The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Erin Belieu about her new collection Come-Hither Honeycomb (Copper Canyon Press, February 2020), multiplicity in language, middle-aged bodies, publicly judging parents, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Adrienne Christian, Threa Almontaser, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Andrés Cerpa, Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Emily Francis: Erin, can you talk about the title [of the collection]? I love that beginning to “Loser Bait.” How did that end up as the title of the book?
Brian S: In the piece I wrote on why we chose Come-Hither Honeycomb for the Poetry Book Club, I talked a bit about the way you seem to choose words for multiple meanings in “Loser Bait.” Is that something you look for intentionally in your process, or do you just take advantage of it if you see it?
Erin Belieu: Oh, well, I really wanted a lyric title for once, and I liked that out of context, “come hither honeycomb” sounds very musical, elevated diction, etc. But in context it’s kind of dark and satirical, which is more like what people expect of me. A sleight of hand as it were. A useful misdirection.
Brian, I suppose I do look for those multiplicities. I feel like each line of a poem is three-dimensional chess. Though it isn’t pre-plotted—it’s just what my mind does in the generation process. My background in my PhD work was in psychoanalytic theory, so I’m always try to recognize what my unconscious mind may be offering.
P. Shaw: I am interested in that phrase you just used: “what people expect of me.” I didn’t find your poems in this book at all what I had come expect of your poems. In a good way. A great way. So… what’s it like having an expectation to work with, against, etc.
Erin Belieu: I like jamming up people’s expectations. I think that’s what good artists do. Never want to get lazy in that regard. I always want to keep stretching what my craft and voice can do.
P. Shaw: You make great jam.
Emily Francis: Can you say more about the three-dimensional chess?
Erin Belieu: Lol. I make a mean choke cherry!
Sure, Emily: I mean, a line of poetry is or should be firing on so many levels at the same time that being attentive to the possibilities for a line, a stanza, etc. means keeping your mind open to the many things all firing at once and trying to arrange them meaningfully. Does that make sense?
Brian S: Is that something that happens in the first draft moment or more in revising and editing?
Emily Francis: Yes! Is there one aspect that you tend to start with?
P. Shaw: Do these poems feel more… you? They sure are vulnerable as hell, as opposed to previous collections.
Emily Francis: Brian, you and I are on the same wavelength tonight!
Erin Belieu: It happens from beginning to end of the process with hopefully each draft deepening the process. You know the His Dark Materials books? or the series. I always feel like Lyra reading the alethiometer when I’m writing. That’s the truest description I can think of. Where you go into that other mind that’s open and receiving but interpreting at the same time.
P. Shaw: That’s a great description.
Erin Belieu: I tend to start with some sense of an idea, something that’s captured my attention, something I think has drama and stance from the start. Then I start casting for sound and rhythm. Trying to find a pattern flow.
Rebecca Sanders: Re: “Please Forgive Me All That I Have Ruined”—I lost my daughter in the purse department once and almost lost my mind. This poem traces a complicated but loving relationship, I think, through several touchpoints in time. Was there an inciting image or feeling that led to this poem? Thank you.
P. Shaw: I am glad you brought up that poem, Rebecca! That is the poem I keep going back to in this collection.
Erin Belieu: That was literally remembering myself in a moment of transforming pain. And the letter I actually wrote, but looked back on some years later. Like, who was that woman when she wrote such a florid but heartbreaking thing. I think the book is tracking that moment when something has taken you to your knees and then you keep checking in to say who am I now this far from the disaster? And who am I now, and now and now…
P. Shaw: That poem goes so many places in time and space and yet like it all is floating in the narrator’s eye line.
Yeah. Who are we now?
Erin Belieu: I’m so glad you like it. Because my son makes an appearance, it is very close to my heart.
P. Shaw: After all of what happens to us. That line about keeping quiet and still with your son. And the someone else’s noise.
Erin Belieu: I think pain pushes us into silence and then it can be hard to remember how to use your voice again.
Rebecca Sanders: Yes, it feels like a novel distilled… it captured me with its craft, and the yearning and loss. Gosh.
Emily Francis: I love that poem too, especially the cassowary. I have an affinity for dinosaur birds as well.
Erin Belieu: Oh thank you, Rebecca. It was hard to publish because it felt very raw and exposing. I couldn’t wait to get the cassowary in a poem. Lol.
Brian S: As though someone would judge you for not knowing where your kid was every second when you’re in public?
Rebecca Sanders: Yes, they do…
Erin Belieu: Well, parent judging is a competitive sport.
Brian S: I’m not going to say that not being able to take my kids into public places during the pandemic has an upside, but yeah.
Lauren W: Erin, I was delighted by the rhymes and sound play in this collection. Could you talk about your relationship to a poem’s music?
Erin Belieu: Sure. I think music is what matters to me most in poems and language play. I remember being about four and being taught the books of the Bible in a little song we sang in Sunday school. And the language! Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus. Such words ! I just couldn’t believe how beautiful the sounds were. The music and texture of language has always undone me.
Lauren W: Oh, I know that song well!
Erin Belieu: Deuteronomy? WHAT A WORD!
Brian S: That’s one even the Jehovah’s Witnesses learned, and we had our own songs for everything else.
Habakkuk! With all those Ks.
Erin Belieu: I think in hindsight that was the moment I realized I had very poetic affinities. I mean, I didn’t know or care about what it meant. I just loved the color and paint of those words.
And, I love traditional rhymed and metered poetry and am committed to use that in my poems
Rebecca Sanders: “Return to the Water”… coming to grips with body image and all that bullshit that goes with the stuff that’s put on girls… and the creeper coach. Can you speak to that for a moment—how hard was this to write, or was it a release, a mercy?
Erin Belieu: I carried around the idea for that poem for many years. Chewing at it, trying to find a door into it. And finally it all just came together because I’d done the mind work on it for so long. I always knew my years as a diver wanted their poem since it was such a huge part of my life for so long.
Brian S: The first poem in the collection is a villanelle, which is a move.
Erin Belieu: I definitely wanted to throw the gauntlet down with that villanelle. Lol.
Emily Francis: Just putting the first and last poems together for the first time right now.
Erin Belieu: And, I also knew about the diver poem that I had things to say about the beauty and scars of middle-age women’s bodies.
What do you mean, Emily? Do tell!
Emily Francis: Lol… just that it begins with a hostage and it ends with what very much feels like the freeing of a hostage—to the body, to motherhood…
Erin Belieu: Oh Emily! That’s so smart and interesting. I love that. I hadn’t seen it.
Emily Francis: The motherhood as hostage may be my own reading! Or, maybe its the pandemic…
Erin Belieu: Lol, Emily.
Brian S: Like the choice to swim naked was the result of remembering that the door wasn’t shut?
Erin Belieu: Yes, absolutely. Free your mind and the rest will follow, to quote a great song.
Robert Warden: Who were the poets that influenced you in the beginning?
Erin Belieu: Plath, Philip Larkin, Auden—very much Auden—Robert Hayden, Keats, Adrienne Rich, Stephen Dunn, Lucille Clifton…
P. Shaw: Do you ever listen to music while crafting the work and/or: if this book had a soundtrack, what would some of the songs be?
Erin Belieu: No, I was so broken after the big life crash I went through that I couldn’t listen to music for years. It hurt too much. So strange. It was like I was all in pieces and was afraid of too much noise. Like I was shatter glass just clinging to the frame. And, when you have a kid, you’re really trying to keep it together. So, after he went to bed, or if I was driving by myself in the car or something, I needed complete silence. It was healing.
Was that oversharing? Lol. I listen to music again…
P. Shaw: After the book you just made: no.
Brian S: Not at all. The pandemic has really driven home how much I value silence. I stay up after everyone has gone to bed just to revel in it.
Erin Belieu: Ah, good. Yes, this book feels very open in that regard. And I love silence, even when I’m not healing. Silence is the best.
P. Shaw: So, the music of language in your craft of writing stands outside of your relationship with music as most think of it?
Erin Belieu: I really don’t know. I was that girl who worked in a record store for years, back when there were record stores, and went to live shows constantly. But I suppose I do see them as something a bit separate. Because the musics aren’t the same really, even though we use similar language to discuss both.
P. Shaw: Yeah, that makes sense. Beats of language and words in the mouth, on paper, etc. have their own kind of frame of sound.
Emily Francis: I love that line from “When I Am a Teenage Boy”: “the trick is to appear intact.”
Erin Belieu: Oh, I’m glad because I really liked that observation, too.
Emily Francis: Sums up both teenage-dom and personal renovation very well!
P. Shaw: Teenage-dom…
Erin Belieu: I really like that poem. I felt like I actually did make a consciousness completely other than my own. I was thinking of “My Last Duchess” and wanted to try that kind of channeling of another soul. You know, that sense when a character has taken on another life when you’re writing it. such a feeling.
Emily Francis: I felt that with “The Man Who Fills the Space,” too.
Shelly Stewart Cato: I love that poem!
Erin Belieu: Wonderful. I was very interested in third-person in this book and seeing what I could do with that point of view. Second-person, too.
Brian S: For a good chunk of that poem, the first time I read it, I thought it was about being a writer.
Erin Belieu: “The Man Who Fills in Space”?
Brian S: Yeah. That reading doesn’t hold together for long, though.
Erin Belieu: I kinda dig it. I’m going to go back and see what it reads like from that position.
P. Shaw: Did you leave any poems out? Any you still think about at night, as to whether they should be in there? If not, how are you certain? You always read so certain, even in your questioning. Your authority in your work feels so damn confident. Whenever I read your poems I am always like: How does she know? And by that I mean… so many things.
Erin Belieu: Thank you, P. No, nothing left out. I work each poem over and over and over, for better or worse. Nothing is free or easy for me. I admire people who move more quickly and fluidly and prolifically than I do.
P. Shaw: That’s why. Thank you for doing it.
Shelly Stewart Cato: This is a little bit of different topic, but I remember James Wright talking about fearing falling into glibness—I think you manage the speaker delicately in “As for the Heart,” and they do not fall into self-pity. Tell me, what do you think?
Erin Belieu: I try to keep my radar tuned for such glibness because I know it comes easily to me and I use it as a way not to reveal too much in poems if I’m not careful. Defense mechanism of quippiness. Or at least I hope I weed that out. A lot of poems don’t go past a few notes when I smell the whiff of my own “charming” bullshit.
Brian S: I just want to say about the poem “Sundays,” I don’t often wish I’d been more like a person in a poem, but I wish young me had been more like that girl.
Lauren W: I see homages to Longfellow and Tolstoy in Come-Hither Honeycomb, and I’m wondering what other authors and books were impactful for you when you were writing these poems.
Erin Belieu: I I usually have some other writer in mind when I’m writer—often novelists or philosophers, as I read much more of these than poetry. But yeah, I’m always talking to somebody. I tend to need a conversation to be a part of.
Emily Francis: “Sundays” may be the most original version of Jesus I’ve ever read.
Erin Belieu: Thank you, Emily. He scared the beans out of me when I was a kid. Lol.
Brian S: Emily, the use of “drooped” is just more perfect than I could have imagined it.
Emily Francis: “sad man with his sorrows”—totally seeing through the eyes of a kid.
Erin Belieu: I was trying to get that upped/drooped/choosing assonance and consonance thing going, there.
Brian S: You mentioned earlier that you work and rework poems. How long did this book take to write?
Erin Belieu: Oh, hmm. How long. Well I spent lots of lots of time resisting writing it so that took some energy, because I was ABSOLUTELY NOT GOING TO WRITE ANOTHER LIFE CRASH BOOK. And that resistance took a while. And then, once I got down to business, it took about two years. But I count resistance as part of my process. Every time I finish a book I think, Done! Never have to do that again. Whew!
P. Shaw: Sooo… now what?
Erin Belieu: I am working on a craft book. And I’m flirting with writing a novel. It’ll never happen, but I’m flirting with it. And I’m working on an anthology with Carl Phillips. Which I can’t talk about yet. But it’s going to be awesome.
P. Shaw: Nice.
Brian S: What’s it been like trying to release a book in the middle of a pandemic?
Erin Belieu: A little weird in that usually I’d be flying a lot of places right now. Don’t tell anyone, but since I’m a hermit, I kind of love that I don’t have to fly anywhere, even though I actually like going places. I can just stay on Isle Erin contentedly and be like, Oh well, what are you gonna do?
Brian S: What have you been reading lately? Anything we should have our eyes out for?
Emily Francis: Super excited to hear about the craft book!
Erin Belieu: I just finished A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and MY GOD it is so brilliant and beautiful. And, I’ve read everything possible by Paraic O’Donnell (who has the epigraph for this book). I want to understand shorter forms again better so I started Jean Valentine’s and Henri Cole’s Selected, and Airea D. Matthews’s Yale Series of Younger Poets book [Simulacra], which I love. Natalie Shapero has a new book [Popular Longing] hot off the presses, and Jennifer L. Knox, whom I adore, recently published Crushing It. Been reading Cate Marvin’s new manuscript and we scooped her up for Copper Canyon, about which I am very pleased because she’s brilliant.
P. Shaw: Wow! That’s great about Cate!
Erin Belieu: Very psyched about Cate. And Dana Levin’s new book I just read in manuscript is BRILLIANT, no surprise. Oh, and Dan Chaon’s novel Ill Will is absolutely wonderful. And Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent.
P. Shaw: Oh, yeah. I can’t wait for [the new Dana Levin].
Brian S: That’s the hour. Thanks so much for joining us tonight Erin, and for this wonderful book!
Lauren W: Thank you, Erin!
Erin Belieu: Wait, we’re done?!
P. Shaw: Hahaha.
Brian S: And thanks to all of you members who showed up tonight; I love these chats.
Amanda Moore: Thank you, everyone. This was awesome to listen in on!
Emily Francis: Thanks, Erin! This was really great!
P. Shaw: This was a really cool way to engage. Thanks, Rumpus! and THANK YOU, ERIN!
Shelly Stewart Cato: Thanks, everyone!
Erin Belieu: Lol. Thanks so much for coming you all; it was great fun. And thank you for reading the book! *blows kiss to all*
Photograph of Erin Belieu by Gesi Schilling.