The Glimpse Series: Matt Donovan Pursues the Muse to Pompeii

November 17, 2011
Matt Donovan in Pompeii, November 2011.
Fresco detail in the House of the Chaste Lovers, Pompeii.
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The “Glimpse Series” offers a closer view of the AAR community’s current Rome Prize winners by delving further into their studios or studies, their daily routines or work in progress. The scholarly and artistic work being pursued continues to be as varied as the fellowship recipients themselves. The following “Glimpse” focuses on Matt Donovan, who teaches in the Creative Writing and Literature Department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design and is the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow in Literature.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

My project has completely changed since arriving at the Academy. While I’m primarily a poet, I’ve been working for the last year or so almost exclusively on lyric essays that have used Japanese haikus as springboards for my own explorations. Anticipating my time in Rome, I wasn’t exactly sure how my meditations on haikus would coalesce with my year in Italy. Within the second week of my time here, however, I was unexpectedly in the throes of researching Pompeii, and I’m currently hard at work on an extended series of lyric essays with that ancient city as a hub for my thoughts. There seems to be an infinite amount of paths to take within the topic, as I’m interested in Pompeii as a tourist destination, as an appropriated cultural site, as a means of exploring Roman myths via its frescos and mosaics, as well as thematic patterns of creation and destruction that certainly resonate with the city. While I may return to my work on haikus at some point in the future, I’m so enjoying this curveball in my plans.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

The resources at the Academy’s library have been extraordinary, and I can’t imagine a better location to pursue my work on Pompeii, or a more extensive collection of books and beautiful folios on the subject. Without the AAR library, I wouldn’t be able to write these essays; without these resources to kick-start my thoughts, I may have never begun these pieces at all.

I’ve also been incredibly grateful for the expertise of the other fellows and residents here at the Academy. I’ve had fascinating lunchtime conversations about, say, Pliny, or General Crassus, or artistic representations of Pompeii’s destruction, and I’ve found myself racing back to my office that same afternoon to find ways of employing the new anecdotes, insights, or information I’ve learned.

Recently, I was able to take a long awaited trip both to Pompeii and the Naples National Archeological Museum – both afforded exhilarating visits. At the Naples museum, the chance to see both the frescos and mosaics that I had been writing about for several months was not only incredibly inspiring, but also indispensible to my work. Having timed my trip to Pompeii with November, I avoided both the heat and the tourist flocks. The weather could not have been more beautiful, and on many occasions I turned a corner in the ancient city only to find that I had the entire street to myself.

Having worked with the Permissions office here at the Academy in advance of my trip, I was also able to gain access to a number of Pompeii homes that normally would be closed to the public. For instance, a guard unlocked the House of the Painters at Work, one of several Pompeii residences that I’m fascinated by, and then not only allowed me to document the unfinished fresco that artists fleeing the erupting Vesuvius left behind, but then allowed me to tour the adjoining House of the Chaste Lovers. Before my fellowship here is completed, I’ll be returning not only to Pompeii, but also to the ruins of nearby Herculaneum and, I hope, to the top of Vesuvius.

How have you managed the balance between your work and engagement with Rome? This balance is never the same for any two Fellows.

I’m here with my wife and two sons (a five year old and an infant), and juggling my work on my writing, my time with my family, and my excitement about seeing Rome, can at times be challenging, but what an incredibly happy problem to have. In general, we’ve been making outings into town on the weekend, as well as strategic strikes, at least once a week, to see a particular church, painting, or sculpture. It’s an unbelievable luxury and privilege to be walking distance from so many tremendous things here in Rome, and I find it incredibly inspiring. I might stroll to look at medieval frescos in the morning, and be back at my desk writing by the afternoon.