Marvin Bell Tribute


Dead Woman Poem for Marvin Bell


  1. The Dead Woman and Her Teacher

The dead woman met the dead man halfway.
She spent three weeks talking to pneumonia.
She couldn’t torch the library in her mind, so she poured red wine on it until the words swam.
Some chose the freestyle, which made the dead man smile.
She vowed she would un-beat the drum for him; invite fire with the tall, dry grass; and let the
……….dunes go.
Forget you, moon! the dead woman cried out in the night, your calculated distances, your
……….constant waning-waxings.
Sometimes she still drew a straight line in the sand.
Oceans tempted her to odes and people who listened to her in their folding chairs seduced her
……….with their ahhhs.
Oh, she was a backslider, the dead woman, and running out of time.


  1. More about the Dead Woman and Her Teacher

The dead woman heard voices in her head—mostly, the dead man shouting wild writing.
He had his moods, like any dead man; he wasn’t any dead man, though, he was the original.
She stole from him for years: scraps of his courage, generous dollops of his knowledge, his
……….ongoing joy in the crash of words.
She felt no guilt since he had more of all of it, some source of replenishment, and aren’t
……….teachers put in front of us to have their pockets picked?
She coveted his shiny change.
She tried to keep her promises: no more rhetoric, no because, no therefore, no nudging in
Her connective tissue was not what it once was, anyway.
Her bones grated, her tendons torn between their desires to howl and to make sense.
He once called her poems shapely and precise so she labored to rough them up, to crack
……….the brittle order of their ribs until they screamed give.
When the dead woman felt at a loss for words she’d sneak into the dead man’s books at
……….one a.m. and swipe his jazzy verbs.
Each new time the dead man bent his notes, she wondered if she’d ever reach them.
The dead woman did her daily stretches and pondered gravity—how the dead man
……….kicked up his heels in defiance of the earth that held them down.



Commentary by Contributing Editor Susan Cohen

I wrote this poem to be included in a tribute volume for Marvin Bell, who died last month at 83. “Dead Woman Poem for Marvin Bell” honors him as an exceptional teacher of poetry and also purloins his invented form—what he called his Dead Man poems.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Marvin writing the Dead Man poems, although he thought of them as a set of constraints others could adopt: in two parts, each line a sentence, and based on the conceit that the speaker is both alive and dead. Both alive and dead is how I think of him now because his voice remains urgent in my head—nudging me to write with “abandon,” to dare writing “bad stuff” so I can uncover the “good stuff,” to produce a poem that at least one person in the room might hate, and chiding me not to try too hard to please my professors. He was my professor at the time.

How much about the writing of poetry can be taught? And what makes a great teacher?

For forty years, Marvin Bell served on the faculty at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his students included too many future poet laureates to list. He was my professor at the end of his life, in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University, which he helped found. The program attracted many of us after long, varied careers, and I entered as an already-published poet and former journalist who had also taught writing.

Craft is present in every form of writing—every form of art for that matter. And craft certainly can be taught. Beyond that, things get nebulous. Marvin used to hand out “32 Statements About Writing Poetry (Work-in-Progress).” “Every poet is an experimentalist,” reads Statement One. Three declares: “There is no one way to write and no right way to write.” You probably get the drift even before Five: “Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.”

And yet, I learned more about the writing of poetry from Marvin than from anyone else.

The semester he was my advisor, I would send him at least four poems about every three weeks (he preferred receiving six) as well as essays on books of poetry. He urged me to read work unlike mine, insisting I’d gain more that way. Statement Two: “Learning to write is a simple process: read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else. And show in your writing what you have read.”

His responses chatted across 10 to 20 pages chock-full of poetry examples as well as anecdotes triggered by something I said or asked. I heard about the time someone broke Philip Levine’s jaw in a fistfight and about the birthday party thrown for Larry Levis after a critic savaged his first book. (The critic’s name appeared on the cake followed by “Sux.”)

Marvin’s stories invited me into his world and subtly gave me permission to think of myself as a poet. They entertained but often also illuminated how poets grew or discovered their individual “wiring,” as Marvin put it. He excelled at writing about poetry in prose. (Statement 15: “Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.”)

Rereading these letters, I’m surprised by how few of Marvin’s recommendations I took for individual lines and by how many drafts that most excited him that I eventually abandoned without a fight. He would sometimes completely rework a poem, explaining that what I’d done was “shapely and precise,” but he just wanted to show me a different possibility. As you can imagine, his versions left a lot out.

When he suggested I might ultimately opt for “heightened prose,” which was fine, I could have taken it as an insult, but I chose to accept it as a challenge.

I diligently poked at my wiring, wrenched between obeying Marvin’s calls for “wild writing” and my compunction to communicate to readers who have less tolerance for ambiguity. I can’t claim I’ve completely resolved that internal debate. But Marvin, along with the Eastern European and South American writers he guided me towards reading, muddied my notions of clarity in poetry. He instructed, “Your project is to be brave,” and I’m still trying.

Marvin’s 32nd and final statement: “Art is a way of life, not a career.” The fact is, I learned as much from the way Marvin lived as anything he said. After decades in teaching, he labored over every craft talk to make it a work of art. He once told me his early publishers griped that each new book veered away from the last and that this also irritated critics and some of his readers. He joyously courted change and loved students who stayed open to it. That was why he subtitled his statements “Work-in-Progress.”

He would begin, often in the sleepless early-morning hours, on what he called his “scroll” or “dailies.” This was not a journal, more an ongoing gush. He’d scribble until something began to “boogie,” a term from his trumpet-playing youth and his lifelong love of jazz. The point was to force himself to paper without worrying about making a poem let alone a good one.

He invented his first Dead Man poem when he was 53. By the time he wrote the last at 81, he’d created almost two hundred, crackling with metaphysics and politics, energy and wit, scattered across some of his twenty books. Copper Canyon Press published them together as Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems in 2019. His preface is pure Marvin and reveals how he thought about them as his possible legacy: “Since the birth of the Dead Man…it is possible, even likely, that one may return. From the future, one walks ever more slowly into the past.”

In Statement 10, Marvin maintained: “Autobiography rots. The life ends, the vision remains.” He was talking about within the poem, of course. But, yes. His vision does remain.

You can order Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems here from Copper Canyon Press.


Contributing Editor Susan Cohen’s second full-length book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the David Martinson—Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon, Red Dragonfly Press, or here at Small Press Distribution. She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies (Atlanta Review 25th Anniversary Anthology, PANK, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, and the Southern Review, among others)  and have received numerous honors, including: the Rita Dove Poetry Award, the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize, and the 2020 Terrain.org prize for poetry. www.susancohen-writer.com


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