What follows is part two of Nudelman’s discussion with Belz. If you missed part one on April 2, 2012, please check it out. Today’s discussion is about Aaron’s influences and his creative process.
Please give both poets a warm welcome.
Please tell us how you got into poetry and what were some of your early influences. What kind of poetry do you read nowadays, and how does your reading affect your writing?
I think I backed into poetry as a medium. In grade school I was interested mostly in visual art. I loved to draw, to make things, and listen to music. I loved to read, too, mostly fantasy and sci-fi, plus Agatha Christie and WWII comic books. I was the photographer for the school newspaper. I also drew comics. I had pencils of every lead, many kinds of erasers, non-photo blue graph paper, and for Christmas one year my parents gave me an expensive set of Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pens. I built different pen-holding accessories on my dad’s tool bench in the basement. Poetry came later, perhaps as a result of laziness—it’s so much tidier and less expensive, requires work that is purely mental plus some finger movements. In eleventh grade my French teacher told me I was one of the most verbally adept students he’d ever taught, and I didn’t forget that. I think we move forward partly based on what people tell us we’re good at doing. So in college I wrote more, editorials for the student paper, little jokey poems, etc. Then I decided to go to grad school for poetry. Then I just kept going with it, because it was the only thing I was reasonably good at—otherwise I was a jack-of-all-trades, truly master of none. Shiftless and lazy and horribly selfish, I now come to see. Prone to fantasy and wild thoughts. I really don’t even recognize, now, the person I was back then. I’m glad to be beyond him. These days I do spend a lot of time with poetry, but not always for delight. I write reviews, teach people how to read poetry, evangelize for art and music frequently, and make very little money doing all that. Hard to call it a “career” in the way I think the baby boomers envisioned career. I’m not exactly a man of letters. Or a man of leisure. Not sure what I am. When in doubt, start working on a new writing assignment.
It would be interesting to hear a little about your creative process. You have spent a good deal of time on the comedy circuit, and am I not correct in assuming you could call yourself a ‘standup comic’ at least once or twice in your past. How different is writing a poem for you from writing comic material which has as its sole aim to make somebody laugh (correct me if I’m wrong here)?
Correction, for the sake of reality—not a “good deal of time.” I’ve been in a dozen or so comedy shows, and always as a poet, never as a stand-up comic or improv performer. I have a huge amount of respect for the real comedians and comic actors, the skills they’ve honed, the risks they take, the hard ground they till, and I can say without a doubt that although I sympathize with them I am not one of them. Comedy works from prepared material, generally, which is then performed live. My set—my “show,” if you want to call it that—is simply to stand up in front of a crowd who has paid to see comedy and read my poetry, straight up. It gets a good response not just because it’s good “material” (as one of Will Ferrell’s agents once told me!) but because it’s a change of pace for the audience. Part of my act is that I’m a poet, just a poet, reading aloud. I once asked advice from Orson Bean, legendary comic actor, on how to improve my set. His response was telling: “You’ve got to edit, select poems which make sense in following the previous one and tell some kind of a story overall. Then you’ve got to memorize them and practice performing them at first in front of a mirror and in front of audiences. Then you’ll see if you have something which could be called entertainment. A lot of work! Good luck.”
You have said that writing a poem for you is a very pleasurable experience, and, unlike some poets, you don’t much anguish over the functional side of actually creating your poems. Why is this? A genetic proclivity, or have you discovered some tricks you’d care to share with us plodders and scrappers?
Maybe not tricks but a difference in philosophy, at least between the way I write and some others with whom I’ve discussed writing. I remember in grad school Galway Kinnell talking about his own revision process, which could span decades. He said (in 1995) that he’d recently revised a poem he’d published in the late 1960s. I didn’t like that idea at all, that he’d written and published a poem so long ago and yet it still felt unfinished to him. I began to think, and this was supported by another grad school class, with Allen Ginsberg, that there was some holiness to the process, that it was time-locked, for one time, not transcendent or part of some “great poem” reality that could continually be discovered. A poem is today’s exercise; instead of making one poem or certain poems great, I’d rather focus on making new poems. Another poet, Jason Sommer, in St. Louis, held more with Kinnell’s view. He wrote and labored and revised quite a bit, which I admired, because I felt like I was incapable of staying with one poem. I needed to keep moving. Finally I told him that writing poetry is, for me, analogous to playing baseball. You stand up to the plate, have that defined opportunity to get a hit, and if you do, you’re on base; if you don’t, you sit back down on the bench and wait for another at-bat. But no batter would continually revisit a particular at-bat. The goal is to become a more skilled batter, not to sweat one plate appearance. So that’s the philosophy I’ve settled on, largely. I do revise, but I don’t revise much past the week or two during which something is composed. Most of my most successful poems (“successful” meaning, I see them shared and reprinted or notice them being enjoyed more than others that I’ve written) were composed completely in a matter of minutes—five minutes, ten minutes. It’s more a matter of being the right frame of mind when writing. “Revise yourself,” Ginsberg said. That’s baseball.
Along these same lines, you have said that John Ashbery is your ‘main dawg.’ Is that because his work seems so rooted in the process itself, not self-absorbed, but the poem itself becomes the living entity, jam-packed with the culture of the day, hidden jabs and allusion. What do you like about Ashbery and how does your poetry aim to mirror these aspects?
The thing that initially appealed to me about Ashbery was that he moved so easily in and out of image and conventional expression, shifted tone suddenly and frequently, and yet his texts seemed to have an undeniable unity—a unity I don’t think I’d ever encountered in poetry. You read Hotel Lautréamont and come away thinking, a tank just ran over my head. A single, solitary, perfect machine of words. A monolith! What I love about Ashbery is that his work is so collage-like and yet so unified. I think he admires Braque and other modernists. I know he admires Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth, high-philosophy poets for whom unity was everything. Maybe the antithesis to Ashbery is Charles Olson, whose poetry feels like tree bark crumbling in my hands. I can’t hold it. It almost feels like there’s nothing there, after reading it. But Ashbery feels sleek, perfect, smooth, funny, wrong in so many ways, yet completely accessible. That might be the first time Ashbery has been referred to as completely accessible. To me, he’s more accessible than any poet of his generation. I also love O’Hara. As to emulating what he does, I once sent a cover letter along with a submission in which I said that I was like Ashbery but better. This was probably fifteen years ago.
I never heard back.
I notice you have received your PhD in literature from St. Louis University, though you don’t seem to publicize this much (as per my request for your bio, you were as terse as a Haiku, omitting your letters in a most unprofessorial sort of way? Could you speak to this apparent panning of formal education? Currently there is a debate as per MFA programs churning automaton ‘poets,’ all speaking in the same voice, and all being published in the same journals? What can you tell us about what makes a good poet?
In his poem “What Is Poetry,” Ashbery says, “In school / All the thought got combed out.” This is consistent with an American Romantic way of thinking, and I believe Ashbery is basically a Romantic Transcendentalist, so it makes sense that he would write this. When I’ve asked him questions about his work he’s responded sometimes with lines like “Leave that to the critics to figure out” and “I don’t know, I don’t think about it that way.” He resists the academic side a lot, but you know he also loves the attention he gets from the academy in the form of Harold Bloom and being asked to give the Norton lectures at Harvard, which eventually became a book called Other Traditions. Personally, I don’t reject the academic life. I also don’t live and die by it. To me it’s the same thing as Wal Mart, overseas travel, eating dinner at your great-uncle’s house on Sunday afternoon. School is just school, and it’s important as what it is. It’s important to an extent. Poetry workshops can be helpful, no doubt. If you eat them like brownies they can kill your poetry, though. Just try to hold other people’s opinions at arm’s length a bit. Art is great because it represents some sense of total freedom. You do what you want. Make your vision real in your medium. But that doesn’t mean you’re not a human being, and as we say: All things in moderation.
What’s next on the list for Aaron Belz? Do you have a book in press? Could you give us a sneak preview?
I do have one, and it has a title, and I will not share the title. I’m afraid someone might steal it.
About Interviewer and Poet Edward Nudelman:
Edward Nudelman is a poet, scientist and literary critic from Seattle. He has two poetry books and his latest collection was runner-up for book of the year. Check out his Website.
About Poet Aaron Belz:
Aaron Belz has a Master’s in Creative Writing from New York University (1995), a Ph.D. in English from Saint Louis University, and has taught English and Creative Writing at several Universities. His books include: The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007) and Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010). A third is due out from Persea very soon. Check out his Website or follow him on Twitter.
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