interview: aaron belz
when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
I don’t picture anyone reading my poetry. I have no basis for what happens in that mental picture other than seeing people reading things and, hopefully, enjoying them. Whom I write for is the discouraged person. I just want them to know I’m here for them if they need me. I also write to make myself laugh. It’s the old “you crack yourself up” thing. If I’m my own worst critic, am I not also my own best audience? Live readings are a better setting in which to gauge the audience. Once, in Lancaster, PA, a member of an audience asked, “Is that even a poem?”
Sometimes I picture myself reading my poetry, and what I see is not too great. It’s a guy, now in his forties, stifling laughter and weeping occasionally. Then, I picture the man watching himself reading his poetry, and I feel sorry for him. Has he nothing better to do? I think art is a way to feel excited about colors, shapes, scenes, forms, that ultimately leads to feeling sorry for oneself. Everyone who looks at art is glum. They seem serious, earnest, like significance itself rests on them. They tend to wear dark clothes and nerdy glasses. I don’t know why they do it, but looking at art is definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Is it even a poem?” My answer is, I don’t know. It’s what I do.
how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or surefire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
I enjoy reading the Psalms. Lately I’ve been reading passages from Lamentations, which is also a fine book. The writer says, “God has made my teeth grind on gravel” and that he has “filled me with bitterness”; in the next breath, he says, “His mercies are new every morning.” It’s almost funny if it weren’t so sad. God lets his children be dragged through garbage in order to remind them from whence true mercy comes.
There is nothing as lovely as reading the Bible in a quiet place. It’s like playing with a loaded pistol—a really beautiful, silver, heavy, pearl-handled pistol. If people can learn to read poetry when they’re alone, especially biblical poetry, they will discover the power of language to evoke universal truth. It’s both comforting and scary.
when you approach your desk, journal, computer—wherever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.
My habits of writing have everything to do with Microsoft Word. I write, delete, cut, paste, add, subtract, enjoy the morphing text. I delight in this process more than I do publishing books or engaging an audience. I think whatever goodness is in my own poetry comes from the natural delight of making that I feel.
When beginning a poem, I normally write a sentence. My poetry rests on a foundation of sentences. I rarely go off-book and write flowy, streaming poetry that has little or no punctuation. I’ve done it, but it’s not what I normally do. A sentence, then a new sentence that gives some context, then a third sentence that undermines or expands the ideas already in place. As I’m writing sentences, I’m thinking about lines and stanzas. I love the way a poem’s shape comments on the ideas it contains. Tercets are a favorite. Tercets rarely miss!
I print a poem when it seems complete, then read it from the page. It is almost never complete, so I go back to the Word document and futz with it some more. Frequently I think something’s done, and it actually sucks. Sometimes I think something’s raw, and I read it to an audience, and I like the way it feels to read. So I sometimes keep the raw poem the way it is. I learn from that.
when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!
I revise only in the first day or few days after initially drafting a poem. Most revisions happen within the first Microsoft Word session. I think I get most of my thoughts straightened out in an hour or so. But I do let a poem, printed, sit on my desk or in my inbox for a week, and then read it fresh. A few changes are usually called for when I reread it.
what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
The main thing I know now that I did not know when I started writing is that writing is a process that goes on for years. You mustn’t write toward one or two great poems, and you should assume that what you’re working on today won’t be included in an anthology or book of any sort. What you revise along the way is your process, and you learn to delight in making. It’s always, in the end, piles of poems, reams of unconnected lines, bits and fragments, unfinished trash.
Writing is like fishing through the trash in your mind and finding recognizable objects that maybe shouldn’t have been thrown away.
A couple of other things while we’re on the topic: It’s okay to hate other people’s poetry. It’s okay to feel gross about poetry in general. It’s imperative to allow other people to dislike your poetry or lament the fact that you’re trying to write it. Most young writers (and old novice writers) don’t allow space for the audience. If there’s no space for an audience, if your poetry has to be liked, what good is it? Let everyone think what they will. What you’re doing is very limited.
Poetry, per se, won’t save anyone, anyway. It’s a part of culture, so in that sense it’s important, but it has no real power. If language is beautiful enough, it has power, yes, but I’ve found out the hard way that no matter how beautiful my words are, there are some things only God himself will change or heal or restore. That’s life. Still, we enjoy writing poems and sharing them with each other.
would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above? if so, please do so below…
I don’t have a new poem to share. I have hundreds of pieces but nothing finished that’s new. I need a break for a couple of weeks to write, actually, so if anyone reading this knows of a place I might retreat with three or four books and a MacBook Air, please let me know.
Aaron Belz is a poet and essayist originally from St. Louis, now living in Hillsborough, NC. His poems have been published in a lot of places for the past twenty years, including three books: The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007); Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010); and Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). A number of his reading videos are available online, as are many of his poems’ text and audio. For more information, visit belz.net.