As the new Bronx Poet Laureate, Kay Bell expects to learn as much as she teaches.
Bell, a South Bronx resident, was named the second-ever Bronx Poet Laureate in June and will hold the position until 2025. The Bronx Poet Laureate is tasked with “promoting and exemplifying a love and appreciation for reading and writing poetry,” according to Roya Marsh, co-founder of the position. The position was created by The Bronx is Reading, the organization behind the Bronx Book Festival.
The inaugural poet to hold the title, Haydil Henriquez, was crowned in 2021.
“I see the poem as a collaboration between the writer and the reader,” Bell told the Bronx Times. “I write and my reader makes sense of my words. We connect in our shared experiences, but also we learn from each other in the way we individualize what we get from the poem.”
As poet laureate, Bell has a goal of “strengthening the spirit of creativity” and promoting poetry, literacy and education in the borough. She is also passionate about bringing arts programs to public schools, as well as issues that impact marginalized communities.
All in all, Bell wants to inspire the next generation of writers and poets.
Born in Barbados, Bell was raised in Harlem until landing in the Bronx at age 11. She attended Hostos Community College, gave birth to her sons at Albert Einstein Hospital and rented her first apartment in the Bronx.
And perhaps most importantly, she learned to write poetry in the Bronx from her sixth grade teacher. She has been writing ever since.
Bell writes about family and her experiences as a Black woman navigating motherhood, racism and love. But she believes her work “bears universal truth” and connects people in a way that validates their own experiences.
“I’m inspired by healing,” Bell said. “Writing in itself has known therapeutic benefits. Poetry has always been a way for me to process and express my emotions and heal.”
Bell is also inspired by other art forms, particularly visual art and music. She loves writing “ekphrastic poems,” which are about art.
The Bronx has given Bell a sense of belonging, and she feels that she — metaphorically speaking — is the Bronx.
“As a community, the Bronx is the rose that grew from concrete,” she said.
The history of the borough is often told as a story of scarcity and struggle, Bell said. But even when the borough was in extreme decay, the graffiti movement thrived. She has seen buildings restored and new businesses opened. She has seen communities focus more on health and education.
In Bell’s eyes, Bronxites have always tapped into the power of their creativity, proving themselves resourceful and tenacious.
“I am much of the same,” she said of the borough. “I was once a foster kid, a high school dropout, unemployed, and even homeless. But like the Bronx, I have always harbored creativity and held an appreciation for art. Like the Bronx, I’ve used my challenges to motivate me to be all the more tenacious and resilient and most importantly to fuel my art.”
Bell is the author of two collections of poetry: “Cry Sweat Bleed Write,” which was published by the Lily Poetry Review Books in 2020 and “Diary of an Intercessor,” which was published by Finishing Line Press in 2021.
She received her MFA from the City College of New York, and was the recipient of the Esther Unger Poetry Prize and the David Dortort Prize in Creative Writing for Non-fiction.
Bell is an adjunct assistant professor and academic advisory at the City University of the City of New York (CUNY). Previously, she was a mentor at Hostos — a CUNY school — as a success coach for the Student Success Coaching Unit.
This year’s poet was chosen by a panel of three judges: Tarana Burke, Advocate of Wordz and Josué Caceres.
Applicants for Bronx Poet Laureate must have lived in the borough for the past five years, have published work and poetry inspired by the borough. In the role, the poet must be creating a body of work, participate in at least 10 events and be able to commit to the full two-year term.
Talking engagements by Bell are in the works at Hostos.
“I am confident that working closely with the Bronx community as Poet Laureate will give me the opportunity to deepen my empathy for my students and provide deeper reflection for my writing,” said Bell. “This will be a result of me going into the position to learn as much as I educate.”
Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes