Poetry and the Examined Life
A conversation with poet Thomas Centolella '74, winner of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship
For Thomas Centolella ’74, writing poetry is more than a vocation; it is a way of life—specifically, a way of living an examined life.
“For the poet, it is discovering more of what it means to be a sentient creature, especially in relation to other sentient creatures,” says the English alumnus, winner of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship. “For the reader, poetry provides a metaphysical window, a perspective that exists beyond the insular rooms of the self.”
The author of four acclaimed volumes of poetry, Centolella will use the fellowship to trace the “origins of [his] bloodlines”: Italy and Lebanon. “I have never experienced these countries up close and personal,” says the San Francisco resident, whose latest book, “Almost Human” (Tupelo Press, 2017), was inspired by a trip to Berlin. “I can’t imagine the impact they will have on my new work.”
The College of Arts and Sciences recently caught up with Centolella, who teaches at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, to discuss writing that engages the mysteries.
Congratulations on your Guggenheim Fellowship—the latest in a series of honors which includes the Lannan Literary Award and American Book Award. What makes this fellowship special?
I always have thought of the Guggenheim as one of the literary holy grails, since the foundation receives approximately 3,000 applications a year from writers, scholars and scientists, but awards only nine [fellowships] a year to poets. As Edward Hirsch [president of the Guggenheim Foundation] puts it, the Guggenheim represents the "best of the best."
It’s nice to be acknowledged for your work; it encourages you to feel that all those solitary hours and years of scribbling away were not in vain and that continuing might actually be time well spent.
“Almost Human,” for which you won a Dorset Prize, explores the interrelationship between human and divine. Did you approach this book differently from your others?
I don't approach the writing of a book in a conscious way. For me, it's a process of poem-by-poem. The more poems that emerged in “Almost Human,” the more the vision of [the book] came into focus.
I showed a handful of these pieces to [poet, essayist and translator] Jane Hirshfield, and she asked "Are you writing a book about the gods?" I hadn't quite seen it that way, but, yes, it seemed that many of the poems referred to a kind of liminal state in which the human and the divine intersect and influence each other. When I say "divine,” I mean those transcendent forces, scarcely comprehensible, that enthrall us, for good or for ill.
You have had a versatile teaching career—not only in the academy, but also in non-traditional settings, including the Institute on Aging. What do you think of the healing power of writing?
Some literary pundits pooh-pooh the idea that art is therapeutic or should be. I'd like to know what world of unalloyed satisfaction do they live in. Apparently, they have never read Nietzsche, who wrote, "We have art so that we do not perish from the truth."
So writing as a healing practice? Check. As a spiritual practice, I reference the Hungarian-British polymath Michael Polanyi, who considered writing a “systematic course in teaching myself to hold my own belief." In that spirit, I don't think of my poems as asserting certain values so much as aspiring to them.
How did majoring in English help you find your voice?
I remember two towering figures at Syracuse. One was Nadine MacDonald, my first poetry teacher, who handed me her personal copy of W. S. Merwin's “The Carrier of Ladders,” and led me through the threshold that changed my life forever. The other was Philip Booth, mentor supreme, from whom I learned so much about the range and depth of poetry, and, eventually, how to teach it.
Both people recognized in me what was only a slight glimmer inside a vague shadow. Without them, who knows where I would be now.
I take it you also had some less sublime experiences along the way.
I still have a reel-to-reel recording I made one day at Crouse [College], while improvising on the Moog synthesizer. What came out was virtually unlistenable, unless you were from a remote galaxy.
During my junior and senior years, I lived in the long-gone, yet legendary “Co-Op IV,” a grand, three-story Queen Anne Victorian, across from the Newhouse School, where the sublime cohabitated with the ridiculous. Maybe it’s time to write that novel.
How has the business of creative writing changed from when you were a student?
There has been an enormous infusion of diversity, both in publication and academia—no question, a long overdue corrective to our culture, even if it does not automatically arrive with quality assurance. Likewise, there has been a massive explosion of M.F.A. programs. [Centolella earned an M.A. in the Humanities from the University at Buffalo.]
I find myself going back to Donald Hall's seminal essay, "Poetry and Ambition," in which he compares the profusion of writing programs to the spread of McDonald’s franchises, grinding out the “McPoem.” Back in the Eighties, he noticed poetry succumbing to sameness and trends, a kind of egotism aimed at publication and prizes and not at writing truly great poems. His advice, in a nutshell: Shoot for the stars, not The New Yorker.