The elusive Aaron Belz, lauded poet, public misanthrope and private seeker | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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The elusive Aaron Belz, lauded poet, public misanthrope and private seeker 

Poet and teacher Aaron Belz in his bike shop/office.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Poet and teacher Aaron Belz in his bike shop/office.

Aaron Belz does not add up. Everything about him misleads. Start with his poetry. John Ashbery praised his second book, Lovely, Raspberry, as "bright, friendly, surprising." Influential poetry critic Marjorie Perloff hails Glitter Bomb, due out in June from Persea Press, as "irreverent, devastating, even nasty at times."

These high-profile endorsements paint a picture of a major American poet ensconced in literary spheres at a prestigious university.

Not quite—Belz lives in a small apartment in Hillsborough, where he owns an even smaller bike shop with his teenage son and teaches writing part time at Durham Tech. Though he's on the board of the Hillsborough Arts Council, he admits that, at 42, he doesn't get out to many soirees, preferring to sit on his stoop and chat with passersby. This makes him sound like an earnest rural shopkeeper, penning quaint dispatches on small town life.

But no: Belz is an acidulous ironist and parodist. His writing, which he'll read this weekend at Hillsborough's Mystery Brewing Company, bristles with cynical aphorisms and poetic travesties, all below a sheen of marketing copy and pop references. Internet savvy, Belz easily stumbles into micro-fame. In 2013, his poet-for-hire gag on Craigslist was picked up by The Atlantic Monthly, and his Twitter contretemps with comedian Patton Oswalt was dissected in Salon.

In an infatuated interview, The Believer canonized Belz's "signature bow-tie, cow licked coif, and disgruntled expression." Transplanted to rural life in 2011, he's a city slicker and confessed misanthrope who cultivates, in his readings, a sort of flatly contemptuous prep-school smarm. Think John Hodgman. We're far from the evident sincerity of John Donne, Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot.

Yet these are all poets Belz reveres, praising them in the same breath as comedian Mitch Hedberg. He locates his own work on their metaphysical continuum, with sincere reasoning that is slippery to grasp but which seems alive to him. Capping a bio full of blind alleys and trapdoors, Belz is also a churchgoing Christian. It seems dissonant with his jadedly caustic persona, and it formed the subtext of his brief but consequential feud with Oswalt.

If you cut through the alley by the hardware store on King Street, steps on the back lead you up to the Hillsborough Bike Shop. Entering a tiny cinderblock foyer strewn with bike parts, you might get jumped on by a friendly dog named Wikus (named after a District 9 character by one of Belz's daughters). The shop doubles as Belz's office—beyond poetry, he's a freelance marketing and editorial writer—and turning a tight corner, you'll usually find him arranged professorially at his desk.

Belz opened the bike shop last June after raising more than $4,000 via Indiegogo, mainly because his son loves bikes. Elijah Belz, almost 16, is the mechanic; Belz is the businessman. "Typically what we'll do is find what my son thinks is a killer frame," Belz says, "and build it out."

An itinerant path, determined by a diverse teaching career, got Belz here. It led through early years in St. Louis, Christian boarding school on Long Island, a hitchhiking tour of England to visit sites from Eliot's "Four Quartets," an MA in creative writing from NYU and a PhD in English from Saint Louis University, marriage and a family. (Belz also has two more children, ages 14 and 11.)

In 2008, the family relocated to California so Belz could teach at Providence Christian College, and he liked it there. But three years later, they moved to Efland, nearer his soon-to-be ex-wife's family. The split was not unexpected but came sooner than Belz thought it would. A month after arriving in North Carolina, he found himself low on work and funds, living alone in what he calls the cheapest apartment on Craigslist. He wanted to stay near his kids, his "best friends in the world."

Two years later, Craigslist came back into Belz's life in a happier way. In 2011, he had posted a joke ad that resembled the style of his poems: "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."

In 2013, The Atlantic published a laudatory article about him for showing "how entrepreneurial methods can help poetry reconnect with modern readers," leading to a surge of business and an interview with the BBC World Service. Belz raised his rates, and says he made more than $5,000 from about 25 clients. He's still helping one long-term client win his wife back through prose and verse.

"We've had hours of phone calls," Belz says. "I've been kind of putting the engine in his car. My style is really parodic and jacky, and somebody said to me in a snarky way, are you sure you're the man for the job? I was like, screw that, I'm going to get this woman back."

Also in 2013, a Christian youth pastor named Sammy Rhodes, about whom Belz had published a favorable Huffington Post article the year before, was condemned for tweeting rephrased jokes as his own. Comedians and their followers, finding Belz's article, began to lash out at him on Twitter as well.

"I started defending [Rhodes] a little bit because I couldn't stand the mob mentality," Belz says. "It was two cultures colliding—youth pastors, who feel free to reapply each other's spiritual wisdom, and Hollywood and New York comedians who don't take shit from anyone." In a St. Louis Magazine article about the experience, Belz implied that Rhodes was attacked extra-vehemently because of his religion. He had fraught phone calls with Rhodes and Sean Tejaratchi, a comedian who blogged an open letter to Belz that began, "As you know, you're a dishonest asshole."

"I don't know how Patton Oswalt got called in," Belz says with a sigh, "but he spent a whole afternoon dialing in on me. He had millions of followers and I had like 1,300. I felt really sorry for myself. I knew it would blow over fast, but I lost some confidence, even as a poet. The mob was tweeting my poems, making fun of each line."

Belz retunes well-worn poems and rhetorical structures to the frequencies of modern culture. In Glitter Bomb, "So This is Tuesday" contains both a Pontiac LeMans and Roddy Piper. "My Last Duchess" tweaks Robert Browning's mournful ode into a dark punch line. "My Chosen Vocation" name-drops Walt Whitman in praise of Matrix Essentials Foam Volumizer.

"I hope my poems get stuck in your head like little pieces of glitter," Belz says of their sparkly surfaces. "But a lot of them deal directly with love, the possibility of true intimacy and the problem of language—how the backs of these words are so broken they can't carry any more meaning."

This is where Belz finds common cause with metaphysical poets such as George Herbert. "They were clever, parodic, lightning quick, with verbal trapdoors everywhere," he says. "Another source no one can hear in my work is Philip Levine. It's a poetry of observation and consideration. Here are the possible explanations for this phenomenon, and I choose this one, because of this—p.s., I love you."

As for how his heartfelt themes square with his deadpan persona, Belz shrugs, "That's my brand. I'm pissed off a lot. I'm so tired of people." He laughs, perhaps kidding, perhaps not. "I've always had an awkward relationship with other people. I'd rather come up with a rhetoric that accounts for all possible responses and not have to try to process what you say back to me."

In "Your Objective," he writes, "in a given situation your objective should be/to act as much like yourself/as possible." What is the self, Belz is asking, if not a costume—or armor? One would like to tie a neat bow here. But Aaron Belz does not add up.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Broken-backed words."

More Aaron Belz on SoundCloud

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