NEA Literature Fellowships

Josh Bell

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(2017 - Poetry)


First, there was a fish. And then
there was the consciousness of robots.
What came between
seemed durable enough: history
with no shadow in its mouth, the trees
a medium gorgeous,
and the bodies of shepherd friends
spaced out like picnics
beneath the adage of the sun.
Lord, did I weary of sexing them?
Lord, how I wearied of sexing them,
and of chasing their pronoun
into, and out of, the woods. One day soon
our new robot masters
will all commit suicide. I heard them whispering
their sad plan in the alley. Sorry, playgirl.
You too, playboy. No one’s going to take
this time off our hands, after all.

(originally appeared in Narrative Magazine)

Josh Bell is the author of No Planets Strike (University of Nebraska Press) and Alamo Theory (Copper Canyon). He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Paul Engle Fellow. At the University of Wisconsin Creative Writing Institute, he was Diane Middlebrook fellow, and he has a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He has taught for the MFA at Columbia University, and is presently Briggs Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University.

Photo by Jillian Weise

Author's Statement

I wrote about a half dozen poems the week I got the phone call telling me about the NEA grant.

I don’t know if any of those poems are good, but I certainly wrote them off the rush of energy from that phone call.

It’s powered everything I’ve done in the time since.

I keep worrying there has been some kind of mistake.

I’m still stunned. There are some financial problems I can finally kiss goodbye.

But mainly the NEA is a shot of confidence. It feels like validation. I feel like I’m writing for my country. I feel like my country might be listening. It’s a good feeling. Poetry is a solo kind of pursuit, and you can begin to believe that you are writing poems in a vacuum. And when you start to believe this, you can start to believe that you are a superhuman individual, with no need for audience. And in this wise, I feel like the NEA grant is helping to socialize me. I am a human being. My poems are meant for human beings to read. America is a country of human beings.  

And have you seen the list of names of this year’s fellows? The names of all the fellows prior? I feel honored to be in this amazing company, to be included in this history.