Nelson (PhD 1979) is on a mission to make poetry accessible
The poet Marilyn Nelson (PhD 1979), visiting Minneapolis in May to give a reading at Open Book, turns to Professor of English John Wright at dinner beforehand. "John, weren't you the one who called your dissertation a 'ticky tacky'?"
"What a memory!" exclaims Wright (BEE Electrical Engineering, MA English, PhD American Studies 1977). "Guilty as charged."
"I've told so many students that," says Nelson, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. "It takes some of the pressure off."
Nelson, formerly Waniek, seems to enjoy subverting intimidating systems. In the five years (2001-2006) she was Poet Laureate of Connecticut, she made it her mission to bring poetry into everyday life. She convinced publishers to donate poetry anthologies, inserted book plates, and placed them in dentist and doctor offices ("People don't want to read Good Housekeeping"). She raised money for nonprofits by auctioning off her writing skills for wedding and birthday poems ("It's a service poets should provide"). She spent three years writing poems about Connecticut state history (the award-winning Miss Crandell's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color is a sonnet collection with Elizabeth Alexander about an 1833-34 school that welcomed African-American girls).
Two of Nelson's poetry collections, Homeplace and The Fields of Praise, were finalists for National Book Awards. She has won NEA, Guggenheim, and Fulbright fellowships. But she has always also written for children, including the 2001 Boston Globe/Hornbook Award-winning Carver: A Life in Poems (another National Book Award finalist). While in Minneapolis, she enthuses about two recent school visits, during which children wrote their own history poems after reading hers.
She is often approached, Nelson says, by people with half-written poems looking for advice. Poetry writing is far from dead; poetry reading needs a boost. To that end, she acquiesced to one of her poems being permanently etched above a urinal at the University of Pennsylvania. With a quick smile, she observes: "People have to find the right poem at the right time."