A Poet for All
An Interview with Marilyn Nelson
by Andrea Schmitz
Poet Marilyn Nelson has, for most of her writing career, fruitfully composed poetry for an adult audience. But after a few intercessions, she promptly made an indelible mark on the world of young adult poetry as well.
It was at a publisher’s suggestion that Marilyn submitted Carver: A Life in Poems for printing as a young adult title. Through 44 poems, told from the point of view of George Washington Carver and the people who knew him, Nelson lyrically celebrated his character and accomplishments. Prose summaries of events and archival photographs were deftly incorporated. Carver went on to reap acclaim as a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award winner and honors from the Newbery, Printz, Coretta Scott King and National Book Award committees.
Next Marilyn wrote the provocative commemoration Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, and then the hauntingly beautiful elegy A Wreath for Emmett Till. While Fortune was a commissioned piece, the original concept for Wreath, a young adult book about lynching, was suggested by an editor. Each of these books has gone on to garner further acclaim and awards for Nelson’s unique poetic style.
Marilyn’s literary endeavors, however, encompass an even larger
sphere. In September 2004 she opened Soul Mountain, a retreat for writers
in Connecticut. The retreat grants residencies to writers for various
eight-week periods throughout the year. More recently, Marilyn concluded
her successful 5-year tenure as Poet Laureate of Connecticut.
Marilyn Nelson is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, and the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award.
Marilyn Nelson spoke on October 21, 2006, at the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival. Her appearance was sponsored by the Friends of the CCBC, Inc.
AS: Your poetry, while beautifully and imaginatively crafted, is remarkably rich in history, fact and detail. Generally how long and complex is your research process?
MN: That, of course, depends. My Carver book took several years of research. For Fortune's Bones, most of the research was done by historians and forensic scientists: the museum which commissioned the historical and forensic research also commissioned my poem. I have a couple of forthcoming historical books which also required research, but nothing as intense and time-consuming as that necessary for the Carver book.
AS: Do you have a preference for the research or the writing? How independent are they . . . Do you view them as exclusive pieces of work or as different stages of a total project?
MN: I don't have a preference. I enjoy both, as stages of a project.
AS: Do you approach research and writing with a particular method or does it vary from poem to poem?
MN: It varies.
AS: I read that A Wreath for Emmett Till was your first poem published specifically with children as audience in mind. Do you have a preference for adults or children as audience? Do you make a distinction?
MN: Carver was my first book published for a young adult audience, though I did not have that audience in mind as I wrote the poems. I learned from the success of that book not to "write down" to a younger audience, but just to write the poems that come to me, as they come to me. Publishing for a younger audience is only an outgrowth of my early decision to write accessible poems. I think I've written very few poems which younger readers could not read and, to some extent, at least, comprehend. I write for the kind of young reader I myself was.
AS: What project are you currently working on? Is the intended audience adults or children?
MN: I've just completed a collaborative (with a young Aframerican writer, Tonya Hegamin) ghost-story, written in poems. I'm currently coming to the end of the research process for another project, which I don't think I'm ready yet to divulge.
Learn More About Marilyn Nelson
Nelson's home page
TeachingBooks.Net: Marilyn Nelson Original Author Program
Selected Books By Marilyn Nelson
A Wreath for Emmett Till. Illustrated by Philippe Lardy. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Front Street Books, 2004.
Carver: A Life in Poems. Front Street Books, 2001.
The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children.
Pamela Espeland. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Carolrhoda, 1984.
Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children: Translations from the
Danish Poet Helfden Wedel Rasmussen. Written with Pamela Espeland. Black Willow, 1983.
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2006, Number 3 with permission of Andrea Schmitz and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2006 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.