After many different experiences over many years in her craft, award winning poet and author Marilyn Nelson is still going strong.
“I started writing in elementary school; I wrote in fits and starts over the years, but it’s a lifelong passion,” Marilyn says, “It’s a vocation.”
When Marilyn started writing poetry, she says it was about random things that interested her. One of Marilyn’s early books was called The Homeplace, a National Book Award finalist, was a collection of poems about her family’s history.
“Doing this historical research just piqued my interest in history,” Marilyn says.
One of the next things she began working on was a biography of the inventor George Washington Carver, called Carver: A Life in Poems. Marilyn says that some of the challenges she faces when writing include finding the information and doing the research, and used her Carver book as an example.
She says she had to make several research trips to Carver museums in Alabama and Missouri, which she says was actually a great experience because she got to hold things instead of just getting information online.
One thing in particular was letter from Albert Einstein, which stated he supported the idea of a museum for Carver, and Marilyn got to touch Einstein’s signature with her own hands.
“I still am moved by that,” Marilyn says, “Not only holding things like Carver’s slippers and glasses, but it was one step away from Einstein.”
Another challenge, she says, is finding a voice that people would believe. She recalled one of her works was about a swing band in the U.S. during World War II, in which she told the story of the band through the voices of the instruments. As a non-musician, she needed more information.
“I had to actually learn the instruments—how they work, how to play them,” Marilyn says. “That was a huge challenge.”
Although the Carver book was written as poetry, a publisher who published only books for children and young adults became interested and wanted to publish it, which Marilyn allowed him to do. The book was named a Newbery Medal Honor Book in 2002, and is in many textbooks about children’s literature.
“Because of that, I’ve pretty much stayed with one foot in the regular poetry world, and one foot in the children’s literature world,” Marilyn says.
Marilyn says the reception of her books and winning prizes for them is “wonderfully rewarding,” but another rewarding aspect for her is that since many of her books come out as young adult books, she is able to meet with middle school level students and talk to children about her works.
She recalled one instance when after her book on the swing band came out, she was at a middle school for a reading, and the school’s swing band played for her before her reading, which she says was wonderful.
“They’re just extremely charming,” Marilyn says about the students she’s met.
In addition to her books, Marilyn has taught in the English department at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. She was even the Connecticut poet laureate, which she says is an honorary position given to honor a local poet, for from 2001 to 2006.
“When I was poet laureate, I was asked to write a poem for the inauguration of the governor, Jodi Rell,” Marilyn says.
Before she was poet laureate, she used to offer a poem writing service where her poems would be auctioned off by local non-profit organizations to help raise funds for the organizations. She would also meet with individual people, who would tell her what they wanted the poem for, and she would write one for whatever the individual wanted.
“Usually they were bought by adult children for their parents, like their 90th birthday,” Marilyn says.
She brought up another instance where an adult child bought one for her parents, who had been married for about 15 years, got divorced, but fell in love again after a few years and got married a second time. The person wanted a poem for her parent’s two wedding anniversaries.
“Actually, that’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as poet is writing poems to people’s specifications,” Marilyn says while offering another example: “‘Write poems about our two children, describe the children, and we’ll frame it and put it on our walls.’ That’s really meaningful.”
For her next work, she is currently collaborating with a composer on a book that will be about the orchestra.
Marilyn encourages anyone who interested in poetry to read poetry and learn about the craft. She also says to get a notebook, carry it around, and take notes on observations.
After living in East Haddam for 15 years, Marilyn came to East Haven about a year ago so she could be closer to the train station and airport, as she does a lot of traveling for readings.
While she is happy here, she says she misses hearing spring peeper frogs and having deer walk up to her windows. Other than the noise of loud motorcycles, she does say she likes hearing people work.
“I like the fact that it’s more like city life, and I’ve never lived like this before,” Marilyn says.