Spotlight on NCTE Poets: Marilyn Nelson, with Lee Bennett Hopkins

“I am one of the poets who believe poetry can make something happen,

that it does matter.”

NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin

Welcome to the nineteenth episode of SPOTLIGHT ON NCTE POETS! The videos in this series with Lee Bennett Hopkins are brief and personal looks at all the recipients of the NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.

This series isn’t about analyzing the poets and their work, but rather about preserving Lee’s personal recollections, insights, and memories of each of these amazing people. Through these short interviews, we hope to foster an appreciation of the poets and their work by “reading it and loving it from the heart,” as Lee says.

This installment brings us to a celebrated poet whose work is rich with research, history, heart, and craft, and often breathes new life into important people and events that may have otherwise been forgotten.

Marilyn Nelson

In 2017, Marilyn Nelson became the nineteenth recipient of the NCTE award, a celebration of her lyrical and profound body of work. Her immense talent and contribution to poetry are eloquently expressed by Arthur Sze, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, who said upon Marilyn’s appointment as Chancellor in 2013, “Marilyn Nelson’s poetry is remarkable for its sheer range of voice and style, for its historical roots, and for its lyrical narratives that, replete with luminous details, unfold with an emotional force that, ultimately, becomes praise. She is a vital ambassador of poetry.”

As Lee mentions in the video, given what we know now of Marilyn’s work and style, it is surprising to think that her earliest forays into children’s literature gave us light and delightful fare such as the poems in 1984’s The Cat Walked Through the Casserole, co-authored with Pamela Espeland…
(click graphics to enlarge and read):

…and in later poetry and prose for youngest readers, such as the sweet Snook Alone and Ostrich and Lark.

One of my favorite finds among Marilyn’s work for children was the 2009 picture book Beautiful Ballerina, a lovely marriage of sparse but lyrical text and photographs of real-life students at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company whose “primary purpose is to maintain a ballet company of artists of both African American and diverse backgrounds” (Beautiful Ballerina back matter).

Although I was unable to find the complete text of the poem, I did find powerful excerpts such as “The Ancestors have / produced a swan. / You wear the slaves’ genes / with nobility. / You dance the dreams / of generations gone…” and the closing line which, as one reviewer says, “feels like an incantation for young black artists“: “Dance all of the people free.”

Besides her own writing, Marilyn also translated several books from Danish, particularly those of renowned Danish poet Halfdan Rasmussen. One such project was Rasmussen’s book of nonsense poems, A Little Bitty Man.

An accomplished poet with many adult poetry books under her belt, Marilyn had a major breakout into young adult poetry with Carver: A Life in Poems, a biographical book about botanist and educator George Washington Carver, who was “one of the very few black Americans accorded great respect before the 1960s” (Booklist). Of this publication, Marilyn said, “Lucky coincidence led [Carver] to be marketed as a young adult book instead of a usual poetry book. I have continued to publish for that market because doing so has seemed to me to be a way to rebuild the diminishing readership of American poetry” (Nelson’s 2012 Frost Medalist speech).

I love how Marilyn shows us so many sides of Carver’s adventurous life and experiences by writing in various voices, including the man charged with getting the infant Carver back from his kidnapers…

…and the white couple who raised him and his brother Jim after slavery was abolished……and the art professor in “The Prayer of Miss Budd” who is surprised to see this “sepia boy” among all her white students at Simpson College.


Another new-to-me find that fascinates me is Marilyn’s 2004 book Fortune’s Bones: The Manumissions Requiem, which honors a slave who died in Connecticut in 1798. Fortune’s owner, a doctor, then “dissected his body, boiling down his bones to preserve them for anatomy studies. The skeleton was lost and rediscovered, then hung in a local museum until 1970, when it was removed from display. The museum began a project in the 1990s that uncovered the skeleton’s provenance, created a new exhibit, and led to the commissioning of these six poems” (School Library Journal).

One of the first poems is the devastating “Dinah’s Lament,” in which Fortune’s wife “mourns the husband whose bones she is ordered to dust” (SLJ).

Other pieces are in the voices of Fortune’s owner, his descendants, workers, and museum visitors. Near the end, we hear Fortune’s voice itself as he sings the dignified “Not My Bones.” 

Then, in 2005, came Marilyn’s beautiful but heartbreaking work A Wreath for Emmett Till, a requiem for the fourteen-year-old African American boy who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Marilyn handles the difficult subject matter through an intensely difficult poetic form called a heroic crown of sonnets. In this form, the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet, and then the final sonnet is composed of the first lines from the preceding fourteen sonnets. According to Nelson, “The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter” (NCTE profile).

One of the hallmarks of Marilyn’s work is her ability to turn her rigorous research into poetry that is at once lyrical, tough, powerful, truthful, and tender. She clearly falls in love with every subject of her books, from Prudence Crandall, a teacher who faced prejudice, hatred, and legal persecution for opening a school for African American women in the 1830s, a story richly told in Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, co-authored with Elizabeth Alexander…


…to the harrowing true tale of African-prince-turned-slave Broteer Furro (renamed Venture), “history’s first man to document both his capture from Africa and life as an American slave” (Amazon). In The Freedom Business, Venture’s own text, A Narrative of the Life & Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, published in 1798, “appears opposite Nelson’s stirring poems, which are written in Smith’s voice and both intensify and comment on his experiences” (Booklist).

Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, on the other hand, is a vibrant volume in which Marilyn writes in the voices of the band’s instruments, her poetry evok[ing] the rich wail of swing music with varied meters, rhyme schemes, and free verse, calling up memories of the Dust Bowl, World War II, rationing, segregation, and music that momentarily lifted its listeners above hardship” (School Library Journal).

Marilyn’s research and attention to detail is so focused, in fact, that her 2015 collection My Seneca Village includes her very specific notes that set the scene for the poem that follows. Originally intended as illustration notes, they were ultimately included as-is in the book instead of illustrations. As Marilyn says, “One of the many good points about doing this is that you get to imagine these people. You have to create them in your mind; whereas, if it had been illustrated by a painter, you would only be able to see that painter’s vision. It gives you a lot more room to imagine.”

Once again writing in many voices, Marilyn imagines the people who lived in Seneca Village, a multiethnic community that thrived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side from 1825 to 1857 before it was decimated to create Central Park.

The daughter of one of the last Tuskegee Airmen, Marilyn drew on her own history for her 2016 novel in verse American Ace, in which a boy discovers his grandfather’s surprising identity. As Kirkus Reviews puts it, “[Nelson’s] meticulous verse is the perfect vehicle to convey the devastating fragility of racial and familial identity in an America where interracial love is still divided through the problem of the color line.”

Known for her research of and writing about other people and events, Marilyn gave the poetry world the gift of her own history in her 2014 autobiographical collection How I Discovered Poetry, “a powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights-era memoir” in which Marilyn looks back on her 1950s childhood to give readers “an intimate portrait of her growing self-awareness and artistic inspiration along with a larger view of the world around her: racial tensions, the Cold War era, and the first stirrings of the feminist movement” (Penguin Random House site).


Lee’s reflections on Marilyn underscore her impressive body of work, and make it easy to see why she has been honored with some of the highest awards for poetry in the world, and why she is one of America’s most respected and celebrated poets.


In Her Own Words: Marilyn Nelson on


I’ve always identified as a poet, not a prose writer, and I find writing prose very difficult—tedious, because I try to be as much of a perfectionist on the word-by-word level as I am in a poem, and it takes forever to write a paragraph” (NCTE profile).

“Writers must be readers. I encourage lovers of poetry to read widely and to read deep poems. We should not forget that poetry speaks across ages, generations, national borders, and the veils between Americans of different inherited group memberships. I suggest we read poetry not only by people who look like us, but also by people who do not look like us, to share our national, ethnic, or racial backgrounds” (video with LBH).

Teaching Poetry

“[Children] have poetry anxiety the way I have math anxiety. They look at something and it looks like a poem and their brain turns off. . .  they think ‘I’m never going to understand that’ and it’s because they’ve been poorly taught about poetry. I would say that what teachers need to do is read [poetry] for the subject matter. Children don’t need to be told the rhyme scheme. They’ll notice stuff like that anyway. Give them the subject matter” (NCTE profile).

Writing for Young People

A hunger for poetry still exists. I’ve tried to write poems that satisfy that hunger. I hope that, if a fifteen-year old reader falls in love with, for instance, a heroic crown of Petrarchan sonnets, in ten years that twenty-five-year old reader will still care about formal poetry. I hope that reader at thirty-five or forty-five will still be a reader of poetry. I remember the sunny summer afternoon in Chicago when I first read James Dickey’s poem ‘The Sheep Child’ in The New Yorker. I was nineteen or twenty. I felt, as Dickinson put it, ‘physically as if the top of my head were taken off.’ My ambition, in publishing poems marketed to young adult readers, has been to offer a cross-over audience of young adult, as well as older adult readers, that intense and life-changing experience(Nelson’s 2012 Frost Medalist speech).

“To me, poetry offers the opportunity to see through someone else’s eyes. It can open us up to each other’s experience, and it can certainly teach us empathy” (video with LBH).

What Is Poetry?

I have always told my students that my definition of poetry is “shaped language.” It is a verbal construction that can take us up a winding staircase to show us, from the roof, a panorama of neural fireworks. I believe the word itself—poetry—is an honorific, a name for the highest, finest use that can be made of human language” (video with LBH).

NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin

More about Marilyn Nelson

Dates: b. 1946 in Cleveland, OH
Education: University of California, Davis (BA); University of Pennsylvania (MA, 1970); University of Minnesota (PhD, 1979)
Occupation(s): Poet, translator, children’s book author, professor emerita of English at University of Connecticut, director of Soul Mountain Retreat
Recognition: Representative awards and honors include 2017 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature 2017, numerous Coretta Scott King Award and Honor Books 2002-2015, Elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets 2013, The Poetry Society of America Frost Medal 2012, Michael L. Printz Honor 2006, Connecticut Poet Laureate 2001-2006, Newbery Honor 2002

I leave you with this final poem, “Saplings” from My Seneca Village, because it reminds me of just how many poetic saplings Marilyn has planted for all of us to harvest.

from MY SENECA VILLAGE by Marilyn Nelson


(First links go to NCTE articles about each winner; second links go to NWR video posts) (Criteria for award)

2017 – Marilyn Nelson  |  See Marilyn’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2015 – Marilyn Singer  |  See Marilyn’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2013 – Joyce Sidman  |  See Joyce’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2011 – J. Patrick Lewis  |  See Pat’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2009 – Lee Bennett Hopkins  |  See Lee’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2006 – Nikki Grimes  |  See Nikki’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2003 – Mary Ann Hoberman  |  See Mary Ann’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
2000 – X.J. Kennedy  |  See X.J.’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1997 – Eloise Greenfield  | See Eloise’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1994 – Barbara Juster Esbensen | See Barbara’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1991 – Valerie Worth  |  See Valerie’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1988 – Arnold Adoff  |  See Arnold’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1985 – Lilian Moore  |  See Lilian’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1982 – John Ciardi  |  See John’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1981 – Eve Merriam  |  See Eve’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1980 – Myra Cohn Livingston  |  See Myra’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT on NWR
1979 – Karla Kuskin  |  See Karla’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1978 – Aileen Fisher  |  See Aileen’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR
1977 – David McCord  |  See David’s NCTE SPOTLIGHT post on NWR


NCTE Medal - designed by Karla Kuskin
NCTE Medal – designed by Karla Kuskin


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All poems © Marilyn Nelson. All illustrations © by respective illustrators. All rights reserved. Video and post content © Renée M. LaTulippe. All rights reserved.