by Ansley McDurmon
A poetry experience with Marilyn Nelson transcends printed word; her words ebb and flow in undulations not unlike the jazz scene of 1950s New York. She read from several of her recently published works. The author, professor, and one of this year’s recipient of an honorary degree from Sewanee at Convocation, tied music and verse together for audiences in Gailor Hall.
Most notably, Nelson focused on the variety of voices within her literary works: each poem expanded from the mind of a speaker who, though intimately associated with the life of the author, was not Nelson herself. Instead, she wove both comedy and sorrow, past and present, into the perspective of a neighbor, a child, a veteran, a jazz instrument. In doing so, poems like “Church, 1950” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” depict a series of reveries long past, but sewn into the comfort of present day activity. Some such verses were comical; others left audience members in sorrowful silence.
This past week was not Nelson’s first experience in Sewanee; she served as visiting professor of poetry several years ago. Much of her recent work explores the rural South in its beauty, past, and the ever-present growth of interracial relations. Nelson was honored this week for such work, along with the honorary degree, her presence and reading served as a major event in Sewanee’s Martin Luther King memorial week.
For those who hope to make a literary impact like her own, Nelson recommends a “spirit of over-searching interest.” She does value the power of inspiration, but advises nascent writers to seek out a muse; “inspiration is fleeting,” she says, “but one can find something beautiful in a painting or a scene through a window. Write about that. Know it well, do your research, revise.”