Marilyn Nelson

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Marilyn Nelson Interview, 9/24/2004 (FF139). Transcribed and edited by Evan Sizemore, 2021-2022, part of the Mellon-funded AudiAnnotate Audiovisual Extensible Workflow Project. Based on video recordings made by WVPT to document the second Furious Flower Poetry Center decennial meeting, September 23-25, 2004. Part of the Furious Flower Poetry Center Conference Records, 1970-2015, UA 0018, Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University Libraries, Harrisonburg, Virginia, media file FF139. Collection finding aid:

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Time Annotation Layer
11:37 - 11:39 [Coughing] Environment
11:54 - 11:57 [Laughter] Environment
12:53 - 12:54 [Coughing] Environment
0:04 - 0:05 --m-a G-r-a-h-a-m. Transcription
0:07 - 0:13 Marilyn Nelson. M-a-r-i-l-y-n N-e-l-s-o-n. Transcription
0:16 - 0:29 Okay. Marilyn, let me ask you: you've lived in New England and Lower Connecticut, though you were not born there, you're Midwesterner by birth. How do you see that part of the country Transcription
0:30 - 0:31 influencing your work? Transcription
0:33 - 0:47 Well, the last couple of writing projects I've done have been picking up stories from Connecticut history, actually, African American History in New England. I've just finished writing Transcription
0:48 - 0:55 a long sequence of poems about an 18th-century slave Transcription
0:55 - 1:13 who lived in a small city in Connecticut and who, when he died-- he was owned by a doctor, and when he died the doctor prepared his skeleton, and reassembled the bones and hung the skeleton in a room Transcription
1:13 - 1:22 in his home, to be used as a teaching device. To teach people about skeletons, human bones. Transcription
1:22 - 1:31 And meanwhile this man, Fortune was his name, his wife and four children were still in this household. Transcription
1:31 - 1:32 And this is in Connecticut? Transcription
1:32 - 1:39 Yes, this is in Connecticut, just before the American Revolution. So that's one, that one's just come out. And-- Transcription
1:40 - 1:40 What's the name? Transcription
1:40 - 1:54 It's called Fortune's Bones. And I have another project that's cooking on a back-burner now, about another man who was enslaved in the 18th century in Connecticut, and who Transcription
1:54 - 2:07 managed to purchase his own freedom and then purchased all of the members of his family, and then several other people. And is kind of a local hero. He's very highly respected. Transcription
2:07 - 2:21 He died in about, oh, gosh, maybe 1790. Something like that. So I suppose what I'm doing is telling local history stories. Transcription
2:21 - 2:31 So the stories that you want people to know about that part of the country, but are about Black people in that part of the country, that are important for you? Transcription
2:31 - 2:32 Yes, yes. Transcription
2:32 - 2:39 But you could you could write those stories in any part of the country, at least based on the local history of that part of the country, right? Transcription
2:39 - 2:40 Yes. Transcription
2:41 - 2:49 So in a sense, you don't fall into the sense of place. You do have sense of place, but you have sense of history, which is probably-- Transcription
2:49 - 3:04 Yes, I suppose what it is is sense of history. In the Fortune story, I was asked to write it by a local historical museum. But I would have written it if I had been living in Kansas. Transcription
3:06 - 3:21 Well there is some awfully cool history. I've noticed also that you have, I guess like many writers, moved to another genre. Your last book has been-- has won a Children's Book Award. Transcription
3:22 - 3:28 Can you tell me a little bit about why that decision was made? And you see doing more in the children's literature genre? Transcription
3:26 - 3:33 It's not really a question of genre. It's a question of marketing. The poems have not changed. Transcription
3:33 - 3:50 Yeah, yeah. I haven't, the poems, I'm still writing the same poems. I've I haven't changed my sense of audience at all. But I've-- for a couple of my books, I've moved to a different publisher. And Transcription
3:51 - 3:53 the books are being marketed differently. Transcription
3:53 - 4:11 And I think of this in several ways. First of all, there's a very large market for young adult books, and there are not very many poets writing, publishing for that market. And secondly, I feel the-- Transcription
4:13 - 4:22 giving young people real poems to read is a way of encouraging them to continue, to continue to be readers of poetry. Transcription
4:22 - 4:39 So I think I'm writing for future generations of poetry readers, helping to create future poetry readers. And I think that's about-- I think that's about all I can say about it. I really don't believe Transcription
4:39 - 4:42 I've changed my writing at all. Transcription
4:43 - 4:46 Yeah. So your-- a form, a different form in which you have placed it. Transcription
4:46 - 4:48 Yes, yes. Yes. Transcription
4:48 - 4:49 Well, it-- Transcription
4:49 - 4:52 --Mrs. Graham, it's okay but honey, just pull your blouse, so it's not just-- Transcription
4:53 - 4:54 Down further, from the top. Transcription
4:54 - 4:55 Down further, from the top, yeah. Transcription
4:56 - 4:56 Oh. Transcription
4:56 - 4:56 It's just bunching down-- Transcription
4:56 - 4:57 There you go. Transcription
4:57 - 4:60 Oh, I can see it. Yes. Okay. Thank you for getting it. Transcription
5:03 - 5:18 At Furious Flower, there's a lot of discussion about regenerating tradition. And I just heard you talk about putting the tradition of poetry writing back into the-- into the schools or giving children Transcription
5:18 - 5:33 poetry from the ground up as it were. So, the notion of poetry as a tradition-- is it something you grew up with? Did you grow up reading poetry? Did you [inaudible] a lot of your family, did you Transcription
5:33 - 5:35 learn poems that you had to say in church, or? Transcription
5:36 - 5:50 I didn't have to say, or I didn't learn poems for church, but I grew up in a family which read poetry. And I grew up encouraged to read and write poetry when-- I was one of these Transcription
5:50 - 6:05 hypersensitive children. And I cried at the drop of a hat. Beautiful sunset, I would, would reduce me to tears. And my mother always told people don't worry about Marilyn, she's our poet. She's very Transcription
6:05 - 6:06 sensitive, she's our poet. Transcription
6:06 - 6:06 So they gave you that label. I see, okay, okay. Transcription
6:07 - 6:23 Yes, yes, yes. So that's my sense of tradition. But one of the things I have been struggling to do in the last few years is to return to some of the traditional forms of poetry. I Transcription
6:23 - 6:33 mean, they're European forms, but they're traditions that for several generations of African Americans have inherited. Transcription
6:34 - 6:49 And so I've been writing in rhyme and meter again. And I think that's what-- I started doing it for many reasons. But one of the reasons was that I kept meeting people who would say, "I used to like Transcription
6:49 - 6:59 poetry, but I can't tell why poems are poems now. They seem like prose to me. Whatever happened to rhyme?" Transcription
6:59 - 6:60 So you're listening to your audience. Transcription
6:60 - 7:03 Yeah, yeah, I'm trying to, trying to. Transcription
7:03 - 7:16 We've been talking today a lot about why poets write and, that is, what are the factors that figure into the process, whether it's audience or whether it's the market, so clearly you Transcription
7:16 - 7:17 are paying attention to audience. Transcription
7:18 - 7:32 To audience. It seems to me to be important to be writing for somebody. For people I-- when I was in my 20s, I had-- one of my great uncle's was the president of Kentucky State. And he Transcription
7:32 - 7:44 was the patriarch of the family. And I used to send him poems and I sent him a batch of poems when I was in college, I think I was about a sophomore in college. And he wrote a very sweet letter back Transcription
7:44 - 7:52 asking me why young poets nowadays don't write poems that people like me can understand. And I thought, Transcription
7:53 - 8:09 that's a really good question. Why shouldn't I be writing for someone? What kind of audience are we looking for, are we imagining if it's not this man? So I completely changed and started working hard Transcription
8:09 - 8:10 on writing accessible poems. Transcription
8:10 - 8:15 Well, the first poetry that you were writing, though, was not in this vein. Transcription
8:15 - 8:15 No. Transcription
8:15 - 8:28 So were there influences that you were, you know, that you saw in that poetry where people whose work you respected-- was it the train-- the MFA program that sent you in that Transcription
8:28 - 8:32 direction? What got you started in that line? And then, clearly, the shift occurs later. Transcription
8:32 - 8:43 No, I don't have an MFA, I didn't go to a writing program. And I think it was just, I was an English major, Transcription
8:43 - 8:44 Yeah. And we do teach English [inaudible]. Transcription
8:44 - 8:57 and I was sitting in classes where we were analyzing things to death. And I was trying to write things that could be analyzed to death. And it took a while to realize that that's not Transcription
8:57 - 8:58 necessary. Transcription
8:60 - 9:11 But the critics like that, because you've got awards, you've got nominations for national book awards. So clearly that tradition of writing was successful for you, if you want to use Transcription
9:11 - 9:13 the term success for that. Transcription
9:13 - 9:27 Although I hope that all of my published poems-- I mean this incident that I described happened before I was publishing, and I hope that the work I've published is accessible. I've Transcription
9:27 - 9:36 really struggled with that, trying to reach out to an audience to tell my little truths to a big audience. Transcription
9:37 - 9:50 A loaded question: what is your sense of where Black poetry is today? I hear what you say about what you want to do in terms of audience. What's your sense of where we are today? Are Transcription
9:50 - 10:01 we having a bigger impact? Are we-- do we have serious poets among us that we can look forward to another generation or so poetry, or, just how would you sum it up? Transcription
10:03 - 10:14 I'm not sure if I can sum it up because I don't have my finger on-- you'd have to have your finger on many pulses to be able to answer this question. One of the things that I think has Transcription
10:14 - 10:33 happened is that we, as-- if there was a movement, the Black Arts Movement, for example, it's become fragmented. Because so many, so many young poets now are studying in MFA programs where there are Transcription
10:33 - 10:36 only one or two African American students, Transcription
10:36 - 10:50 maybe one African American poet teaching them. So that we're divided, and a conference like Furious Flower is really important, because it brings people together, they're-- we need to have this kind Transcription
10:50 - 10:52 of communication. Transcription
10:52 - 11:06 I've been very, very much moved by teaching in the Cave Canem program for that reason, because it brings people together. So we have a dialogue, we can discover what we have in common, we can work Transcription
11:07 - 11:18 together in similar directions. I don't think we want to all be marching lockstep, but I think we can grow by exchanging ideas. Transcription
11:19 - 11:31 So the diffusion and dispersal effect, you think, has not necessarily been-- it may have provided good training for people but it may not have done a lot to nurture or, you know, a Transcription
11:31 - 11:33 tradition of Black poetry writing. Transcription
11:33 - 11:34 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Transcription
11:34 - 11:42 That's interesting. I'm going to have to stop. I'm enjoying this, and I wanna keep going. But I gotta stop. Transcription
11:43 - 11:51 Thank you. Oh, oh, if you just talk to each other, it's to get wide shots, for 30 seconds. Just talk, just say anything. Transcription
11:52 - 11:56 Well, I was just, I had all these other questions I wanted to ask but I don't want to ask them because she's gonna keep talking about them. Transcription
11:57 - 11:59 No, I know you have to run though. Transcription
11:60 - 12:06 I asked a question about genre. But is there another form that you, you know, are thinking of writing in? Transcription
12:07 - 12:08 Other than poetry, or what? Transcription
12:08 - 12:15 Well I mean, the poetry, as you say-- children's literature is another form, that's what I'm talking about-- genre. In that sense, I don't want to use the word genre, because of the Transcription
12:15 - 12:25 way you explained it. But would you do, for instance, plays? Would you want to, you know, write-- because the poet, poetic voice can also be there. And so that other genre is-- Transcription
12:25 - 12:34 I would like to, but I have a sister who writes plays and directs them. So I've been very careful not to step over into her territory. Transcription
12:34 - 12:35 Boundaries! Boundaries, boundaries. Transcription
12:35 - 12:46 Yes, yes. We did work together on a musical and with our brother who's a musician. She wrote the book. And she wrote some of the lyrics, and I wrote some of the lyrics and he did the Transcription
12:46 - 12:51 music. But otherwise, I feel like I'll stay-- I'll respect our boundaries. Transcription
12:51 - 12:54 You'll stay where you are. Yeah. That's right, yeah. Transcription
12:54 - 12:55 That is the thing with sisters, you know, you do-- Transcription
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Marilyn Nelson Interview, 9/24/2004 (FF139) at JMU Scholarly Commons.

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