The Lutheran
Writers Project

a home for writers and readers influencing and influenced by Lutheran traditions
the Lutheran readers project
A resource for readers interested in literature addressing Lutheran culture, history, faith, and more.

New Author Interview:

Marilyn Nelson


              Marilyn Nelson is a well accomplished poet, having written nearly thirty books, for both adults and children, in addition to many other poems included in a variety of collections. She is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award, and won multiple other awards for throughout her career, from the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, to the 2012 Frost Medal. Nelson is currently working as a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and continues to write poetry, with the promise of a new book, A is for Oboe, to be released soon.
   In addition to her other works, Marilyn has written the following books, discussed in the interview: "Carver: A Life in Poems," "Fortunes' Bones," "A Wreath for Emmitt Till," "Sweethearts of Rhythm," "The Homeplace: Poems," and "How I Discovered Poetry." 
   The following interview was conducted by our own student correspondent, Claire Drummond, a junior at Roanoke College. 

CD: To start off, I’m curious, how did you become interested in poetry? Are many of your poems from personal experience?

MN: I started reading poetry as a child. It became an obsession, but I don’t usually write about myself. Some poets do, but I find it boring to read about other people’s lives.

CD: Why do you choose to write historical fiction/biographies? What is your research process for these books?

MN: I’m much more interested in learning or teaching something when I write. The research depends on the topics, and many of the topics are requested. Fortunes Bones was requested by the museum [that houses the bones]; my publisher suggested a children’s book to address the topic of lynching, resulting in A Wreath for Emmitt Till; and, for Sweethearts of Rhythm, I’d met with the illustrator, Jerry Pinnkey, several times and we wanted to write a book together, the publisher picked the topic.

CD: I noticed you usually write in formal poetry, but you chose to write in very different styles for some of your books, why was that?

MN: For Sweethearts of Rhythm, Jerry and I both agreed to do something we’d never done before. Fortune’s Bones was designed to be a song. I chose my style for A Wreath for Emmitt Till to blow the kids’ minds.

CD: I grew up in Mississippi, so I think that Emmitt Till was a great way to broach a delicate and often-ignored subject.

MN: It’s such a shame that that school removed To Kill a Mockingbird because we learn from our history. We can’t erase it. I lived in Berlin for a while, and on every apartment building, it seemed, there was a plaque that read “the family of so-and-so lived here, and they were killed during the Holocaust." They identify their history so they can’t forget it.

CD: Changing the subject a bit, how does your faith play into your writing? I noticed many of your poems mention God and/or faith, and a few were written in the format of a prayer. Do you often equate poetry and prayer in your life?

MN: When I was young, I grew up with Lutheran traditions, and my first job was with the Lutheran church—I worked on one of the hymnals, I can’t remember the name, but it was the green one. As for prayer, it happens whenever we’re aware of the dialogue we’re having with the divine; it can happen when you’re doing something as simple as washing the dishes. It’s nothing except for placing oneself in the palm of God consciously. I loved writing about George Washington Carver because he travelled giving talks about prayer across the country. I would urge you to read books about prayer, it’s very worthwhile; anything by Martin Buber or Thomas Murphy is good, as is I and Thou. In “The Prayer of the Loving Gaze,” I believe it says how prayer is as simple as “just [looking] at the world with love.”

CD: Speaking of prayer, I noted several times where you equated music to prayer in your various works, why is that? How does music play into your faith?

MN: I wasn’t aware I did that. Perhaps in Sweethearts I that, but it was because the instruments were speaking, it was an imaginary voice. You know, [George Washington] Carver said, “He who sings prays twice,” and there’s been a long tradition of equating music to prayer. I’ve not found that to be the case for me; I don’t play any instruments, but I did sing along with a gospel choir when I was younger.

CD: I’ve asked how often you write poetry, but I’m curious as to why you write as well. Do you write to express yourself, de-stress, etc.?

MN: I’m a poet, have been since I was a child. Poetry is part of my identity, just like if you’re a musician you make music. I’m lucky to have been given a gift; if you’re lucky enough to recognize it, you use it. The best artists use their gifts to raise their audiences. There’s an old saying that’s something like, “the poet is building a tower, the poem is left behind so people can get closer to the divine.” I’m sure you’re familiar with the Parable of the talent, if you’re not, you really should be. Get yourself a children’s Bible and read it straight through, it won’t take you long. As for poetry, if I could do anything else I would. You can bury [your talent] or use it and make it better.

CD: What challenges confront you as you write about religion and race, particularly with subjects like Emmitt Till?

MN: I really haven’t had any particular challenges, I just write. Writing itself is always a challenge. What was that old Chinese saying, “It’s easy to write poems, just cut your veins and dip your pen in the blood…?” It was something like that; I’d have to look it up.

CD: Who inspired you to become a poet? Who are or were some of your favorite authors?

MN: Well, currently I’m reading The New Yorker, some Alisha Alstriker, Chandler’s Academy, The Underground Railroad, it’s a real hodge-podge. I like reading things from the English poetry tradition, some translations, I guess some Whitman, Grace Caley, Alice McDermott. I like reading history when I’m doing my research. I love to read, and just going to the library to browse. You, you’re young enough to open your mind, and I guess, my generation, we feel for you because you can’t or don’t browse anymore. With the internet, online you can go straight to what you want, but we need to be able to open our minds.

CD: Do you have a favorite poem (yours or someone else’s)?

MN: I really enjoyed Emmitt Till and Homeplace, but I learned the most and was very proud of Carver: A Life in Poems. He was a genius, and he’s a saint. He was very humble and didn’t want to make any money; he was the one who showed us we didn’t need fossil fuels. I think other people liked that one too. I heard that one young man loved it so much, he stole it from the library.

More information on Marilyn and her books can be found on her website and The Poetry Foundation's website.

See links at left to find selections, resources, and Readers Project forum pages.

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The Lutheran Readers Project originated as part of Called to Create: A Lutheran Festival of Writing, held at Luther College in November 2007. The mission of that festival was described on its web site:

Called to Create: A Lutheran Festival of Writing brings together poets and writers of fiction and non-fiction who have been shaped by the Lutheran tradition. Through readings, lectures, and panel discussions, the festival seeks to highlight this writing for college students, faculty, and a wider public, as well as to support and encourage serious writing and to cultivate a community of writers in the Lutheran world.

The Readers Project is intended to provide a resource for Lutheran writers and readers and a bridge to connect the two. The Readers Project's steering committee will recommend a new book to readers throughout the year (see our Selections page). It will also post reader's guides and interviews with authors (also available on the Selections page). You as the reader may comment on selections, communicate with the authors, or provide suggestions for upcomingReaders Project selections (see our Readers Forum page), as well as learn about the authors' upcoming tours or schedule a visit by the authors to your community, church, or book club (see our Authors page).

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