Unsung Masters Readings

September 28, 2021

The Poetry Conversation is back from a long walkabout to let you know about a wonderful upcoming event. Many of you are already familiar with the Unsung Masters Series, edited by Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller, which brings the work of talented but lesser known, out-of-print poets and fiction writers to the attention of a wider audience. The volumes they publish once a year, in cooperation with Pleiades Press, Copper Nickel and Gulf Coast, include a substantial selection of the writer’s work, along with photographs, essays, interviews, and ephemera. Recent volumes include poets Wendy Battin and Shreela Ray, and the next will feature fiction writer Jean Ross Justice.

I’ve followed the book series from the time I first heard of it, for the pleasure of discovering writers I haven’t heard of, and because it’s driven by the passion for reading that brought us all to poetry in the first place. What I remember most from my own graduate school days is late night conversations where we traded names and book titles: Have you read this? How about this?  When the pandemic shut down in person events, people began to come up with online readings and talks that had the advantage of being open to people all over the country.  It seemed to me like a natural extension of the Unsung Masters book series to have various poets introduce overlooked work they love to a wider audience.  I give myself a little pat on the back for suggesting it to Kevin, and bigger pats to Kevin and reading series coordinator Martin Rock for following through.

There have been two wonderful readings so far, and the third is upcoming. Each of the Unsung Masters Readings includes five contemporary poets presenting the work of a writer they feel that excitement about, that urge to share the work with others. They also provide a little context and background for the work.

The third reading is October 4th at 8 pm eastern time. Readers include Ellen Bass, Erin Belieu, Victoria Chang, francine j. harris, and D. A. Powell. To register for the reading, and to read about the first two, click here.

Adam Zagajewski

March 22, 2021

The wonderful Polish poet Adam Zagajewski died yesterday in Krakow–an enormous loss.  I don’t know where to start. With his poems, I suppose, which I can read in English, thanks to the wonderful translator, Clare Cavanaugh. They move through his love of music, philosophy, art, his friends, serious engagements with the range of human behavior, but always with a light touch: one of his books is titled Mysticism for Beginners. I’d never thought, until I heard him talk about it, what it was like to read aloud his Polish poems in English. Like reading someone else’s poems, he said, but he did it beautifully. He was fluent in half a dozen languages, a true intellectual, but as James Merrill said of Elizabeth Bishop, he did “lifelong impressions of an ordinary person.” His prose books include one titled Solitude and Solidarity, referring to his love of solitude at one end of the spectrum and his participation in the Polish Solidarity movement at the other. I met him when I taught for a semester in Houston, and we became friends. He was one of the best men I have ever known–kind, generous, funny, brilliant. And one of the best poets. Although he didn’t write this poem about himself, it predicts how those who knew him and loved him are all feeling today.




That day, when word comes

that someone close has died, a friend, or someone

we didn’t know, but admired from a distance

–the first moment, the first hours: he or she is gone,

it seems certain, inescapable, maybe even

irrefutable, we trust (reluctantly) whoever tells us,

heartbroken, over the phone, or maybe some announcer

from a careless radio, but we can’t believe it,

nothing on earth could convince us,

since he still hasn’t died (for us), not at all,

he (she) no longer is, but hasn’t yet vanished

for good, just the opposite, he is, so it seems, at the strongest

point of his existence, he grows,

though he is no more, he still speaks,

though he’s gone mute, he still prevails,

though he’s lost, lost the battle–with what?

time? the body?–but no, it’s not true, he has triumphed,

he’s achieved completion, absolute completion,

he’s so complete, so great, so splendid, he no longer fits

inside life, he shatters life’s frail vessel,

he towers over the living, as if made

from a different substance, the strongest bronze,

but at the same time we begin to suspect,

we’re afraid, we guess, we know,

that silence approaches

and helpless grief




December 16, 2020


Marvin lived and breathed poetry. He published…well, I just tried to count how many books of poems, but I couldn’t quite, given collected and selected and hybrids.  The inside cover of the last book published during his lifetime, Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems, lists 25 items under Also by Marvin Bell, including books of poems, a children’s book, two books of essays on poetry, letter poems written with William Stafford, collaborative poems with Christopher Merrill, collaborations with musicians, painters and photographs.  Poetry was his skin, his senses, the lens he saw the world through.

Marvin taught thousands of students, at the University of Iowa, Pacific University, and dozens of conferences and residencies around the country.  He taught in workshops and seminars, and he taught by the example of his own poems.  I learned how important it is to get words on the page without judging and censoring–just get them there.  I learned how to write a whole poem, not just pieces.

And then I had the good fortune to become friends with Marvin and Dorothy, friends for life.  For a few years we lived in the same town, another great gift.  Walks, lunches and dinners, all of them filled with stories, everything somehow connected to poetry.  His generosity was as much a part of him as his poetry.  When I started telling friends about Marvin’s illness a few months ago, everyone who had ever visited me in Port Townsend said, “Oh yeah, I met Marvin there.  He and Dorothy took us to lunch/ dinner/ on a tour of the town or the peninsula.  I still remember things he said.”  Of course they do, because Marvin was totally present in every moment–there, engaged, listening and talking.

He was also a rescuer.  Of students in despair, on the verge of suicide, broke, heartbroken, lost, on drugs, confused, in jail.  He kept me in grad school when I was about to leave.  When we were all in Port Townsend, Marvin and I were talking on the phone, my phone died.  Before I could plug it in to recharge it, he was pounding on my door to see if I was ok, Dorothy watching from their car window in the driveway.  When he came in I saw the baseball bat he was holding behind his back.

The thousands of people whose lives Marvin touched will all have their own Marvin stories, and I wish they could be gathered in one place–but it would take a much bigger book than Incarnate’s 325 pages, which he described as a doorstop. They’re endless, and I’ll post a few more here over time.  I hope some of you will add yours here.   And of course there’s no way to count all the people who never met him but have been moved by his work.

For now, here’s a poem of his I love–set in yet another piece of Marvin’s life, his time in the Army.  In one more example of his endless generosity, he gave it to me to publish in WaterTable, a magazine I did just one issue of before I realized I didn’t have the time or energy or money to keep doing it.  If Marvin had been editing it, it would still be going.


crawl toward the machine guns
except to freeze
for explosions and flares.
It was still ninety degrees
at night in North Carolina,
August, rain and all.
The tracer bullets wanted
our asses, which we swore to keep
down, and the highlight
of this preposterous exercise
was finding myself in mud
and water during flares. I
hurried in the darkness–
over things and under things–
to reach the next black pool
in time, and once
I lay in the cool salve that
so suited all I had become
for two light-ups of the sky.
I took one inside and one
face of two watches I ruined
doing things like that,
and made a watch that works.
From the combat
infiltration course and
common sense, I made a man
to survive the Army, which means
that I made a man to survive
being a man.

Marvin Bell

Here are some links to more Marvin stuff:

tribute from his friend David Hamilton:


tribute from Christopher Merrill, his friend and collaborator:


Review of Incarnate: The Complete Dead Man Poems.  Marvin said, incredulously, “It sounds like he read every one of them.”:


celebratory reading of Marvin’s work sponsored by Prairie Lights Bookstore, with stories of his life, him reading at the end:



Emily Dickinson Had a Dog

September 14, 2020

Sometimes we first connect to poets–really connect–not through their poems but through something small, personal, almost incidental. I was teaching a class in Boston on American Women Writers, and one of the paper topics I suggested was an essay on a visit to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Not long after that one of the students came into the classroom–almost ran, breathless, smiling, and said, “Emily Dickinson had a dog!” This was a student who seldom participated–she was taking the class to fill a requirement, not engaged by the material. The trip had sounded easier than the other topics, a lark with a friend. She’d read some Dickinson poems but never been moved by them, never been interested. Her sense of Dickinson was the stereotypical one passed along by so many teachers who should know better: she was an odd recluse, not very well educated (those dashes), a sad spinster. A ghost, not a flesh and blood person. But then, in the little museum, the student had learned about and seen pictures of Dickinson’s big floppy dog Carlo, a curly-haired Newfoundland given to her by her father. And that changed everything. The student also had a dog she loved, and Dickinson took on human form. She went back to the poems and read them, from that point of view, with great pleasure. Seeing that light go on is one of the greatest pleasures of teaching.

Here’s a lovely poem about the ghostly and fleshly Dickinson. I too once held up that white dress once, when I visited the house probably in 1970, before there was any sort of museum. Someone lived there, and writers would arrange visits for when they were out. The dress was on a hanger in the closet, not even a plastic bag over it. I picked it up, held it in front of me, looked at the intricate stitching, and put it back, amazed.

The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

Sometimes the weather goes on for days
but you were different. You were divine.
While the others wrote more and longer,
you wrote much more and much shorter.
I held your white dress once: 12 buttons.
In the cupola, the wasps struck glass
as hard to escape as you hit your sound
again and again asking Welcome. No one.

Except for you, it were a trifle:
This morning, not much after dawn,
in level country, not New England’s,
through leftovers of summer rain I
went out rag-tag to the curb, only
a sleepy householder at his routine
bending to trash, when a young girl
in a white dress your size passed,

so softly!, carrying her shoes. It must be
she surprised me – her barefoot quick-step
and the earliness of the hour, your dress –
or surely I’d have spoken of it sooner.
I should have called to her, but a neighbour
wore that look you see against happiness.
I won’t say anything would have happened
unless there was time, and eternity’s plenty.

Marvin Bell

WORD MUSIC: Smaller Conversations

July 23, 2020

This posting is different from the others you’ve seen here.   I want to say a little about my own private teaching, the various reading and writing possibilities I’ve grouped under the heading Word Music.  Some of you have already seen a flyer for this, and I apologize for the overlap.  I hope you’ll read it over, and that you’ll pass it on to friends who might be interested, and also to any mailing lists you have of those interested in poetry.

Teaching has been at the center of my life, along with writing poetry, since I first taught an undergraduate literature class as a teaching assistant.  The conversations I have with students are a chance to think aloud about poetry–teaching feeds my own writing rather than competing with it.  As many of you know, I currently teach in the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, which I love. But I started this blog exactly so I could have even more conversations than the ones I have there.  Sometimes a few of you talk to me–there were more responses to Poems of Despair than any other topics.  But there were only three brief ones to Black Lives in Poetry, something I really hoped to discuss more.

Writing these blog posts turns out to be a lot like giving a reading on zoom–I hope someone is out there listening, but it’s impossible to know.  I’m continuing the posts because I really enjoy putting them together, and there’s always something on my mind.  But I’m hoping to have more small Poetry Conversations through private teaching: reading poetry, writing it, working on manuscripts.

Let me know if you have questions, suggestions, or would like to sign up for something.

Word Music