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The Poetry Kit Interviews Marvin Bell

A bibliography follows this interview.

When did you start writing poetry?

I began in 1958, but I did not write much until 1960 when I moved to Chicago and had the good luck to meet the poet John Logan and other writers.

What were the books and events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

My sensibility is that of someone who grows up in a small town on the water among potato farms, duck farms, small shops, and fishermen. Like most young people, I assumed that the life around me was normal. But the unconventional was engaging to me. Remember, I was a teenager in the Fifties, when it didn't take much to be thought unconventional. The arts interested me, but so did 'odd ducks.' My early training, that which went beyond school work, was in music, amateur radio, journalism, photography, and pottery--in that order. In Chicago, I hooked up with the 'Poetry Seminar,' a group of poets that met informally with Logan. Later, in Iowa City, I joined the Poetry Workshop, which was then led by the poet Donald Justice. Books? Well, once I began to read modern and contemporary poetry, I was affected by too many to say. But before that, when I knew nothing, there were books about the unconventional: Colin Wilson's The Outsider,for example, and of course books by the Beats: Kerouac's On the Road and The Subterraneans, Ginsberg's Howl. You would have had to be a young man from a small town in the Fifties to understand the impact such books could have. As for particular events--again, there were too many to say. In large measure, it was the people: teachers and young artists in the Design Department at Alfred University, photographers in Rochester and Chicago, musicians, writers, radicals, hippies. . . . One thing always leads to another.

Can you say something about John Logan and Donald Justice? What attracted you to them? And how did these encounters influence your decision to become a poet? After all, presumably you were also meeting musicians at the time.

Dumb luck led me to Logan and Justice. I enrolled in a course taught by Logan in the downtown center of the University of Chicago only because I had to be registered to take the M.A. exams. I didn't know anything about Logan. Later, John directed me to the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City because I needed to find a writing haven before going on active duty in the Army as I was scheduled to. There I met Justice. The Workshop at that time was a scruffy group of graduate student bums, a rich gathering of personalities. Logan and Justice showed me plenty, but neither caused me to decide to be a poet. I was already writing and publishing poetry. I had edited and published the first issues of a literary magazine called statements. In any case, I didn't 'decide' to be a poet. I simply wrote because to do so was both irresistible and necessary. Logan and Justice showed me ways to think about my writing. Logan read aloud beautifully, and he took the content of our poor efforts seriously. Justice was, and is, a master of precision and of poetic forms.

What earlier poets most attracted you?

William Carlos Williams somewhat more than others of his generation, and then the two generations of poets before mine: from Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Hecht, Wilbur, Stafford, etc., ahead to the group that includes James Wright, Kinnell, Plath, Sexton, Merwin, Creeley, Ginsberg, Snyder, Koch, Ashbery, O'Hara, Logan, Justice, and dozens more. I could go on and on. Also, poetry in translation, especially from the Spanish, Portuguese and German: Neruda, Lorca, Andrade, Rilke, Trakl, and others. The list is long.

What sort of poetry did you begin writing. What were its main themes and techniques?

I wrote in a sort of 'word-play' trance. It was, I suppose, experimental, and often obscure. Then I realized one could be experimental without flashing it and with one's feet on the ground. My books vary in method and content, but I would say that one constant has been some philosophical or metaphysical element, however indirect. I suppose I am one version of a poet of ideas if one accepts the notion that ideas spring from the senses.

You mention books. But how and where did you first get your poetry published?

I published poetry in what were then referred to as the 'little magazines.' And I do mean 'little.' There are always magazines for one's stuff if one's standards are low enough.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

My life has not afforded me a schedule. I usually write late at night, often well after midnight. I tend to write only when the pot boils over, but I have learned how to turn up the heat. I write in energetic spurts and revise at a lower temperature. I wouldn't myself say 'inspiration.' The word sounds breathless when applied to art.

How do you know when a poem is finished? Or when it's dead?

A poem seems finished when it has used up all the material within it or completely satisfied its form--which may amount to the same thing. It's dead when it won't breathe or boogie. How do I know? I know.

How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?

Young writers feed off the conversation of their peers, and I did too. But that was long ago. I rarely seek the opinions of other poets, nor do I belong to a writing group. However, I do sometimes write poems alongside my students. Does that count?

So how do you test a new poem? How do you decide that it's fit to be published?

I let it sit around for quite a while until I can see it with fresh eyes. But I myself have to decide if it is to seek publication. Remember, in another context Thoreau said that any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one. The deciding factor is probably the quality of verbal ambition manifest in the poem. A poem of self-expression subject to paraphrase doesn't interest me. But a well-written nonsense poem does. I'm like an old coach. I can tell you which ones can play, but I can't explain to you how I know. Years of reading and writing have something to do with it. That doesn't mean every editor will agree. There's no accounting for editorial taste.

Which contemporary poets do you most admire?

Are you referring to poets who are well known? I admire a few personally, and I admire one or more poems by a long, long list of them, too long to register. But these days I often prefer the poems of the out-of-favor to those by poets in the literary headlines. Anyone looking back will see that ours was a rich age for poetry.

How do you make a living? How does this influence your writing?

I teach for the Writers' Workshop, a community of young writers masquerading as graduate students at The University of Iowa. The students are awfully talented. I don't know if this comes under the heading of 'influence,' but when we make up writing assignments, as we sometimes do in seminars, I follow Bell's Rule: Teacher has to do the assignment too. And working with such interesting students stirs me to rethink my aesthetic.

The Iowa Writer's Workshop is an old and well known programme. But I've seen it described as a writers factory, turning out standard, production-line writers. Isn't that a real danger of such institutions? How do you avoid it being so?

The Writers' Workshop exists within an institution (The University of Iowa), but its history and character are seat-of-the-pants. Chaos is our mode and self-motivation the requirement. Members are admitted solely on the basis of their writing, and we have room for but one in ten who apply. After that, it's studio work in the best sense with utter freedom of movement. One can take courses with writers, if one wants to, but it is equally acceptable to earn the M.F.A. using courses in, say, paleontology, flute, and karate, if one wishes. A simple list of published alumni should indicate to anyone who reads their work that the criticisms one hears of 'Iowa' are self-serving and ignorant. Sorry to say it so unkindly, but I have had a bellyful of these dopes. Occasionally, the Workshop gets savaged by a graduate who feels he or she should have been more of a star. That's to be expected. I suppose that the Workshop is so well-known that people who have not been part of it still seem to think they know what goes on there. Of course, every age has its glut of B-grade magazine verse, its playing fields of the inept, its links of duffers, its beginners, its amateurs, its dilettantes, its millions of decent people doing what they like the best they can. Shame on good poets who are nasty to lesser poets.

What do you have planned for the immediate future?

After I published two collections of what have come to be known as 'the Dead Man Poems,' I turned to writing poems titled 'Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps.' Salmon recently released Wednesday: Selected Poems 1966-1997 in Ireland. The 'Dead Man Sounds' poems will be part of a larger American Selected down the road. I can't claim that I plan my publishing life very much. Generally, I find the effect of publishing one's poetry to be less important than the effect of writing it.

Why Ireland? Why Salmon?

My usual method: dumb luck. Ben Howard, a Salmon poet, put Jessie Lendennie and me in touch. Jessie is Salmon. I had come to know Ben because he teaches at the school where I did my undergraduate work, Alfred University. I took right away to the idea of publishing abroad. In the Sixties, before I had published a book, the English publisher Georg Rapp wrote to me offering to publish a book of my poetry from Rapp & Whiting. He had seen my poems in Paul Carroll's anthology, The Young American Poets. What a thrill for a young man. Then, Rapp's health went bad, and he had to quit the business before we could do the book, but the sense of it lingered.

'Dead Man Poems' is an interesting and unusual project. How did it develop? Can you say what you are trying to do with it?

I am trying to write poems that delineate a mind at meditation in a most physical universe and a body living at the ends of its fingertips. 'Live as if you were already dead,' says a Zen admonition, and the Dead Man is alive and dead at the same time. The form and voice chose me. That is, I wrote the first 'dead man' poem in Port Townsend, Washington, in the winter of 1986-87. It seemed to be part of something larger. I called it from: The Book of the Dead Man. But I had no intention of writing such a book, and I did not write another dead man poem for four years.

© Marvin Bell, Ted Slade 1998

Marvin Bell - Bibliography
Wednesday: Selected Poems 1966-1997, Salmon Publishing (Ireland), 1998.
Poetry for a Midsummer's Night, Seventy Fourth Street Productions (Seattle), 1998.
Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2 (poems), Copper Canyon Press, 1997.
A Marvin Bell Reader (selected prose and poetry), Middlebury College Press/University Press of New England, 1994.
The Book of the Dead Man (poems), Copper Canyon Press, 1994.
Iris of Creation (poems), Copper Canyon Press, 1990.
New and Selected Poems, Atheneum, 1987.
Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire (poems), Atheneum, 1984.
These Green-Going-to-Yellow (poems), Atheneum, 1981.
Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (poems), Atheneum, 1977. (Reissued, Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, 1992.)
Residue of Song (poems), Atheneum, 1974.
The Escape into You (poems), Atheneum, 1971. (Reissued, Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, 1994.)
A Probable Volume of Dreams (poems), Atheneum, 1969.
Things We Dreamt We Died For (poems), Stone Wall Press, 1966.
Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry (co-authored with William Stafford), David R. Godine, Publisher, 1983.
Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews, U. of Michigan Press, 1983.