National Poetry Month: Nathaniel Bellows

April 7, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 2 3 min read

Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the novel, On This Day, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?.

A line of poetry by Nathaniel: “It takes youth to witness such desperation and read it / as joy…”

At a recent reading in New England, I was asked two questions that stumped me. They shouldn’t have, but they did. The first was: Why do you write both fiction and poetry and how are they different to you? The second one was: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

The questions weren’t necessarily complicated, but they brought up things I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about. Or, rather, things I haven’t spent time articulating to myself. As a result, my responses were pretty poor. To the first question I said that my fiction attempts to tell other peoples’ stories and my poems attempt to tell my own. This felt true, if overly simplified. The second question was harder and I answered: “I’m really not sure.”

On the train ride home to New York, I thought a lot about the questions and my answers to them. After the train left Boston, it went through various neighborhoods and shopping districts outside the city limits, all of which seemed strung together by an endless line of telephone polls. These telephone polls brought back a memory I hadn’t thought of in years, of when I was a kid walking home from school just as it was getting dark and the streetlights were coming on. We lived in a small town back then and as I made my way down the quiet streets, the pools of light from the streetlights grew more and more distinct against the growing darkness. It was both terrifying and exciting, passing from shadow into light – being hidden and then revealed – knowing that at the end there was the safety of home.

Thinking of this memory, I remembered how I’d described it to a high school fiction writing class years before as a way of explaining my approach to writing fiction. Like that street, the reader progresses forward in a story through passages of ambiguity and mystery, stopping periodically in stations of light and clarity, which the author has strategically placed along the way. The reader is urged forward through these opposite and sometimes uncomfortable states by the promise of a secure, however unknown, destination.

After Providence, Rhode Island, the train tracks closely hugged the shoreline. The views of the marshes and ocean were beautiful. We passed by a beach, which was empty except for a couple and their dog. The dog ran along the waterline chasing after its toy; its dark coat against the white sand made me think of our old lab who used to follow us down to the cove near our house where we’d all go swimming.

One of my most vivid memories of that place was from high school, just before I left for college, swimming after sunset. The water was calm and the wind was warm. I floated on my back a few yards from shore, listening to our dog chewing on driftwood, the wind rustling the leaves on the hillside, the water echoing in my ears. Slowly, the stars appeared in the sky above me – and then, somehow, all around me: blue and glowing, lifting with the gentle waves and spiraling around with the current. I was surprised but not afraid: I had seen this before – phosphorescent algae in the marshes and water in the area – but I had never swum in and among them. They were everywhere. The dark water pulsed with an otherworldly glow that seemed to surround and include and devour me all at once.

I looked out the window of the train and over the winter ocean and thought: that’s what poetry is like – that feeling of being immersed in black water, shot through with tiny living lights. It seemed as truthful a comparison to my poetic aspirations as the memory of walking home on that lit street came to represent my approach to telling a story. These memories weren’t perfect analogs to why I’ve come to do what I do, and they couldn’t have served as sufficient answers to the audience members at the reading. But they were answers I felt grateful to come upon, embedded, as they were, in a version of myself that feels very far away.

So in that way, I guess I did arrive at a response to that second question: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I think I would have to say: when I was still very much a child.

More National Poetry Month at The Millions

is the author of the novel, On This Day, and a collection of poems, Why Speak?.


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