…to me Mentorship is the key to “Integrity and Accountability.” I would start a movement to mentor the youth in my community of Hempstead, N.Y. Young people are experiencing broken homes, peer pressure, bullying and countless other hurts that sometimes cause them to react in self destructive patterns. This destructive seed may take the form of drug abuse or drug dealing and is then disseminated into the community.
As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marsha M Nelson. Marsha is an award- winning poet, playwright and screenwriter. Winner of the Nassau County Poet Laureate Society 2016 award and nominated in 2018 for a Blue Light Press Pushcart Prize, she placed third at the Super Poem contest at Walt Whitman Birthplace in 2019. She is a member of the Performance Poets Association of Long Island, New York.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Writing has always been in my blood, and poetry in particularly has been my deliverance from heartaches and disappointments. It is a fact that poetry can be cathartic to the poet, and I found this to be my truth.
I remember writing my first poem at the age of seven or eight. I was so proud of the way my teacher reacted to my words, that I continued to craft what I believed in my mind to be great ‘masterpieces.’ One day my copybook (Caribbean speak for notebook) disappeared and my mother sheepishly admitted that she had thrown it in the trash, believing it to be old and unwanted. It felt as though a piece of me was ripped apart and discarded. I shut down and stopped writing poems.
Years later when I entered High School I re-discovered poetry. It was as though I had awakened from a deep sleep. I was introduced to Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickerson, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and my all-time favorite, Maya Angelou. I had yet to be familiar with African American poets like Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
It has always been my dream to drive the historic route 66. I’d made plans to attend a writing retreat last summer and was excited about crossing “route 66” off my bucket list. When my plan to drive the historic route fell through, I took a flight from New York to San Francisco. It turned out to be a significant and eye-opening experience with the TSA agents.
It was an experience which resulted in a nomination for a Pushcart Prize in 2019. It substantiated the fear that is now prevalent in our society since the 911 attack. I recalled the experience in the following poem entitled, “Hairpins and a Box of Chocolates.”
Hairpins and a Box of Chocolates
We entered Delta’s baggage check point
at JFK International Airport-
herded like cattle
chosen for slaughter.
We walked in solemn solitude
Urged forward by stone-faced
TSA workers who hurled commands
At the early morning travelers.
One by one we entered the x-ray chambers.
“Feet spread apart!”
I silently chuckled at the hairpins nestled
in my right front pockets.
Why hadn’t I removed them?
As I stepped out of the chamber,
A worker called me over.
“Feet spread apart!”
She scanned my arms, my torso,
my thighs and my legs
with her hand scanner-
called over her supervisor,
who signed for a full body search.
I questioned her.
She told me the scanner had detected
metal in my groin area.
I started to tell her about the hairpins…
“Do you want to do this privately,” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Feet spread apart!”
She shook me down
like I’d robbed her beloved granny.
I saw the appalled looks on the faces
of the female travelers.
Violated but still defiant
I retrieved my belongings.
That’s when I saw
a perplexed young mother
in a pink Hijab.
Her dark eyes under furrowed brows
welled up with tears.
Her plump body shook slightly.
The pink hue of her soft round cheeks
slowly turned crimson as the workers
bombarded her with questions.
They made her take off her Hijab.
“Feet spread apart!”
As the supervisor body searched her fully,
I saw her last shred of composure
I prayed a silent prayer-
After what may have seemed like hours,
she suddenly pulled herself together
and gathered her belongings.
I asked her why she was searched
“A box of chocolates.”
I only wanted to take my babies chocolates.”
I shook my head in disbelief
and told her,
“Things can only get better for you today.”
“Thanks honey,” she said,
gathered her belongings and
walked to her gate.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My funniest mistake was trying to wear all the “hats” of the stage positions during one of my early productions. I was director, lighting designer, costume designer and stage manager.
We were a true grassroots organization, working with rudimentary equipment. Our venue was a church which was originally a cinema with a proscenium stage and auditorium seats. We had no ambient lighting like strip lights or footlights. We had available to us only houselights and an Altman comet follow spot which I controlled.
I would position myself in the balcony and direct from there while controlling the spotlight. I was convinced I had to do it all, but soon learned that it wasn’t going to work that way. In one particular production there was a fight scene as the angels in heaven were battling the fallen angels. Different classes of angels were to make their appearances onstage with precision. Someone whispered to me that the action backstage was rivaling the action onstage. In other words, there was chaos backstage! I found myself literally “flying” back and forth from the balcony to the backstage area. That night my feet barely touched ground (my angel was on the job that night lending a helping hand.)
I’ve learned that I can’t do it all, and that a great team is essential to a great performance, synonymous to a well-oiled machine. An official Drama Ministry was formed which we later called the Grace Performing Arts Guild. We invested in better lighting and communication equipment. I remember using the old Clearcom devices with the belt pack and muff headsets (it saved me countless trips running back and forth from the balcony to the backstage area.)
I’ve also learned that no matter how well you prepare, some things may not go as planned. So, you “float.” Sometimes, someone may not show up for that all-important dress rehearsal because life gets in the way. Equipment fail at inopportune moments, but you adapt and work with what you have.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m in the planning stages of reproducing a Pageant Wagon alongside a talented director named Angela Edwards. In medieval times the church used this form of drama to re-enact the Passion of Jesus Christ (Death, Burial and Resurrection).
The cycles of the Corpus Christi plays are called Chester, York, Coventry and Wakefield. These plays were performed on wagons and in a processional fashion. In the past my co-director and I have done an adapted version of the Pageant Wagon to enact the Passion of Jesus Christ (2003–2005).
Without a doubt Mel Gibson’s, “Passion of the Christ” has been a major source of inspiration and has left a lasting impression on me. Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus is the best I’ve seen since Robert Powell’s portrayal in Franco Zeffirelli’s epic production.
I’m also preparing for pre-production of my screenplay, “Slow Bullet.” It’s a romantic adventure set in Manhattan. It depicts the life of young Ethiopian model Zahra, and her fraternal twin Zere, as they navigate coming of age. Filled with intrigue and espionage, it’s a story of substance abuse, domestic violence and a chance meeting which turns into love and a chance for redemption.
Young, up and coming director, Joey MHz of MHz production is interested in the project.
The screenplay is inspired by an experience I had in Manhattan in the late 80’s while visiting my sister at a Fordham University event. Another big inspiration to me while writing this screenplay has been the artist Sade. Her music has been a big part of my life during the 80’s and 90’s.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I first met former Nigerian actress and model Regina Askia Williams when I was writing and directing plays at the church. She was one of Nigeria’s biggest celebrities. Now, a Family Nurse Practitioner and educational activist, Regina has a clever skill for reinventing herself.
At the time I met Regina it was the mid-90’s. She had relocated to the United States and was being introduced to the congregation. Here was a strikingly beautiful and regal woman in African garb with the most captivating eyes, walking down the church aisle. She was being led by her soon to be co-star Robert Fuller of the play, “Job” (written and directed by Sue Davis)
Regina was crowned Miss Unilag (88) and Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (89). Her big acting break began when she was cast in the Nigerian soap opera, Fortunes (93). She later acted in Nollywood movies from the 90’s to early 2000’s flying from New York to Nigeria. In 2005, I was asked by Regina to perform my poetry at her Benefit Fashion Show. I performed in front of African dignitaries and top African designers at the Nigerian Embassy. Regina also debuted her fashion line called “Regine Fashions.”
Another interesting person is five-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize for poetry, Loretta Diane Walker. I was first introduced to Loretta when my editor Diane Frank asked her to write a blurb for my second book, “Night Visions.” Loretta is a highly gifted author and poet who has a penchant for snacking on cheese doodles.
Another interesting person is George Wallace, who is described as an American Poet and poetry promoter. I like to call him an “Ambassador” of poetry, as well as one of my mentors. He was the first Poet Laureate for Suffolk County, Long Island, and is recognized internationally in the poetry universe.
George is the creator of “Walt’s Corner,” a column in the Long Island Newspaper (founded by Walt Whitman), Long Island Quarterly Magazine, and is the host of many poetry venues. He is now serving as Poet in Residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace.
George has given me many opportunities to feature my poetry at venues such as the Conklin Barn in Huntington and the Parkside Lounge in Manhattan. In February 2019, I was asked by George to sit on a panel to judge a talented group of students from Oyster Bay for Raynham Hall’s Valentine’s Day Poetry Contest.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
There is a certain kind of vulnerability that affects us when we allow professionals to critique us. After all, networking is the key to progress. We can’t avoid it, but it’s also one of the greatest sources of stress to writers and other creatives.
To my colleagues I would recommend:
- Learn how to handle rejection. See it as a necessary evil.
- Don’t be negative about negativity. Always seek to find the truth in any situation and improve on what needs improving.
- See the critiquing process as a chance to stretch your creative muscles.
- Get plenty of rest and relaxation when you feel the effects of burn out approaching.
- Rise up! Never forget to get up after getting “shot-down.” Always get back up!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As I seek to empower others, I must first empower myself with the words, “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” I am reminded of the words, “Each one, teach one.”
So, to me Mentorship is the key to “Integrity and Accountability.” I would start a movement to mentor the youth in my community of Hempstead, N.Y.
Young people are experiencing broken homes, peer pressure, bullying and countless other hurts that sometimes cause them to react in self destructive patterns. This destructive seed may take the form of drug abuse or drug dealing and is then disseminated into the community.
My neighborhood in Hempstead is suffering Gentrification. It’s a redlined district. I saw a basketball court, a meeting ground where the young men go to blow off steam, get shut down, paved over and made into a parking lot. I watched grade schoolers attend classes in trailer type buildings, yet our taxes increase yearly. As the taxes rise, the foreclosures and pre-foreclosures skyrocket. Houses are being boarded up and people forced out of their homes. People are so busy struggling to survive daily that they barely see what’s really happening around them and to their community.
I would call for a grassroots movement of actors, singers and dancers using the performing arts to bring the residents together, and to create a feeling of solidarity and pride in our community.
I would implement an outreach program to reach the youth with the performing arts (poetry writing and performance). For seniors, I would incorporate my passion and work with animals into a program to reach the elderly who are isolated in nursing homes. This can be accomplished with the use of “therapy” or “emotional support dogs,” to break up the monotony of their days.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone would have told me:
- You will have the sole desire to write without interruptions, but it never happens that way, because Life Happens. I have a mobile dog grooming business. On days when I have a sudden burst of inspiration and the need to write, it is often suppressed by the everyday pressures of running a business.
- You will be misunderstood. People will underestimate your abilities. I like to refer to the statement, “It’s not what they say or think about you that matters, but it’s what you say and think about you.” I’ve always looked younger than my age. People have under-estimated my abilities in the past. When they ask about my plans and I share a glimpse of it with them, sometimes (not always) I may see a weak smile, and hear the mumbled phrase, “Good luck.” I like to surprise them.
- You will suffer rejection. It’s unavoidable. Finding ways to encourage myself has been my rampart and my strength comes from my faith in God.
- Be true to yourself. Don’t despise the day of small beginnings. It is what makes you stronger and bigger. Your experiences; the good, the bad and the ugly, are what feeds your craft. It may not seem inspiring when you encounter hard times but eventually you come to realize that it is times like these that shape and define us. It makes us into polished stones. Diamonds!
- Sometimes people will betray you. Guard your heart and protect your intellectual property. People come and go in your life. Don’t hold on to people who weren’t meant to be in your life for the long term. Let them go. A wise lady once told me, “Prune your garden. Don’t allow anyone in it who is not there to help you cultivate it.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like to use Jim Caviezel’s quote, “You weren’t meant to fit in, you were born to stand out.” This makes me think of a statement my Godmother, Lera Valentine said to me when I visited her in Trinidad. I was dealing with the angst of young adulthood. Holding my face in the palms of her hands she said, “You were meant to be here, for such a time as this. You were meant to be born.”
Both statements complement each-other and I’ve used that as fuel for my fire. For instance, I would more than likely start a group than join one. I’m not saying that I can’t be a team player. I am a team player. I’ve joined many groups, but I’ve also started many as well.
Someone once introduced me as, “unique” when I approached the microphone at a poetry event. I embrace that “uniqueness.” It is how God made me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful to two people in particular: Diane Frank, editor of Blue Light Press and Lynn Cohen, author and professor. Lynn was my professor at Hofstra University. She introduced me to Diane and the Performance Poets Association on Long Island. I’m grateful to her for being an encouragement to me.
When I first met Diane, she was having a launch of one of her books. She autographed her book for me with the words, “You have the soul of a poet.” This has been the catalyst for me to keep writing poetry. She has taught me to uncover the “poem within the poem,” and to paint pictures with words. She has been the midwife of my gift with poetry and for this I’m truly grateful.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to have lunch with Mel Gibson to hear more about the upcoming sequel to “The Passion of the Christ.” I’m curious to know how he will approach this sequel. I’m excited about it.
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Photo Credit: Curtis Charles Photography