Photo Credit: Rana Tahir; top: skull candle holder created by The Lone Artisan; below: a picture of some of Marvin’s books in a special place on my bookshelf.
Marvin Bell, 1937-2020
How do you remark on the passing of a giant?
Especially when the loss feels so personal.
I remember when I first called Pacific University to let them know that I was going to accept their offer of admission to the MFA in Writing program. Colleen answered, “Marvin will be excited!” I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know much about Marvin at the time, but it was so good to hear that someone was excited about me attending the program; that I wasn’t just an application number.
It meant a lot to me because choosing Pacific over the other program that accepted me meant I was putting my immigration status in jeopardy.
It wasn’t until I went to my first residency that I found out who Marvin was and how large he loomed in the world of poetry. As I write this, I know he wouldn’t like that word, “loomed.” Sorry, Marvin. That’s all I’ve got right now.
I write this in fits and starts, just adding things about Marvin as they come to mind, moving up and down the page. It’s strange to look at websites make the necessary update, the cementation that he is, in fact, gone. It’s a strange addition to the grieving process. A friend of mine who was in my first workshop with Marvin had said upon hearing the news of his passing, “I thought he’d live to 101.” I thought so too.
My first workshop with Marvin was at my first residency. He was so open and giving; he made us more than just a class, he made us a community. It was one of the best workshop experiences I had. Some of my best poet friends came out of that workshop; they are people I think of often, though I am not always good at communicating with them.
It’s funny how much I can trace back to him. I first heard of the Oregon Poetry Association from him. He encouraged us all to become members in that first workshop. Now I’m on the Executive Board as the Treasurer.
When I listed him as my first choice to work with that semester, I was over the moon that I got my wish. If I remember right, I think that semester all of us who were working with him (except maybe one student) were new. There were no cliques with him, no hierarchies. He welcomed everyone.
Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to work with him knows how amazing it can be. At Pacific, you correspond with your advisor throughout the semester, sending work and receiving feedback. Sometimes I think Marvin worked harder that semester than I did. Each exchange I’d receive 20-30 pages of detailed feedback and insights, along with anecdotes and care and concern. I shared with him my immigration fears. He always asked after me, was always so concerned. Sometimes I felt guilty that I said anything.
I forget how exactly it came up, but I ended up sending him my undergraduate thesis and, on top of all the other work he had to do and life he had to live, he read it. It had nothing to do with my work with him that semester, but he read it anyway. In every exchange we’d have since then, years after I was his student, he’d ask about that project, if I’d submitted it anywhere yet, if I was still working on it. He had ideas on what I could do as a follow up. He was so supportive of it even when I was (am) still so unsure of it.
After Will and I had our civil ceremony, Marvin was in Portland teaching a workshop. I had emailed him telling him of the engagement a month before and asking if he’d like to meet for lunch when he came to Portland. He responded three days after we were married. The four of us went to lunch, Dorothy, Marvin, Will and I. I remember most of all the feelings that lunch left me with. There were so many complications during the engagement and after our civil ceremony, and Will and I needed support and comfort at the time for many reasons. Without knowing anything about our situation, Marvin and Dorothy provided it. They were so warm and caring. And, as anyone who has ever seen them together can attest, their love for each other filled the entire restaurant. At the end of the lunch, they paid for the meal insisting on it as a wedding gift to us. I’ll never forget that day.
I repeated a mistake I often do in my life, I didn’t reach out for a long time. I have always needed some formal reason to be in touch, a habit since childhood. I created the reason in my 4th residency at Pacific, requesting Marvin for workshop again. Luckily, I got in. And again, it was amazing.
I realize now that I don’t have a single picture with Marvin. I only have the letters we sent that semester and the emails we have shared since then.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been feeling insecure. I’ll admit that I did not share much correspondence with Marvin since my last workshop with him. I cannot claim to be “close” to him. I don’t know what parameters are needed, how do we define closeness?
I did what I usually do, think of someone often but hardly ever reach out. I wanted him to be my mentor but didn’t know how to ask, thinking that a mentor/mentee relationship was an arrangement like the many programs that ask you to apply for the chance to correspond with someone, formal. Instead of facing possible rejection I just resigned myself to the sporadic emails back and forth. I’ve done this with many of the teachers and friends I’ve wanted to keep in my life.
With all that, I’ve wondered, is it really my place to mourn in this way? To express that mourning out loud to others? Should I stick to the larger, the impersonal? Say, “He had a big impact on American poetry” and leave it at that? Should I say nothing and leave space for those who were closest to him? Is that space finite?
I don’t know. Maybe all of this is wrong. But I’d like to think, as I reflect on my time with Marvin, that he was a mentor to me. That’s the realization I am coming to. That, and that relationships are what you make of them.
I’m turning on the comments to this post. Let this be a space for all of us who knew and loved Marvin and his work to share and grieve together whether you’re sure how to define that relationship or not. Leave a comment, share a poem, make it as long or as short as you want.
If you’ve been too shy to mourn in full elsewhere, mourn here.
Mood: Numb, Grief
Currently listening to: “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” by Chet Baker