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Journal, Day Three

By Erin Belieu

It turns out that the distributors actually liked the vintage porn cover I was fussing about. Go figure. I guess art and democracy are safe for one more day (I’m resisting the urge to make a Dick Cheney joke here)—

But now I’m wondering if I really want that to be the image for the book. I’ve started imagining my parents in their gated Florida retirement community leaving it on the coffee table or sending it to my cousins out in the Nebraska panhandle—

(The “community” my parents live in looks exactly like the movie set for Edward Scissorhands)—

I’m being stupid—my family hasn’t considered disowning me that I know of—and yet, after all this time, it’s funny that it bothers me.

I’ve talked to a lot of students about this—they worry that they shouldn’t write or publish something because of what their family will think. My editor at AGNI, Askold Melnyczuk, told me when I was fretting about such things—back when my first book was about to be published—that he thought that most parents were so invested in keeping their bragging rights that they’d overlook almost anything not to lose them—that you could call your book My Father’s A Psychopathic Pedophile and they’d still go to great lengths to find a way to make it okay for themselves.

I think that’s probably true for most people—but I have seen a few, sad cases where families were brutal to writers once their books came out. That breaks my heart. But I think more often people with families like that already know what’s coming and end up censoring themselves accordingly. That bothers me more. It must feel awful and exhausting to have those handcuffs on every time you sit down to write. Isn’t half of writing any poem about giving yourself the permission to do so, no matter where it takes you?

Dedications are complicated, too. I usually get in trouble when I dedicate a poem to someone—my brother Dennis was cranky about the poem addressed to him in my last book. But when I offered to have it taken out if it went into a second print run, his response was “Oh no! Don’t do that!”—

So there you go. I suppose most people would rather be mentioned than not, but then feel understandably exposed or caught off guard by the poems they inspire? I know I’ve never written anything purposefully mean or embarrassing about anyone—but sometimes it’s easy to confuse what feels true with what’s mean, isn’t it? Doesn’t Tony Hoagland have an essay about this—something about the power of necessary “meanness”?

I have a good cautionary tale about the perils of dedication—I wrote something for my friend Don Lee—I told him that I’d written him a poem and he was very pleased—but when he saw the poem, he was amused but also slightly offended (it’s a poem called “The Possible Husband” and it’s about a man who is literally haunted by his ex-girlfriends)—I really did intend it to be a loving poem for a good friend—

Then a year or so later his collection of short stories, Yellow, comes out from Norton. There’s a story in it called—that’s right—“The Possible Husband”—which is a great story—actually the whole book is terrific—and in it, the main character has a girlfriend named “Ariel Belieu” who is the most annoying, absurd, self-deceived, therapeutically-correct, Plath wannabe version of myself I can imagine! The caricature is dead on and, man, did he rip a strip off of me. But the story and the character are wonderful. And if you can’t laugh easily at yourself—well, that’s a good sign that you’re a hopeless jerk—Don’s was a perfect and very witty response—

He ended up getting extra mileage out of his “vengeance” when “The Possible Husband” was chosen that year for the O’Henry Prize anthology—he got the chance to make fun of me AGAIN in the author’s notes where they ask the writers what “inspired” their pieces. I still get emails every 6 months or so from students who are studying his work and want to know if I personally will mail them a copy of the poem for the paper they’re writing—ah, yes, be careful when you dedicate a poem, especially to a fiction writer …

Off to pre-school to pick up Jude—I have to get there in time to see what the classroom teachers called his “presentation” on his family pet. I’m envisioning our junkyard lab Rosalita up on a Power Point screen …


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, February 15th, 2006 by Erin Belieu.