Posted in poem of the week, Uncategorized

Poem of the Week: “Beginners” by Denise Levertov

“From too much love of living,

Hope and desire set free,

Even the weariest river

Winds somewhere to the sea—”

But we have only begun

To love the earth.

We have only begun

To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?

— so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?

— we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,

only begun to envision

how it might be

to live as siblings with beast and flower,

not as oppressors.

Surely our river

cannot already be hastening

into the sea of non-being?

Surely it cannot

drag, in the silt,

all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—

there is too much broken

that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other

that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know

the power that is in us if we would join

our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must

complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

From Candles in Babylon

Posted in Fall Writing Series, news, visiting writers

Father and son duo Marvin and Nathan Bell visit Center for Poetry

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By Kelsey Block

Poet Marvin Bell and songwriter Nathan Bell joined the RCAH Center for Poetry on November 11 as guests in our annual Fall Writing Series.

Marvin Bell served two terms as the state of Iowa’s first poet laureate. His son, Nathan Bell is a singer and songwriter. Click here to listen to the audio, and visit our YouTube Channel to watch a video of their performance.

Marvin Bell, now 78, didn’t get seriously interested in poetry until after he got his undergrad degree. He was living in Chicago and had somehow fallen into a group of poets.

“I believe in dumb luck, but you have to make yourself available to it,” Marvin Bell said. “And so if you run into people who know about poetry, you end up writing poetry. If you run into people who know about serious creative photography, you end up taking photographs.”

Bell still remembers the first time he published a poem. As an undergrad, he saw a call for submissions from a San Francisco literary journal called Presidio.

“They were gonna pay for poems. A whole nickel a line!” Marvin Bell said. “Now don’t forget this was 1958 or ’59 or something. So I went to the newspaper office, I was the editor I had the key to the newspaper office, so I went in there and I wrote a poem, and I didn’t want them to know it was my first poem, so I called it Ontology, Part II. It was totally obscure and horrible, and I sent it to them and they bought it. I got a check for 90 cents.”

For Bell, poetry is always experimental. He’s well-known for creating a form known as the Dead Man poem.

“It’s odd in a number of ways. It comes out in two-titled sections. The dead man is alive and dead at the same time. He’s not a persona; he’s more of an overarching presence. Is he me? No, but he knows a lot about me. Every line of poetry is a sentence but the sentence is elastic,” Bell said. “It’s a form that is different than anything else I’ve written.”

Marvin’s son Nathan grew up wanting to be an athlete. As an 8-year-old, he would only wear button-down shirts because he wanted to look like the baseball players. He got his start in music playing trumpet, and soon decided he wanted to sing and play guitar.

Nathan Bell grew up with a lot of music in the house. His father and mother, Dorothy, would play a mix of everything – from country to jazz.

“I would go to school every morning on the bus, 12 years old. There was this older guy who went down the road to the high school, and he would sit next to me and talk to me and I had long hair and looked like a hippie kid. One day he said to me, ‘You need to buy Neil Young’s album Harvest, it’s the greatest album ever made.’ So I bought it and I fell in love with it and I still think it’s one of the best records ever made,” Nathan Bell said.

As a teen, he started playing venues in Iowa City where he learned about performing music.

“I came to writing because I wanted the songs to sound different than they were. There was a song I heard in my head and I wanted to make it,” he said.

Many of Nathan’s songs deal with work. A number of years ago, Bell was inspired by broadcaster Studs Turkel’s book, Working.

“I thought, ‘well this is how I want to write.’ It only took me 40 years to get it right,” Bell said.

For about half of those 40 years, Nathan Bell took a break from music while he worked and raised his family.

“I guess I was paying attention, because when I started to write again, the songs were about that life,” Nathan Bell said. His latest record features a number of songs all about working. “It’s only been the last two or three years that what I started doing in 1975 has started to feel like what it was supposed to feel like.”

Nathan Bell believes taking a break from music was instrumental in developing his current style.

“I learned things about people and myself that I didn’t know when I was just a songwriter. My viewpoint was informed by all the people I met,” the 55-year-old songwriter said. “There’s no way I write the way I write if I don’t stop writing for all those years.”

Over time, Nathan Bell said his music has gotten more complex while his lyrics have gotten simpler and more direct.

“I have a very hard time going back to anything I wrote because I’m interested in the next song,” Nathan Bell said.

While each Bell’s work is unique, both of them have sometimes used art to comment on current events and political issues.

“In art you are free. And you’re free to be hermetic. You’re free to write only about things only you are interested in and you’re free to write obscurely and you are free to write nonsensically and write in such a crazy fashion that nobody can figure out why you’re doing it. But you’re also free to take responsibility for treating serious subjects seriously,” Marvin Bell said. “If you write of your age, you write of politics. If you write of things two people do in a working class neighborhood, you’re writing of politics. If you write about someone who goes to jail, you’re writing about politics. If you write about two people who fall in love that didn’t want to fall in love, you’re writing about politics. You have to work very hard to remove them.”

“Your responsibility is to the truth,” Nathan Bell said. “The most you can do is feed one person, clothe one person, love one person. If you do that every day, you affect a miniscule number of people in the world. And if you accidentally become a Mandela or a King or even a Barack Obama, you don’t affect as many people as you want to affect. You don’t know the effects of your life. All you can do is write the thing that you saw and hope that it has some lasting value to somebody somewhere.”

The two conducted a conversation Wednesday afternoon on the relationship between song and poetry.

Nathan Bell maintains that poetry always wins, while Marvin insists that song always wins.

“It’s because what he does is infinitely harder than what I do,” Nathan Bell said. “I have this tool, music, which is completely emotional an irrational. And if I hit the right chords and play the right rhythms, you can fall in love. Poetry doesn’t get that.”

“I think music can write things that aren’t that specific because they have this musical quality that envelops you and goes right for your emotions. To express emotions you need a new language, and poetry does it by means of nuance and metaphor and music does it another way,” Marvin Bell said. “In terms of poetry, on one hand it’s poetry — oh my God it can save your life! On the other hand, it’s just poetry. You have to be able to think both ways.”

The two don’t tour together often, but they’re always excited when the opportunity comes up.

“I always thought that songs and poems could stand next to each other very comfortably as alternating views of the same thing,” Nathan Bell said. “People are always fine with songs. People come to see a poet and they hear a song, they like it. But people who listen to songs aren’t always aware of how musical poetry is. It turns out when we go do this together, a remarkable number of people come up to me later and say, ‘Poetry’s really exciting!’ and it’s just because they’ve been put in that frame of mind of seeing it that way.”

“It’s so much fun for us I’m just not 100 percent sure it’s not contagious for the audience,” Nathan Bell said. “It amuses the living hell out of me that at 55 years old I’m somebody’s kid. We’re very lucky.”

Posted in Fall Writing Series, poem of the week, visiting writers

Poem of the Week: from “Ampersand Revisited,” by Simeon Berry


I’d like to walk again in her weather, in the dark

through the fog,

its gray damage

laid down all over town.

When she couldn’t bring herself to get up

from the bed, Belinda would say

it was like being

the most stylish drowned person in the whole universe.

It was the only likeness she allowed herself, besides

married women.

I asked her.

Me? I’m the old word. What do you call it. A Sapphist.

I think she liked to take them back from that kind

of touch. To smudge

the clear blueprints of oil from their breasts.

Her words were so wet the women took a long time

to notice how few of them she said.

For a year in college, I built myself into her silence.

It was so much effort

to even appear to be

interested in what anyone else was saying

that I thought

everyone could hear the splice

when the power died & the negatives unspooled


on the black floor

below my brain.

Now, in this double darkness, I don’t hate being

in the poem

or my body.

I can use my aesthetic expense account to underwrite

the hidden z

in kismet aphasia.

Under each footfall, there’s a penny on which someone

has scratched: i hert,

misspelling it so I won’t get it wrong.

I can take everything away, become only a breath

with a lisp of salt, & no one—

not the speaker, not his stand-in—

can bring me back.



Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Yes” by Marvin Bell

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.


(image property of Sarah Lattis Stone)

Posted in Benvenuto High School Poetry Competition, education, Fall Writing Series, news

2015 Richard Benvenuto High School Poetry Competition Winners

writing-poetryEach fall, the RCAH Center for Poetry holds the Richard Benvenuto High School Poetry Competition, cosponsored by the Mid-Michigan chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters.

Richard Ercole Benvenuto taught in the English Department at Michigan State University for 20 years. From his office in Morrill Hall he conducted grad student seminars and advised students on the best paths for their lives. He loved teaching and was a published scholar of Victorian Literature.  At the time of his death, Indiana University dedicated an issue of Victorian Studies in his honor. He published two biographies, one on Emily Bronte and the other on Amy Lowell. His next book would have been on Oscar Wilde. As a young grad student he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which he used to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins College, Virginia. At Hollins College, he worked under William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies. Richard played music and wrote poetry throughout his life. He was married for 27 years to his wife, Joyce and has three children and four grandchildren.

This year’s call for entries in the Richard Benvenuto High School Poetry Competition resulted in more than 200 entries, with up to three poems each, from high school students all around Michigan.

We can assure you that the selection was not a simple matter, and we’re thrilled that poetry remains alive and vibrant in our state’s classrooms. If you are one of the poets not chosen this time, please don’t be discouraged—keep writing, and keep submitting!

This year’s winners are invited to read their winning poems before Nathan and Marvin Bell‘s reading/performance at the RCAH Center for Poetry on Wednesday, November 11.

Congratulations to all of the 7th Annual Richard Benvenuto High School Poetry Competition Winners!


First Place Winner


Annie Klusendorf

St. Joseph High School



I prefer to make my home in the trees,

the bark rough against my skin.

Here, the chandeliers are the sun

and the moon.


I prefer dirt

under my nails;

the soles of my feet are as dark

as Fifth Avenue umbrellas.


I prefer bruises flowering my legs

instead of the perfect tan.

Give me blue and green, maybe yellow–

I’m not afraid to show I’ve lived.

I prefer to keep my eyes wide open,

searching for the nearest blank canvas,

than held down by a winged black line

that dictates who is pretty

and who isn’t.


I prefer a thin red raincoat–

its crinkles are the soundtrack to my breathing.

There is no perfume here, only

basil and the smell of pine needles,

charred after a late summer burning.


You can live among the diamonds,

but I will thrive amidst the dirt.



Second Place Winner


Jessica Schultz

Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy



One day you’re going to forget me.

I can’t handle that

I can’t even handle the thought of that.

You’re going to call me Cindy,

And I’ll have to act as though I am.

Because you won’t remember that your baby girl is dead,

And I’m her daughter.

You’ll forget all of us

Your grandkids, great grandkids

You’ll forget us all.

But I will never forget you

I’ll always remember the man you used to be

Not too long ago you were one of the smartest guys of I knew.

Now you’re working your way backwards

One day you’ll wake up and wonder who the lady lying next to you is,

And what happened to your beautiful wife.

Your thoughts often distract you

You’ll think to yourself,

Catching yourself in the act.

You’ll put that cute half smile on your face

And walk away.

It’s those moments of confusion that help us realize,

Realize that you are still there.

We know you will never be back,

But we can still hope that you will stay with us.


Third Place Winner

Origin Story

Alexander McLaren

Detroit Catholic Central


Origin Story

Brown and dusty shop,

Wooden shelves and glass display,

Springtime on a cool and sunny day.

Medals pinned against the wall,

And my father behind me.

His hands placed on my shoulders.

I saw a camo cap

Sitting on display

Wandered over, to take a closer look.

Eagle, Globe, and Anchor,

Imprinted on the ironed cloth.

He said, “Son, that’s the cover of a US Marine.”

My heart started to race

As I picked it off the shelf

Thinking of my family

The Company and Crew.

At seven years old

I was ready to be a hero.

He broke down and bought it

After not much persuasion

And I wore it with pride from then on.

Now it’s my father

Who looks at me the way

I looked in the mirror

As a seven year old.



Honorable Mention


Brendan Burke



The door slamming shut as I sat at the dinner table alone.

Shouting and banging, I remember being terrified.

Staring into my plate,

As if the peas knew how to stop their fighting so we could all be happy again.

Sliding a note under the door, a child’s attempt to put a Band-Aid on a fracture.

Then I remember his suitcase being packed, I had nightmares that night.

That suitcase was there for ten more years.

The time the divorce almost happened,

Then the time it actually happened.

I remember my suitcase leaving home for the last time.

I didn’t sleep that first night.

I didn’t feel at home again.

Posted in Fall Writing Series, news, visiting writers, workshops

Folklorists visit Center for Poetry as part of Fall Writing Festival

My heart, my soul, my spirit flies,

As I walk with granny one more time…

Folklorists Michael and Carrie Nobel Kline joined the RCAH Center for Poetry as part of the annual Fall Writing Series. Throughout the week of October 27, the musicians visited classes, facilitated conversations and gave a performance in the RCAH Theater.

The two met in Massachusetts in the 1980s while Michael was working on a folklore project and Carrie was working at a summer camp.

“I became enamored, at least admittedly with the work, and about eight months later with the folklorist himself,” Carrie Nobel Kline said.

“There was no romance that developed in this, initially. I wanted to make very sure I didn’t allow my personal attraction to muddy the waters we were trying to work in together. And she was just very eager to learn,” Michael Kline said. “We just grew together over time.”

Their first interview project together involved a 106-year-old man who had served in a Russian czar’s army in the early 1900s.

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Since that first interview, the Klines have talked with perhaps a thousand people about their stories. They’ve interviewed people in a number of different communities about a variety of subjects, but Carrie Kline says one thing always stays the same.

“The main thing is to admit to not knowing,” she said. “Really, all I can do is ask to be taught, to be schooled, to show interest… We try to create a situation where they know that I believe they’re the expert and they’re the teacher and I want to be sitting at their feet.”

Over the years, the Klines have continued to share stories and music in workshops, recordings, radio broadcasts and live performances.

In all of their work, whether it’s with fourth graders or college students, the Klines are careful to contextualize the stories and the music.

“Kids don’t like history – it’s all about rich men with suits and ties and presidents and politicians and generals. They don’t see any place in that for themselves,” Michael Kline said. “So we sing these groovy old songs and ask them to talk about the song, retell the story, learn the song, sing it and then try to provide a context for the song which is the history we’re after teaching.”

“We’re not just choosing to play the banjo because we think it’s a groovy instrument but we’re excited about the culture from which the banjo came,” Carrie Kline said.

Story, photos and video by Center for Poetry intern Kelsey Block

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: Dear Rage Warrior, by Jane Vincent Taylor

This week, we’re delighted to present a new poem by our friend Jane Vincent Taylor.

Dear Rage Warrior
Jane Vincent Taylor

No, I am not
an asshole. Like you,
I do have one
and I’m fine
with it, actually,
the way it keeps me going.
I am grateful
to God you
do not have a gun.
Sir, just ask
the path
be less narrow.
Move! you say.
Out of your way
is where I want to be,
believe me. I’m locking
this door to save
the good
air and my loved ones
any collateral damage.
Stop cursing.
You, with your wispy
hair on fire, beware
the wrought-up heart.
Go soak,
why don’t you,
in a spa and cool
your sitting spot.

Road Photo (1)
[Photo: Laurie Hollinger]