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Interview: January 21, 2014

An award-winning poet, Marilyn Nelson has written and translated more than 24 books and composed poems about a huge number of topics, including historical figures like Emmett Till and George Washington Carver, love, slavery and motherhood. Her latest collection HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY tackles a new theme --- the 1950s, the decade that Marilyn grew up. Comprising 50 poems, this book looks at Marilyn’s childhood but also delves into more universal themes, like the Civil Rights Movement, life for military families and the power of language. In this interview, Marilyn tells Teenreads the wonders of recipes published in 1950s magazines, her favorite poem in the collection and recommended books for teens who want to read poetry for the first time.

Teenreads: What inspired you to write HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY?

Marilyn Nelson: I wanted to write a book about the Fifties.

TR: Your 2001 book CARVER: A Life in Poems captures George Washington Carver’s life in a series of 44 poems. What were the similarities and differences between writing about someone else and writing about yourself?

MN: Less research!

TR: Given the book’s title, can you briefly tell our readers a bit about how you discovered poetry? How old were you when you first started writing poetry, and when did you decide that you wanted to be a poet, professionally?

MN: The book isn't REALLY about how I discovered poetry. But that's the title of the first poem I wrote for the book --- a poem which was first published in another one of my books, several years ago. I had no idea at that time that it would be a pivotal poem in another book. I was probably about 10 or 11 when I started to write poetry. I decided I wanted to be a poet when I was 12; I knew then that I wanted to have poems in an anthology. I have never really wanted to be a poet "professionally." Professionally, I have been a teacher.

TR: What is your favorite poem in HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY, and why?

MN: I suppose the title poem, since I wrote it first. It seems to be about several different things. A cruel, racist teacher I despised, the effect on my white classmates of her humiliating me, the irony of her humiliation's being the thing (poetry) I loved most.

TR: You’ve written poems for both adults and children. What are the main differences between your poems for each age group, both in topic and tone? Is your writing process different when writing for different age groups?

MN: Many of my poems published for young adults were written with no particular age of audience in mind. I'm not sure there is any difference between my poems for young adults and those for older adults. My writing process is not different.

TR: Even though the poems in HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY were largely taken from your own life, you write in your author’s note that you conducted a lot of research while writing this book. Can you tell us what you researched, and what your research process was like? Did you learn anything that surprised you in your research?

MN: I went to university library archives and sat for many hours reading all of the copies of all of the popular magazines they have that were published between January, 1950 and December, 1960. Some of the recipes in LIFE Magaine surprised me. "Fiesta Peach Spam Loaf"!

TR: Is there anything specific that you hope readers will take away from HOW I DISCOVERED POETRY?

MN: I hope they will understand my generation a little better, and not blame us for the mess we've made of the world we are leaving behind.

TR: If teens haven’t read much poetry but want to get started, are there any poets are poems that you’d recommend for them? 

MN: I suggest they go to the library and check out two or three anthologies. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry is a good starting place.

TR: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

MN: Read.

TR: What was the proudest moment in your career as a poet?

MN: The couple of times I've been recognized on the street by strangers who love my poems.