2017

LA Central Library

Standing in line
for 15 minutes of internet
Tom Bradley Wing
LA Central Library

the alkies
the druggies
even the homeless
need to charge their iPods.

Quintessential LA
quintessentially speaking
the glim and glamour
the vim and stamina

of those who lost their lives
to glass and steel
steal and beggary
lost their lives yet still survive.

How they cleaned up downtown
they say. meaning those
who fell by the wayside
were tucked away

swept away
cinders from a vintage fireplace
shoveled off to an invisible part of town
where they can’t be seen.

Unlike the ragged man
in the underground mall
on Fifth and Hope
chased by security

chased for a steaming cup of coffee
proffered by a McDonald’s employee
a placation perhaps
a plume of hope

in this hopeless city
where dreams are made
of celluloid and steel
and the Triforium Carillon

no longer rings true
no longer rings
thanks to judges and judgments
and the injustices of Justicetown.

Yet this downtown library still stands,
despite the flames, still commands,
despite the people who lost their souls
a testament to the restive phoenix

that shall always rise and rise.

© Mike Maggio 2017

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Tonight On the Dennis Price Show

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I will be appearing tonight, along with Marianne Szlyk, on Hotline With Dennis Price on Fairfax Public Radio to discuss this year’s 30 for 30 poetry event as well as my new book, The Appointment. Marianne and I will be on from 8 to 9 PM Eastern.

You can listen in from anywhere in the world:
In Northern Virginia : Cox and Verizon digital cable channel 37
In Reston, Virginia : Comcast channel 27
Anywhere else in the world :
For mobile devices :

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