Erin Belieu is the author of four books of poetry. She is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University.
It's been twenty years since the publication of your first book, Infanta. You have now written three books since then. Do you feel you have progressed as a writer, book by book? If so, how?
I'm not sure I would call it a progression so much as a deepening of consciousness throughout the books. Hopefully we have an increasing sense of truthfulness about ourselves as we grow older, and we grow strong enough to both own and share this. And given that poems are at bottom portraits of consciousness--no matter how distant or intimate the poem's subjects may seem to a writer's biography--I'd like to think I've been able to get closer and closer to that thing that makes this Erin person a distinct human being for this brief little moment I get to be on the planet.
Let's stick with "portraits of consciousness." Outside of reading other poets, what should a young poet do to make herself or himself a "distinct human being" on the page?
Well, I think the simplest answer is for poets to stop talking themselves into clichés. We poets are such vulnerable creatures, which leads to convincing ourselves of all kinds of nonsense and justifications out of pretty understandable insecurity. I often have to speak very sternly to myself about this. Because it takes real aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional bravery to actually sound like the inside of yourself and to discover the invention in language and structures that represent something genuine about your mind and spirit. Kind of like constantly walking around in public wearing only your underpants. And not even your good underpants! So it's psychologically comforting to fall back on pre-approved language, arguments, gestures, tropes. I mean, I understand the temptation. Especially when you're young and praying to the poetry gods that you'll get to have the life in writing you've always wanted. It's easy to look at what's fashionable, what the poetic flavor of the moment is, who's being rewarded and for what, and either consciously or unconsciously imitate that. My best advice is walk in fear of poetic fashion. And when I look at the poets over time whom I deeply admire, they seem to have done the same. I guess that's where I got the idea.
Who are some of the poets that you admire that "walk in the fear of poetic fashion?"
Carl Phillips's body of work comes to mind first, as absolutely no one sounds like Carl, no matter how many youngsters now try and imitate him. His poetic consciousness is indelible.
Jennifer L. Knox transcribes her sense of being onto the page in such an intelligent and witty way that I admire her quite a bit. She's full of truthful surprises, both in form and content.
Cate Marvin and Mark Bibbins have both gotten excruciatingly truer, riskier, even more authentic, as they've gone along, and they were pretty damn formidable to begin with.
Robert Pinsky has been doing something utterly and brilliantly his own for a long time now.
Dana Levin, whose intelligence is both palpably warm and scary in her work. You never know where her poems are going to go which is such a pleasure.
The trajectory of Jimmy Kimbrell's career has been fascinating--he's equally distinguished in the highest, lyric register and what I think of as that Gulf Coast swamp ass register that's real for so many people in this country. The way these intertwine, the way he holds two truths together at the same time, he definitely has the compliment of my envy. His forthcoming book Smote should knock people out. He's really reinventing the southern lyric narrative for the 21st century.
I realize I'm naming a lot of my closest friends here, but they're my close friends for a good reason. You should always try to surround yourself with the best company, right? This list could and should be a lot longer. But frankly, kinda embarrassingly, I don't keep up with the latest things being published much because I'm too easily distracted by--again--fashion. For my last book, all I read was Larkin, O'Hara, Auden, Bishop, and Rich while the poems were being made. That was my complete diet for Slant Six.
Are you currently working on a new book? If so, what do you hope to do in the book that you have not done in your past books?
I guess I'm working on a new book. I always have that sensation upon finishing a book of, "I did it! Don't ever have to do that again!" And then I go a long, painful time when I feel like I'm not working on anything. The poems seem far far away, like they're hiding from me. I get glimpses of them, but then they skitter away on their little rat feet. Then I believe that I will never write another book and get not-so-secretly anxious and a little depressed. Then I realize astronaut and brain surgeon as occupations are probably off the table for me at this point, so I'd better do something before my university asks me for my annual publishing activities report. Then, if I'm lucky, some nice editor from a publication I'd really like to be in asks me for a poem and I realize I do have something brewing up there in the witch's cauldron that is my brain. At some point all those poems that were secretly living in the walls start coming. Then I sit on my patio writing nonstop for about a year and yell at anyone who bothers me about stuff like dinner and clean laundry. Then a book somehow appears. Which is to say, I suppose I'm working on a book. I've written a few finished things since Slant Six. I'm just hoping my precedent holds as I'm running out of Doctor Who episodes on Netflix to keep me occupied after my son goes to bed.