Baltimore writer’s literary journey comes full circle

Towson University has the Towerlight; the University of Maryland has the Diamondback.

At some point, every creative writing major finds himself honing his skill while working long hours for his campus student publications.  But it’s rare that a seasoned writer finds the students of his alma mater returning the favor.

D.R. Belz, a 1978 graduate of Loyola University, was teaching an assortment of writing courses at Loyola when he was first approached about writing a book.  An Addy award-winning writer, Belz initially considered putting together some of his humorous essays which would span the years 1978 – 2010.

Belz began writing science fiction short stories at the age of 10.  Satirical essays (nonfiction) and poetry soon followed.  By 17, he was writing poetry in German class–in German.  In 1973, as a Maryland State Arts Council literary competition finalist, Belz spent the summer studying fiction writing with novelists James M. Cain and J.R. Salamanca at the University of Maryland in College Park.  That experience cemented Belz’s desire to become a writer.  After high school, Belz enrolled at Loyola University where he wrote a regular column for his campus newspaper, The Greyhound, called Roustabout.  By the time he graduated, Belz had cranked out some fifty 700-900 word pieces.  As a thank you, the editors presented him with a bound copy of his work.

After graduating from Loyola with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing, and an M.A. from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Belz embarked on a 35 year career teaching English and writing. Belz taught high school, undergraduate, and graduate courses, “everywhere” he says, from Mount St. Joseph High School and Villa Julie to MICA, Johns Hopkins and Towson just to name a few.  And he continued to write: poetry, fiction, columns and satirical essays for such publications as The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Valley Times, The Catholic Review and the Baltimore Post-Examiner.  From The Antietam Review, Belz was awarded their literary prize for his poem, Gaia.  Belz had a sizable body of work, but no single place to showcase it.  Enter Gregg Wilhelm and Kevin Atticks.

Wilhelm is the founder and executive director of Baltimore’s City Lit Project.  Wilhelm knew of a new program at Belz’s alma mater which teaches students everything they need to know about the publishing business, from acquisition, design and publishing to marketing and promotion.  The student publication is aptly called Apprentice House.  Wilhelm put Belz in touch with Kevin Atticks, the publisher.

Belz and Atticks discussed the project over lunch and the publisher said he wanted more than a short book of essays.  What emerged was an anthology of some of Belz’s best work which includes the humorous essays plus poetry and fiction.  The book is titled White Asparagus.

Handing his collection to a student-run press proved both exciting and vexing to Belz.  “It’s a workshop approach to learning the ropes of the publishing business,”  Belz explains, “but it’s also a term project.  Three different classes were involved in producing the book.  As an author, you get a lot of attention, but then at the end of the semester, the student is gone.”

The working title of the book was Cellophane Tuxedo – an intriguing title but for one problem.  Nobody got it.  “What does it mean?”  the students asked.  “It’s just a working title,”  Belz explained.  “The students were having trouble book-concepting Cellophane Tuxedo.  I wasn’t married to that title so I changed it to White Asparagus, which was the title of the last story in the book.”

The manuscript complete, Belz asked his friend and former Baltimore Sun colleague Rafael Alvarez to write the introduction.   He also turned to an old high school friend, Stephen Doyle of Doyle Partners in New York, to create the design concept and photograph for the cover.  Jim Burger graciously provided the author’s photo on the back cover.

The students had taken the title White Asparagus literally and envisioned a cover which incorporated real asparagus.  Belz was afraid the finished product might look like a cookbook or a book about gardening.  That is when he approached Doyle, who came up with the idea to use white banded pencils and pens.  “It’s great,” exclaimed Belz, “the way it suggests ‘writer’.”   The clever cover also suggests a delightful pastiche.

D.R. Belz at a New Mercury reading event.

Once the book was done, then-student Lauren Hooper helped with the marketing and, along with Belz, scheduled readings at an array of venues, such as the City Lit tent for the Baltimore Book Festival, New Mercury, Greetings and Readings and Constellation Books.

The Apprentice House Facebook page promoted the book’s release, but still, like other authors, Belz needed to do some self promotion.  “I had the cover of the book as my Facebook profile picture for a while,” Belz laughingly recalls.  “I’ve also looked into doing some of the standard stuff, like getting post cards and bookmarks made.”

Sales were proceeding moderately, when Belz chanced upon a perfect place to deal his books.

For ten dollars, Belz got a table at a Methodist church bazaar.  “There were ladies selling baked goods and craft items.  I was the only author there.”  The result?  “The book sold like hot-cakes.  I sold more copies of my book at the bazaar than I had in all the time from the launch till that weekend.  It was like the people were milling around, looking at the crafts and knick-knacks and then the light goes on and they say, ‘Hey, books make great gifts!’”

Selling books is of course every writer’s dream, but just as gratifying to Belz has been the response he has received from readers and from fellow writers.  To date, he is one of just a handful of writers to be invited twice to appear at the New Mercury reading series.  And Dan Cuddy, one of the deans of the Maryland poetry scene, told this reporter, “I really enjoyed his poetry—-and his stories too—-plus his humor—that’s the trinity of the whole book.  It is a great book to read.”

Now, more than two years after Belz’s book was first published, it is about to enter a new stage: e-publishing.  Apprentice House is working on an e-edition and hopes to have it finished sometime before the end of this semester.  Belz is bullish on the idea of White Asparagus going to an e-edition.  “Kindle has revolutionized not only what people read but how they read it.”  Belz is also sold on the concept of print on demand.  “Print on demand can print the entire work from a PDF format.  You can get the books one at a time or buy a whole case, so there are no boxes of books in the trunk of my car or at my house.”

White Asparagus by D.R. Belz was some 18 months in the making, but for the author, it really represents a lifetime’s worth of creativity.  Belz is clearly overjoyed and yet noticeably humbled when he reflects on the number of hands that were involved in bringing the anthology out.

“Asking favors from friends; having students put in the long hours.  How do you ever repay such generosity?”

D.R. Belz will be reading selections from his book, White Asparagus, this Sunday, December 9th, from 4-6:30 p.m. at the Washington Printmakers Gallery, 8230 Georgia Avenue, 2nd Floor, Pyramid-Atlantic Building in Silver Spring, MD.  Along with Belz, the line-up for this event includes Fictioneers & Poets Elise Anderson Burke, Barbara Westwood Diehl, Melanie Hatter & Laura Shovan and Singer-Songwriter Josh Brunson.  This event is free and open to the public.