Rules for Reading Aaron Belz’s Poetry

If a person were to ask me why they should read poetry–and my students do this annually–I would struggle to answer persuasively. In fact, I probably wouldn’t attempt an answer. If someone is resistant, what’s the point?

But if that person were to have a sense of humor, I might attack them with an onslaught of Aaron Belz’s poetry.

From the beginning, I have felt a compulsion to read Aaron’s work to as many people as will pause to listen. With so much practice–as a teacher I am granted a new audience every year–I have learned the best ways to approach an introduction.

Rule #1: Start with something small. If someone isn’t sure they want to listen, this may get them laughing before they’ve had time to resist. With Aaron’s latest collection, Soft Launch, I begin with “F. Scott Fitzgerald”:

So tired of people shouting

“F. Scott Fitzgerald!”

I happen to like

Scott Fitzgerald.

Rule #2: Read a lot of poems. One Aaron Belz poem will strike a listener as a joke, like a one-liner about how “Fruit flies like a banana,” but an avalanche of poems allows them to work through the poetic stages of grief. With another short poem, maybe “Love”:

We fit together perfectly

like two halves of an ape.

they’ll begin to deny this is poetry. Upon a third (“Starbucks,” perhaps, where Belz crafts a hall of mirrors moment in heaven with a Starbucks inside a Starbucks), they’ll bargain with me, admitting it is funny but still not sure it counts as poetry.

Rule #3: Read it deadpan. Subtle presentation is something I learned from Belz himself (and which Belz credits in part to Mitch Hedberg). In my early endeavors I would read Belz like I read almost everything, with bursting energy and dramatic expression. But this is antithetical to Belz’s reading. He is steady with his deadpan, refusing to look up at the end of a poem, permitting the listener to discover the puns and verbal wit.

Rule #4: Build to moments of sincerity. Once the listener has loosened up and is allowing me to read, I sneak toward my favorites. Around poem four, they will have recognized a bit of what is happening–they’ll accept the switched contexts and twists of phrase; they’ll be listening for pivots, but they won’t be expecting a veer into sincerity. This is where I spring upon them “The Man Who Was Unnecessarily Authoritarian With His Coffee” and “This Morning.”

I find that if I follow these rules and don’t ruin the enterprise with my own laughter, I create a fan or two. Maybe not of poetry, but at least of Aaron Belz. And I also find that every time I read these poems to someone new, I delight in them even more. They grow in the sharing.

(Related: if you haven’t read the review I wrote of Belz’s Soft Launch, please do!)