Interview with Marilyn Nelson
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Marilyn Nelson Waniek
is the author of several collections of poems, including
For the Body, The Cat Walked Through the Casserole
and Other Poems for Children, and The Homeplace,
which was a Finalist for the 1991 National Book Award.
Marilyn Hacker described The Homeplace as a "book
whose good humor, grace and dignity clothe the naked
body of truth telling. Waniek limns her characters,
who are also her foremothers and forefathers, with a
novelist's sleight of hand and a poet's precision and
A graduate of the University of California at Davis and the University
of Minnesota, where she earned her Ph.D. in English, Ms. Waniek is
currently Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Her
most recent collection of poems is Magnificat, published in 1994.
How is it that you became a writer?
I've wanted to write since I was a child. Back then I was very prone
to tears, and my mother used to apologize to people by saying, "Don't
worry about Marilyn -- she's very sensitive, she's a poet." And on the
last day of school in sixth grade, our teacher told the kids what she
expected them to be when they grew up, and she said that she expected
me to be a famous writer. So I grew up with the sense that this was
who I was, that I had to become a poet.
Did you enjoy poetry as a child?
Yes. I read my father's old college poetry textbooks, and I think that
a lot of my early ethical training came from reading those poems. Many
people go through a kind of spiritual search at about age twelve or
thirteen, and poetry was my first answer, I guess. Then in high school,
I wrote poetic prose pieces -- sort of black stockinged, beret-wearing
stuff about poor children with huge eyes. I didn't start writing poetry
seriously until I was in college. In graduate school, I had a
literature course with the poet Daniel Hoffman, who took one of my
poems for an anthology of student poetry he was doing. Then I dropped
out of graduate school and didn't write at all for ten years. I picked
it up again when I went back to graduate school; it just kind of
grabbed me that that's what I needed to do.
Was it during this ten-year hiatus from writing that you became
interested in Danish poetry?
Yes. I taught in Denmark for about a year.That's how I found out about
Halfdan Rasmussen, who is a famous and popular children's poet in
Denmark. I translated some of his poems as my first translation
project.Then I went on to translate another, more serious Danish poet.
But my interest in writing poetry for children began with the Rasmussen
project, Hundreds of HensI and Other Poems for Children. My
friend Pamela Espeland and I decided to try doing something like his
work on our own, so just for fun we began collaborating on poems about
things from childhood that we had found funny. Those poems became
The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for
What was of interest to you initially in writing poetry for
I read once that you can tell by reading a poet's first book what his
or her themes will be for the rest of his or her career. The poems in
my first book, For The Body, were about the things I was
experiencing in the early Seventies: my roots as an Afro-American, my
femaleness, and my spirituality. I'm not sure what first made me want
to write poems about these experiences, though I was absolutely driven
by the need to define myself as a poet. It was almost a visceral need,
a hunger, which
frightened me deeply. I felt I must write or die. That sounds
melodramatic now, but I don't think I'm exaggerating. It's terrifying
to find and claim a new identity.
What kind of spiritual search led you to write The
I'd had the idea of writing a book about my family history for a long
time. My mother was a storyteller, and was very proud of her family, so
I grew up with a sense that my forebears were larger than life. I come
from people who were not wealthy, not stars, and not the high-yellow
elite of the Afro-American community, but who were orators, and very
proud of their intelligence, and who achieved real triumph in their own
I had initially thought of the book as something just for the family. I
had gone to California to visit my mother, who had Alzheimer's disease,
and when I came home, very upset, my husband said, "I think you ought
to go to your grandmother's hometown." I have no idea why he said this.
I had been to her hometown in Kentucky only once in my life, when I was
about eleven. As it happened, I went there again about ten days after
my mother's funeral. One of my mother's cousins met me, and we did
genealogical research, and stayed in the house that had been in the
family for a hundred years. We stood at my great-grandfather's grave
and talked to him together. When I came home, I started seriously
looking through archives, and talking with relatives and family friends
who told me stories.
I started writing the book as a way of writing out my mourning for my
mother, and as a way of making a kind of posthumous tribute to my
mother and to her family. I can't explain why, but it came out as
poems. After a while, I realized that what I was doing was writing a
public book, an explanation of the source of a black family's pride in
Why was that theme so appealing to you?
I thought it was something that young Afro-American people needed to
read. Much African-American literature describes ours as a heritage of
brutalization and rape, resulting in a sort of spiritual lostness. Last
year, for example, I taught a seminar on African-American women's
narratives, and we read several slave narratives in which the women
were raped and brutalized by white masters over and over and over
again. I wanted to talk about finding pride in our parents' generation,
and in our parents' parents' generation, in people who triumphed over
slavery, who behind closed doors stood up straight and said, "We know
who we are. They may not know, but we know." I had the feeling that we
African-American writers need to show that. The story of my family, the
story I grew up with, is not a story that begins with rape. It's a
story that begins with love, and it's a story that needs to be told
because it humanizes our ancestry. It says that we are not necessarily
children of rape, that love can grow even under the most difficult
circumstances. And also I think it humanizes the face of the oppressor,
and says that there were people who, even in the most unlikely
circumstances, retained their humanity enough to at least attempt what
was then an impossible love.
The man I write about in The Homeplace, "Henry Tyler", fought as an
officer with Bedford's Raiders in the Civil War. He
was a state senator of Kentucky, and he stood for segregation.
He was a terrible racist. On the other hand, I know
that he gave a house to my great-great-grandmother,
and that his family knew about our family and was cordial
-- not supportive, but cordial. So I grew up with this
Faulkneresque story. Faulkner told the truth, in some
ways, about the South, because he knew the story, too.
These were really difficult, complicated relations.
What were your greatest pleasures and challenges in tackling these
The greatest pleasure came from my sense of something my cousin wrote
to me after the book was published: "The ancestors are proud of you." I
think I had been writing the book with this unconscious goal. The
greatest challenge was trying to get at the truth of the facts. I knew,
for example, that my great-uncle was a hero in the first World War, and
I wanted to get inside that fact, to describe his way of saying what he
had done, which he did very humbly. And then I wanted to connect it
with another story about his coming back home from war. Those two
stories need to be told together, in order to get to their deepest
truth. And that was not easy to do.
You play around a lot with poetic forms in The Homeplace.
What relationship were you interested in establishing between the
various forms and themes in the book?
When I first started writing, I had been at work for about a year on a
sonnet sequence, and that's why the first several poems are sonnets.
Also, I had the sense that writing about things that happened in the
last century required a form that was closer to the forms used then,
that somehow it would be more honest to the experiences to put them in
a more traditional form. As I wrote them, I kept loosening up the forms
so that as poems come closer to my mother's generation, the rhymes are
looser and rhythm is more syncopated. Then, of course, the latter part
of the book is entirely free verse.
What role has The Homeplace had in your writing
It was a turning point, because it's been taken more
seriously than my other books. Now I often meet people who are teaching
it in college, and I get occasional phone calls from students asking me
to answer questions about it.
Readers who want to learn more about Marilyn Nelson Waniek are
encouraged to seek out some of the books that were particularly helpful
to her in the writing of The Homeplace
Collected Black Women's Slave Narratives, Anthony Barthelemey,
The Black Towns, Norman J. Crockett
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacob
Song of the Sky, Guy Murchie
Chappie: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr.,
Lonely Eagles, Robert Rose
A Black Educator in the Segregated South,
Jubilee, Margaret Walker
Books by Marilyn Nelson Waniek:
The Homeplace (1990)
Mama's Promises (1985)
For the Body (1978)
-- Interview by Diane Osen