Daring Language: An Interview with Aaron Belz

At the AP Writers’ Conference last March, poet Aaron Belz won a following among Rapid City students. His strange and amusing poetry, which he shared with students at a reading in the auditorium, catches readers off guard with its word play and humor. Since his visit, Belz has published his next book of poetry, Soft Launch. The Pine Needle chatted with Belz about his poetry and the poetic process.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 


Pine Needle: How do you decide which poems are good enough to make it in your books?

Aaron Belz: When you spend a lot of time with your poems they feel like your offspring… you spend some serious time with them. You know who they are. You remember all the little, weird corners of the poem. So I try to organize them in a way that is like a family portrait: the tall one in the back and the ugly one between two pretty ones.

PN: What kind of message are you trying to get across with your poems? 

AB: I don’t really ever think about that but there are two real big ones. One is that it’s okay to enjoy the consumer and heavily branded culture that you live in. The other one is that it’s okay to be weird, a little bit. I think that’s a message I got a lot from music when I was a kid and it’s one that I think is important. 

I always think of it as kind of a therapeutic comedy that releases you from the bondage of being overly consumed about things. At the same time, you know -I mean- if you guys read any of my poems you’ll see that there is a lot of worry in them, there is a lot of anxiety in them.

PN:  So would you say that most of your poems are attempts at communicating unresolved issues?

belz soft launch picAB: Yes. Maybe not so organized as you would say the word ‘attempt’ implies–almost like natural outcomes of poor choices in the past. When I was a kid, a young twenty-something, entering into poetry for real, I remember coming up with a mantra of “poetry is the fruit of a full life.” Because I didn’t want to stop doing good things to write. I didn’t want to be cooped up trying to write. I wanted to go out and go shopping, and hang out with my wife and do stuff. I didn’t want to feel like I was chained to my desk trying to write the next great poem. To me it wasn’t ever something that you should generate or manufacture along side your life. Something that happens as a result of living, is that you are able to speak about things in a certain way.

PN: Are there any techniques to writing poems that you utilize? 

AB: I think my own interrogation is the main technique. If I say something, I tend to overthink it. Doubting and interrogating yourself is a good process for finding the meaning in the language in which you relate to a topic. Somehow, I would always try and find a thing that was wrong and turn it around on itself. 

PN: Are you trying to convey any emotion in your poetry or is it more of a logical approach?

AB: That’s a good question. I don’t see a whole strong difference for me. I was doing something emotional based on logic. Which is a cry for help. I think a lot of my poetry is based on loneliness and confusion though, like sorrow. I am trying to dig my way out of it. I guess my answer is both.

PN: Where else do your poems come from? Or do they come purely from your emotions?

AB: They also come from language. They come from language because language has inherent problems, so if you try to use words, if you try to pay attention to what you’re saying, you realize that you’re saying things that don’t quite make sense. Syntax and diction work together to produce some kind of meaning in sentences and paragraphs, but with all the possibilities for meaning in a word and all the nuance in language’s meaning, it’s a lot [more] guesswork and  fuzzy logic than people think of its being. My artwork comes largely from my struggle with language and its meaning. That is probably the biggest thing: I dare language to mean something when I’m writing. It’s me versus the words. 

It doesn’t come from an emotion that’s hot, I can say that for sure. There isn’t one neat vertical that comes out of it; everything is touched with emotion for me. 

Belz reading at Central High School last spring.

My struggle with  language is certainly an emotion that drives me. When I was a teenager I had a hard time with my mom because of the way she would use language. I would be sitting in the living room enjoying the evening as dusk was  coming on, and she would come in and say, “Do we need a little light?” And I would say, “Mom, do we?” What does that mean, “Do we need a little light?” I must have been a terrible son to have around because I was not easy to work with, but to me that struck me as intensely passive aggressive. Why don’t you just say, “I’d like to turn on a light, is that okay with you?” Or maybe, “I think we need light, do you?” And then we could collaborate and work out what to do with the light, but instead she asked that weird passive aggressive question. 

What I’m trying to get at is, every  kind of expression is infected with meaning that we don’t intend. I’m convinced she didn’t intend to be passive aggressive in that setting, she was just talking the way she was accustomed to communicating, but to me that phrase and phrases people use everyday are fraught with emotion.

PN: What is your most embarrassing childhood story that haunts you till this day?

AB: Well, when does childhood end?

PN: Let’s say twelve years old.

AB: Twelve? I got pantsed at a church retreat by a girl once, and I was wearing 80s pants that were parachute style. It was surprising because we were in the middle of a praise chorus. She was kind of a nerd and I wouldn’t have picked her to do that, but the outcome was awful. Everyone looked at me immediately.

PN: Has it helped develop your own character?

AB: I don’t know. I do write from shame, so maybe that’s it. I had a lot of emotions built up because I grew up Presbyterian. Which is probably why it feels either therapeutic or cathartic to me to put words together like that. Because I am processing stuff as it gets to the point where I can process it.

PN: So what’s it like knowing people are going to be peering into your life, something personal?

AB: It can be kind of a drag, honestly. I have put some barbs in there, in case certain people read my poems. They’ll know that I’m talking about them. There’s one in (my new book), that is really about one of my cousins, who’s a total jerk to me now. I just dragged her real hard in one poem, and no one will know it, except her. She’ll know it because she’ll get the references. I haven’t heard anything yet, because she’ll never read it, but it felt pretty good to put that in there. 

PN: How do you feel while writing your poems?

AB: I guess it’s really satisfying. For me it’s an expression of freedom to contradict myself, the freedom to undermine what I said, the freedom to take a cliché and turn it around and undermine it and mess with it. And so, it’s a way for me to exert power and leave my imprint on the language that way it’s used.

PN: How do you take criticism?

AB: I’ve gotten some pretty bad criticisms the last five years. But most of them are character assassinations, like, “This guy writes this garbage.” It’s not useful for anything; it’s just his own navel gazing. When people actually start to read the poetry, I think they mostly kind of like it. People tend to give it some space. 

PN: How do you decide on the names for your poems and books?

AB: What I used to do was write some crazy title and then try and justify it with a poem. It’s how I wrote for, like, five years, then I started setting up the first couple lines of a poem and tried to treat it like calculus, where the start would be the problem and the poem would be the solution. 

Aaron Belz leading a workshop at Central High School last spring.

PN: If you could join any boy band, which one would it be?

AB: The Rolling Stones. Back in 1975, when they were doing their first tour of the United States, I was in L.A. with this dude, near sunset boulevard in L.A. at a rockstar’s house . . . So I would like to be a part of that scene. 

PN: What is the worst painting you’ve seen?

AB: I’ve seen some bad paintings, but I really think the worst one was in the front office in the high school that I taught at for a while. They had the painter who paints bridges in the snow that have lights on them, and houses and little cabins and stuff on it. He’s well known. He’s like a Christian painter. 

PN: Thomas Kinkade.

AB: Yes. I saw an original Thomas Kinkade next to the secretary’s desk in the head office of the high school and I just about barfed on it, it was so gross. I can’t even see irony in it; I can’t think of it ironically. I look at it, and I’m– like I’m mesmerized by how terrifying it is. 

PN: What is your shoe size?

AB: It’s 12. What, are you going to send me some Timberlands?

PN: Who is your favorite Harry Potter character? 

AB: Luna Lovegood. I like her because she seems like she comes from a good home. 

PN: If you could have any animal as a pet, which one would you choose?

AB: Certainly a beautiful Arabian stallion, because you could ride it. You can’t ride a cat. 

PN: What is your favorite type of milk?

AB:  Not coconut milk. I would go with whole milk.

PN: What is your favorite secondhand score?

AB: Honestly, I find a lot of goodness at Salvation Army. I’m surprised, it depends on what kind of neighborhood you go to, but I’m surprised that sometimes you find real treasures at Salvation Army. They’re not as good at discerning what’s a treasure. The people at Goodwill are really good at it, they’ve got it down. And they’re rich and you don’t need to go there.

PN: What are the best dumpster diving spots?  

AB: The best dumpster diving spots are any major college town the day after graduation. I would go to the Korean dorms because the Korean students are usually moving back to South Korea, so there’s so much cool Asian stuff.