Author Interviews
4:09 pm
Sat February 8, 2014

In 'Poetry,' The Story Of An African-American Military Family

Originally published on Sat February 8, 2014 5:34 pm

Marilyn Nelson is one of America's most celebrated poets. She is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the Newbery and Printz and Coretta Scott King awards. Many of her most famous collections are for children.

Her latest work, How I Discovered Poetry, is a memoir about her own childhood. It's a series of 50 poems about growing up, traveling all over America in the 1950s to follow her father's job in the Air Force. Each of the poems is identified with a place and a date.

"[My father] graduated in the last class of cadets from the flight school at Tuskegee. So they are now the Tuskeeee Airmen," she tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath. "The story I tell, the family story, is of the family of an African-American flying officer."

Moving around the country as part of a military family, Nelson was often one of the first black children at her school. Those experiences had a profound impact on her point of view as an artist.

"Back when I was in college, people used to talk about the alienation of the artist," she says, "not ever quite fitting in any place."


Interview Highlights

On choosing to write 50 poems in sonnet form

These are sonnets, except that they don't rhyme. I did break that rule. After you kind of find your footing, sonnets are what comes easiest. You know, writing in form is a way of developing your thinking — your thinking along with the tradition. In a way, it's not you alone, it's you in partnership.

On her father's outlook on life

My father was so proud. He wasn't one of those famous Tuskegee airmen, but I imagine all of them were like this. We would be driving down the highway and get stopped because my father was speeding ... he liked flight, he flew. And we were driving once some place in California and a cop stopped us and said, 'What do you think you're flying, boy?' And my father said, 'B-52s.' "

On how moving around shaped her childhood conceptions of death

For much of my life — my sister and I have talked about this — when we moved, we just thought the world behind us disappeared and all of the people, they just didn't exist any more. So, death was the same thing. When you die, you go to a different school, you know, you get transferred. And I must say that that's a very comforting way to consider death.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now, a conversation with one of our most celebrated poets. Marilyn Nelson is a rare double threat as a poet - equally adapted writing for adults and children. And she has a gift for confronting difficult subjects. Her book, "A Wreath for Emmett Till," is a meditation on a historic lynching in poetry that could be appreciated by anyone from the age of 12 on up. Her latest collection is a memoir about her own childhood, a series of 50 poems about growing up, traveling all over America following her father's assignments for the Air Force.

MARILYN NELSON: He graduated in the last class of cadets from a flight school at Tuskegee. So they're now the Tuskegee Airmen. So the story I tell is of the family of an African-American flying officer.

RATH: And because of that, you know, and this is reflected in these poems, is you travel as a military family does, often across the country, you're frequently the first black family, you know, in a lot of these places. You're the first black kid in a lot of these schools, right?

NELSON: Right. Yes. Back when I was in college, people used to talk about the alienation of the artist not ever quite fitting in any place.

RATH: Could I have you read one of the poems that for me conveys - definitely conveys some of that?

NELSON: Yes.

RATH: Could you read "A Snake"?

NELSON: OK. This is "A Snake." Each of the poems is identified with a place and a date. So this is Lowery Air Force Base, Colorado, 1953.

(Reading) As soon as we got here, we turned around and drove back through the no-guardrail mountains, connecting the dots of farm mailboxes to towns and faceless people who don't count. Mama hugged Aunt Carma and Uncle George. Daddy wiped his tears with his handkerchief. Oneida wasn't in her pink bedroom. She wasn't in the hospital either. They said she was in that box. She was dead.

We drove back through the frightening mountains. Jennifer and I chanted, there's a snake, to keep ourselves from looking at the huge and scare-defying emptiness. When you die, you go to a different school.

RATH: There's kind of a lot in that from this perspective. You know, even death is seen through the lens of just this another stage of dislocation.

NELSON: Right, right. And for me, for much of my life, when we moved, we just thought the world behind us disappeared and all of the people, they just didn't exist anymore.

RATH: I got to ask you to read another poem. If you could read "Parking Lot Dawn."

NELSON: "Parking Lot Dawn." On the road, 1959, one of my favorite memories.

(Reading) After the cousins came the long drive West - card games, sing-alongs and conversation, alternating drivers, meals in the car, gas station restrooms or behind a tree. Daddy corrects white men who call him boy, even when they're in police uniforms, even though the radio updates news of sit-ins and white citizens' councils. I ride behind his beautiful, close-cropped head, my window slightly cracked for Spider's nose. Last night, awake alone, he parked the car in the Grand Canyon visitor's parking lot. And this morning, he woke us up to dawn. There's more beauty on Earth than I can bear.

RATH: I love that.

NELSON: My father was so proud. I don't know. He wasn't one of those famous Tuskegee Airmen, but I imagine all of them were like this. We would be driving down the highway and get stopped because my father was speeding. I've written another poem about this incident. And a cop stopped us and said: What do you think you're flying, boy? And my father said: B-52s.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: So there's that attitude in this poem, too, which I think of as a Tuskegee Airmen attitude.

RATH: And the beautiful point of the poetry works towards in this kind of broader narrative over the course of the 50 poems is you're becoming self-aware as a poet and awareness of poetry and that language. Could you read the title poem?

NELSON: Yes. In some ways, this is the seed poem for this book. I wrote this poem many years ago. It's probably 20 years old. And for some reason, it's the only poem in this earlier book that's written as an unrhymed sonnet. And then the rest of the book kind of grew around this poem - so there. This is "How I Discovered Poetry," Clinton Sherman Air Force Base, Oklahoma, 1959.

(Reading) It was like soul kissing, the way the words filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk. All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15, but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds born by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen the darkest eyes in the room brim. The next day, she gave me a poem she'd chosen especially for me to read to the all -except for me - white class.

She smiled when she told me to read it. Smiled harder, said: Oh, yes. I could. She smiled harder and harder until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished, my classmates stared at a floor. We walked silent to the buses, awed by the power of words.

RATH: Marilyn Nelson reading the title poem of her memoir, "How I Discovered Poetry." You can read an excerpt of her book at our website, npr.org. Marilyn Nelson, thank you so much.

NELSON: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.