Peter Covino on Poetry, Process, and Creative Inspiration

Our faculty engage in cutting-edge research and innovative creative work every day as they bring new ideas to our students and communities locally and globally. We’re pleased to continue this monthly spotlight series featuring our faculty’s work through a question-and-answer style article published on the first Friday of every month during the academic year.

This month’s featured work — a book chapter and eight poems — were recently published by Associate Professor Peter Covino, Department of English

Q. Can you give us a brief synopsis of your chapter in Till One Day the Sun Shall Shine More Brightly, The Poetry and Prose of Donald Revell?

I completed a lengthy book chapter “Faith and Faithlessness in Thief of Strings: Donald Revell’s Building Epic Vision” for a peer-review, solicited collection, Till One Day the Sun Shall Shine More Brightly, edited by Derek Pollard (recently appeared from the University of Michigan Press in Spring 2020). Donald Revell is a greatly respected experimental and visionary poet-essayist-translator, author of a staggering sixteen poetry books, six books of translation from the French, and four books of criticism. A Thief of Strings (2007), I argue, is a pivotal book in his career that helped establish his wide-ranging, contemporary epic vision. Revell’s “thief” is a playful Apollo-like poetic figure who metaphorically steals the strings of a broken guitar (instead of a lyre) to create an experimental postmodern, post-September 11 music that imbues even the smallest creatures on our planet with magical resonance. Revell’s prayers for animals and children continue to inspire me. I argue that looking at the arc of Revell’s recent writing, we find a poet devoted equally to a nuanced appreciation of all things unspoiled and precious, and outraged over the depredations of war and the abuses directed at an American landscape. His writing keeps close company with that of Whitman, Virgil, and Ovid, three exemplars of epic poetry.

Q. Can you give us a brief synopsis of the themes of the eight poems you had published in Seneca Review, Puerto del Sol, Two Horatio, Mantis: Journal of Poetry, Criticism and Translation, and Ovunque Siamo: New Italian-American Writing?

The poems in the Seneca Review (out of Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press) are perhaps the ones I’m most proud of in this batch of publications. One poem, “Armies in the Blood: No Mountain” is a long six-section poem from a recently finished manuscript that is circulating to publishers now, also titled Armies in the Blood. There are four other poems with the same title or similar images throughout that work, as consistent leitmotif. 

• Each of the sections of many of my recent poems are one-hundred words or fewer. The poems frequently emerge from my 100-word writing group with six other writer friends. Each posts on a given day and then we share our work by email. No commentary, just sharing. I find that Tuesdays are my most productive days to post!

• 100-words a week, a therapeutic concept related to that nugget of psychoanalytic truth or (more accurately) a “trace” of what we share with our therapist, often toward the end of the session after avoiding other complicated or painful material.

• The 100-word group is, in effect, a weekly poetic practice. Some of my favorite poems are sonnets or similarly short poems: 140 syllables approximately, often just a little longer than 100 words. Think of Keats “Bright Star,” for example, 102 words; or any of Paul Celan’s famous puzzle-like poems.

Q. What influences, impacts, and inspires your creative process most significantly?

I’ve begun to answer this question of influence with the question above—but I also avoided ideas of themes, rather intentionally! Armies in the Blood, one of my new manuscripts is about surviving sexual abuse (among other experiences one survives) and it picks up, some twenty-years later, on the themes of my prizewinning Cut Off the Ears of Winter (U of W. Michigan Press, 2005). In this new manuscript I will myself back to the mid-1990s when I first started to confront ideas of sexual abuse, both in my writing and in my work as a professional social worker in foster care and AIDS services. The poems in the book are also celebratory in some sections, such as the second, “Ecstatic Song” about living in New York City and appreciating the great music and all the wild cultural experiences and influences.

Regarding the question about more specific influences on recent publications, here are two short poems (much shorter than 100 words!) that I’m happy to share. I think both are quite explanatory and deceptively simple. These two are from an even newer manuscript in process, Brave and Cruel Acts, which chronicles the past two years where so many of us have been dealing with devastating loss and threatened relationships. My mom died earlier this year and because of the Covid lockdown in California, where she was living in a nursing home, we couldn’t bury her for several months. I’ve been writing about that traumatic experience too, but those are not quite ready yet, so here are some others that consider ideas of loss and insecurity.

• In “Guard”—I’m thinking symbolically about our beloved pup Mr. Austin Powers who died just before the pandemic hit, as my mom was slipping farther away from us. We had a good go with Mr. Powers. He was twelve but developed cancer, so it was time for him, but it still felt completely traumatic.

• I’m playing a lot with leaving out crucial information in this poem. It’s intentionally stark and elemental, and instead I think in a few key rhymes: “scared/there”; and “kibble/able”; even the off-rhyme “down/room” I sense is doing some important poetic and psychological work.

• “Guard the House” was the alternative working title for the poem and perhaps of some related section of this new manuscript. I never imagined Mr. Powers as Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of hell, though I teach courses on the Epic regularly, but I still needed some kind of symbolic protector. In the current manuscript there’s also a poem called “Speaking Italian with Mr. Curly.” Mr. Curly is our new pup and he’s the biggest, baddest Portuguese Water dog we’ve ever had. My mom spoke Italian to our pups so, obviously I needed another object of affection to think of her lessons metaphorically and to help combat all the loss and isolation of the pandemic.

Q. How do you go about the writing process, and how do you deal with writer’s block?

• Join a 100-word group for six months—a community of writers is important for motivation and to help you learn about reading and publishing opportunities. Write a grocery or a laundry list, or a snippet of a conversation, yours or an overheard one, if you have to, but keep writing!
• Don’t skip your weekly writing turn for more than one week! Try to make Tuesday night your writing night, there’s not that much else to do on Tuesdays and you will have earned a fun weekend if you do your homework.
• Just as in school, commit to the seriousness of your obligations for six months or a semester at a time—then take a break to turn to some other pursuits. If you do well, giving yourself this break can inspire you to go back and revise or reread or re-visit your work. Take your writing life seriously, take creative writing courses in our English Department. Graduate from college!! You deserve the success and the excellent education that you can help build.