Entretien avec Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut’s Poet Laureate
Interview with Marilyn Nelson, Poète Lauréate du Connecticut
Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut’s Poet Laureate
Wendy Harding - Thank you so much, Marilyn Nelson for agreeing to be
Could we begin by having you say a few words about yourself?
Marilyn Nelson : Thank you I will. My name is Marilyn Nelson. I was born in Cleveland,
Ohio in 1946. My mother was a teacher. My father was a career Air Force officer in the
American Air Force so I grew up on military bases around the country and graduated
from the University of California at Davis and went to the University of Pennsylvania for
a Master’s degree and finished a PhD at the University of Minnesota. And I’ve been
teaching for about thirty years, I think, and writing poetry since I was about twelve. Is
that enough of an introduction?
WH - That’s a great introduction. Did you ever … at what point did you think you
could make a career as a poet? That you would become a poet?
MN : Oh well, for a living? I’m not sure what you mean by the question but it’s not so
much a career as it is an avocation I think, because my career has been teaching.
That’s been how I’ve fed my children. And I’ve been a poet on the side, always, writing
in and around other things. After my children were born I wrote at 4 or 5 o’clock in the
morning or stayed up very late and wrote until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, after I did
class work and grading papers and washing dishes and cleaning … and stuff like that.
So it’s not exactly a career I think. If we think of a career as a livelihood.
WH : You’ve received a lot of recognition recently and one of the things is
becoming Poet Laureate of Connecticut. But perhaps that’s an honorary
function. Could you say something about what you do as Poet Laureate?
MN : It’s changed. I’ve been poet Laureate for five years. And when I first came into the
office the expectation was that I would make a lot of public appearances and do
readings at public schools and public libraries, but I didn’t have enough time to give to
that. So one year I solicited donations of poetry books from publishers and had a little
bookplate printed up saying, “This book is given to you by the State of Connecticut Arts
Council and the State’s Poet Laureate. And then I drove around the state putting poetry
books into waiting rooms of doctors’ offices and hospitals’ waiting rooms. The project
was called Waiting Room Poetry. So I did that for about a year and I must have
distributed ten or fifteen thousand books probably. And since then I’ve mostly been
writing as my contribution to the state. I’ve been writing stories and Connecticut history
and considering that my laureateship duty.
WH : I think the popular image of New England is of a white Anglo Saxon
protestant place and they chose as Poet Laureate an African American. The
history that you’ve been uncovering of the state is rather surprising, I think, for
the general public: the history of slavery in New England. Could you say
something about the projects that are unearthing those stories?
MN : The projects that I’ve been involved with have been, first of all, a project
sponsored by the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, which owned a
skeleton. For fifty years the skeleton was in the museum collection and then they finally
decided to do research and find out who owned these bones and they discovered that
this was the skeleton of an eighteenth century slave whose master had been a doctor
and whose master had dissected the slave’s body and prepared the skeleton to be
exhibited as a sort of in-home medical school. And so the museum asked me to write
that story. So that was the first one I did. The second one was a project sponsored by
the Harriet Stowe House society and the Wilberforce Center in Hull, England who have
been studying the life of another eighteenth century slave named venture Smith who
was kidnapped as a child and brought here and served some thirty years as a slave
before he was able to free himself. And then he freed all of the members of his family
and several other people and died a very well respected, prosperous man. A third
project I did as a collaboration with another Connecticut poet, Elizabeth Alexander. We
wrote the stories … There was a woman in the nineteenth century, a white woman
named Prudence Crandall who started a school for Young African American Girls in
1833; that was thirty some years before Emancipation. She started this school in a
small town in Connecticut. And the State made a law against starting such a school.
And she was arrested and spent some time in jail and was put on trial, and the girls
were harassed, and the well was poisoned, and finally, the house was set on fire, and
the school was closed. So Elizabeth Alexander and I have written poems about this
story too. And I’m working on a new project. So I guess I have four projects that are
about Connecticut stories, uncovering little known stories in which African American
citizens, whether free or enslaved, played an important role.
MN : The preface to Fortune’s bones tells the background to the story of this man
Fortune, who was born probably around 1715, 1710. He was a slave in the small town
of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Fortune was born; he died. Between those truths
stretched years of drudgery, years of pit-deep sleep
in which he hauled and lifted, dug and plowed,
glimpsing the steep impossibility
of freedom. Fortune’s bones say he was strong;
they speak of cleared acres, miles of stone walls.
They say work broke his back: Before it healed,
they say, he suffered years of wrenching pain.
His wife was worth ten dollars. And their son
a hundred sixty-six. A man unmanned,
he must sometimes have waked with balled-up fists.
A preacher painted water on his head,
and Fortune may or may not have believed,
whom Christ offered no respite, no reprieve,
only salvation. Fortune’s legacy
was his inheritance: the hopeless hope
of a people valued for their labor, not
for their ability to watch and dream
as vees of geese define fall evening skies.
Was Fortune bitter? Was he good or bad?
Did he sometimes throw back his head and laugh?
His bones say only that he served and died,
that he was useful, even into death,
Stripped of his name, his story, and his flesh.
While Fortune’s body was hanging in this home, the home of Doctor Preserved Porter
in approximately 1750, Fortune’s wife and children were still in this home as slaves. So
this is a poem in the voice of Fortune’s wife, Dinah.
The poem is called, “Dinah’s Lament.”
Miss Lydia doesn’t clean the Doctor room.
She say she can’t go in that room: she scared.
She make me take the dust-rag and the broom
and clean around my husband, hanging there.
Since she seen Fortune head in that big pot
Miss Lydia say that room make her feel ill,
sick with the thought of boiling human broth.
I wonder how she think it make me feel?
To dust the hands what use to stroke my breast;
to dust the arms what hold me when I cried;
to dust where his soft lips were, and his chest
what curved its warm against my back at night.
Through every season, sun-up to star light,
I heft, scrub, knead: one black woman alone,
except for my children. The world so white,
nobody know my pain, but Fortune bones.
WH : One of the things that’s striking about your poetry is that in dealing with
very, very painful moments in history, such as slavery. You seem to manage to
transcend anger, for example the story of Fortune’s Bones, where the bones of
this man were used for medical science, but without the respect that would be
due of somebody’s remains.
And I wonder how you manage to go through those painful moments and to
come up with poetry that in the end is quite positive.
MN : I think there’s no point in people being angry over something that happened two
hundred years ago. Being angry about it would be a waste of emotional energy, since
there’s no one you can blame for it. The man who did it has been dead for two hundred
years. This is not an uncommon practice I think. Though what was strange about this
story was that the doctor actually knew this individual and that he subjected this
individual’s family to the horrifying experience of living with their husband’s and father’s
skeleton hanging in a room in the home in which they were enslaved. But then the
research I did about early medical education in this country indicates that a lot of the
early medical schools survived, in a way, on the availability of bodies, and most of the
bodies that were available were the bodies of either slaves or poor people. So I would
say that probably the earliest days of medical education in this country were really
fuelled by the bodies of black people. Science has made a lot of discoveries based on
that. At some point I read a little story about the renovation of a building which had
been a medical school at … I think it was the University of South Carolina—I’m not
sure about that; I read it several years ago—that they were excavating to somehow
renovate the building, and they excavated the basement and discovered hundreds of
bodies and body parts buried under the building because it was illegal to perform
dissections. These were the days of grave robbers, who were robbing graves so that
they could perform dissections. And you could be angry about that, or you could see it
as history. Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to
awaken.” All history is that nightmare and so I think that we should be angry about
things that are happening—the history we are living, not the history we’ve inherited.
Poetry and Music
WH : What made you decide to write that story as a mass, as a kind of musical
MN : Mattatuck had made an arrangement with the Waterbury symphony orchestra to
have this set to music. Whatever was produced was to be set to music and premiered
by the symphony orchestra. So I had that piece in mind. I wrote that shortly after the
horrifying events of September 11th, 2001, and there were funeral masses on the radio
every day. I was very aware of their existence and of the healing nature of a musical
piece which carries our grief and tries to heal it. So I had that in mind, and I intended
this to be both an expression of grief and a gesture of healing. So that’s why it was a
WH : There’s a lot of music in your poetry, it seems to me. It comes up every
once in a while: jazz, blues, the recent work where your brother, the musician is
featured. Has music been an important part of your education, or of your life?
MN : Not of my education. My mother was a piano teacher. My mother was a serious
musician, so I was forced to sit for hours practicing scales on the piano. I’m not
musical, but my family valued music because my mother was serious about it. And my
brother is a professional musician. So it’s a part of my life, but certainly no more a part
of my life than it is of most people’s lives, I think. I’m not that much of an aficionado. I
don’t really know much about music.
WH : But you’ve performed some of your poems with a jazz band?
MN : That’s right! Yes, I have.
WH : So you didn’t write them with that in mind?
MN : Well it started … the first time I performed … This is a jazz duo: Kent Hewitt and
Tim Moran. And the first time I performed with them was just a fluke. They happened to
performing a kind of introduction, an interlude, before my reading. And I told them that I
had composed one poem with a blues tune in mind. Actually I did this with my brother
first, but it was the first thing I did with Tim and Kent. I said I had this melody in mind I
hummed it, about two bars of music. They picked it up; they could see where it was
going, and then they improvised around my melody as I was reading the poem. And
then when it came time for the blues, it was there. It was wonderful. And it was
wonderful performing with them. So we did that one performance and then we were
asked to do it again someplace else. And then people said, “Why don’t you record it?”
And then they decided to try to make music for some of my other poems, so we’ve
done a full album, which nobody knows what to do with. What do you do with an album
of poetry and music? But we did a very nice recording. And then recently we recorded
another piece, a children’s poem, which I had translated, and they set it to music. I
think the publisher is going to make that recording available as a promotional piece for
the book. It’s been wonderful fun to work with these two guys and to perform with
them. If you read something with a musical background and then you have to go on to
read something without it, the words feel absolutely naked without the music once
you’ve heard the words with music.
Writing for Young Adult Readers
WH : You spoke about the children’s book. Quite a few of your works are partly
aimed at children, although the line that divides children’s literature from adult
literature is in your case very fine. I think people can get a lot out of the books
which are for children too. Do you try to do something different when you are
writing for children?
MN : No not really. I’ve been … Years ago I sent some of my poems to my great uncle
who was a family patriarch—who was a president of a—in France you would say, I
guess, he was the president of a university—a college, for thirty years. Everybody in
the family looked up to him for this reason. So I sent him a sheaf of poems and he
wrote a little note back saying as usual he liked my poems but then he asked, “Why
don’t poets nowadays write poems that people like me can understand?” And I
decided, well yes, why shouldn’t I be writing poetry that he could understand? What
other audience, what higher audience would I want than somebody who’s been a
university president for thirty years? You know? Why should I write poetry that he
couldn’t understand? So I decided then to write accessible poetry. And it’s not a
popular thing to do in the United States because people there’s something wrong with
accessibility. But because of that, my crossing over into publishing for young adults—
most of my things are published for young adults, that is from, maybe, aged fourteen
and up. That’s when I started reading poetry, real poetry. I didn’t read children’s poetry
when I was fourteen; I was reading serious poetry. And so I’ve been lucky in finding
publishers who are willing to take the poetry I write and to publish it for this audience,
which means it gets illustrated, so the books are extraordinarily beautiful, much more
beautiful than an average poetry book. And then they get marketed to schools, so
they’re going into schools, school libraries, public libraries, because there are not that
many serious poets who are writing for this audience. So it’s been a wonderful thing for
me, and then I still think it’s a way of reaching out to the future. The children and young
people, fourteen year olds, those who read the poem and get fired up, who get the top
of his or head blown off, that’s going to be the poetry reader. Those are the most
important readers. Rather be read by a fourteen year old who has another fifty or sixty
years of reading ahead of her than to aim your poetry at your own contemporaries. I’m
sixty. I’ve got another fifteen years of being a poetry reader and then I’m out of here.
WH : Have you had feedback from young readers?
MN : Oh I get e-mails very often from young readers, mostly asking me to explain
things because they have to write papers. But yes, I get things pretty often during the
school year. And I’ve gotten feedback from contemporary poets as well. There was one
reviewer who pretty roundly attacked one of my books, which he thought was too
sophisticated for the young adult audience. Although he criticized me for mentioning—
let me think of the reference he criticized—oh, I don’t know it was a reference to a
passage in the Bible. This book was published with notes at the back to identify the
references for people who didn’t get them. And he criticized me for making a reference.
What, fourteen or fifteen year old kids aren’t able to look up things? What’s wrong with
that? Why are we thinking of young readers as being idiots? They’re not idiots. They
are unsophisticated, maybe inexperienced readers, but … I remember reading
Wordsworth and Coleridge when I was that age. I was an inexperienced reader at that
point too, but I loved what I was reading and it made me want to go back to it ten years
later and twenty years later. So I feel very strongly about this, and that it’s been a great
boon for me, and that I’m making a contribution to the future of American poets. That if
young people can vibrate to my poems when they are in an eighth grade English class,
they may very well become serious readers of poetry. And they’ll be in college in
another, what, three years? It bothers me a lot. I had a wonderful experience with one
book; it’s called A Wreath for Emmett Till. It’s a very complicated and sophisticated
form. And I had made a reference in this poem to parallel universes, the scientific
concept of parallel universes. I had gone online and actually read something about
parallel universes, so I had done more than just named them, I had gone a little bit into
that. And the publisher didn’t know what parallel universes were, and she was afraid
that it would be over the heads of young readers. So I called our local middle school
and asked whether I could have a half an hour with a group of eighth graders, and was
welcomed into an eighth grade English class. I explained the poem. I explained the
background. I read the poem, and then I asked them. First I asked them whether they
knew what parallel universes were and they said, “Yes. What’s wrong with your
publisher? Doesn’t she watch Star Trek?” And then we stayed together for the rest of
the class period, maybe forty minutes, talking about lynching, and about politics, and
about terrorism. They were the perfect audience for this poem. And they enjoyed it so
much that when the bell rang and the next English class came into the room, the first
group of kids begged their teachers to give them permission to stay for the second
hour. So the teacher called the principal and got permission. So then I had to go
through the entire thing a second time, reading the poem again to the next group while
the first was there, and again, we had a long and vibrant discussion of it. And then
about two or three years later, one of the boys who had been in that eighth grade class
e-mailed me to ask whether the book was out because he wanted to write a paper
about it for his high school English class. He had remembered this poem and
remembered it as something he wanted to engage with. And, well, I was just really
gratified. My ego grew by leaps (?) that day.
A Wreath for Emmett Till
WH : Was that hard to write, that book about Emmett Till?
MN : Oh yeah, it was very hard to write, partly because of the horrific story and the
realm of associations it took me into, and partly because the form is just a bear. I will
never try to tackle that form again. It’s just really hard. I’m glad I did it once though.
WH : Why did you choose that difficult form? Can you explain a bit about what it
MN : Craziness! The form is a heroic crown of sonnets. It’s a crown of fifteen interlinked
sonnets, that is that last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet,
and the first line of the first sonnet is the last line of the last sonnet, and the fifteenth
sonnet is a sequence made up of the first lines of the previous fourteen sonnets. And
then I did Italian sonnets too. I did perfect Italian sonnets too, so they rhyme abba
abba. That meant I had to have four “a” rhymes and four “b” rhymes in every sonnet.
And since the …. It’s just so hard to do!
WH : And why?
MN : English is just not very generous with rhymes. Finding the rhymes and figuring out
how to use the rhymes so they made sense.
WH : But why that difficult form for telling Emmett Till’s story?
MN : Well partly because … well, Adrienne Rich says that choosing to use a form in
writing about painful subjects is like wearing asbestos gloves. So you can deal with the
subject without burning yourself. And partly because I remember being a young reader
and discovering …. You read a poem and you think that’s really beautiful; that’s really
nice. And then you read it a second time and you realize it rhymes! It’s metrical! It’s
elaborate and much more impressive! And then you read it a third time and you see
other things that are going on. I wanted to give young readers that experience, which is
of saying, “Wow! Wow!” So it was that. Yeah, the desire to create this “Ooh-hah!”
experience for the reader.
WH : How old were you when Emmett Till was murdered?
MN : He was murdered in—now I’m not thinking about it—1954, ’55? I think it was ’55. I
was a young child, I think. I was born in ’46. My parents didn’t …. I don’t remember
knowing about it. And I know we subscribed to Jet magazine, and I know that the
picture of Emmett’s mutilated body and open-casket funeral were published in Jet
magazine, but I think my parents must have taken that magazine away before we could
see it. Because I’ve talked to other people my age who remember seeing that or who
remember that, but my parents … I think I would have remembered if I had seen it as a
child. I knew about Emmett Till. I knew about lynching, but I didn’t know about the
horrific nature of this particular lynching. He was beaten and shot and his eye was
gouged out. His face was almost … the front part of his jaw was almost ripped off. His
body was thrown into a river, and he had a weight tied around his neck and the body
wasn’t found until a couple of days later and his mother identified his body by his
father’s ring. That was just so horrible. He was fourteen years old! A horrible, horrible
murder. And so my parents protected us from that.
WH : And going back there, did you think about your own son? Do you worry for
MN : Only as parents worry, I think. I don’t … How can you? Worrying is another thing,
like being angry about the past. All you can do is trust and believe that you are giving
your child enough intelligence and common sense and carefulness to be able to let
them go out into the world and the world is a very, very dangerous place. And so I don’t
think I worry. I worried when he first got his drivers’ license! I would light a candle every
day, every evening, if he was out in the car. But I lit the candle, I didn’t sit around
Poetry and Belief
WH : Belief is important to you, I think. There’s a spiritual theme that comes back
in your poems. Where does that come from?
MN : I don’t know. I think some people receive it as a gift, as a kind of birthright. Some
people seem to be born with the ability to believe. I don’t think it’s something that I see,
I think it’s something I just have, since childhood, as other people have … I have a
friend who suffers from serious depressions, and he says, “It just came with me; it was
just part of the package when I was born.” So I think in some ways that what you do
with your faith is more important than the ability to have it, because you have it or you
don’t have it. If you don’t have it, you have to struggle for it. If you do have it, you have
to struggle to make something of this—to live it and make it have some kind of impact
on the world. I don’t believe in easy faith. I don’t believe in … There are too many
people now who believe that all you have to do is say it’s in the bible and you have
license to do anything you want to. I believe in living what you believe. I think.
WH : And there is a kind of quest motif in your poems, I think, a spiritual quest,
not for anything in particular, but, for example, the pilgrimage that you went on.
It’s a parody of the Canterbury Tales pilgrimage, or some sort of revisiting of
Chaucer, but it seems that there is a serious goal underneath all the fun of that
series of poems. What did you have in mind when you went to Brazil on that
MN : Oh I didn’t know, well, my intention for this poem was to make a pilgrimage. I
couldn’t go to Canterbury. It wouldn’t make any sense to go to Canterbury, so I was
trying to think of a place, as the poem says, “some place sacred to the negro soul.” So I
made a list of places which have some sense of sanctity in a particularly black way.
And I wound up going to Bahia because it’s famous for this—sorry the name escapes
me now—a syncretic religion that borrows from Catholicism but also borrows from the
West African religious traditions which these slaves brought to Brazil. And they put
these religions together to create something that’s really unique in the world. And it’s
hard not to confront it when you are in Bahia because it’s so much a part of their
culture you know. You walk into a shop, and I said in my poem, you walk into a little
shop and there’s a rooster tethered to the floor. And you think, why is there a rooster
inside the shop? They are not chickens that are being raised for food; they are being
raised for some kind of ceremony, some kind of Condomblé ceremony. It’s very much a
part … These gods, Orishas, Condomblé gods, you drive through the city of Salvador
de Bahia and there’s one big lake where there are statues of all of the gods. They look
like they’re dancing in the lake, out in the water. So being there, I was forced to think
about them, to think about this religion. I don’t know whether I’m making sense, am I?
WH : Would you say your own religiosity, your own spirituality, is syncretic? You
seem to accept all sorts of varieties of belief.
MN : I hadn’t thought of it as syncretic, but I guess it is sort of: idiosyncretic! Yeah,
because I don’t believe there is only one way to the truth. I believe there are many
ways to the truth. And I believe that the mystical traditions of every faith understand
that they are all ways into the truth. I think that the way that most people, ordinary
people, live in a religion is a travesty of the basic teachings of every religion, except
maybe Buddhism or Quakerism, in which the ordinary practitioners seem to really live
some fundamental truth. But I think most religions—you only have to look at what’s
happening in the world—in most religions, people use the names of their religions as
ways of giving themselves permission to roll over other people.
Poetry and Politics
WH : Yes, you said earlier that when you get angry it’s about what happens
nowadays. And there was a sort of incident, wasn’t there, about poets being
invited to the White House, and wanting to protest the war? Could you say
something about your involvement in that?
MN : Yes, that was in, I think, 2001. I was working on this Emmett Till poem, which
turned into a kind of a rant against the impending war, and I received a letter from the
White House, an invitation to … I think it was a poetry day, dedicated to the discussion
of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes. I thought about it a lot. I talked
to friends about it. My friends were very divided about it. Most of my friends said, “You
can’t go. You can’t go to the White House.” And then the friend whose advice I most
value said he thought I should go. So I contacted a fabric artist and had her make a
scarf for me with the word “Peace” written on it in about twenty different languages,
thinking that if I did go, at least I would be able to make a gesture. I don’t think that
they’ll let you wear metal buttons. And then Sam Hamel, the publisher of Copper
Canyon Press was also invited, and he refused to go and publicly circulated his letter of
refusal on the internet, and it turned into a movement, and the White House withdrew
the invitation. The event was cancelled. One friend of mine received the cancellation
before he received his invitation. He didn’t know what it was about. So I think the White
House was, dare I say, cowardly in canceling it. And I’m not sure if it would have been
the right decision to go. I went to another one a couple of years later which was related
to the National Poetry Festival on the National Mall in Washington, and there was a
brunch at the White House involved with this. And again, I asked my friends, “What
would you do?” It’s not the Bushes’ White House; it’s our White House. That’s what I
kept thinking. I’m not going there to congratulate them for their impossible policies. I’m
going there to be in the White House where Franklin Roosevelt lived, where Harry
Truman lived, where Harriet Tubman visited Mrs Roosevelt. I mean this is a piece of
history I’m not going to refuse to see or refuse to take part in. If necessary, if I had
been introduced to somebody important, I probably, I hope I would have had the
courage to say something, as Eartha Kit did when she was in the Nixon White House. I
hope I would have had the courage to say something. But as it was nobody paid any
attention till Mrs Bush came in for a brief photo op. Yeah. But I feel strongly that it’s not
their White House, and that we need to claim it. We need to say, “You know, you may
be living here for a time, but … “ We already see that their time is limited, that their
days in that White House are numbered.
WH : As part of your life as an American poet and teacher, you’ve been involved
with the Fulbright Commission and the Fulbright Program. What have you done
as a result of that involvement?
MN : I taught one semester at the University Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France. It was
a peak experience of my life. It was wonderful. And then during that time I also was
invited to travel on behalf of the Fulbright organization to give talks and readings at
several other universities in Europe, which was also thrilling. And then when I came
back I served for; I think, three years on a selection committee for the Fulbright
Foundation, reading applications and deciding who would have a fellowship the next
year, and I learned a lot from that experience. It was a very good experience. In some
ways, travel—it’s easy to travel and just be a tourist. Traveling and living in a culture
and learning from the culture is, I think, probably the best form of education for the
humanities. Going and living in a place and learning some of the language, although I
didn’t learn French, learning some of the language and getting to know people, is a
tremendously enlarging and humbling experience.
WH : It’s interesting you say that, because the idea of the Fulbright is partly that
you are sending American teachers out to impart knowledge to foreigners, in
your case to the French, but you think you got back as much as you gave?
MN : I think so, probably. I hope I gave as much as I got. I haven’t only taught abroad
for Fulbright. I taught at a college in Denmark for a year. I did a couple of seminars in
formerly East Germany at the University of Potsdam for a couple of years. We went
back several times to introduce these Easterners, “Osties,” to America, what we are,
who we are, and my responsibility was to teach them a little bit about American ethnic
literature and that was a very good experience. I was just recently telling one of the
guests at my home here about an English book that was given to me by one of the
students I had at the workshop in Potsdam and he gave me their second or third year
English book which was about America, and, shockingly, looking at what the
Communist regime was saying about America is encouraging. And then I’ve taught
also this year I taught American students in Italy. That was also an interesting
experience. So yes, I think in each of those cases I left those countries having learned
a great deal about the countries, about our country, my country, and I think also about
Soul Mountain Retreat
WH : You mentioned the writers who come to your house. You have the Soul
Mountain Institute, is that what it’s called?
MN : Retreat, Soul Mountain Retreat.
WH : It’s interesting that you call it a retreat. Can you say something about what
MN : Yes, I bought a big house with the idea of being able to offer quiet space out in
the country to young writers for a limited time. So I am able to take in a maximum of
four people at a time and give them private rooms and pay their expenses and just give
them writing time. It’s been a very rewarding thing. This is the third year of the Retreat,
and it’s a retreat. It’s a retreat from their worlds and the responsibilities of their worlds,
the responsibilities of cleaning, and cooking, and going to work. They can be here kind
of on vacation, but they can devote themselves full time to their writing. Most of the
people who have been here have done that. They don’t want to do anything else. They
say, “I only have a week here, so I don’t want to go out to dinner. Thank you for the
invitation, but I’m going to spend the evening at my desk.” So, it’s been very
WH : How important is time to a writer?
MN : Time, yes. Time is invaluable. It’s not only the time of sitting at the desk and
writing words down. It’s also time to think, time to read, time to just lie on the couch,
cloud gathering, and that’s the kind of time—that empty time, useless time—which
most people …. People who are not writers will look at you if you are lying in a
hammock and say, “You’re wasting time. What are you doing wasting time? Why aren’t
you writing?” I used to have neighbors who were like that, very sweet neighbors, but
they thought that I was lazing about a lot. And people can come here and laze about,
just be free to think and to explore things. I’ve had writers come here, and, well, when
I’ve been able to get them out of their rooms and taken them. This summer, two
women who were here were able to go on a five hour educational cruise on the
Amistad replica of the slave ship and there was a historian there, lecturing to them
about slave ships and transportation, and they came back fired up and ready to write
about the Amistad. This is something they weren’t interested in. They didn’t know they
would be interested in writing about the Amistad. They had other projects, but they both
came away from that with new projects to explore. The question was about time? Oh
yes, being able to take the time, being given empty time. Empty time is a great gift.
Poems from Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of
MN : From a forthcoming book about the girls who were students in a school started in
Canterbury, Connecticut in 1833 by Miss Prudence Crandall. Prudence Crandall was
asked to start a school for girls. She had a school catering to white girls in the first year
of this school’s existence. But then two black girls who were servants in homes in the
town asked whether they could sit in on her classes and she said yes. And the parents
of the white girls withdrew the students, their daughters, in protest. And instead of
doing what she “should” have done, Prudence Crandall closed the school and then
opened it again a few weeks later after putting an ad in the Abolitionist newspaper
announcing that she was opening a school for young ladies of color. It was a very
radical thing to do, and it was a very brave thing to do. This is a poem… I’ve written
some poems. I convinced a friend of mine, Elizabeth Alexander to collaborate with me
on this project. Each of us wrote a dozen sonnets in the voices of the girls who were
students in Prudence Crandall’s school. The book will be called, Miss Crandall’s School
For Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, and will be published in the spring of
2007. In this poem one of the girls is describing an encounter with a white boy. There
was a historical record taken of the existence of this school, and in all of the meetings
of Abolitionists, and educators, and liberal thinkers, there was always this young white
boy named Albert Hinckley. And it’s not clear from any of the historical records what
Albert Hinckley was doing. He was only described as a young man, maybe twenty
years old who was involved in this movement in support of the school. So I’m imagining
that Albert Hinckley had an attraction to one of the girls and that that’s what made him
be involved in this. So I’m telling this imaginary story. The name is correct, and the fact
that the girls were attacked after attending services in the one church which would
allow them to attend services. The Episcopalians wouldn’t let them in the church. The
Baptists allowed them in the church. And they were leaving the church one day in a
wagon and their wagon was overturned by hooligans. And I’m inventing the rest of it.
It’s called “Albert Hinckley.”
Last Sunday, a white boy openly smiled at me
where I sat with my sisters at the back of the Baptist church.
When the pastor spoke of the sin of slavery,
the white boy looked back with his eyebrows arched.
I could read his thoughts, but I dared not meet his glance,
for nothing must pass between us, not one chance
for gossip to pounce with glee on one shared smile.
No one must think of us as eligible girls.
Waylaid by ruffians as we reached the ford,
our wagon was overturned. Our sodden skirts
weighted and slowed us, but no one was hurt.
Splashing to me, his eyes looking truly scared,
that boy took my hand. “Let me help you, Miss.
From this day forward, I am an Abolitionist.”
This is another poem in the voice of one of the girls at Prudence Crandall’s school. She
had about twenty girls who had come from Boston, and New York, and Philadelphia,
from free black families. This school was opened in 1833, so this was about thirty years
before the Emancipation proclamation, So they came from free families on the Eastern
seaboard. So this poem imagines one of these girls. It’s called “Family.”
My master/father sent me up from South
Carolina to Boston as a nine-year-old.
My mother’s illiterate silence has been a death.
I wonder if she still labors in his fields.
His sister, dutiful but cold as snow,
gave me a little room in her house, below
the stairs with the Irish servants, who hated me
for the fatal flaw in my genealogy.
For the first time in my life I am at home
in this bevy of scholars, my first family.
Here, the wallpapers welcome me into every room,
and the mirrors see me, not my pedigree.
My sisters, Jerusha, Emilia, Elizabeth …
But Mama’s unlettered silence is a death.