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.”