The daughter of a Tuskegee Airman and a teacher, Marilyn Nelson was brought up primarily on military bases and started writing while still in elementary school. She earned her BA from the University of California, Davis, and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MA, 1970) and the University of Minnesota (PhD, 1979). Her long teaching career included positions at Saint Olaf College and the Universities of Connecticut and Delaware, and brief stints at the US Military Academy at West Point, in Denmark, in Germany, and in France. Her book The Homeplace won the Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems won the Poets’ Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN Winship Award, and the Lenore Marshall Prize. Carver: A Life in Poems, a spiritual biography of George Washington Carver, won the Boston Globe/Hornbook Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. A Wreath for Emmett Till won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book. The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems won the L.E. Phillabaum Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Her honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, a Connecticut Arts Award, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, three honorary doctorates, and the Commander’s Award for Public Service from the Department of the Army. Nelson is founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony, and was Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2001 to 2006. She was interviewed by Jeanne Murray Walker.
Image: How early did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Marilyn Nelson: It was a toss-up between being a poet and being a doctor from about age twelve to about eighteen, when I realized that probably not everybody in my Zoology 1-A class was making up quatrains about meiosis and mitosis to study for the midterm.
Image: Can you recall any of your early poems?
MN: A poem about my brother, from age twelve:
Little Sir Melvin
(in knighthood is he)
rides on a black stallion
(it’s really my knee).
His shield is a blanket,
his armor a gown,
and he looks quite splendid
as he rides through our town.
A poem from about age sixteen:
Here in democrat dominion,
each man has his own opinion.
He can argue loud and long:
he has a right to his own wrong.
Image: Were your parents literary?
MN: I’m not sure what literary means, but they read. Daddy wrote poetry and plays. Mama composed music for an elementary school play based on Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas years before it was set to music by someone else and made a TV classic.
Image: It sounds as if you were encouraged to read at home.
MN: We owned the Childcraft set of books, a set of encyclopedias, and the Great Books of the Western World set. We were expected to excel in school, and to grow up to be professionals.
Image: Which poets did you read early in your life?
MN: The ones who most influenced my early writing were African American poets who showed me it was possible “to make a poet black, and bid him [sic] sing,” as Countee Cullen wrote. I read Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes. Gwendolyn Brooks broke through the glass ceiling by winning the Pulitzer Prize when I was a child: for years I dreamed that she would discover me.
Working in the university library during my college years, I discovered, devoured, and discarded many poets. Some I remember: Theodore Roethke, Conrad Aiken, LeRoi Jones, Edna St. Vincent Millay. And of course, as an English major, I was reading classics in classes.
Image: You were in the PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania around the same time I was, and I know Penn had only a small creative writing presence at the time. If you wanted to write poetry early, why did you pursue a PhD?
MN: I think the only MFA program in the country at the time was at the University of Iowa, and I knew I didn’t have the credentials to get in there when I graduated from college. Nor was I particularly interested in going there. At that point in history it was not necessary to go to a writing program in order to write. I was interested in literature, and getting a PhD seemed a reasonable way to pursue my interest further, and to make a living. I found the program at Penn terribly restricting, and I dropped out, but I was lucky to find the English department at the University of Minnesota years later, and to be able to devise a more inclusive program there. Completing the PhD had more to do with getting tenure and keeping food on the table than it did with literary ambition or interest. I don’t think it’s had much beyond that to do with my life as a poet.
Image: I’ve read that one of your first jobs was in Lutheran Campus Ministry. What did that job involve and how did it serve as a portal to the rest of your life?
MN: My mother joined a Lutheran church when I was in tenth grade, and I was involved in Lutheran church activities throughout high school and college. My college boyfriend was vice president of Luther League, the national organization of young Lutherans.
Those associations led to my first full-time job. When I dropped out of the PhD program at Penn, I went to the national Lutheran Church office on Queens Lane in Philadelphia to ask if there was some job I could apply for. It was 1969. I had decided to drop out of what seemed to me to be a completely irrelevant academic program in order to do something more relevant to the upheavals then taking place in the country. I thought one way I could contribute to positive change in American society was to move it from within, and working in the church seemed to be a way to do that.
There were several openings for laity in campus ministry. I became the junior associate of a Lutheran pastor, Reverend Lee Snook, at Cornell University. I loved the job; I really felt I was doing something meaningful. I don’t think I had a job description. My job involved hanging out and talking with Lee, a brilliant man who was at that time finishing a doctorate in divinity (he later left parish ministry to teach systematics at Luther Seminary) and his wonderful wife, Lois, and getting to know his colleagues in a big stone building on campus, Cornell United Religious Work. I was twenty-four. Everyone else in the building was older, male, white, and clergy of some denomination or another. Father Daniel Berrigan was one of them. I had an office. It had a telephone, and nobody told me what to do.
There was a list of kids who’d checked the “Lutheran” box at registration. I contacted them. So some of them came to my office and I got to know them. A group of them came to my apartment for dinner once a week and I cooked.
And I ran, with a group of students, a coffeehouse called the Unmuzzled Ox, in the basement of the building I lived in. I ran a call-me-anytime emergency suicide hotline. I counseled guys about how to meet girls. I drove people to DC to march. And I marched on campus. I led a Bible study group at the church. I taught a course on black theology for the church adult education program. I took part in Luther League retreats. I organized a benefit for Biafra. I loved the guys I worked with at CURW. I loved the students. I love Lee and Lois, as lifelong friends.
During that year I got to know people who led to other things that happened to me. For instance, because people in the national Lutheran Church offices in Philadelphia knew I wrote poems, I was invited to serve on the hymn text committee of a new Lutheran hymnal. We revised every text in the hymnal, trying to remove all traces of racism, sexism, and militarism. (We threw up our hands in despair at “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”) One of the other committee members was the head of the English department at Saint Olaf College, a Lutheran college in Minnesota. When, several years later, there was an opening for an Americanist in that department, he invited me to apply. I spent five years teaching at Saint Olaf.
As Robert Frost says, “way leads on to way.” But every day is a portal to the rest of your life.
Image: I’m interested in those years when you were teaching, writing, and parenting a child. Many women who read this interview will want to know: how did you juggle all the roles and tasks?
MN: My book Mama’s Promises describes a lot of my experience during that period. I came up for early tenure in an almost exclusively white, male English department when my son was about fifteen months old. I was unhappily married, new to the community, and had few friends. Though I had published a book of poems with a major university press, and had poems in several major press anthologies of younger American poets, I had to fight for my life because my colleagues considered poetry inferior to literary criticism. I spent several years writing poems at three am because I had to do class preparations first. I went to the ER several times with heart palpitations caused by stress. Meanwhile, my mother was disappearing into Alzheimer’s disease. I would not want to relive that period of my life.
But I kept thinking of my great-great-grandmothers.
Image: You have written very moving poems about your own life and experiences, but recently you have been writing about the lives of others, about George Washington Carver, about Venture Smith, about an integrated all-girl swing band that toured in the forties. And you have written a lovely and amazing long poem about a set of twins who were joined and lived that way for over sixty years. How are the processes and rewards of writing poetry different for these two very different kinds of writing—writing about yourself and writing about others?
MN: I’m not particularly interested in writing about my life. I’m one of the lucky ones, with too happy a life for poetry. I wasn’t beaten or abused as a child; my parents held on in their marriage until they were parted by my father’s death; I have never been raped or thrown unjustly in prison; I haven’t had cancer yet, or suffered a terrible loss or trauma. (I knock wood all the time.) So I started writing about history. There are some wonderful stories out there, waiting to be told. How are the processes different? Well, for one thing, I can lose myself in research. I can be fascinated by discovery. The rewards? Well, I don’t lie awake wondering whether someone I love will feel their privacy has been invaded and their trust betrayed through my poems. And I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about and justifying myself.
Image: You often write in form, and some of the forms you use are very challenging—such as the heroic crown of sonnets you wrote about Emmett Till, the teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Where did you learn the poetry toolkit—the traditional forms of poetry and strategies for working
MN: I learned by reading, and by practicing, by getting inside of poems I love and taking them apart to understand how they work.
Image: Why did you choose the very difficult and intricate heroic double crown of sonnets to write about Emmett Till?
MN: I wanted to write something that would blow people’s minds, so the poem’s affect would not rely entirely on the horror of its subject.
Image: Not all poets or students of poetry have patience with the old forms. I know you’ve taught in universities for years. I’ve been your colleague and we’ve shared students, so I know what a wonderful teacher you are. Do you believe it’s important for poets coming up to learn form?
MN: Yes, I do. Though page poetry can’t compete with performance poetry in its immediacy, I do believe that intricate verbal structures, when successful, have a lasting power far beyond the immediate pleasure of hearing a dramatic performance of a poem written in broken prose.
Image: What are your secrets for convincing reluctant students to try form?
MN: Years ago I used to have to convince students to try. I told them that form contributes to creativity, that form would enable them to discover things as they were writing. It doesn’t seem necessary to do that now. Young poets are eager to write in form. Even when they don’t understand form, and write clunky lines led around by unimaginative rhymes.
Image: What are you reading now?
MN: I’m just finishing, for a neighborhood book club, Peter Conradi’s Hitler’s Piano Player: The Rise and Fall of Ernst Hanfstaengl, Confidant of Hitler, Ally of FDR. I’m also reading the poems of Kelly Cherry, because I’m going to write something about her work. And I’ve been reading Wislawa Szymborska off and on, a couple of poems at a time.
Image: How do you decide what to read?
MN: I have no organized way of reading. I may look through my recently acquired, not-yet-looked-at books and try to diminish the pile.
I must admit, I mostly look at books now; I don’t really read. That’s the result, I’m afraid, of a serious addiction to online communication.
Image: What advice would you give to a young poet?
Image: What advice would you give to readers who are baffled by poetry, who say that it’s too difficult to read?
MN: Read my books.
Image: In the last couple of decades, the technological revolution has changed the pace of life. Do you use technology?
MN: Just last night, at a dinner party with friends, I announced, more than half seriously, that I’m thinking of going on strike against technology.
I spend hours at the computer every day, as if I’m at a job, and I’m retired! Part of that is my own problem: as a transient child I was obsessed with mail; I had pen-pals for many years; my first big romance was with someone who went to a university on the other side of the continent from my school in California. Email is the fulfillment of my lifelong dreams, in a way. But I’m addicted. The other part of the issue, however, is that messages arrive instantly, but opening them takes longer than it would take me to open a letter on paper. And finding things in email files takes longer, too, than it would take me to flip through a file of papers.
The fact is that this revolution has made the pace of communicating both faster and slower. If someone sends me a paper letter, they don’t expect an instant response. I take time to think about what to say. Sometime I wait a year (from Christmas letter to Christmas letter) to respond. And that is just fine. Email, though: you get a message and if you don’t answer it quickly, it gets buried under other incoming messages and pushed farther and farther down (unless you answer everything right away) until it’s completely out of sight. And half the people who send email messages are hoping for a quick response.
I had to buy a can of soup yesterday. One can, for a recipe. So I stopped in the supermarket. There was a big crowd there. Instead of waiting in line to have my purchase rung up by a human being, I used the automatic cashier. I usually refuse, because every one of those things displaces a human worker. (Excuse me for ranting, but instead of demanding that the government create jobs, why aren’t we demanding that major supermarket chains get rid of the robot cashiers and hire actual people again?) Anyway, it wouldn’t recognize my purchase. It kept saying Put the item in the bag. Put the item in the bag. Put the item in the bag. If I had had my handy-dandy sledgehammer with me, I would have put the damned thing out of its misery.
Image: How much of your time do you spend online or social networking? How do you deal with this new challenge?
MN: It’s a blessing, in a way. It’s pretty much my social life, in a nutshell. But it’s a terrible curse, too. Virtual friends are not friends. I meet them occasionally. At readings people come up and say we are friends. But I don’t know them.
I am a solitary soul by choice, but I am often lonely. Reading posts by my virtual friends gives me the illusion that someone out there cares about me.
A psychologist friend warned me about this years ago, when Al Gore was still inventing the information highway (only people of a certain age will get the joke). He said he tended to wake up in the middle of the night. For years, he’d been getting out of bed and sitting in an easy chair to read until he got sleepy again. But since he had gotten a computer with internet connection, he’d been getting up and sitting at the computer, to see if anyone had sent him a message. Finding a message at three am, he said, made him feel that his identity was validated, and that feeling was becoming increasingly important to him.
If I could figure out a way to break the hold of this addiction, I would. But I’m caught in believing that the benefits are too great to give up.
Image: When we were teaching together, you often remarked that poetry arises out of silence. Can you talk a little about what that means?
MN: Poems come out of silence, out of the accidental and intentional juxtaposition of combustible thoughts, and emerge on the page or in the air, as words and meaning (one hopes). I encourage my students to meditate, as a way of entering that silence where poems are born. I wrote about that in an essay called “The Fruit of Silence.”
The image comes to mind of a grandpa and grandson I saw in Central Park one summer afternoon about thirty-five years ago. They were making bubbles. The boy’s bubbles were beautiful and shiny. They lasted briefly, then popped into extinction. But Grandpa had a cigar: he would take a puff and breathe smoke into his bubbles. When they landed on pavement or grass, they released little puffs of smoke.
Poems are like that.
Image: Is there dissonance for you between the fast pace of contemporary life and the kind of silence you suggest lies at the heart of poetry?
MN: I live in the boondocks, so I can choose my pace when I’m at home. But the internet doesn’t allow silence. I’ve learned to ration my time listening to NPR, but I’m still struggling to give up the internet.
Though to outside eyes my life may seem to embrace silence (and poetry), in reality I’m seldom silent, and I seldom read or write poems. As a matter of fact, I feel like an absolute Martian when I read my Facebook friends’ descriptions of their lives, which seem to be dedicated to reading and writing poems. They say the word poetry as if poetry were sacred. Maybe I can rediscover that feeling, which I had forty years ago, once in a while. But many of the poems I read seem to contribute to the noise, rather than to invite me to silence.
I might call the silence I cultivate “poetry silence,” something similar to the “radio silence” sometimes imposed on pilots at war. The frenetic pace with which some of my Facebook friends consume poetry reminds me sometimes of Pac-Man. Some of them write a poem or more a day! I prefer to let a poem grow inside me. One Rilke poem or a poem or two by Szymborska can keep me growing for a month. I find that reading a lot of contemporary poetry is like eating M&Ms.
Image: Do you write by hand or on a word processor? Do you think it makes a difference?
MN: I write poems by hand. I prefer a fountain pen, but have been using ballpoint pens lately because the yellow legal pads I prefer sometimes don’t hold up under liquid ink. It makes a difference to me. I don’t think I could word process the kind of rhymed metrical lines I favor.
Besides, if I tried to compose on the computer I’d be tempted whenever the flow of thought stopped to check my email.
Image: Some of your recent poems have been published as books for children. How did you start writing for children and how does that process differ from writing for adults?
MN: I have written a few things specifically for children. For example, I translated two books for children by the great Danish nonsense poet, Halfdan Rasmussen. With my friend Pamela Espeland I co-authored a little collection of verse called The Cat Walked through the Casserole. And one of my poems was converted to a picture book called Beautiful Ballerina. Most recently, I’ve written a little parable published as a picture book called Snook Alone.
But for the most part I have been writing ordinary poems, which are published as young adult books. They’re not written for children; they are just poems. I write what I write and it’s published and marketed for the young adult audience. I’ve published several books this way: Carver: A Life in Poems; Fortune’s Bones; A Wreath for Emmett Till; Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (with Elizabeth Alexander); The Freedom Business.
This first started when I encountered an old friend, Stephen Roxburgh, whom I had lost contact with for several years. When we met again, Stephen had started an independent publishing company, Front Street Books, which published books for children and young adults. I was half finished with a collection of poems about George Washington Carver, which I was writing for adults. We started talking, and Stephen wound up publishing it.
Then Stephen heard me read a sequence of poems which had been commissioned to be the lyrics of a cantata called The Manumission Requiem. He decided it, too, could be a book for young adults. He changed the title to Fortune’s Bones. Because of the success of those early books, other young adult publishers started coming to me with ideas. I haven’t changed my writing process: I just write the poems I would write anyway, and the publishers pretty much take them or leave them.
Image: Do you get to choose the illustrators for these books?
MN: No. It’s the art director and the illustrator whose process creates the intersection between word and pictures.
The Freedom Business has abstract drawings by Deborah Dancy, who has been my friend for years: she teaches at the University of Connecticut where I taught; she is my daughter’s godmother. We had hoped for years to be able to do a book together, and we were very pleased when the publisher’s representative saw some of Deborah’s work and fell in love with it.
I’m very pleased with the art in all of my books.
Image: Are you conscious of teaching children history, of passing down a record of the past?
MN: Yes, of course. I started writing lyric histories in writing about my family as an homage to my mother in a book called The Homeplace.
The term “lyric histories” was given to me in a question from a seventh-grade girl during a Q&A session after one of my readings. In essence, what I did in The Homeplace is the same thing I’ve been doing in my young adult books: writing lyric histories. I don’t think the poems in that first book are any less for young audiences than the books actually published as young adult books, and I don’t think the poems in the young adult books are any less seriously poems than the poems in The Homeplace. The only differences are beautiful illustrations in the young adult books, and the marketing.
I see I’ve swerved a bit away from your question. I guess what I’m saying is that I am conscious of teaching people history.
I write about what interests me. The poem about the conjoined twins that you referred to earlier was written because I heard them mentioned during a program about the Reconstruction period holdings of the National Archives. That brief mention piqued my interest enough to make me set aside some time to do research about them.
There are so many interesting stories. I’m sorry I can’t write about all of them.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.