Portuguese American Journal

Across the Universe: Interview with Nancy Vieira Couto

By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)

The award-winning poet Nancy Vieira Couto is a Portuguese-American of Azorean descent. She received a BS in Education from Bridgewater State College and an MFA in English from Cornell University.

Her writing awards include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and an American Antiquarian Society research residency. Her book, The Face in the Water, received the prestigious 1989 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, Carlisle & the Common Accident, was published by Foothills Publishing in 2011.

For the past ten years, she has been poetry editor for Epoch magazine. Recently, at Split this Rock Poetry Festival, in Washington DC, Vieira Couto delivered a paper about DNA testing, Sephardic Jews and the poet as witness.

Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she now lives in Ithaca, New York. Her father was from São Miguel, as were all four of her grandparents.  In 1920, her paternal grandmother had just been widowed when she brought her children to New Bedford, and her maternal grandparents came to New Bedford earlier, in 1901 and 1903, where they met and married.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Vieira Couto answers questions about DNA testing, her Portuguese heritage, her poetry and her life as a writer.

You recently had a number of DNA tests–any surprises?

What I learned is that nobody is 100% anything. I took two different DNA tests: mtDNA and autosomal DNA. An autosomal DNA test, sometimes called “Family Finder” or “Relative Finder,” tests all the DNA, not just the maternal and paternal lines, and finds cousins of various degrees of relationship within about seven generations. The mtDNA test looks at the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter to daughter and shows the straight maternal line. Because there are few mutations in mtDNA, the test shows deep ancestry. Most, but not all, of my autosomal DNA matches have Azorean ancestry. My mtDNA matches come from further afield. I have “cousins” in Iceland, Finland, Australia, Turkey, Algeria, Puerto Rico, and other places. Probably my biggest surprise was learning that my mtDNA haplogroup is H1e, the haplogroup of Moroccan Jews who fled Jerusalem after the Second Temple.

Why did you decide to look into DNA testing and genealogy?

My brother started work on our family tree many years ago, and he was able to collect information from an aunt who has since died. Then he hit a brick wall and put the project aside. But in recent years everything has changed and a lot of brick walls are crumbling. The CCA, or the Centro de Conhecimento dos Açores, has been gradually putting the church records on line for all the islands of the Azores.

They’re almost finished with, I believe, only Ribeira Grande, with São Miguel, still to go. And there are other useful resources like the Azores Genealogy group that I belong to. The group now has over 1200 members; there are a lot of us. Most of what I know about Azorean genealogical research I learned from the generous members of this group. For a long time I resisted the idea of taking a DNA test because it seemed like cheating, but then I decided to give it a try. It’s very addicting, and it’s not really cheating because the traditional paper trail is still needed if any meaningful connections are to be made.

What is the coolest thing you discovered?

One of my 15th great-grandfathers, Duarte Galvão, was a writer. He was born in about 1446 in Evora, Portugal, and he was the chief chronicler of the Kingdom. When he was in his seventies, he was sent to Ethiopia as an ambassador, but he became ill on the way and died on the island of Kamaran in the Red Sea. What’s cool is that his book Chronica de el-rei D. Affonso Henriques is available on iBooks, and I have a copy of it on my iPad. I can’t read it–my Portuguese is nowhere near good enough–but I like knowing it’s there.

Maxine Kumin selected your book The Face in the Water for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize in 1989, a book Publishers Weekly says “ revolves around the theme of exploration, both real and imagined journeys”. How have your journeys informed your poetry?

Everything I’ve experienced in my life informs my poetry, but it is rare for me to write about a place immediately after visiting it. The one exception is my poem “Night Watch,” from The Face in the Water. I was in Amsterdam, I was traveling alone, I had never heard the Dutch language before, and I felt linguistically isolated. Late in the evening the sounds of the city were punctuated by bicycle bells. That poem just happened. But usually I’m more influenced by history than by geography.

Online you post about virtual walking tours. What are they?

Walking just for exercise seemed like a waste of time. I needed a purpose, a long-term goal, and what could be better than a cross-country walk? So I got a pedometer, mapped out a route, and calculated the distances between cities. I set up a spreadsheet so that I could enter each day’s mileage and track my progress. My first virtual walking tour took me from Ithaca to San Francisco by the most direct route. Once there, or virtually there, I needed to come home again, but this time I varied my itinerary by going up the coast to Vancouver and then walking across Canada as far as Toronto before heading back to the U.S. A memorable stop was Kamloops. Years earlier, in a bus station in Montreal, I had met a young English woman who was planning a trip across Canada along a route her grandfather had once taken and described in his diary.  Her grandfather had especially enjoyed fishing in Kamloops. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, but spending time, virtually, in Kamloops seemed like a good way for me to go fishing, virtually, with a grandfather I never had.

I completed the final mile of my trip home on the morning of April 11, as I was walking down Powell Street in San Francisco. I think it’s ironic that my trip ended actually where it began virtually. On my next trip, which I’ve already started, I plan to walk from Le Puy, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. My immediate goal is to reach Moissac by Halloween. I’m enjoying the (virtual) French food.

What’s your favorite Portuguese dish from childhood?

I always loved torresmos and still do, although I don’t get to enjoy them very often. They’re similar to caçoila, except that the chunks of meat are larger, and I think they’re roasted in the oven instead of being cooked on top of the stove. As with caçoila the meat is marinated for at least 24 hours, and it tastes so good with a fresh Portuguese roll! When I was a child I was too young to appreciate bacalhau, which requires a more sophisticated palate or at least a stronger sense of adventure, but bacalhau is now, to me, the epitome of fine Portuguese comfort food. When I was in Lisbon for Disquiet (a literary program, based in Portugal), I had bacalhau at least four times during the two-week period.

Is there a special place that is close to your heart?

São Miguel, Azores, is physically beautiful, and visiting it was, for me, an emotional experience.  I probably spent more time in São Roque than anywhere else on the island. My father was born there, and my paternal grandmother’s ancestors, the Ferreiras and Pereiras, lived there. My paternal grandfather was born in Arrifes, which is close by. São Roque is in the concelho of Ponta Delgada. It has beautiful beaches, and there’s a walkway along the rocky coast. The old name for the freguesia of São Roque is “Rosto de Cão,” or “face of the dog,” after a very large rock that really does resemble a dog.

São Roque parish, in São Miguel, Azores, is an important reference for Nancy Couto. Her father was born there.

São Roque parish, in São Miguel, Azores, is an important reference for Nancy Couto.
Her father was born there.

What are you reading?

I just finished a Ruth Rendell mystery and a memoir by Diane di Prima. At the moment, I am reading An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay, and Ring of Bone, the collected poems of Lew Welch. I am also reading two histories of the Inquisition. In the on-deck circle is An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine, as well as books by Portuguese-American and Portuguese writers. I think I read diversely.

Who are your favorite Portuguese writers?

I love Eça de Queirós and have gobbled up everything by him that’s available in English translation. I recently reread Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and think it’s his best book. The Inquisitor’s Manual by Antunes is another favorite of mine. And I’m trying to keep up with contemporary writers, both Luso-American and Luso-Canadian, as well as with younger Portuguese writers who are being translated. I am impressed by the diversity of voices and the range of subjects and settings. Don’t ask me to pick favorites just yet. I’m still reading.

Do you have a writing process?

I begin my poems on paper, and, when I have enough of a poem so that I know where it’s going, I start doing my drafts on the computer and printing them on yellow paper. I always use yellow paper for drafts.

What one book do you wish you could have written?

I would love to have written Kristin Lavransdatter. I admire the way Sigrid Undset was able to make fourteenth-century Norway more real to me than real life. When I first started the book, I was young and living in San Francisco. In the mornings I found it difficult to leave Kristin and Erlend, to get dressed and take the cable car to my office building, and to deal with electricity and running water and typewriters and other modern inventions. And then, when I was halfway through the middle volume, the book was due back at the library. Someone had put a hold on it, and I wasn’t able to renew it. And it was probably thirty years before I managed to buy my own copy in a new translation and to start all over again. And the timing was right–no cable cars this time, although I still had electricity and running water and even a computer.

But I gave myself the space to live in the book, and the book rewarded me. I would love to be able to write something that good. And I would love for it to be a novel. I’m a poet, I know, but I would love to write a novel.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you do for a living?

I don’t really like writing. I think it’s incredibly hard work, sometimes demanding all kinds of arcane knowledge and always demanding honesty, not in the confessional sense but within the framework of what is being written. I write because I have to, and I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Before that I wanted to be an astronomer or a dressmaker. Being an astronomer might have been fun.

What is your least favorite part of the writing process?

I hate sending the work out. I hate letting go of it. I always think I could make it better if I worked on it for a couple more years.

What literary character is most like you?

Can I choose a character in a song? I think Sweet Melinda in Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues” is very much like me. We both speak good English, although hers is probably better than mine is.

Here is an excerpt from Couto’s chapbook, “Carlisle & the Common Accident”

Angie Appropriates a Bar or Two
of “Dixie,” belts them out over dinner
dishes, muffs the lyrics, hums the rest,
ad-libbing the refrain.  All she knows
about the land of cotton is it’s far
away and for all she cares can stay there.
She’s done with cotton, never wants to see
another spooling frame or harness.  Done
with drop wires, heddles, and that sonofabitch
of a boss with the permanent leer
rusted across his face.  Still, it wasn’t
all bad, she thinks, reaching for
the Brillo and remembering how Eddie’s
tough-guy voice and cocky defiance
attracted her attention toward his hazel
eyes and wavy hair parted straight
down the middle.  But mostly
she threaded her own heddles, went home
to ma and pa, emptied out her pay
envelope on the claw-footed table . . .



(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming Foundation “Money for Woman.” She also organizes the literary series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie

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