Josh Bell is a poet, and a rare one at that— one that makes you laugh. Writing of his debut book, the collection No Planets Strike (Zoo Press/University of Nebraska Press, 2005), in the Boston Book Review, Tanya Larkin calls Bell, “one of the most tonally versatile young poets working today.”
His poems have appeared in a vast number of publications, including Boston Review, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Triquarterly, Verse, and Volt. Bell’s poetry has also appeared in a great many anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande) and Imaginary Poets: 22 Master Poets Create 22 Master Poets (Tupelo Press).
He received his B.A. from Indiana State University, his M.A. in English from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and his M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bell is a pro at being a Fellow. First, he was a Paul Engle Post-Graduate Fellow at Iowa University, then he was a Diane Middlebrook Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Creative Writing Institute, and a Walter Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Bell is completing his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a University Distinguished Graduate Fellow. Currently, he also teaches poetry at Columbia University, where he is simply a swell fellow.
Bell is good humored, generous, and sardonic. He never, ever takes his baseball hat off, except when forced (like in this picture).
When did you first begin to write?
I started to write when I was a kid. My cousins and I would write plays together and put them on for the family and charge admission.
In money or cookies?
In actual money. We would keep the money in my grandma’s basement and buy stuff when we actually got some together. The plays were ridiculous. It was like us, but as bears, in a cave…things like that.
What about after those fruitful first years?
In high school I was sort of a B-list celebrity. You know, I wasn’t an A-grade high school person. But I was trying hard to get into the A group. I was trying to crack jokes and be the funny one. So, I was trying to be popular in high school and I quit writing during that time. Because I was worried about fitting in. And writing seemed weird to me. So I quit. I was basically trying to be someone else. I felt split away from myself during that time.
It wasn’t even clear to me then that people existed who wrote things. There is a moment— and I think it happens early for most people— when you realize that the TV program or the movie you’re watching was actually written, that it isn’t like a story that has always existed. That idea came late to me, that you could actually be the kind of person who writes things like that.
Tell me about college.
I went to Purdue at first for undergrad, which was kind of rocky, and so then I popped back to Indiana State University where I finished my B.A. I didn’t even think about poetry in undergrad, to tell you the truth. I was trying to be a psychology major. But I failed the Research Methods class and realized that I should probably look for a different major. English and literature had always come easy for me, so I got an English major. I thought I would get a PhD in literature, that I would teach. But, at the time I wasn’t thinking about being an actual writer.
Why get a PhD?
I had no idea what the market was like, or where the PhD would actually take me, but it seemed like a viable option. It seemed like something where you could get through by doing the diligence, and get a job at the end of the line.
In the back of my head, I was probably thinking: wouldn’t it be cool if you could actually write something? But I never really believed that. I just wanted to get a job, and I figured that was what college was about.
So, you went to graduate school for literature. Tell me about that.
I got accepted to no place but Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for my Masters degree in English. While there, I got very bored with the theory aspect of it and fell in with the poets and fiction writers who were headed up by this teacher, Rodney Jones, who is a poet. He made it seem like a lot of fun to be a poet. So, I wrote a poem and took it in to Rodney, very nervous, and at the same time I took a piece of fiction in to the fiction writer there whose name was Beth Lordan. Beth looked at my fiction and was like: “Yeah, I don’t know what it is you’re doing at all.” So I went to Rodney with my poem, and he was like: “That’s a really good line, next to one of the worst lines I’ve ever read in my life.” But that was like success to me! I put all my eggs in the poetry basket at that point, based on that one comment of Rodney’s— and he was probably just being polite to me while Beth was honest!
I started running around with Rodney, taking workshops with him. I finished my Masters, but the last year of it I was basically taking creative writing classes and they let me get away with it.
What was appealing to you about poetry at that point?
The students there seemed like they were having fun. And I met my first real, living poet, which was Rodney. We had this thing that he called The Redneck Symposium. It was an independent study that I took with him one year. He just gave me a list of books to read, and then he’d take me fishing. We’d talk about books that I’d read or hadn’t read and go fishing for, like, a month.
It sounds awesome.
Oh, it was so great. What a pedagogical stance that was. He was fantastic. He was so human and warm. I was reading his books too and was amazed by how good his poetry was, and he was actually a person who was alive and doing it. Once I finally figured out that you could be a poet, that is what I wanted to do.
Did you know at that point that you would be a teacher of poetry as well?
I think I realized that there’s no way around it. It’s hard to ever be a poet who is independent from the university. You have to have some other way to make a living. I think as soon as you wake up to the fact that there are poets alive, you see that those poets are mostly teachers.
What were you writing then?
I was writing really bad stuff in the style of William Butler Yeats, like William Butler Yeats of the lower Midwest. And Keats. All of a sudden I loved Keats. It wasn’t until I ran into Frank O’Hara’s poems, and then Anne Sexton, that I realized that you could also write poems from your own parochial distance from the world and sound like yourself. That was major for me. Before that, I was always trying to sound like Yeats.
It seems like it was very important for you to have an artistic community.
Certainly, I don’t know what I would have done without it at the time. It started with Rodney’s Redneck Symposium and some friends in the poetry program who took me seriously for the first time. I mean, I didn’t even take myself seriously at that point.
But I was still feeling like it was all a fluke. When I applied to MFA programs, I got into quite a few. I got into Iowa, and I swore I believed it was a mistake. One of my friends called me up on the phone, disguised his voice, and was like, “I’m sorry, but we had your file confused…” My first thought was: “That is your mistake and I’m coming anyway!” Then I was like, “Mark, you son of a bitch!”
What an awful thing to do!
Yeah, it was like the trap door just opened up in my chest. Like, “Yep, that’s what I thought this whole time, that it was a fluke.”
I felt that way the whole first year I was at Iowa. I was a public school kid from the Midwest, and suddenly I’m at Iowa in workshop with all these East Coast/West Coast kids with huge educations. So I locked myself up in the library for a year and didn’t come out. I just wrote as hard as I could because I was still so scared that it would all be taken away from me.
Maybe that was a good thing.
It ended up being an excellent thing. I probably wrote a book of poems that first year. They were terrible— but I got them out of the way! And then that second year I started writing poems that to me seemed pretty good. They seemed like the beginning of my poetry, somehow.
Does the ghost of the trap door linger even now?
Oh sure! The evil ghost of the trap door is always there. I always feel like any second you can lose it. Whatever it was that you found, accidentally, you can lose. It seems so accidental that I actually wound up being where I was at the time, having the opportunity that I had. So, if I didn’t concentrate, or if I wasn’t paying attention, that could just disappear. You think the craft is very important, and that you have your practice and your talent and that that is not going to go away, but it seems so mysterious to me, the appearance of good writing, that I feel supernatural about it in a way. Like if I don’t do the right penance or magic spell it is going to disappear. I still feel that way.
What were your work habits like back then?
Well, before, when I was an MFA student, I was fearful and feverish and writing away in the dark, convinced that no one was ever going to read those poems. I actually sort of miss that feeling. Because I was writing anything that came into my head. I would just put it down and think: don’t worry about it because it’s not going to amount to anything anyway. After the first book came out and I actually heard people reading it and buying it and talking about it, it was very disturbing to me. It sort of popped that bubble that I felt like I had when I was at Iowa.
I liked the feeling that it was all completely inconsequential. Now, I’ve had a lot of trouble since the first book because I feel that the marketplace and the reviews and that whole thing is breathing down my neck a little bit. It has been hard to find the pure terror of the first book that I wrote. It was so scary to write because I didn’t know what I was doing. And now it feels like I am supposed to know what I am doing, and that seems bad to me.
Isn’t that scarier in a way?
It’s a mundane fear. It’s not that supernatural terror, the thing that goes bumping in the night kind of fear. It’s just banality. Which is terrible, but really more depressing that vertiginous.
How did you get your first book of poems published?
It took a long time to get that book published. It was a finalist in a gazillion contests, but it never got taken. So, from 1999, when I graduated from Iowa, to 2004, I was just kicking that book around. I would change it every year. More poems would go in and bad poems would go out— so it was actually a much better book by the time it did come out.
I had sent some poems to this magazine called Hotel Amerika, where Erin Belieu was the editor. I didn’t know Erin at the time, but she wrote me back and she said, “I like your poems a lot, do you have a manuscript?” I sent her the manuscript and she sent it to her friends. Then she called me and said, “These people are going to take it.” At first, I had this moment of exhilaration. But then, fifteen minutes later, I was on the floor, groaning, “Oh no, now it’s a book.” And I could feel the tyranny of the marketplace creeping in.
I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping myself pure of that. It’s been impossible, really.
Does that mean that now you do think about the way your poems will be received as you write them?
Yes, I do. And that’s a problem. If I don’t get myself in a situation where I’m totally immersed by what I’m doing, then that little fear creeps in. The doubt: have I done this too much already? Should I be doing something else? I start thinking about all the “shoulds,” which you shouldn’t.
You want to be better than your first book, but there was something in that first book that was so open. And I do miss that feeling of discovery.
What did you do after graduating from Iowa?
A lot of journeying. A lot of inconsequential adjuncting. I got lucky because for a year I was given the Paul Engle Post-Graduate Fellowship from Iowa, which is like $15,000 and you could go live wherever you wanted to. But I didn’t actually get that until the year after I graduated. First, when I graduated in 1999, I ended up going to Norfolk Sate University where a friend of mine was opening an art gallery and said he wanted help hammering up dry wall. That was a lost year, though, because I was teaching four composition classes a semester.
Wow! That is a lot of classes!
It gets worse, too. After that, I wound up getting an adjunctship at the University of Alabama which was a two-year swing. Four classes a semester again. Except those classes had, like, thirty students a piece.
[Interviewer gasps in disbelief]
Yeah, I know! It was an amazing fellowship because I got to meet a lot of writers that I really liked who worked there, but it was just horrifying in terms of work. Just too much. At the time, I had decided that I was never going to go back to school. But that experience of those three years just being drilled by the Adjunct Professor thing made me go back to get my PhD in Creative Writing, which I did at the University of Cincinnati.
You went for the PhD to get away from adjuncting?
It was at that point, then, that I thought: with no book, and with the job market changing, I am not going to be able to get a job. And I knew a lot of people who had books out and still couldn’t get jobs, so I figured I would hide for four more years in that PhD program.
Why get a PhD in Creative Writing?
Most creative writing programs at universities are a part of the English departments, which means that to get hired there you have to impress professors in the English department instead of creative writers. And that means you need a PhD. The MFA is pitched as a terminal degree but it’s not, really, because other professors don’t recognize it. So this sort of invented creative PhD came along, which is supposed to teach you aspects of being a scholar while you’re doing your poetry.
To me, the creative stuff was important and the theory just seemed like something you agreed to go along with. It was easy for me because I’d had the MA beforehand, so I’d been trained along those lines, I could write those papers. But it was kind of deadening.
I’d council people to go do it just because you can go hide for four years. If you go get your PhD in the Midwest, you get paid to go too. So you can hide from your debt, you can hide from a marketplace that is basically antagonistic, and you can hide from a publishing world that is troubling. But my third year, I got lucky enough to get the job I have now at Columbia, so I sort of forgot about my PhD altogether!
How did you go from hiding in Cincinnati to teaching at Columbia?
Before my fourth year in the PhD program, I decided to go on the job market just to see what I could get. I never in a million years thought I was going to get this job, it seemed like such a long shot. But when I did, I realized it was going to be a chance to teach graduate school. And I thought: maybe I don’t have to finish this PhD. I’m still kinda hoping I don’t have to finish it…
What other jobs have you had besides teaching?
I painted houses. A friend of mine put together a painting outfit. We painted all summer. House painting is terrifying work that leads to alcoholism.
Isn’t being a poet also terrifying work that leads to alcoholism?
Ha, maybe! But it’s fun! Painting houses is so boring. The same thing over and over again. Just staring at the space right in front of you. It is terrifying because it feels like you could get lost. It terrifies you with your possible future. You imagine yourself being a 12-pack a day housepainter for the rest of your life…
I did filing. At Iowa I had a summer job pulling athlete’s files and putting them back in, pulling them out and putting them back in…over and over. It was awful.
I washed dishes in various chain restaurants in the Midwest. Then I eventually graduated to waiting tables. Which is also something that scared me with the potential of being forever. I still kind of wonder where I’ll end up, and I can still feel that the possibility is there— that I will start waiting tables again. I don’t know if that is true, but the fear is.
Isn’t that fear similar to the fear that made you hole up in Iowa for a year and just write?
It’s different because that fear in Iowa was fear that I loved this thing so much but I would never amount to anything. Now I feel like I could amount to something, but that it might not matter. That I could still wind up waiting tables, or whatever. Not that waiting tables is bad. There could be something pure about that too, I guess. About returning to a workplace and giving the shove to the academy, because the academy has its own problems and there is a lot of soul-sucking stuff that happens there too.
Where were you living throughout this time?
At Southern Illinois University I lived in a garage that had been converted into an apartment. At that time in Carbondale the rent was like $250 a month, and that was too much! That garage was basically the last stop on the sewage line, there wasn’t even supposed to be plumbing back there at all. So I’d be in bed sometimes— and this is so disgusting I don’t even want to talk about it— and air would get into the sewage line, and you could hear it; there would be this audible explosion in the bathroom. I don’t even want to tell you what it was like to walk in through that door to see what had happened…the sewage just basically backed up and shot into the bathroom.
My friends still make fun of me for the places that I live because I always seem to choose these dank, basement dungeons for myself. Like, when I lived in Cincinnati, I lived in another basement. It was unfinished, so my closet was a steel rod. My idea was always: why do I even need to furnish this place, I’ll be out of here in three years.
Three years is a long time live in a place!
See, that’s what my friends were saying to me, and I’ve never really thought that way. It’s like my apartment now. It’s faculty housing, and it’s beautiful, but I don’t really have anything in there.
You have a cat.
I have a cat. She’s followed me from Cincinnati. That’s where I adopted her because I needed a friend in Cincinnati. So I had to go out and own one, basically.
Where did you live when you were a graduate student in Iowa?
In Iowa, I lived in a place where a lot of other writers were actually living. Robyn Schiff was there, Nick Twemlow I think, Lana Moussa, just a bunch of us were living there in separate apartments. I didn’t realize it until the spring, but my wall, where my bed was, had a beehive in it. A huge beehive. I woke up one morning being stung. There were bees in my bed. Exterminators came out and sprayed it, but the bees just kept coming back in. I had to start sleeping in the other room until it got cold again. It was horrible, really. I would go to class with all these bee stings. I looked like I’d been abused, or had abused myself. It caused really weird bee dreams.
What was it like, living there, beyond the bees?
It was weird living with all those other writers. We were in class together during the day, but we were so competitive too, like a competitive family. And our teachers had gone to Iowa. And you’re thinking, one day maybe I’ll go back and teach here at Iowa…. I remember a teacher telling a story in class, “When I was a student here I was so poor I wouldn’t spend any money on food. I just bought a bag of rice and flavored it with a beef heart.” I mean, what? Oh my god, right?
Well, what did you eat?
I was basically just drinking PBR and eating Ramen noodles for two years.
Do you have any advice for young writers who are struggling right now?
It doesn’t end. It’s ongoing. The apprenticeship is endless. It seems very desperate from minute to minute and I think it continues to be that way for various reasons— whether monetary or that no one is seeing your work or that you don’t like your work, or that you feel like you found something but then you lost it— whatever it is that makes you feel desperate and on edge. And I think if you can live in that desperation, if you can feel good living on that edge, and if you can find some peace there too, knowing that there is no future, just everything happening in a stacked, present moment, then you’ll be OK. If you can make peace with the idea that you are always going to struggle with some kind of unknown, that you may never feel secure in any kind of success.
I was thinking about that with The Days of Yore project: for me, there has been no moment of breakthrough, or a finished feeling, and I don’t think there is for anybody. I think even if you’ve written something that is wildly famous and you’re a big success, at that point you still have to beat that last thing you did. You have to find the confidence to do something that is not a repeat of what you’ve done before, something that makes you feel good despite what the reception is. I think there is always an edge.
In his interview for the Days of Yore, David Shields said, “To me, it’s a false dichotomy: breakthrough vs. non-breakthrough. I’m now working on my thirteenth book and I’m trying to break through it.”
That is great. You first think you are going to write and develop something to a certain point, and then you’re going to continue from that point. But, actually, you are going to get to that point and then you are going to start all over again when you write the next book.
It is true. But it is also true that there is a nowhere place and a somewhere place, and those of us in the nowhere place are still looking to see how we might get to that somewhere place.
Yes, it is all relative. When I was at Iowa, I remember I was sitting in a thesis conference with Jorie Graham, and the phone rang. So, she takes this phone call, and it sounds to me like she’s talking to her daughter. I’m listening to her have this conversation, she’s all like, “Yep…uhuh…sure, I’ll do that…” She hangs up and I ask, “Who was that?” And she says, “That was James Tate, calling for a letter of recommendation.” James Tate the Pulitzer winning poet??! Still? Don’t they just hire him wherever he goes?? At that point, I felt: it never ends. And I don’t think it ever does. But maybe that is a good thing. Whatever fame is so fleeting and limited and narrow anyway.
There was a time when I was sending poems out and nothing would get picked up. Then there was a time when everything would get picked up. Then came a time when I would get calls asking if I had anything to submit. And I thought: what had happened? Nothing. It was so arbitrary. That’s when I started getting very suspicious of the marketplace and of fame.
Any final words?
All you can do is stick with it. And enjoy the time you have now when you are relatively unknown because no one is asking you for anything specific. There is nothing hanging over you. You are in a world right now when anything can happen. Enjoy that. Once you start publishing you really have to work to recreate that open feeling, because you immediately start getting placed. And now, you’re unplaced— unplaceable even. And that is a good thing. You don’t owe anyone anything.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Rona Yefman/Columbia University School of the Arts