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“If I could bless the whole world”. A tribute to Clare Ultimo


“If I could bless the whole world”

In 2013 Clare and I were editing her book manuscript of poetry. I emailed her this question:

Clare, p66, there’s a line on the bottom of the page…. which poem does it belong to? a lost line?”If I could bless the whole world”.


Now I see this line as her epitaph: “

If I could bless the whole world”

What else best expresses Clare’s earth mission?

Clare Ultimo

Embodiment of ancestral wisdom while light years ahead. Poet, Paradigm-shifter, Graphic Designer, Spoken Word artist, intergalactic sage, wise woman her black leather vest could never contain. Author of the books “Fear of Bensonhurst”and “Brooklyn Babe.”Tuned-in, turned-on, tuned-up. Guitarist, songster, healer, feminist, the wilds of her Napoletana mane hinted at the vast spirals of her thoughts. Beast of a Brooklyn voice. Capeesher of Kerouac. Woman. Woman as amphora. Ancient vessel of life and bearer of pain. Transformer. Truth-teller. Blessing-maker. Original “angel headed hipster.” Giver giver, gave it all. Vast, vast seeker and soul.

Clare Ultimo

It was the fall of 1999 when we first worked together. I created “Global Poetry Slam” at The Kitchen where we were doing what couldn’t yet be done: an intercontinental drift of words in an ISDN live webcast. Poets in three countries recited, experimented, built lines off one another, and the fresh text was typed and translated live in 27 languages and projected onto movie size screens. Dial-up modems, long crackly delays; fuzzy feeds as if we were planets away, then exhilarating bursts of clear connection. A NASA of poetry. James Rattazzi masterminded Tech. Edi Giunta, Daniel Ferri and other poets read. Simba Yangala JungleDom Queen led live translations. I’d asked Regie Cabico to host, and to recommend a poet from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. CLARE ULTIMO was his immediate and enthusiastic pick. Regie didn’t even breathe before his mouth opened into the shape of the syllables of her name: CLARE ULTIMO

The pulse of her name. Ultimo. An emphatic dactyl: BOOM-ba-da. Matter-of-fact. Strong. Here I am. Tell it like it is.

Clare told me her name came from the system of leaving babies on abandonment wheels “ruota dei trovatelli” aka “ruota degli esposti” at nunneries; revolving wooden cabinets inset into doors. The desperate and starving could place their baby into the wheel, and spin it slowly so the baby was instantly inside the nunnery, not left outside in the sun and heat. Nuns would hear a knock on the door or the delicate ring of the bell and collect the bambino. The door never had to open. The person who dropped the baby off never had to be seen or identified.

On one particular day in Napoli, Clare’s grandfather was the last bambino to be spun inside. Hence he was given the name ULTIMO. The last. The ultimate. And Clare was. Clare The Ultimate –in all she created and to all who loved her.

I don’t know half of what she did. Opened her own graphic design business in 1987 in Union Square: Ultimo Inc. Studied with Milton Glaser. Was Slam Mamma at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Designed their iconic logo. Created “Verbs on Asphalt,” a multimedia archive detailing the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, as her MFA thesis work at Hunter College ( 2009 she was honored for her years of devotion overseeing the Slam from the late 90’s to 2009. You can see the “Clare Ultimo Tribute” archival footage online at Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.

Her “Head Trip” videos are in the permanent collection of CAM | Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, Napoli, Italia.

Clare Ultimowas Art Director of The Joseph Campbell Foundation and Designer of their “Follow Your Bliss” merch.

Board member of AIGA | the professional association for design. Long time member of iawa: Italian American Writers Association. A pillar of my Sunday writing workshop: Literary Outlaws of Liberation.In 2018 she exhibited her “word mandalas” and “text architectures” at Taller Boricua’s spirited interdisciplinary group show, “Words, Form, & Emotion,” which included artists Sandra Maria Esteves, Diana Gitesha and others. Clare invented fold-out poetry broadsheets, “Poetry Dogtags” (published by Chronicle Books), and the “Answer Man Can.”(TM). She created the visionary and insightful: “From Texting to Telepathy >in 8 Easy Steps” (copyright 2009).She leaves hundreds of pages of unpublished poems and goddess monologues behind.I remember when other graphic artists gave up, sold their T-Squares, squeegees, and bronze die-cut letters at Brooklyn stoop sales, as computers capsized their skillsets and tools. Clare saddled up and was the way forward. She transformed words into visual mandalas, mastered the new technologies and programs as they were invented, kept her classic core graphic know-how, and mentored the next generation of designers as Ultimo Inc apprentices, and her students at BMCC.

To many she was mentor, mother, grandmother. To all she was giver, seeker, teacher, lover of life. Vast. Vast expanse of mind and soul. Vast curiosity with laser insight. Clare fed me. A couple of hundred times. Once, after a slew of iawa readings, a few of us had a writing meeting at one of the poet’s apartments. Clare brought an airport wheelie suitcase—full of snacks. She had enough for a whole snack bar. She covered the table with every Trader Joe delectable. Cottage cheese, crackers, crudités, nuts, chocolate, cookies, savory, popcorn—and folders and folders bursting with her poetry. Writing was work. Work required fuel. Fuel was always a feast. Clare was always ready to work. Always setting up this or that table, public or private, for a feast, and yes the last to put her pen down… No one was more generous. I could call her at midnight and meet past two a.m. in the diner in Brooklyn Heights. We talked about everything our brains could think of, then shattered all —in an earthquake of laughter.”This is who we are,” is always how I felt after a night together. Others might say we are: “too much” we are “in excess.” We talk without delicate edges. We give “in excess.” Cook in excess. Love in excess. Eat in excess. Write in excess. Our Brooklyn & Bronx voices loud as street corners. Our belly laughs rendered our skeletons useless as we fell back laughing. Hearts pumping and pumping and pumping and pumping. And her love. Bobby. What love, what dignity, spirit, hearts with ancestral girth. Renaissance genius at work. Kaleidoscopic souls. Emanations. You walk into their Brooklyn Heights building where Patti Smith once stood right there in the corner of the elevator, finger on her lips. Upstairs, Clare opens the door.

Opens her arms and gets you in an embrace right there in the hallway. Says, “Sweetheart” like a beloved enlightened grandmother with a cigar edge voice….says sweetheart, like from 100 years ago pure and bubbling over, hot Earth rattle.Walk into her apartment. She pumps her fists in the air in joy with the spirit of a child. Step into her world: into healing frequencies, cooking aromas, garlic, eggplant, chicken everything — never just one or two things – always appetizers, always desserts. All love coming out of her kitchen busting with olives, bread, busting with her abundance every shelf every cabinet every writing notebook bursting with fireworks of colors and scrawls.Bobby in his chair, DJ-ing rare jazz cuts for the house, where I could show up anytime of the day and night just as I was —exhausted, famished, sweaty, angry, happy joyful loud lonely lost — and there was always almond soap and a shower. Always MANGIA and afterwards a shot of Bobby’s sambuca nero. And never just one. Bobby with that white cat on the roof next-door who comes to listen to his sax riffs. The world responds to the vibes these two emanate. Their emanations go on and on. By their windows the world came to listen. All kinds of wandering spirits as the sun ricocheted silver shrapnel off the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

The last time we went to see Bob Viscusi at his house, Clare knew just where to go in Bensonhurst cause she of course was bringing a feast. Viscusi’s table was full of books when I say full, you needed a handtruck to clear the table. Boxes and piles and piles of hundreds and hundreds of books. I cleared the table, Clare set out the feast.

“Whats that?” Viscusi asked.

“Escarole,” Clare said.

“And what’s that?” Viscusi asked.”

Eggplant” Clare answered.

Viscusi had lost the words for things. Fuck words. I cleared the piano bench of books and sat him there and he played blues piano for the next three hours. Bobby joining in and we all tapped and sang. Fingers never lose the blues, nor the mind, heart, soul.

Viscusi made us coffee, and forgot to put the pot under the Mr Coffee and the coffee avalanched everywhere and it was steaming hot and gorgeous all over the kitchen floor. Our last coffee all together. Our ULTIMO coffee.

Oh right now I hear Clare’s voice. As I sit in a hospital in Abruzzo, I hear Clare’s voice loud and clear as the campanile the Tramontana wooshes down the hill of “La Bella Dormentata” –the mountain that is a sleeping woman.


for the lucky of us,

you walked into her eyes

and were seen.


by Clare Ultimo

My family is Italian
and behaves like
one big boss at a car garage at noon
eating an infinite baloney hero
This is the truth.
Me, I was a genetic override
but had my share of birthday parties
and Easter dresses with matching hats of course
and was cursed into proverbial coat closets
to listen to the Lovin Spoonful and Jim Morrison 
stereo speakers at my ears
lowest decibel 3am
in peace.
My family is an army of Joeys, Frankies and Tonys,
a sloppy blur of Sundays spent visiting Aunt Lucy or Aunt Rosie
and being kissed like the boys really knew me (if you know what I mean) 
I finally moved in with a lesbian
while I was dating Tom who was Irish...
I was long in explaining myself.
Truth or not, I believe I loved them and 
belief is enough for this sorry soul. 
This kid a parchment of emotions on their bed,
A dirty towel in their hamper,
A dusty suitcase they always meant to throw out 
I finally left.
This is the truth.
In this tale, I remain no hero. 
I am too small and sweaty for that.
In this tale I disappear behind the poetry 
of creative form
of cultural proposition
and fake brains. 
I am the oddball at this meal.
I love them but I'm nobody's antipasto. 
I love them but I have been praying for dessert all these years.
I still think I may have loved them
I still think I made their beds
below in the middle of the night
crying as loud as I could
without them ever hearing me
and I remain the guest
at their endless Sunday dinner
and on so many nights
in the middle of the macaroni
I have prayed
and prayed
for dessert

"When Love Announced Your Stop You Were Probably Sleeping"

by Clare Ultimo
I am the Grand Central Station of emotion
The Fiorello LaGuardia for feelings on the fly
The Port o Spain where exotic birds exchange for sparrows
where suitcases full of open arms drop from the sky
where a stopover pops open doorways
each one a connection...
"don't I know you from somewhere?" 
I am the Grand Central Station of hearts in motion
There's a multitude of shoes on this train as we speak
if I could count every pair that have slid through those doors
I'd be up till 1:40 to Romance meets 3pm to Heartbreak
and I'm sure you'll be gone by then, dontcha think? 
I am the Union Station of Forever
where love is changing time zones from
Complete and Utter to
When Did You Become My Mother...or my sister or my brother ?
I just can't decide when I went from
The Goddess of Your Dreams
to the perpendicular voice
in your carryon state of mind.
I lost my number as the crowd divides
into streams of love lotion...
Departures wreck havok with this pilot of affection
But when the porters come at 3am
and silence shuffles my lonley legs alone,
all the poems fly free like birds from my bags
and flutter the air like pieces of trees
and open my heart to embrace and be free
I'm home with a prayer
and I can breathe on the wing.

Clare Ultimo was interdisciplinary artist, designer, writer and educator. She began an award-winning design studio in 1987, and was among the first wave of communication designers in New York to promote ecologically and socially responsible ideas to corporate clients. In 2000, she invented "Poetry Dog Tags" and "Friendship Tags", (poetry you can wear!) published by Chronicle Books. Ultimo has recently received an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College and has taught Communication Design at Parsons, Pratt and Hunter. Applying design, writing, editing and video, she created "Verbs On Asphalt: The History of Nuyorican Poetry Slam" ( in 2007; the first online "museum" of New York's original Poetry Slam that spans its 20-year history.

Annie Lanzillotto is an American author, poet, songwriter, director, actor, podcaster, and performance artist.

Her book, L Is for Lion: An Italian Bronx Butch Freedom Memoir was published by State University of New York Press, 2013. Her book of poetry, Schistsong was published by Bordighera Press. 2013. Her double flip book of poetry and prose, Hard Candy: Caregiving, Mourning, and Stage Light and Pitch Roll Yaw was published by Guernica Editions 2018. Her podcast Annie's Story Cave commenced while sheltering in place alone in 2020. She is the Artistic Director of Street Cry Inc.
 Lanzillotto is a member of Actors' Equity, Dramatists Guild of America, PEN America,Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Malìa: a Collective of Italian American Women,The Italian American Writers Association (IAWA), a blogger for, and has been a Writer-in-Residence at Hedgebrook, Santa Fe Art Institute and New Jersey City University.

Lanzillotto has shared her history for the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College's Documenting Lesbian Lives Oral History Project. She has taught Solo-Theater at The Actor's Theatre of Louisville. With "Filomatri" she partecipated in the antology "E c'erano gerani rossi dappertutto. Voci femminili della diaspora italiana in Nord America" published by Radici Edizioni. 

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