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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


June 9, 2020

I don’t remember meeting or having a conversation with anyone black as I was growing up in Salt Lake City, even though I see a few African American faces in my high school yearbooks.  My friends were mostly white, but also included Greeks and Italians (considered exotic for the time and place), Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans.  What little I knew must have come from books, but I’m not sure which ones–To Kill a Mockingbird, at some point, a few others by white authors.  I was really curious to know what black lives were like, but I didn’t know where to look.  I had no sense of details, just the largest generalizations–slavery, prejudice, Jim Crow south, segregation.

I wanted to know what they wore, how the ate, how they dressed, what their houses looked like.  I think the first poem that gave me a glimpse, a little window into actual lives, was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Bean Eaters.”  I could picture that couple, and their little apartment.  I liked them, and wanted to know more.  Sometime later, Robert Hayden’s poems did the same, then Lucille Clifton’s filled me with joy and anguish. I went back in time: Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen.  Then forward from them: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Al Young, Nikki Giovanni.

Then all the way back to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and terrible story.  She was kidnapped from her home in West Africa in about 1760,when she was eight years old, and brought to this country on a slave ship.  In Boston, John Wheatley purchased her–I can barely make myself type that–as a servant for his wife Susanna.  When they realized how intelligent she was they gave her a classical education and encouraged her to write.  She was the first African American woman to publish poems here, and her work was widely known.  Almost all of it is based on her education in western history and mythology, except for one piercing passage in a poem titled  “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth.”  I think these are the only lines in her work that speak out of that moment when a stranger stole her from her life and family, and out of the unbearable pain and loss that rang through the rest of her life.  I wonder if her work would have been so popular if she’d written more of her story.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?


In recent years there’s a dazzling range of black lives in poetry, from Marilyn Nelson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Tretheway, Elizabeth Alexander, Derek Walcott, Claudia Rankine, Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Tim Seibles, Danez Smith.  The list goes on and on and on.  Here are just a few examples.



They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Gwendolyn Brooks


(there is a girl inside)


there is a girl inside.

she is randy as a wolf.

she will not walk away

and leave these bones

to an old woman.


she is a green tree

in a forest of kindling.

she is a green girl

in a used poet.


she has waited

patient as a nun

for the second coming,

when she can break through gray hairs

into blossom


and her lovers will harvest

honey and thyme

and the woods will be wild

with the damn wonder of it.


Lucille Clifton






(Kittery Point, Maine, 1958)


Mama’s rented a colonial house

a block from the ocean, in a village

where we’re the First Negroes of everything.

We’re the First Negro Family in Town,

the First Negro Children in the Town’s School.

The Baylisses live in the house next door;

their mantel has photos of dead people

in their coffins.  Uncle Ed sits all day

in their bay window with binoculars,

then comments on what we had for dinner.

Aunt Flossie asks us over for cookies.

Sometimes Mama lets me and Jennifer cook.

Tonight we made a Caucasian dinner:

cauliflower, broiled cod, and mashed potatoes.


Marilyn Nelson, from her memoir in poems about her childhood, How I Discovered Poetry






This ink.  This name.  This blood.  This blunder.

This blood.  This loss.  This lonesome wind.  This canyon.

This / twin /swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming

an inch above the carpet–.  This cry.  This mud.

This shudder.  This is where I stood by the bed,

by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.

How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?

How deep, how often have I been touched?

On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:

Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.

Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet

and incomprehensible. This ink.  This name.  This blood

in the body.  This wind in the blood.


Terrance Hayes






First snow—I release her into it—

I know, released, she won’t come back.

This is different from letting what,


already, we count as lost go. It is nothing

like that. Also, it is not like wanting to learn what

losing a thing we love feels like. Oh yes:


I love her.

Released, she seems for a moment as if

some part of me that, almost,


I wouldn’t mind

understanding better, is that

not love? She seems a part of me,


and then she seems entirely like what she is:

a white dog,

less white suddenly, against the snow,


who won’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,

I release her. It’s as if I release her

because I know.


Carl Phillips




summer, somewhere (first section)


somewhere, a sun.  below boys brown

as rye play the dozens & ball, jump


in the air & stay there.  boys become new

moons gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise


-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least

spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.


history is what it is.  it knows what it did.

bad dog, bad blood, bad day to be a boy


color of a July well spent.  but here, not earth

not heaven we can’t recall our white shirts


turned ruby gowns.  here, there’s no language

for officer or law, no color to call white.



if snow fell, it’d fall black.  please, don’t call

us dead, call us alive someplace better.


we say our names when we pray.

we go out for sweets & come back.



Danez Smith