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Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems

I was in Port Townsend.

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It was raining and dreary, and I was putting together the New and Selected Poems that would come out from Athenaeum. Yes, they did beautiful books. The cover is a photo of the door handle on a Lutheran church visible from our Port Townsend house. I want always to be a beginner. I knew I would fall off the radar if I left New York publishing. They have their own world. I hear a lot of people dismiss The New York Times in particular. The New Yorker , I guess, is still the place to publish your poetry. When I was a graduate student poet, some of my fellow students were sure that The New Yorker was the place.

So I took a look at poems in The New Yorker , and I noticed that much of the poetry at that time was linked to water — if not set on the water, situations proximate to water or water-going animals. They were written in, forgive me, a fluid style. And they were imaginative, but safely so. And it appeared in The New Yorker. Of course, I used to write poems that were more acceptable to anthologists.

Not now. Well, given how things work, I suppose that, if a poet is focused on a career and public notice, he or she might still benefit from being in New York or Boston. Would it be good for their writing? Perhaps one could go to Los Angeles or elsewhere. The East Coast is still where most of the big publishers are and the business of literary opinion. I want to slip back a second because you mentioned playing music, being a photographer. When did you decide that it was going to be poetry and not cornet or camera?

I knew early that I would eventually put away my horn. That is, I went on playing with all kinds of groups in college, and even took a master class with a fellow named Dan Clayton, a music teacher who had gone back to school to become a dentist. Purcell takes the credit, but it was actually written by Jeremiah Clarke.

I played everything. You name it, I played it. Played with a trumpet trio, played with quartets, quintets, sextets, orchestras, bands, summer bands, marching bands, a dance combo. Yeah, I knew I was going to stop, for two reasons. We were going to be hardware clerks, insurance salesmen, teachers, and nurses. And it was fine. When I took a solo, I was playing notes I saw in my head. I was pretty good, but — and even though I used to go into New York City with my friend Roger, a virtuoso trumpet player from another high school, and hit the jazz clubs … I can remember — who was I there to see that night?

It might have been Don Elliott.

I go outside to smoke a cigarette, and here comes Miles Davis. The jazz musicians used to come hear each other.

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Johnson sits down next to me. Even though I went to hear live music, and listened to jazz on records and the radio, I had no idea how one would ever become good at it. For that, I needed little rehearsal, which suited me. I have to hear it. He felt that was my way out. But I went to college, and later he said to my mother that, because of my writing it had come out all right. The novelist Vance Bourjaily was a self-taught trumpet player.

He had had a one-room schoolhouse moved onto his property at Red Bird Farm. He would use it to have a bunch of us come out to jam. I could still play then. Now, I pull out my Bach cornet about once a year, play a song Dorothy likes and put it away. Yes, with musicians and composers, even with dancers, and of course with other poets.

ISBN 13: 9781556593765

Collaborating with musicians probably began with a noontime reading at Hood Canal Community College in Portland. Long ago. Glen Moore on standup bass and Mark Daterman on electric guitar played while people took their seats. After that, other readers in the series started doing it too. You never knew what Glen was going to do. He makes sounds from his instrument that you have never heard before. It sounds like you admire improvisation.

Do you feel you have a spontaneous improvisatory approach to your own art?

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Yes, absolutely. Not always, but often. Also — this sounds a little much to say, but I really do live in the present. A lot of people say they do. I really do. I can still recite from memory poems from the days when I wrote a more expected form of free verse. Is poetry a way of living in the present? Not just in terms of spontaneous, but in terms of enriching or deepening the present? Yes, depending how you write. Less and less. Years ago I carried my poems around on sheets of paper. Eventually, I unwrapped it. I decided then not to keep drafts. There are some long ones.

It consists of 20 stanzas of 18 lines apiece. The Escape Into You is a book-length sequence. The book Residue of Song contains a sequence of 13 poems about my father. It does create an interesting question — how do you know when a poem is over? Yes, you could.

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A Lifetime in Poetry: Marvin Bell on Iowa and the “Dead Man” Poems - Los Angeles Review of Books

The head bites the tail, the tail wags the head. It both uses up and connects everything in it. I like that. I like a certain raggedness.


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I like a certain rawness. But I like that effect too. I like it in my students. A shoe can be too highly polished.