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  October 18, 2004

A Dream Realized: Professor Emerita
Creates Retreat For Poets

It’s “a place for poets and dreamers,” says Marilyn Nelson. Creating a place like Soul Mountain – a retreat Nelson founded recently in East Haddam – has been a dream of hers since she was a child.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson, professor emerita of English and state Poet Laureate.
Photo by Peter Morenus

“It started when I was in sixth grade and I read Louisa May Alcott’s book Jo’s Boys,” says Nelson, Connecticut’s Poet Laureate and professor emerita of English. “In that book, Jo March has married a German professor and they have a big house in a little town in New England. They have a boys’ school in the house and Jo’s husband is the teacher. I think the fantasy of having this place began there.”

Nelson continued to dream about creating a place of beauty where poets could focus on their craft and write in community with other poets.

“Over the last few years, I’ve been making sketches in my journal,” she says. “Maybe I could add a bedroom and bathroom wing to the house I was living in, and I could put up one writer. Maybe I could buy the lot next door and build a little cottage with two bedrooms, maybe two lofts and a shared kitchen and bathroom and I could have two writers.”

Nelson says her fantasy turned into reality with the success of her book, Carver: A Life in Poems, a book for young adults on botanist and inventor George Washington Carver.

“The Carver book moved me out of the little enclave of poets and into a larger one of young adult book writers,” she says. “I had some publishers asking me for work; suddenly I was in a world where writers get paid.” She was soon able to put a down payment on the dream.

Now, Nelson has a nine-bedroom house nestled in six acres of woods and meadows, close to Eight Mile River, overlooking a three-acre pond: the perfect retreat for a poet. “Not only is the setting beautiful,” Nelson says, “the former owners of the house left a paddleboat, and I’ve put a picnic table next to the river where writers can practice their craft.”

“Then there’s the wildlife,” she notes. “The other day I was sitting at my desk and heard something on the roof. It was young turkeys practicing their flying. They were flying back and forth across the pond and up to the roof.”

Soul Mountain, which opened earlier this year, offers residencies in spring, summer, and fall. Each year, 10 Soul Mountain Fellowships will be available; five in the fall and five in the spring. At the outset, these will be supported by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UConn. Advertisements will be placed in poetry journals to attract poets for the fall and spring sessions.

The retreat has a special mission of nurturing African-American poets, Nelson says. Summer residencies are reserved for graduates of the nonprofit Cave Canem poetry program. “The program was started about 10 years ago and has become a kind of movement in the poetry world and in the African-American literary world,” Nelson says. “It’s like the Harlem Renaissance in African-American poetry.”

Nelson, who taught at UConn for more than 20 years, taught at the University of Delaware for the past two years. In addition to directing Soul Mountain, she will teach two courses at UConn.

Robert Tilton, head of the English department, says UConn students will benefit from the retreat. “Fellows at Soul Mountain will come to Storrs to give readings and conduct workshops during the fall and spring semesters, and there will be a special writing workshop for CAP students during the summer. Also, winners of UConn Creative Writing Awards will be able to spend a weekend at the retreat.”

Nelson earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D from the University of Minnesota.

Her poetry collections have received many awards. The Carver book won the 2001 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and was named a Newbery Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. It was also a National Book Award Finalist. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997) was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize and winner of the 1998 Poet’s Prize and the PEN Winship Award.