In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Steve Bellin-Oka discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for November, Steve Bellin-Oka. Steve is the author of Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. Steve, welcome and thank you for joining me today.
Steve Bellin-Oka: Thank you for having me, Mary. Thank you.
Poets.org: All right, let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for November?
Bellin-Oka: Well, curating for the month was kind of a daunting task because there are [sic] such a wide variety of voices and styles and forms that are being written and written very well in contemporary American poetry. So I knew I wanted to start with the idea of getting as close of a glimpse of that diversity of form and style and subject matter as I could in this month’s selections. And I’m also interested a lot in how contemporary poetry serves, for a lot of us, a lack that we feel of, say, spirituality or guidance or truth in our contemporary culture. And I think contemporary poetry is a way that we can kind of have to turn to, to replace those kinds of things that we’ve lost. So I also wanted to bring together poems that address, in some way or other, this lack of connection that we might feel to each other or to the natural world or to our social structures, and particularly at this point in time in our political history when people are so divided. I was hoping that the poems that I chose would be able to kind of address that gap.
I was also really interested in having a diversity of poets, too, based on gender, sexuality, ethnic and racial identity. And also to give a wide variety of poets who may not be as well known to our poetry reading public and pair them with poets who they might be familiar with, all with those kinds of ideas in mind. And I hope I was successful.
Poets.org: Now, if you could direct our readers and listeners to one poem, or more than one poem, on Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Bellin-Oka: Well, I’m tempted to refer to one of my most favorite poems in the world, which is Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” but then everyone kind of knows that poem already. But I return to it over and over again because it just astounds me. But really what I was thinking was, I am a big fan of the work of Charles Wright as well, and there’s a poem on the Academy’s website called “Little Ending,” and it’s the kind of poem that Emily Dickinson says should take your head off. At this point in my life and in my writing career, I’m middle-aged, and so I’m naturally looking back at my own past and looking at what the future holds. And I think Wright’s late work really does an excellent job of memorializing the past, but also not sentimentalizing it either. So a kind of acceptance of his aging, an acceptance of his maturity.
And the poem is, you know, it speaks to the endless reinvention of the self that we kind of go through maybe even each decade of our lives, as we pass from one stage to another. We come to what he calls great forks in an untouchable road our entire lives, and those of us who kind of measure our lives by the kinds of poems that we read and loved at certain stages of our lives. I’m just really, really taken with this one. And there’s many, many other poems that I could refer to because there’s so many great ones on the Academy’s website, but that was the first one that I kind of felt like, yeah, this is the one that captures lightning in a bottle for me.
Poets.org: Your narrative poem, “Self-Portrait as the Chosen One,” which is on Poets.org, by the way, addresses this notion of reinvention of the self, which you just referenced in regard to the Wright poem. And it starts when…the reinvention of the self arguably starts when we break away from the expectations of our parents and our forebears, the expectations that they foist upon us, right? There’s a striking scene in that poem in which the mother and son are walking along a path that, you know, had been bucolic but is now being sort of absorbed by the surrounding suburbs. And the mother tells the boy that he’s a miracle, and the comment is meant to be reassuring, but it seems like it ends up being a curse on his head. [laughs] Can you talk a little bit more about the genesis of that poem? I’m so curious about it.
Bellin-Oka: Yeah, and that’s one of those poems that kind of were initially drafted as two or three separate poems that none of them were working right. And it just kind of struck me to go, maybe if I kind of yolk these two things together, I might come up with something that is more interesting in the sum rather than in the two or three individual parts. So yeah, that’s kind of how I ended up drafting it and ending up with the version that I had now. But the family mythology that it’s kind of about is that I’m the firstborn biological child of my parents, but I had, he’s passed away now, an adopted older brother. And so they adopted my older brother because there were a lot of difficulties in carrying children to term for my mother until I was born. So she would always refer to me, and she was quite a religious person, as kind of the “miracle,” that I was the child that eventually survived.
And this did put an awful lot of pressure on me as a child and as a young man because I felt I had to prove that I was this special person. And really I’m not. I haven’t done anything different than other people have done. I’ve just learned how to live my own life and to separate myself from that myth, which is, you know, a part of inventing the self, as you mentioned. So the poem is trying to reenact this, turning my back on that family myth and asserting myself for who I really am, not who I had been judged that I was supposed to be.
Poets.org: Who or what are you reading right now?
Bellin-Oka: Yeah, so I’m reading a number of books of poems. So my reading time is not as much as I had hoped anymore, but as a LGBQT poet, I kind of try to turn to those works first. And I’ve been reading some of the Lammy Award winners from this year, the Lambda Literary Award winners. Shelley Wong’s As She Appears. She has a poem in this month’s curation. And Edgar [Gomez]’s memoir, High-Risk Homosexual. And these are also texts—his is nonfiction, Shelley’s is poetry—but that talk about the intersections between racial and ethnic identity and queerness, and I’m really interested in that as well. I’ve also been reading, Randall Mann’s selected poems that came out this summer, Deal, because I’m fascinated by his mastery over formalism, which is something that I can’t do and I really, really respect.
In fiction realms, I’m interested in dystopian literature. And there’s a novel that came out a couple of years [ago] by Yōko Ogawa that’s been translated from Japanese into English, and it’s called The Memory Police. That I kind of turn to to relax, like right before I turned out the light at night.
Poets.org: Interesting that you turn to dystopian literature.
Bellin-Oka: Yeah, I know. [laughs] Maybe it just makes me feel better about the world that we’re living in now because someone else is articulating it for me, yeah.
Poets.org: Sure, yeah. So what are you working on now in your writing, teaching and publishing life?
Bellin-Oka: So I am working on a second book of poems that’s called “Shadow Generator,” and I’m really hoping that that will be out at the beginning of 2025. I feel like it’s basically done in the incarnation that I have of it, though I’m sure I’ll change my mind about that several times and revise more than I have. But that book kind of grew out of COVID and looking back through the lens of COVID at the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and early nineties, which is when I came of age as an adult. So it’s kind of the second epidemic that I’ve lived through, and there’s some interesting connections between the two that I’m trying to explore in my poems, in that manuscript. In my publishing activities, I started a press last year that’s called Fork Tine Press. We published chapbooks by queer writers of color and queer, disabled writers. And I thought there was a real need in the publishing market for a press devoted to those types of writers. And that has… We’ve published our first chapbook and we’ll be about to publish our second one soon.
And finally, my teaching, I’ve actually moved out of teaching at the university and college level, and I’m now teaching at a private boarding school at the high school level. And I am really enjoying it because I’m finding that students there at that age might be much more open to the wonders and the beauties of poetry than adults that have been sort of closed off to it, in a large part because they have been taught that it’s difficult and it’s a mystery that you have to figure out, not that it’s something that goes to the very heart of being a human being and sharing that with others.
Poets.org: I want to go back for a moment to “Shadow Generator” and the work that you’re doing on that. The themes that you’ve explored there remind me a lot of the work that Susan Sontag did for Illness as Metaphor that this examined. Of course, many of our readers and listeners will know in that book, she examined the AIDS epidemic through the lens of the public view of cancer, right, how we tend to regard cancer victims versus how we tend to regard AIDS victims.
The work that you’re doing in “Shadow Generator” reminds me of your poem, “[Tet],” which comes from Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. There is a line in “[Tet],” and it goes, “Neither of us knows why he deserved to survive.” That line is so resonant and deals very cleanly, I think, with both the grief and guilt that can coexist with survivors, particularly, you know, among gay men, I think, during the AIDS epidemic. But I’m curious about what insights you've developed about grief as a result of writing poems that contemplate how we’ve mourned losses from both AIDS and COVID.
Bellin-Oka: Yeah. Yeah… So yeah, I’ve dealt with that subject a little bit in Instructions for Seeing a Ghost, but I’m clearly not done with it because that grief is an ongoing thing. There’s a huge cultural hole in American life that just, you know, basically wiped out a generation of artists, at least artists who are LGBQT identifying, in the eighties and nineties. The same thing kind of happened with COVID, maybe not specific to sexual identity, but another sort of…there were artists who passed away from COVID as well. So I continually think about, well, how much better would our world be had that art had the chance to be created, had it been, you know, had the creator not been taken away by one of these viral illnesses that both were ignored in a way by public health authorities? Maybe COVID not as much as AIDS, of course, but there was still resistance in public governmental quarters to doing basic measures to slow the transmission of that virus.
So a lot of people have died unnecessarily. And I think grief is just something that’s kind of always with me, at least, as a poet, because I think about poems that could have been written, that I could have been in conversation with, and I can’t now do that. Works of art, music, painting, sculptures that could have been inspirational, not just to me, but to others. So that’s a kind of public and artistic and cultural grief. But personal grief is part of Instructions for Seeing a Ghost as well and “Shadow Generator,” because I did lose friends to the epidemic as well—both of them. And so I don’t think I’m finished working through that grief that I have, and I don’t think I know of any other way than through writing poems about it to really work through that grief to a place that I can kind of come to peace with it.
Poets.org: Well, we’re all looking forward to that next collection of poems.
Bellin-Oka: Thank you.
Poets.org: And thank you so much for joining me. This was really great.
Bellin-Oka: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you, Mary.