Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Tunnel Music” by Mark Doty

doty subway

Times Square, the shuttle’s quick chrome
flies open and the whole car floods with– what is it? Infernal industry, the tunnels
under Manhattan broken into hell at last?

Guttural churr and whistle and grind
of the engines that spin the poles?
Enormous racket, ungodly. What it is
is percussion: nine black guys

with nine lovely, previously unimagined
constructions of metal ripped and mauled,
welded and oiled: scoured chemical drums,
torched rims, unnameable disks of chrome.

Artifacts of wreck? The end of industry?
A century’s failures reworked, bent,
hammered out, struck till their shimmying
tumbles and ricochets from tile walls:

anything dinged, busted or dumped
can be beaten till it sings.
A kind of ghostly joy in it,
though this music’s almost unrecognizable,

so utterly of the coming world it is.


copyright 1994, from Atlantis, HarperCollins, 1995


Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the week: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” By Bob Dylan


Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did
God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way, lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap in the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put, plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway, Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May, orders from the DA
Look out kid, don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes, don’t try, ‘No Doz’
Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose, watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man, to know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well, hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell, if anything is goin’ to sell

Try hard, get barred, get back, write Braille

Get jailed, jump bail Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid, you’re gonna get hit
But losers, cheaters, six-time users
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool, lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift, twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid, they keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle, don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals

Don’t wanna be a bum, you better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles.

Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan, originally released in 1965 as a single on Columbia Records 

Posted in news

Center for Poetry, College of Music host Voicing Poetry II


By Kelsey Block

On Tuesday, March 15, the RCAH Center for Poetry and the MSU College of Music hosted the second performance in an ongoing collaboration that pairs the work of composition students with the work of local poets.

Voicing Poetry II featured ten performances – almost double from last year – by a number of poets, musicians and composers.

See the program below for more information.
voicing poetry II program.jpg

Posted in Fall Writing Series, news, visiting writers

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 news, Uncategorized, visiting writers, workshops

Valentine’s Murder Ballads

In light of our Valentine’s Murder Ballad workshop this past Monday, here are three songs written by our poets-turned-musicians!

“Oh, Matthew, Please” (to the tune of Matty Groves)
by Taylor Carver, Linnea Jimison, and Anita Skeen

One fair autumn morn as the sun beat down
I walked the dusty road to the far side of town.
I headed to the tavern to have myself a drink
And the whiskey cleared the thoughts that I dreaded not to think.

There she was a-standing in her dress of ocean blue.
I saw her in his arms and suddenly I knew –
Her eyes of emerald met me, as cold as any gem.
Malice got the best of me, I hurled myself at him.

We tumbled and we stumbled, we rumbled and we brawled.
I heard the bottles smash and then I heard her call,
“Oh, Matthew, please!  Oh, Matthew, please, don’t do this horrid deed!”
I felt the mirror shatter and the dark enfolded me.

Some say it was an accident, some say I took his life.
Some say the bard could not exist without the sheriff’s wife.
And though I’m in some distant land the posse’s at my back —
I’ve told my tale so many times – Is it fiction?  Is it fact?

Where’s the green-eyed woman whose eyes I once beheld?
Has she risen up to Heaven or does she rot in Hell?
As for me, the legends say I live with no regret.
Now autumn turns to winter but I haven’t found her yet.

“The Old Man in the Snow” (original song)
by Dorothy Brooks

The old man fell and stumbled
face down in the snow
Didn’t know what got him
he’ll never ever know

Long ago in the north woods
His rough hands worked the soil
Tried hard to feed his family
with his daily toil

His son’s new wife begrudged him
thought him sick and frail
Didn’t want to bother
to care for his travails

One day when he stopped by her house she
fixed him soup and bread
when the cook stove fire went out, he fetched
kindlin’ wood  instead

a blizzard was a’blowin’ and
as he staggered back, he
thought, “My heart is givin’ out!” and
dropped there in his tracks

Hadn’t seen her earlier, slip
somethin’ in his tea
thought it was just sugar
sweet as sweet could be.

One Gamblin’ Man (to the tune of Matty Groves)
by Fran Lewis

Johnny bludgeoned mom and dad,
And then he stabbed them both,
He swung at them with bat and sword
Until his wrath was done, done
Until his wrath was done.

The debts he racked up gamblin’
In high stakes poker games
Left our Johnny worse than broke
And desperate for a stake, stake
And desperate for a stake.

Johnny’s wife and baby son
All lived in a real nice house.
This paid for by Daddy’s loan,
But Mom, she disapproved, proved,
But Mom, she disapproved.

She said, “No! You’re gamblin’ son.
You know this path is wrong,
No good can come from such a life
It leads to a real bad end, end,
It leads to a real bad end.”

Now their Johnny, deep in debt,
No longer could he pay,
Brought his greed an’ a baseball bat
To invade his parents home, home,
Invade his parents home.

And Johnny’d plotted long and hard
To fake his alibi
Even shut down his cell-phone
So’s not to leave a trail, trail,
So’s not to leave a trail.

The cops worked out his devious plan
Right down to the bloody shoes
whose prints he used to trick them—
To prove that he was true, true,
To prove that he was true.

Johnny ran ten thousand miles
To put them off the scent,
But couldn’t hide his gamblin’ life
From others in the game, game,
From others in the game.

Our Johnny turned to Craigslist,
Sought female company,
The cops tracked his ads online,
As evidence mounted up, up,
Evidence mounted up.

Wife and Sister feared his wrath
Would turn on them one day.
When he drew near they ran and hid
So’s just to stay alive, live,
So’s just to stay alive.

The cops, they made their own plans
To catch him and convict.
And so his wife did aid them,
Record his calls, for trial, trial,
Record his calls, for trial.

In time, all saw him cuffed and dragged
Away to prison’s arms,
He’ll molder there for years and years
Until his death-day comes, comes,
Until his death-day comes.

Posted in news, Uncategorized, visiting writers, workshops

Valentine’s Murder Ballad Workshop

Valentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad Workshop
Valentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad Workshop
Valentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad Workshop
Valentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad WorkshopValentine's Murder Ballad Workshop

This past Monday, RCAH alums Emily Nott and Linnea Jimison, both of the Lansing-based band The Bard Owls, led a workshop on the evolution of the murder ballad and helped participants create their own gruesome ballad, just in time for Valentine’s Day! It was the first musical workshop through the Center for Poetry, and we can’t wait to do it again! You can also read about the workshop in the State News.