an interview with marvin bell and three poems

Posted on Sat, Dec 19, 2020

A Note From The Editor:

Our advisory editor Marvin Bell passed away on Dec. 14 at his home in Iowa City, surrounded by his family and with Chet Baker’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” playing in the background. Marvin was far more than a name on december’s masthead, though. As we mentioned in our current issue, “Marvin is an advocate for december, but he does so in the context of being a fierce and dedicated champion of both poets and poetry. He is our guide, our mentor, our teacher, our literary compass, and our exceptional friend.”          

            We asked Robert Lowes to interview Marvin long before anyone knew Marvin was sick. Lowes was the perfect candidate for the job — he is a veteran journalist who has interviewed hundreds (if not thousands) of people over the years and an accomplished poet who recently published his first collection of poems. december has published some of his poems as well as a previous interview with multi-genre writer Jesse Lee Kercheval. 

            Marvin has been interviewed many times, and we weren’t sure another interview would add to what we know about him or his poetry. But Robert is just that good, and when Marvin reviewed the final version, he sent an email saying, “Can I admit I love this interview?”

            The outpouring of praise to Marvin began a couple of months ago, as news of Marvin’s illness began to circulate. In October, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a special section titled “For Marvin Bell” featuring poetic tributes from many of his friends and former students. On Nov. 1, a virtual reading featured dozens of writers all reading their favorite of Marvin’s poems. This week, we’ve read countless more tributes, so we decided to post the interview — which appears in our Fall/Winter 2020 issue. We hope it gives you a glimpse into the iconoclastic and puckish man who was and continues to be our North Star.

— Gianna Jacobson, Editor

Mavin Bell Interview by Robert Lowes

Photo by Photo by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚

Once again, Marvin Bell was troubled. We were set for the second of two FaceTime interviews — de rigueur given Covid-19 — but in the meantime, American cities had erupted in protests, rioting, and flames following the death of George Floyd, a black man, under a white policeman’s knee. That upheaval was on top of a deadly, mismanaged pandemic. And on top of what many call a burgeoning American autocracy. Bell asked to reschedule.

“I’ve had trouble sleeping,” the prolific poet told me when we finally convened again on our computers. “We’re desperately waiting for an election to change the government. America hasn’t had a threat to democracy like this for a very long time.”

Then Bell proceeded to lighten my mood and his own, just as he has done for readers over the past six decades. Call him a mash-up of Walt Whitman, comedian Larry David, and your favorite uncle telling dinnertime yarns. Yes, his poetry continues to be troubled by history — the Vietnam War, US meddling in Central America, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, famine in Sudan, Trump. Fellow poet and former student Lynn Emanuel, who studied under Bell at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, characterizes his work as “committed poetry that is also real poetry.” Yet there is an uplift, an escape from darkness, in Bell’s work, perhaps best seen in his signature “Dead Man” poems (collected last year in Incarnate): “The dead man risks the peril of your affection for a laugh that is also a yawp and a howl, and the hail that is also farewell.”

Bell can voice the quite lively Dead Man — he calls it a consciousness, not a persona — because he ascribes to this Zen advice: “Live as if you were already dead.” What does that mean? “Participate in everything, but have a long view,” he explains to me. Or, as the Dead Man says, “It is the fate of the dead man to be passionately detached.” 

Bell, who serves december as an advisory editor, has published more than 20 collections of poems going back to Things We Dreamt We Died For in 1966. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon, an encore to his 40 years on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I saw him (then) as a rabbinical figure with his bushy hair and big black beard,” says poet and december advisory editor Steven Schreiner, who earned an MFA at Iowa in the mid-1970s. “He looked like a prophet.” 

And the prophet had a message — write with abandon. By introducing students to European and South American poets, particularly those in the surrealist vein, such as Vasko Popa and Pablo Neruda, Bell showed that there was an alternative to American verse composed painstakingly to satisfy a “close” textual analysis, says Emanuel. “I felt invited to take more aesthetic and formal risks as opposed to worrying about the cohesiveness of metaphors. I suppose it was a more leaping poetry.”

Leaping, but not highfalutin, in Bell’s case. The son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants fleeing pogroms, Bell was raised in Center Moriches on Long Island where, he says, “people didn’t go to college” and the only books in the house were “some Readers Digest condensed novels and encyclopedias to make the kids smarter.” A high school music teacher thought Bell’s way out of town was to join the Coast Guard and play the trumpet in its band. “I told him, ‘I grew up near water, and I cannot swim.’ ” 

Bell eventually did wear a uniform — that of a first lieutenant in the Army for two years — but otherwise he does not go by ceremony or rank. When he reads his poetry somewhere, he usually tells the person introducing him, “Don’t mention any awards.”

Please welcome Marvin Bell in conversation on the december stage.

—Robert Lowes

December: You said a few years back that it was easier to be a 20-year-old poet than a 60-year-old poet “because at 60, you’ve done a lot and you don’t want to do it again, and you know some things too well.” You’re now 83. What’s it like being a poet at this age?

Bell: If you write long enough, you know what your poetry is worth, and what it’s not worth. 

Some poets develop a wonderful style and it gets them great press and they keep perfecting that. But I always felt every artist should be experimental. That’s what I wanted to do. Some new form, some new source, some new architecture. I tell my students to write with abandon. In art you are free. You’re not free anywhere else.

As you may know, one of my “32 Statements About Poetry” is try to write a poem at least one person in the room will hate, because that means you’re pushing the envelope. That’s hard to do when you’re a young poet, when you want everyone to love you all the time. 

December: The Dead Man poems represent a new form — a two-part poem, each part with its own title. You started publishing those in your 50s.

Bell: It’s genre-bending in its way. The reason for the two parts is that I always thought that any poem could go on. Sometimes a poem will get credit for what is called terminal pleasure. Sounds like it hangs out in a bus station. Terminal pleasure. But no matter how good those last lines are, any poem could go on.

Another aspect of the Dead Man form is that perception for me, and maybe for everyone, is kaleidoscopic. Things come in from all different directions at once. We’re never thinking just one thing. That’s why line two may connect in some way with line 12, not with line three. I don’t plan it out that tightly, but that’s the way they go. Also, I knew it would drive people crazy — two titles, two parts (laughter). I love to drive people crazy.

Incarnate is a big book philosophically. It’s poetry, but it’s philosophical. I’d like to see it be a lifetime book for people. They keep it around and dip in and out over the years. I think it will mean more to them as they get older

December: To me, they feel like scripture.

Bell: I love that word “scripture.” When the first (Dead Man) poem came to me, I was in Port Townsend (WA) and I was putting the book Nightworks together. That one poem came to me. It felt to me — I don’t want to be mystical — but it really felt to me that it just came to me somehow. It belongs to what people sometimes call wisdom books.

December: Wisdom literature — that’s a good description too.

Bell: I put (the first Dead Man poem) into a book called Iris of Creation, never intending to write another one. My wife Dorothy said, “You need to write more of these.” I never take good advice right away. I didn’t write another one for four years. And then when I did write another one, and then another one, I was hooked. I was fascinated by how it could be anything and everything, and by the notion of defeating time, being dead and alive at the same time. 

December: What are the some of the major changes you’ve seen in poetry during your career?

Bell: Two things have happened to poetry that are good. One is that America has finally become part of world poetry. Poets for so many years wanted to establish a national identity. Canadian poets wanted their poetry to be distinctly Canadian. American poets wanted their poetry to be distinctly American, and so forth. But more and more translations of (international) poetry came about, and had an effect on this. American poetry now thinks of itself as world poetry. It’s not all about us, it’s about whatever poetry is, everywhere. 

The other thing is the diversity in American poetry. It’s an important development, the inclusion of voices that weren’t heard before. 

December: You’ve been described as a mainstream poet who applauds the slam poetry movement. Can you talk about that?

Bell: You may not believe this, but I was there at the beginning of the slam poetry scene. It was created by Marc Smith in Chicago, where Dorothy and I were living. He was using a jazz joint called the Green Mill Tavern on a night when it otherwise would have been closed. He would ask me to do a reading before the competition. After a while, my son Nathan, who’s a singer-songwriter, and I would come in together. We’d go back and forth, with Nathan singing a song and me reading a poem. I was in on the scene, but I never competed. Mark used to say to the audience, “Marvin Bell is the only academic that approves of us.”

A lot of it wasn’t great, but when it was good, it was verygood. In 2002, there was a reading by some of the best Slam poets and me (laughter) in Los Angeles at an arts and literary center called Beyond Baroque. It was a benefit for a bookstore and also a book launch for The Spoken Word Revolution: (slam, hip hop & the poetry of a new generation). These poets were fantastic. Some were hilarious, some were political. The reading started at 10 p.m. There was a line around the block to get in. And for two hours, nobody moved a muscle. 

December: Many poets dream of a big, enthusiastic audience like that, and one not confined to other poets.

Bell: The tree of poetry is very large. It has many branches. I wouldn’t lop off any of them. But poetry also seeks its own level, like water. You can have a bigger audience if you write poetry that doesn’t ask too much of it. You don’t have to read it twice, or three times, or four times. It’s good the way it is. For serious poetry, the kind you want in a book and want to reread, which is fresh every time you read it because of what it does with the language, that’s always been fora specialized audience. 

December: Slam poets belong to an oral tradition just as Beat poets of the 1950s and 1960s did. The Beats were important to you.

Bell: I wouldn’t be writing any poetry except for the Beat generation. My best friend Al Sampson and I would go to an inexpensive Italian restaurant in Syracuseand eat salad in the daytime and pizza at night and read Beat poetry to each other — Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, those people.

It was new. It was different. It showed that you could write a very different kind of poetry, that you didn’t have to write as a very educated, learned person, although Ginsberg was a very learned man. He was a Hasidic scholar. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had gone to the Sorbonne. These people were no dopes. Also, I always felt a little bit like an outsider. I don’t want to make too much of it. The Beats were the outsiders.

December: You’ve written politically oriented poems your entire career. How do you avoid the pitfall of writing poetry that comes across as propaganda?

Bell: Anybody can write a poem saying evil is no good. I understand there are times when a poet writes a poem that doesn’t have many aesthetic values, but they make whatever case they want to make. They express anger or frustration. As I said earlier, the tree of poetry has many branches.

Narrative is convincing in a way that saying what’s on your mind is not. It’s not a screed. It’s not didactic. Now I say what’s on my mind too, sometimes. I have a friend who used to say a poem needs rhetoric because the image has no voice. It’s true. We say “Show, don’t tell.” It’s really good advice for a beginning writer, but you can’t always show. You have to tell too.

If you want people to read socio-political poetry, if you really want it to have an effect, maybe you should write prose poems because prose poems don’t scare off people who are afraid of poetry. They’re more like non-fiction. You can publish them in different kinds of places. 

December: How would you compare low-residency MFA programs with traditional ones like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? The students tend to be older, right?

Bell: (One) difference is in the age range. In the low-residency programs, students have much richer lives that they bring to their writing compared to the young people in the Writers’ Workshop. And they have the income to pay tuition without worrying about it.

It also makes a difference in how they treat each other in workshops. It’s very unusual to find someone in a low-residency program who is defensive compared to a young person coming out of an undergraduate school defending his or her turf. 

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was so competitive. We were accepting one out of 20 people. We would reject talented writers because we didn’t have enough space. It was so intense, so intense.  

December: The Writers’ Workshop is notorious for all the graduates who eventually give up writing.

Bell: I had students at the Writers’ Workshop who’d say, “What do you think? Am I any good?” I’d say, “Why don’t you ask me in 10 years?” And I’d say something else: “If I said you weren’t any good, would you stop writing? Because if you would stop writing, you will find some excuse to stop later, no matter what I tellyou.”

People find excuses to give it up. What breaks my heart is all those students at the workshop who were just as good as the ones who became famous and received Pulitzers and published great books. Many of them were just as good, but they didn’t receive much publication success early, and they saw that their friends were getting it, and kind of gave it up. Sometimes they gave it up because they went into another art. Sometimes they gave it up because they had jobs. But every once in a while, one of them will surface again, thirty years later, and they’ll have written a book that’s terrific.

December: Was there a time when you weren’t writing?

Bell: I’m pretty sure there were one or more (times). I don’t remember for how long, but I felt like I couldn’t write. I always had lots of responsibilities, so the time was taken up regardless, but when I finally sat down to write and started typing, I realized that I had been cooperating with the writing block. That’s the way it works. I realized I could have sat down any time, and if I didn’t care about the quality or what other people say, I could have started typing. I could start writing, and something would happen. The language would produce content or style. So, I decided thatwhen you have a writing block, you are cooperating with it. 

December: Any advice on how to overcome a really bad case of writer’s block?

Bell: Here is how to be a poet every day. I developed the notion of what I call “the scroll.” You have one file on the desktop of your computer. Call it whatever you want. I call mine “The Dailies.” It’s one file. You don’t make a separate file for each poem. Making a separate file each time makes things so precious. It has to be great because it’s that one file.

Every day you open this file, you scroll to the bottom and you start typing. If all you’ve got to say is, “My coffee is cold,” you type that and keep going. You leave everything on the scroll and you don’t go back to look at stuff unless it’s time to find things to revise or publish, or whatever. You leave it all there — titles you never use, poems you abandon. Everything stays there. If you miss a day, it’s okay. You don’t have to boogie every day as long as you turn on the music. You’ve got the scroll. The students who have done it are so thankful because it’s changed their lives. 

December: How would you describe your teaching style?

Bell: I like to joke that my best talent as a teacher is gettingout of the way. I do a lot of work on manuscripts sent to me. Sometimes I make revisions in the poems and show (students) options. But finally, they have to go on their instinct and keep reading and writing and imitating what they read. They have to find poets who knock their socks off not because of what they write, but how they write, and then imitate it. That’s how everyone learns. That’s how you learned to speak. You heard other people speak and imitated them. When you find people who are your favorites, you have to imitate them. There’s no other way.

December: If Emily Dickinson were your student in a MFA program, how would you mentor her?

Bell: I would know better. I’ve read applications occasionally from people who are so good that I think we ought to leave them alone. I just encourage them to write with abandon. I’d say, “You’re too good for this. You don’t need me to teach you anything.” 

Three Poems by Marvin Bell


If you love me,
say so.
Snow piles; bridges burn
behind me; I
that I am alone
and have not
turned toward you so
before. I forget
openings I had not thought of
turning toward,
to tell you, and to tell you
to tell me.
The surroundings affect us;
it is a cause
for love
that you call it
something logical,
taking pleasure in
our finding
ourselves here.
Tell me landscapes
are frames of mind.
I believe words have meaning.
No gift will do.
Tell me what it means
to you.


THE ALPHABET (1969, first published in december, Vol. 7)
Lines between birthdays; Iowa City

People are saying
the marks are upon us,
we know each other by looks.
We have all come from
affliction, we have come
by way of crying,
we have all come from
laughing too much.
People are saying
people manage, people
who manage to say so.
People are saying
how old are you?

If you speak in your own voice,
they will hear you.
If they hear you,
you will be encouraged.
I believe in being encouraged.

Proper names.
Such a good idea.
Any one might be
a credit to letters!

Ahead of me a road stretches
like all the others.

I have ideas for an alphabet.
Twenty-six, over and over.


YES (2015)

We need to think of what might grow in the field
from our ashes, from the rot of our remains,
from tillage and spoilage, from the watery corn
plowed under. We need to picture lilies of the valley
and the hard weeds on the mountain haloed by clouds,
and the minutest beads of water as they roll up
into raindrops to replenish what we relinquished
through expiration. We have been breathing-in
the wild rosebuds and the spoor left by those who
avoid us, we have been to the sea and the forest
to learn who we are, and it is time to say yes
to the intangible reach of our being, the stirring
that sifts, pans and rearranges the billion parts
of us, who once thought we were goners.