2014 Featured Festival Poet: Marilyn Nelson

Posted on by Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Listen to Marilyn Nelson read poem 10 from the “The Fish in the Sea Is Not Thirsty” section of The Kabir Book, translated by Robert Bly. Her commentary on why she read the poem, and her reading of her own poem, “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” from her collection How I Discovered Poetry, provide an intense and personal recounting of how she committed herself to a life in poetry.

Discussing a difficult period in her life as she approached thirty, after not writing poetry for nearly a decade, she says she experienced a frightening feeling: “Rilke describes it as an animal padding around inside his body, and I didn’t know what it was, and it turned out to be poetry. There was poetry in me that wanted to be written and I had to learn how to write it. And this poem somehow is connected with my discovery of what that was.”

That a poem by a 15th century mystic was so important to her in this transition says something essential about Nelson’s personality and aesthetic. Her sense of poetry is not bounded by time, place, race or gender. History, including personal, contemporary and ancient, is all inextricably interwoven in human experience, and any and all of it is a rich resource. History itself is larger than what can be delineated by chronological time. It includes the myths and mysteries that shaped human imagination, and how that imagination shaped our sense of our place in the world. In her poems, twenty-first century feminism is informed by the long history of myths of the divine mother, and a child’s first attempts at asserting independence are linked to the flight of Icarus.

However, “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” makes it clear Nelson is not one of those poets who uses myth or history to distance herself from personal revelation and maintain a comfortably detached stance from the reader. Her commitment to her art is intense and intensely personal: “I say to the dark: Give me a message I can give the world./ Afraid there’s a poet behind my face,/ I beg until I’ve cried myself to sleep.”

Former poet laureate of Connecticut, Marilyn Nelson’s many collections include How I Discovered Poetry (2014); Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (2012) The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (2005); The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997), and others. She has also published several collections of poems written for children.

Please use the “Share your thoughts with us” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet. In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2014 Festival Poets.

Return in the weeks ahead as we continue to profile the 2014 Festival Poets.


For more information on the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program, visit our website dodgepoetry.org

One Response to 2014 Featured Festival Poet: Marilyn Nelson

  1. Mary K. Williams says:

    In her 2012 Frost Medal* Lecture, Marilyn Nelson reflected on the power and purpose of poetry:

    “…Whether the achievement reached by a poet’s body of work really deserves such recognition as I am now receiving depends, to a large extent, on how, what, and whether poems contribute to what we will be twenty or forty or seventy-five years from now. Our achievement can’t be determined by book sales or awards; what we achieve now won’t be recognized until later.

    Will people be able to look back and say that our poems helped halt the degradation of the language?
    Will they say our poems helped undo some of the desecration of ideas, values, and institutions once held universally sacred?
    Did our poems remind people to value truth, faith, each other, themselves, and the planet?
    Did they teach Americans to be wiser stewards?
    Did they help Americans rediscover America’s best hope for itself?

    These questions suggest my highest ambition: not that I be well-known or my poems remembered, but that one or another of my poems might affect some readers enough to make them want, like “The Little Dutch Boy,” to stopper with a finger one of the holes in the dike that holds back chaos.
I am one of the poets who believe poetry can make something happen, that it does matter. Not directly, perhaps, but eventually, slowly: ‘slant’…”

    (Full text of Nelson’s lecture at http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/awards/frost_and_shelley/frost_medal_lectures/2012/)

    Awarded annually at the discretion of the Poetry Society of America’s Board of Governors for distinguished lifetime achievement in American poetry. Since 1995, the recipient of the Frost Medal has delivered the Frost Medal Lecture, a retrospective reading and talk that is the highlight of the Annual Awards Ceremony.
    Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens have all been honored by the Poetry Society of America with this Award.

    Other recent honorees include: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Harper, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Howard, X. J. Kennedy, Galway Kinnell, Maxine Kumin, Marie Ponsot, and Sonia Sanchez.

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