- An Interview with Marilyn Nelson
Marilyn Nelson has been a familiar figure on the American poetry scene since she published her first book, For the Body, with Louisiana State University Press in 1978. The author of numerous poetry books, children's books, and translations, she has received many prestigious awards and fellowships during her long career, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award, the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, the 1998 Poet's Award, the Boston Globe/Hornbook Award, the Lion and Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry, and the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize. She has been a National Book Award finalist three times, and her books have been selected three times as Coretta Scott King honor books, and once for John Newbery honors. She has received two NEA creative writing fellowships, as well as a Guggenheim fellowship. From 2001-2006, she was the poet laureate of Connecticut.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946, Nelson traveled widely in her youth as part of a military family. Both parents were racial pioneers: her father was a Tuskegee Airman, and had a distinguished career as an Air Force navigator and missile control officer, while her mother was often the first African American teacher in many of the school systems in which she taught. Nelson accordingly grew up with a strong sense of familial pride, and an awareness of the broader historical or spiritual significance of daily life, both of which inform much of her poetry.
Dominant themes in Nelson's poetry are respect for family, the recovery of African American history, and the search for the sacred in everyday life. Mama's Promises (1985), for instance, uses maternity and motherhood to explore questions about love, responsibility, and the mysteries and ethics of divine creation. In The Homeplace (1991), Nelson uses genealogical research to redefine the meaning of family and reconnect to her ancestry, which includes her mother's family in antebellum and postbellum Kentucky and rural Oklahoma, as well as her father's fellow Tuskegee compatriots. Magnificat (1994) uses a friend's monastic vocation to explore the differences between human and divine love and the tensions between secular and sacred worlds. In Carver: A Life in Poems (2001), Nelson sketches out the remarkably complex and creative life of George Washington Carver—an ascetic humanitarian whose spirituality is directly related to his many artistic and scientific accomplishments. In A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), Nelson writes a crown of sonnets that serves as a ritual of mourning, contemplation of evil, and healing. The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems (2005) contains a pilgrimage to Bahia, Brazil—a center of the Brazilian slave trade—to explore the home of the syncretistic religion of candomblé, and the spiritual legacy of the African Diaspora.
In my interview with Nelson, we discussed her family's influence on her writing, her use of poetry to recover history, her development as a poet, and central themes in several of her volumes.
My first question concerns your interest in narrative. You write books of poetry that often have extended narratives, whether about family history, George Washington Carver, or most recently, The Cachoeira Tales, which refashions The Canterbury Tales to reflect on the African diaspora. Why does narrative attract you so much? [End Page 383]
I'm interested in stories. I'm interested in history, but I'm also just interested in stories. The epigraph of The Cachoeira Tales is "Life is nothing but stories." I was asked to read my poems at a national convention of storytellers once. The woman who had invited me was apologetic because storytellers don't like to listen to people read on the page. They think you should be memorizing it or just making it up or performing it. She warned me that the audience might not be receptive unless I recited from memory. I said, "That's not what I do. I read." So I read, and afterwards several of the storytellers came up to say that they hadn't realized that poets could be storytellers too. So, I was really honored by that.
It's also, I think, what I want to do. I'd like to...