Bronx Poet Laureate Kay Bell. Courtesy of Kay Bell.

Bell, who likes to be called “Kay,” grew up in the South Bronx and still calls it home

As a child, poetry was her refuge – now it’s a passion for Bronx Poet Laureate Kerryanne Bell.

Bell, 39, who likes to go by “Kay,” didn’t have an easy childhood while growing up in Morrisania.

Her mother was caught in an abusive marriage, the family dealt with poverty, and Bell, who experienced verbal and emotional abuse, eventually wound up in the foster care system until she was 10 years old.

As a youngster looking for a safe place, Bell needed a way to get away from those problems.

She found her haven in writing poetry.

“What I didn’t know was that writing had become a tool for me to process and to heal a lot of the things that had happened to me,” said Bell.

She never could have imagined as a child that one day she would be chosen to represent her borough as its Poet Laureate. But in 2023, after submitting 10 of her poems to the local non-profit, The Bronx is Reading, she was selected to represent her borough for a two year term as its reigning poet.

Now Bell travels throughout the Bronx, speaking and reading at events and sharing her love for writing, reading and books in general as she promotes  literacy.

One of her favorite poems by another author is “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love,” by Warsan Shire.

Bell, who first began writing haikus, a style of short poetry from Japan when she was in the sixth grade, said she likes Shire’s message of celebrating people, especially women, as they are.

It’s a message Bell hopes to carry to others in her work as Poet Laureate, and in her efforts to share the joys of creative work and the value of education.

The South Bronx is in need of more quality education as it has one of the poorest education systems, according to Bell. She details the struggle that she faced with her own children.

“I have two sons who are in middle school and high school and even my journey of finding them affordable but quality education in the South Bronx was really a fight for me,” said Bell.

An example of an ekphrastic poem:
The Flower Vendor (Girl With Lilies)
Courtesy of IamKayBellEkphrasticPoems
Courtesy of Norton Simon Museum

One element that Bell likes to show in her poetry is that it can be connected to many different things.

She takes her sons on graffiti walks as they look for works of art, taking pictures as she writes ekphrastic poems, vivid descriptions of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art, according to the poetry foundation. As a result, her kids learned about the beauty of not only where they live but what an ekphrastic poem is.

Dominique Winters, an adjunct lecturer at Lehman College in the department of Africana Studies, met Bell when they were in high school. The two later became close friends. Winters said she recognized her friend’s talent the first time she saw Bell’s writing.

“I recall encouraging her to put all of her poems together in a book and volunteering to help with the process by typing them up,” said Winters.

One summer Bell did give her friend a binder of her poems, which Winter was supposed to type for her.

“That never happened because every time I got started, I would get lost in her writing and lose track of time,” said Winters.

Bell is now an adjunct professor in the English department at The City College of New York, as well as an academic advisor. She teaches a writing course for the social sciences, focusing on issues that impact marginalized communities.

She also hopes to apply for a doctoral program, possibly in educational leadership – even as she keeps writing. Bell said she’s working on a memoir, which will include her love for the South Bronx. Even though her early years were difficult, Bell said she still can’t call any other place home.

“I guess I can move if I want, but … I think that it is something special when you do move up the social ladder in life and you still see the value in a place like the South Bronx, where other people don’t. Like, I still see the value,” said Bell.

To see some of Bell’s work, check out her audio/video poems as well as her ekphrastic poems.

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