Chelsea Palermo is a force in New Jersey’s community—literary and otherwise. In conversation with her, there was no escape from the many ways she had connected herself to others, no way to pin her down in a talk that focused solely on her writing as a poet. We met outside her garage, where she has set up her sanctuary as a writer, and left to talk at a nearby park. On the way, she pointed out the great art spaces in town and talked about wanting to set up events at the park’s gazebo, and halted everything at one point to engage a woman passing by—a violinist who had performed recently in Atlantic Highlands, where Chelsea lives.
Her organization, the Ministry of Artistic Intent, is aptly named. Chelsea’s work and life is a ministry. Whether she is counseling teens or setting up events for bands and artists alike, she approaches these tasks with an intense sense of duty and reverence to the people she’s looking to serve. She humbly honors the entire community she encounters.
There’s a conservation in her momentum: as much as Palermo pushes outward into the community, she equally reins herself in personally. Perhaps it’s a defining aspect of her humility, not wanting to extend her own work beyond that of the people she serves. Perhaps it’s her heroic flaw. Perhaps she just… doesn’t want to be a poet.
If history had anything to say about it, it might be the case.
For Palermo, writing has always been a part of her life. Sure, that immediately seems to contradict that she doesn’t want to be a poet, but it wasn’t poetry she was writing. She was journaling. “When I was in fourth grade, I was given a journal, and that’s when I started writing,” she says, “I wrote a poem when I was in eighth grade for school, and then here and there in high school, I would write… I never aimed to write poetry.”
This isn’t to say, though, that Chelsea didn’t enjoy poetry growing up. One of her favorite books was, and still is, A Treasury of American Poetry. But Chelsea had a terribly weird concept of what or who a poet is and can be. She grew up visiting the White Horse Tavern (a popular NYC haunt for writers in the ’50s, owned by her uncle) pretty regularly on weekend trips into the city. Inside the bar, an ominous oil painting of Dylan Thomas staring crookedly off the canvas tortured her; a subsequent book report on him made things much worse. “I thought he was a horrible man. I did! I remember writing this essay on him, and how he was awful,” Chelsea recalls, “and that informed my idea of what a poet was. That informed my resistance to poetry, or my resistance to writing it.”
What she knew of Dylan Thomas, drinking and writing inaccessible verse (to her as a middle-schooler), made poetry mysterious: an art and life completely separate from how she knew herself, and separate from how she ever imagined herself. “ I just never thought that that’s how I could be. Or that maybe a poet could be a positive thing.”
Her resistance to poetry followed her. In creative writing classes, she wrote songs and not poems. While attending Monmouth University, she edited the literary magazine The Monmouth Review, but refused any suggestion to seek an MFA from her advisor. Most of what she had written that could’ve been considered poetry, along with a lot of her other writing, was stashed away in a box. And not a metaphorical box, but a real physical container that’s somewhere still in her home—unopened, unedited, untouched.
But poetry did happen for Chelsea. Silently she attended workshops, submitting work purposefully flawed to prevent being recognized. After graduation, her need to write fueled her. It took filling notebook after notebook to realize she wanted—needed—more. Palermo’s resistance to poetry gave way when she entered the low-residency MFA program at Drew University.
Drew’s program gave her the necessary stress and stability to write, even at times still against her own will: “[the program] teaches you how to be a writer every day. How to have that discipline, to think about the writing all the time,” she says, “and I think it taught me a lot of discipline I didn’t have because I had to do it. Even if I was resisting how I felt about being a poet, I had to write the poems.”
Years of resistance aside, Chelsea Palermo is a poet. One who, above all else, seeks truth in her writing. And perhaps that’s true of all poets writing poetry. But truth to what end? Emotional, physical, spiritual— these are universals we overlay on the writing of others. It’s how we suss out and empathize with them. Chelsea’s truth is rooted in her own life, her personal experiences. “My real life,” she says, “that’s what it’s married to in my life. And that’s what the poetry was before I even went to Drew, and before I revised it.”
For her, part of that truth is being honest with herself and being open to addressing the hardest parts of her life. “I do believe that, when you experience things in life (that’s what life is, right? It’s experience), you have to get it out of your body,” she says of her work at Drew, “and that’s what I was trying to learn. How to take certain experiences and pull them out of me physically, through the writing.”
Today, she’s editing the manuscript for what should hopefully be her first book. But we have to jump back to the beginning: art is also her ministry. While working as an artist herself, she promotes the work of others as founder of the Ministry of Artistic Intent. “Helping artists is really the core,” she says, “a larger part of our mission, what we’re grounded in, is aiming to help artists fulfill their creative goals by saying, “yes” and supporting that. I had to do it myself. I had to say yes to myself, right?”
Palermo firmly believes in the necessity of a creative life for creative people. Her social mission extends itself even beyond the actively creative community and into spaces where more significant help is needed. “I come from a place of really believing that art can heal you, or that art can connect you to a part of yourself that may have been silenced that needs to come forth,” Chelsea says. As a behavioral assistant and mentor, she encourages the drive in creative teens from families in crisis. Looking forward, she’s training to be an Applied Poetry Facilitator—a poetry therapist, essentially—to completely merge her craft and working life.
And where does all this buildup lead us? To a success story? A guarantee in the preservation of art in our communities? If anything, we should see at least a great physical space for art in the future. “I really want a home for the arts organization,” she explains, “I want a home, a venue, and a program running. I want to merge the poetry, the art, and the therapy.”
It’s no master plan to conquer and reform the world. It might just be as simple as a café, serving coffee and pastries, with just enough stage for a few people to perform—something a fourteen-year-old Chelsea dreamed of owning one day in the pages of her journal. At the very least, we can expect it to be a sanctuary where, in a world of people saying no, someone will say yes to art.
Feature Photo by Catalina Fragoso
This article first appeared in Issue 05