Marilyn Nelson

Poet Marilyn Nelson.

Piccolo Spoleto Festival includes a variety of poetry readings and literary events. The Sundown Poetry Series is held at 6:30 p.m. in the courtyard of the Dock Street Theatre, with the last four readings scheduled June 5-8.

Other programs include "Porgy and Bess tour, a screening of the documentary "Microcosmos" and Poetry at McLeod, a program that brings African-American poets to a Gullah heritage site.

National Book Award finalist and Guggenheim fellow Marilyn Nelson will appear at McLeod Plantation Historic Site at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 3, to read from her work about black lives.

Nelson was exposed to poetry at the early age of six. Now, at 72, she continues to examine the African-American experience through her writing.

Nelson spoke with The Post and Courier about some of her favorite poets, stories her father shared about his time as a Tuskegee Airman and the distractions of social media.

Q: You began writing poetry in elementary school. Where did the inspiration come from?

A: Oh, from reading. We had a set of books for children called “Childcraft,” and it starts with nursery rhymes and poems for young children and for older children. It was a really wonderful set. I just fell in love with the poems that I’d read in the “Childcraft” books, and then my parents recognized that I was interested in poetry, so they put other books in front of me. I was very much encouraged as a child.

Q: What do you think your greatest strength is as a poet?

A: I have a good ear for meter and for traditional techniques of poetry, like rhyme, and I have empathy.

Q: Looking through your award-winning catalog, some of your work include topics of racism, love, motherhood, home, freedom and more. Can you describe your writing process when tackling topics like these?

A: It depends on the poem, sometimes I do research and sometimes I just randomly write. I can’t say that I have a specific process.

Q: How long does it take you to write your poems and publish a book?

A: The last several books have been book-length projects, so I’m not just gathering random poems and putting them together, I’m checking poems off a list of stories that have to be told or information that has to be conveyed. A book takes a long time.

Q: Who are some writers or poets that influenced your writing?

A: The obvious African-American poets: Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. I went to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Ft. Worth, Texas. For about six or eight weeks, my father was stationed their temporarily, and it was really interesting. My English teacher brought in for me her own books of African-American poetry, and every day in class she started the class by reading a poem by Dunbar. So, I learned to love him very much.

And then she gave me books by Hughes and members of the Harlem Renaissance, and it was around the time when Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize, so all of those people entered into my consciousness of what poetry is. I also read old textbooks of British and American poetry.

Q: As the daughter of a member of the last cadet class of Tuskegee airmen, what kind of stories did your dad tell you that translated into poetry?

A: He didn’t fly in combat during the war, but he talked sometimes about what it was like to fly. I was just with my sister last weekend, and she said one of the things she remembers was that he would come back and describe what he’d seen in the air.

Once he was flying up over the North Pole toward the border with the Soviet Union and he saw the Aurora Borealis and the Northern Lights and she remembers him describing the Northern Lights with great emotion. So yes, I have written some poems about his stories since he was a navigator for most of his career, so there is a poem about navigating by the stars.

Q: Because of your many travels, and with you living in the northeast, what moved you to write about African-American life in the South and throughout the country?

A: We never lived in the South, except for Texas and Oklahoma. I didn’t have a real Deep South experience, and I haven’t had that experience as an adult either. But when I started writing, I felt that I was giving voice to people who hadn’t had voices in their lifetime. That’s changed now because there are so many other African-American writers who are doing a similar thing. I felt that I was voicing their outrage, their pain and their triumph.

Q: With the wave of social media, in what way has it impacted your poetry?

A: I find it very hard to get off Facebook and write something. Frankly, I spend a lot of time spinning my wheels, reading Facebook things. But on the other hand, the internet makes it possible to look things up and get information and read poems. So, it’s a great resource, but it is also a great temptation that you can just fall down the rabbit hole of just reading stuff.

Q: How would you describe your poetry?

A: I don’t feel I belong to any particular group. I am a woman. I am African-American. I am spiritual. All of those things are a part of what I write, but I don’t give myself a label.

Q: Do you have anything new that you are working on right now?

A: I’m thinking of a couple of projects, but I haven’t started writing yet.

Andrea Henderson is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.