Growing up in Wappingers Falls in the Mid-Hudson Valley, Peter Fortunato loved horses and came to Cornell in 1968 to become a veterinarian. That changed during his first year when he realized his vocation was to be a writer, so he transferred into the College of Arts and Sciences. Peter was also inspired by his art history courses with Peter Kahn, who encouraged him to keep making visual art. Then he met his life partner and eventual wife, the poet Mary Gilliland when they were both advisees of James McConkey, who became a lifelong friend.
Peter graduated in 1972, but stayed on an extra year until Mary graduated. He wrote poetry, read about Zen Buddhism, and began practicing meditation after being introduced by Mary to the writings of poet Gary Snyder and philosopher Alan Watts. He earned money by working at Cornell’s High Voltage Lab, doing yard work, and modeling nude in figure painting classes at Cornell and Ithaca College.
After winning a fellowship in creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Peter and Mary moved South. While writing and earning an M.F.A. in poetry, he and Mary also worked as models for art classes. They were in high demand because while meditating they could sit still for so long.“Greensboro was soon to be known as ‘Little Atlanta.’ However, we lived in the country, and since cohabitation was illegal in North Carolina, we had to pretend we were married.” After graduate school, while waiting for clear direction, he and Mary took a BOCES Carpentry class and each continued to write.
“With no fixed plan we accepted friends’ offer to return for a weekend to Ithaca: ‘Gary Snyder is coming to give a reading. We can go to that and the reception!’ We both adored Gary, who remains our friend and teacher,” Fortunato said. “The reading and the party were fantastic and went on into the early morning hours. Before we crawled home, Gary had invited us and we had agreed to join him and his family in Nevada County, California in the foothills of the Sierras, where he and his friends were building a community school.”
Mary and Peter loaded their 1965 VW Bus and drove to California. “We practiced Zen and we helped build the school. We wrote poetry and savored life with our hero and his circle, living off the grid, off the beaten path. [...] We found ourselves in the midst of the Back to the Land Movement. [...] It was an exciting time.”
Loving the uncharted life, Mary and Peter had many adventures before trekking back to the East Coast. They worked in the San Francisco Bay area doing carpentry and house shingling. And Peter would constantly write. After living for a time on a houseboat in Sausalito and then back in the Mid-Hudson Valley for a while, Peter and Mary eventually returned to Ithaca in December of 1977. They were confident they could live anywhere, make friends, and do many different things to make a living.
While continuing to do carpentry and occasionally working as models, Mary and Peter found other opportunities: Mary completed a Master’s at Cornell, and they both began careers in academia. They bought a rundown rental house and turneditinto a spacious, bright retreat with room for two writing studio offices, and a meandering garden leading down to Six Mile Creek.
Peter’s first book of poetry A Bell or a Hook, inspired by his life in California, was published by Ithaca House, located at 108 North Plain Street. Baxter Hathaway and wife Sherry created and ran the publishing company. Baxter, a renowned author, was also founder of the Creative Writing Program at Cornell, so this reunion was especially dear for Peter, who had studied writing with Baxter as an undergrad. Mary’s first poetry collection, Gathering Fire, was also published by Ithaca House.
As Peter began teaching creative writing, composition and poetry at Cornell and Ithaca College, he also continued his studies in complementary alternative medicine. For many years, he has had a professional counseling practicefocusing on hypnotherapy, shamanism and Reiki.
Mary, a well-known poet, joined the Cornell University faculty in 1981 and retired from her full-time work in 2007. Peter who had been teaching on East Hill and South Hill for almost 30 years, in 2005 took a position at the newly opened Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. Mary also taught there for a semester. Peter stayed on for four years.
“The students were very sincere and engaging,” he said. “With tolerance and mutual respect, as the War in Iraq continued several hundred miles away, we learned from each other.”
It takes something unique for two writers to make a good life together, and Peter and Mary have continued unabated in their creative lives. “We have worked hard as two artists, seeking to find our way. We have created a special synergy as a couple, understanding that we each need space and time and quiet to create, yet loving and valuing the time we can spend together.”
Peter's new novel Carnevale is full of references to his early life in the Hudson Valley, as well as to the sexy, psychedelic ’60s. All are invited to Peter’s reading March 11 at 6:30 p.m. in the Tompkins County Public Library. And then we hope to hear Mary’s version of this couple’s wild story.
Ithaca is filled with treasures—people, places, programs. Marjorie unearths some of these gems every other week here in her column, Community Connections.