Newswise — KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 26, 2024 – In the 1980s, as a poetry student in Italy, Peter Covino was introduced to the work of acclaimed Italian poet Dario Bellezza. It’s a moment he still remembers.

“It was a big deal to learn at that time that there was this really wild, irreverent writer exploring ideas that I didn’t realize would speak to me so directly,” says Covino, associate professor of English at the University of Rhode Island. “It was a mystery to discover somebody who wrote so openly about being gay in such a passionate and sustained way.”

Forty years later, Covino is on the verge of seeing his decade-long odyssey of translating Bellezza’s poetry come to fruition. Covino was recently selected winner of the Wisconsin Prize for Poetry in Translation, which includes a $1,500 award and publication of his collection, “What Sex Is Death: Selected Poems of Dario Bellezza,” in October by the University of Wisconsin Press.

“I’m excited to get this award,” says Covino, the first to translate a full-length collection of Bellezza’s poetry into English. “I’m thrilled that such a progressive and open-minded press like the University of Wisconsin will publish this book.”

Bellezza, who died in 1996 at the age of 51 from AIDS-related complications, is an award-winning author of eight full-length poetry collections. He was outspokenly gay and his work reflected that, openly discussing sexuality while confronting homophobia and the AIDS epidemic. His second collection, “Morte Segreta” or “Secret Death”—released a few months after the murder of his mentor, poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini—captured the Viareggio Prize, Italy’s premier award for poetry. But he went from being a major literary figure in the 1970s to being a persona non grata by the late ‘80s, says Covino.

“His poems are beautiful and subtle but rich with tension and outrage,” says Covino. “You can argue that he’s one of the most important voices in poetry of the late 20th century—certainly in Italy. He was later ignored because of homophobia, but also because his work is hard to integrate. It’s very polemical and it’s laced with invective. He never backed down from this direct intensity.”

Since being introduced to Bellezza’s work in the early 1980s by his teacher, noted novelist and poet Giorgio Bassani, Covino has found more than an appreciation of Bellezza’s poetry. He has found a personal connection.

Before entering academia, Covino worked for 14 years in foster care and AIDS services, earning a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in 1991. Part of that time, he worked in hospice care in Jersey City, New Jersey, helping AIDS patients and seeing some people die in a matter of weeks.

“I was getting politicized. I was really learning a lot about AIDS and social service activism,” says Covino. “Then you read Bellezza’s poems and they’re a call to arms. They’re often visceral. Some of them are understandably angry.”

Covino and Bellezza also share the experience of being immigrants fleeing southern Italy to escape poverty—Covino emigrating to Glen Cove, Long Island, with his family in the late 1960s, and Bellezza’s mother had also left southern Italy for Rome in search of economic opportunity. The 1970s marked  the end of a 100-year period that saw more than 28 million people—nearly half of the country’s population—emigrate, most of them from southern Italy.

“These migrations truly uproot reality because you’re leaving your town or your country, and diverse customs. Bellezza’s mother was from a city in southern Italy, not far from where I was born,” Covino says. “For me, there was always a personal connection to his work because he writes a lot of poems about southern Italy.”

Covino’s collection—the first major translation of Bellezza’s poetry from Italian into English—includes translations of about 70 poems and an introduction by Covino.

Covino started the translations for “What Sex Is Death” in earnest in 2013. With Bellezza’s poetry collections out of print, he had to search library archives. The COVID-19 pandemic also slowed his progress, preventing him from conducting research in Italy for about four years.

But while the book was delayed, he says he thinks the timing is right for publication. There is a renewed interest in Bellezza’s work, he says.

“I’ve really loved working on this project. It’s been a journey, during which time my own parents died. So working on Bellezza’s work kept me alive to my mother tongue,” says Covino. “It’s a great opportunity for people to discover his work and for me to help shepherd some of this work.”

Covino’s work on “What Sex Is Death” has been supported by numerous fellowships and grants, including from the National Endowment for the Arts; Richmond American International University of London, Rome Programme; the American Academy in Rome, and URI’s Department of Humanities.