Cartographer of Word Galaxies

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An Interview with Aaron Belz

Aaron Belz, in his signature bow-tie, cow licked coif, and disgruntled expression, peered at the audience through thick, black spectacles and began, “Cyclists, as a rule, think bikers are cheaters…”

As he read his poem “Worms,” during the introductory session of a writing conference, the hair on my arms stood on end. The fresh word play, novel line turns, and pop-culture subject matter—I was entranced and stunned. Smitten. The thing is, I hadn’t planned on attending any poetry readings at this writing conference. After hearing Belz, I changed my schedule. I had to have more.

Belz’s work is accessible, but despite coloring outside traditional poetry’s lines, he’s firmly entrenched in the camp of literary poets. John Ashbery described Belz’s work as “…dreaming of a summer vacation and then taking it.” Subverting expectations, Belz compares couplets with rapper friends when not editing The Curator. When not delighting audiences with his deadpan delivery at Comedy Meltdown, he’s a contributing editor to Capital Commentary. Forthcoming from Persea Books is Belz’s third book, Glitter Bomb.

—Susan Lerner

I. A GALLON OF MILK

THE BELIEVER: What about poetry sparks your imagination?

AARON BELZ: The language itself is what gets me interested in writing. It’s weird to me that words exist. Never a dull moment with words. They’re a layer between our minds and the physical reality around us, obviously, but the layer seems like it’s always in flux, like an asteroid belt, constantly moving. It might sound strange, but just to look at a gallon of milk and think “gallon of milk” makes me a little tingly. Poetry is a way for me to explore that feeling, to let it play itself out, and also to map it. I feel like I’m making little star maps when I write poems.

BLVR: How would you describe your poetry?

AB: I recently described my poetry to a rapper friend of mine as “constructed and compact.” We were discussing the differences in how we approach the medium. I described his as “spacey and musical.” So I think of my poetry as blocky, formed, sort of set in amber. Hard. That’s likely because I was reared in the Modernist critical tradition (went to a boarding school, etc.), which looks at poems (and other works of art) objectively, stripped of their context, emotion, and authorial intent. What I’m talking about is the first half of the 20th century, when William Carlos Williams described poems as machine-like. But I live in the 21st century, so I’m sort of doing that old approach but with pop influences and a mind of Walmart.

BLVR: Your work has strong elements of humor and absurdism. How did you become drawn to this style of poetry?

AB: Given the last sentence of my previous answer, I’d say humor and absurdism are inevitable. If you look at our current massive flow of consumer products and digital communication and related media from a sort of astute perspective and carefully state what you see you can’t help but sounding like you’re joking. I have a poem called “Alberto VO5.” I can’t even read the title aloud in a public setting without drawing a laugh or two. Maybe it’s because we’re not accustomed to framing anything carefully now. We just watch it speed by. To stop and really ponder what a product label says, or the tagline on a TV commercial, might be inherently silly. Those are things that are almost designed to be thrown away. So the humor comes about naturally as the result of framing things in a certain way.

BLVR: I’m glad you mentioned “Alberto VO5.” It’s on my personal hit parade of Belz poems. I love how the images, despite their specificity, engage at a broad level. I’m curious about the engine that drives the poem. Can you describe your process, how the image of the hair product, its ad copy claims, and the idea of “bitter regret” all came together to form the poem?

AB: I think it’s a matter of finding the wrong context for a consumer product. On the shelf at CVS or in the shower caddy in your personal bathroom Alberto VO5 doesn’t suggest grief or mourning. It’s actually, I think, a way of making our lives more plastic and unreal. The brands with which we surround ourselves prop us up, make us feel sexy and beautiful, when in reality we’re pretty dumpy creatures. So I’d say the brand is lying about something, or at least misrepresenting it. When I read a bottle of shampoo or moisturizer or other beauty product, I always perceive a dark subtext. The words haunt me. It comes across as humorous to the reader/audience, but in fact the words really do make me a little bit queasy. Nothing is as easy or natural as consumer brands want us to think—no problem is as resolvable. Your hair will fall out, eventually. Yet we do have these brands, and we line our shelves with them. There’s an inherent irony.

II. THE 00000000001%

BLVR: I’ve found Aaron Belz YouTube videos in which you are reading your poems at Comedy Meltdown. How did the entertainer side of your career develop?

AB: In early 2008 an actor/comedian friend of mine, Bill Chott, invited me to participate in a variety show he was hosting in St. Louis. At the time I had recently completed a dissertation about comedy and was thinking about comic strategies in writing and art. It was a nice hybrid kind of event that led me to meeting a number of comedians, talking with them about their writing process, and finding that we shared a lot of common ground. The big difference was the performance aspect. None of them ever went up and read from sheets of paper, but that’s what poets do; it’s what we expect poets to do. Whenever I do a comedy show I still just read poems, some of which are intentionally funny and some of which are just bizarre. The mix seems to work well. I think it’s a nice pace-changer for the venue, especially if they have a lineup of standup comedians. I’m like the palate cleanser. The sorbet.

BLVR: How has performing your work in Comedy Meltdown changed the way you think about poetry?

AB: I’ll admit that after the first few readings in comedy venues I did begin to write for laughs. There’s something so gratifying about stimulating laughter. But recently, maybe in the last year or so, I’ve gone back to writing more poetry-ish stuff—longer and more complex. The odd thing is, people still find it funny. I don’t know. I try to blend the punch lines into the poetry lines so it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. Sometimes it’s just a hybrid, something you can’t quite tell what it’s supposed to be. That’s the best result, I think.

BLVR: What questions inform your work?

AB: I gravitate toward the larger worldview questions such as, Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing? What does it mean to know another person? To love someone? Of course, those questions are sort of in the background as I’m playing with language in the foreground, but those are the informing questions.

BLVR: What is your vision for poetry? What do you want to leave your readers with?

AB: Mine, I think, is to mesmerize with juxtaposition. What I want to leave my readers with is something that seems precise but is actually speedy and talky. I want to leave them with a sequence of ideas/phrases that makes them question something they’d taken for granted. Or that confuses them to the point that they laugh, but contains one or two phrases/lines that stick in their minds.

BLVR: It shouldn’t surprise me that you can whip out a poem in ten minutes—you have such an amazing facility with language—still, it’s depressing for those of us, like me, who labor endlessly over every word. Can I put you on the spot? How about a quick stanza about your relationship with words?

AB: No. You may not put me on the spot!

BLVR: You’ve written essays and book reviews. How do you see yourself, genre-wise, in the world of writing? What does the writing of essay and book reviews bring to your poetry?

AB: Writing essays and teaching composition have helped me immensely in writing poetry, because they’ve forced me to focus on the structure of ideas. I tend to think of my poems now as being thesis-driven. My poems are also very sentence-oriented, rarely employing fragments or other grammatical curiosities. That’s not to say the sentences are always logical. In fact, they are often illogical, but illogic is the Mr. Hyde to logic’s Dr. Jekyll. They’re really the same person, just like saying something and not saying something both imply speech in some sense. Negative space is important. When I teach students to read critically I advise them to look for what the author isn’t saying just as carefully as for what he or she is. I’m sure most teachers do this. For me, it plays out in my writing, because I’m thinking of all the possibilities of what a sentence or stanza or poem might say, within the context it has established, and then saying only a few of them. Really we’ve only written about .00000000001% of great poems possible to be written.

BLVR: Ever think about writing fiction?

AB: I don’t really want to write fiction at all. I don’t see why fiction is necessary when we have real life (already confusing enough).

BLVR: How does surprise factor into your work?

AB: Surprise keeps the reader awake. The only alternative is to continue saying what the reader is expecting. What fun is that? When I was in college I sat in a workshop at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga where a visiting poet, Tim Seibles, was leading the discussion. He said that the moment the audience looks at their watches, you’ve lost them. He said every line should turn. I thought that was revolutionary, at the time, and now I know that not all poets believe that. But at the time I took it as Bible truth and began employing it right away.

BLVR: What would you be doing if you weren’t a poet?

AB: I would be happier and less alone. I’d probably be a professional—lawyer, communications professional?—who would have health insurance and thus could afford to receive the level of psychotherapy necessary to prevent me from having to be a poet.

BLVR: What do you read on airplanes?

AB: Skymall!

Susan Lerner is a student in Butler’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Her work has appeared in Staccato Fiction, Booth, Foundling Review, JMWW, Monkeybicycle and Bluestem. Susan lives in Indianapolis with her husband, three teenagers, and dog, Mischief. In her spare time she posts book reviews at http://booklerner.blogspot.com.

Illustration by Casey Jarman