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How I Discovered Poetry

by Marilyn Nelson and Hadley Hooper

Hardcover, 103 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $17.99 |


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How I Discovered Poetry
Marilyn Nelson and Hadley Hooper

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NPR Summary

The Connecticut Poet Laureate reflects on growing up as a young black girl in the '50s, and her development as an artist and young woman through 50 illuminating poems that consider such influences as the civil rights movement, the "Red Scare" atomic bomb era and the feminist movement.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'How I Discovered Poetry'


(Cleveland, Ohio, 1951)

Folding the letter and laying it down,

Daddy says, "Well, Baby, I've been called back up."

Mama pauses, then puts my bowl of beans

in front of me. Jennifer eats and hums

across from me on two telephone books.

Mama says, "Pray God you won't see combat."

Jennifer, stop singing at the table,

I hiss. Her humming's driving me crazy.

She looks up from her bowl with dreaming eyes:

Huh? Mama says, "My darling, we're going, too."

Stop singing! "I'll take a leave from law school,"

he says, "and you'll take a leave from your job."

We've been called up. Our leaves become feathers.

­­With wings we wave good-bye to our cousins.


(Lackland AFB, Texas, 1952)

Nothing belongs to us in our new house

except Mama's piano and our clothes.

I'm the new girl in Dick and Jane country,

the other children faceless as grown-ups.

I read through recess and take some books home.

I read to Jennifer while Mama plays.

I read while the television talker

talks about career and the hide drajen bomb.

Mama says she's going to vote for Ike.

Daddy says, "Woman, you just think he's cute!"

We ducked and covered underneath our desks,

hiding from drajen bombs in school today.

Maybe drajens would turn into butter

if they ran really fast around a tree.


(Smoky Hill AFB, Kansas, 1955)

Somebody took a picture of a class

standing in line to get polio shots

and published it in the Weekly Reader.

We stood like that today. And it did hurt.

Mrs. Liebel said we were Making History,

but all I did was sqwunch up my eyes and wince.

Making History takes more than standing in line

believing little white lies about pain.

Mama says First Negroes are History:

First Negro Telephone Operator,

First Negro Opera Singer at the Met,

First Negro Pilots, First Supreme Court Judge.

That lady in Montgomery just became a First

by sqwunching up her eyes and sitting there.


(Sacramento, California, 1959)

We've moved to a neighborhood of new homes

being built to be sold to Negro families.

Mama said she's proud we're landowners now,

like her papa was in Oklahoma,

his red dirt farm stretching fertile acres.

Daddy plowed our bare yard in the Lincoln,

breaking up the clods with its white-walled tires.

I walk to and from school, books to my chest,

with a drift of girlfriends, none of them mine.

I'm learning that Negro is a language

I don't speak. And I don't know how to dance.

At home, we listen to Miles and Coltrane,

Tchaikovsky and Chopin. I get good grades

because I'm curious and I like to read,

and NOT because I'm "trying to be white."


(Clinton-Sherman AFB, Oklahoma, 1959)

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words

filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.

All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,

but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne

by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen

the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day

she gave me a poem she'd chosen especially for me

to read to the all-except-for-me white class.

She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,

said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder

until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo-playing

darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished,

my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent

to the buses, awed by the power of words.

Selections from How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. Published by Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright 2014 by Marilyn Nelson.