Interview With Poet Aaron Belz

I’m so happy to share Aaron Belz with the Poetic Asides community today!


Credit: Thomas Crone

In 2010, Aaron’s second collection of poetry–Lovely, Raspberry–was released by Persea Books. Before that, there was the The Bird Hoverer,
which Boston Review called “masterfully strange.” Aaron is an English
professor at Providence Christian College (in Pasadena, California).
Plus, he’s a very welcoming and friendly poet who founded the
Observable Poetry reading series in St. Louis. He now lives in the Los
Angeles area with his wife and three children.

It’s hard picking a poem to highlight from Lovely, Raspberry, so I’ll just use the one that led to this interview in the first place:

The Love-Hat Relationship, by Aaron Belz

I have been thinking about the love-hat relationship.
It is the relationship based on love of one another’s hats.
The problem with the love-hat relationship is that it is superficial.
You don’t necessarily even know the other person.
Also it is too dependent on whether the other person
is even wearing the favored hat. We all enjoy hats,
but they’re not something to build an entire relationship on.
My advice to young people is to like hats but not love them.
Try having a like-hat relationship with one another.
See if you can find something interesting about
the personality of the person whose hat you like.

*****

What are you currently up to?

Hey Robert, first let me say thank you for your important role in
connecting the American poetry community and keeping us informed and
ambitious. You’re one of our great optimists and hardest workers. I
hope you keep it up.

What I’m currently up to is sitting in a ranch-style house in Arcadia,
California. My family (better half Becca and three kids, Elijah,
Natalie, and Amelia) and I moved out here in the summer of 2008 to help
start a new school, Providence Christian College. It’s a non-profit,
non-denominational liberal arts college with 60+ students, and I am its
sole English professor. I know–poor students!

I’m also writing poems, of course, and giving readings and stuff as
much as possible. I’ve got three poetry jags in the next three months:
to the Midwest in late January, New York in late February, and central
California in mid-March. Right now I’m between my second book, Lovely, Raspberry,
which came out last summer, and a hopeful third, the manuscript for
which, as chance would have it, I mailed to my publisher today.

Your website has a really nice design, and so does your blog. Did you design these yourself?

That’s good to hear, because in December I hired a former student to
combine the two and do a total redesign–then un-hired him because it
would take too much time, money, and attention to make it cooler, and I
just don’t have the resources right now.

The current design of Belz.net
is more than 10 years old. I created it with the help of my former
partners at Schwa Digital Design, especially Derek Odegard, who’s now
an interface engineer at OpenSky. We did meaningless.com
at the same time. They both hold up, don’t they? Kudos to Derek. The
blog is nothing special, one of WordPress’s themes called “What as
Milk.” I chose it for its simplicity.

As a follow-up question, do you employ any sort of web strategy for connecting with readers?

My web strategy is not really a strategy. I use belz.net as a home base
to link to information about me and my writings. My blog is the most
current but also most transient, and a lot of stuff I put up there
eventually goes away–it’s junky and experimental. And meaningless.com
is a portfolio of my poems. It has perhaps the most potential for good
use, but I update it very infrequently. Four years ago a European
company offered quite a bit of money for it, but I kept haggling, and
they eventually lost interest.

I was just about to brag that I don’t use Facebook or Twitter at all,
on principle, but then I realized that I’m still incredibly dependent
on social media: Goodreads, LinkedIn, Booktour, Google Buzz, Flickr,
Academia.edu. Gosh, I’m all over the map. And I’m even more of a
hypocrite, because I like it when other people post stuff about me on
Twitter and Facebook. But my life is simpler not having to think about
those things. My fear of missing out (FOMO) factor is practically nil.

My wife and I found ourselves reading poems to each other from Lovely, Raspberry.
When I told you this, you said you get this a lot and then made a
remark that maybe the poems are “social poems.” This got me wondering,
how social do you think poets (and perhaps their poems) should be?

Well my wife reads and edits all my poems, though she used
to be completely outside the process. These days she has ultimate veto
power on anything that I might want to publish. I couldn’t be happier
to have a partner in this bizarre business.

We had a discussion recently about the nature and/or purpose of my
poems and concluded that they use relationship rhetoric in a way that
people like. This is why people like to hear them read, and why couples
like to read them to each other (which, as I said earlier, I’ve heard
at least a half-dozen times). The laughter response is a laugh of
recognition. The stuff I write sounds like things readers and listeners
have said themselves–or read on the internet, or on text messages or
e-mails. I think there’s some release in it.

I think poems should be social. Writing is social by nature. As
a poet, you’re creating a relationship with a reader or audience via
the poem. In Comp 101, we call this the “rhetorical bridge.” In
romantic love, the same paradigm is mirrored in sex; in theological
terms, it’s incarnation and communion. A poem is a pact, a treaty. In
other words, I think social is everything. That doesn’t mean the content is public, though. What I’ve found is that people like to be private together–nerds en masse.

Your poems incorporate a lot of pop culture references. For instance, Lovely, Raspberry
references Count Chocula, Al Gore and Katherine Hepburn (not all in the
same poem), in addition to others; there’s even a poem about Alberto
VO5 Extra Body Shampoo. What do you feel are the benefits to using pop
culture references in your poems?

These are touchstones. The words themselves are important to people. People appreciate the particularity of them and that the words they see every day are rescued from the ephemeral and put in a holy place, the poem space. It also makes them laugh, sometimes because it’s unexpected.

By the way, I don’t mean the pop references in my poetry to be cute or
camp. I think our imaginations are shaped by products and proper nouns.
The odyssey of our lives is walking down the aisles of Wal-Mart,
sitting in an AMC theater watching previews, driving down the
interstate deciding where to stop for fast food. Sad but true. And not
so sad, actually–this is what we’ve got. It’s our blessing.

You currently teach English and creative writing at Providence Christain College. Do you feel teaching helps with your writing?

The boundary between teaching and writing overlaps. The lowest
common denominator, I suppose, is that I am telling people things I
believe to be true and hoping they’ll agree with me. In both cases,
there is a burden on me to be articulate and resourceful. Both are
exercises in community and persuasion.

As we learn in the Intro to Lit Theory course I teach, every text makes a case. Every thing,
simply by existing, makes an implicit case for its own existence. For
example, yellow leaves in October argue that yellow leaves in October
ought to exist. They are also other things, such as a symbol of time
passing, but they are at least that.

As a poet and writer, I’m inherently an advocate for my kind, and that affects everything I do.

You’ve written and reviewed multiple collections of poetry. What do you feel makes for a good collection of poems?

Poetry, like stand-up comedy, succeeds when it strikes a balance between fulfilling its audience’s sense of what it ought to be and seeming totally ignorant of what it is.
The worst mistake a comedian can make is to appear to be trying to make
his or her audience laugh. Anxiety about laughter leads to stage death.
But a comedian does need to be comedian-ish or the audience won’t have
that necessary context, which is deeply satisfying to them.

Poets err in the same two directions. Either they pander to the reader or they are too obscure and “innovative.” Readers do
expect poems to seem like poems and poets to seem like poets. That has
to be okay. At the same time, readers expect something totally new. So
a poet must fulfill the preconceived notions the audience holds about
what a poet is, and does, while at the same time seeming almost
completely unaware of his status as a poet. You know, I think a poet
like Carl Phillips does this really well. He makes it look effortless,
which is the mark of a master.

There’s also a role for a poet’s-poet, whose technical skill is
extremely high but who has trouble relating to other people. I think
most Modernists and quite a few Postmodernists fit this bill, while
natural-born entertainers like Robert Burns and Bob Dylan have had more
direct value as poets in their respective societies.

You spent years curating a poetry reading series in St. Louis. Could you share a poetry reading tip or two?

At a live reading, poets should speak directly into the microphone,
or, if there isn’t one, raise their voices. Poets tend to be rather
sheepish, or they get weird and embarrass themselves (and their host!).
One thing I wish I could magically change is the sing-songy way many
poets read their poems. Maybe we can’t go back to the driving monotone
of Frost or Yeats, or the pitch-perfect tenor of Dylan Thomas, but the
current poetry inflection, which has been in vogue since the late 80s
really ought to end. Just say the poem naturally. Say it directly,
smartly, and let the language’s natural rhythm carry you.

Finally, poets should not be shy about selling their books or
advocating their own work. It’s hard to be a poet in a world that’s
watching Justin Bieber and Jersey Shore.

What (or who) are you currently reading?

When school’s in session, I’m reading what I’m teaching. Right now,
that means the entire oeuvre of Mark Twain, among many other things.
Also, generally, I’m reading what I’m reviewing. Right now, I’m not
reviewing anything. For fun, I’m reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life
Together.

If you could pass on only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

The first thing I’d tell new or young poets is not to get caught up
in the whirlwind of stuff in the poetry world. Prizes, books, MFAs,
writers colonies, networking opportunities–there are thousands upon
thousands of poets in America who’ve been through the system and come
out the other side not much better as poets. Remember that most
English-speaking people, your presumed audience, don’t know or care
about the pecking orders within the American poetry system. The key for
you is to find your own way of talking and try it out often with some
sort of audience. Write poems on a blog, e-mail poems to honest
friends, and then listen to what sorts of reactions you get.

The second thing I’d say is you must read old stuff. Dante, Herrick,
Donne, Pope, Dickinson…Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams,
Marianne Moore. Read voraciously! And read aloud.

*****

I’d like to thank Aaron for his great answers and advice! Now, I’m
going to praise him on Facebook and Twitter (which I hear he likes!).

If you wish, you can follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

By the way, we tweet poetic on Tuesdays using the #poettues hashtag!

*****

For more on Aaron, check out one (or all) of his websites:

*****

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8 thoughts on “Interview With Poet Aaron Belz

  1. Colette ;D

    Great interview. I really love/hat Aaron’s featured poem! Great advice about the poetry world, and about that sing-songy reading style that really does need to change. Thanks Aaron, and Robert, for this interview!

  2. Hannah Stephenson

    What a fun interview! I also really enjoyed Belz’s work…

    His Jersey Shore/Bieber comment is funny, but I’m not sure I agree–in fact, his poems would be really suited to mentioning either, I think!!

    I totally want to write a Jersey Shore poem. I might do it. We shall see…

  3. Brian Slusher

    Thoroughly enjoyed the interview and Mr. Belz’s work. Thanks for the links, RLB, and continuing to expand my acquaintance with intriguing poets with fresh work/perspectives.

  4. Amanda Hoving

    I love the concept of "social poems." It would be great if more people felt this way, and realized that reading (and writing) poetry is not just an act of solitary swooning.

    Great questions and answers. Thank you Robert and Aaron!

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