Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poetry Makers - Marilyn Nelson

Today the amazingly talented Marilyn Nelson is celebrating a birthday. This then, is the perfect day to celebrate her work. First published in 1978, Marilyn has authored 19 titles, been a 3-time National Book Award finalist, a 3-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, a Newbery Medal honoree, a Michael L. Printz honoree, a recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the poet laureate of the state of Connecticut, and more! WOW!

I have long had an interest in African American scientists and inventors, so finding Marilyn's book Carver: A Life in Poems was a revelation. Finally, here was the story of a remarkable man in language as inspiring as his life! Here is an excerpt.
A Charmed Life

Here breathes a solitary pilgrim sustained by dew
and the kindness of stranger. An astonished Midas
surrounded by exponentially multiplying miracles: my
Yucca and Cactus in the Chicago World Exposition;
friends of the spirit; teachers. Ah, the bleak horizons of joy.
Light every morning dawns through the trees. Surely
this is worth more than one life.
Before we look at some of Marilyn's work, let's learn a bit more about her.
How did you get started writing poetry?
Marilyn: I started as a child, because I had started reading poetry (we had the Childcraft set of books in our home: volumes 1 and 2 are poetry anthologies).

Who/what made you want to write?
Marilyn: I don’t remember. I think I wanted to write because I loved reading.

What got you hooked on children’s poetry?

Marilyn: Childcraft books got me started reading poetry: some, but not all, written for children. I started publishing poetry for the y/a audience by accident: a book I had written for adults (Carver: A Life in Poems) was taken by a publisher (Front Street Books) which published only for children and young adults.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
I have a Ph.D. in English literature, but have not studied poetry writing, per se.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
I usually do a lot of research before I start writing. I hand-write many drafts, on yellow legal pads. I use a rhyming dictionary. I count meter on my fingers. I often consult my notes on historical events.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
I’ve written several books based on historical research, most of them about African-American history. I enjoy doing the research and trying to bring events and persons to life in verse.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Marilyn: The favorite is always the most recent, of course. But I like best the books which forced me to grow. One of my “grown-up” books, Magnificat, is, for me, a record of struggle and growth. And I learned and grew a lot during the four or five years when I was researching and writing Carver.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Marilyn: I’ve just completed a book about Seneca Village, an African-American village in Manhattan, 1825–1857. About twenty years after its first settlement, the African American villagers were joined by immigrants from Germany and Ireland, and the village was peacefully integrated. It was destroyed in the construction of Central Park.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Marilyn: Rainer Maria Rilke. Robert Hayden.

Your favorite place to write?
My attic writing room. Before I moved to the house where I now live, I had a little tower – sort of a playhouse on stilts -- in the woods behind the house I used to live in.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Marilyn: "We must labor to be beautiful." - Yeats

After finding Carver, I didn't hesitate to pick up Marilyn's poetry books. Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem was commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum. Marilyn received a grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts to write a poem in commemoration of Fortune's life. The Manumission Requiem is the result. Here's what Marilyn has to say about it in the author's note.
A requiem, by definition, is sad; the person it honors has died. But manumission--the freeing of a slave--is a joyous event. By calling this the The Manumission Requiem, I'm setting grief side by side with joy. I'm trying to imitate a traditional New Orleans brass band jazz funeral. When the mourners follow the body to the cemetery, they are solemn and sorrowful, and so is the music. But after the burial, after they leave the cemetery, the music becomes jubilant. The mourners dance joyfully through the streets in what the call a "second-line parade." And crowds of people, passers-by, strangers, come out and join them. What was a dirge for the dead becomes a celebration of life.
There is sadness and joy in this book, but the book does celebrate Fortune, and ultimately the ending is freeing. Here is an excerpt from the poem entitled "Not My Bones."
I was not this body,
I was not these bones.
This skeleton was just my
temporary home.
Elementary molecules converged for a breath,
then danced on beyond my individual death.
And I am not my body,
I am not my body.

We are brief incarnations,
we are clouds in clothes.
We are water respirators,
we are how earth knows.
I bore light passed on from an original flame;
while it was in my hands it was called by my name.
But I am not my body,
I am not my body.
You are not your body,
you are not your bones.
What's essential about you
is what can't be owned.
What's essential in you is your longing to raise
your itty-bitty voice in the cosmic praise.
For you are not your body,
you are not your body.
There is a good deal of history in this book. The left page in each spread contains facts about the time, place, museum and Fortune's bones. The Afterword contains a short note from the Executive Director of the Mattatuck Museum on the commissioning of the poem and the history of the project. You can learn more about Fortune's bones in this NPR story and at the Fortune's Story web site.

One of the things I love about Marilyn's work is her emphasis on history--real people and real places. Learning about the past through poetry puts the story back in the word history, particularly when it's told so eloquently.

It was A Wreath for Emmett Till that made me see the impact that reading poetry could have on my understanding of the past. Never before has a poem or series of poems made me feel so unsettled, discouraged, and angry. Reading them is a difficult thing to do, but when I got to the end I was reminded of the difference that one person can make, and the responsibility we all have to our fellow man.

A Wreath for Emmett Till is a heroic crown of sonnets, or a sequence of 15 sonnets that are interlinked like a normal crown of sonnets, except in the heroic crown the last sonnet is made entirely from the first lines of the previous 14 sonnets. Marilyn's heroic crown is even more remarkable because the last sonnet is an acrostic that spells out “RIP Emmett L. Till.”

One of the sonnets in this crown is written from the perspective of the tree witnessing the lynching, and echoes some of the sentiments expressed in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem The Haunted Oak.
Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till's name still catches in the throat.
Take a few minutes to watch Marilyn read an excerpt from A Wreath for Emmett Till.
You can also listen to Marilyn read A Wreath for Emmett Till at NPR.

If you aren't familiar with Marilyn's work, or haven't taken the time to read it, I hope you will. You can learn more about Marilyn and her work by visiting these sites.
A rousing chorus of Happy Birthday and several hearty cheers for Marilyn. Thank you so much for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved.


  1. This is a great interview, Tricia. A Wreath for Emmett Till is heartbreaking, haunting and stunning.

  2. I am so glad to get to know more about Marilyn Nelson and her work. Thank you especially for this Poetry Maker, Tricia.

  3. Marilyn Nelson scares me. Her talent is so prodigious that it's like God overshadows her constantly and speaks directly in her ear. I'm so glad she joined in this Poetry Makers thing, thank you so much for this -- and I very much want to get my hands on a copy of The Manumission Requiem if only to read the full piece of poetry from which you excerpted the piece on Fortune's bones. Lovely, transcendent and glorious. Whew. You just need a moment to soak it in!

  4. Amazed all over again--thanks, Tricia! Happy Birthday Marilyn!

  5. Marilyn's poetry shakes me to the core. Emmett Till is astonishing. We are lucky to have her writing on this earth.


  6. Er--was using my son Adam's computer to write the above.


  7. The Fortune's bones pieceis lovely, lovely, lovely and I still cannot get over that the last sonnet in Emmett Till is an acrostic!!! Mercy, the hugeness of that task and how elegant she made it seem....