The Five Aarons Reading

Same first name, almost the same adolescence.
When St. Louis poet Aaron Belz asked four other guys named Aaron to read with him, he didn’t know what he was in for.

Last spring, three poets named Stephanie read together in my series in St. Louis. Accident, in that case, was the mother of invention: I had happened to book Stephanie Young of San Francisco and local poet Stefene Russell for the same evening. In order to avoid the question of whether the Stephanie phenomenon was intended or merely a coincidence, I put out an APB for a third Stephanie. The most interesting candidate was Stephanie McKenzie of Newfoundland, Canada. She agreed to visit St. Louis in April. The result was a fascinating trio of styles and dialects and, of no small importance, a full house. St. Louisans appreciated this method of curating by first names.

The success of “The Three Stephanies” inspired January’s unprecedented collection of Aarons—Aaron McCollough, Aaron Tieger, Aaron Kiely, Aaron Kunin, and myself—who converged on St. Louis from California, Michigan, and New York. This gathering yielded deeper and more complex ironies than the Stephanies reading, for as we would discover during our pre-reading dinner, we five Aarons really were similar. Four of us had experienced teenage epiphanies listening to the music of the alternative rock band the Smiths. A fifth (Kunin) had never become enamored of the Smiths but admitted to loving the Cure. We arrived at a curious question: are the Smiths “Goth”?

In defense of this position, McCollough cited the famous Morrissey lyric “I wear black on the outside / because black is how I feel on the inside.” Tieger and I took a contrary position, with Kiely mediating and Kunin offering an occasional brilliant insight about the origins of Goth culture. This conversation segued, naturally enough, into a discussion about the hagiographic writings of the seventeenth century.

The reading took place in the upstairs Club Room of Schlafly Beer’s spacious loft-cum-microbrewery, strings of Christmas lights wound around the pillars, a little jazz playing on the PA, a nearly full house of St. Louis literati settling into their seats. As we took our places on the stage, the five Aarons were comfortable with at least one conclusion. Although we had gathered according to an arbitrary criterion, we were members of the same generational caste.

And we would soon discover that our poetry shared similar concerns: Personality. Relationship. Existence. The mundane. The popular. Machines. Sex. An effort not to smirk when speaking of politics. The seemingly arbitrary nature of our narratives, at once independent of one another and woven together. The kinds of post-post neuroses Hal Hartley makes movies about.

The PA’s left speaker buzzed slightly. I had my laptop sitting stage-left in order to record these historic proceedings (although I would later find out that this effort had been foiled by a software glitch about forty seconds into the show). Bartender Brett faded the jazz to silence.

My introduction invoked Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is / when brothers live together in unity! // It is like precious oil poured on the head, / running down on the beard, / running down on Aaron’s beard, / down upon the collar of his robes. . . .”

McCollough ambled up, pointed out that he, indeed, does have a beard, and hit us with a number of short poems from a set called “Coderie”—a conflation of “code” and “coterie” signifying the importance of the Internet to his group of literary friends. Kiely then delivered a rolling sequence of pomo-Buddhist sentiments, such as “I don’t know anything. / I’ve stopped thinking about people. / I don’t think about what people are thinking anymore. / I don’t think they’re fucked up.” He sounded like Octavio Paz updated for television. Tieger came next, with several poems that ended abruptly on words like “Archie” and “7-Up”—one poem’s final sentence was “Damn it feels good / to be a gangsta”—an insular, post-objectivist worldview. Kunin set his jaw like no other Aaron, using a voice that sounded like T.S. Eliot speaking through a vocoder: “I’m inventing a machine / for concealing my desire. / And I’m inventing another / machine for concealing the / machine. It’s a two-machine / system, and it sounded like / laughter.” Amazing. I closed the evening with a few of my celebrity poems, “2005 Is an Important Year for Alec Baldwin” and “In Bed with Meryl Streep” among them.

Following the reading, four of us had to ride home with Brett the bartender, because my car keys had disappeared. As we waited for him to finish his shift, we talked about video games. Remember Q-Bert? McCollough can make the sound of Q-Bert falling off the side of his strange pyramid. Crazy Climber? Kiely remembered having to avoid the falling flowerpots but had to be reminded of the game’s name. Gauntlet? Tieger cited a collection of poetry called “Blue Wizard Is About to Die.” And I—I lamented all the time I’d lost to Spy Hunter.

Once we returned to my house, where all but Kunin would spend the night, we ate cereal and plotted our next reading together, which we hope will be in New York City later this year. We had had such a wonderful time reading together that it seemed only natural to do it again, and maybe this time Aaron Anstett, Aaron Smith, and the urban haikuist Aaron Naparstek will join us.
Originally Published: February 28th, 2006

Aaron Belz is the author of The Bird Hoverer (2007), Lovely, Raspberry (2010), and Glitter Bomb (2014). He earned a BA from Covenant College, an MA in creative writing from New York University, and a PhD in English from Saint Louis University. His poetry has appeared in Boston Review, Gulf Coast,...