“I’ll Follow Poetry Wherever It’s Going to Take Me”: An Interview with Erin Belieu

Born in Nebraska, Erin Belieu earned an MA from Boston University and an MFA from Ohio State University. Belieu’s work focuses on gender, love, and history, filtering wide-ranging subject matter through a variety of theoretical frameworks. She often addresses feminist issues in her artistic work, and is known for infusing traditional formal conventions with colloquial speech patterns ranging across decades and geographies. 

Belieu is the author of five books of poetry: “Come-Hither Honeycomb” (forthcoming in 2021), “Slant Six” (2014), “Black Box” (2006), “One Above & One Below” (2000), and Infanta (1995). Belieu also co-edited the anthology The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (2001).

With poet Cate Marvin, Belieu cofounded VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, an organization that seeks to “explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women” in contemporary culture. She has taught at Washington University, Boston University, Kenyon College, Ohio University, and Florida State University. She currently teaches in the University of Houston’s MFA/PhD Creative Writing Program, as well as for the Lesley University low-residency MFA in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Jordan Hartt: Erin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Kahini about your work. It’s been a pleasure to know you for over a decade, now, as a colleague at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, and as a friend. Kahini also published in these pages your poem “How We Count in the South,” which appeared in your fourth book, “Slant Six.” Your fifth book, “Come-Hither Honeycomb,” is coming out in February…I thought it might be fun to start with you talking a little bit about how that book came about. 

Erin Belieu: It’s a bit mysterious to me because I feel like with my other four collections, each one revealed itself to me more directly. Each was shaped around questions that I could directly articulate at the time. Questions about what my poems can do formally—this is what spurs me on. Our poems always know so much more about us than we know about them, I think, especially when we’re still closer in time to their writing.

And honestly, I’m fine with the unknowing. Let their reader tell me what they think. That’s much more intriguing to me. I do know it’s a book very interested in mapping its speaker’s interiority. It’s an internal meditation written over a time of huge transformation. This book is not as externally driven as some of the work I’ve made before. I think this time I’m moving from the inside-out rather than outside-in.

Because of that craft I’ve been practicing for decades, I can say my poems have become more fluid at the level of construction. Fluid in a way that feels really good. Like a leather jacket you’ve worn for a really long time: it fits you completely. It shapes itself to you.

JH: The title itself, “Come-Hither Honeycomb,” did that serve as a way to kind of bind the book together? Is that a leading question? Does it need to be objected to? Like in a Perry-Mason kind of way…? 

EB: I liked the title because I’ve always been envious of poets who have that gracefully lyric, elevated voice—lots of lovely shimmer, like Mark Doty or Lynda Hull. I think I’m generally more sharp elbows and nervier on the page.

One of the poems in the book, “Loser Bait,” refers to the “come-hither honeycomb” which is an image of the speaker—she’s the sugary bait sitting inside a trap of her own making. “Loser Bait” as language is snarky and comedic, slangy and contemporary, at least to my ear. So I think the phrase “come-hither honeycomb” sounds highly lyric unto itself, but when you read the title in context, I find the oppositional tension of how it sounds vs. what it means darkly amusing. And given that “darkly amused” is my default state of being, I liked the psychodynamics of that title choice for the book.

So it’s really my plot to lure readers into thinking it’s a very lyrical book, and then, surprise!, it’s just me again! A couple of my writer friends wanted the book to be titled “Loser Bait,” after that particular poem.

And while I did enjoy the obvious humor of that idea and taking the piss out of SERIOUS POETRY MUST BE TOO SERIOUS TO EVER LAUGH ABOUT ANYTHING (a tedious thought—just ask Frank O’Hara), I decided it was true for this book to lead first with that lyric intensity.

JH: I can’t wait to read it. And even listening to you talk about poetry inspires me to want to read and write. Why poetry, for you?  

EB: So I was a competitive diver, for many years. The final poem in the book recalls this. And I was pretty good. Have I bored you with this story before?

JH: Ha! No. 

EB: Okay. Unless you make it into the tiny pipeline for the Olympics, you realize there really isn’t a lot of call for your ability after an early age. But it actually defined much of my life growing up. That, and being a voracious reader and writer when I wasn’t actually in a pool. I do remember my teammates finding my literary interests pretty weird. I would sit on the pool deck cross-legged in my swimsuit reading a waterlogged book at those big regional meets that go on all day. I’d write on the bus during the lengthy trips we made to get to various meets. Though I find having been an athlete was excellent preparation for the discipline and “see the ball, be the ball” focus and, to a certain degree, self confidence, that poetry requires of us.

As for poetry specifically, my brain is quite literally designed around poetry, I think.

I have a learning disability—the other major thing that defined my life when I was young–and one “negative” definition of that disability—dyscalculia—is that your brain naturally seeks out connections between “random associations.” But of course, everything in the world is interconnected. That’s exactly what metaphor is, finding those connections. It’s interesting that neurologists would describe that as a negative attribute, isn’t it? Privileging a very certain kind of linear thought over a way of being and seeing the world that I find much more truthful, nuanced, analytical, and holistic. It all depends on your idea of what’s valuable.

So my brain has always evinced a lot of Keatsian negative capability quite naturally. The world makes sense to me through the associative mysteries of poems. I mean, because truly we experience our lives a lot more like a free-verse poem than we do any linear story.

JH: How did you follow that thread into a life in poetry? 

EB: I never let there be another thread, really. I said, this is what I’m going to do with my life. I’m a very ploddingly determined creature. I didn’t allow myself to entertain other possibilities.

Though if I had to pursue another skill set it seems to me I have developed into a really good personal shopper. I perform this service for many of my friends. So satisfying, but you’re spending other people’s money!

JH: Truthfully, all kidding aside and no bullshit, if it weren’t for you, Erin, I wouldn’t have discovered Kenneth Cole, Hugo Boss, or that I could even fold pocket squares that way. You saved my ass on at least two occasions, seriously. 

EB: See what I mean! But no, I didn’t ever seriously look in another direction. I met Robert Pinsky who invited me to come to Boston University, and it all kind of rolled along from there. I was like, “Okay. I’ll follow poetry wherever it’s going to take me. I’m fine being busted broke and living in apartments with meth labs in the basement if it allows me to spend my time doing what I want with my life.” That was essential to me, getting to spend my one brief life doing what I care about most deeply.

But shortly after my graduation from BU, “Infanta” was accepted through the National Poetry Series. Here’s my almost cautionary tale for emerging writers: I remember I almost didn’t enter the contest because of the $25 fee. I was living on microwave popcorn and free bar snacks at the Kinvara Pub, at that time, in Boston, and the only reason I sent the book out is that my friend Carl Phillips—my classmate at BU–told me to apply, even though the other contests that year only charged $15. Which I thought was completely outrageous. 25 BUCKS??? And Carl said, “You’re really going to skip sending to a major competition to save 10 dollars? You’re a complete idiot.” As Carl will tell you, you should always follow his advice.

JH: Thinking of “Infanta,” and the poems therein, like, for example, “Bee Sting,” you’re already paying such tight attention to the line, and the stanza. You move from couplets to tercets to quatrains and back: will you talk a little bit about the line and the stanza, from a craft perspective? How do you know, in a free-verse poem, how to structure what you’re doing? And also, following up to that, did I use the word “therein” in a semi-correct manner never mind don’t answer that I don’t want to know. 

EB: Free verse is I guess “freer” than traditional received forms obviously—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying just as much attention to the formal elements of the poetic shapes in the poetic forms we invent for ourselves. The word “art” comes from “artifice,” which is derived from the Middle English for “workmanship.” There’s nothing really “free” about poetry, unless you’re interested in chaos theory and LANGUAGE poetics. Otherwise, you’re consciously in charge of the poem’s meaningful arrangement.

A line of free verse is–just as much as any other poem’s–about the pleasure of making patterns in language fundamentally.

We’re still working to make specific impressions through the precise arrangement of words. And you’ll see this in workshops—when someone’s reading a certain passage, or a certain poem, and everyone’s like, wow, I can’t necessarily put my finger on why this is giving so much pleasure, but it just sounds right and true. And it’s because of the rhythms, the “formal” constructive elements, the patterns, which create that sense of authority and fitness even when those elements are less immediately obvious to the eye and ear, in the way they are in a sonnet or a villanelle.

So with poems like “Bee Sting,” while I’m writing free verse, I’m still working with various stress patterns, the interlocking interplay between assonance and consonance, internal rhyme, vowel rhyme, breaking the line at places that create various string-theory shimmers of intellectual and emotional possibilities, using enjambment to emphasize the multivalence of a particular phrase before it completes itself, and how that adds textures and layers of thought and feeling to a poem before the sentence connects to the line below it.

So it’s both the patterns I’m establishing in a poem, and the numerous possibilities raised in individual lines and their breaking that contribute to how I’m putting a stanza together. I’m always looking for how language and image pop and are pressurized within the lines.

Another thing about the stanzas: I’m aware of their history–the long, instructive history of what couplets have done, or a quatrain, etc., because of their lines’ divisibility or indivisibility, or how the stanza captures the sense of a completed moment within the poem’s overall movements. Anyways, all these shapes have a history that they’re coming out of, and these structural histories are often very helpful when writing free verse. Either to help you connect to a history of patterns or to break from that.

One thing I always talk about, with students, is that there are two different, main energies in a poem: the given, horizontal energy that functions because of how English works: we read from left to right, across the page, but also, that second, simultaneous poetic energy, verticality, which moves us down the page, and which pulls the reader farther and farther into the dream of the poem. I’m always looking for the stanza structures that best further that second energy, to keep the reader inside the poem’s shared dream.

JH: There’s really that sense of verticality in your poem, “She Returns To the Water.” (Dear reader: give it a goog.) It’s just…stunning. 

EB: Very kind of you to say. That’s one of those poems where, when I shaped it…I mean, I’ll confess I’m not always that super interested in the graphic element of poems that others seem to enjoy talking about. Derek Walcott in a class once made a case for the “V”s in a Hart Crane poem all being the shapes of seagulls winging across the poem’s landscape, which, honestly, even though he was a Nobel laureate, made me feel a bit eye-rolly with Derek in that moment. But then he was a very gifted visual artist, too, so that way of reading made sense to him in a way that it doesn’t make to me. I think the “V”s were probably just letters in the words Crane happened to choose for their sounds.

But in “She Returns To The Water,” I did want that vaguely graphic sense of the poem making the shape a dive makes on entry. Because a free-verse poem benefits from a sense of palpable shape and that seemed as good an approach as any as I was drafting it.

I used shorter, heavily enjambed lines to keep the timing as tight as possible, in a narrative mode, to move the reader down the page. That poem really drives—or you know, dives—down the page, I think, though the stanza breaks hopefully provide some oppositional tension to it too, by creating pauses where I want them for the storytelling, and underscoring various pieces of thought and imagery for a split-second before you move on.

JH: As I mentioned chorally, for the good of the audience, I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with you for over a decade now, and I remember one session you were running, I think it was at an autumn workshop, and someone was reading from their work, and it included the line, “rusted swingset.” And you said, basically, that as soon as the swingset was mentioned, earlier, that you knew it was going to be “rusted” on the second mention. Or something like that, I may be remembering the exact details incorrectly. But I was just like, stunned at how much I guess wisdom you have in terms of what beginning and emerging writers are doing. 

EB: All of us—emerging writers, established writers—the places where it seems we’re most likely to get a little lazy is with what I call lyric stock footage. Like, the lyric/narrative poetry B-Roll. And that makes sense, I guess, because, you know, the sun and the moon, sunsets, ocean waves, autumn leaves…they’re permanently, astonishingly beautiful and evocative, and were probably the images used in the very first poems ever written. But because they’ve been used so often, our twenty-first-century challenge is, how to continue to re-imagine them and re-make them anew, each time. Where is the freshness in the observations a couple thousand years after the fact?

Generally, what I suggest to my students is that they try to find ways to make such well-trod imagery into actions, as opposed to description, when they’re stuck inside lyric cliches. Because there are probably only so many ways to legitimately describe a sunset without it getting absurd and letting the language flop into something untruthful and self-conscious—but if the sunset is doing something, and the autumn leaves are doing something, there’s kind of an endless variety of ways to write those images. I mean, it’s not a surefire party trick, but it seems to help some generally.

Sometimes we get lucky and do find the language to re-see a sunset for our readers, but action seems to have a lot more possibilities to me than the chance of finding fresh, apt descriptions. Have I told you my bird story?

JH: Oh God, yes. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard it I’d have quite the Ziploc bag of nickels, let me tell you what. 

EB: So anywaaaaays, what I’m constantly asking my poetry students to do is revisit their own lyrical go-tos. Are you really really really mining your own weird, singular and beautiful consciousness for invention and freshness in language? Are you giving up your egotistical sense of control and fear of embarrassment and need for approval, trusting language to lead you somewhere interesting and truthful? Or are you maybe parroting something you feel is a comfy, pre-approved poetry move from reading lit magazines?

And it’s a question I always ask myself, of course. When I was writing a poem about birds a few years back—something odd happened involving an owl dropping a decapitated snake near me on my patio that gave me a good occasion for such a poem–I wrote a list of every word I would not use in that poem, because birds have been written about since the first day of the beginning of forever. And that helped force me into invention, both in thought and image.The first word on that list of off-limits words was, of course, wing. Which did eventually show up in my poem. But I went ahead and let myself earn that word off that list by honestly believing the way I used it was fresh to my particular consciousness and the situation that engendered the poem. I worked very hard for that single wing.

I find those self-applied strictures that make poets examine what can be way too automatic are very useful. Because I don’t care how fancy your cliché is. I don’t care if you paid full price for it at Neiman Marcus and it’s covered in Swarovski crystals—it’s still a cliché. And cliches serve to hide us from one another. I want to see the freaky little soul machine that is you in your poems.

JH: You’ve been an essential voice in poetry for over a quarter-century now. What have you seen, broadly speaking? How are your contemporary students doing, compared maybe to twenty-five years ago?  

EB: You know, with the internet, the good side is that it has put writers all over the world into conversation with one another. But with social media, I think the thing that I worry about for my students, is that they feel like everybody else is out there crushing it, and they’re actually not.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, that’s what people do, put their shiniest faces forward, in a heavily curated version of ourselves. I do it all the time, too. My Instagram pics of my foodie obnoxious Sunday dinners are designed for you not to see how wiped out my kitchen is with food smears on the cabinets and piles of unpaid bills spread out all over the counters and Jude’s dirty socks on the floor, right? And it gives people the sense that absolutely everyone’s succeeding but them, and that they need to be constantly hustling, or, worse, “networking,” and, come on, we’re poets. A lot of us don’t want to live our lives that way. But many of us feel just kind of lost now in that stew. All this noise telling us we’re failures, when we absolutely aren’t. And my friends who are “famous” poets feel just as crappy and insecure about it as the emerging poets I know.

Truth is, I’ve never seen anyone who genuinely pours their heart and soul into poetry not ultimately succeed in finding an audience for their work.

Probably it won’t be as quick as you want it to, but it will happen. The truth is, there are way more manuscripts than ever out there in the world, and more polished, professionally workshopped emerging writers than ever, and people sometimes think it’s hopeless. I’ve held the hands of several friends over the last decade who were getting into a very, very dark place with their books not being taken. Like “drinking alone with the lights off” dark. Totally heartbreaking to go through with them when you know how good their work is. And those friends? Their books have all been selected for publication now. So I haven’t been wrong yet: if you’re a poet, and you absolutely pour yourself as an artist into your work, it’s going to get taken.

And that’s sometimes hard to believe after it’s been rejected whatever number of times, and you’re maybe constantly bridesmaided in this or that competition, but the truth is, for every writer, no matter who you are, it’s always way more rejection than acceptance.

But my number-one issue is writing students simply being able to afford college or graduate work, without going massively into debt. We make it so hard on the people we in academia need the most, who teach our university undergraduate courses, who help with our research. One of the reasons I moved to the University of Houston was that I just didn’t want any more to participate in a system that didn’t try its very hardest to pay student workers what they’re worth in the most fundamental ways. And anyway, without going deeply into that, it’s something we need to address as an academic culture. Grad fellows have a right to decent wages, they need to live at a reasonable standard. Emerging poets need not to be unfairly buried in debt. And the older people who did this to our younger generations—we’re eating our young. And culturally we will reap what we sow for such selfishness and cruelty.

JH: I can completely see all of this. And with all of this…where would you say poetry is headed…? 

EB: I can say that the thing I most believe about poetry, thinking here of what Auden said, in his elegy for Yeats, is that poetry survives. It is a way of being. Poetry is not a thing connected to a specific time or place. So long as there are humans who love the interconnectedness of the world, there will be beautiful poetry. As long as there is one person with a pointy stick hiding out in a cave on a beach to avoid the dystopian zombies, they will scratch out their thing about the ocean waves into the sand, and it will be glorious.
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