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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)

Wild Night

Rev. Christopher Rush, 1835

The white folks were restless again last night.
All we could do was keep the faith, and wait.
My first parishioners started arriving at sunset,
having heard rumors, and reluctant to stay at home.
Our shadows danced in the sanctuary’s candle-flames
as audible whiffs of pandemonium
drifted to us, like smoke from distant fires.
With most of the village in, I locked the doors.

I asked everyone to bow their heads and pray.
Pray for this nation’s struggle to be free
for ALL Americans. Equality
must be bitter, if you’ve always been on top,
and you’re slapped awake out of a lifelong sleep.
Pray we’ll pull together toward a common hope.

      … Hundreds of voices raised.
      Could that be drums?!
      That was a firehouse bell …
      That was a scream!

Near dawn. The children and some mothers sleep;
roosters crow morning, a couple of yard-dogs yap,
the songbirds choir. The violence has stopped.
I step out into every day new light.
My little flock has weathered a wild night.
But someone somewhere is less fortunate.
Tim Seaman comes out, nods, and finds a tree.
Would every now held such tranquility.

 

There were many anti-abolition riots in New York City in 1834–45. White mobs attacked targets associated with abolitionists and African Americans. People were beaten. More than seven churches were damaged, many of them belonging to African American congregations.

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 served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2013 to 2018.

by this poet

poem

Reverend Walter Peters, All Angels’ Church, November 18, 1849

Someone has died, who will never see the black
joylight expand in her mother’s blue eyes.
Who will never grasp a pinky, nor be danced
up, down and around and lullabied all night.
Someone who will never come to realize
that her Dada’s
poem

What if to taste and see, to notice things,
to stand each is up against emptiness
for a moment or an eternity—
images collected in consciousness
like a tree alone on the horizon—
is the main reason we’re on the planet.
The food’s here of the first crow to arrive,

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