MOST OF US, “STUDENT WRITING” IMPLIES LATE-NIGHT TERM PAPERS,
PETER COVINO: THE SOUNDS AND SILENCES THAT
For 10 years, Peter Covino was a social worker in Manhattan and the South Bronx. After a decade of dealing with families in constant crisis and with so many intractable social problems, he decided it was time to make The Big Leap and pursue his true passion—writing—full-time.
A bit like a fish out of water, New Yorker Covino came to the deserts of Utah as a doctoral candidate in the University of Utah’s Creative Writing Program. He cites the U’s internationally recognized faculty, including Donald Revell, Jacqueline Osherow, and the noted Kashmiri American poet, Agha Shahid Ali (now deceased), as examples of the program’s attractions.
“I feel so lucky,” he says. “I wonder now how you fulfill the legacy, how you live up to all the things that this program has done. I wake up every day happy, as opposed to facing the overwhelming challenges of social work in New York City. I just couldn’t do that type of work anymore, although the experience has enriched my poetry. It’s difficult enough writing poems and seeing people react to them. That’s about as challenging as I need life to be.”
Born in Italy, Covino got his share of challenges as a child, shuttling between Italy and the United States as his parents sought the American dream. La famiglia Covino emigrated from Sturno, Avellino, a small town near Naples in the rural region of Campania, and eventually landed on Long Island. His father worked as a furniture maker and his mother, whom he describes as “very loving,” was a dressmaker.
Ultimately, his seesawing between cultures proved integral to who he is, how he views the world, and the way he expresses himself as a poet.
Covino did undergraduate work at Amherst College, and then attended Columbia, where he earned a master’s in social work in 1991. After three years of attending school at night and working full-time, he completed another master’s program (in English) in 2001 at City College of New York.
Focusing on poetry allowed Covino to study for a semester with Italian poet Giorgio Bassani, most noted for his novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, in St. Mary’s Notre Dame program in Rome. “He made me love poetry,” says Covino.
The Italian language and culture permeate Covino’s poetry. Since English is not his first language, written expression is, he says, “a very real physical challenge.” Sometimes, in middle of a “very American phrase,” he will think in Italian. “It’s a very ‘vowel-heavy’ language,” he explains, in which each syllable is pronounced. “In prose you lose yourself in sentences, but in poetry, each sound and each silence is important.” Italian lends itself well to sounds and silences.
Italian art, with its “bright Renaissance colors and images of saints” also makes its way into his work. He remembers seeing a painting of the Crucifixion at the time his sister was going through a divorce, which caused him to reflect on “the whole idea of an Italian Catholic family falling apart.” He describes his poetry as “countercultural,” and if he occasionally writes about sexual abuse or incest, it is because he is committed to incorporating truths about the human experience into his work.
“If poetry isn’t communicating some truths about people’s lives,” he muses, “then why write?” Poetic truth, on the other hand, “is something that doesn’t have to be true but can be true.” He likes the idea that poetic reality plays with truth and questions individual experiences.
“I want to make art out of something that is difficult, and, at the same time, I want to have fun. Art should be cathartic. Since you don’t make money at poetry,” he concludes, “why else would you do this stuff?”
—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor
|Peter Covino, a founding editor of Barrow Street, was the winner of the 2001 Frank O’Hara chapbook competition for Straight Boyfriend, and has poems in Don’t Tell Mama!: the Penguin Book of Italian American Writing (edited by Regina Barreca, 2002). His poems have recently been published in The Paris Review, Colorado Review, Columbia, and The New Orleans Review, among other literary journals. His book of poems, Cut Off the Ears of Winter, is forthcoming in 2005 from New Issues Press.|
|JACQUELINE LYONS: THE
FULL WEIGHT OF WORDS
by Tiffini Porter Widlansky, photo by Tara Davies
Jacqueline Lyons hasn’t always seen herself as a writer. “I started writing poems as an undergraduate,” she explains, “but I didn’t think that necessarily meant I should or could be a writer myself.” Then came the Peace Corps: she joined in 1993 and spent three years in Lesotho, a tiny, independent enclave inside South Africa. There, she found inspiration, and the writing followed. Nearly nine years after returning to the United States, Lyons’ first full book of poems, The Way They Say Yes Here, chronicles Africa as she experienced it—her travels, relationships, challenges, and observations.
In Lesotho, Lyons taught English and also learned the local language, Sesotho. As both a teacher and student, she has developed a keen appreciation for language, which she explores in her poetry. “There are theorists who talk about the materiality of language, the various powers and connotations of words,” says Lyons. “I think about that a lot now when I write. It brings a sort of geeky pleasure, looking at a word on a page and thinking, ‘Oh, this is a great word.’ It tunes your awareness, cranks it up a bit higher. I’m thinking more about the full weight of the words themselves.”
As a child growing up in Wisconsin, Lyons wasn’t a particularly avid reader, but she “liked language and language play.” Living near the woods, she had time for imagination and sometimes wrote little stories. She stayed in the Midwest through college, completing a double major in sociology and English, and a minor in women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She also studied in England and traveled in Europe and Japan. But it was after living in Lesotho and hitchhiking through places like Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique that writing became an essential form of expression.
“In the poems I’m writing now,” says Lyons, “I’m trying to recall what happens physiologically when you feel something foreign. If I hadn’t been somewhere where I really didn’t understand how things worked, I wouldn’t have had that sensation. Maybe you don’t know how you’d behave if you were in fear for your life, or if you were really, really thirsty and didn’t know how to get water. I think these things are worth figuring out.”
Lyons has spent the past few years in the American West, earning an MFA at Colorado State University, where she met her husband, Christopher Arigo, also a published poet. She came to the University of Utah for its unique Ph.D. program, which combines theory and literature with a creative dissertation. She has found the program “all-consuming,” but says the mental rigor has been good for her writing. She has two new manuscripts in the works, one she describes as a collection of “very spare, lyrical poems” influenced by Renaissance writings and meditations on the lost colony of Roanoke, Va. The other project features long poems informed more by modernist authors.
These days, Lyons doesn’t question her calling. “I used to write more thinking about ‘what,’ but lately, I think more about ‘how,’” she says. “I don’t worry about subject; I trust that will become clear, that it’s just always there.”
—Tiffini Porter Widlansky BS’96 is editorial assistant
|Jacqueline Lyons is the nonfiction editor
for Quarterly West. Her poems and essays have been published in
over 20 literary journals. She has won several writing awards, including
a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship (2003), a Utah Arts
Council Literary Award for Poetry and Nonfiction (2002), and a nomination
for the Pushcart Prize for her essay,
“Photograph of Sossusvlei” (2001). Excerpts in this article were taken from her book, The Way They Say Yes Here, published by Hanging Loose Press.