An Introduction to Marvin Bell

Occasionally I am called upon to write–and sometimes deliver–introductions to authors. I’m rather fond of some of them, and so I’ve decided to start publishing them here.

Marvin Bell at the Coralville Marriott for the Coralville Public Library
23 April 2015
World Book Day

Marvin Bell in a hat. Photo by Sam Roxas-Chua.
Marvin Bell in a hat. Photo by Sam Roxas-Chua.

In 1977, the place where we stand now was a sort of wasteland, a mostly blank spot on the map with a few houses along the edge of the river and a little light industry. I was a toddler, and my mother was a graduate student in the English department at the University of Iowa, and her dissertation director, Paul Baender, sometimes played chess with a poet on the faculty of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who had just published a book called Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, which included a poem called “To Dorothy.”

A couple of decades later, that poem inspired a sculptor named James Anthony Bearden to make a sculpture, commissioned by the City of Coralville, for a sculpture walk at the recently built Iowa River Landing, built on the site of that former wetland wasteland, which now housed this fancy hotel and a library of books by graduates and faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop. I grew up to become a librarian at the Coralville Public Library, and one day I wrote to the poet asking if he might come and read and speak a little bit about his work.

That poet was Marvin Bell.

Marvin was a long term member of the Iowa Writers Workshop faculty and served two terms as Iowa’s first poet laureate. Of his twenty-three books, recent titles include Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems and Whiteout, a collaboration photographer Nathan Lyons. After the Fact: Scripts & Postscripts, a collaboration with Christopher Merrill, will appear in 2016. He lives in Iowa City and Port Townsend, Washington and teaches for the brief-residency MFA based in Oregon at Pacific University.

In an interview some years ago, Marvin noted “that it’s ultimately pleasanter and healthier and better for everyone if one thinks of the self as being very small and very unimportant. … And I think, as I may not always have thought, that the only way out of the self is to concentrate on others and on things outside the self.”

Art can bring us to that focus, as can time. 3800 years ago this spot was a campsite. In 1864, the naturalist Louis Agassiz gave a talk called “The Coral Reefs of Iowa City” that gave Coralville, founded in 1873, its name. In 1964, the space where we stand now was barren. A girl scout troop held a bake sale to raise funds for a library in Coralville, Iowa, and my parents met, and the sculptor James Anthony Bearden was born. This year the Coralville Public Library celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. And throughout all that time, Marvin Bell has been writing poems: poems that recognize the world around us—the mulberry trees, the heat of summer, the light of the moon—and our history, from the Holocaust to our current wars, and our relationship to those around us, the living and the dead. Many years from now, we cannot guess what this place will hold, but the people here will still be reading poems. We are deeply pleased and honored to welcome Marvin Bell here tonight.

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