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About this poet

On April 26, 1946, Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force, and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, a teacher. Brought up first on one military base and then another, Nelson started writing while still in elementary school.

She earned her BA from the University of California, Davis, and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MA, 1970) and the University of Minnesota (PhD, 1979).

Her books include My Seneca Village (namelos, 2015); How I Discovered Poetry (Dial Press, 2014); Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012); The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2005); The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), which was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the 1997 National Book Award, and the PEN Winship Award; Magnificat (Louisiana State University Press, 1994); The Homeplace (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), which won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award; Mama's Promises (Louisiana State University Press, 1985); and For the Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1978).

She has also published collections of verse for children and young adults, including American Ace (Dial Books, 2016); Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (Dial Books, 2009); The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (Front Street, 2008); Carver: A Life in Poems (Boyds Mills Press, 2001); The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland (Carolrhoda Books, 1984) and Halfdan Rasmussen's Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children (Black Willow Press, 1982), which she translated from Danish with Pamela Espeland.

Her honors include the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 2001–2006, she served as the Poet Laureate of Connecticut. Nelson was also awarded the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, given in recognition of a “storied literary career exploring history, race relations, and feminism in America.”

In 2013, Nelson was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Fellow Chancellor Arthur Sze praised her selected, saying: "Marilyn Nelson's poetry is remarkable for its sheer range of voice and style, for its historical roots, and for its lyrical narratives that, replete with luminous details, unfold with an emotional force that, ultimately, becomes praise. ...She is a vital ambassador of poetry."

Since 1978 she has taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she is a professor emerita of English.


Selected Bibliography

Poems

My Seneca Village (namelos, 2015)
How I Discovered Poetry (Dial Books, 2014)
Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012)
The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2005)
The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1997)
Magnificat (Louisiana State University Press, 1994)
The Homeplace (Louisiana State University Press, 1990)
Mama's Promises (Louisiana State University Press, 1985)
For the Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1978)

Children’s Literature

American Ace (Dial Books, 2016)
Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World (Dial Books, 2009)
The Freedom Business: Including A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa (Front Street, 2008)
Carver: A Life in Poems (Boyds Mills Press, 2001)
The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland (Carolrhoda Books, 1984)
Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children, with Pamela Espeland (Black Willow Press, 1982)

15¢ Futures

Epiphany Davis, 1825

I set up my cash box and my bones and cards
on Broadway, most days, offering what I see
of what’s to come. For a donation, words
fall from my mouth, surprising even me.

Uncle Epiphany doesn’t forecast death
or illness worse than gout or a broken bone.
The sailors stop. They listen with caught breath
as I tell them some girl’s heart is still theirs alone.

(… or not. Young love is such a butterfly.)
Girls come, arms linked, giggling behind their fans.
The sad come. Uncle Epiphany does not lie.
I close shop, and come back up here to my land.

It’s a new world up here, of beggar millionaires:
neighbors who know how we all scrimped and saved
to own this stony swamp with its fetid air,
to claim the dream for dreamers yet enslaved.

I’m Epiphany Davis. I am a conjure-man.
I see glimpses. Glass towers … A horseless vehicle …
An American President who is half African …
Until you pay me, that’s all I’m going to tell.

Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.

Copyright © 2015 Marilyn Nelson. Published with permission of Namelos Editions.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson

Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of over eight books of poetry, as well as many collections of verse for children and young adults. She currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem
Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses,
winged protozoans:
for the infinite,
intricate shapes
of submicroscopic
living things.

For algae spores
and fungus spores,
bonded by vital
mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their
inseparable lives
from equator to pole.

My hand, my
poem

               Eaton, NH, 1879
 

Us Free Will Baptists walked a thin tightwire,
a springing path out over the abyss.
We knew how a sudden April desire to dance
can topple you head over heels into the fire.

We knew how warmth exuded by a youth
singing at prayer

poem
Andrew Williams, bootblack, 1825

There ain’t nothing shameful about good, honest work.
It’s a proud man that comes home with a decent wage.
I keep my head down. I listen when rich folks talk.
The finer the leather, the wiser the financial sage.

One foot on my box, Mister