Time through poetry

Poet Whitney Bell discusses
her unique poetry style

Photo: Dayton-based poet, Whitney Bell’s newest book is titled “High Street to the Indigo Dream”

By Brittany Erwin

“But there is magic in the world, you know? You have to believe it. Skies, mirrors, eyes, music, drums, dancing.” This is Dayton-based poet, Whitney Bell, musing on some recurring themes in her collection of poems “High Street to the Indigo Dream,” an expansive, musically-inflected journey from her late adolescence to now. Herself a drummer, she also cites her brother, Ward Bell—a musician—along with songwriters like Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Lisa Loeb, and Jewel as influences. In publishing her work, she has invited us to dance along that path with her and perhaps find—or rediscover—new rhythms and resonances along the way.

Now, I know what you skeptics may be thinking. Coming-of-age poetry? Isn’t this genre overdone? Admittedly, some of the earlier poems rely on overly-considered word choice and read as cliché, like “You do,” in which Bell writes, “You will see in time/what you will to see/but you must will to see.” Bell acknowledges this but contends these pieces are integral parts of her maturation as poet and person. “My early pieces were naïve and idealized—as things are for young artists. They are pivotal in my story, in the story I am telling, and to me they feel authentic and complete,” she reflects. Thus, much of the collection flows naturally in a prose-like style that feels like an intimate, revelatory conversation with a friend. Bell affirms, “I hope my work is authenticating to readers in a way that makes them feel less alone.”

Bell is both companion and guide in this journey through her life’s significant moments. To provide readers with what Bell calls a “grounding thread,” each section is organized by the physical places and roads where she lived while writing them. This was an intentional move inspired by a Katrina Kittle-led fiction course in which Kittle encouraged enrollees to “ground the reader in time and place immediately.” The first poem in her book, “Seeker,” beautifully underscores the concept of how place influences our lives beyond their physical borders at a certain point in time, “I grew up on High Street/State Route 48/in a village anchored and bridged by churches.” By naming where she grew up and the town’s significant spaces, we grasp the essence of Bell’s childhood in just a few lines.

Given the marvelous way Bell captures the soul of her hometown in this poem and the spirit of other places, people, and things throughout the collection, I wanted to know more about her writing process. She says, “I think the poem is best when it comes out raw and fairly unedited,” and cautions, “When I begin to mess with the poems too much, I feel like they lose their integrity. Changing one word can change the meaning of the whole, or the rhythm…. But if you’re not careful, you can crush the heart out of a perfectly good burst of honest expression.” She also references the psychological concept of “holding space” as integral to her process: “Where you’re not judging or advising, but simply listening to someone else give voice to their own experiences. For me, poetry is a bit like holding space for your own soul.” In other words, Bell is not only revealing parts of her story to the reader, but also herself.

Many of Bell’s poems explore this paradox of emotional distance and physical proximity. Consider the lines from “Moon Landing,” wherein Bell muses, “There’s always something unclear in the space between us” or “Ecstasy,”—“See we’re both so alone though our skin so close,” and “Into Neptune” in which the narrator “meant everything that she hardly said.” Bell’s poems complicate the old adage that actions speak louder than words. My favorite poem, “Camping,” encapsulates this: “I don’t mean to be distant, difficult/But you can’t just crawl into my eyes and pitch a tent in my soul every few weeks when I see you/and expect me to bring you wood for your fire because you are cold.” Long after you have finished the poem, you feel it settling into your soul. We have all had a hot-and-cold lover, but this take on the one-sided relationship is at once new and immediately recognizable.

This ability to offer fresh perspective on common experiences, to “find the magic of the everyday,” is one of Bell’s strengths. She masterfully employs color as metaphor and descriptor to do just that. In “That Fall,” there is “green to golden faith,” “Montana” finds a “blue-velvet voice,” in “Craze,” a new relationship is “light green bubbly sparkling.” When asked about this, Bell muses, “I would consider myself an empath who absorbs other peoples’ energy easily…I’m more interested in what it might mean to the reader, but the best answer I can give is that maybe I’ve always felt in color.” Thanks to her, readers can feel in color too.

In one of the collection’s final color-soaked poems, “In the Indigo Dream,” inspired by her husband, Bell bridges the divide between the physical and emotional self by sharing in the magic of the everyday with her partner, and in her work. She writes, “We rise like unnamed constellations that guided our courses, paths/the moon breeze blew our sails to this indigo dream/Just you and me as it should be.” It is a fitting resting point, a “grounding thread,” in her journey. She has found respite in the sky, in indigo—a color at once peaceful and bright.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.om

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