Like Water Remembering Light: An Interview with Marilyn Nelson

Leslie McGrath | September 2009

Marilyn Nelson
Marilyn Nelson


Marilyn Nelson's distinguished career as a teacher, poet, and translator has done much to broaden poetry's readership as well as give voice to some of the rich and harrowing stories of African American history. Born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 26, 1946 to a teacher and a Tuskegee airman, Nelson lived on a number of military bases before attending the University of California at Davis, from which she received her BA. She later earned her MA from the University of Pennsylvania (1970) and her PhD from the University of Minnesota (1979).
Nelson's twenty-one books to date include numerous collections of poetry, both for adult and young adult readers, starting with For the Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1979) as well as translations of Danish poet Halfdan Rasmussen's books for children. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997) was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award, the PEN Winship Award, and the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Her young adult books of verse have garnered the Newbery Honors, the Coretta Scott King Honors (twice), the Prinz Honors, and the Lion and Unicorn Award. She has received two NEA fellowships, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an A.C.L.S. Contemplative Practices Fellowship, the Connecticut Arts Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Now professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, Nelson was the Poet Laureate of the state of Connecticut from 2001–2006. She is the founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a writers' colony in East Haddam, Connecticut.

Leslie McGrath: You're the daughter of a teacher and you recently retired after twenty-plus years as a professor of English at the University of Connecticut. To what extent does the work you're doing now continue in the vein of education?

Marilyn Nelson: Yes, I'm the daughter and grand-daughter of teachers. I taught at several schools as professor of English, but retired from UConn after twenty-four years. I hadn't thought of it before, but certainly my insistence on historical and scientific accuracy, on telling a true story, probably does continue in the vein of education. I suppose my poems could be called "didactic," in the broadest sense of the word. I do hope they end in wisdom. But I also hope they begin in delight!

McGrath: As the poet laureate of Connecticut, you served a very active five-year term. What was your focus while in that position? What are your thoughts about the position of state poets laureate, of the U.S. Poet Laureate, in terms of how these positions can be best used?

Nelson: I think I grew into the position. In the first year, I ran around the state giving pretty much gratis poetry readings at schools and libraries. I exhausted myself. Second year, I culled my poetry library and solicited donations of poetry books from publishers, had bookplates printed up, and donated books to doctors' offices and hospital waiting rooms around the state. A rewarding project, but it required a lot of driving time. In the last three years, I focused on writing books about state history.
I think every state poet laureate, as well as the national poet laureate, has to invent the position anew. Much depends on temperament, on contacts, on innovative ideas. I think they're probably being used as well as can be expected. The best thing to do with a poet laureate would, of course, be to name one and then go away and leave him/her alone to write. But several of the national poets laureate have had wonderful projects!

I spend a lot of time following threads in books and, now, online. I find the world a very interesting place, much too interesting for me to spend all of my time cranking out words whose secret message is me, me, me.

McGrath: You're tremendously prolific, having written twenty-four books of poetry. Why do you think this is? Do you write from a sense of internal pressure or does the world offer up tempting subjects?

Nelson: Friends often tell me I'm prolific. But I don't think I am, especially. It looks that way, if you count my books, but several of them are collaborations, and most of my recent books are small sequences of poems based on limited subjects. Fortune's Bones was commissioned to be a cantata; it became a book only because my publisher, Stephen Roxburgh, decided it would be one. It's only six poems. My Emmett Till book is only fifteen sonnets. Miss Crandall's School is a collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander, for which each of us wrote a dozen sonnets. Pemba's Song is another collaboration, with Tonya C. Hegamin: I only wrote ten sonnets for it, too. And there are only twenty-five poems in The Freedom Business. That's five books, but if you put them all together, there are probably not more poems than there are in the "usual" single-author poetry book. A friend sent me a seventy-page manuscript just yesterday.
And, of course, I have much more time to write now that I have retired from teaching. I enjoy being at work on a project, but I don't think I'm a particularly "driven" writer. I don't write every day, or every week, or even every month. Since I seem to have become a poet who writes from research-much, though not all of it research on African American history-I spend a lot of time following threads in books and, now, online. I find the world a very interesting place, much too interesting for me to spend all of my time cranking out words whose secret message is me, me, me.

McGrath: Describe a typical writing day at your home in East Haddam. Why did you choose to live there and name it Soul Mountain?

Nelson: I'd long held a little fantasy about being able to offer young poets contemplative time and space. Instead of staying in the "empty nest" when my children left home, I sold our home and bought a large house in the country, so I could make that dream come true. I don't know where the name "Soul Mountain" came from; it just grew along with the fantasy. I think it has something to do with wanting to nurture the souls of apprenticing poets, and, with the fact that the house belongs to a black woman, it's got to have soul! The "mountain" part is wholly metaphorical. My friend Pamela suggested a more accurate name for it might be "Soul Holler," since the house is set down from the road. The first time my daughter Dora saw the place, she immediately christened it "Vinyl Siding Mountain."
I've lived here for five years, and welcomed something like eighty other poets, many of them from underrepresented ethnic or racial groups. It's been a hassle; much of my writing time is given over to the nonprofit business of trying to figure out how to borrow from Peter to pay Paul, and changing beds and doing laundry. But it's given me great joy, and what I think of as a growing extended family of "Soul Mountaineers."
When I am writing, I get up at about eight and write all morning. I boil water in an electric tea-kettle in the bathroom, put on my sweats, and take a cup of tea upstairs to my tiny writing room in the attic. I write on yellow legal pads. My thesaurus, dictionary, and rhyming dictionary-all falling apart-are at my left hand. A candle burns on my desk (a white-painted drop-leaf table we had on the porch years ago). On the walls are images of people and places and things and thoughts I love. At about 12:30 I'm suddenly ravenous, so I run downstairs and make a quick lunch of whatever I can find that can be eaten cold or easily microwaved. Then I run back upstairs and write until dark. Dinner, then back up to my desk. In between, I check my e-mail and Facebook accounts about fifty gazillion times. If I'm lucky, I have a draft I can type up before I go to bed at about two.

McGrath: How do the sleeping, cooking, and writing arrangements work?

Nelson: The house has an interesting layout: a large central wing where I live, and a guest wing on either side. Each of the guest wings has a living room, kitchen, three bedrooms, and 1 1/2 baths, so guests have privacy as well as the opportunity to create a community. I leave them pretty much on their own, though we tend to share spontaneous pot-luck meals. Most write in their rooms, but some choose to write on the screened porch or on the picnic table on the riverbank, or in one of the Adirondack chairs overlooking the pond. Our days together are quiet, with people getting a lot accomplished. Then they cook together or alternate cooking responsibilities, and there's a lot of laughter and talk until about 9:00, when everyone disappears to their writing spaces again. Including me.

McGrath: What have you had to learn in terms of running both a nonprofit organization and a writers' retreat?

Nelson: One thing I've learned is that it helps to have money! Soul Mountain is pretty much a one-woman enterprise. For the first four years of Soul Mountain's existence, we had a contract with the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in which, in exchange for my coming back out of retirement to teach half-time, the university made a generous donation to Soul Mountain. When that contract ended, I decided not to renew it, but to retire again. During those first years, we were able to offer cost-free residencies and pay guests a small stipend while they were here. Now we're in the position of many (most?) other nonprofit entities, trying to raise operating expenses in a belt-tightening economy. Running a writers' retreat requires paying for utilities, telephone, internet access, garbage pick-up, heating oil, lawn-mowing, gasoline, and food. The second thing I've learned is that I am not the sort of person who should be asked to communicate with the IRS, to create budgets, to write grant applications, to solicit donations, or to chum-up with wealthy prospective donors. So it's been an uphill battle. I have learned to ask friends for help. And I've learned to be frugal. I've learned-reluctantly-to be practical enough to ask guests to pay a small fee ($200/week) from now on, to cover expenses. I think-God willing-we'll be able to continue to host guests through the coming year.

McGrath: Soul Mountain is close to the place where Venture Smith, the slave who earned his freedom and that of his wife and children in your book, The Freedom Business, lived. How did you come upon this piece of history and why did you want to tell his story?

Nelson: As soon as I bought Soul Mountain, people started asking when I planned to start writing about Venture Smith, who lived out the last of his years and is buried here in East Haddam. It seemed to be generally understood that I would. Though I had not heard of Venture Smith before, it seemed clear that I should read the narrative he wrote of his life (published in 1795) and write something about him. When Jeff Anderson and David Rau of the Florence Griswold Museum in nearby Old Lyme suggested a Soul Mountain/Florence Griswold Museum collaboration, I took that opportunity to write a sequence of poems about Venture Smith, using paintings from the museum's permanent collection as "prompts." Our collaboration, an exhibition of the "prompt" paintings and my poems, opened on June 3, 2006, and its popularity led the museum to extend it through March 25, 2007. The museum published a little book of the exhibit called The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes Through the Eyes of Venture Smith. My later book, called simply The Freedom Business, with art by Deborah Dancy, tells the more complete story of Venture Smith's life, including his childhood in Africa, his kidnapping, and the Middle Passage. I wanted to tell this story because it is part of my earlier studies of Connecticut history, which began during my tenure as state Poet Laureate. And I also wanted to tell Venture's story because it is both painful and triumphant.

McGrath: There are generations of people who grew up in New England-like myself-who were taught in school that slavery existed only in the South, and that the only connection the North had with slavery was the Underground Railroad and as a destination of freedom. Yet we know now, in large part due to your books, that this was not the complete truth. Would you talk about your mindset as you research and put into verse these painful pieces of history?

Nelson: If you were taught this in school, you should sue the school system. Well, this is what projects like Black History Month are trying to fight. Perhaps it was because I grew up in an educated black family, with parents educated at what are now called "Historically Black Colleges and Universities," (I feel I should add a plug here for the United Negro College Fund, which could use our donations) with a race-proud father and a mother who was passionate about black history, but I'm pretty sure I knew at least about Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley as New England slaves when I was a child. But that's neither here nor there.
My mindset? Curiosity about the subjects, sympathy for their sufferings, admiration for their courage. It's hard to imagine the huge and the smallest contradictions 18th-century black Americans must have faced every day, everywhere in this country. I try to deepen my understanding as I research, and to connect with the individuals as I write. Sometimes I almost feel I am speaking for them.

McGrath: It's striking that you use the word "contradictions" when you talk about the lives of black Americans at that time.

Nelson: Well, to start with, the reality they were living contradicted the belief that they lived in a "free country," which believed in "liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

McGrath: I asked about the word "contradictions" because it seems relatively bloodless, without emotion. And yet the people you've often written about have lives filled with suffering. How are you able to hold such sadness and injustice in one hand and a pen in the other, so to speak? Does writing in form help you do this? I'm thinking particularly about A Wreath for Emmet Till.

Nelson: I did find, when writing Wreath, that losing myself in the intricate form worked as insulation against the contemplation of the horror of lynching. The research I did for that book was extremely disturbing. But life is suffering. African American history is full of individual stories of contradiction, irony, suffering, sadness, injustice-and triumph. It's a privilege to try to give voice to some of those individuals who could not speak for themselves when they were living.

When I read a poem aloud, I read for the sentence sense. Each sentence contains its own melody. If you listen for it you can easily hear it. Just say a sentence two or three times, and notice when your voice goes higher, when it goes lower, what the rhythm is.

McGrath: What are some of the reactions you've witnessed on the part of audiences who learn about this history from your books and public readings?

Nelson: Sometimes people come up afterward and say they were moved to tears. But I've never actually witnessed that. Recently, I wrote a poem about James Hamlet, who was the first man arrested when the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. This law made it legal for a fugitive slave to be captured anywhere in the U.S., no matter how long ago he or she had escaped; it made anyone who helped or hid a fugitive slave subject to a prison term and/or a large fine; it stripped from office any federal marshall who refused to arrest a fugitive slave. Since blacks were not allowed to testify in court, it became possible for pretty much any white person to accuse any free black person of being a fugitive, then to send him or her south to be sold. James Hamlet had been living as a free man in New York for three years and had a wife and child when he was arrested. My poem is a minister's entreaty to his congregation to "make a miracle in the collection plate" to gather the $800 necessary to purchase Hamlet. The first time I read the poem to an audience, the audience applauded when I added that the congregation of poor blacks was able to come up with that amount.

McGrath: One of the most moving and disturbing of your books is Fortune's Bones. Would you talk about the book and the spiritual wisdom you used as a kind of guideline?

Nelson: It's a moving and disturbing story: I had nothing to do with that! The story-a true one-was given to me in late summer, 2001 by the director of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, which has in its collection the skeleton of an 18th-century slave whose owner, a doctor, dissected his body at his death, prepared the bones, and reassembled the skeleton to be hung in a room in his home, as part of a small medical school. Adding to the horror is the fact that the slave's wife and children were still enslaved in the house where Fortune's skeleton hung. The museum asked me to write something to honor him. There was also a pre-existing agreement with the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra that the poem would be set to music and performed, so I was to write something like a cantata. Most of my poems, written in the voices of the principal actors in the drama, simply tell the story itself. But as I arrived at the point of writing Fortune's piece, I wanted the poem to offer some comfort to the nation reeling from the shock of September 11. I happened to hear that the great Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, would be speaking not far from my home. I had enjoyed several of his books and shared some of his teachings, so I drove up to hear him. I was most struck by something he said during a Q&A period, which seemed exactly what I needed for Fortune's voice. A questioner asked what is the most comforting thing we can say to people in hospice care, who know they are dying. Thich Nhat Hanh replied that he and his brother-monks have found that the most comforting thing we can say to the dying is that only the body dies; that they, themselves, are not dying. So I put Thich Nhat Hanh's words into Fortune's mouth. I give all credit for the spiritual wisdom to the actual author of the thought.

McGrath: What place, if any, does the spiritual play in your work as a poet?

Nelson: Man, that is a big question. Not sure I can so easily answer it. I am a spiritual individual. It's part of my central wiring, kind of like being right-handed. I think it's a gift. Some people have a jump-shot; some people have a deep sense that there's more to life than this life we rush through. That sense-which could as accurately be called doubt as faith-is central to my identity, so it can't not be central to my work as a poet.

McGrath: I've never heard the term "doubt as faith" used in this way. Would you elaborate?

Nelson: It's not an unusual idea, and certainly doesn't originate with me. I've read it many times in my long meandering journey through random contemporary theology and spiritual writing. Thomas Merton said "faith means doubt"; that "a man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith."

McGrath: You have a particularly mellifluous speaking voice and use it, much as a singer does, in your poetry readings. This kind of "music in performance" differs from what teachers of prosody are referring to when they talk about music in a poem. Would you talk about what "music" means to you in poetry?

Nelson: Thank you! It's just the voice I was born with, though, my speaking voice. I don't think we have much control over givens like that! I don't know what it is about my voice that makes people comment on it, but people often suggest I make recordings. It's odd. Maybe someday I'll make a recording of lullaby poems.
When I read a poem aloud, I read for the sentence sense. Each sentence contains its own melody. If you listen for it you can easily hear it. Just say a sentence two or three times, and notice when your voice goes higher, when it goes lower, what the rhythm is. When I write, I listen inwardly for the way a natural voice speaks a thought, and I try to balance the melody of natural intonation against the given fretwork of form. I hope I give enough cues in a line or sentence to enable another reader to read the line or sentence with more or less the same intonations I use as I read.

My mindset? Curiosity about the subjects, sympathy for their sufferings, admiration for their courage.... I try to deepen my understanding as I research, and to connect with the individuals as I write. Sometimes I almost feel I am speaking for them.

McGrath: How did you begin to write books for children and young adults? And why have you continued to do this?

Nelson: It happened quite by accident. My book, The Fields of Praise, was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award. At the gala ceremony, I ran into Stephen Roxburgh, whom I had met and corresponded with about children's books several years earlier. At the time of our first meeting, Stephen was the children's book editor at FS&G in New York. Because of our acquaintance, I wrote several manuscripts intended for children, and sent them to Stephen, who rejected all of them. We had lost touch over several years, and were delighted to meet again. In the meantime, Stephen had become an independent publisher of books for children and young adults. We exchanged cards, saying we hoped we'd someday make a book together. In the next several months I unburied and polished off all of the manuscripts I had written earlier, and sent them to Stephen one by one. He still hated them. Finally, I said that was it: the only other work I had was the manuscript I was working on at the time, but it was "real" poetry, I said, not for children. Stephen asked if he could see the manuscript; I sent it, and Carver: a Life in Poems, published by Front Street Books for the young adult audience, was the result. My other Y/A books grew out of Carver's success. Front Street took a sequence of poems which had been commissioned as lyrics for a cantata and turned it into Fortune's Bones, which was also a success. Then other publishers of books for children and young adults started asking me for manuscripts and suggesting projects. One wonderful side-line to all of this is the fact that two books of translations I made thirty years ago of verse for children by the great Danish poet Halfdan Rasmussen have finally found a publisher!
I have not, for the most part (there's a recent exception: a little book called Beautiful Ballerina, which combines my poem about an African American ballerina with dance photographer Susan Kuklin's photographs of three students at the Dance Theatre of Harlem), written or published "for children," per se. Though years ago I published a couple of little books of verse written or translated for children, my muse hasn't pulled me in that direction. It's not easy to write for children. I don't know how someone like Shel Silverstein or A.A. Milne, or Dodson, or Stevenson did it! But it has been my great good fortune that my poems are accessible enough to be read by young adults. I'm not quite sure what the lower cut-off is of that designation: fifth grade? Eighth grade?
I know I started seriously reading poetry when I was in sixth grade. I read my way through a lot of anthologies we had in our home library, and then through anthologies checked out of the public library. Since publishers are happy with what I do, I'm not required to do anything other than to continue doing what I do. So I haven't found it difficult to continue to publish for young adults. I'm interested in historical narrative, in character, and in formal verse. I'm grateful to have been given, or to have found, some wonderful stories to tell. The stories I tell make a contribution to the popular knowledge of U.S. history, and to interracial understanding. And my poems demonstrate to young (and older) readers some of the traditional pleasures to be taken from poetic form.
In addition, when Stephen sent me Front Street's contract for Carver, and I called to ask him what that "advance" was, he welcomed me "to the real world of publishing." I had published three or four books by then, and two or three chapbooks. I had never heard of an advance, except as something novelists or short story writers, sometimes writers of creative nonfiction, got. But poetry? An advance? Since then, because my books have been winning or have been named finalists for the big awards given by the American Library Association (selected by librarians, not by committees of other poets), they are purchased by many public schools and public libraries. So there are royalties. Because they were published as Y/A books, my books are beautifully illustrated, and printed on beautiful paper.
The only downside to my decision to continue to publish Y/A books have been the sometimes concerned, sometimes snarky comments of other poets. Helpful friends suggest I publish a new and selected which reprints poems in my Y/A books, so readers of "real" poetry will know of their existence. But all of my Y/A books are still in print, so publishers point out that a new and selected would compete with my other books. And they say that maybe readers of "real" poetry will find me anyway. Snarky friends either suggest my poems are too serious, too allusive, or too demanding for young adults, or they congratulate me on recent publications and say they'll order copies for children they know.
I keep thinking that if someone becomes a poetry reader at the age of fifteen or sixteen, he or she might well still be a poetry reader at the age of twenty-five or thirty-five. And I remind myself that we live in a society in which people still think of themselves as "young" when they are fifty. When do we stop being young adults? Is there any reason a sixty-year-old wouldn't be able to find some pleasure, and perhaps some edification, in a good Y/A book, like, for instance, The Catcher in the Rye?

McGrath: How might the heart-and the life-of the poetry reader who began at fifteen differ from that of a person who has not read poetry over the course of her life?

Nelson: If you remove the first word of your question, I could just answer "yes."

McGrath: In recent years, there's been a surge of fragmented, emotionally cool writing among American poets, and yet you write narrative poems, often in form, based upon a personal "I." Do you ever feel as though you've been moving against the trend? And do you look toward a time when our poetry follows a narrative impulse again?

Nelson: Well, we do what we're called to do, I guess. I'm not interested in being "trendy." Yes, I'm aware of the fact that I'm not writing "trendy" poems. I strive to be accessible, not difficult. May I assume that when you say "American poets," you mean white American poets? Or maybe white academic American poets? I think I understand what you're referring to, but I think it's true of a demographic, not true in general of American poets. Because what seems to be happening among ethnic poets is quite different. I'm not sure I'm right about this, but it seems to me that poets who identify with or "speak for" special groups have not followed that path. Historical narrative poetry seems to be a strong trend among younger African American poets, for example.
Like most of the nonpoets I know, I don't usually feel I "understand" much of contemporary white academic American poetry. I am painfully aware of the fact that this may be because I'm a dummy. But I sense that the workshop encourages poems which cater to "in-group" tastes: poems which riff on other poems written or read by members of the workshop, for instance, or poems recognizably written out of left-hemisphere-encouraging exercises others in the workshop have also used. Sometimes, reading poems in journals reminds me of those "you hadda be there" anecdotes friends tell, which aren't funny to anyone except the two people sitting at the table laughing their heads off because they were threre. I suppose white academic American poetry will rediscover narrative someday. If/when it does, it may be able to recreate its lost audience. I hope it will. It's a crying shame that most contemporary American poets have such a small readership. I've read that the average book of poems published in this country has a readership of about 2,000. I've also read some rather supercilious comments by white academic American poets, suggesting that that's GOOD, because if poets had a larger audience, they would have to "cater" to it. There's a whiff of intellectual elitism in that hooey. I see little point in writing something no one will read, or in writing for an audience made up entirely of poets.

McGrath: Since you mention workshop poems, maybe the question is less about white versus ethnic poets than it is about poets who have their MFAs versus those who haven't. What do you suppose might happen as more and more people of color get advanced degrees in creative writing, in terms of the prosody they use? I also wonder whether the fact that so much American poetry is now being written by poets working as academics might also account for some of the insularity and even intellectual elitism.

Nelson: Maybe it is the MFAs. I don't know. I don't know how to respond to your questions: depends on which degrees they get, and on what directions MFA programs follow. I learned just yesterday that there's an MFA program which specializes in hip-hop! Education, especially education in the tradition, is invaluable. I'm, frankly, less sure about the value of what, for convenience, let's call "horizontal" studies. I think there's a lot of that: students fluent in the works of poets who are no more than ten or twenty years ahead of them. Like you, I wonder. I have no answers. There are lots of possible explanations for the insular elitism of a lot of our poet contemporaries. I dunno: maybe it's pure-D country-clubism. The horizontal orientation can't help but produce a poetry which follows contemporaneous trends, can it? Young poets writing poems in imitation of poets only ten or twenty years their seniors.

McGrath: In your first collection of poetry, For the Body, there are poems after Philip Larkin ("Churchgoing"), and referring to Dickinson ("Emily Dickinson's Defunct"), both of whom are part of the literary canon associated with the middle of the 20th century. Thinking back on the paths your work has taken since the writing of these poems, who are your literary touchstones now-writers with whom your work is engaged in conversation?

Nelson: Oh, well, one is always engaged with other writers, other works. I've glanced quickly through recent work. The Cachoeira Tales is in conversation with Chaucer; there are poems engaged with Wordsworth, Frost, Christopher Smart, Pushkin, Cesaire, the Desert Fathers, St. John of the Cross, the Lakota Trickster tales, The Spoon River Anthology, Under Milk Wood, Montage of a Dream Deferred... There are probably a lot more.

McGrath: Would you talk about your current projects?

Nelson: Forthcoming in October is Sweethearts of Rhythm, a sequence of poems about an integrated all-girls swing band, which toured the U.S. during World War II. It was not easy-I had to learn about swing band instruments, as well as the history of the band-but it was fun to write. I let the instruments tell the story, and experimented with noniambic meters. It will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers, with wonderful illustrations by Jerry Pinkney. More recently, I've been working on a sequence of poems about Seneca Village, an African American settlement, which existed in upper Manhattan from 1825–1857 until it was razed in the construction of Central Park. This book will also be published by Dial Books for Young Readers. Most of these poems are dramatic monologues. They are persona poems, in the voices of individuals who actually, according to the 1850 census, lived in Seneca Village, and illustrates the larger historical events of the period-the emancipation of people held in slavery in New York, anti-abolition riots, a depression, a cholera epidemic, Nat Turner's Rebellion, the arrival of Irish famine immigrants-writ small on their lives. Because it's a village, the lives of the characters intertwine, and my favorite characters return to speak two, or even three poems.

McGrath: My favorite poem in your manuscript of Seneca Village poems is the one in the voice of Epiphany Davis, the conjure-man, who looked into the future and saw:

Glass towers... A horseless vehicle...
An American President who is half African...
Until you pay me, that's all I'm going to tell.

How in tarnation did you come up with that? And does Mr. Davis accept credit cards? I was surprised to read that this is a young adult book-it's a lively read, full of historical information, and certainly bears up your point about adult readers being entertained and educated by young adult literature. Do you ever get the sense that characters speak through you, or do you feel while writing that you are the creator?

Nelson: Well, I did write that poem before the election! But I wasn't writing during Epiphany Davis's lifetime! Epiphany Davis is one of my favorite characters in the village. I found his name in the census record, and decided, because of his first name, to make him a conjure-man. He speaks in several other poems, as well as this one.
While writing, I feel that I am the creator. But afterwards, as I read the work over and over to be sure it's finally really "finished," it feels more and more like the characters themselves are speaking.
Most of us don't know very much about young adult publishing: that may explain the surprise my books often draw when poetry readers realize that my books are published as Y/A books. Several recent Y/A books have achieved enormous cross-over success. As far as I know, a couple of Y/A novels in verse are the only poetry books to have appeared recently on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

McGrath: A number of your books, all the way back to the beginning, are either dedicated to or written with Pamela Espeland. Would you talk about long friendships between women, and what this relationship has meant to you as a writer?

Nelson: I can't say I have much to say about long friendships between women, in general: I'll leave such pronouncements to others. Pamela and I have been friends for more years than I care to say. She's a brilliant writer and editor. She has edited pretty much all of my books. She created the order of my "new and selected." She's written "author's notes" and time-lines for me. We can wear each others' clothes and shoes: a coincidence which can cement a friendship between women.

McGrath: Along the same lines, you came up during our country's second generation of feminism. What has changed, in terms of being a female writer, in the last thirty-odd years? Are there any changes that surprise you? Delight you? Disappoint?

Nelson: Oy. I don't feel comfortable making pronouncements. I don't spend much time thinking about The Situation Of The Female Writer: I leave it to the critics to do that. And I tend not to read them. What I do most and best is track, like a good hound, with my nose to the ground, gathering information and impressions, and piecing together a story shaped like a poem, and with a poem's ambition.

McGrath: In Mama's Promises, there are a number of very personal poems about family, motherhood, and aspirations. I was struck by "Cover Photograph," in which the line "I want to be remembered" is repeated. It seems to be as close as you've ever come in terms of a statement about your own aspirations.

I want to be remembered
with a dark face absorbing all colors
and giving them back twice as brightly,
like water remembering light.

Does this still carry some truth?

Nelson: Yes, it does. That was a little declaration about race, about being a black writer: there's a little bit of a reference to a book about racial identity, by James McBride, called The Color of Water. Another statement of my poetics, my aspirations, is "Confessional Poem" in Mama's Promises, in which the poet does a strip-tease for an overworked and lonely young mother, stripping off her clothes to dance in "the Fat Lady suit," then when the young mother and her babies join the dance, stripping that off, stripping off her body, to "dance on, like a blaze of sunlight." And for my epitaph, I think a line from "Letter to a Benedictine Monk" in Magnificat: " I have perfect plenty/plenty vision."


Leslie McGrath's poems have appeared in Agni, Alimentum, Beloit Poetry Journal, Black Warrior Review, Nimrod, Poetry Ireland, and elsewhere. She is the managing editor of Drunken Boat: online journal of the arts and vice president of Drunken Boat Media. Her first collection of poetry, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage, will be published by Main Street Rag in late 2009.


from Seneca Village & Sweethearts of Rhythm
by Marilyn Nelson

Hand-Me-Down Petticoat
Ada Thompson, ca. 1835

Traveling with large parcels on the stage
invites insult. And there's always the risk –
given my long walk home through the woods past dusk –
that some man may see me as his privilege.

But one weekend a month, I take that chance.
After a month spent virtually alone –
silent, invisible – in Babylon,
I'm home. And you give me this arrogance?

I brought home half a loaf of store-bought bread,
a slice of ham, some cheese... And you still pout,
as if second-hand honey isn't sweet.
Who put such prideful thoughts into your head?

Now, listen, Girl: this hand-me-down petticoat
is beautiful! It just needs to be cleaned.
Miss Astor's so generous! Yes, it is stained,
but poor people give thanks for what we get!

It's a little too long, but it only needs a hem.
I'll take the waist in; it will be just fine.
You're lucky to have a petticoat at fourteen.
Pride goeth before a fall. And so doth shame.

You say you'd rather wear tow-cloth? That slaves
labored over this cotton? Well, my girl,
so did your mama. Wake up to the world:
a colored girl can't be so sensitive!

One girl refusing a cast-off petticoat
won't part the bloody sea of history.
Refusing it won't make nobody free!
Now, wash your face. Sit down, sweet darling. Eat.

The Yellow Girl
Matilda Polk

In me, peoples who hate each other meet.
The lion and lamb lay down side by side,
exchanging her powerlessness, his might
just long enough to become mate and mate
and make me ivory-skinned and ebony-eyed.

Sisters of Charity
Sarah Matilda White, 1852
In memoriam, John Hughes (1797 – 1864),
first Archbishop of NY

More Irish seem to arrive here every day,
like rats fleeing a ship that's going down.
Their women troll our streets for men at night;
their children run wild all day in shanty-town.

They come in coffin ships, with little more
than faith and hunger. Ignorant, unskilled,
they seem hell-bent on making themselves less,
like prodigal sons content to live in swill.

People who have nothing will rob the poor
to feed their children. Now I lock the house
and clutch my purse, as fearful as the rich.
They steal, they smell, they're idlers, and they're loud.

But I do like that flock of Irish nuns
that swoop like crows, catching truants by the ear
and marching them to school, then wake the tarts
to steer them toward respectable careers.

They are taking a thousand white fugitive slaves
who can't imagine better lives beyond
full stomachs, work, and a hovel called home,
and teaching them to dream of a free dawn!

Red-Hot Mama
"Tiny" Davis on Trumpet

My gal could sweet you to death with her beautiful tone,
then pull you out of yourself to get up and move,
body and soul propelled to a higher plane:
the body to jitterbug, the soul to something like love.

They were rationing food in those days. Every house
with a sunny yard had a "victory" vegetable plot.
My gal washed and ironed (fifty cents a blouse)
and sold sandwiches, to keep herself afloat.

Because times was hard. But all she had to do was blow,
and people of every hue and every age
got caught in a vibration that started with a tapping toe
and rapidly grew into an irresistible urge.

Was part of the population held in internment camps?
Was there a guy you hadn't heard from since before D-Day?
Let the rhythm rule your butt, let the rhythm rule your feet and limbs.
Let yourself acquiesce completely to the music of joy!

She's Crazy With the Heat
Helen Jones, Ina Bell Byrd, and Judy Jones on Trombone

Yeah. You have to hearken to the story behind each song.
That's essential to every good trombone player's art.
To articulate a note, let alone to swing,
trombone players have to feel, and to play from the heart.

So you know the seven positions. That's not enough.
You have to place the notes precisely, so they paint
a picture: bright or dark tones, smooth or rough.
Good trombonists play all over the instrument.

Yeah, the trombone section, in identical gabardine suits,
like dark Betty Grable Rosie the Riveters,
felt their way, tune after tune, to the absolute
unchanging fable of the universe.

That good exists, that love prevails over fear,
that hate and war are eventually kenneled again.
Yeah, our music told this story, to all who could hear.
Yeah: love will prevail. Yeah. (Don't ask us when.)

"Hand-Me-Down Petticoat," "The Yellow Girl," and "Sisters of Charity," from Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson, (c) by Marilyn Nelson. Used by permission of Dial Books for Young Readers,
A Division of Penguin Young Readers Group, A Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014. All rights reserved.

"Red-Hot Mama," and "She's Crazy with the Heat," from Sweethearts Of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson, (c) by Marilyn Nelson. Used by permission of Dial Books for Young Readers,

No Comments