A Profile of Marilyn Nelson, Poet Extraordinaire

By Patrick, Lisa; Bandré, Patricia E. | Language Arts, November 2017 | Go to article overview

A Profile of Marilyn Nelson, Poet Extraordinaire


Patrick, Lisa, Bandré, Patricia E., Language Arts


Marilyn Nelson has been named the 2017 recipient of the NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Children Award. Established in 1977, the award honors the collective work of a living American poet whose audience is children ages 3-13. Nelson has won a number of other awards for her exemplary contributions to the field of poetry, including the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature and a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. Many of Nelson's books for children have received accolades, such as the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Newbery Honor Award, and the Michael L. Printz Honor Award. Recently, we were delighted to visit with Marilyn Nelson to congratulate her on receiving the NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Children Award, discuss certain aspects of her work, talk about some of her recent projects, and glean her advice for sharing poetry.

Marilyn Nelson: Her Work as a Poet

We began our conversation with Nelson by discussing aspects of her writing. To start, we wondered about her decision to write poetry rather than prose. "I've always identified as a poet, not a prose writer, and I find writing prose very difficult-tedious, because I try to be as much of a perfectionist on the word-by-word level as I am in a poem, and it takes forever to write a paragraph."

Prose does, however, contribute to one of her books. In My Seneca Village (2015), Nelson included a short paragraph on the left-hand side of each double-page spread accompanied by a poem on the right-hand side. The lines read almost like stage directions, setting the scene for the poem that follows. In the collection, Nelson penned the imagined lives of the residents of Seneca Village, a community of African Americans and people from other ethnic groups that existed from 1825 to 1857 in the Upper West Side of New York City. Razed under the guise of eminent domain, the land became what is currently Central Park. Initially, Nelson explained, she wrote the prose passages to help a potential illustrator visualize the scene: "I was trying to describe that they were the same people appearing over the course of the poem." After showing it to her publisher, a decision was made to publish the passages alongside the poems, rather than to include illustrations. The passages "were not written to be beautiful. They were written to be clues about what I was seeing. One of the many good points about doing this is that you get to imagine these people. You have to create them in your mind; whereas, if it had been illustrated by a painter, you would only be able to see that painter's vision. It gives you a lot more room to imagine." The idea to publish the passages, Nelson says, "was a stroke of genius."

Although Nelson has written many types of poems incorporating a variety of poetic forms, she considers some more challenging than others. While writing A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), Nelson explains, "The form almost killed me." Writing the book was an amazing experience, but the sheer number of rhymes prompted her to vow "never to do anything like that again." The book is written in a heroic crown of sonnets, a form in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet. The final sonnet is composed of the first lines from the preceding fourteen sonnets. According to Nelson: "The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter" (Engberg, 2005, p. 970), that of a 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a White woman.

Sweethearts of Rhythm (2009), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, challenged Nelson in a different way. For their story of the greatest all-girl swing band in the world, she and Pinkney agreed to do something that neither had ever done before. For Pinkney, it was adding collage to his repertoire of illustration media. For Nelson, it was writing poems in what she calls "triple meter." Writing in iambic pentameter, which Nelson describes as "double meter," comes easily for her; it is her natural internal rhythm. …

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