Interview with Erin Belieu


Erin Belieu is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Slant Six published by Copper Canyon Press. She is currently serves as the director of the Creative Writing program at Florida State University. Gulf Stream‘s features editor, Stephanie Selander, had a chance to chat with Belieu at the Miami Book Fair International. 

Thank you for coming in to speak with Gulf Stream today. It really is an honor. I wanted to start by talking about your newest collectionYou strike this playful balance between biting satire, conversational wit, and tongue-in-cheek humor. This plays out especially in poems such as “When at a Certain Party in NYC,” which you told The Rumpus was the poem you’d say was most emblematic of the book’s scope. Can we talk about this first line? “Wherever you’re from sucks, and wherever you grew up sucks…”

EB: (laughs) I did write that.

You did!

EB: I always like to start a poem with a certain amount of stance.

It’s a lot of fun; it really pulls you in. Why do you think poetry has this reputation of being inaccessible, and what do you think a poem gains from being openly conversational with its audience?

EB: In this last book? With every book I usually have a certain set of aesthetic problems or arguments that I’m thinking through. I tend to sort of be “thinky” as a poet. I think I need to sort of feel some sense of argument, individually poem by poem, but also in the larger sense of the collection. And I think one of the things that book is responding to is—I want to make sure I’m saying this correctly—there has been a trend for a while now in writing poetry that moves by disconnections and leaps. Still kind of [like] lyric narrative, but sort of pulling apart any traditional notion of sense. And there are tons of writers who work in that—there are many writers who work in that vein or explore that kind of aesthetic whose work I admire very much. It’s not a slag on that kind of work. But then I started thinking about some of the poets who first drew me to poetry, and this idea of direct address, right. Is it [still] possible? And I also studied with Robert Pinsky, who has been a mentor and a big influence on me.

I was trying to think about this idea of a more demotic voice, and is there a way to create this notion of direct address without the poems suffering from a kind of superficiality? I think about the masters of that, someone like Robert Frost, who appears to be accessible to civilians, sort of, but we all know that those poems actually have layer after layer after layer, even though there is a kind of direct address in many of Frost’s poems. So this was what I was trying to explore in that book. There’s lots and lots of different ways, there’s five hundred different ways to come into a poem—but one of the things I most tell my students is that you can’t sort of shilly-shally, lollygag, and just let the poem start in the third stanza.

I was a competitive diver growing up, and for many years. So for me, one of the things that my coach would say to me over the years was that the dive starts on the board. Because that’s where all of your trajectory is going to come from. Every possibility for the dive starts with that approach and takeoff, and so that [line] “wherever you’re from sucks, and wherever you grew up sucks,” I was trying to think of a way to just launch the poem into the air the way you would a dive. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. It’s a really good image, actually.

EB: You want to get those trajectories, the intellectual, the emotional trajectory and tone, like if you can start it, just start it. Don’t stand there and just bounce on the end of the board the whole time.

Sort of like the farther you jump, the further you can go, and the faster you can go. Another poem of yours, “How We Count in the South,” has such killer lines as, “Please. Don’t tell us / history. Nobody hearts a cemetery / like we do.” As a fellow North Floridian—I’m from Jacksonville—I have to ask, would you say is Florida part of the South? And secondly, was there a specific aspect of Southern culture that struck you while writing this poem?

EB: Well yeah, North Florida is—I mean of course, well it seems to me there are three Floridas.

It’s true.

EB: There is South Georgia Florida, which is where you’re from and I live, there’s Central Florida, which is basically just Disney incorporated and not a place I ever want to be—except I’m sure there are lots of nice people from there. And then there’s South Florida which is just a country unto itself. So I feel that we, more than some states, we really contain a lot of different cultures here. Which is a really fun, interesting thing about Florida. I like it quite a bit.

I grew up in Nebraska, and strangely, given that I ended up co-founding VIDA with Cate Marvin, some of the first poets that I was really attracted to were James Dickey and Robert Penn Warren. I loved that whole kind of high lyric, or gothic drag show. “May Day Sermon,” “The Sheep Child,” and Penn Warren’s Audubon. I mean, those were hugely influential on me when I was seventeen, eighteen years old. I still love those poems.

I finally felt like, maybe having lived in Tallahassee since, what, 2009? I kind of felt like maybe I could speak [about the South] a little bit. Maybe I was enough of a part of the place now that I could speak to something that I feel is true, which is this kind of uncomplicated reaction people want to have sometimes about the South, as if everybody is just a cartoon character acting like Foghorn Leghorn. And of course, like most difficult things, it’s very, very complicated. So that’s what that poem is trying to address.

I think it absolutely does. I love that you brought up the Civil War reenactments in the poem as well. That’s very unique to here, I feel. I mean, I haven’t really heard of that happening as much up north.

EB: Well the very first time I ever went to the South it wasn’t to go to Tallahassee, it was to go to Suwannee. And I was a fellow at Suwannee, and I was driving there with my fiancé at the time, and we wandered into a Nathan Bedford Forrest, like, 175th birthday reenactor event.

Oh, wow.

EB: We didn’t even know that reenactors existed, and embarrassingly enough, I skipped a lot of American history. I went back to try to figure it out later. My senior year, I was not present most of the time. I had no idea who Nathan Bedford Forrest was, even though every other man in my family has the name Forrest as either his first or middle name.

So when I finally got to Suwannee, the first person I ran into was the great historian Shelby Foote. He was sitting around with a bunch of people, and I was like, “You know, I went into this funny picnic, and it was so odd, and there was this guy named Nathan Bedford Forrest,” and I could not have made a bigger ass out of myself. Shelby Foote just looked at me like, “You are a savage.” You know, like, “How? Were you raised by wolves? Did you go to school?” So he was the first person to enlighten me about basically the great-granddaddy of the Klan and all that. And I was like, oh geez. Like, I had to say that in front of him, right?

Of all people!

EB: It was a valuable way to learn that. I did run home and just read everything about the Civil War that I could after that, because I had this big gap in my knowledge.

And it paid off, because you came to Florida.

EB: There we go. You can cut that story of course.

So you confront the hypocrisy and absurdity inherent in a great deal of things in Slant Six, from “Americanness” to deceptive push-up bras. While reading, though, I was also struck by the contradictions in the more self-reflective pieces, like “Perfect,” where the speaker discusses a sort of perfection in sadness, how “angry and “sad and “nothing are all synonyms: “Your sadness gets a perfect score, / a 1600 on the GRE.” What is it that draws you to this kind of complexity, of things not being the way people say they are or expect?

EB: Wow, that’s a really big question. That poem is written to a specific person, and the idea… I guess, I find in my life, I’ve been attracted to people, wonderful people, but people who seem to be committed to their own levels of disappointment. And it’s interesting, my best friend and I have always said to each other, and given each other this assurance—and maybe this is psychologically fraught in its own way—but, I’m going to choose happy whenever I can. Like, I’m actively looking, and not happy in an uncomplicated, “Gee, I’m an American so I have a right to be happy,” sort of way, but reaching towards the light. As opposed to kind of wallowing in a sort of disappointment.

If you want to see life as endlessly disappointing, you will not be disappointed. But this idea that we have to reach towards our happiness, and not just stand there and wait for it to show up. We have to be proactive about it. I just feel like maybe we have to take responsibility for our own happiness, and making it as best we can in a difficult and dark world. So I think that’s where that poem is coming from. Because there’s no such thing as perfection, right? And there’s another poem I think in the book where it says, “What is beauty but the absence of symmetry?” I’m the one who likes the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I’m the one who wants the weird scruffy mutt, I like the ugliest dog. I always pick the runt. I just think those imperfections are really beautiful. And that’s real. It’s what’s real about what we live in. So this whole idea, and the thing like push-up bras and cellulite and, you know, learning to love each other in direct sunlight and seeing things for what they are, not what we wish they were.

Absolutely. And I like this idea of happiness being an active thing that you strive for, and not a passive thing that just comes to you. This isn’t often how we view it.

EB: No, some people don’t.

I wanted to ask you about the title, Slant Six. It’s taken from your poem “Time Machine.” There’s a really electric quality to this collection, and to this poem in particular; it’s literally a wild ride. If your poems are a Slant Six engine “gunning” down the road, where would you say they’re heading? If anywhere?

EB: That’s an interesting question.

Well, it’s an interesting title.

EB: I’m going to give a super nerdy answer, probably. I’m taking a break from writing for a while. I just need to kind of re-spongify a little bit. Plus I’m just a very slow writer. I have really terrible habits, that’s probably more truthful. It’s weird to talk about when you say these things aloud, but I’m working towards this collection which right now is called Avow, and thinking about the notion of the vows we make, and also thinking about Derrida and Heidegger and the ideas of absence and presence, or presence and absence, and thinking about how we get to a certain age, and if we’ve lived our lives, we’re surrounded by ghosts. You know, happy ghosts, sad ghosts, ghosts rattling the Marley chains, every kind of ghost. You don’t get to be almost fifty and not have ghosts.

So thinking about that in terms of presence and absence. That’s kind of where this next thing seems to be heading right now. I get up at like 5am every morning, because once you have a kid you just sort of readjust your schedule. So I get up at five and I write for a couple of hours before I have to start getting my son ready for school. I like it when the world shuts its mouth, and all you hear are the birds.

The poem that I most find myself wanting to share with people has to be “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year.” First of all, great title.

EB: Thank you.

The poem has this quality of a monologue, almost: a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Do you find it difficult to write about the intersection of poetry, politics, and parenthood?

EB: Well that was another thing that I was really interested in dealing with. From a feminist perspective, I’ve always thought it was strange that children can be so central to our lives, and yet they appear so infrequently in poetry as if they aren’t a serious subject. The kind of conundrums of the brain and heart that happen when you’re helping to actually raise another human seems to be one of the most important things that we could talk about. Although the fix is often in on the idea of parenting.

I think parents are often so terrified and guilty a lot of the time that we don’t want to talk truthfully about the experience, sometimes. And so I sort of felt like that was part of what I was doing there, and also I’m a very political person in a lot of different ways. Before I found my way in poetry, I worked on a couple of national political campaigns. I was a field staff, an advanced team member for the Dukakis campaign when I was a kid. And I kept thinking, okay, how I do bring that part of my consciousness in a legitimate way that honors a poem? I don’t ever want to put the politics before the poetry, but how do you find a way to put those together? I think that’s what that poem is trying to do: find a space for speaking to all of these things without letting the poetry somehow become secondary or propaganda for some particular point of view. I’m not sure if I achieved it or not, but I definitely tried in that book to examine politics and parenting in a way that still honored the poem first and foremost.

Definitely. And I don’t think they have to be exclusive, either. They all should belong together, in some way.

EB: No, because—well, we know this, we’ve been to graduate school. What we do, when we’re stating our consciousness, that’s inherently a political act. We can choose not to acknowledge it, but whether you’re writing about a lighthouse or an election, your politics are still there. So this is just trying to acknowledge that and bring it to the surface of the poem, in a way that hopefully isn’t incredibly tedious.