from A Conversation with Marvin Bell



FOX: How does getting older affect your writing or your philosophy on life?

BELL: Well, I think I’m a guy who matured pretty late—well, I don’t want to say that; I got older, I didn’t mature. [Fox laughs] Well, the one thing young people don’t know, and will never know, is what it’s like to be old. You look different and so they think you are different. But you just look different! You’re the same, you know, 23, 29, 37, whatever you are, inside you’re the same guy. But you look different. I do think it takes a while for a writer to—well I don’t know about other writers; I know that for me it took a long time to—I don’t even know what to say exactly, I’ve changed from book to book. Almost always each book was considerably different from the previous book. And in part that was just waiting for another form that would express content in a new way, but along the way—once you get old enough, of course, you don’t give a damn what others think, and that’s important. You start out with a lot of nerve, because you feel—I mean, I don’t know about everybody, but I and a lot of the people I knew when I started writing, we felt we were experimental. We certainly wanted to be experimental. We wanted to be avant-garde. We were happy to be thought outsiders. And so we had nerve. But nerve isn’t the same thing as confidence. And so there’s a point at which you are wholly what you are, and in a way, you’re not thinking about what others think. Don’t forget, I grew up in the ’50s, and in the ’50s, that’s all people thought about is what other people thought about them. And if I hadn’t gone to college, and people didn’t go to college where I grew up—my father, even though he was an immigrant from Ukraine with no education, thought it was a good idea if I went to college. So I went to a little school in upstate New York called Alfred University, which is in Alfred New York, which is down the road from Alfred Station [Fox laughs] about 60 miles south of Rochester. And within the private university called Alfred, is a state college of ceramics, and within the state college of ceramics is a design department meant to turn out ceramic designers. But in fact, it turns out people like my friends Frank and Carole DiGangi, who are coming in a few days to visit. It turns out these wonderful artists because all these kids down in New York City and elsewhere realized, Whoa, I can go to this design department; I get to take all the art courses I want. And the design department had this wonderful freaky arts faculty; there was a reason why these people would come there but they were there. And there was no tuition for years in state schools. And then it was until very recently like 200 bucks, 250 bucks. So the design department was a bunch of freaks! There were all these artists. I’d never seen that before; I’d never seen people who, because they had work to do, didn’t care what other people thought about them. This was a time when you better join a fraternity or a sorority or you will have no social life otherwise. These people didn’t care about that at all. They had work to do. And I would take long walks—I still do—it’d be 30 below and they’d see my footprints in the snow and know it was me. And I could always go down to the design department because the students would be down there at three in the morning making lithographs and painting and doing whatever they were doing with the radio playing and pizza. The janitor gave up trying to lock the building because they’d break in. And that was an education for me. So I started hanging around with those people. I did a lot of journalism; for a long time I did what we used to call creative photography (to distinguish it from photo-journalism). And I had been playing cornet since I was even shorter than I am now, and had played a lot of serious music for a long, long time. But gradually I started hanging around with people who also wrote and did all this other stuff and that was an education for me. For a kid from a small town where people didn’t go to college, seeing people who had work to do, work that influenced their whole day and their whole attitude, was a revelation.

FOX: So you started writing actually—what, in college, after?

BELL: Except for journalism, I didn’t write until after college. Let’s see, I went up to graduate journalism school in Syracuse, and I spent one semester there. Then I ended up in Rochester for a short time and then in Chicago. And in Chicago, I was taking a very slow M.A. and working at the law library. And I had done my courses; I had to be enrolled in something in order to take my M.A. exam. Now, I was already writing poems that, at best, could be called word play. And I was even publishing a literary magazine with friends from Rochester. It was literary-visual materials, both, and it was called Statements. And it was a nice little magazine, actually, and we published some people who later became pretty well-known. But I didn’t know what I was doing; I hadn’t really read much contemporary poetry, all I really knew were the Beats.

FOX: Ah, yep

BELL: My first wife and I and a good friend of mine, who now lives in Seattle, used to skip classes and go to an Italian restaurant called The Italian Villa and we would have antipasti salad for lunch and pizza for dinner and we would read the Beats to each other.

FOX: Ah.

BELL: So there I was in Chicago and I needed to take a class. I took a class in the downtown center of the University of Chicago taught by some guy named John Logan, the poet.

FOX: Mhm.

BELL: I didn’t know who he was. He was actually a real poet. He had published one book of poetry; he would later publish many more and become very well-known. But he had published one book of poetry called Cycle for Mother Cabrini. He was teaching at Notre Dame. He had converted to Catholicism years before. He had nine children and a parrot and a dog. I took that class and Dorothy, who—I had a short marriage before this; Dorothy is actually my second wife—Dorothy and I took this class. We got to be pretty good friends with John. We went out to his home in South Bend, we met his wife Gwen, and he came over to our little apartment and had some spaghetti with us. And we had a son; I had a son with my first wife and I kept him when we broke up. So we had this little tiny baby. We weren’t married, but we had this little tiny baby. And then one day after class, John and Dorothy and I, and Bob and Dorothy Jungels, who were very close friends of the Logans, were in a bar having a beer. And John Logan had converted to Catholicism: he did not curse, he hardly ever took a drink, he did not drive, he rode the bus to class. And he suddenly turned to me and said, “By the way, when’s your anniversary?” [Daveen laughs] And I thought, I can’t tell this man that we’re not married. Nice people didn’t do that then [Fox laughs] and we have this child. So I said, “July 9th.” [all laugh] And he said, “That’s my anniversary!” It was theirs. And it was the Jungels’ anniversary, who had done that deliberately. So when Dorothy and I did get married, we felt we had to get married on July 9th, you bet. [all laugh] That’s…what question was I answering?

FOX: When you started writing.

BELL: Oh, yeah. So, I started writing a lot more in class, and another member of that class was Dennis Schmitz, who is one of the wonderful poets of this country, I think, and then when the class was over, John asked me if I wanted to be part of something called “The Poetry Seminar,” which was not a class, but a group of Chicago poets that included people like Dennis Schmitz and Bill Knott, Charles Simic came through for a while, Naomi Lazard, other poets whose names you might not know now like Roger Aplon, William Hunt, other people. And I said, “Sure,” and so we would meet periodically—I can’t remember anymore if it was once a month or twice a month. We would meet in the downtown Chicago offices of the Midwest Clipping Association. In those days politicians and so forth would pay somebody to subscribe to newspapers and clip out articles about them. We would meet there. So now I was writing more and then I had an old commission; I was going to have to go into the army. What am I going to do? I want to find out if I can write. I want to do more of this. I said to John Logan, “What should I do?” And he said, “Well, there’s this workshop in Iowa City. A poet there named Donald Justice, I’ll write him a letter. Why don’t you try to go there?” And I could keep the army at bay if I faked being a PhD student. So, I went to Iowa City for an interview and I had had a professor at the University of Chicago who taught Henry James; his name was Napier Wilt, and he kind of looked like Henry James, actually. And he used to talk about where he came from. He came from some place that was really rural. I mean, primitive. And the pigs would come right up to the porch, he said. And that place was … Iowa City, Iowa. So when it was time for me to go be interviewed in Iowa City, Iowa, I thought, I’m not going to drive out there, that’s the wild! I’ll take a bus. So I took a bus and I followed people into a building. And I had been told to stay at the Burkley hotel; I said, “Can you tell me where the Burkley Hotel is?” to a man behind the counter and he said, “This is it.” So I took a room; I got up in the morning and I said, “Excuse me, can you tell me where the University of Iowa is?” He pointed across the street and said, “That’s it.” [all laugh] So I went to the interview. I put on a tie and I went to the university to meet Donald Justice for my interview and after about five minutes Kim Merker—who was the Stone Wall Press and later the Windover Press, too—Kim Merker came along and we went bowling. And I always figured I must have bowled okay because I got accepted. And I stayed three years before I had to go into the army. And John Logan was a wonderful teacher because he took our content seriously, no matter how sophomoric it was, and he read beautifully so that when he read our poems aloud we thought we were good. So he was a great teacher for a beginning poet. And Donald Justice was a great teacher in another way, because he was very, very precise, a formalist at heart but welcoming to all styles and very precise in his analysis. And the students there were all outsiders who had found their way to this program circuitously because there weren’t a lot of MFA programs then; in fact, there might have been only one or two others. And so that was another thing, I would turn three poems a week in. I would write more than three, but I would put three in an envelope and turn them in. And again, I think the biggest element was wordplay. It turns out that wordplay is a good sign of a young poet but I didn’t know that; it was just what I could do. And gradually I realized that, no, there was something beyond this. And I actually just changed my way of writing one day and started over, and one thing led to another and I kept on writing while I was in the army. People who write for a semester or a college year or even four years of college are doing one thing, but people who write for 10, 20, 30 years are doing something else. If you go on writing for 20, 30 years, it’s because you’re getting something out of it; you need to do it. It’s true that, no matter what, the literary world is full of insult. When you put yourself out to the public, you’re going to get some negative stuff. But writing just feels wonderful. I mean, I love the discovery aspect of writing. I love that. I love saying what I didn’t know I knew, not knowing where I’m headed, abandoning myself to the materials to figure out where I’m going. Of course your personality is going to come out of it, of course your obsessions are going to make themselves known, of course if you have a philosophic mind a matrix of philosophy will be behind things; everyone has a stance, an attitude, a vision, a viewpoint. All that will come out. But in the meantime, you’re just dogpaddling like mad. And that’s fun. That’s what I always liked about every art.

FOX: There was a writer who won the Nobel Prize and he was first contacted by a journalist who said, “What do you think about having won the Noble Prize?” And the writer said, “Well, I don’t know, I haven’t written about it yet.”

BELL: [laughing] That’s good, that’s good. Someone was supposed to have confronted E.M. Foerster at a writer’s conference and said, “How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?”

FOX: [laughs] Right.

BELL: And that’s the thrill of it. Now, I know there are people who write—even Yeats would sometimes take an idea, a prosaic, prose idea, and just labor it, over a long period, into poetry. A poet named Hollis Summers, who was from Ohio and is no longer with us, used to write out ideas and poeticize them. I could never do that; I have to be in the midst of the energy. But there are lots of different ways to write. I think the people who believe they’re going to push an idea they have from the beginning are better off writing in meter and rhyme. I think formalist forms work better for that.

FOX and DAVEEN: Hmm.

BELL: But free verse is another kettle of fish. Free verse is not a form; it’s a method for finding new forms. There are all kinds of free verse. And if you’re revising a poem written in meter and rhyme, you can usually see where it’s broken. You can look at it; it’s like a good machine, and you can see where it’s broken and you can try to fix that part. But in free verse, that’s a different business. You have to get back into the energy of that poem. You have to get back into the energy of the steps that the poem takes from beginning to end. And you can’t always do that, so I think free verse—my gut feeling is that free verse poets abandon more than formalist poets do. I know that I abandon a lot. I’ve worked out a way of writing over the years that allows me to stay in the energy, but if the energy flags, I get up and walk away.

FOX: Mhm, yeah.

BELL: I’ll come back to it and try to get back into it; I can’t always do that, which means I lose a lot.

FOX: Why do you think that—I mean, meter and rhyme, not very much is written in that form and hasn’t been for many years.

BELL: Not as much as used to be. There still is plenty around, but when I started writing, meter and rhyme was still the coin of the age. There were plenty of people writing free verse but it wasn’t the main thing, and so it was still interesting because it existed in contradistinction to formalist verse. And I still remember Donald Justice, my friend and later colleague teacher—I had a poem on a worksheet one week in free verse and he came in and raised his eyebrow and said, “This poem appears to be written in free verse.” [Fox laughs] And I said, “Oh, no, it’s written in sprung accentuals with variant lines.” [all laugh] You had to know meter, and I knew meter. You had to be able to talk the talk of the metricians so that they would know you were serious. Well, what’s happened, of course, is that free verse has become the coin of the age. And that’s why I say in those “32 Statements About Writing Poetry” that every free verse poet needs to reinvent free verse for himself or herself, because otherwise there’s no energy in the language. There isn’t as much formalist verse being written now. There’s still some around. There are a bunch of younger poets—I guess they’re no longer young, but younger poets who tried to start a whole school of it at one point, and they were quite mean about anybody who didn’t write in rhyme and meter. The problem was that they weren’t that good at it. They depended on a narrative and the narratives weren’t that exciting. Plus, we don’t sit still for narratives much anymore; we’re into jump-cuts. I remember turning to Don Justice once—who was a very skillful formalist and an innovator in forms—I remember turning to him and saying, “Are these guys any good?” And he said, “Oh, no.” [laughs] He was their hero, too. But he said, “Oh, no.” But when they’re good, they’re good. I mean, early James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, Anthony Hecht, Howard Nemerov; there are people who were terrific, but you’re absolutely right, there isn’t as much of it now. But there are some people who can do it; Gertrude Schnackenberg is very good, for example. And there are others, many others.

FOX: We seem to be in the age of the sound bite now; we want things very, very short. Does that affect poetry writing?

BELL: Well, Edgar Allen Poe made a remark that’s quoted a lot: he said that a long poem is a contradiction in terms. But what he meant by that is that the energy can’t sag. It has to go by fast. Now actually people who write book-length poems will tell you that there have to be places they relax in them because you have to allow the reader to relax. But that was Poe’s idea, and I guess it has come true with a vengeance because we are a sound-bite community and the lyric poem—now, there have been poet critics who have said, Oh, the lyric is dead, and they’ve been mean to what they call a lyric, but they don’t understand the notion of the lyric. I prefer the Aristotelian distinctions: there’s epic, lyric, and dramatic. Dramatic is spoken from the stage; Shakespeare. Epic poetry tells a long story; Beowulf. Everything else is lyric. That’s it. Lyric poetry normally won’t be that long, of course. A sonnet is not too long for us. But it is true we don’t know how sophisticated we are. When I was a kid, we’d go to the movies at any time of the day. Didn’t matter when the movie started. We’d just go to the movies. “Wanna go the movies?” “Yeah.” And we’d go to the movies. You walk in—okay, if there was 15 minutes to go, we’d wait 15 minutes. But if there was an hour to go? No, walk right in, turn around to somebody behind you and say, “What’s going on?” In about three sentences, you were caught up. And if there was a jump cut—if they were riding on the range and now they were in the kitchen, half the audience would turn to the other half and say, “What happened?” We are so sophisticated now; we have movies like Run Lola Run and Memento. And people watch CNN and there’s something on the left side and there’s a crawl underneath it; you go to an internet page and you’ve got seven things competing for your attention. It’s nuts. I mean, some people think the human brain is evolving. I doubt it. I don’t know, maybe our eyes are evolving. Will and Ariel Durant, those great historians, wrote all these books about this and that aspect of history, and then they wrote a thin book called The Lessons of History in which they took up different aspects of history: economics, political systems, and so forth. Just in a short essay. And basically, they wanted to trace each element and ask the question, “How has mankind changed?” And what they concluded was that mankind, in all of the years on Earth, had evolved very slightly if at all, negligibly if at all. And yet, when you read what’s going on in science, you can’t help thinking that something’s going to happen if we don’t blow up the world or we don’t run out of every resource there is. Because, for one thing, they claim that they will be able to put what they call robots—though they don’t look like any robots you and I would picture—they claim they will be able to put robots into your brain, which will basically download all the information from your brain and then upload a whole lot more. And the way they put it is that mankind at that time will stand in relation to us as we do to the ants.

FOX: Whoa.

BELL: I read something fairly recently in which they claimed that continuing progress in miniaturization and memory expansion for computer chips—there will come a time—let’s say you’re boarding an airplane, and you intend to do some work—this is going to sound so crazy when I say it that I almost don’t want to say it—you will download the internet. You will download the entire internet! [laughs] I don’t know what that means. But you will download so much information. And I like to say in conversation just for fun, that I believe—and I really do believe this—that if we don’t blow up the world or use it up, that there will come a day when people will live forever. I really believe that. I think they will grow and manufacture—and I think there’s a third way, I can’t remember how—every part there is, and that the super computers will succeed in mapping the brain, and I’d like to go on and say that people will wonder what it was to like to have been dead. [laughs]

FOX: That’s a very interesting concept.

BELL: I honestly believe this is conceivable.

FOX: Oh, I think anything is possible. Anything.

BELL: I know it sounds dumb. I have to tell you about another one of my crazy ideas, though, and it involves a story. So we’re sitting around, having dinner with some friends not long ago, and something comes up that makes this relevant and I say to him, “You know, I don’t believe in time.” I said, “I don’t know why I don’t believe in time. I once did, but I didn’t write it down.” [Fox laughs] But I know that I don’t actually believe in time. So one of the people at the table said, “Well, you know, Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in time.” Oh, so now I was really impressed with myself, that a great physicist agreed with me, whereupon Dorothy looked at me with what in Hawaii they call the “stink eye” and said, “I gave you the book.” [all laugh]


from Rattle #29, Summer 2008

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