Erin Belieu is the author of four poetry collections from Copper Canyon Press: Infanta, selected for the National Poetry Series; One Above & One Below, winner of the Midland Author Prize; Black Box, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Slant Six, which just received a coveted starred reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly. Her work has appeared in places such as the New Yorker, Tin House, the Atlantic, Slate, and Ploughshares.
Erin is also the mother of one son, Jude, and two entirely untrainable Catahoula Leopard Hounds, all mostly feral. She once looked up the word “gullible” upon being told that it doesn’t appear in the dictionary. A former champion springboard diver and gifted amateur personal shopper, Erin took voice lessons to learn to control her occasional panic attacks on stage, leading to a committed devotion to karaoke dive bars. (Her show-stopping rendition of the Carpenters’ “Superstar” never fails to bring the crowd to tears.) According to her former therapist, Erin is an “emotional risk taker.” She’s also a triple Libra—sun, moon and rising sign—making her “simultaneously the most just and the most slothfully decadent person you’ll ever meet.” Slant Six, which Erin is here to discuss today, was published this month.
The Rumpus: I’d like the audience to take note that this is a very special night here in the studio—a very special night. Not often are we able to book a poet of this caliber on our measly little so-called program. Here it is, the heart of sweeps week, and I’m grateful and honored to welcome Erin to the show. Come on out here, Erin!
Erin Belieu: Thanks for having me, Dave.
Rumpus: Listen to this live audience! It’s like they’ve just been let out of a cage.
Belieu: That seems the appropriate audience for me…
Rumpus: What an uncivilized lot!
Belieu: Again, appropriate.
Belieu: What’s in my coffee cup?
Rumpus: Vodka, I think. Isn’t that what you ordered? Did Tony and the crew take care of you in the Green Room?
Belieu: Just wanted to make sure you’d read through my rider.
Rumpus: Oh yes. The boiled peanuts were a tough find though.
Belieu: UNSALTED boiled.
Rumpus: Whoa, I hope our intern, Dean, covered that. So you’ve got this new, sleek book, Erin. I want you to tell us about it. Has some kind of snazzy title. What is it again?
Belieu: It’s called Slant Six. Like the muscle car engine.
Rumpus: Chevy, right?
Belieu: Yeah, Chevy. And others.
Rumpus: That’s a pretty manly title right there.
Belieu: I liked the idea of having a dude title for the book. I figured I could fool some people into forgetting that I’m the co-founder of VIDA. Plus I love muscle cars.
Rumpus: Cool, I hope we can talk some about VIDA in a bit. I read the book today and I’m impressed by how much ground you cover: meditations, rants and screeds, lamentations, joyful lyrics and reminiscences. There are a few emblematic poems that caught my eye. Can we pick one that suggests the scope of the book?
Belieu: I suppose “When At A Certain Party In NYC” would do the job.
Rumpus: Perfect. The audience can link to the poem here. This poem has one of the catchiest opening gambits I’ve ever seen: “Wherever you’re from sucks, and wherever you grew up sucks…” Who from Generation X, Y, or Z doesn’t want to read the rest of a poem that begins like that?
Here’s what I want to know. Did you laugh out loud and snort coffee out of your nose when you wrote those lines? Because that’s what happened to me when I read them this morning.
Belieu: That’s the purrfect reaction. I remember thinking, well, what sums it up? Going to those parties in New York where everyone looks at you like you have a booger hanging out of your nose? And I may have, but that’s not the point.
Rumpus: I love the poem. It’s so busy and alive. First of all, it’s a comical situation, the sense of displacement felt by the speaker and her characterization of the city. Also, this poem is a great example of your skill at mixing high-brow/low-brow elements, like “deconstructed church,” “objets,” and “Lacanian” juxtaposed with the dildo and tampon just a few lines later. In the book you get much mileage out of this dynamic. It’s an important component of your style. Can you talk about that? I can’t think of many poets who pull off this kind of thing.
Belieu: Well, I like the texture that a full sense of the world brings to a poem. And I am a pretty Hegelian mixture of high and low myself, so my oppositions come naturally to me.
Rumpus: I was rereading your first book, Infanta, and there are touches of this quality, but in this book it’s full-blown. Did this change happen naturally over time, or did you push yourself to get there?
Belieu: Hmm. That’s a good question. I don’t mean to sound too Yoda-like, but I think we’re all just onions. You keep peeling over time and eventually you get to the heart, the root, the intensity of flavor that human beings become over time. Plus I have a much greater sense of permission now than when I was in my twenties.
Rumpus: How old were you when Infanta was published?
Belieu: I was 28.
Rumpus: Ah… that makes sense. Let’s cue up this author photo of you way back then. Can the audience see this? The picture quality is low for some of these shots because they’re the only ones we could find. There’s the 28-year-old Erin on the cusp of her first book publication, chosen by Hayden Carruth as winner of the National Poetry Series. Can we talk about this picture?
Belieu: We can. But then I’ll have to kill you.
Rumpus: Mmmm. I’ll be cautious then. You look so innocent and sweet and also sort of stunned… like “OMG, this is my first real author photo!”
Belieu: Thing was, I was adamant about not having an author photo. I viscerally despise having my picture taken. Lot of family trauma around pictures as my father was a merciless amateur photographer. Like, we had a darkroom in our house. My hatred of having cameras pointed at me is no joke. So I kept ignoring Copper Canyon’s request to give them a picture. Then one day in my office I got a call from Sam Hamill, Copper Canyon’s founding editor, who basically ripped off my head and spit down my neck telling me that I WOULD get an author photo to them and I would do it TODAY. So I scurried over to the Boston University photo services where they take people’s photo IDs and had them snap me. It was a day where all my good jackets were at the dry cleaners and I dug in the back of my closet for something that turned out to be a jacket last worn by Delta Burke on Designing Women. There’s a whole story about those earrings, too…
Rumpus: I had more of a Facts of Life style in mind. Wow, that is traumatic. Tell us about the earrings.
Belieu: Oh God. We have to make sure my mother doesn’t read this. Can you give me that guarantee?
Rumpus: Uh, we’re on live television, Belieu.
Belieu: Oops. Ok. I’ll take the plunge. So my mother, bless her heart, as they say in the South, has a habit of sending me Avon jewelry. And this is not exactly my taste. But she always asks if I wear the stuff she sends—like “I never see you wear those lovely holiday pumpkin earrings I sent you.” So that I day I remember thinking no one was going to be in the office at Agni where I worked, and I could wear them, and then tell her I’d worn them with a clear conscience. Wait a minute—did you say I look like a character from Facts of Life? WHICH ONE????
Rumpus: Sort of like a Blair/Jo hybrid. We’ll post a picture here. I mean Slant Six is totally Jo, right? But Blair’s got class—a softer, feminine side.
Belieu: Wow. I never realized—but I really AM a cross between Blair and Jo. So much seems clear to me now.
Rumpus: So what happened in your next couple of author photos, from One Above and One Below and Black Box? In those shots you’ve got PRESENCE… a no-nonsense, don’t eff with me attitude. You also start working the hair to your advantage.
Belieu: Ha! Thank you. I am very vain about my hair—comes from having been in a swimming pool nonstop between the ages of four and twenty. Once I got the chlorine out, I was not fucking around anymore. But let’s see—One Above is my “I want to be Amy Hempel” shot and Black Box is my “The divorce diet gives you great cheekbones” shot.
Rumpus: You’re looking directly at the camera again in One Above and One Below, but you’ve got a healthy pup alongside you, like you’re in control but you’ve got the dog there for backup, just in case. Black Box is totally, “I don’t have time for you, speak to the hand, press the shutter if you must, asshole.”
Belieu: I always wanted to be the kind of author who had her lab in an author photo. Rosalita was such a good dog. Plus Rosie wrote all the poems.
Rumpus: I dread asking this question, but as the only bald talk show host on late night television, I have to ask you this: Do you consider yourself a hair poet? Is that an offensive question to ask? I’m waiting for my VIDA beat-down…
Belieu: I would be honored to be considered one of the great hair poets. But I’m not sure that I have the length, like Lucie B squared, or the volume, like Dana Levin. And, no, when we’re not kicking ass, VIDA folks have been known to discuss hair products.
Rumpus: Whew. Sometime I’d like to pitch a poetry panel at AWP or some other conference: Hair Poets vs. Bald Poets. And then we can all talk about how much our hair or baldness impacts our work.
Belieu: I was bald junior year of high school. Does that count?
Rumpus: Come on, you know shaved and bald aren’t the same!
Okay, let’s get to this most recent author photo, posted at the beginning of this transcript. Here’s my take on your shot for Slant Six. First off, a color photo…Wow! Then: “I’m so over these author photos and the male gaze and I co-founded VIDA, you rat bastard, and this is my fourth book, slimeball, so take my picture if you want to, but do it from down there near my Prada…”—or insert boot brand here… I don’t know a damned thing about women’s boots or heels or shoes—“…and while you’re down there why not polish them up a bit? Please.” You’re smiling too. That “I know something you don’t know” smile. It’s golden.
Belieu: I have to admit, I was somewhat chemically-altered in that picture. It was Miami. I was on vacation. Hence the smile.
Belieu: That’s hilarious. The idea that I would ever be confident in front of a camera. But thank you for your read of it.
Rumpus: Back to Slant Six and specifically “When at a Certain Party.” Am I correct to interpret the end of the poem, “what you want is / to be on the fastest Conestoga home, where the other / losers live and where the tasteless azaleas are, / as we speak, halfheartedly exploding?” as the speaker claiming her own native ground over NYC?
Belieu: I think that’s partially what the poem is getting at. That is, I’ve finally accepted the fact that it’s ok to not to want to live in New York, no matter how much I enjoy being there. I could never work that hard to simply survive. And we all have to be from somewhere. I have yet to live anywhere that I didn’t find things to love, people as friends, beauty, etc. And I’ve lived in a number of places.
Rumpus: Born and raised in Nebraska, right? Then a decent stint in Massachusetts. Now you’re in Florida. Am I forgetting another important location?
Belieu: Ohio. I spent a good deal of time in Ohio. And St. Louis.
Rumpus: One of the things I admire about your work is its expansive vision and geographical awareness. It’s expansive in its tonal registers, diction, modes of thinking and feeling, but it also tries to see American culture as clearly as it can—urban, suburban, rural, North, Midwest, South, etc.
Belieu: Yeah, I’m a traveler. If I were rich it’s all I’d do—go places and get to know them.
Rumpus: Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book. It’s so funny and absurd. I’ve been thinking about these lines all day, from “H. Res. 21-1: Proposing the Ban of Push-Up Bras, Etc.”:
If Benjamin Franklin/were alive today, you know/he’d be working a thong and/Rollerblades on Venice Beach,/flying his freak flag,/just beneath Old Glory!/America, it’s time/to unsuck those bellies/and show our ugly asses.”
How did you write those lines? What’s your secret? It doesn’t dawn on most of us to address the nation like that, and in such a blasphemous, crude way.
Belieu: Well, I was one of the poets asked to write for that anthology for President Obama’s first one hundred days. At that point the honeymoon was just starting to turn into the marriage. And Benjamin Franklin was delightfully freaky, what with the rumors of his swinger inclinations, etc. I always think if people would stop fronting and posing, and stop lying so much about who they are and what they do and why they do it, we’d all get along a lot better. I mean, obvious, but true, I think. Just own your shit. Please.
Rumpus: Interesting back-story. Here’s a different line that struck me, “What’s more American than a full stomach on a sunny morning?” That’s another way of approaching the large, messy subject of country.
Belieu: I guess that’s a line with a blade in it that cuts in several directions.
Rumpus: How often do you get back to Nebraska?
Belieu: Not nearly often enough. I think they broke up with me.
Rumpus: Do you know of other poets from our generation who are from Nebraska? I ask because… I can name a bunch of younger poets from Kansas: Kevin Young, Ed Skoog, Patricia Lockwood, Eric McHenry, Ben Lerner. Who are the Nebraskan poets we should know? I’m sorry to say it, but right now it looks like Kansas is kicking Nebraska’s ass.
Belieu: Let’s be clear—Nebraska believes in evolution, so the idea that Kansas could EVER kick our asses is doubtful.
Rumpus: You more than hold your own, of course. Who else am I forgetting? There’s Kooser, but he’s like 97.
Belieu: There are excellent poets like Miles Waggener, Grace Bauer, Susan Aizenberg, Mike Catherwood, Art Homer, and J.V. Brummels. And Ted, of course. Lotta prose writers from or in Nebraska, too. Like Emily Rapp, Dan Chaon, Terese Svoboda, Jonis Agee, Brent Spencer, Ron Hansen. Per capita, we’re a very literary people. Also, Roxane Gay is from Omaha. Case dismissed!
Rumpus: Okay okay… touchy subject. Let’s play a little game that the writers for the show invented, called “Who Does It Better.” I’ll give you a subject, and you tell me which part of the country does it better, the Midwest, the Northeast, or Florida. I’d say Southeast, but I think we can all agree that Florida deserves to be its own entity. You in?
Belieu: Totally in.
Rumpus: Okay. We’ll start with an easy one: Christmas.
Belieu: Northeast, what with the twinkly snow and Dickensian architecture.
Belieu: Northeast. I used to live by MIT and have seen the platonic version there.
Rumpus: Whoa! How about this: driving?
Belieu: Well this depends on what you mean by the best. For sheer competence and viciousness, Northeast. For professional-quality drunk driving, Florida.
Rumpus: Next one: dancing.
Belieu: Absolutely the South.
Rumpus: But Florida?
Belieu: Oh, yes, Florida.
Rumpus: How about this one: gossip.
Belieu: Hands down Florida. No contender on that one. Though I love Midwestern-style gossip.
Rumpus: Why do you love Midwestern-style gossip?
Belieu: Because it’s so stealth you have no idea you’re bleeding for days. A lot of internal hemorrhaging.
Rumpus: Okay… a few more. Here’s one: storms.
Belieu: Midwest. We got huge-ass storms of pretty much every variety. This is why everyone else is weaker than we are.
I also want to be clear the Midwest is actually in the middle of the country. That’s what I’m talking about. Not these wannabe far eastern states that try and claim Middle West status. Look at a map, chuckles. Ohio is not west.
Rumpus: Ohioans, take note! We said dancing, but what about dirty dancing?
Belieu: Dirty dancing: Florida. The official mode of dress here is a glitter tube top worn with a pair of coochie cutters.
Rumpus: Okay, final one. Cursing.
Belieu: I’m going to say the Midwest. When people curse there it’s epic because they’re so nice most of the time that when it comes out, it REALLY comes out.
Rumpus: Beautifully put. Thanks for playing. Allow me to use this opportunity to bridge back to Slant Six. In one of its poems, “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year,” the word fucockulous appears. Is this an invented word? Please explain. The OED just about crashed when I typed fucockulous into its database.
Belieu: I think it’s a word. I thought it was some kind of bastardized Yiddish word, but it gave the copy editors at Copper Canyon pause too. I swear I’ve heard people say it, though.
Rumpus: Can I hazard a guess about its meaning? Maybe something along the lines of “fucking ridiculous”?
Belieu: But you left the “cock” out. That seems a shame.
Rumpus: And who’s saying this word? And where?
Belieu: I’m thinking maybe Boca Raton.
Rumpus: Because I want to live there.
Belieu: Dude, you do NOT want to live in Boca.
Rumpus: You’re right. The sun would burn my dome. So what does it mean then? Give us your definition.
Belieu: Ridiculous, stupid, “cocked up,” beyond ignorant, and possibly made up.
Rumpus: I love it. Let’s start a literary journal titled Fucockulous. Or maybe like this: FUCOCKULOUS! That exclamation point is key.
Belieu: I am a big fan of exclamation points. Mostly because so many find them irritating.
Rumpus: Before we move on to your Three Obstructions assignment, Erin, I want you to promise me something.
Belieu: Anything for you, dearest.
Rumpus: We here at Late Nite want to be part of VIDA’s count. Will you hold us accountable? We want a pie graph. Live audience: we want a pie graph for the show, right?
See? They love the idea. Can you make that happen?
Belieu: I might know someone. Let me see what I can do. But Cate Marvin is a very scrupulous person so I can make no promises.
Rumpus: Seriously, VIDA is the most important literary institution to come along in decades. We didn’t leave enough time to talk about it here, but our audience should check out the VIDA website, make a donation, or get involved somehow. My four-year-old, Olivia, uses a VIDA t-shirt as a nightgown. Isn’t that cool?
Belieu: That is excellently cool. I want Olivia to be on the VIDA board some day. We gotta get them early, girls and boys. So that when her children grow up they’ll hear about this as ancient history and wonder how people in the past could’ve been so foolish and hung up on stupid gender categories.
Rumpus: Okay, Erin, are you ready to be obstructed? You know about this torturous game we play on the show, right?
Belieu: Bombs away! I’ve heard tell.
Rumpus: Okay, good. Here are your obstructions. If anyone in the audience wants to give this a try, post your draft in the box down below. We’ll send a copy of Slant Six to the first person who takes up the challenge.
Your Three Obstructions:
- Write a 12-16 line free verse poem, which might be tough since most of your new work stretches longer than that.
- In the poem allude to a specific reality television show most of us will recognize, but don’t name the show.
- Invent another brilliantly profane word. Late Nite loves the idea of prodding you into adding another profane word, like “fucockulous,” to the English language. We want to witness this marvel first hand.
How are you feeling about this?
Belieu: I’m wondering what rhymes with Colicchio…ah, radicchio. That’ll work.
Rumpus: I like it. Sharp-knived tongue, that guy. Okay… off to your notebook or laptop, Belieu!
Belieu: Wish me Godspeed. Here I go…
The Most Beautiful Woman In The World Has a Scar
the Mer de Glace,
where a train
the track, with
minds have died
to the floor
from the caboose.
slide from her
side which is
the very least
In The World
is the death
sport capital of
men pony up
to put on
crevice of just
Rumpus: What’s up with your reading comprehension? Ahem: “1. Write a 12-16 line free verse poem…”
Belieu: Well, I had it in 16 lines, but the lineation is better this way. My poems will not be contained by your puny mortal rules.
Rumpus: Gotcha. Otherwise this is masterful, especially as it drives toward the end. Certainly you’ve greased your famously laborious writing method with some sort of Schedule II drug. Fess up so I can get myself a bottle of the stuff.
Belieu: Ha! Famously laborious, am I? Thank you. But honestly, I love being given poetry assignments. Having someone else sort out at least a few of the necessary boundaries feels a relief to me.
Rumpus: Are you often inspired by sadistic assignments such as mine? Because if you are, I can give you another one…
Belieu: I think that’s something we should probably discuss off camera, Tiger.
Rumpus: Is it getting warm in here?
Belieu: That can be our safe phrase.
Rumpus: Thank you for enduring all this nonsense. Anything you want to say to our audience before we wrap?
Belieu: Just that I appreciate your kind attention. It was a pleasure to be silly with you.
Rumpus: Well, our Nielsen rating has fallen below crap like this, so we’re grateful for your time. We’ve got to keep The Rumpus execs off our necks!
Follow Erin on Twitter @erinbelieu.
Stay tuned for Episode #8 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Beth Bachmann.