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A soulful place for poetry: the poet laureate of Connecticut gives form to a dream: a quite place and paid residencies for aspiring writers.

Imagine a house perched on seven acres of land, adjacent to a tree-lined pond with a red paddleboat beached at its shore. The three-acre puddle teems with inspiration and life--from the turtles lounging in the sun on fallen tree branches to the tadpoles at the shore that resemble tiny swimming caesuras. Branching off from the oval driveway is a paved nature-walk that leads into woods, rich with the mystery of gelatinous mushrooms, flashes of deer and a benign river stocked with bass.

This majestic property, about 40 miles north of New Haven, belongs to the poet laureate of Connecticut, Marilyn Nelson, the brain mother of the Soul Mountain Writer's Retreat.

Nelson has served as poet laureate for four years, with one-year remaining to fulfill her term. Under her laureateship, she has given many poetry readings in schools and libraries, auctioned off poetry-writing services of five Connecticut poets to benefit the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, solicited donations of poetry books from publishers and distributed them free to hospital waiting rooms and doctors' offices, and organized a magnificent "poet's lounge" in Hartford.

Nelson has also written Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem (Front Street, October 2004), a story for young adults of an enslaved African, known as Fortune, who lived and died (then was preserved by a doctor as a skeleton) in the state, for a Connecticut historical museum. Her other recent books include Carver: A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001), and A Wreath for Emmett Till, which is being published by Houghton Mifflin this April; both titles are for young adults.

Soul Mountain is unequivocally Nelson's riskiest yet most generous gift to the artistic world, providing paid and unpaid six-week residencies in her very own home to writers who need time and space to work on their manuscripts.

"For many years, I wanted to be able to offer space and quiet to other poets, but the dream began to take definite shape as soon as I arrived at my first Cave Canem residency," Nelson says. "I was in a car with Cornelius Eady, cofounder of the Cave Canem Retreat for African American Poets, when I said I was going to make a way for Cave Canem graduates to continue their experience with writing in a community." Cave Canem offers a summer retreat and regional events for aspiring African American poets. This summer's retreat runs from June 12 to 19, 2005, at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Everything that has made a profound impact on the world started as a single seed, with just the right amount of water and sun to help it to manifest into something flail of breath and pulse. This is certainly the case with Soul Mountain. Nelson presented her plan to the University of Connecticut's English Department, from which she had recently retired alter leaching there since 1978. After some negotiation, she agreed to sign back on and teach in the spring semesters for yet another four years if the university agreed in fund 10 Soul Mountain residencies for the next four years.

Nelson then found a live-in resident adviser, Tonya Hegamin, a poet and young-adult novelist, to help manage the needs of the residents and the household in exchange for free room and partial board, and a small monthly stipend during the residency seasons. Nelson also had to create a nonprofit entity and a board of directors for Soul Mountain. It was then official. The seed of Soul Mountain was watered into belief, and it was now time for Marilyn Nelson to shine.

Lady Marilyn's House

In the winter of 2002, in the woodsy rural Connecticut, Nelson had already found the perfect house. Ten years prior, an older, well-off couple wanted a summer house big enough for their grown children and their families. So they built the magnificent colonial-style, three-wing house that we know today as Soul Mountain. The family decided to sell it, leaving behind the paddleboat, a rowboat, a riding lawnmower, several television sets, exercise equipment and lots of furniture.

"I really feel that this house was built for me, for this. I'm still pinching myself!" she exclaims.

The main wing, or what fellows affectionately call "Lady Marilyn's house," is the most spacious: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a den, a living room and a great room with a generous oak table where Soul Mountain's board members hold meetings. The identical wings on each side of the main house, referred to as the "bird wing" and the "word wing" are entirely self-contained. Each has a kitchen, three bedrooms, one bath, a living room (or library) and its own entrance. All three wings Open onto a large sunroom, which can be used in three seasons.

As Nelson muses on the future of the retreat center, she expresses her hope that the colony will one day achieve financial independence. "And I look forward to having a shelf of Soul Mountain Fellows' books," she adds.

For information about Soul Mountain Retreat and to download an application visit: (E-mail: To make a tax-deductible donation, please send it to P.O. Box 1071, Old Lyme, CT 06371.

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Author:Thornhill, Samantha
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1U1CT
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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