Maybe I’m homesick or maybe I’ve just sold out, but I’ve stopped distinguishing between the states that make up the great green Midwest I call home. Even though I’m from Indianapolis, my excitement about meeting people from Detroit or Chicago is undiminished by lines on a map. Ultimately, they’re from where I’m from and meeting them somewhere else I am awed for just a moment by the power of distance to make people feel close.
When I attended Anthony Carelli’s poetry reading in the Berlin Theatre on Wednesday, September 28, I felt again the weirdness of encountering the Midwest in the East. Carelli is from a Wisconsin town so small it only has one stoplight, and he left to become something else. Though there are hundreds of stoplights in Indianapolis, I feel some solidarity with Carelli—both of us departed from the heartland for the intellectual hotbed of the East. And maybe this is why I identify so much with Carelli’s poem “In Ordinary Time,” which is set in the savory pie shop that employed Carelli when he lived in New York City. There, he spent his time doing “whatever sells the pies,” which in this case is “a Midwestern smile” that “turns out to be a mighty whatever.”
As this poem suggests, Carelli is not from the poetic school of introverted misanthropes mumbling into artfully tied scarves: he’s a smiler. His presence is best described as pleasant: modest, affable, engaging. He knows—and this is a knowledge I think many Midwesterners have—how to make people think warmly of him. His real enjoyment of his time on stage was obvious enough to cheer everyone in the theater. But under the agreeable mannerisms and humble self-deprecations were calm poems of simple beauty. Like him, his poetry is likable. It backs away from its own gravity and seriousness. It avoids pretension by being self-aware of its existence as a method of dealing with abstraction, and so strewn throughout are moments that question the role of human in the creation of art and the limitations of this role.
When I met with Carelli later that week, he told me that he loves to do readings, and that increased opportunities to do so are his favorite part about having recently published his first book.
“I get so excited to read my poems and other people’s poems,” Carelli says.
Carelli is a Hodder Fellow, which, according to its website, is awarded to “poets, playwrights, novelists, creative nonfiction writers, translators, or other artists and humanists who have ‘much more than ordinarily intellectual and literary gifts’ and who are selected ‘for promise rather than performance.’” I had never heard of it, but it’s prestigious. Enough so that when I began to explain it to my mother, she interrupted me: “Susannah, I’ve been around the block a few times. I know what a Hodder Fellow is.”
Carelli is characteristically modest about the position. He says that, like me, he had never really heard of it before his friend Kathleen Graber (also a poet) received it in 2007, but upon researching it was impressed with the caliber of his predecessors. He applied and got it. It sounds more simple than it was, I’m sure.
Also deceptively simple is Carelli’s rendering of Hodder Fellow life. To hear Carelli tell it, it sounds pretty sweet. He says his typical day is “almost embarrassing,” i.e., “a good amount of goofing around and a lot of reading and if I’m lucky a little writing.”
But later, Carelli lets slip that he doesn’t exactly spend his time staring at the ceiling.
“I have ten ideas for a new book. The problem is there are too many ideas… I am still very much in the stage of writing ‘poems’ and setting them aside and looking back at them in seven or eight months.”
Because of this writing process, Carelli’s first book, Carnations, took him about eight years to write. It is a book that deals very much “with biblical themes,” Carelli says. “I was writing these poems at a time when George W. Bush was using words of faith to lead us into war.”
His poems—which cover topics from grocery shopping to playing frisbee in the park to religious longing—are full of Christian motifs and titles like “The Lord’s Prayer” and “The Disciples.”
Despite this, Carelli doesn’t identify as Christian. “I took those themes because I was uncomfortable with those themes,” he explains. “It made me uncomfortable to hear those words around public spheres and in mouths of politicians who hadn’t considered their complexity. I was uncomfortable hearing them being used as devices to coerce people.”
In terms of his specific beliefs, Carelli, though not Christian, calls himself spiritual. “Poetry is my spiritual life,” he says. “I think I can only conceive of spirituality as happening in the midst of a community: a moment when more than one person feels in awe and humbled by a shared experience and poetry is something that happens to create that in my life. It does that better than anything else.”
Being from a small town, he feels “native to a Christian lexicon.”
“Their way of speaking comes out of the Bible more than other religions,” he explains. “Though George W. Bush is gone, this fundamentalist speech happens all the time—and it’s not just Christian. I just figured if I was going to obliquely criticize one group’s use of it I had better criticize my own and not someone else’s.”
I ask Carelli how his understanding of the Midwest has been affected by his distance from it. I’ve found that people who aren’t from the Midwest don’t know much about it except that it’s rural and flat—a friend recently asked me if Indiana was in the South—and I wonder if Carelli manipulates these stereotypes for artistic benefit.
“My focus on the Midwest comes about not only for autobiographical reasons but because I wanted to have a conversation with that part of the country about the way those terms are being used. I wanted Midwesterners to feel native to the poems.”
It is an interesting appropriation: a (newly) East Coast poet writing poems inspired by a demographic that may never understand or even see them. Carelli acknowledges the dissonance (“unfortunately, most of my audience is people who write poems,” he admits), but his Midwestern home was central to the creation and completion of his work.
“After my book was finished, I gave a reading at my hometown’s public library. This town has a one block main street and on that one block is a library. I went and read and as I read, I realized that I had those people in mind when I wrote the poems.”
“Nobody spoke of poems when I grew up,” he says. “I didn’t know how people engaged poems, but when I wrote from a distance I would nonetheless try to write in a way that would allow my neighbors to find some reason to come to the poems and some enjoyment.”
These are Midwestern poems written in New York City, where Carelli moved to attend New York University for graduate school. “I wanted to study and read and write poetry and be around other people who study and write and read poetry,” he says. “I’ve been trying to find a life that allows me to write poems ever since.”
At Princeton, he has. He is thrilled to find “such a community of talented writers” and looks forward to a year of the studying, reading, and writing he came to the East Coast for.
Though no longer employed by the pie shop, Anthony Carelli still works with pies in a metaphorical sense. Like meat pies, his poems are deceptive: simple, savory things, wrapped in a pleasant covering, with surprisingly flavorful centers. In person and in print, he is accessible and engaging, but never cloying, never too much, never insincere. To each person who asks he offers exactly what he has, in a reading, in a poem, or in East Pyne Cafe, talking to an undergraduate, each smiling a Midwestern smile at the other.