I was especially excited to speak to Marilyn because many of her books are focused on African American history, are research based, and are about real people. As a person just beginning to delve into the world of research and interview based poetry focused on an American experience, it was amazing to hear about her process and how much work goes into each poem and each book. If anything, talking to such an accomplished and talented poet made me realize how much work I have ahead of me.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
On balancing history, poetry, and social justice themes:
I don't think I could pull anyone of those threads out and say it was more important than the others because they are all apart of the fabric of the poems. These last several books are based on historical research. And what I am doing is telling true historical stories, and it is important to me to be true to history. And because I'm writing about African American history, these–what you're calling–social justice themes are involved because that's what African American history is about in a kind of general way. And I want to make them poetry because I'm a poet. If I could write prose maybe I would write them as prose, but I don't write prose. And if I'm going to write history, I'm going to write poems about history. What I'm trying to say is all these things are involved. I wouldn't choose to not be true to history, in order to--i don't know--making something rhyme.
On writing persona poems:
Let's look at Fortune's Bones. The story is about a skeleton that is in the collection of a museum in Waterbury, Conn. The museum asked me to write a poem to honor this skeleton because the museum had some research done about the skeleton, and researchers found that it was the remains of an 18th century slave. He was owned by a doctor, a bonesetter, and they found out that this man, Fortune, and his wife Dinah and their several children were enslaved in the doctor's household around 1740-1750. Fortune died, and the doctor took his body to a hill outside of town and performed an illegal dissection. It was against the law to perform a human dissection in the 18th century. The doctor performed the dissection and then prepared the bones by stripping the flesh from it, drilling holes in the long bones, and boiling all of them to free them from flesh, then reassembled all of them and hung them in his house for a little medical school. And my first thought was what would it be like to be Dinah, Fortune's wife? To be living with her husband's skeleton living in the house? What would it be like to be trapped in a house where you are considered subhuman? And to have to do the housework including–probably–sweeping around and dusting your husband's skeleton. What would that be like? So I had the story, there's no record of what this woman must have felt like, but the historians know that she continued in this house. It required me only to imagine what a human being would feel like, what a woman would feel with her husband's skeleton hanging in a room.
On the importance of history:
I'm telling parts of history that need to be told and retold. It's where we get our identity from. It's important for everyone to learn about American history. These are all parts of American history. These stories are gifts to me. I've been lucky to take the time to do the research and write up these really terrific stories. The fact that the stories are written in poems, means they are being read by people that might not pick up a history book.
Click here to listen to the complete interview..
It was such a treat to speak to a woman like Marilyn Nelson who finds history, art, and the human experience so important. I believe as she said that this history is American history, and not soley African American history, just I think the history of immigration is American history as well. It is these aspects–not our military and foreign policy–that make our country unique. It is important for us to remember our past, and to remind ourselves of the human experience that has built this country.
Marilyn Nelson's newest book,Sweethearts of Rhythm, tells the tale of an all-female interracial swing band from the 1940s, is now available in bookstores and online.