published Friday, March 28th, 2014

‘The slipperiness of Language’: Poems don’t earn a living, but poets say they don’t care (with video, audio)

Aaron Belz reading poetry

Audio clip

Aaron Belz

IF YOU GO

What: Aaron Belz will read from “Glitter Bomb,” his third book of poems.

When: 7-10:30 p.m. Friday, April 4.

Where: St. Elmo Fire Hall, 4501 St. Elmo Ave.

Admission: Free.

Phone: 521-5230.

‘My Poetry Went Downhill When You Left’

My poetry went downhill when you left,

but it went downhill like a fun toboggan

full of kids wearing different-colored caps, just

one of them with a bloody nose from the dry,

frozen air—and a few of them Asian.

Please, that is to say, leave me again,

but this time leave me like you mean it

so my poetry will drop like the New Year’s

Eve Ball, glittering, amid drunken cheers,

and explode hilariously in Times Square.

— Aaron Belz

An excerpt from ‘Why We All Went to War’

... slightly before and slightly after 1971

No choice but to listen, so we listened to the Funk

Master, himself, James Brown screaming

out from the voice of every black radio station

in North Carolina, America, “Say it loud,

I’m black and I’m proud.” But we had no pride.

We stole ours from the tables of discontent

and index pages of county public library books

never to be returned like names stolen by war

never declared on our schoolboy notebook paper.

— Earl Braggs

Earl Braggs and Aaron Belz proudly identify themselves as poets.

They’re also teachers … and Belz co-owns a small bicycle shop with his 16-year-old son … and also does some editing for other writers ... and last year posted a Craigslist ad, saying he’d write poetry for the creatively challenged.

“You don’t make a lot of money writing poetry,” says Braggs, who teaches creative writing and African-American literature at the University of Tennesse at Chattanooga.

“I make a little bit from appearances and the books, but not much,” Belz says.

Even poet Tomas Transtromer, who parlayed his Nobel Prize for Literature into almost $1.5 million in sales in 2011, only sold 12,300 combined copies of his works in the decade prior, according to a New York Magazine article.

The same article listed the three top-selling poetry books of 2011. Billy Collins topped it, earning $44,177 for “Horoscopes for the Dead.” Wendell Berry was next, earning $4,377 for “Leavings.”

Yes, Braggs and Belz make some money from poetry, just not a lot. Still, neither plans on giving up, saying they write poems because they want to, not because they have to.

Braggs has nine books of poetry to his credit with another,“Oliver’s Breakfast in America,” due out in the next month or so. Belz, who graduated from Covenant College in 1993 and currently lives and works in Hillsborough, N.C., has published three books of poetry, including the new “Glitter Bomb.”

Last year, Belz put up an ad on Craigslist: “Poet available to begin work immediately. Capable in rhyme and meter, fluent in traditional and contemporary forms. Quotidian observations available at standard rate of $15/hour; occasional verse at slightly higher rate of $17/hour. Incomprehensible garbage $25/hour. Angst extra.”

It started off as a joke, a result of “joblessness, anger, boredom, an increasing sense of my graduate degree in ‘creative writing’ going fallow, sprouting weeds,” he told WritersDigest.com. But son of a gun, he actually got a few jobs from it.

Although both Belz and Braggs have been writing poetry for years, neither can define what makes someone a poet, a question Braggs hears often from students, as if there is a formula that can be duplicated.

“I’ve never been able to answer that question,” Braggs says. “I think there is something pejorative to think that someone is tormented and has to create art. I prefer it that I want to write. It’s like playing basketball. You play because you love it and you want to.

“I say to my students, ‘I’m not here to teach you to write poetry. I’m here to remind you of what you already know. There is no formula I can write on this board.’”

As a philosophy teacher taught him years ago, an artist can be lost at sea in a horrendous thunderstorm and still see beauty in the lightning as it lights up the waves and the sky.

“Art is also one of the few things that can take a tragedy and make it beautiful,” he says.

Belz, who teaches at Durham Technical Community College, describes poetry as “like a trap door that I can open.”

“It can be based on an inspiration, but it can also come from dialogues I have with people.”

His poem “idk hannah,” for instance, was inspired by a conversation he had with a friend about a music playlist she had compiled called “I have cry in my eyes.”

“I said, ‘That is not even grammatically correct’ and she said, ‘Don’t judge my playlist titles,’ so I started addressing her in a poem in a semi-not-serious way. In a poem, I allow the sense of a person to overcome any sense of grammar.”

He describes his poems as often ironic and sardonic.

“And, there are some that don’t make any sense,” he says. “I like to revel in the slipperiness of the language.”

An example of his well-oiled word style is his poem “That’s What She Said.”

“I like my women like I like my

‘I like my women’ analogies,

either in small doses or not at all.”

Belz and Braggs write when they can, which can mean sporadically.

“I don’t write every day, but then sometimes I might write for 23 hours in one day,” Braggs says.

He usually has a theme or an idea in mind when he starts to write, and it is usually centered around politics. One of his poetry collections is set in the 1960s and one is centered around Russian literature. A third looks at the personalities of American cities with the idea that almost every one is built on a Native American burial ground.

His upcoming “Oliver’s Breakfast in America” is a book-length poem of an “author’s growing-up years, recorded not through the eyes of Oliver but by the eyes of Oliver,” Braggs says.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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