Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 7, 2007

Inspiration and Poetry

Last night I went to hear Marilyn Nelson, visiting poet at Hampshire College for the week, read in a gallery in the library. I sat behind one gray-haired couple both of whom closed their eyes and smiled through each and every poem, and a beautiful messy-haired blond girl in a flannel shirt who nodded when a beautiful messy-haired blond boy asked if he could sit beside her. (I waited, but not a single word or look was exchanged there, though the guy very intently gazed and tilted his head at the paintings). A mom and a daughter, both with gorgeous ropey black braids, took the seats beside me. The room was not quite packed, but full of attentiveness.

Marilyn Nelson spoke about being Poet Lauriat of Connecticut and how that inspired her to write poems about some people who’d lived there. She began reading about a former slave who ended up hugely prosperous and bought freedom for other slaves. She read from her most recent book for children, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and little Misses of Color, a collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander, a poet at Yale, and herself: each wrote sonnets about some of the African-American girls who attended a boarding school c. 1830 run by an intrepid Quaker woman before townsfolk set fire to the building, and everyone went separate ways. She did not read from my favorite collection of hers, Carver: A Life in Poems, but she kindly signed my copy. I like the free verse form she uses here and there is plenty of space within the book to capture the many events in George Washington Carver’s extraordinary work and faith filled life.

There weren’t many questions but my favorite was from a tall man who asked, “In your writing, which comes first? The poetry or the research?” I loved that question. Marilyn Nelson replied that most of her subjects came from suggestions people gave her, then as she researched, the poetry developed.

I don’t think she said more, but I could have missed it, my own mind going off on how I might have answered –and this missing stuff thing is part of my process: I do let my mind go where it will when shaping life stories into poems or picture books, letting research and imagination blur. Sometimes I hear of something someone did and my heart beats hard. As I read more, details sort of prick my skin. Researching feels like getting to know a friend. Affection deepens the more I learn about her, and I slowly develop ideas for ways to frame or shape passages in her life. I collect particular sights, sounds, and smells, then draw lines between them, like the imaginary lines between stars that make up a constellation,

Writing about a life in verse means a lot of cutting, but I find a truth there that’s as worthy as that found in a tome, in which the biographers hope fact piled on fact, nothing omitted, nothing hidden, will add up to a truth.

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