Italian Influences on an Italian American Poet Educated in Ohio

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Steven Vita’s poetry book “The Heart of Tents.” Vita is written of as “gifted” by Stephen Spender who first published W.H. Auden and whose own poetry was brought to the literati by T.S. Eliot.

Indeed, important literary figures took note. Daniel Weissbort, who founded with Ted Hughes the “Modern Poetry in Translation” journal, writes of Vita, "He is, I believe that increasingly rare bird, the true original." 

Vita, who was educated at Denison in Ohio and holds a B.A. in both Art and English, grew up in an Italian-speaking neighborhood in Chicago. “My grandparents from Tuscany owned a two-story building. They lived on one floor, and we lived on the other floor.” Vita’s father is Giovanni Vita.

“I heard the Italian language as much as the English language, as a child. At this time in Chicago, there were still neighborhoods that were totally inhabited by people raised in Italy and their children,” the 60-year-old poet says.

Italy and its influence are present in Vita’s poetry. Anna Caflisch, teacher of Italian studies at Rice University, writes, “If Italian fiction is in crisis, and one must find the best Italian prose in essays, Italian poetry is in full bloom: yes, Italy is still the land of poets.”

“It occurs that a ramification is budding across the ocean in the voice of Steven Vita. What strikes the most in Vita's poetry is his 'concreteness.' Like in padre Dante and Montale, his poems are built - 'cemented' - with 'concrete-nouns:' grass, sun, doors, sleeves, flesh, sweat, clouds, wind, calendars, sand, stones, bones, shells, bells. Yet the effect is magic. What emerges is a new, rich imagery resounding with Vita's energy, intensity and emotion. In short: he has heart and imagination and is original and contemporary, within the Italian tradition.”

Valeria Finucci, Italian Studies at Duke University, writes, “Steven Vita rewards his readers with a lively, pungent and yet romantic new poetry. His love poems suggest a remarkable depth of feelings and evoke dreamy landscapes. I especially liked the originality of ‘Chicago’ and the lightness of ‘Brave.’”

Emilio Speciale, who taught Italian literature at the University of Chicago, writes, “I read Vita’s ‘The Heart of Tents’ and I was fascinated by his musicality and easy flow. His use of consonance and alliteration is well hidden and gives his poetry a sense of smoothness and readability. His poems force you, for the pleasure they offer, to go back and immerse again in his verses. It is quite an experience.”

Poet and art critic John Ashbery has written, “Vita means life and Steven Vita’s poetry has the raw color, the disjunct energy of life itself. He is an exciting poet. Steven Vita’s paintings have the raw vitality and quick grace of his poetry.” Vita has admired Italian painting from many centuries. “Francesca de Mura of Naples has an excellent use of shades of pink.” “Yes,” says Vita, “it’s interesting that Ashbery draws attention to the Italian name in discussing my work.”

Vita tells us about his Italian culture: “My grandmother would take days to prepare a holiday meal. I try to cook, but I can never create a meal with the perfection that she had. It was part of her upbringing, and part of her identity,” Vita says. “Colavita olive oil is what I cook with. I am no relation to the Colavita family. As to Parmesan cheese, my grandmother always had it in a block and at the time of the meal, only then grated.” “My grandmother rarely cooked with tomatoes.”

“When I asked her about what it was like being in Florence, she wondered at first what I was talking about. And then she said, ‘Oh, Firenze.’” “I asked her about the art, and she said, ‘It’s everywhere.’”

“My grandparents came to America out of love. My grandfather’s family didn’t like my grandmother and her family. My grandparents were in love. So, one day, my grandfather, instead of riding his bicycle back home, rode his bicycle to the port of Livorno and sailed to America. My grandmother then came to America to join him and be married.”

“The Heart of Tents” by Steven Vita is available on Amazon.