Marilyn Nelson’s poems explore the history and landscape of the American experience, particularly the African-American experience. Her thoughtful, inquisitive poems span a broad range of forms and subjects, from free-verse poems in the voice of a monk, Abba Jacob, to a crown of sonnets written as a memorial for Emmett Till. In Part I of this interview, she discusses the role of community in a writer’s life, especially the kind of community she aims to foster at Soul Mountain Retreat, a writers’ colony she founded. In Part II, she discusses a poet’s approach to language and race. She also discusses her most recent work and upcoming projects.
The Other Journal (TOJ): How was your year at Soul Mountain Retreat? What are you excited about that happened there and what do you have planned that’s coming up?
Marilyn Nelson (MN): We had a good summer with Native American poets here for ten days in June and then a group of African American poets for the month of July. August is pretty much downtime, and right now [September 2009] I have a couple of African American women poets here. When they leave, I will have a group of faculty here to spend a three-day working weekend developing a new course. And then I have a couple of Connecticut poets coming in for a few weeks, and then I’ll close it down for the winter.
So it’s been an active summer. I’m hoping to have some promising meetings with people who believe it will be possible to pull through this economic downtime and help Soul Mountain to survive, and I don’t know whether that will happen, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
TOJ: Tell me more about Soul Mountain. What’s unique about it?
MN: It’s a small artists’ colony, a writers’ colony. I’m particularly interested in making space for poets. I have room for six people at a time, and I’m particularly interested in enabling poets who come from underrepresented groups, giving them the opportunity to live and write together in community. Because usually, most of the artists’ colonies in the country—all of them, to my knowledge—are what we want to think of as generic, but that means they’re 99 percent white. And so if you are a writer from an underrepresented group, then you’ll be one out of forty, or one out of one hundred twenty, or two out of twenty. What I can do is give six writers who come from similar backgrounds time to live together in community and talk about their communities and how their writing comes from their communities and serves their communities. It’s a way of helping them grow and helping them find their vocation as writers who have a special gift of identity.
It’s open to all who apply, yet I also try to set aside time for groups, and these groups are usually invited. I set aside July for people who gradate from the Cave Canem summer workshop program. Right now I am trying to make a plan for next spring and summer with Kundiman and with an organization called RAWI, which is an Arab American writers’ association.
TOJ: What are the conversations that happen at Soul Mountain like?
MN: Well, I don’t participate in all of them. I give them space, and it’s my home. Occasionally we have meals together, and I’ll participate in some things, but it’s not my intention to be at the center of everything.
Just this evening we were talking about the fact that so many young African American poets are writing about history, picking up historical stories and telling them. And I was just saying that although history is an inexhaustible subject, it might be time for us to start looking into other aspects of our culture. So we were talking about Amos ‘n’ Andy; we were talking about media and the portrayal of African Americans, because this is a group of African American women here now. And we’re just saying that we all grew up laughing at Amos ‘n’ Andy on television, and there were sayings that came from that show which were like family sayings, and we were all just laughing about that. That’s the sort of conversation that would be very unlikely to happen if I were the one African American writer at Yaddo.
That’s just a little example, but something like that can come up, and it gives people a sense of something that they might be doing as writers. It’s discovering there’s a whole body of shared experience that can be mined for meaning. What I am trying to do is help these people discover the mine of shared experience that they have.
I also have been working with a group of women who are military brats. I met a woman, we started talking about being military brats and writing about it, and growing out of that conversation is an anthology they’re working on of poetry by military brats. That’s a unique experience; we grew up moving around all the time, and being really proud if our dad was an officer, and living in a very hierarchical community. That’s something that frankly I wouldn’t have even have thought about if I hadn’t run into this woman and had this little conversation.
TOJ: So what role have these communities of writers and conversations played for you as a writer?
MN: I only discovered these communities very late in my writing career. I only discovered Cave Canem maybe five or six years ago when I was asked to be on the faculty. It didn’t exist when I was struggling with my identity as a writer; there was nothing like that. I remember that the first evening at Cave Canem as a faculty member I could hardly help looking around with my mouth open, because I had never in my entire life been in a community of African American writers. So it’s only begun to play a part in my life very late.
My writing has come pretty much in solitude. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t have a community. I had mentors but they weren’t African American, so I pretty much found my way by myself.
TOJ: Were there other communities that played a role in your development as a writer?
MN: When I first started writing I was in a writing group of six or eight other women, and that was a helpful guide, and after that group I took part in a workshop that was offered by Etheridge Knight that was called the Free People’s Poetry Workshop in Minneapolis which lasted a couple of years. It was very helpful; it was instrumental in helping me find my way. There are a couple of writers whose work I very much respect—David Wojahn, Kate Green, and Mary Karr—who were in that group. So I wasn’t in isolation; I was only in isolation as an African American, the only one in these previous groups.
TOJ: Could you imagine a world where something like Cave Canem had existed for you as a young writer—what would that have been like for you? How would American poetry be different if something like that had existed forty years ago?
MN: Well, we’ll have to see how it’s different forty years from now. When I first started going to the AWP conference (in Boston in about 1980), I don’t think there were more than three writers of color at that entire convention. And now there’s Cave Canem, and there are African American writers teaching on the faculty of most of the MFA programs.
I just today posted on Facebook, which I am admittedly addicted to, a picture of my mother with her class of maybe third- or fourth-graders in 1955 on an Air Force base in California. There’s my mother sitting at her teacher’s desk, and there are maybe twenty-five kids around her and they’re all white. And just today, I posted that picture on Facebook and suggested that maybe some of my Facebook friends would like to think about the lives of those kids and write poems in their voices, just exploring the question of how these kids might have been impacted by this situation. This was 1955, and there were all these white kids with a black teacher. What were their lives like? Did they go home at night and have their parents say, “All right, what did your n-word teacher tell you today,” or how did it change them? Who are they now, now that they’re in their sixties and she was probably the only African American teacher they had?
I’m asking people to think about it, because fifty years from now, our country is going to be like those children, because Obama is like our teacher, and what is that going to do to us? I think it can only do good things.
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