The Poetics of Listening: An Interview with Marilyn Nelson

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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“We must bear witness to atrocity,” writes Marilyn Nelson in her crown of sonnets dedicated to Emmett Till, “A Wreath for Emmett Till.” She continues, “We are whole. We can speak what we see.” And Nelson’s work — clear eyed, accessibly and piercingly languaged, and unflinching in its confrontation of history’s horrors — absolutely abides by this mandate. The penultimate sonnet of the series offers these lines:

Like wildflowers growing beside the path
A boy was dragged along, blood spattering
Their white petals as he, abandoning
All hope, gasped his agonizing last breath.

Here, the poem is both gentle and firm in guiding and holding the reader’s gaze to the terrible action. The wildflowers and their white petals offer their fleeting solace of beauty while also standing in for the whiteness that stands idly by while black bodies are tortured. Till is a boy in this quatrain, the flowers and petals surrounding him symbols of innocence and fragility. In Nelson’s rendering, his humanness proves undeniable as he bleeds, breathes, and hopes, even as his blood, breath and heart are being taken from him.

While Nelson advocates for seeing, her path to action is also marked by deep and open listening. This is demonstrated most clearly in her several persona poems and dramatic monologues in which she gracefully channels the voices of her subjects, understanding that her own voice must move out of the way to fully realize theirs. In Fortune’s Bones, her collection about the remains of an enslaved man, which were non-consensually appropriated to science by his master, a bonesetter, Nelson writes poems from several points of view, including Fortune himself, his wife, and the man to whom Fortune “belonged.” Speaking from the perspective of the white slaveowner/bonesetter, Nelson writes in “On Abrigador Hill,”

… the first cut takes my breath away;
It feels like cutting the whole world —
It falls open like bridal gossamer.

While this is undoubtedly a challenging persona to inhabit, Nelson captures with acuity and without judgement the slaveowner’s fascination with his project. Prior to these lines, he acknowledges Fortune as human, but barely, describing the corpse before him as “the former body of my former slave, / which served him who served me …,” which certainly, if convolutedly, lays claim to the enslaved body in life and in death. The sonic anaphora of “It feels” and “It falls” that comes later clues us in to how completely enthralled this man is with the possibilities of “the whole world” he is cutting into, and the tragic fact that in his eyes, Fortune is no more than an object, albeit a fascinating one.

Nelson’s work is an invitation to be actively engaged with the world and all of its stories: to listen, to witness, and to speak.

As judge of the 2018 Furious Flower Poetry Prize, Nelson read at JMU with her selections, winner Heather Treseler and honorable mention Keith Wilson. We spoke in the studio, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of parts of that conversation.

The poem has the ability to invite you into an experience. The poem reduces the experience to a few words and intensifies it, kind of like simmering a broth until the taste is stronger.

What makes the poem in particular — as a genre, as a form — such a useful or good vehicle for history? Why the poem as opposed to another form?

I’m not sure the poem is more useful as a vehicle than prose, but the poem has the ability to invite you into an experience. The poem reduces the experience to a few words and intensifies it, kind of like simmering a broth until the taste is stronger. And the poem kind of does that, boils experience down to its essence.

So, thinking about the idea of persona, you walk in so many different shoes across the span of your career as a poet. Has adopting all these different masks revealed anything to you about yourself or your own voice as a writer?

Well, I’m not so much interested in writing about myself, so my voice as a writer, I think, is the voice of someone who has the ability or the interest at least in writing, inhabiting different voices. It’s kind of like being an actor, and an actor is someone who can inhabit other characters, and an actor can change their face, can change their voice, can change the way they move, and that’s what acting is about. And in many ways I think of what I’m doing as a kind of verbal acting.

So the idea of persona really is something that is put on and taken off without any sort of bleed through?

I hope. (Laughs.) Although I’ve never written about anybody really evil, I remember reading once an interview with James Earl Jones in which he said that one of the things he would like to do is to play a really evil character. Eh. I don’t think I want to do that.

What was the persona that was hardest for you? Which persona did you struggle with the most and why?

I wrote a book about George Washington Carver, and I had a very hard time allowing myself to take on the Carver mask because it was clear from the outset that he was a genius, and I just felt like it was presumptive for me to try to write in the voice of somebody who was such a genius, who was so much smarter than I am. It took me probably until a third of the way through the book to dare to write in his voice. The first part of that book is written in the voices of people around him who could tell stories about him, so that I could tell his life without inhabiting him.

What helped you make the leap into his voice?

I think it was just after living with him for a long time, I came to understand him and he started talking to me and saying, It’s okay. It’s all right. You can do this. He became a dear familiar.

That’s funny because my next question is literally, “Who is the voice in your head when you write?”

It’s kind of hard to explain. I’ve noticed I’ve seen several essays or interviews with fiction writers who will say things like, “Well, I wanted the character to do this,” or “The character wouldn’t do it,” and every time I’ve read something like that, I’ve thought, That’s strange. But it does happen that the character kind of tells you what is going to happen, especially characters you don’t know. With Carver, I lived with him for about five years. Most of the other projects I’ve done have not required that level of commitment, so when I’m writing about characters I don’t know, I … Okay, for example, in my book Seneca Village, which is about a village in Manhattan in the early 19th century, one of the characters is a German composer who is clearly a little bit batty. I really didn’t know him that well; I did as much research as I could about him and then I just trusted that I could write in his voice. He surprised me! Some of the things he said went in directions I didn’t expect.

How do you engage research? And are there moments when it’s in tension with the writing you want to do?

I think that for me the tension is allowing or forcing myself to stop doing research. History is so full of interesting little detours, and you can get involved in going off on a detour and spend a couple of weeks over there, and I sometimes have to force myself to stop. It’s kind of like doing family research or any genealogical research. I did a book about my family history, and I had to stop because I could see it could eat up the rest of my life [because] it was so interesting. And with Seneca Village, the same thing happened; I had to get to the end of that book because I could see that if I didn’t just cut it off, I could spend the rest of my life writing about these characters I had invented. They were interesting to me, and I fell in love with them. One of the characters — I was writing from names and occupations I found in the census records — was a boy who was about 10 years old when I first encountered him, so I wrote a couple of poems about him as a boy. And I really liked him. So then I wrote a couple poems about him as a young man, and then I started thinking, Well, what would happen to him? And I thought, Maybe he’ll go west and maybe he’ll wind up in California. So I wrote some poems in which he is going to California, and then he’s in San Francisco, and I could have gone on writing the whole rest of his life. I had him disappear in San Francisco because I didn’t want to be that caught up in his life.

Would you say he was your favorite persona?

He was one of my favorites, yes. I really did love him.

You’ve had so many books and a very full poetic career; what are some of the most memorable junctures along that journey? What are some moments that were transformative or just memorable?

One of them is the fact of my Carver biography. I intended it to be just a normal poetry book about George Washington Carver, and I was planning for it to be published as an ordinary book of poems with print on white pages. But I met somebody [again whom] I had met about ten years earlier, and in the interim he had become a publisher of children’s books. When I met him then the second time, he said, “Let’s do a book together.” I sent him everything I had that was appropriate for children, and he didn’t like any of it. Finally, I said, “Well, what I’ve got is half a book about George Washington Carver. It’s not for children; it’s real poetry.” And he said, “Let me see it.” I sent him this unfinished manuscript, and he said, “I’d like to publish this.” I was afraid this would be the end of my career as a poet! Who’s gonna read a book of poems for children? But I let him do it — gladly let him do it — and it changed my life. It was extremely successful, and other publishers started coming to me with projects they thought I could write because I had done this Carver book. I suddenly became a children’s book writer or a writer of books for young adults, and I have a couple of textbooks about children’s literature that are used to teach children’s literature in schools of education. My Carver book is described as a turning point in American children’s literature. Who knew? So that was memorable.

And then with Fortune’s Bones, I’ve had a lot of wonderful luck. This book came to me because the skeleton [of Fortune, a slave] is in the collection of a historical museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the director of the museum asked me if I would write some poems to honor this skeleton. They had already done the research, and she gave me a pile of printed materials; they had had forensic scholars and historians do research about the skeletons. All I had to do was extract the poetry out of the research. I’ve had several projects that came to me like that, as gifts. And really, they really felt like gifts from on high. I don’t know how many of them you want to me to describe, but there have been several. A couple of times research information has just fallen into my lap — I wonder what this boy’s name was? Bingo! A local historian sends me a letter saying, Oh, that boy you were interested in, his name was … It’s been fun.

Do you have any encounters you would describe as transformative with individual poems, ones that changed your interior trajectory?

I have several in the writing of Seneca Village. That book taught me things. There’s one in the book about my family history. I have a poem in which my great grandfather is conceived: his mother was enslaved and his father was a white man who didn’t own her, and the story that my family has passed on was that this was not a plantation rape, but a relationship. They had two children together and he gave her a house later. I don’t know anything about the relationship; all I know is the myth that went on in the family. So I was writing about this scene in which he stumbles to her cabin one night, and it’s a sonnet, and when I wrote the last two lines the rhyme is, And it wasn’t rape in spite of her raw terror and his whip. When I wrote that couplet I was scared. I thought, I can’t write this. I can’t publish this because it so flies in the face of everything that we believe. And yet it just felt like I was saying something that I needed to say. So that’s something that, you know, you write the word and then you go, (gasps).

So that just gave me goose bumps. What was the last thing that you read that stopped your breath or gave you goose bumps?

The last thing that I read that really impressed me is a novel by a German novelist named Jenny Erpenbeck. It’s a novel in which an elderly retired German professor gets involved in the lives of a group of refugees, most of them from Sudan, some of them from the middle east. He gets involved in their lives and at the end of the novel, this group of refugees is kicked out of the place they’ve been camping, and this professor moves over and starts sleeping on the couch and moves people into his home. It’s a novel that shows something about the possibility of humanism, the possibility that we seem to be constantly telling ourselves is impossible. Maybe it’s an impossible fantasy, but I was very touched by the novelist’s willingness. 

So, you taught for a long time, but you no longer teach as much, so do you miss the classroom? What did you enjoy the most or least about teaching and teaching poetry in particular?

I’ve seen students have that ah-ha experience when I’m able to show them something that relates to their lives, something that they are experiencing.

I miss the classroom occasionally, but I don’t miss grading papers. What I most liked about teaching was teaching literature classes, when in discussions of something, a poem for example, I could see students eyes get big — Wow! — they’d never thought that before. I taught one semester at West Point, a wonderful experience, and it was a poetry class: in one discussion we were talking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night.” I said, “It’s written in terza rima,” and I explained terza rima, and one of the cadets fell out of his chair! He was so surprised he just fell off of his chair! And I’ve seen that figuratively happen with students learning something, getting some insight — I mean, in the case of this cadet it was about the technique that the poet had used [and] he hadn’t been aware of as he’d read the poem, but I’ve seen students have that ah-ha experience when I’m able to show them something that relates to their lives, something that they are experiencing.

I was telling somebody recently about a class I taught (gosh, this was years ago!), in which I had carefully planned the syllabus but we reached the end of the syllabus before the end of the semester so we had another week, three class meetings, left. So on a Monday I said, “Well, you know we’ve done everything I planned for us to do during this semester, but we have these three days to talk, so what do you want to talk about?” And they said, “Let’s talk about sex.” So we had a serious conversation about love and relationships for an hour, and that was Monday. Wednesday, I said, “Okay, same thing: I haven’t planned anything. We’ve come to the end. You’ve learned and I’ve taught you everything I planned, so what do you want to talk about?” And they said, “Let’s talk about religion,” so we talked for an hour about religion. And on Friday, the last day of class I said, “Okay, so what do you wanna do?” And they said, “Let’s do what we’ve been doing.” I said, “What we’ve been doing? What do you mean?” They said, “You know, talking about the important things.” That was moving, talking about the important things — using literature and poetry to talk about the important things because teaching is not only about conveying information, it’s about helping people have some insight into the right ways of living. I do miss that.

I think people need to find their own paths and be true to their own paths, and I guess that would be my advice. Be true to the path that’s put in front of you. And speak the truth: don’t be afraid to say what you know is right.

What are some mistakes you see most frequently in beginning writers and what correctives do you offer when it’s creative writing or poetry?

There’s too much careerism, I think. Which I think is dangerous for a poet. I think you should just write, just open yourself to the muse and write the truth. I have this feeling that a lot of young poets are looking over their shoulder to see what the person next to them is writing, you know? And then trying to write the same thing. I think people need to find their own paths and be true to their own paths, and I guess that would be my advice. Be true to the path that’s put in front of you. And speak the truth: don’t be afraid to say what you know is right.

You said in an interview that social justice and beauty are your poetic paths, that those are the two bedrocks of your practice in poetics. I’m curious, is there ever tension between social justice and beauty or aesthetic?

Yes, of course. And I’m not sure which one to value over the other. Writing for social justice is what I think is writing the larger truth, and beauty, I think, comes accidentally when you write for a larger truth. Kind of like greatness: you don’t write to be great. Greatness is something that happens because you’re busy doing the right thing. You don’t say, “I’m going to win the Nobel Prize.” Instead, you choose to write your work on a small scale and to speak the truth that’s necessary to make people learn what justice is and why justice is important. To learn what respect is and why it’s important. Those are on the small, human level, and then if it’s intended for you then the larger — let’s call them rewards — come by themselves. You can’t aim for them. And I think too many people aim for them and are dissatisfied when they don’t receive the rewards that they think they deserve.

You said “of course” to the tension between social justice and beauty, and I want to push on that a little bit. Can you think of a moment or a poem where there was that tension and you felt like maybe you wrestled with it or had a choice to make around it? And how did you resolve that?

I wrote this poem about the lynching of Emmet Till, and I was very busy writing about that subject as I worked on that poem. But at some point, the poem started moving in a new direction over which I felt I didn’t have too much control: the poem started becoming a poem arguing against starting a war on Iraq. I didn’t plan that. I didn’t expect it. But it was right. And in that case, the poem’s dedication to social justice went hand in hand with the beauty of the form of the poem. So maybe, if one is lucky, the dedication to justice doesn’t move one away from beauty, but it leads one to a kind of higher beauty. I don’t know …

I want to go back to the sonnet. You love the sonnet: Why?

Several years ago, when I was teaching, I was asked to teach a brief seminar on the sonnet. So I did some research about the history of the sonnet, and one of the things I read is that the sonnet — the Petrarchan sonnet — came into existence as a way of replicating the perfect proportions of the Fibonacci sequence and the golden mean — the golden ratio, it’s also called — which you see in nature, in nebulas and in trees and in the proportions of the human face and in Greek temples; so that 8:6 ratio is an attempt to do that verbally. I was just blown away by the idea of trying to write a poem that is perfectly proportioned, and I started writing sonnets then as a way to trying to figure out how people were doing that. My experience with writing sonnets is that the more you write the more clearly you understand why these proportions are perfect. They are as perfect as is possible to create verbally. The fact there’s a turn, a logical turn that’s not [there] because a poet decides to put it [there] but because the form requires it, because it’s part of the turn in the proportions, I don’t know, I just really love that. My Emmet Till book is written in Petrarchan sonnets and it’s also a circle, because the circle is the other perfect form in nature, and I just really feel that there’s something unconscious in us that responds to things like that. We may not understand why, but we respond to a kind of physical beauty. We respond physically.

What are some things that you wish you’d learned early on as a poet?

I wish I had learned other languages; that’s one of my primary regrets. I wish I had really learned a couple of other languages. Because I think it would’ve made it possible for me to read poetry in other languages. I feel hampered by my inability to understand what’s happening in a poem in another language. I wish I had learned a language that’s more useful — French or Spanish; I learned German and Danish, gah! I think my poetry would be stronger if I were able to read poetry in another language.

What are some non-poetry things that sustain you?

I used to quilt, and that was a great joy; I must have made 20 or 25 quilts, and I loved the fact of producing something useful. And baking bread: I used to regularly bake bread that was also the art of usefulness. Most of what I do is words on paper, which, you know, you can take them or leave them, but a quilt you can sleep under, bread you can make a sandwich, so that’s sustaining. And living and having a life that is connected to the natural world: I don’t do that anymore — my joints have gotten bad. But I used to hike and backpack and cross-country ski, and I’m so glad I had years of doing those things. Hiking in the backcountry and sleeping in a tent — that was really nourishing.

What’s the thing that isn’t talked about enough when people talk about poetry?

Silence. I think most of us live lives that are full of noise, and most of the noise that surrounds us is meaningless. I am of the old school, which believes that poetry comes out of silence, and the way you invoke poetry is by learning how to silence all of those extraneous voices. Meditation is a good way to do that, and for some years I included periods of meditation in my creative writing classes because, you know, you get up in the morning, you turn on the radio or get in the car, and you’re listening to something, and we very seldom have enough quiet to even hear birds or to hear that kind of whooshing in your ear when you’re in a silent place and just listening, and you hear this kind of whoosh, like I don’t know what it is — maybe it’s the blood going through your veins, I don’t know what it is, but we’re very seldom quiet enough to hear that, that sound of silence, and I think it should be talked about more. That’s kind of ironic isn’t it?

You’ve been a poet laureate, and you serve as a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. What are some organizational conversations that are happening around poetry that you think are interesting, compelling, necessary, or that are just happening?

I think there is a lot of interest in encouraging young people to explore poetry. One of the things the Academy of American Poets is doing now is putting online videos of poets — the chancellors — reading poems and then inviting school children to write letters. I think it does two things: it encourages children to interact with poetry, and it also encourages them to interact with the poets themselves, so I think that’s very important.

And then I’ve been involved in a couple of schools in which schoolchildren have been encouraged to do their own historical research and write poems based on their research, which I think is so valuable because it teaches them about history. I was at a school someplace in Pennsylvania last week, where I was introduced to a project that took place in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg has a community that’s called the “old eighth ward.” It was a diverse community that was demolished between 1910 and 1920 in the expansion of the grounds of the state capitol building. This group of sixth graders was introduced to the idea of the history of the old eighth ward; they were given census records from 1910 and invited to write poems in the voices of these people who had lost their homes. I was at a reading in which 6th graders were reading their persona poems about these early 20th century people. It made me so proud: it was really impressive! And I’ve seen this done in several schools. It makes me very happy.

I know you’ve judged a lot of prizes including one for Furious Flower, and I know you read a lot, so what are some movements, or some trends you’ve been seeing in contemporary poetry? How would you frame what you see happening in our poetry of our time?

We’re producing a lot of small literary communities that are so small people don’t read each other’s work. There is not enough crossover. That makes me sad.

One of the things I have very mixed feelings about that I see happening is a special interest in writing about one’s very detailed personal identity. And on the one hand, I think that’s wonderful. But on the other hand, what I think I see (this is based entirely on Facebook, not research at all), is that we’re producing a lot of small literary communities that are so small people don’t read each other’s work. There is not enough crossover. That makes me sad. My graduate degree is in ethnic literature, and I was in the early days of multiethnic, multicultural literature, and I was one of the founding members of an organization called Multiethnic Literature of the United States. This was in the 1970s, and at that point people in that group were interested in reading each other, and I don’t think there is enough of that kind of crossover anymore. So if I am a bisexual, half-Black, half-Chicano writer, that’s who I’m gonna read, and that’s who I’m writing for. I really feel that that we’re losing something of interculturality, or cross-culturality; I may be wrong about this, but, I really don’t know how to think about it …

I keep seeing people on Facebook asking things, like, the other day somebody posted something asking, What poets are writing about fat consciousness? Okay, I suppose, you know, you’re going through some kind of issues and you want to find somebody who’s writing about them. When I was pregnant with my first child, I couldn’t find a poet who had written about pregnancy. It was something that I needed to find, but I wouldn’t want to read poems about pregnancy all the time!

It’s a question of tension again, right? Between the idea of representation and seeking that representation in text and at the same time being limited by it.

Yes, I’ve done this twice: I’ve offered workshops on the poetics of listening to others. And so instead of having people look inward and write about their own personal experiences, have them sit together in pairs and talk and then write about each other, each other’s experience. And I have a feeling that learning to hear the other, learning to experience the other, and learning to inhabit the other is a way of moving toward a kind of healing of the separations between us. The last time I did this was about a year ago in New York, and it was just an experimental thing, but several people came afterwards and thanked me for that and said that they had come away from this workshop not only with poems that they, both people in the dyad, were happy with, but that they had come away with friends, that they had talked about deep things. The Jenny Epenbeck novel I mentioned starts with this professor approaching these refugees with questions: Where did you sleep when you were five years old? What song did your mother sing to you when she put you to bed at night? That kind of intimacy allows people to hear each other beyond the mask of otherness to recognize who we are really, who we truly are.

So what are three poems that you might want our readers to read? Another voice that they might listen to that you think can offer light, wisdom, or courage?

I think Yusef Komunyaka’s poem “Facing It” is a poem that teaches us something about light in the middle of vast darkness, to find the light that you’re still here, that’s miraculous; we don’t very often recognize the miracle of presence, of continuing from moment to moment. That’s one.

Naomi Shihab Nye has a poem, “Gate A-4,” about being in the boarding area in an airport in which there is a Palestinian woman, and everybody’s afraid because she doesn’t speak English (she’s speaking Arabic), and she’s upset about something. And Naomi, who speaks some Arabic, asks to talk to this woman, and she discovers this woman is trying to get to her son, and that she’s from the same village Naomi’s father is from, and so they make this human-to-human connection. This woman stops crying, and people stop being afraid of her because they [no longer] think she’s a terrorist going to blow herself up. And she has cookies in her luggage and takes them out and shares them with Naomi and with the other people. And then there are other people who are in the boarding area [who] pull out their little snacks and they have this little party together. Such a wonderful poem about reaching across barriers and finding humanity!

And let’s see who else would I want to … wow, um, a poem by Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet,” in which he addresses a future prophet and tells him not to tell us what he sees, not to tell us what he knows, and to allow us to go on making our mistakes and loving each other in our clumsy ways — it’s a very beautiful poem. Every time I read it I’m moved by it.

Thank you. What wonderful gifts!


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019. 

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