The Rome Prize

The American Academy of Arts and Letters has awarded English Professor Lysley Tenorio its Rome Fellowship in Literature Prize. The award recognizes emerging artists and scholars who represent the highest standard of excellence and who are in the early or middle stages of their working lives. It provides for a one-year residency at the American Academy in Rome. Tenorio teaches in Saint Mary’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. Follow Tenorio on Twitter.


How does the Rome Prize compare to your many other awards and achievements?

The Rome Prize is a year at the American Academy in Rome, where I'll live and write. I've been at artists' residencies before, but never with scholars as well, so I'm curious to see how they work and collaborate. To think I'll be having daily meals with scholars in disciplines such as ancient studies, design, and historic preservation is both exciting and a bit intimidating. Hopefully, there'll be wine.

Another difference—it's in Rome! I'm excited to see how writing in a place where I don't know the language, culture, or landscape will impact my own relationship to my work, to the process of writing, to language itself.

What does a day of writing look like for you? How might that change while in Rome?

The ideal writing day happens like this: I'm at the desk before sunrise, a pot of coffee is within arm's reach, it's snowing outside, and not a creature is stirring, not even a Bruce (Tenorio's partner). I'm not betting on much snow while I'm in Rome, but good coffee should be easy to come by, and I have to accept that the city itself will be both inspiration and occasional distraction—I will be grateful for both.

Do you know what project(s) you’re going to work on?

I'll be working on a novel and some short stories. I also want to get back into the habit of writing letters, hoping those I write will respond in kind. How do you pack for a yearlong journey? What writing tools or favorite books will you bring? Can't leave home without pictures of my mom and dad. Those are the first things I'll pack. And unpack. Otherwise, I have absolutely no idea how to pack for a year, so I welcome everyone's advice. I understand that Italians are sleek and stylish, so I'll be sure to pack my most slimming clothes—skinny jeans, black T-shirts—and to avoid horizontal stripes at all costs. For writing, I’ll stock up on G-2 Pilot pens (black ink, fine point) and these terrific $1.50 notebooks from Japantown, which have brilliantly nonsensical covers. The one I'm using now says, "To make your own story. Great works around you must bring out richer potentiality within you." Another has a kitten wearing a catcher's mitt and reads, "Error?" Genius.

Some books I'll pack are Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes, Filipino Martial Culture (a book about Filipino fighting techniques), and Amazons of the Huk Rebellion (about Filipina rebels during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines in WWII). I’ll also pack Paradise, Indiana—if my partner can't be there with me, I'll make sure his poems are.

The characters in your stories often find themselves in a place that is new to them. What inspires you about the relationship between place and language?

In my work, place is often at odds with a protagonist's most heartfelt desires and most urgent plans; that tension needs to be reflected in the language. For example, a character might be standing in front of the Colosseum—ancient history incarnate—but she might process this experience with the flattest, most tonally oblivious language, as a means of reflecting dislocation, isolation, or resistance, because she doesn't want to be standing in this Wonder of the World—she just wants to go home.

Where in the world have you done your best writing?

Rome, hopefully.

By Jeff Marcus Wheeler, M.F.A. Fiction '15