In solidarity with the June 2020 protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, Poem-a-Day will be dedicated to featuring Black poets, engaging a number of Black curators throughout the summer to guest edit the series in two-week installments. In this short Q&A, Marilyn Nelson discusses her curatorial approach for August 3–August 14 and her own creative work. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?

Marilyn Nelson: I decided to invite only women and girls, and to tell them their theme should be Black Lives Matter, which I suggested they take to mean Black loves matter, Black joy matters, Black children matter, Black families... Black dreams... I began by inviting friends from my home community of Connecticut poets, then expanded my circle to include poets I’d heard read recently, poets who write for younger readers, and student poets at different stages of their careers. Having heard over the years from many non-poets that they “don’t understand” contemporary poetry, I looked for poems in which, in a language of images, empathy allows deep entrance into experiences of Black lives. If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

MN: Well, of course that’s an impossible assignment. Let’s see: out of 9,500 poems, which one poem would I direct readers to? Hmmmm. How about Langston Hughes’ “My People”? Who are you reading right now?

MN: I’ve recently acquired copies of two mysteries by Valerie Wilson Wesley, a prolific author whose late father, a former Tuskegee Airman, was the source of several of my poems about the Airmen. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Valerie’s work, but I’m now a few chapters into Where Evil Sleeps, and haven’t figured out who done it. Also reading Mark Doty’s What is the Grass, and books by Robert Hass (we team-taught a workshop at Sewanee last summer, and I was sorry I wasn’t more familiar with his work) and Bobbie Ann Mason (who was also on Sewanee faculty last summer, when we discovered that our families are from the same part of Kentucky). And piles of old copies of The New Yorker. What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?

MN: During this lockdown I’ve been completing last-minute work on several forthcoming books for younger readers: a picture book illustrated by Wayne Anthony Still about my maternal grandfather’s early life called Papa’s Free Day Party; a picture book illustrated by Philemona Williamson called Lubaya’s Quiet Roar; a Y/A biography in poems about African American sculptor Augusta Savage; and a collaborative collection, written with composer Lera Auerbach and illustrated by Paul Hoppe, of verse about the orchestra called A Is for Oboe. And I’m about thirty-five pages away from the end of translating a 300-page novel by my late, dear friend, the Danish author Inge Pedersen.

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