February 20–26, 2017
Josh Bell teaches at Harvard University and is the author of No Planets Strike and Alamo Theory. He has taught for the MFA programs at Columbia University and the University of Iowa and has sometimes served as poetry liaison to Cosmopolitan magazine. On Thursday, February 23, Bell will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 61 Local in Cobble Hill with Jay Deshpande and Morgan Parker.
Where the I Comes From
Our days often ended and began
with the sound of voices raised
in song. Even after we murdered
our friends and neighbors. Even
after we brought the attention
of our knives to the neighbors of
our neighbors, until at last
the neighborhoods fell silent
and the cities quiet and the city’s
city, the country then and next
the country, until finally the moon,
as if its own reflection, looked
upon an earth that we had emptied
nearly back to Eden. Even then,
in that silence which seemed almost
a silence, sadly we were not
alone. All we ever wanted was
to be alone, to visit no one, to be
visited by nothing. But even after
we’d traveled to the nearby planets
and relieved them of their voices,
even after—and we all knew
this was coming—we fell amongst
each other, brother and sister,
until only I survived, still I heard it,
the universe subtracted of its skin
and hair, and yet the sound
of a voice, like someone singing
in the hold of a sinking ship,
unbidden and irrelevant, a fathom
and a fathom deep, but never fading.
–From Alamo Theory, Copper Canyon Press, 2016 (originally published in the New Republic).
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I used to ask students to write origin stories for the speakers of their poems. As with superheroes, etc., the origin story explains how the superhero came to be the superhero, came to have whatever significant and specific powers. The origin story of the poetic voice explains how the poetic voice came to be the poetic voice, came to have whatever significant and specific powers. And the exercise worked pretty well for the students, so I decided to try it out, and “Where the I Comes From” is the poem that came from that.
What are you working on right now?
I am always writing fiction, and always failing at writing fiction. I write fiction for a couple of months and then I realize that I don’t know how, and then I steal all the good lines from the fiction and use the lines for poems. Or turn chunks of it into prose poems. I’ve had to accept this fact: writing bad fiction is part of my process for writing (I hope) good poems. Fiction’s like a staging area for me. So I’m writing fiction right now, and if you’re lucky you will never see the fiction that I write.
What’s a good day for you?
Long blocks of uninterrupted time and Mystery Science Theater on YouTube. Hanging out with Jillian Weise and watching murder shows on television.
So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I lived in Manhattan for a while and it was too busy for me. I’m in Cambridge, MA now. It’s slower, smaller, and that suits me very well. I was in Iowa City recently and I also love the peace of that town.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I remember, when I lived in Manhattan, liking Brooklyn a lot, but I have bad memory when it comes to place. I don’t know why I liked it. The buildings were smaller, maybe? They almost looked chubby. Plus there was more space in them. In Manhattan, the buildings are huge, but there’s no space inside them, so you get this weird vertigo feeling, or like an optical illusion. From the outside, buildings in Manhattan seem to promise you a lot of interior space. But once you get inside those huge buildings, there’s no space, people are thick everywhere and the promise has been broken. In Brooklyn, the buildings were better at following through on what they’d promised. So all in all, Brooklyn is the more honest borough.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I like very much that poetry communities exist, but I fear I’m not a very good member of the poetry community. I’m too alarmed by groups.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I love Morgan Parker and Jay Deshpande and I do believe they live in Brooklyn.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
When I was growing up in Indiana, I knew there was a part of me that was strange and saw things differently. For most of my early life I tried to pretend that this wasn’t true, tried to become just a regular citizen or to act like other regular citizens acted, to think like they thought. So my poetry mentors—Rodney Jones, Jim Galvin, Jorie Graham, Lucie Brock-Broido—were important because they modeled a survivable way of being effectively weird in the world.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I really like Meg Day’s book Last Psalm at Sea Level. Layered, intense devotional poems, but with a lot of rock and roll to them.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I need to get right with the Russians.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I use reading in so many ways that it’s tough to answer this. A lot of times reading is just a method of escaping duration, and both physical books and digital texts are helpful in this way. I’ll dip in and out and I’ll read cover to cover and I’ll read a lot of books at once and I’ll focus in on one and I’ll take notes and I won’t take notes. I get nervous when I’m not reading and I get nervous when I’m reading too much. “What are you reading now?” people will sometimes ask you. Or worse: “What have you been reading now that I should be reading?”
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve written a lot of sequences, too many sequences, so what I’d like to do one day is sit down and try to write a book of poems where there are no sequences.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I have a serious relationship going on with my office where I teach at Harvard. It’s my first office and I love that place and all of the reading and writing goes on there if I can help it. It’s dark and there’s only one window but I even block that window out and I keep it as cold in the office as possible. It’s like a very nice and dry cave. People worry about me. I also really like writing in hotel/motel rooms. The anonymity and the robbed time. When I lived in Manhattan (the space issue again) I would go to those movie theaters on 42nd Street and write in a notebook during movies. I’d move from theater to theater. I’d try to go to movies that had been out for a while or that weren’t popular, so that there would be fewer people in there with me. You see a lot of weird things when you write in a place like that. Rats from time to time, fights, human sexuality.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Again, I have bad memory when it comes to place. I think that Mark Bibbins had an apartment at one point in Brooklyn. It was a nice place. I liked it there. He may even still live in Brooklyn. The poet Sasha Fletcher: I think he lived in Brooklyn, too. I think he still lives there. He made a chicken once and I went over to his apartment and the chicken was very delicious.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate __________,
And what I __________ you ______________,
For every _____________ me as good _____________ you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
I blended the Whitman and Jay Z exercises together:
I celebrate jack-love, and I sing Biggie.
And what I dodge and rob, you pen and father.
For every sin belonging to Brooklyn as good belongs to Brooklyn.
It’s not the only place to find Brooklyn, but it’s the best.