Marilyn Nelson: Poetic Justice, by Katherine Pierpont
This accomplished poet's books for children honors – and memorializes – history-changing African Americans
Emmett Till was a friendly, round-faced, 14- year-old boy from Chicago. In the summer of 1955, he said goodbye to his mother and boarded a train to visit relatives in Money, MS. With his White Sox baseball cap and suitcase full of comics, Emmett Till was probably just another kid to his fellow passengers. As the train surged forward to the racially tense South, Emmett, who was African American, could have never guessed what lay in wait for him. On August 28, 1955, he was taken from his uncle's home and savagely beaten and murdered by five white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His murderers tied a cotton gin fan to his neck and then threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
When Emmett's body returned to Chicago, his grief-stricken mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral to show the world the brutality that had been visited upon her only child. Newspapers and magazines everywhere ran graphic photos of Emmett's body, inciting the horror of people all over the world. Shortly thereafter, Emmett's uncle identified the men who had dragged his nephew from his house in the middle of the night. They were tried for the murder of Emmett Till and found not guilty by an all-white male jury. The rage over the verdict and Emmett's murder would ultimately become one of the triggers to the civil rights movement.
Marilyn Nelson autographs three of her titles for our Lucky Subscriber during our interview this past September.
An unexpected proposal. Years later, poet Marilyn Nelson was sitting in her editor's office ruminating about Emmett Till. She was only nine years old when Emmett's grisly death gripped the nation's headlines, but had never forgotten his tragic story and the injustices he had suffered.
It was the day before Thanksgiving and Marilyn had traveled from Connecticut (she has been a professor of English at the University of Connecticut since 1978 and is also the state's current Poet Laureate) to New York City because her editor wanted to meet with her about a proposal. When they sat down to chat, Marilyn was floored when her editor began with, "I have always wanted to publish a children's book about lynching."
She had read Marilyn's book Carver: A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001), which included a poem about lynching, and had a feeling Marilyn was the person to author the book she had been wanting to publish her entire life. Marilyn laughed when she told us that her first thought to herself was, "This woman must be crazy!"
Even though she was still unnerved by the request, Marilyn soon began mulling over the unimaginable task of how to write a children's book of poetry about lynching. Just thinking about writing the book and the form it should take was deeply painful and depressing. "Who wants to think about lynching?" she said. "You just don't want to open your mind to something like that."
Marilyn knew from the start that she would write about Emmett Till – especially since he was the same age as the young people whom she hoped would read her book. She began toying with the form her poems would take and suddenly remembered a poet in Ireland she had met several years earlier. He had told her about a Danish poet named Inger Christensen who had written a beautiful poem in the form of a heroic crown of sonnets. When Marilyn returned from Ireland, she immediately ordered the book. "I didn't try to read or translate it; I just saw what he was talking about – it was an incredibly elaborate form." A heroic crown of sonnets is a sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets; the last sonnet consists of the first lines of the previous 14. Armed now with her subject and the form with which to approach it, Marilyn began writing the poems that would become A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
Giving in to the muse. The writing process for A Wreath for Emmett Till was not an easy one. It helped Marilyn to have a strict form such as the heroic crown of sonnets to adhere to, and it became a sort of insulation that she could put between herself and the subject matter. "In my journal during that time, I wrote that the stricter the form, the more control one gives to the muse," she said.
As she was writing, she began thinking a lot about Mamie Till Mobley and how incredibly brave she was. The book became something that Marilyn wanted to present to her. "I really wanted it to be something that would be appropriate for the mother of a lost child," she said. When Mamie passed away in 2003, Marilyn was writing the third poem in the sequence and found herself inwardly asking Mamie to help see her through the completion of the book.
Marilyn spoke about how she tries to meditate on a regular basis. "I think that young poets especially need to learn that poetry comes out of silence," she said. "You don't have to meditate formally to find that meditation is a way of finding that inner well of silence."
Another door opens. For most of her writing career, Marilyn Nelson has written poetry for an adult audience; she has been a National Book Award finalist on three occasions. We learned that both Carver: A Life in Poems (which received Newbery and Coretta Scott King honors) and Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (Front Street, 2004) (also the recipient of a Coretta Scott King honor) had been originally intended as poetry collections for adults.
When her children were younger, Marilyn had collaborated on some children's poems with her good friend Pamela Espeland and the two had also translated a book by Danish children's poet Halfdan Rasmussen (Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children, Black Willow Press, 1982). Once she began gaining recognition for her adult poetry, she wasn't considering another foray into books for children until she ran into Front Street Books publisher Stephen Roxburgh at a National Book Awards assembly. He mentioned that he'd be interested in seeing some of her work and she told him she was working on a biography of George Washington Carver but it wasn't a children's book. He encouraged her to send it along anyway and the rest is history. "My Carver book just changed everything in my life," she said.
In fact, Marilyn is a strong believer that kids shouldn't just read poetry that's "for kids" but should also be familiar with poetry by icons such as Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth and Robert Frost. "I don't believe in talking down to young people. There is no concession to young readers in any of these books," she said.
As her five-year tenure as Connecticut's Poet Laureate is drawing to a close this spring, Marilyn Nelson is finding herself one very busy poet. With book projects in the works about Prudence Crandall, who founded a school for African American girls in the 1820s and Venture Smith, who was sold into slavery and eventually freed himself and his family, Marilyn Nelson will be enriching the lives of both adults and children alike for a long time to come.
Katherine Pierpont, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.