Marilyn Nelson: Poetry Plus Insight Equals Success by Robert Lee Brewer

“I think the desire to ‘be a poet’ started to grow in me in sixth grade,” claims Marilyn Nelson, “when I read one of my dad’s old college textbooks—a poetry anthology. But I also wanted to be a doctor for many years.”

After her third appearance as a National Book Award finalist and being named the Poet Laureate of Connecticut in 2001, it’s safe to say that Nelson picked the right career path. Though it may not pay as well as a brain surgeon, life as a successful poet has many perks, including writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and the 1998 Poet’s Prize.

The trade-off appears to be more a battle of personal fulfillment versus economic stability. As Nelson offers to writers who wish to make a living as a poet, “Try to find some king somewhere who will support you.” Obviously, money shouldn’t be high on your priority list. However, a poet must work hard to be successful.

Nelson’s latest collection of poems, Carver: A Life in Poems, deals with the hard work and life of George Washington Carver. Carver is filled with poems, photographs, and biographical footnotes that open up Carver’s life as one sum that was filled with many parts. For Nelson, the book has gotten the typical acknowledgment: it was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award and won the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.

And just like Carver received an assortment of recognition for his efforts after years of hard work, Nelson is only receiving her praise now because of her own toils with line breaks and word play. “Poetry isn’t always very personal,” says Nelson. “Revision is essential.”

Here Nelson relates her experiences as a poet, including how much research went into Carver and her views on self-promotion, readings, and what poetry is all about.


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