Hannah Kinson

(From left to right) Nathan, Jason, and Dorothy Bell speak with The Daily Iowan in an interview on Saturday, Jan 30, 2021 at the Bell family’s house in Iowa City. The family revisited stories together in memory of Marvin Bell, who was the first Poet Laureate of Iowa and longtime Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor at the university.

February 8, 2021

“I like to think we have a world right here, and a life that isn’t death.” – Marvin Bell, “White Clover.”

Dorothy and Marvin Bell officially celebrated 61 anniversaries, but by the count they kept on a piece of paper on their fridge, they’ve actually had 169.

Each “anniversary” was marked by a delicious meal the couple once shared on the many travels they went on together around the world. When the day had been nice and the meal was good, it deserved to be celebrated.

The two started their count at 75 anniversaries, Dorothy said, both because they didn’t expect to ever have a 75th anniversary, and also because — if they did — they imagined they likely wouldn’t remember anything about it.

Dorothy recalled the memory with a laugh on a snowy January day in her College Street home, sitting on a couch in a living room draped with red curtains. Around her, the walls were covered in artwork — some gifted to the family from friends, students, and fans of Marvin’s work, some created or collected by Marvin himself.

The subject of Marvin’s most beloved poem was also the first person to read and edit most of his work. Some days, Dorothy and her husband would go back and forth discussing one of his poems, sometimes debating over a detail as small as a comma, her sons Jason and Nathan recounted in the living room that day.

To Dorothy, Marvin had a mind “like Einstein’s hair.”

“It was everything at once,” she said. “Going off on tangents all the time, and it shows in his work. It’s partly why his books are different, one book to the next.”

Jason Bell remembers hearing the click-clack of his father’s IBM Selectric typewriter in his study upstairs at all hours of the day. When he woke up in the morning as a young boy, his father would be writing down at the other end of the hall, punching away at the keys with two fingers. The typing would pick up again around 2 a.m., his father’s favorite time to write.

“He said it was the time when his mind let go of the practical things he had to think about, so he could just roam free,” Dorothy said.

Jason and Nathan Bell grew up while their father instructed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In the afternoons, Jason would sometimes come home from school to find the living room full of graduate students discussing poetry with his father. The students would turn to him with a smile and a wave, platefuls of snacks Dorothy had made for them sitting nearby.

“They were always in good spirits,” Jason recalled. “It was a writing workshop class, and you would have imagined that people would have been tense or feeling exposed in it, but it was always good humored and supportive in the atmosphere when I came through.”

Jason said his father was a supportive force behind his explorations and changing career choices, if not a bit of a worrier, when he left home to pursue an acting career in New York. On one cold winter day when Jason had first moved to the city, Marvin made a long-distance call to his son just to ask if he had remembered to wear his hat.

Even as Jason’s career shifted to multimedia production, his father continued to pop up through conversations with people he met, who recognized him as Marvin Bell’s son.

“When moments would happen when someone would recognize my father to me, there was an odd feeling of sharing him with the world, but it was always in a good way,” Jason said. “It was strange, but wonderful. It was like having a little bit of my father everywhere.”

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