On influence and craft: 3 questions for Anthony Carelli


Anthony Carelli's first book Carnations was published in 2011. Currently he's a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.


In an article in a Princeton magazine, US 1, you mention Hart Crane as one of your favorite poets. Is there a specific poem that inspired you to write the way you do now? Do you remember the first time you came across Crane’s poetry?

"To Brooklyn Bridge" is the Hart Crane poem that has most captivated me. I wonder if it is also the poem that has most inspired me to, as you say, “write the way [I] do now”. Looking back at the Proem this evening I notice that the petitioning of the Bridge in the poem’s last two lines, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship led a myth to God” would have been a suitable epigraph to my book Carnations.

In my puzzling quest to write poems Crane has been more my guiding star than my captain; I don’t really know how to take instruction from him; I don’t know how to glean strategies of craft from his impeccable poems. Crane’s is the highest pitched lyric my ears are capable of hearing. I stare up awestruck into his poems and wonder “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” which is a line of baffled praise that Crane utters at the marvel of the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, if I were asked to name one aspect of Crane that has most determined my path, it would be his orientation as a poet of praise. My poems tend to be praise poems, too.

I began reading Hart Crane in earnest in September of 2001 because one evening my teacher Philip Levine said the dead poet’s name. I’m sure Levine had much more than a name to say – I know Crane is one of Levine’s favorite poets – but I don’t remember exactly what Levine said that so turned me on. All I know is Levine said Crane’s name and I went out soon thereafter and bought a paperback copy of Crane’s complete poems. The Proem happened to be the very first poem in that paperback edition. When I started reading the book I found the poems to be both intoxicatingly exquisite and utterly incomprehensible. Those years I was living in Brooklyn and I would often take my Crane book to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, in Crane’s old neighborhood, and read the Proem while standing in the very spot Crane stood when he conceived of the poem, looking out along the Brooklyn Bridge as is spanned the East River and landed in Manhattan. I would try my best to figure out how Crane translated vista and vision into those marvelous words.

Along those same lines, do you feel that the poetry that influenced you as a beginning writer (whether it’s Hart Crane or other writers) is still as inspirational at this point in your career? If so, what made it “stand the test of time” for you, but if not, what changed in your connection to the poem or poet?

The poets – Jack Gilbert, Seamus Heaney, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop - that strongly influenced me at the beginning of my career continue to influence me now. I can’t get enough of them. I read them all the time. Though I don’t know any of them personally, these poets have become something like my poetry friends. They are the crowd I hang with. I look to them for guidance. I feel safest when I’m in their midst. Yet I have no idea what makes a poem or poet retain my attention over many years.

Your biography on Memorious mentions that you graduated with your MFA from New York University in 2003, and your first collection, Carnations, was published in 2011. Once out of your graduate program, what was your writing routine like, if you had one at all? Did it change over the years?

Between 2003 and 2007 I lived in no single place for more than six consecutive months. I lived in various homes in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Georgia, and twice spent extended seasons in South America (primarily in Paraguay, and Chile). I worked odd jobs, including a stint at a golf course in Madison, Wisconsin and at a seaside boardwalk t-shirt shop in Wildwood, New Jersey. During that time my writing routine was as varied as my environs. I was writing plenty but most of what I wrote was wild and pretty terrible. Over those years I kept in constant mail correspondence with the poet friends I had met in graduate school. Along with letters sharing details about my nomadic life and whatever books I was reading I would enclose poems, hoping for (and often, weeks later, receiving) my friends’ thoughtful feedback.

At the very end of 2007 I gathered my wild unfinished poems and settled in Brooklyn. In addition to working at a savory pie shop, I joined a poet gang called Freshkills and with the help of the other Freshkills poets I began finishing poems. I finished the bulk of my first collection while writing with them.

In your time working towards Carnations, how did you arrange your life to make sure your writing was still important? Has your writing routine changed at all since the publication of your first collection? If you could create an ideal location and atmosphere for writing (a white sand beach on the Gulf Coast... Paul Muldoon's posh living room...) what would it be?

I don’t know if I ever arranged my life in a way to, as you say, “make sure [my] writing was still important”. I just try my best to find a sustainable (here I’m speaking in terms of personal economics rather than ecology) lifestyle that allows me as much time as possible to write. But within that framework my writing routine changes every day. This was true before I published Carnations and it continues to be true today. I have no notion of an ideal location and atmosphere for writing. Well, I like a roof above my head, and I like having ready access to my books, but beyond that I don’t demand much of my environs. I write in all different corners of whatever house I find myself in. I write standing, sitting, and lying down. But mostly, alas, I don’t write. I read and fuss and play and drink coffee.