Emory Report
March 5, 2007
Volume 59, Number 22

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March 5, 2007
Left brain right brain

BY kim urquhart

Ask Bruce Covey why he writes poetry and he’ll tell you it’s just who he is: “I eat, I sleep, I parent my daughters, I write poetry,” says the popular creative writing professor and accomplished poet. Often those poems are written late at night — Covey claims to need only three hours of sleep — and he always carries around a notepad so no time is wasted when inspiration strikes.

And Covey doesn’t have much time to waste. He juggles a dual career at Emory as a lecturer in poetry and senior director for technical services for campus life, where he provides support for 23 campus life departments and oversees EmoryCard. Covey is also Emory’s in-house bookstore expert and in his free time edits an online poetry magazine. How does he do it?

“It’s a team effort, definitely. I have an awesome staff and a great team around me,” he says. “I always like to have a ton of things going on.”

Covey shares “the random path” that led him to the seemingly disparate world of words, computers and books. In college, he majored in both English and math. “I was simultaneously doing differential equations and abstract algebra while writing poetry,” he says. Equally adept at logic and creativity, he explains: “My parents are both chemists so I had that scientific side. I don’t know about the poetry side — maybe I was dropped on my head?”

Upon graduation, Covey took a job with IBM. He spent a year there as a technical writer before enrolling in graduate school at Yale. At Yale he shared a contemporary poetry class with “X-Files” star David Duchovny and the woman who would later become Covey’s wife — Catherine Nickerson, an associate professor in Emory’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.

After receiving his master’s degree in English literature, Covey “got into the book business,” running an independent academic bookstore for Yale. He came to Emory in 1993 to manage the Candler Theology School Bookstore, a small operation still run out of a tiny basement room in Bishops Hall. He was later asked to join the Emory Bookstore team and in 1999 started the Druid Hills Bookstore. For four years, he managed what was at the time the largest independent academic bookstore in the Southeast. When the management of the bookstores were outsourced to the Follett Higher Education Group in 2002, Covey moved into a contract manager position as University bookstore liaison. In September, he began his new role as technical director.

“And all the while,” he says, “I was writing poetry.” He was also teaching poetry, first at Atlanta College of Art and later at Emory. “Teaching is utterly joyful,” says Covey. He particularly enjoys the opportunity to introduce students to poetry “who don’t have a ton of experience with poetry and might have some negative preconceptions.” Covey delights in helping students “discover poems that are exciting and funny and angry and odd — all those things that we don’t typically associate with poetry until we’re exposed to it — and then see the impact that it has on their own work.”

Covey has also given budding poets a voice through his Web-based poetry journal “Coconut.” Covey edits and designs the journal, which he founded two years ago to feature a mix of established writers and young poets. “The real joy is finding among the submissions poets who are not well known, to publish somebody for whom it has tremendous meaning,” he says. Editorially, Covey looks for poems that are “daring and try different sorts of things either stylistically or in terms of voice. In terms of poetic traditions, the range is really quite broad,” he says.

He recalls soliciting for “Coconut” the work of one of his poetic heroes, Ron Padgett. “Padgett was one of the very first poets that I liked back in high school and his was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought 25 years ago,” Covey recalls. “And then I got to meet him, and he was not only an incredible poet but an incredibly nice person.” As chair of the Emory Poetry Council, Covey also convinced Padgett to read his work at Emory, which he did during a campus visit last month.

Covey has been writing since he was a child, when he would create stories “on folded pieces of paper, stapled together to make a book.” He grew up on the poems of Longfellow and Whittier, read to him by his grandmother. But it was in high school, when he discovered poets like Padgett and Ted Berrigan, “that all of a sudden I just started writing and have kept it up since.”

In reviews of Covey’s latest book, “Elapsing Speedway Organism,” his poems are described variously as “willfully eccentric” and “lip-smacking word art.” Covey, whose work appears regularly in literary journals, is also the author of “The Greek Gods as Telephone Wires” and the forthcoming “Ten Pins, Ten Frames.” He is also finishing two manuscripts that he hopes to release in 2008 and 2009, one of which will be translated into Italian.

In “Elapsing Speedway Organism,” Covey presents a series of love poems and recontextualizes the “magic of everyday phenomenon.” He has found inspiration in a Brazilian all-you-can-eat barbeque restaurant, for example, related in nine stanzas of ever-increasing lines in “Nine Ball: A Love Poem.” “The meat — all that excess — somehow made me think of love,” he says, “which always moves beyond boundaries into the sublime.”

Another poem, “Taking Too Long,” was inspired by “the vastness and smallness” of China, where Covey and his wife have visited twice to adopt each of their daughters. Now ages 5 and 7, Covey says that “parenting is the most joyful thing I do now.”

He continues to find gratification in his writing as well. Reading, writing and teaching poetry is “a way of interacting” for the naturally shy Covey. When he reaches out to a reader, and that reader “comes back and tells me they like a poem, it makes me really happy.”