Alive on Stage: Collaboration, Intimacy, and Perseverance in Ian Spencer Bell’s Marrow

Devereux Fortuna

Photo: Kahn & Selesnick

In my first workshop for New York University’s Poetry MFA, I sat across a brightly lit table from poet, dancer, teacher, and choreographer Ian Spencer Bell. I didn’t yet know we’d form a friendship, years long, rooted in our love for Sharon Olds (who taught the workshop to which I refer), the salvific powers of reading poems aloud to one another, and a shared passion for the intricate connections between dance and poetry. But, floored—in the tender, etymological sense of being given a place to stand—by the generously connective tactility of his phrasings, just hearing Bell read his poems would come to everlastingly give my imagination, and heart, the kind of company of hope needed to live creatively (and, I want to say, to live at all). 

In that Fall 2015 workshop, Bell read from Marrow, a solo dance involving the recitation and performance of 10 poems. Marrow, in Bell’s words, is “about growing up queer in Virginia in the 1980s,” and explores his relationship to his “mother, abusive stepfather, home, and dancing.” Watching again (and the again’s of) Bell’s performance in preparation for our interview, I noticed that Bell’s gestural vocabulary of affection sensitizes me to the surface features of the spaces he moves through. For a dancer, awareness of these features—the give of a floor, a room’s acoustics—maximizes control—but, Bell’s repeated gestures of acquaintance with and acknowledgment of these surfaces not only heighten my sensitivity to the place in which I find myself, they enhance my capacity to embody gentleness toward and love for that environment. 

In this atmosphere, I register how the curiously inflexible, spatiotemporal presets of a syntactic "I" become curatively mutable in the collaborative present of performance. As Bell’s recitations activate a syntactic, first-person vantage of memory’s mental picturing, his gestures both support and intercede on that narrativized remembering and linguistic production of the past. As listeners, we are invited to imaginatively assume Bell’s vantage and, as viewers, we at once retain the observably fluctuating distance between us and Bell. The simultaneity of Bell’s poetry and dancing permits a real-time negotiation among temporospatial limits—including those of a linguistically mediated past-self with the irruptive present of embodied performance—and enables us to inwardly trace those negotiations as they are at the same time drawn, felt, and tended to, in the space vitally held between Bell and us, dancer and viewer, poet and listener.

And Bell’s poem-dances, or dance-poems, do so much else. The iterated semi-circular descents, in which the cross-axis of his sternum-and-lats melts to the formidable constancy of the ground’s horizontality, attest to, at least my own sense for, the profound emotional stakes of working with and against gravity. His held poses also at times seem like the cathartic bodily discharge of a word. His narrations give texture to movement, the words evoking curtains as they become the billowy cloth against which the body can register its movements.

The following conversation is borne out of the gestural minutiae of affection particular to Ian Spencer Bell’s oeuvre, is in homage to the interdisciplinary contributions of Marrow, and is an offering to readers who, like Bell and myself, are hungry for conversations about the relations between dancer and poet, stage and page.

Devereux: Is there an analogy you work with between polyvocality in dance and poetry?

Ian: Not really—but because my work blends spoken confessional poetry and contemporary dance, I want a way for the audience to get in and feel comfortable. Marrow started as a solo. I made an opening trio for it because I thought other voices would be a way for an audience to find their way in and feel at home. To that end, I took a phrase that I’d made on my body and transferred it to Joshua Tuason’s body. We’ve danced together for 10 years. As I did this, I let him make choices that were more comfortable and accurate for him. I did the same for another dancer, Gary Champi. I also asked them each to improvise a phrase based on the material we had just created. Finally, I set it all to music, the “Ode to Billie Joe.” Here, I was adding yet another voice.

“Ode” is a song that I heard growing up—walking into a restaurant in Virginia, on the radio, in a junk shop. It felt like the language had lived in my body. To form it in the composition, we went from one to two to three dancers. By the fourth time, we improvised. This is something that I hope for in my poetry—to expand within or beyond the form. There is always a hope for destruction, right? Breaking something up, or disintegrating.

It's hard to talk about dance and not talk about music. By applying poetry to dance, I create a score that’s particular to my body. I am skeptical of universality; I believe that our lives are particular. Putting dance and poetry together—two different languages that are two personal languages—feels important for carving out my space in the world. I guess I should say digging my hole.

Marrow’s so much about trying to understand myself as a human being, and I have spent so much time thinking about myself as a degenerate queer. The definition of degenerate is to fall below a normal or desirable level of physical, mental, or moral qualities. To deteriorate. A famous postmodern dancer who came to watch Marrow once said that I was disassociating. The first few times I performed Marrow without the trio, I did feel like I was deteriorating in front of an audience. I was out of breath, sweating through my shirt, and getting to the point of feeling like I was going to cry. Part of my project was breaking down the physical language and letting it disintegrate. I was trying to get out of the traps that I fall into: making the same lines, gestures, and movement patterns. 

Photo: Kyle Froman

D: In your work, what is the relationship between punctuation and self-protection—protecting the immediate exterior of the body from the exposure of performance?

I:  Line breaks and punctuation allow you, as a poet, to literally take a breath, and, as a performer, to keep distance. They allow you to not say everything, which is important in a performance where I say everything I have to about my childhood. Having those breaks allows for tension and the stopping of time. That’s ultimately the goal of performance—to stop time. When I think of punctuation in terms of movement, the phrases have to have musicality. I often think about my body as a literal movement line punctuating a verbal one, or vice versa, so that there is harmony or dissonance in the two. That becomes what holds the thing. It's like I want to catch my body on fire. And yet, I want that fire to be held, somewhere in between what I'm saying, my breath, and my movements. There's this fireball moving around the stage, or maybe it's in a flood of tears, but something is contained. Energy in dance is contained between the movement phrases—and that has a lot to do with the punctuation, how it closes something up, or leaves it open. I'm into parenthetical statements because parentheses are like arms, right? And eyebrows. I like to raise both.

What's most important is speaking intimately and truthfully. My favorite thing is when someone speaks softly and close to my ear, so that I can not only hear what they're saying, but smell them and have the sense of what their lips feel like on my ear. That kind of physicality and realness are a part of the poem and experience of performance. That happens in the parenthetical statement, right?

D: Yes, it's like the opening of an interior.

I: Absolutely. And I live for dashes. There was a hope, for childhood, of a continued line. That our childhood stays with us. It feels essential for being joyful—and for being my sorrowful self—that there is a continuation of a line, and that it doesn't finish—the examination, or the experience. There are tons of commas, too, because I like to list and listing is one of the ways my mother communicated with me, and still does. It feels like something I inherited. Commas, when placed in long lists, can create irregular beats. Lists allow me to find a beat, and then get those two things singing: the mouth and the body.

There are so many ways to explore the poetic line as a dancer. The question is: What is it that one has to say? When I teach dance, I often talk students through a phrase while we're doing it. This became part of my practice, and became important for Marrow—that I was no longer leaving parts of me out, to get on stage, but rather, I was trying to reveal more parts of me. That came with the addition of talking.

D: Can you say more about the litany of materials in your poem “Receipt”?

I: I was thinking about the kinds of excess that we have within us, and around us, and that being a particular American experience. And the idea that none of it means. It all feels meaningless, this junk that we accumulate. Because I spend a lot of time with my imagination, and I have a good memory, if I want to be with something, I can be, without having to be with the thing itself. I guess, too, I was thinking of dancers as sculptors, and that collections of words create shape on a page. I, especially being a solo artist, needed to have a sculptural element with me, alive on stage. This informs the kinds of things, and excess, and my being in love with the way that words sound in “Receipt.” “Receipt” is about a fabric shop that had beads, wreath forms, bows, and silk flowers. I was imagining the bends as I was writing, and thinking about how much comfort—and here it is—in my grieving, I was finding in the names of those things. In naming the different kinds of beads, buttons, and ribbon, I was creating a song that was bringing me comfort. That’s what lullabies do. This happens in Marrow—a lullabying that one does for a child. I'm singing to my child-self.

D: Does this relate to the transmission of your mother’s voice throughout your piece?

I: My mother, she's—how Freudian—so much in my mouth. After our mothers give us food, they give us language. Mothers teach us what to ask for and how to ask for things. My mother's voice has always been steadily in my body. My poems were a reworking—directly quoting my mother, remembering the things she said to me as a child—and mastering them. Saying them over and over. Mastering my own narrative has been a big part of my writing. I hope it's a part of most people's writing and lives. You decide what is said about your life, not another person. I can hear myself getting angry, and I can feel the color rising on my face, because, especially for queer people, degenerates, right, it's important that we master our story and our bodies. 


D: Ever since I first heard you read “Ballad of the Bees,” the figures of the sash cord, stop bead, and pulley have stayed with me.

I: I'm glad to hear you say that. I made it in along the left—the left side of my body, where our heart is located, and on the left side, capital L, the far left. My mom was named in our town as a communist.

“Ballad of the Bees” is about a window, and a bee coming in along the left side, through the sash cord, not stopping for the stop bead or pulley. The dance feels drawn to me, like I’m drawing—not just through my body, in space—but on my body. This poem, too, is about trauma. I was in New Paltz, New York, at my ex-boyfriend’s house, where I had gone to dance. I had a small studio upstairs, and a little desk next to that studio. I was dancing, and it was hot. I went to open the window by the desk, and when I did, I saw a bee coming in. I was stung badly as a kid, so I am careful about them. When I saw the bees, I started helping them get outside. I put down the shade, because I could see that they were gathering. I went to the other window and saw that another group had started to amass. I went downstairs, and, looking at all the windows, I saw that bees had started to come into all of the frames. And there was that steady buzzing. I called the local bee expert and had that person come usher the bees into this beautiful box. It was this truly magical experience. I was slightly traumatized—it became clear to me that our life isn't always our own. Only if you're lucky is it your own, right? These tiny creatures were making my entire world stop. They were making the windows brown. By the end of the afternoon you could barely see out. I have always had that feeling—that's why I felt like I've had to dance. It’s about getting out of that space, that body. What you're responding to, in that line—as well as hearing yourself as a dancer—is that you're not stopping for the stop bead or pulley. You're going to keep going. And also, knowing that there isn't always a pulley. There's not always something that's going to get you out.

excerpt of “Receipt”

So many people in line to check out
the stuff to celebrate the fall,
spooktacular scarecrows affixed
to aisles aflame with leaves
and everything by the exit—bolts,
end cones, foxtails, gemstones,
Kevlar, linseed, Mod Podge,
nippers, opals, quilting,
rattail, squeegees, tallow,
whitehearts, sister hooks too.
And all I wanted was in the back.
This waiting is endless.

from Marrow, by Ian Spencer Bell

The poem "Reciept" is forthcoming in Gulf Coast Online (34.1).

Devereux Fortuna is a writer and artist, currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston. Devereux is a poetry editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts and teaches at UH. Visual art and writing can be found at Waxwing Magazine, Triangle House Review, bæst, and elsewhere.