Certo receives HARP grant to research Italian immigrant experience

June 19, 2018

Migration, family, frugality, superstition, religion and food.

These are just a few of the topics that will be covered in an upcoming full-length poetry collection by Associate Professor Janine Certo, intertwining personal and historical narratives. The project will be funded by a Humanities and Arts Research Program (HARP) Development grant, an MSU program for faculty conducting creative and performance-related projects in the arts and humanities. Certo’s project was selected for a more than $17,000 grant in February 2018.

Janine Certo headshot

A working title of “In Years of Steel and Wine: Poems” will be influenced by documented historical narratives from 1870-1930 Italian American immigrants in western Pennsylvania, and Certo’s own family history after immigrating to the country. Certo is a third-generation Italian American.

In her grant proposal, Certo described her collection in this way:

I envision ‘In Years of Wine and Steel’ organized along categories in ‘The Poetics of Space,’ Gaston Bachelard’s (1964) classic book on how people experience place and how the metaphor of ‘door’ can function for understanding the homes we inhabit, leave, abandon and/or return to. Such categorizations would allow for organizing poems along narratives and myths representing the Italian American experience, including, for example, immigration, religion, the folklore of “the kitchen basement,” Italian American women’s domesticity, family, fashion, film and popular culture.

“This collection is about going home,” Certo added. Some questions that are driving the collection include: How were Italian migrants confronted with otherness—that is, with differences in language, appearances, beliefs and memory that set them apart from the rest of the population? What was the symbolic and material work of Italian immigrants and their descendants in inventing distinctive ways of being and objects that were distinctively “Italian”?

Scholar & poet

Children Writing Poems coverCerto studies language and literacy in her work in the Department of Teacher Education—but she is also a poet. In fact, Certo recently published two books that straddle a scholar-poet identity. In “Children Writing Poems: Poetic Voices in and out of School” (Routledge, 2018), she examined how social and instructional worlds influence the poetry and writing performances of youth.

Additionally, “In the Corner of the Living,” a poetry collection that also nods to Certo’s Italian American heritage, was published by Mainstreet Rag in November 2017. The body of work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, which honors publications published by small presses.

Personal narrative

Her new collection will come at an opportune time, Certo said: The U.S. is still struggling with discrimination and racial and ethnic hatred, and the poems will explore these topics.

In the Corner of the Living bookThrough the grant, which includes support for travel, Certo will attend the annual Italian American Studies Association conference in October and visit archives at the Italian American Program in the Heinz History Center. Certo will study papers, photographs, news articles and more from the time period to learn narratives from the immigrants, and tap into her family roots as well. Certo has conducted interviews with her late father and plans to conduct interviews with other family members who have connections to their own immigrant history.

“I have a tremendous sense of gratitude that HARP funded this project,” Certo added. “I’ve always felt like, at MSU, we really value teaching teachers to understand that students have racialized and cultural identities—and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own.”