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Peter Coviello talks art, writing and love in his return to Bowdoin

February 16, 2024

Queer theory, American literature, religion and Prince all take center stage in the mind of nonfiction writer Peter Coviello. In addition to being department head and Professor of English at the University of Illinois Chicago, the author of six books previously taught at Bowdoin for 16 years and returned for a brief visit Monday afternoon.

Coviello made a visit to the Massachusetts Hall Faculty Room for a reading and discussion with students, faculty and Brunswick residents. He read two passages from his newest book, “Is There God after Prince?: Dispatches from an Age of Last Things.” The first reading connected Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s work to his relationship with his eldest stepdaughter; the second, the title essay of the book, was a piece he wrote the evening the iconic American musician Prince passed away.

The book was released last October and is made up of dozens of writings that Coviello has accumulated over the past 12 years.

“It occurred to me sometime in the pandemic, which as you’ll remember was terrible and isolating, that putting together some of [my pieces] could tell a kind of story,” Coviello said. “And it told a story about things that we love, stupid things like records and songs and stuff as a way to be attached to the world and to one another, and also about the feeling that all that beauty and grandeur was not at the scale of the world and its cataclysm.”

In this book and in his talk, Coviello addressed the power of art and literature in fostering connection. In his mind, this connection makes the world an easier place in which to live.

“A lot of the book comes out of the experience of listening to things or reading things, and feeling captivated by them, feeling moved by them, feeling addressed by them and wanting nothing so much as to share that sense of captivation with somebody else,” he said. “That’s how I learned to be friends with people, and how I learned to love people.”

Coviello expressed his gratitude for Bowdoin’s close-knit community and its encouragement of exploration outside of one’s primary discipline. He has a wide array of interests, all of which he was able to pursue during his time at the College.

“I’m super grateful for my time at Bowdoin, because part of what being in a small space means for me is not getting too deeply mired in the small-bore specificities of the thing you specialize in, because you’ve got to teach across them,” he said. “That was really generative for me. I met people who did different things, and I liked talking to them.”

Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Cinema Studies Allison Cooper is a longtime friend of Coviello’s and brought him back to the College to speak to her cinema studies seminar in addition to Monday’s event.

“It’s become interesting to see how in [academia], my colleagues are working harder to position themselves in relation to the work that they do, as sort of a way of signaling to their audience who they are,” she said. “I was interested in this experiment of his which is to try to write in what he calls the vernacular.”

Coviello joined Cooper’s “Media Made in Italy, but Not Necessarily for Italians” seminar to  discuss HBO’s classic drama series “The Sopranos,” and in particular a chapter in Coviello’s book about the show. Perceptions of this television program are varied, especially from Italian Americans like the ones “The Sopranos” seeks to represent. The show tells a story of an Italian-American family through the lens of organized crime, which some see as reductive or stereotypical.

“We talked about what the series meant to him as an Italian American,” Cooper said. “It was interesting to have Professor Coviello talk about the disconnect between his understanding of the show and all of its metaphorical allegorical richness, and the disdain for it that his parents felt.”

Cooper expressed gratitude to the College for helping her bring Coviello to Brunswick on Monday.

“I was really delighted that the College supported bringing him back, and it was a well-attended talk,” she said. “I never take it for granted that Bowdoin is so excited to bring people to the College to talk about these things.”

Coviello was excited to get the chance both to talk and think further about the things that he feels connect him, and each of us, to the rest of the world.

“I wanted to think about how we turn our delight in the presence of weird objects like poems or movies into language that we can exchange with people we love,” he said. “And then into making out of that language a world where other people can join us.”


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