Poetry, as a form, invites readers to make meaning between the lines. Marilyn Nelson takes this a step further with her memoir How I Discovered Poetry. The poems begin when "the Speaker" (as Nelson refers to the child narrator in an author's note) is just four years old. As she matures, through the course of the book, to age 14, she comprehends more.
But in the 1950s, an era when injustice prevails, even adults are at a loss to understand the inequalities in evidence in American society. These gaps in understanding serve a dual purpose, as a child tries to grasp how the world works, and also the deeper challenge of coming to terms with the aspects that defy understanding.
In a conversation we had for an interview in School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections, Nelson said she was inspired by her friend Inge Pedersen, who’s a poet and novelist in Denmark. "She published a memoir of her girlhood in the 1930s, when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis," explained Nelson. "She told me that each of her short stories shows a gap in a child’s understanding of the world around her. I address the same sort of ‘gaps’ in these poems."
In the poem "Bomb Drill," a hydrogen bomb becomes "the hide drajen bomb." Ducking under their desks to hide from "drajen bombs" in school causes a six-year-old Marilyn to imagine that "maybe drajens would turn into butter/ if they ran really fast around a tree," just like the tigers in Little Black Sambo.
Nelson also bridges gaps of a different nature. She spoke of having a more inclusive world view than her mother did. She remembers wanting everyone to be in her family, as they drove through Kansas, through "miles and miles of nothing" on Route 66, captured in "Pick a Name." "I wanted to write postcards to people, telling them God loves them: 'I love you. [Signed] God.' That’s all I could think about. In a way it’s that plea in the book’s final poem, 'Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl': 'Give me a message I can give the world.' "
By the final poem, Nelson has filled in many of the gaps, the greatest being her own identity--a calling as a poet.