Usually the acknowledgements in a book of poetry are where the author mentions where the poems were previously published. But in her newest poetry collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb (paperback), writer Erin Belieu includes a note of thanks for, “Debbie Gary, whose generosity (and airplane hangar) allowed me the space to finish this book.” To find out why — and, well, more important things like what inspired and influenced these poems — please enjoy the following email interview.
Photo Credit: Gesi Schilling
First off, does Come-Hither Honeycomb have a theme to it, something that ties it all together?
I can’t say my books are ever consciously themed. Or they haven’t been so far. Unless my lived experience, and intellectual and emotional preoccupations and the filters my imagination then sends them through, are a theme.
I can say Come-Hither Honeycomb was written over a long period of great, life changing pain and living through that and then coming through the other side a little busted up around the edges. I had an emotional limp for a long time. A lot of my long-held beliefs about who I was in the world and what I believed were smashed over the time this book was being written. But, as is the case if we’re lucky, coming to the other side of that has turned out to be a very good thing. I’d rather live truthfully, even if I wear scars from the effort, some of them self-inflicted.
Unless I’m mistaken, the poems in Come-Hither Honeycomb are all free verse. Why do you think that form is best for what you want to express?
The poems in Come-Hither Honeycomb are primarily free verse — though the opening poem is a proper villanelle, no cheating on that one. But I’ve always been a free verse writer who has a lot of perceptibly formal elements in my poems. So the free verse in Come-Hither Honeycomb often fall roughly into iambic meter. I pay a lot of attention to my poems’ meters, even if they’re organically organized into patterns. The poems also play with syncopated repetitions and white space. And I tend to use a lot of internal rhyme in these poems. Free verse always hits me as an unfortunate name, as all good poetry has formal strictures of one sort or another.
Come-Hither Honeycomb is your fifth book of poems. Are there any writers who had a big influence on these poems but not on the ones in your previous books?
I don’t know if this book has any particular influences unto itself. I have a little posse of canonical and contemporary writers that have long been the writers I see myself as being in conversation with: Frank O’Hara, W.H. Auden, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Richard Hugo, Carl Phillips, Mark Bibbins, Dana Levin, Jennifer L. Knox, Adrian Matejka, Kevin Prufer, Cate Marvin, Terrance Hayes. I’m usually thinking about their craft and / or talking back to them collectively or individually in some way. Reading their work usually unsticks me when a poem is being recalcitrant.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, music, or visual art; did any of those things have a particularly big influence on Come-Hither Honeycomb?
I’m a huge old movie and 18th-19th century novel nerd. So those personal passions bob up to the surface in my poems sometimes. Like in the poem “When I Was A Teenage Boy.” That reference to Tolstoy at the end, the opening scene of Anna Karenina, which comes from my long obsession with that novel. Jane Austen is also always lurking around under the surface of my work — my attraction to a certain astringent quality of social satire was learned from her as I’ve read her novels nearly every year since I was 16 or so. And the Ginger Rogers reference in “When My Therapist Asks For The Gargoyle Who Sits On My Chest.” Fred and Ginger seem to sneak into a lot of my poems because I was obsessed with those musicals as a kid. Their style and wit and glamour. Lots of novels and old movies references embedded throughout all of my poetry collections. And weird astronomical and zoological facts I stumble across in the news. My son is a fount of weird animal facts. He’s quite useful that way. I always think if I hadn’t been a poet I would have ended up as an historian. I’m usually reading history books for fun at any given moment. And I adore Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. So engrossing, how his storytelling brings history alive. And I read bits of philosophy and theory right before I fall asleep in bed at night just to give my unconscious mind something interesting to chew on while I’m snoozing.
And then what influence did Debbie Gary’s airplane hangar have on these poems? After all, you did thank her in the acknowledgments for generously allowing you to use that space to finish the book.
Debbie Gary is the kindest, funniest, most interesting woman — a huge poetry fan, bless her — who, when I was recently hired at University Of Houston and I wanted a place to stay until I could sell my house in Florida, volunteered to put me up for months in the beautiful studio apartment she has above her private airplane hangar on her property (she’s a world famous aerobatics pilot, journalist — an honest to God feminist pioneer). Such a lovely woman. I wrote a big chunk of Come-Hither Honeycomb in that apartment. And Debbie introduced me to all her astronaut friends (her place is just down the road from NASA). I mean, it really doesn’t get any cooler than that, does it?
Speaking of spaces, some poets read their poems out loud, either at home or during readings, as a way of working out the kinks. Do you do that as well?
I always read my poems out loud when I’m writing them. How else you gonna know what they sound like to a reader?
Some of the poems in Come-Hither Honeycomb previously appeared in such journals as The American Poetry Review and Kenyon Review. Are the versions of those poems in Come-Hither Honeycomb different from how they appeared in those journals?
Like many poets, I doubt a poem is ever done. But they do get to the point where the paint is dry so it’s hard to go back in at that point and keep working the canvas. Parts of Come-Hither Honeycomb came quickly and some of the poems didn’t sit as long as I usually make them do before they appeared in magazines. So a few of those got another coat of polish after the fact. “Hypotenuse” certainly did. But I’ll tinker away on poems consistently until I realize Copper Canyon [her publisher] needs me to stop messing around with them. My friends know this about me and sometimes stage interventions. I joke that the perfect poem would have no words [laughs]. So occasionally one of my close reader friends tells me to stop. Because you can polish things into oblivion if you’re not careful. Need to recognize when you’re actually draining all the light and heat out of a poem for the sake of some impossible and static perfection.
Finally, if someone enjoys Come-Hither Honeycomb, which of your previous poetry collections would you suggest they read next and why that one and not one of the others?
I don’t know which other book a reader might want. I think Slant Six is the funniest. Black Box is definitely the darkest. Infanta is the most carefree. Lotta erotica in that one. And One Above & One Below is the most formal. It probably has the best poetry manners of them all. I suppose people need to choose their own poison, right?