Marilyn Nelson is an acclaimed author and poet whose numerous contributions to children’s and young adult literature include Carver: A Life in Poems (Front, 13–16 years); A Wreath for Emmett Till (illus. by Philippe Lardy; Houghton, 13–16 years); and Freedom Business: Including a Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (illus. by Deborah Dancy; Boyds/Wordsong, 13–16 years). Her latest work is the semiautobiographical How I Discovered Poetry (illus. by Hooper Hadley; Dial, 11–14 years), a collection of sonnets about growing up in the 1950s and finding one’s poetic voice.
1. How did you do your research for How I Discovered Poetry? Did you go back through family records and photo albums, or was most of your writing based on memory?
MN: I did quite a lot of library research, reading ten years’ worth of all the popular magazines in the university library’s special collections. Much of the writing is based on that research. Sometimes I invented “memories” to tell historical anecdotes. For instance, though I know I got a polio shot, I do not remember it. Nor do I remember my parents discussing the lynching of Emmett Till.
2. Through your poetry you’ve shown that words can move, heal, change, revolutionize, and even save. What, to you, are some of the most powerful words?
MN: Do you mean my most powerful words? Or most powerful words in general? Hate speech contains powerful words, words that are taboo. But in most cases, words are most powerful when used in combination.
3. Throughout your career, you’ve cast a wide net of perspectives — men, women, and children; mothers; slaves; even an oak tree. What was it like to write an entire book with yourself as the subject?
MN: Although the book is kind of a memoir, I thought of myself as writing a book about the 1950s, from a child’s perspective. Even though some of the poems are “about” me, I made a point in the afterword of telling young readers that they should think of the speaker as “the Speaker,” not as me. In “A Snake,” for example, the final statement — “When you die, you go to a different school” — is based on something I read about how young children understand death, not on something I actually thought.
4. One of the most memorable vignettes in How I Discovered Poetry is when you mishear “hydrogen bomb” (“hide drajen bomb”). In that small moment you capture the fear and confusion of air raids and cast it through the eyes of a child. Does your approach change when you’re writing in a child’s voice?
MN: Since my memory extends that far back only in spots, I relied more on imagination and research when writing the young child’s voice. For the poem “Bomb Drill (Lackland AFB, Texas, 1952)” I invented the misunderstanding of “hide drajen,” and then the connection the child makes to students hiding under desks, and the further connection to the tiger in Little Black Sambo [Ed: “Maybe drajens would turn into butter / if they ran really fast around a tree,” the way the tigers chasing Sambo turn to butter.] Except for trying to remain true to the child’s limited understanding and the gaps in her knowledge, this approach is no different from writing a poem in an older, more sophisticated voice.
5. You moved around a lot as a child — all over the country in fact. Do you have a favorite place? Or a place you’d like to revisit as an adult?
MN: The more places I’ve seen, the more I want to see again. Of places we lived when I was a child, my favorites were Kittery Point, Maine, and Denver, Colorado. Places I saw and would like to revisit: the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Big Sur.