Poet Anthony Carelli is always hungry for poetry conversations. But he has noticed that many of his friends are entirely reticent on the subject, an interesting contrast, he observes, to their exuberance talking about recent films, where they analyze the quality of the writing, acting, and directing. “It’s not that they have a more intimate understanding of the art of making a film than the art of making a poem,” he says in a phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment.
Carelli muses that perhaps people are daunted by poetry because they are first exposed to poetry at too young an age. Or maybe it is just a matter of low frustration tolerance. “People feel like they ought to be able to ‘get it’ because it uses forms we use every day, but it takes at least one or two more reads, and this is a little discouraging for some people,” says Carelli.
But of course the power of poetry is not in being an easy read. The work of one of Carelli’s beloved poets, Hart Crane, is especially difficult to understand; yet it has much to offer even if total comprehension remains elusive. “Out of 100 times I read one of his poems,” says Carelli, “I will come close to ‘getting it’ twice, but there is so much to delight in in the poem aside from understanding it the way we understand speech: so many gestures and so much play in language.”
For people who may not have the patience to read a poem over and over, another way to penetrate a poem is to hear it at a poetry reading. “If I had had the luxury of being alive when Hart Crane was alive and got to hear him read a poem, I feel like I would have been led many steps along the path of sharing that intimate space of consciousness with him,” says Carelli.
Carelli is among the poets from around the world who will read from their work at the biennial Princeton Poetry Festival, Friday and Saturday, April 29 and 30, at Richardson Auditorium. Participating poets in this year’s international festival, which places an emphasis on translation, include the Brazilian poet Paolo Henriques Britto and his U.S. translator, Idra Novey; the Israeli poet Agi Mishol; and the Slovenian poet Ales Steger and his U.S. translator, Brian Henry. In addition to Carelli, American poets include Kathleen Graber (both Carelli and Graber are published by Princeton Universtiy Press), Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Carl Phillips, Charles Simic, and Natasha Trethewey, as well as poets on the faculty at Princeton.
Carelli says he has been doing more readings in the last three years, and that has encouraged him to start submitting poems more regularly for publication. Before that, the alienating process of businesslike rejections turned him off. “I wanted to share my poems, but I didn’t find the process as very personal, so it was one of the things I neglected,” he says.
For Carelli poetry readings created connection. “It seems like a poem’s natural habitat is between myself and another person,” says Carelli. He began to realize that if he started submitting more poems for publication that might give him more opportunities to do readings. But the way he stepped into the big time — with a poem in the July 26, 2010, issue of New Yorker, and a book of poems, “Carnations,” just published by Princeton University Press — did not happen by following the ordinary path.
Having once shaken Paul Muldoon’s (Pulitzer Prize winning poet and director of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton) hand at a reading, it occurred to Carelli to ask Muldoon for some advice. Carelli wanted to hear about Muldoon’s experience writing in Ireland during a time fraught with religious-based issues to guide him in similar poetry he was writing.
Carelli had grown up in the world of Catholicism and standard biblical terms were part of his vocabulary. But he had started to feel uncomfortable with the way politicians were using these terms for their own purposes — “a kind of a co-opting of religious terms by the political sphere,” he says. They would employ the terms as absolutes that did not do justice to their intent, suggests Carelli, so he decided to reclaim these terms by transforming them in his poetry from absolutes to something more experiential.
In one poem, “The Crucifixion,” he links the crucifixion with the 1970 act of the citizens of Florence, Oregon, who decided to blow up a dead whale that had beached on its shores and begun to stink. Although the citizens’ solution did not work very well, Carelli was able to use the event metaphorically in his poem. “The poem tries to take something that we see as an event that took place a long time ago and informs all of Christianity and make it something that is more immediate, something we might be able to imagine: an unmeasurable creature washed ashore from another realm. We have to decide what do we do when that creature washes ashore.”
Although Muldoon did not respond directly to Carelli’s questions, he did respond to the poems that Carelli had attached as examples and asked if he could publish one of them in the New Yorker, where Muldoon serves as poetry editor. Then, after another letter from Carelli with another round of questions, which Muldoon again did not answer, he asked if Carelli had a book-length manuscript he could look at. The result was “Carnations.”
Carelli grew up in Poynette, a rural Wisconsin town in the commuting radius of Madison. His parents are both educators: his father was his middle school principal, and his mother was a music teacher and later a coordinator for gifted and talented programs.
At the University of Wisconsin Carelli discovered his passion for poetry. He took a creative writing course on a whim, liked it, and ended up majoring in English. Realizing that he wanted to keep writing poetry and discussing it within a community of writers, he applied to the graduate program in creative writing at New York University. For his class of 15 poets the formative experience was September 11, 2001, which was supposed to be the first day of class. Providing mutual support during that time, suggests Carelli, repressed the normal inherent competitiveness that often comes out when writers get together. “I think our first couple weeks of that year we, as a community of young writers, many of whom had just moved to New York the week before — we desperately needed a community that was supportive emotionally,” he says. “We rallied to one another’s aid that week and that became the foundation of our relationships.”
The friendships he developed in the program continued to be his audience for the next three or four years while Carelli says he was “sort of nomadic.” He would work for six to eight months to earn money and then find a cheap place to hunker down and write.
During that period, as Carelli was trying to figure out how to write on his own outside of the auspices of a supportive institution, he says, “it helped me having to take responsibility for what I was doing and not just write for the same audience, where I had come to be able to almost predict how good readers would respond to poems I was writing.”
In 2007 he moved back to Brooklyn, where today he manages a little cafe called the Pie Shop, a 90-second walk from his apartment. “I have the luxury of not having a commute, so that’s opened up some time that other New Yorkers cannot necessarily expect to have,” he says. The cafe, he adds, stimulates his writing, both through his interactions with customers and observations of street scenes, but it does not tire his writing muscles.
“When one considers Princeton is truly an international venue, one thing we would like to be known for is honoring poets and authors from around the world,” says Muldoon about about the upcoming festival. “Princeton has a responsibility not only to its own students and scholars but to the wider community.”
So consider opening yourself up to poetry and to the poets Muldoon has gathered. And just maybe you will feel the intimacies that Carelli believes poetry can create. “When I read a poem, I feel like I’m often being invited to stand precisely where the poet stood at a given moment in time and be intimate in a moment of consciousness,” says Carelli.
Princeton Poetry Festival, Lewis Center for the Arts, Richardson Auditorium. Friday, April 29, 2 to 9 p.m., and Saturday, April 30, 2 to 6 p.m. Readings and discussions featuring distinguished poets from around the world. Register online. $15; $25 for both days. 609-258-1500. or princeton.edu/arts/poetryfestival.