Three-Time National Book Award Finalist. Two-Time Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner. Former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. Those are just a handful of the ways to describe Marilyn Nelson.
Nelson is the author or translator of twelve books and three chapbooks. Her first book for young people, Carver: A Life In Poems (Front Street, 2001) won the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Nelson was also awarded her second Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Coretta Scott King Honor for A Wreath For Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); the book was also recognized as a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.
Her latest book, The Freedom Business (Wordsong, 2008), has received starred review from both Booklist and Kirkus, with Kirkus calling Nelson’s work, “An astonishing, heartbreaking cycle of poems…”
The recipient of three honorary doctorates, Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and serves as founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony.
Please welcome Marilyn Nelson to Day 18 of 28 Days Later:
Most of your collections of poetry for young people, such as Carver, A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001) and A Wreath for Emmitt Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), focus on biographies and true events. What draws you to non-fiction?
I’m interested in the stories contained in US history. It’s not so much history that draws me; it’s more the personal stories of actual people, and what can be learned from them.
Do you find that you approach poetry for young people differently that do you would poetry for adults?
Not really, except that I wouldn’t write about sex in a collection for young people. But I don’t write about sex, anyway!
Your latest book of poetry, The Freedom Business, chronicles the life of Venture Smith, an African sold into slavery that eventually purchased his and his family’s freedom. What attracted you to this project?
Venture Smith spent much of his adult life, and is buried, in East Haddam, CT, the little town in which I live. He is something of a “local hero.” When I moved to town, pretty much everyone I met asked whether I was planning to write about him. I had never heard of him before that.
The layout of the The Freedom Business features the text from Venture Smith’s narrative of his life on one page, and your poetry on the opposite page. How did this unique layout come about?
You are also the founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, an organization established to “encourage and support emerging and established poets – especially those belonging to traditionally underrepresented racial or cultural groups.” What inspired you to found this program?
The experience of being “the only one” at several larger artists’ colonies, and the experience of being on the faculty of Cave Canem, the wonderful organization which exists to encourage and support African American poets. I’m especially interested in fostering community for ethnic writers at Soul Mountain, in offering, albeit on a much smaller scale, an opportunity for them to share some of the spirit of camaraderie which Cave Canem poets share.
Can you tell us a little about any upcoming projects?
Several books are forthcoming:
Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009), a book of poems about an integrated all-girls swing band which toured the country during WWII.
Beautiful Ballerina (Scholastic, 2009), a picture-book about ballet, featuring African American dancers.
Snook Alone (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a dog marooned on a desert island.
Seneca Village (Dial, forthcoming), a book of poems about a nineteenth century African American village in Manhattan.
The Baobab Room (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a boy playing inside a baobab tree.
Learn more about Marilyn Nelson at the following locations: