Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Writer teaches spring semester poetry class

Mercer scored in bunches against a porous Yellow Jacket defense during their only exhibition game of the season.

Mercer scored in bunches against a porous Yellow Jacket defense during their only exhibition game of the season.

By Rebecca Reed

Erin Beliu is the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Writer in Residence for 2011and she has arrived on Mercer’s campus. The Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. course is offered every spring semester with a different poet or fiction writer.

Beliu is the author of three books of poems, winner of the National Poetry Series, co-editor of the anthology “The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women”, co-founder of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts and director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University.

The Cluster recently sat down with Beliu.

Cluster: What is your hometown?
Beliu: Omaha, in the Great State of Nebraska. Nebraska’s the best place on earth! Watching a storm roll through the distance out in the Sandhills, mile after mile of uninterrupted space, the geometrical beauty of the place. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I find the quiet and emptiness very comforting.

C: Where did you go for undergrad? Grad school?
B: University of Nebraska as an undergrad, Ohio State University for a Ph.D.— though I bailed out right before my prelim exams because Robert Pinsky asked me to come study poetry at Boston University. My thought was, when the Poet Laureate asks you to come to his writing program, you go. So I finished up with a poetry degree from Boston. I do wish I’d finished my Ph.D.—then my brother would be forced to refer to me as “Dr. Erin.” A missed opportunity!
C: How do you think it’ll feel to be balancing the Sam’s Chair and being director of the Creative Writing Program at FSU?
B: It’ll feel busy! But honestly, I was looking forward to the change and teaching myself how to drive more than 10 consecutive miles at a time. And I hear very good things about you all. Folks couldn’t be nicer at Mercer, for which I am very grateful.

C: What do you like to do in your free time?
B: I don’t actually have free time. I have three jobs (I’m also the artistic director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference in Washington State). I have a wonderful 10-year-old son, Jude, who has his own social schedule—I’m basically his chauffeur. I am secretly addicted to a certain number of perfume websites. I’m obsessed with obscure, hard to find and vintage perfumes and discuss this strange predilection with other weirdoes like myself. I’m constantly getting tiny decants in the mail of rare scents. The perfume counter at Barneys in NYC is my version of Mecca! My partner of many years, Adam Boles, is amongst other things a food writer with his own culinary travel business. So he and I really enjoy trying new foods. On the way up here when I was practicing finding Macon, we came across this tiny little place called the Jesus Maria Taqueria in Omega, Ga. That’s the most real deal Mexican food I’ve eaten outside of Mexico. I recommend it highly. So that’s our idea of a good time.

C: Who inspired you to write poetry?
B: I don’t know who exactly inspired me. I’d wanted to be a writer as a very small child, and because maybe I rhymed better than some of the other third graders that became my persona early on in school. I was lucky to have parents who have always been incredibly supportive of me in that way. They were always, “Okay! You want to be a (fill-in-the-blank)! Where do we sign you up for the lessons?” Looking back at it as a grown-up, it is kind of strange to have come from the suburbs of Omaha, Neb.—not a place at that time where you could imagine a lot of writers coming from—and to end up with parents who had that kind of confidence in my dreams. Such a gift to a young writer. I had excellent teachers throughout my education. I was never really any good at anything else. I’m not cursed with the burdens of the multi-talented. Makes knowing what you want a lot easier to figure out.

C: What is your light side? What is your dark side? (Or your strengths and weaknesses.)
B: That’s a hard question to answer. I like to laugh more than just about anything. I used to be kind of stupidly fearless, which has its own virtues. I suppose my dark side didn’t show itself too much until I had my son. Knowing that he holds my heart so firmly in his hands, that my whole world is in his possession—well, I have to work very hard not to worry an unhealthy amount and be too protective. The world suddenly seemed like a very dangerous place once Jude was born. I wouldn’t trade being his mother for anything, but I came to fear late and it’s been hard to learn to manage that gracefully. I’m still trying…

C: Your father called you Rutabaga. How did that come about?
B: I don’t really know. My dad was quite a personality. He died last year so a lot of memories have been coming back to me since then. I mean, by day he was a gifted and special education teacher for the Omaha Public School system. He grew up in a tiny little conservative town out in the Panhandle of Nebraska, but he was one of the grooviest people you’d ever meet. He was a self-taught but very gifted visual artist. Growing up, our house was wall-to-wall paintings he’d done—copies of great paintings throughout history. We had his version of the Mona Lisa in our living room, though he worried that the mouth was all wonky, which it was, and he free-styled a mural of ancient Roman ruins onto our kitchen wall. He also collected beat-up British sports cars and then hand-decorated them in these crazy ways. So we’d drive through the town in a busted old Morris Minor that was painted DayGlo lime green with giant orange daisies stuck all over it— you know those old bathtub stickers to keep you from slipping in the shower? And toward the end of his life he wrote a sequence of novels about the Salem witch trials. They were supposed to be for kids, but publishers kept rejecting them as way too terrifying for children! So, in the very original context of Wendell Belieu, I guess Rutabaga was his idea of an affectionate name.

C: You chose to sponsor poet James Kimbrell and journalist Diane Roberts coming to campus. What made you pick these two people?
B: Well, they’re both brilliant. I’m lucky to have them as colleagues. Diane is a nonfiction and fiction writer, a journalist for NPR and the BBC and is one of the smartest, most charming people I know. She’s a ninth generation Tallahassean and is related to every major politician, preacher and lunatic ever produced in the history of North Florida. Jimmy is one of the most gifted poets in America— I’m pretty sure he’s won pretty much every prize a younger poet can win. He hails from Mississippi and writes these wonderful poems full of characters and story and has this gorgeous elegiac line of which I am deeply envious. There’s something in the water down here that turns out amazing writers.

C: What advice would you give to someone looking to do to grad school, become an author or poet, become a professor or someone who just wants to write?
B: You have to be brave enough to do what you want. If you don’t want to end up working in a cubicle, then have the imagination to find other ways to live. Go apprentice yourself to a Chinese potter and live on a mat on the ground. Or be the make-up artist for a drag show. Or hire yourself onto a fishing boat in Alaska. I always think life is not a dress rehearsal! And don’t get yourself into debt. Debt determines more of your life as a writer than anything else does. Live simply. Go without all the middle class trappings for as long as you have to. I somehow managed to wander into a proper job with a regular paycheck and health insurance—still not sure how that happened—but I never owned a piece of furniture that wasn’t from Goodwill or someone’s garage until I was 39 years old. Now most of your friends will start getting the house, the new car and the nice couch much earlier. That’s fine if that’s what matters to you, but writers need to be portable and flexible.

Erin Belieu will read from her own poetry on Feb. 22, at 7  p.m. in the choir rehearsal room of the Townsend School of Music. James Kimbrell will be reading on March 15, at 7 p.m. in the choir rehearsal room and journalist Diane Robertson will read on April 11 with the time and place to be announced.