blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Marilyn Nelson
Conducted October 12, 2022

On October 12, 2022, Marilyn Nelson participated in an email interview with Blackbird managing editor, Waverley Vesely. Nelson’s final installment of her translation of Inge Pederson’s novel, The path leads through the air, appears in this issue of Blackbird. This interview touches upon the process of translation, the difficulties of form, and the value of literary friendships. Nelson writes: “I often wonder what modern/contemporary Americans mean when they use the word ‘poetry.’ Do they mean the same things Plato and Aristotle and their students meant? An ideal abstraction up there, floatingly ethereal, like Art and Beauty?” Nelson’s work has appeared in Blackbird since its inception, and she has been an important, appreciated member of our community over the past twenty years.


Waverley Vesely: You have been published in Blackbird since its inception, and we have featured many of your translations of Inge Pederson’s work. Could you speak about your experience of long-term literary friendships and the impact they have had on your writing—and reading—of literature?

Marilyn Nelson: That (long-term literary friendships and the impact they have . . . ) is an excellent subject for a memoir! Thanks! The appearance of each chapter of Inge’s novel has come as a surprise for me, and a great pleasure. I wonder if any readers of Blackbird followed it as a sequence?

WV: Many of your poems stem from research on historical people. How do you research and voice figures from history, and what draws you to the people you chose to write about? What kinds of choices of language are you making when you craft a historical speaker’s voice?

MN: Each historical project is different and discovers its own techniques. Not every technique works for every project. Sometimes I’ve written about an actual person out of personal interest or curiosity, and sometimes I’ve done so because a persuasive publisher has asked me to. Your question about choices of language made in crafting a historical speaker’s voice is very interesting, but I’m afraid I must confess that I don’t know how to answer it.

WV: Your poems are deeply rooted in an awareness and interrogation of the ways social systems of both the past and present have made and are making meaning through language. How do you think poetry participates in social critique, and what do you think of its capacity is for generating social change?

MN: I often wonder what modern/contemporary Americans mean when they use the word “poetry.” Do they mean the same things Plato and Aristotle and their students meant? An ideal abstraction up there, floatingly ethereal, like Art and Beauty? We need, first of all, to define the term before we try to discuss its capacity for generating social change. Does poetry exist without poets? How many contemporary poets are meaningfully engaged in social justice, in their writing or in their lives? Does poetry exist without poets?

WV: Regarding your translated prose and poetry, how do you conceive of the merging of the original author’s voice and your own voice in the process of rewriting a piece into another language? How do you balance maintaining the original language’s meaning while also successfully representing it as an aesthetic object in the translated language?

MN: It doesn’t feel to me like the merger of two voices. I feel myself more as serving the original author. I was awe-struck all the time I worked with Euripides’s Hecuba, for example. And working on Pedersen’s Vejen was a long conversation with my dear friend. Remaining as true as possible to the original sense is of utmost importance. I would not seek to make an aesthetic point in English which was not also a point in the original language. What use is an inaccurate translation?

WV: A number of your poems are written in difficult traditional poetic forms—for example, “A Wreath for Emmett Till” is written as a sonnet redoublé and “Millie-Christine” is written as a modified rondeau redoublé. What is the impact of such forms on the content of your poetry, or perhaps the content’s impact on the form?

MN: I want to say the forms aren’t “difficult,” but “complex,” but I have to be honest: they were very difficult! “A Wreath for Emmett Till” is a heroic crown of sonnets. I thought that sucker was going to kill me! Writing in a meticulous form is like writing in collaboration with a very talented partner. In the case of the poem for “Emmett Till,” the insistence of the rhyme scheme became such an increasingly strong force in the shaping of the poem that I didn’t know where the poem was going. I wrote faster and faster, eager to get to the end of each sonnet to see what was coming in the next one—while at the same time holding tightly to the leash, to make sure the poem didn’t lose its accuracy. Oh, and “Millie-Christine” had to be always historically accurate! Oy!  

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