Guest Interview, Part 2: Edward Nudelman and Aaron Belz Talk Inspiration and Creative Process

Indie Lit Award Nominated and Runner-Up Poet Edward Nudelman, author of What Looks Like an Elephant, offered to help celebrate National Poetry Month with an interview of poet Aaron Belz.

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.”

Poet Aaron Belz

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.

***For Today’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour post, hop over to Rhapsody in Books***

***Also, I’ve been interviewed at Curiosity Quills***

Guest Interview: Indie Lit Award Nominated Poet Edward Nudelman Interviews Poet Aaron Belz

Indie Lit Award Nominated and Runner-Up Poet Edward Nudelman, author of What Looks Like an Elephant, offered to help celebrate National Poetry Month with an interview of poet Aaron Belz.

What follows is part one of Nudelman’s discussion with Belz about his two books of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007) and Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).

Please give both poets a warm welcome and stay tuned for part two of the interview tomorrow, April 3, 2012.

Aaron Belz is a poet who has forged a considerable niche in the American poetry scene. Where similarities and knock-offs are the rule of the day, Belz’s poetry is a recognizable entity highlighted by layers of irony and contemporary idiom, always punctuated with some deeper purpose lurking below the upbeat flow. His poetry has been likened to Ashbery and Brautigan, but really stands alone in authenticity.

I first read an Aaron Belz poem while staying at my niece’s in Brooklyn, in their somewhat dank basement with low ceilings and low light. There, neatly placed by my bed stand, was a well-used copy of The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), no doubt placed there to appease my celebrated tendencies toward insomnia. I read it straight through, quite taken in by its accessibility and metaphor, how he used humor as an instrument for relief and also a device to uncover a weightier mood.

From “Canaries:”

The jackknife you filched
with etchings of boxing gloves on it
reminded me of the metal fruit
in the center of the table at Canaries Street,

for both were perfectly round
and gave off an inaudible hum
like that of a remote dishwasher.
When Susan came bounding down the stairs

with her arms full of teen magazines
and hollered something to Rudy
about your new jackknife,
I came in from the field where

I had been sitting in a lather
about my cracked telescope case.
I said, Rudy’s not in earshot, sister,
he ran out for decorative pomegranates;

Aaron was kind enough to answer in detail several questions I posed which provide a little more background and understanding into this poet’s wonderful world of poetry.

After reading through your first book, The Bird Hoverer, then scanning and reading selected poems from Lovely, Raspberry, I’m struck by the similarity of tone in both books, but what appears to me a departure in the second book to broader themes and perhaps a more contemplative mood behind the counterpoint of humor. Can you walk us through your evolution of thought as your poetry develops through these two books? In Lovely, Raspberry, have you found a place you want to be, or are there new and wild transitions to come?

Thanks for reading the books. I’m not aware of a change in the humor, but I can tell you that much of Lovely, Raspberry was written earlier in time than most of The Bird Hoverer, which was my second manuscript. So to answer your question, maybe the humor is brightening up a bit, at least chronologically? My newer poems (of the past three years) are less intent on whipping the reader with wit. I’m finding myself enjoying the language more now, letting it roll beneath my boat and steady as she goes. The third book’s manuscript has been accepted by Persea and its title has been decided—it’s taken a lot of conversation to finalize—but I’m afraid I can’t share it for fear someone else will use it! It’s a great title! The next collection will feature some shorter poems, one and two liners. I always hate finding those in other poets’ collections, because I feel like I wasted energy turning the page. But they’re in mine, I guess.

What I like about your poetry is how naturally your humor flows from experience. However, with all the wild and wooly situations and outcomes we find ourselves led into, it begs the question how much of this stuff is honestly from your experience, and to what extent to allow yourself license to depart from what really has occurred?

All of my poetry comes from my own experience. I have a hard time imagining it coming from someone else’s and then ending up on my page. Whether it comes from my experience honestly is another question—perhaps it comes from it artfully. Psychologically and emotionally. Writing poetry, for me, feels like spitting back stuff I’ve been chewing on for a long time. Finally, it’s out, and it feels so good to have done with it. What sticks most in my craw is certain manners of speaking. “In a manner of speaking” is a common disclaimer. I’ve gotten to the point where each word seems like a wheel rut in a long road toward meaning. I feel like meaning will never be reached, but we keep driving whatever car God’s given us down the road toward meaning. There, a second transportation analogy. I hope you’re happy.

In the opening poem to Lovely, Raspberry entitled “direction,” you spend three stanzas (out of five) equivocating what the you in the poem should or should not do with respect to communicating feelings, ending with this superb mini-conclusion:

In this way perhaps we can accurately triangulate

brief but nearly photographic images of each other’s

Mothers when they were first married, in veils,

and of their driving down the street with tin-can trails. . .

and then a remarkable personal reference, deftly rendered:

You expect me to tell you about the spite in my loin
Which is the sad hail of commas in the professor’s paragraph

is followed by a very self-effacing remark which seems to further separate you from the central character in the poem. I want to ask you if this poem is about the speaker’s inadequacy to articulate, or more broadly, a commentary on the difficulties and pitfalls of dealing with extraneous baggage in a relationship. The sardonic tone only adds to the poem’s success in conveying a kind of futility in resolving conflict. Would you agree? Has this been your experience?

I don’t think of “Direction” as being about interpersonal conflict as much as it’s about the way readers expect a poem to be framed. Like, I’m supposed to architect something, and the reader is supposed to inhabit it. That’s what I learned in school, basically. But in my poems I like to unpack those assumptions and assemble them into something new, like Ikea furniture for the literary home in which we live. The goal of any text is to create a sympathetic connection between writer and reader, but the means by which that goal is achieved vary widely. Like my favorite recent poets (Ashbery, O’Hara, et al) I enjoy discussing the framing method somewhat lightheartedly, following the logic where it happens to go. I feel my way toward the end. In “Direction” I felt like I was really trying to explain the relationship between writer and reader. It seemed funny to me to attempt to reinvent the reader’s way of interpreting.

I love the poem, “my best wand”, because it does what so many of your poems do, yet so seamlessly, in one small burst. And that is convey a paradox or a twist in a culminating line. Whereas one often finds too big a buildup, (the reader is often numbed as a result), in so many of your poems, the setup is masterful and succinct:

my best wand

Of all the magic wands

I’ve bought over the years,

only the steel one with the sharp tip

really works- you point it

into someone and say


and the person magically

becomes wounded.

Humorists often come from anguished pasts, dropped when they were infants, had bamboo pressed into nails, etc. Do you have marks from your childhood or something dark and sinister tailing you? If so (or if not), how have you handled adversity? Does this poem speak to a method you’ve dabbled in? Can you tell us ways you’ve adapted, how you’ve learned to put down your magic wands?

That’s a good question. I think that’s exactly what I described near the middle of the first answer above: I’ve become less intent on whipping the reader with wit. Wit is fun, at first, but then can lead to bad places, such as resentment. It can be a show of power. Rather than my poems be barbed and have readers lose sympathy, I’d rather they be little verbal masseuses, working their readers’ backs and necks. There can be a kind of deliriousness or spectacle that achieves that effect. In future poems I want my phrases and lines, transitions and images, to be a little bit more swimmy, delicious, and ongoingly re-readable. Oh, and yes, I do have a lot of sinister stuff tailing me, from childhood till the present. And I’ve handled adversity poorly. I can’t imagine having written the things I’ve written without being so troubled. I do try to hide the fact that I’m troubled, but it doesn’t always work. There’s a powerful darkness at work in my poems that I think a lot of readers—maybe they think, I’ll just pop this poem in the microwave and eat it—miss on first reading. But not everybody misses it. But then again, I’m a Christian, which means I believe that there’s eternal hope in Christ’s love for me. I suppose poetry, like all of my other work, has to span competing senses of failure and hope.

Thanks, Ed and Aaron. Please come back tomorrow for part two of the interview.

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.

***For today’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour stop head over to Wordy Evidence of the Fact.***

***Also, I’ve been interviewed at Curiosity Quills***