The Plot: Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry (2014) includes an author's note at the back (which has become a standard for verse novels that explore the author's past personal history) that explains: "This book is a late-career retrospective, a personal memoir, a 'portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl.' The poems cover the decade of the fifties, from 1950, when I was four years old, to 1960, when I was fourteen" (101). The poems in her collection touch on many historical issues and events from the Civil Rights Movement to the Red Scare. Throughout the work, it is clear that place and geography are significant, as each poem is labeled with a location and date. Beginning in Ohio and moving through Texas, Kansas, California, New Hampshire, Maine, and Oklahoma, the narrative follows the speaker's family as they travel across the US. The speaker's father is an officer in the Air Force and her mother is a teacher. The narrative focuses on the young speaker as she discovers her love of books and poetry and as she tries to make friends and understand the changing world around her as her family moves around the country.
The Poetry: How I Discovered Poetry is a sequence of 50 unrhymed sonnets in iambic pentameter. The poems mostly follow the inner musings of her speaker and play with language and repetition. For example, the first poem in the collection "Blue Footsies" beings by meditating on the word "time": "Once upon a time. Upon a time? / Something got on a time? What is a time? / When it got on a time, could it get off?" (1). This rhythmic questioning continues throughout the poem, and other poems in the collection also emphasize language play. One of the most striking poems in the collection is the title poem, "How I Discovered Poetry," which discloses the speaker's degrading experience at nine years old of having her teacher choose a poem for her to read aloud to her all-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... (97).The image created in this poem and the title are striking. I was only disappointed that this was the penultimate poem in the collection; I'd wished this moment would have come sooner in the collection, as it would have given more weight to the events described after, specifically of the speaker's emergence as a young artist.
The Page: Another unique aspect of Nelson's verse narrative is the fact that the pages are illustrated and that there are family photos dispersed throughout the collection. One of the most compelling combinations of word and image comes halfway through the collection on pages 46 and 47. This spread includes the poem "Darkroom" and incorporates an illustration of a string with clothespins holding up three black and white family photos. These same images reappear on the cover. Moments like these draw attention to the book as an artifact and its createdness as a collection of fragments of the author's personal history.
I enjoyed Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry. I highly recommend this collection to anyone interested in autobiography and the verse novel, and I give it four stars.