Notoriously dry-witted poet gives a reading at the Trust Performing Arts Center on Thursday.
The poet Ezra Pound’s advice to artists was “make it new.” This is easier said than done. Often, artists will go back into history and take traditional forms and twist them into something new. For Aaron Belz, making it “new” means making it “now,” as evidenced in poems like “Avatar” from his latest collection, Glitter Bomb. He embraces the now with his ironic takes on society in his poems, many of which could easily fit into Twitter’s 140-character limit – like “Hippie Slang” for example:
“When I say
I dig graves
what I mean is
I enjoy and/or
Belz is no stranger to social media. His 2011 “Literary Twitter” column for the Huffington Post dissected some of Twitter’s best and funniest tweeters. And Belz is no stranger to Twitter himself – his 2013 Twitter feud with comedian Patton Oswalt went viral and he even became a poet-for-hire on Craigslist, where he wrote poems for a chocolate company, a person who wished to be insulted and even a series of poems for one man trying to win his wife back. (Which he did, for a little while, Belz says, though he doesn’t think it worked out. He even met the guy. “He wasn’t what I expected,” says Belz.)
Social media shenanigans aside, it’s Belz’s use of humor and pop culture references in his poetry that makes his art new. Belz takes our celebrity-worshipping, consumer-driven, pop culture reality and incorporates his twisted sense of humor to create relevant and unique poems.
Not a fan of modern poetry? If you read any of the poems found in Glitter Bomb, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that modern poetry has been, indeed, saved by the Belz.
Humor is Belz’s greatest asset. He’s a student of comedy. He even wrote a dissertation comparing famous poets to famous comedians – like Gertrude Stein and Charlie Chaplin or T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx.
Glitter Bomb opens with “The Novel.” Here, it’s easy to see Belz’s love of comedy – specifically, the Marx Brothers – as he continuously pulls the rug of meaning out from under the reader’s feet. The poem opens with (possibly a nod to the Marx Brother’s 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup) a play on a cliché that turns literal that becomes fantastically farcical. “It may sound / gimmicky but at least it doesn’t pay the bills / nor does it pay off the ducks that have those / bills still partly attached to their horrifying heads, / though I wish it would because then I might get clear of the jackass duck mafia constantly / on my tail.”
Aaron Belz is quite comfortable being awkward. In fact, it’s often what drives his pithy, comedic and pop culture-laden poetry.
“I guess I’ve never been very comfortable in life,” Belz reflects. “I always feel like there’s something slightly wrong. I have a lot of confidence – more than I probably should – but I still feel, what’s the word the kids use? Awkward. My answers of ways of explaining life’s little riddles are equally awkward.”
I learned one of the best lessons a writer can learn the first time I interviewed Aaron Belz: Always double check to make sure your recorder is running correctly. Mine wasn’t. Belz graciously granted me another interview and we spoke for almost hour (on top of the forty-five minutes we spoke earlier).
I caught up with the North Carolina-based poet/bicycle shop owner (which he runs with his teenage son) in advance of his visit to Lancaster’s Trust Performing Arts Center on Thursday and talked about Glitter Bomb, the influence of legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg (who he studied with at NYU in the ’90s), a word game called “Exquisite Corpse” and why he likes to read other people’s shampoo bottles.
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Mike Andrelczyk: Why is the new book called Glitter Bomb?
Aaron Belz: That came from gay rights/gay marriage activism about three years ago when the gay marriage debate was hot and heavy. People who were pro-gay marriage would come and throw glitter on [anti-gay marriage speakers] as a form of protest. Glitter is really hard to get off. It sticks in your pores and on your suit or whatever you’re wearing so if they did that in the beginning of a speech the person is covered with little glittery things that show up in the camera. They did it to Newt Gingrich once and it was kind of funny. There’s probably a Wikipedia page for the glitter bomb form of protest. [Ed. note: There is.]
It is not at all a statement about gay marriage for me; I just liked the words. I liked the idea that there was something called a glitter bomb because I thought it was such a funny and sweet way of getting people’s attention. I wasn’t even thinking of the issue at hand – I was really thinking that it was a cool, nonviolent form of protest. But then I liked it because it fit my style, which is like lots of little pieces of junk that maybe stick in your brain. I actually didn’t think through it too carefully. I just liked the sound of it.
MA: Can you talk about pop culture in your poetry?
AB: In the latest Library Journal review of one of my books – which was a couple months ago – they said that there was not much depth to my poetry and they referred to the pop culture references. That is a criticism that I’ve heard many times. I have a poem about Ben Affleck and one about Meryl Streep and one about Alec Baldwin and I just kind of like those names because I think the names have a kind of magnetism to them because they’re so popular. They’re also very suggestive. Celebrity names have a kind of mystery to them.
But I also like words like “Pantene” or “Alberto VO5.” I like the way those words sound. I like how they seem official. When it’s a good product or a good brand it sounds like something you could trust. And there’s a reason for that – there’s a kind of music to them. They’re using phonemes in an order that makes them seem credible. That’s the best way to put it linguistically. So, Pantene is not just a throwaway thing – it’s also a word and a brand that you can think about and meditate on.
“I read other people’s shampoo bottles to see what they say on them. It’s always hilarious because it’s kind of dramatic. Like, “luster” and “sheen” and “dormant roots” and stuff are all the biggest problems that you could face.” – Aaron Belz
Whenever I’m taking a shower at my parent’s house I see my dad’s shampoos and I read the bottles. Actually that’s true of anywhere I stay. I read other people’s shampoo bottles to see what they say on them. It’s always hilarious because it’s kind of dramatic. Like, “luster” and “sheen” and “dormant roots” and stuff are all the biggest problems that you could face. The copy is really winsome and charming. So I like reading that stuff. Maybe it sounds like I’m trying to be quirky or something but I actually do like to read that stuff. It’s not a factor of quirkiness. Anyway, I wouldn’t disparage popular culture but also I wouldn’t put all my money on that square either. To me, it’s something that has a lot of currency. It’s fun to play with those terms in a poem.
MA: Do you have a favorite slang word?
AB: No, but I like tacking “yo” onto the end of really important statements. Like “Children, there’s much we can learn from communion, yo.” One of my friends, who’s a student, says I always use “yo” wrong and I take great pride in that.
MA: You studied with Allen Ginsberg at NYU. What his influence on your poetry?
AB: Ginsberg is really free-spirited and also really direct. His poetry is really direct and maybe you would say “honest” or “courageous,” those are the popular terms. I don’t know if it’s honest. I think it is very direct. He doesn’t mince words and sometimes that leads him into being sort of obscene. Sometimes it leads him to sounding like he’s just repeating himself. He doesn’t try to make a special text, like a really crafted built-up poem, he just rattles off a bunch of stuff. That’s how it feels when you’re reading it.
I loved the way he taught because he would just read poems by people he admired and then explain why he admired them. We learned a lot that way. Not everybody was a fan of Ginsberg’s teaching style but I definitely learned a lot out of it.
I guess you could say in an aesthetic sense I have a kind of Asperger’s Syndrome where I just say stuff despite the social consequences and that takes me into really cool places because I can say whatever I want to say and I’m not that worried about how it comes off. Ginsberg did the same thing. I think the method is kind of the same. I definitely write quickly and from stream-of-consciousness much like Ginsberg did too.
MA: You also teach. How do you teach kids to be creative or to trust their creative instincts?
AB: That’s a good question. I think I’ve been reasonably successful in teaching kids to trust their instincts. The core belief that I have is that everybody is creative. By virtue of being alive, we’re always in a creative mode. Trying to explain to ourselves, our own behaviors and lives, and trying to understand the world that we live in takes quite a bit of mental work to rationalize all of it. My way of stimulating that is just to find the natural way that people are already being creative. So we play games. I like the surrealist games – like the Exquisite Corpse game. It’s really fun.
MA: What is the Exquisite Corpse game?
AB: The Exquisite Corpse game is where people are sitting in a circle and you write like four lines and then you fold over the paper so the next writer can only see two of the four lines you wrote and then they write four lines and fold over the paper. Nobody can see the whole chain but everybody can see what came immediately before and your supposed to write something that more or less makes sense to what came before. In the end you read it as a group and it’s just so funny and fun. But I think what it does is opens up people’s sense of their ability to come up with ideas – because they like to bounce off of other people. And they don’t even know they do until they’re given the opportunity.
MA: That’s a cool way of taking a solitary activity like writing and making people interact and make it work in a group.
AB: Definitely the French Surrealists and Symbolists were more community-oriented. I have a little book called Surrealists Literature Games or something and it has a number of exercises that gives you the impression that they would’ve loved to do Mad Libs and stuff and play Scrabble. Playing Scrabble and Boggle and stuff are fun ways to figure out ways to write – anything that gets the language mechanism in your brain working.
MA: What’s the best advice you’ve received on writing?
AB: [Philip] Levine was my teacher in the fall of ’03 at NYU. His advice came years later in a letter. He was like, “Don’t worry about getting your poetry published because most editors are idiots.” And he said, “I could publish a recipe for dog shit flour.” But that’s all because editors are all clamoring to have a Levine poem in their book.
MA: What do you think is the poet’s most important job?
AB: Cicero said, “The job of the orator is to instruct and delight.” That I think is the job of the poet to “instruct and delight.” There’s always an instructional aspect or didactic aspect to it but there has to be a delight included too. I think of that when I’m writing – I think, “Am I just delighting or am I instructing also?”
Aaron Belz speaks at The Trust Performing Arts Center (37 N. Market St., Lancaster) on Thursday, January 8. 7:30pm. $10. Click here for tickets.