Poet Visits University

Poet Visits University in Conjunction with MLK Tribute

As part of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute celebration, award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson came to the University last Wednesday night to read her published works and pieces from a new manuscript.

Marilyn Nelson is an African-American poet born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1946 during the time of segregation.  Her father was in the air force so she grew up around military bases. Her mother was an African-American teacher with all white students, and always thought of her daughter as a poet.

In 1966, Nelson lived in Chicago and worked with the Civil Rights Movement.  Much of her poetry reflects her perspectives on racism and equality, and her personal experiences growing up in a segregated America.

Nelson earned her B.A. from the University of California Davis, an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. She has published more than 12 books, and has won numerous awards including the 1998 Poets’ Prize, two creative writing fell o w s h i p s from the National Endowment for the Arts and is a Robert Frost Medal recipient.  She is currently a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut.

At the MLK Tribute event, guests sat at round tables eating cream puffs and fudge cake.  Nelson, dressed head to toe in royal blue, walked up to the podium and stared at the audience over her glasses.

She began reading her poems that depict moments of her childhood. Every piece read worked with themes such as racism, segregation and the desire for equality.

Nelson also read her book A Wreath for Emmett Till in its entirety. A Wreath for Emmett Till is an elegy written as a crown of sonnets about the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old

African-American boy murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman at a general store in Mississippi.

Till’s mother demanded an open casket at the viewing to expose the brutality of his murder. The killers, five white men, were found not guilty even after being identified by Emmett’s uncle. This event helped encouraged the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s.

Nelson used Petrarchan sonnets to write about Till. She has every sonnet written so the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the following sonnet.  On the 15th and final sonnet, Nelson took all the first lines of the previous 14 sonnets and formed its own acrostic sonnet spelling out RIP EMMETT TILL. 

 After Nelson’s reading, the four recipients of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unsung Hero Award came to the stage to collect their plaques.  The recipients rewarded for keeping King’s spirit alive were Moleen Madziwa, Professor Mary Swigonski, Mary Szacik and Louis Yuliano.

Nelson stayed after the reading to talk to students and sign copies of her books.  Senior Kayla Helfrich was one of the students who stayed after to get her copy of A Wreath for Emmett Till, autographed by the writer.

“Marilyn Nelson’s poetry, other than A Wreath for Emmett Till, was something I had never read before,” Helfrich said. “It was really moving and gave you a sense of what it was like for her growing up during the Civil Rights Movement.”