Chapters and Verse

S itting at a table in the cheerful sun room of her East Haven home, sipping from a mug of coffee small enough to wrap her hand all the way around, poet Marilyn Nelson weaves one tale after another. Some are family stories: Her father, one of the only Black officers on his air base, is playing poker with some friends, when one says to him sincerely, “If you ever come down to Tuscaloosa, you can come into my house and stay in my house. You can come in the front door, too.” Then he adds, “Of course, after you leave, I’ll have to burn down the house, because if I don’t, my neighbors will.”

Others are stories from Black American history, distilled into poetry. Nelson spent much of her five years as Connecticut’s poet laureate retelling the history of our state in verse. In The Freedom Business (2008), for example, she writes of Venture Smith: born Broteer Furro in Africa, captured at the age of six, shipped to North America and enslaved until, as an adult, he earned enough money to purchase his freedom. He went on to free his family and several others and become a Connecticut landowner. With the poet Elizabeth Alexander, Nelson has told the story of educator Prudence Crandall of Canterbury, Connecticut, whose school for Black girls was destroyed by local residents. Reaching beyond her home state, Nelson has published a biography in poetry about George Washington Carver and written the story of Emmett Till using the form of a heroic crown of sonnets, a project that “stretched” her.

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Nelson has been a poet almost as long as she can remember. In “How I Discovered Poetry,” she tells the story of the betrayal that taught her what language could do. “It was like soul-kissing, the way the words / Filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk,” begins a poem that seems it will celebrate a teacher who taught the girl to love language. But seeing young Marilyn’s emotional response to the reading, Mrs. Purdy the next day chose a special poem for her only Black student.

She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,

said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder

until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing

darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished

my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent

to the buses, awed by the power of words.

Much of Nelson’s poetry is suffused with the experience of growing up as a middle-class Black girl in a life of “not economic privilege but experiential privilege, which many African-Americans can’t experience.” Nelson has earned an Ivy League undergraduate degree and a PhD, lived in Europe, traveled in Africa. “There’s a lot there that requires unpacking, and I always feel a little bit apologetic about it,” she admits, describing herself as both “incredibly lucky” but also “alienated by my luck.”

Her newest work, a picture book for children titled Papa’s Free Day Party (2021), tells a personal story both tragic and redemptive—that of her grandfather, whose family house was burned by the Ku Klux Klan when he was six years old. “Everything was on fire, and his parents were saying, ‘Go north. Run! Go north,’” Nelson recounts in our conversation. While fleeing, he was separated from his little brother. “He got to the Mississippi River and was standing on the shore of the river, crying because he didn’t know what to do,” when a white man asked where his parents were, Nelson says. When he heard the boy’s story, he brought him home and raised him alongside his own son. Years later, as a young man, Nelson’s grandfather was working on a ferry when two passengers harassed him, and he threw them overboard. Concerned for his safety, his adoptive family “put him on a train going west with money that was the equivalent of an inheritance and with some of their livestock.” He wound up in the all-Black town of Boley, Oklahoma, where he became one of its most respected citizens. An Afterword in the book brings the story full circle to a Zoom family reunion that introduced the descendants of Nelson’s grandfather and his white adoptive brother. “This is, I think, a story worth telling,” she insists.

Nelson never intended to write for children, though she has embraced that audience. She does intend to write poetry that everyone can enjoy. As a college student, she sent some poems to her great uncle, the president of Kentucky State College, who thanked her for them and then asked, “Why is it that poets nowadays don’t write poems that people like me can understand?” If even a college president found her lines baffling, Nelson wondered, then who were they for? “I really believe in writing poetry that’s accessible,” she says. “I think poetry works on a lot of different levels, and children may only get the first and second level. There are a dozen levels that the poet is conscious of.” And, she adds, there are others, bubbling up from the subconscious.

Throughout much of her career, Nelson was also a teacher, first at the University of Minnesota and later, for 24 years, at the University of Connecticut, from which she retired in 2002. She’s the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Connecticut Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in Service to the Literary Community. On occasion, she still teaches a private writing workshop, but she objects to the method of teaching via prompts. You can’t just pluck a poem out of the air from an idea someone hands to you, she says. “The original idea may be inspiration, but the rest of it is really damned hard work—finding the right words. I write, for the most part, rhythmical if not metrical verse. I like rhymes. That’s really hard.”

Her poetry also requires research. To demonstrate, she rummages in the next room and returns with a yellow legal pad on which she’s jotted two columns of ideas for her next project, many of which will require her to dig up further information. Her newest collection, due out in 2022, is another biography, this one about the sculptor Augusta Savage, “a pillar of the Harlem Renaissance.” The book will include photographs of Savage’s works next to the poems they inspired.

The poet who writes and the sculptor who is her subject might well be said to share a kinship, reflected in some of the lines Nelson has penned to tell Savage’s story:

I once wondered where

it comes from, this hunger

to pull something out of yourself,

like the spider spinning the thread that

leads through time’s labyrinthine corridors.

But then the ache became as much myself as

the syllables “Augusta Christine Fells Savage.” Me.

And my thread keeps following me, telling my history,

leaving a trail perhaps someone will someday follow…

Marilyn Nelson
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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