When december was revived in 2013, we created the december Awards to honor the legacy of Jeff Marks and Curt Johnson, the pioneers who laid the foundation of our aesthetic and ethos. Now, as we move into a new era, we want to celebrate Marvin Bell’s remarkable impact on december by renaming our poetry contest in his honor.
Marvin Bell left an indelible mark on our magazine just as Curt Johnson and Jeff Marks did. Marvin’s influence will continue to inspire generations of poets to come. Through the Marvin Bell Memorial Poetry Prize, we aim to uphold the tradition of recognizing exceptional talent while fostering an environment of creativity and artistic growth for poets at every stage of their careers. This evolution underscores our dedication to perpetuating the values that define our publication: a reverence for innovation, an appreciation for writing outside of formulaic constraints, and an unwavering commitment to the transformative power of poetry.
Marvin Bell was a celebrated poet and educator and a close friend and mentor to december’s Publisher/Editor, Gianna Jacobson. A graduate of Alfred University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Iowa, he became a revered teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, guiding talents like Rita Dove and Joy Harjo. Bell was Iowa’s inaugural poet laureate in 2000 and served two terms in this post. He also served as an instructor in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program for many years. His impact extended to december, influencing the magazine’s ethos and continued development. Bell’s work delves into family dynamics, love, and loss with great technical skill and emotional depth. His legacy includes works like “Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems,” which examines mortality and relationships, and earned Bell such acclaim as the Lamont Award. Bell’s poetic journey ended on December 14, 2020, but his influence endures, inspiring poets to navigate life’s complexities with insight and artistry.
Curt Johnson edited december magazine and produced more than 30 books under the December Press imprint from 1962 until 2008 out of his house in the Chicago suburbs. He filled the magazine with the work of writers and artists he knew and those he’d never met, concentrating on work he felt deserved, even needed, to be heard. He might have chafed for a moment at the thought of an award named after him, at least until he saw the process – the blind reading (no cover letters or author information), the meticulous judges, the sheer variety among entries, and the whoops of joy among the winners. Johnson would have been impressed by the effort undertaken by all of the contestants, and he would undoubtedly have found a way to give them all a boost.
As Johnson’s daughter, Paula, once recalled: “One of my last times at Dad’s house, we were sitting at his dining table as usual, talking, and the doorbell rang. A guy came in with some doughnuts and coffee to share with Curt his latest chapter of a book he hoped to get published. I can’t say it was very well done, but Curt engaged with it and the man, and gave him some reasons to keep working on it. That amounted to encouragement.”
Sherwin Jeffrey (S.J.) Marks became involved in december at its inception in 1958 when he was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was the only one of the founders to remain involved through the magazine’s early years. When Marks graduated from Iowa and took a “day job” with the U.S. Postal Service in Chicago, he brought the magazine with him. For four years and six issues, Marks oversaw december, publishing an astonishing array of poetry. He included some established poets, such as James Wright, William Stafford, and Donald Hall, along with the first or very early work of poets who went on to have monumental careers, including Philip Levine, Donald Justice, Charles Wright, Robert Mezey, Vern Rutsala, and Henri Coulette. In addition, he published the early work of current december advisory editors Stephen Berg and Marge Piercy, as well as work by Marvin Bell.
Looking at the hundreds of poems Marks printed between 1958 and 1962, it’s evident that he wasn’t stuck on any particular doctrine or dogma. The poems in those issues vary from formal to experimental, sometimes driven by form or language, other times by content. Invariably, they were excellent.
Marks was more than an editor and arbiter of talent – he was a gifted poet in his own right. He continued writing his own poetry after he moved to Philadelphia and became a clinical therapist. The New Yorker ran four of his poems between 1968 and 1975, and he published three books before he died in 1991, when he was just 56.
The aesthetic that Marks built for december remains our aesthetic today – we follow no formula, trends, dogma, or arbitrary protocol, but rather seek unique, imaginative, and original work. december will continue to publish poetry that pursues truths, searches for meaning, explores language, and pushes boundaries, all while engaging and entertaining its readers.