A Conversation with Poet Erin Belieu
by David Moody
This phone interview was conducted on Saturday, October 28, 2006, while Erin Belieu, who recently released her newest collection of poetry, Black Box, was attempting to create a Halloween costume for her five-year-old son, Jude.
David Moody: Do you consider yourself to be a connoisseur of words?
Erin Belieu: I'm never at a loss for words. I'm often in that conversation where, in a workshop, there is the discussion of the difference between prose and poetry (and there is no clear delineation) but I constantly support the primacy of the poetic line and the force of every single word.
DM: How does that affect your wordplay when writing poetry?
EB: To me, writing poems feels like being a diamond cutter or fine watchmaker-detailed, exquisite work that requires great powers of concentration. I know some fiction writers that have that same attitude. I'm primarily conscious of craft and language when I'm actually in the moment of writing a poem. I don't usually have a clear subject I'm writing toward-I just let the language reveal the what and who of it as I go along
DM: Do you ever have problems conveying that idea of precision and concision to students or others?
EB: Well, I think that some people know it intrinsically and some people want it to be easier than that. There is a level of attention one has to pay in regard to details, and many people just are not willing to. Which is fine. But if you find yourself sitting in front of a computer screen or paper putting in a comma and taking it out, putting in a comma and taking it out for about forty minutes and you can be oddly entertained by it, or not even entertained but obsessed, then it might be a terrible time to learn that you, too, are a poet.
DM: What are the roots of your interest in poetry? Was there much of it in your home life when growing up?
EB: There were many books of all kinds in my house growing up. I always loved to read and was allowed to have pretty much any book I wanted from an early age. I do the same thing with my son Jude now-I never say no when he wants a new book. My father has vaguely artistic notions, so I guess he figured I'd be the child he offered to the Art Gods. And given that I was a very spotty student academically, I guess he figured we'd better cast around until we found something for me. So I had a lot of lessons in pretty much everything one can do as a kid. It turns out I don't act, draw, play an instrument or dance particularly well. That's how I became defined as a writer and I wore that persona all the way through high school--though when I look back at the stuff I was writing then, it doesn't seem at all promising to me. In fact, it's stone cold revolting. I think enthusiasm was probably my only obvious gift. Then again, there are worse traits for a beginning writer to have.
It wasn't until my undergraduate experience at the UNO [University of Nebraska at Omaha] Writers Workshop that I had any clue as to what a poem was or how I might begin to write one. I had great teachers there and met a lot of visiting writers who took a very kind interest in me. I remember working closely with Stephen Dunn and David Bottoms when they came to visit. They were particularly generous. That's when I realized that I really did want to write, for my own reasons.
DM: So would it be safe to say that you evenly divide your time between reading and writing?
EB: I wish I were more prolific. I'm not like my friend, Carl Phillips. He's always writing twice as much as I am. Of course, it helps that he's absolutely brilliant. But I sweat way too much over every single word. It's sometimes counter-productive and squashes all the light and heat out of my writing if I'm not careful. I think I'm actually a better reader than I am a writer. I read everything and anything very quickly. I've tried to slow myself down since reading so quickly messes with my retention. I have Vicky Stone to blame for my voracious habits.
[Vicky Stone was her arch-nemesis in grade school. They would try to out-read each other in an unspoken, intense competition to be the first one done reading and look up at the teacher. She is still not entirely over the competition and describes Stone as having a "Cheshire smile."]
EB: If I hadn't run into Vicky, I don't know that I would read as I do. As I said, I sometimes worry about retention, but I'm the kind of person that finishes a book and then immediately turns back to page one. I just keep reading the same book over and over. Right now I'm reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy for the third time in a row. When I mention my favorites like Middlemarch or Anna Karenina some people ask "Why do you like such enormous books?" but it's like the longer the book the better. If it's a great book, I don't want it to end. I want it to last longer. So there's a paradox: I'm a stone passer in my work, but I read ridiculously fast. Just one of my many, mostly useless talents!
DM: I'm sure Vicky's just a search-engine-click away. I'm curious: do you ever type your name into Google and see what pops up?
EB: I limit my self-googling to only once in a while to see if anything alarming is about. Probably best to know if there are any naked infrared pictures or other random atrocities floating around! It's a little disconcerting to find people blogging about one's self. In some ways it's nice to know when people like a poem or some such. But the audience has been turned loose with a bullet. There's little context for a lot of the commentary. There's little ability to say "Actually, this is what I meant." I semi-disapprove of blogs in a kind of ignorant way, but I'll admit, I'll do it for money. I was blogging for a while and there were people commenting on my blog. It was unnerving. I couldn't take how self conscious it made me feel so I stopped.
DM: Some writers have taken to pseudonyms and such when writing in the public domain. Do you adopt a persona of sorts when blogging?
EB: I am what I am and I don't try to hide that, though I'm afraid I come off as kind of chatty and domestic in a way. I'd like to be more mysterious or elegant.
DM: Do you think that particular domesticity comes through in Black Box at all?
EB: I think so. The first part is spent watching that whole tradition of domesticity coming apart at the seams. Then it launches into an emotional heart of darkness that chases its own tail absolutely to the bottom of the rat hole. I think there is a level of domesticity in the work, but I'm not sure if other people would see that. If going from my previous books to Black Box, I think there's a thread of ironic domesticity that's being dealt with along with the issues of monogamy and fidelity that run throughout. With this book I think I've become more identified as a poet that works within the feminist tradition. I've always thought of my works as feminist in a real politic way. But I don't think it's been until this last book that people have started identifying me with it directly. In Black Box I gave up trying to be a good girl. I think I've outed myself.
DM: Has your educational background played a part in this at all?
EB: My background in my PhD program was in psychoanalytic theory and I think that really forms the way I view writing.
DM: Do the female critics and reviews pick up on your themes?
EB: Rarely do I have female critics. I think there's been only a small handful in 12 years. It's something that I discuss with my students often. If women want to change literary culture, they need to do reviews and become the editors of more magazines. With my first book, the critical attention came strongly from men. When I first was recognized I didn't realize how powerful and potentially dicey it was for a young woman to be writing erotic poetry. I still have a lot of ambivalent feelings about this. But then again, I'm thrilled to be read and reviewed at all.
DM: When you read I can assume there to be both men and women present. Has Black Box been well received by both?
EB: I've given a lot of readings of Black Box since I was on the Wave Poetry Bus Tour for a couple weeks this fall. It's interesting in that it's not a feel-good crowd -pleasing group of poems. With this book, it doesn't give me a lot of opportunity to get out of that heart of darkness that is Black Box's landscape. The audience reactions are strong, and I've seen a few men who are afraid to approach me after a reading. I think in some ways they're intimidated by the idea of a very female anger and quality of grief. I had one guy say that I was trying to do "the Plath thing." I'm not completely sure what that means. And anyway, I think the book has a lot more to do with Tsveteyava as a poetic model than Plath. Then again, I've had a number of poets I respect who happen to be men tell me this is by far the best work I've ever done. They seem to really dig it. I suppose one can't and shouldn't generalize about audience.
DM: Did you get a chance to read the entire "Red Dress" series?
EB: Omaha was the only place where I read the entire series. A very strong reaction. And honestly, it's not much fun to read. I generally get nervous when I read and go into comic mode. There's no way to do that with this book. When I read the third section, some people positively jumped ship. Some people are so turned on by it and some people are disgusted or maybe even embarrassed by it. I could see the reactions looking out at the audience. I've seen it often enough, depending on the crowd and location in the country. But a strong reaction of any kind is certainly better than a polite one any day.
DM: What about the poem to your son? "The Birthmark?"
EB: Many people have come up to express their interest in that poem. There's something to the notion that parenthood is often not written about. There's obviously love, but an infinitely complicated love, as if an alien has arrived on your doorstep and you have to learn each other's ways under a certain amount of duress. It's rarely the immediate bonding and bliss that culture tries to sell to women. How could it be? I did have one reviewer refer to that poem as "coarse" and that mystified me. I can only assume this reviewer has never had a child.
[She says this as her son twirls in front of her wearing only rain boots and a bandana.]
EB: He's the most inexhaustible being in the world. I think the poem is simply realistic, getting away from that ideal perfection of mother/child relationships. He's always coming over to the computer and shutting the monitor off saying "Okay, we're done writing now." He understands that Mommy needs to do this because it's how she can afford all the things he likes, but we have to negotiate. Jude's a joy and a challenge and I can't imagine my life without him. He makes me laugh every day. And spiritually speaking, I think every parent gets the child they need in their lives.
DM: Have you noticed how single motherhood has affected your writing or timing?
EB: My best writing time is when I take Jude to school in my pajamas, all before having coffee. Then I come home, make coffee and write before picking him up again a few hours later. And Jude is lucky to have a wonderful dad who is as much a part of his life as I am. This makes my life infinitely easier, having a co-parent who is totally on board and thoughtful about giving me time to work. We have a nice family, even though it's not a traditional one. But traditional families don't seem that great to me over all. I think a lot of people are trying to discover new ways of being a family. We're doing that and it's working pretty well, I'd say.
DM: Does your audience ever write back? Do you have a particular audience envisioned when writing?
EB: I get feedback from readers occasionally-the Internet has increased this phenomenon quite a bit for all writers I'd guess. Usually it's just some nice person paying my books a compliment. Every once in awhile I get "interesting" mail from prisoners (I know a lot of other woman writers get this, too). Then there are those people wholly unknown to me who send their entire manuscript by attachment and ask me to read and comment on it.
I don't have a general audience in mind when writing. Usually I have some other writer I'm addressing. My recent book, Black Box, is addressed mostly to the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. As I was working I kept wondering what she'd make of the poems-if they might somehow be worthy of her attention.
DM: Have you ever considered yourself highly successful or unsuccessful at conveying a particular message?
EB: It's hard to know the impression others have of my poems-but the feedback I get makes me think people expect some combination of humor, anger and sexuality as a "message" within my work. And that sounds about right. With Black Box, I feel like I've run the risk of alienating some readers. Writing this book, I was interested in grief and anger as a purifying force and shaping that force through poems that would be extremely disciplined. But that kind of confrontational energy can put many readers off. I've always loved artists like Kathy Acker and Diamanda Galas and I would hope that people might see Black Box as the same kind of artistic/political feminist expression.
DM: How did you select the title from all the words in your new book?
EB: I struggled with the title of the recent book for a little while. But once I'd finished the "Red Dress' poems, I realized Black Box was kind of perfect-at the most literal and metaphoric levels. It's the surviving record of a disaster, it's a metaphor for a coffin and it has those vulgar/erotic overtones that I thought worked with some of the poems performative and hyperbolic qualities.
DM: About your readers: do they often come to you for advice?
EB: I have people who occasionally want my advice-usually young women who, after readings, want to talk about love and relationships and what it's like for a woman artist to have a husband and child and a career at the same time. I'm amazed that after reading my work they'd have any notion that I was wise about the ways of the heart! Maybe they're looking for advice from the incorrigibly reckless. Yes, I'm good at giving reckless, passionate advice. Not quite as bad as the ill considered, I suppose. That's some virtue, though a small one.
DM: Before I forget, a friend of mine is a fan of your writing. She says that Sharon Olds and you are her personal favorites.
EB: What a nice compliment. Sharon Olds is one of my favorites, too. She's a damned good poet. She was very graceful under pressure when she went through some critical nastiness in the early 90s. There was some weird, poetry establishment backlash against her work. Just plain jealousy I suspect, that she should have such a large audience. Because of her poems' subjects, she was a bit of a target for some loud, misogynistic types at one point.
DM: How has Florida State University been treating you?
EB: FSU has a great writing program and it's well organized. I can't think of any places I'd recommend over it.
DM: Don't they offer a certificate in publishing and editing?
EB: They do. It's a good thing to do-getting a background in publications. It's good to fall back on. Anything to keep you around literature but help pay the bills can be good.
DM: Are you aware of the University of Florida's movements to eliminate the arts from their course offerings, keeping composition only because of its "applicable" qualities, but eliminating creative writing and literature courses?
EB: The UF administration and the state legislature should be collectively ashamed of themselves. Deeply ashamed. When a university gives up on the ideals of art and culture they might as well shut their doors. These kinds of cynical choices are killing our country. How much fatter and more disenfranchised do Americans need to become before our government and educational institutions recognize just how much they've abdicated their ethical responsibilities? I know governments generally like to have an ignorant and anaesthetized public to manipulate, but history shows how quickly ignorance grows into viciousness. As America's social fabric continues to unravel, we're all going to pay dearly for their total lack of integrity.
DM: Do you find that Florida is a pro-poetry state?
EB: Is Florida a pro-poetry state? Is any state a pro-poetry state? I will say Florida is lucky to have a number of very fine poets living and working here. I haven't lived in Florida very long so I look forward to meeting more of the writers in our area.
This interview originally appeared in Volume 1.