Since the release of her first book in 1978, Marilyn Nelson has given voice to history. A three-time finalist for the National Book Award, she is an accomplished poet and children’s author, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and a former professor of English at St. Olaf College, an ELCA college in Northfield, Minnesota. She is also a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
And much like the poets of the Old Testament, she examines the complicated emotional geography of the past—celebrating the stories of everyday saints like George Washington Carver while also memorializing some of America’s darkest moments, like the murder of Emmett Till.
Nelson spent her teen years attending First English Lutheran Church in Sacramento, California. Her first full-time job was with Lutheran Campus Ministry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. It was there that she was invited to serve on the Hymn Text Committee of the Lutheran Church in America—one of the three predecessor church bodies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a member of this committee, Nelson helped to shape the language of the Lutheran Book of Worship (which many Lutherans refer to as “the green hymnal”).
Although she says today that she wouldn’t consider herself religious “in the traditional sense,” Nelson considers her faith a gift. Gather spoke with her about how she sees this gift as being connected to her work as a poet and storyteller, and about how she has used her writing to bring others’ stories to life.
Can you begin by sharing a bit about your church background?
I grew up in a military family, and we lived mostly on Air Force bases. I grew up going to military chapel, which was non-denominational Protestant chapel. All of the chaplains were white.
When my dad got out of the service, the youngest child in our family had Down syndrome. My mother met a woman who took care of children with Down syndrome, and they became really close friends. This woman belonged to a Lutheran church in our city. It was in a changing neighborhood, and some of the original Scandinavian and German church members had left the neighborhood, but they didn’t leave the church. So this was a Lutheran church that was happily, joyfully integrated in a predominantly African-American community.
We didn’t live in the neighborhood, but we just felt at home in the church. So my sister and I went through catechism and were confirmed, and I became involved in Luther League. Years later, my college boyfriend was an officer of the national Luther League organization. My first full-time job was working with Lutheran Campus Ministry. I was an associate in campus ministry at Cornell, assisting the very wonderful Rev. Lee Snook. So I have a very strong Lutheran background from about the age of 15 until about the age of 35.
How did you end up coming to work on the Lutheran hymnal?
Because of the year I spent working for Lutheran Campus Ministry, I had met some people who worked at the national Lutheran church offices. I was about 25 years old when I was asked to join the hymn text committee, which required carrying huge portfolios of different hymn texts around on airplanes to meetings with all these men who were at least 20 or 25 years older than I was, who had published hymns and who were professors at seminaries. And there was me. It was so humbling and exhilarating.
Our mandate was to read through every verse of every hymn in the Lutheran hymnody, examine them very closely for any messages of racism, sexism and militarism, and try to remove those traces.
I was on the committee for maybe three years. It was probably as valuable to me in learning to write poetry as it might have been to go to an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program, because what we were dealing with was trying to keep the poetry of the hymn but to change the cultural vestiges of a racist, misogynistic, militaristic past.
Every time I look at that hymnal and think there is a faint possibility that some congregation may be singing a word I suggested, I’m thrilled.
Do you remember what first drew you to reading or writing poetry?
I was a bookish child. We moved a lot, and we were often the new kids in school. We didn’t know anybody. It was just me and my sister, so we read a lot. There was always a library on base where we could go and check out books. We also had a small family library that traveled with us, including a set of books called Childcraft with two volumes of poetry: one aimed at younger children and one aimed at older children. It was a really wonderful resource.
I have met several other poets between the ages of 60 and 75 who became poets because they grew up with Childcraft.
You have an extensive church background, and in addition to teaching writing and poetry, you’ve also taught meditation classes. Do you see your writing as having a connection to faith?
Every poem and every project have their own centers. Sometimes I write about things having to do with faith, but I mostly write about history. I feel that having faith is a gift. It’s like being able to learn languages or being able to do math. Some people have a gift. It doesn’t mean that you believe necessarily in a credo or a doctrine or something; it just means that you see your place in the cosmos as being very, very, very tiny, and yet you know that you have an ability to bring light into the world. It’s something you live.
This article is excerpted from the November 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.