For a writer who craves both quiet isolation and stimulating company, Marilyn Nelson G’70 may have the ideal living arrangement. The former poet laureate of Connecticut and University of Connecticut emeritus professor of English spends much of her time in rural solitude in a sprawling old nine-bedroom house in the middle of a nature preserve in East Haddam near the unspoiled Eightmile River. But Nelson’s house is also the home of Soul Mountain, an artists’ retreat she founded in 2003 after retiring from teaching. In addition to her living quarters—dubbed “Lady Marilyn’s wing”—there is space for four writers at a time to, in the words of the retreat’s website, “enjoy contemplative writing time, the respectful companionship of peers and mentors, and the inspiration of the natural surroundings in a diverse and intimate community that honors the freedom and the responsibility of the creative act.”

Many people imagine that the writerly life is just about walking down to the river and contemplating. “It can be, if you’re willing to just live for yourself,” says Nelson. “I made a decision to try to live with a larger commitment. It’s like deciding to have three children instead of two—it requires a lot more of everything.”

Nelson’s voice is high and gentle, and she wears her narrow dreadlocks pulled neatly back from her face. “Enchanting” is the word the poet Daniel Hoffman uses to describe her demeanor. Now an emeritus professor of English at Penn, he taught Nelson as a graduate student and was an early champion of her work (see box on p.51).

That work includes books of poetry, poems for children, and translations, and it has garnered a slew of awards over the years. Her collection of biographical poems about George Washington Carver, Carver: A Life in Poems, won the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for excellence in children’s literature as well as the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award. It was also a Newbery and a Coretta Scott King honor book. Her poetic memoir, The Homeplace, which came out in 1990, won an Anisfield-Wolf Award for books that contribute to understanding racism and appreciating cultural diversity, while 1997’s The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems won the Poets’ Prize, given annually by a committee of about 20 American poets who serve as judges and also contribute the prize money. All three volumes were also named as finalists for the National Book Award. Other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright teaching fellowship, a pair of Pushcart Prizes (honoring the best small-press publications), and the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award. Her term as poet laureate of Connecticut ran from 2001 to 2006. Besides serving on the UConn faculty from 1978 to 2003, Nelson also taught summers at the MFA program at Vermont College and at Cave Canem (a nonprofit organization dedicated to the “discovery and cultivation of new voices in African-American poetry”), while raising two, now adult, children.

For her most recent book, 2007’s Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, Nelson collaborated with poet Elizabeth Alexander Gr’92, professor of African-American studies at Yale University, whose collection American Sublime was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005. The book consists of 24 sonnets in the voices of the young women who attended the school that Prudence Crandall ran in Canterbury, Connecticut, from 1831 to 1834. Miss Crandall, a Quaker, began the school as a boarding school for white girls in 1831, but after blacks were admitted she faced harsh opposition from the community. In addition to suffering various acts of vandalism against the school, Crandall was arrested and faced three trials for breaking a law passed specifically to prevent her operating the school for black students. Though the case was ultimately dismissed, a mob attacked the school in September 1834, forcing its closure. The building is now the site of the Prudence Crandall Museum.

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