Monday, May 14, 2012

Marilyn Nelson on "Called Up," "Your Own," and "Making History"


These three little unrhymed sonnets are part of a sequence of fifty sonnets about my childhood as the daughter of an African American officer in the U.S. Air Force during the 1950s. I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1946; the sequence begins with my childish understanding of the reasons my dad, who had graduated from air cadet school at Tuskegee Institute toward the end of WWII, been discharged at the end of the war, and was enrolled in law school, was called back to military service during the Korean Conflict. These poems are embedded in the Red Scare and in the first rumblings of the ground-swell Civil Rights Movement. Yet they offer a young child’s limited understanding.

The project began as a desire to imitate a delightful little book I read several years ago, Love, Loss, and What I Wore , by Ilene Beckerman, in which a woman’s wardrobe serves as a time capsule of her life. That book has since been used as the basis for a wildly successful play written by Nora and Delia Ephron. But when I started writing my project, I was still in love with the relation between clothing and memory, and I spent some time researching the project by paging through bound volumes of popular magazines from the Fifties, taking notes about what was happening, and about the clothes worn in the ads.

Another source of these poems is a book by one of my friends, Inge Pedersen, a Danish poet and fiction writer. Inge’s most recent book, Til Amerika, is a collection of short fiction pieces about her girlhood during the years Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. At one point when we were together recently, either in her home or in mine, Inge told me that the stories in this collection work because they are in the voice of a young child; that each of the stories is built around a gap in the child’s understanding. She said they were a joy to write, and suggested I try to do something similar.

One aspect of the world my poems describe is the pervasiveness of the military hierarchy, which extends to the children. None of my childhood friends were the children of non-commissioned personnel. We were all children of officers. This meant that, since so few commissioned officers were African American, almost all of my playmates were white. My mother was a very race-proud woman; she was passionate about Negro history; she came from a very proud family of individuals who knew they were making history. She wanted us to know that pride. That’s in the background of the poem called “Your Own.” A little note about “Making History”: my mother was born and raised in one of the few all-Negro towns in the country, and she was quite proud of the fact that her sister, Miss Charlie Boyd Mitchell, was the first Negro telephone switchboard operator in the country.

This collection, called Blue Footsies, will be illustrated and marketed as a young adult book to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2014.

14 comments:

  1. On one level, the poems explore the evolution of self vis a vis group consciousness, I suppose. In the first poem the world of the child encompasses only the nuclear and -- to some extent -- the extended family (as indicated by the use of the word "cousins"). In the second, the child (slightly older) exists in a world of families and playmates not yet identified, in the child's mind, by race or color. Thus, the child "doesn't know why Mama looked sad," or understand what Mama means by distinguishing "them" from "your own." Or why Mama is warning her to "be careful." Of course, we know, because we know the speaker of the poems in a young African American girl. In the third, the child is older, and understands that she is intimately related to all of the "First Negroes" she reads and hears about in the news.

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  2. Beautiful: the poems and this writing explaining the root of them.

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  3. I can't wait until this is released to share with my students, all freshman, all at that stage where they are trying to define themselves. I love sharing your poetry with them, and am so inspired in my own work by your words.

    THANK YOU
    www.TracieVaughnZimmer.com

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  4. I can feel Mama's isolation and her worry that her girls might not come to know who they "are". She's a recurring figure in Nelson's poems, as is Daddy, who I always feel I wish I could know.

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  5. I'm happy to think about you writing these poems! I'm looking forward not only to reading them - but also to discussing and comparing them with my work!!
    See you very soon in Denmark - Love, Inge.

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  6. I've been wondering how far the sequence of fifty poems carries you and your character in time. What's the final outfit? The clothes are a wonderful trigger of memories (poodle skirts and Easter hats, knee socks and corduroy jackets) for the reader as well as, I'm sure, for you.
    Thanks for the poems in the Split This Rock chapbook, and for participating in the Poet's Forum.

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  7. Loved these and the request to comment on the blog, couldn't refuse I know the feeling. Some days writing a blog is like shouting down the wind. Your poems read with such ease and then the deeper thoughts and meanings seep into conciousness and I go back read again a different poem than it was the first time, wow!

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  8. These are truly wonderful. I love the clothes aspect as well. Can't wait till it's published.

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  9. I'm glad you like the clothes, Lee. I've been thinking of taking them out, though: they make each poem have so much "front-matter." But your comment makes me think I should think again. The sequence ends in 1959, with a poem called "Thirteen Year Old American Negro Girl," with the outfit being "Yellow Cardigan, Red and White T-Shirt, Jeans."

    Thanks for the opportunity!

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  10. This program seems to prefer to keep me anonymous. Okay with me!

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  11. Thanks for responding to my request, Carolyn. I agree with you about shouting down the wind! And I like your thought of each poem's actually being TWO (or more) poems!

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  12. Don't take the clothes out! Half the charm is in the oddball objectivity conferred by time, taxonomies at an aesthetic distance.

    Not to mention that, ORLON--Christ!-- we need to SAVE THAT WORD. None of these whippersnappers today knows what Peter Pannishness in collars meant, above those blue-smocked bodices. My god, a bodice! We were HOT.

    I love how the subtexted fields of reference come angling in... via the intermingled voicings. Criss-crossed messages. "White lies." (How palpable the understatement is...)

    Do not think twice. These SHINE.

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  13. I agree about the clothes and ORLON. So much of our memories are marked by what we wore, and I can totally see that label inside the collar--tiny script like an invitation.

    AND what I love SO much: "our leaves become feathers" brought me right to how our clothes/camouflage/selfhood changes over time. Keep, keep, keep!

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