Born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a military family, Marilyn Nelson is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award and an accomplished poet, children’s verse author, and translator. She has won two Pushcart Prizes, two Yaddo residencies, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and the 2012 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. Nelson is a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut at Storrs and was Connecticut’s poet laureate from 2001 to 2006. In 2013, she was elected as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Three of Nelson’s collections have been finalists for the National Book Award: The Homeplace (1990), The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997), and Carver: A Life in Poems (2001). In Shenandoah, Christian Wiman praised The Homeplace, a family history dating back to the sale of Nelson’s great-great-grandmother into slavery: “The sheer range of [Nelson’s] voice is one of the book’s greatest strengths, varying not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well.” Suzanne Gardinier wrote in Parnassus that Nelson’s poetry “reaches back through generations hemmed in on all sides by slavery and its antecedents; all along the way she finds sweetness, and humor, and more complicated truth than its disguises have revealed.” The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems revolves around love, racism, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. Writing in the African American Review, Miller Williams described Nelson’s “quietly lyrical” voice and poems of “simple wisdom and straightforward, indelible stories.”
In 2001 Nelson published Carver: A Life in Poems, which received numerous nominations and awards, including the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and designation as both a Newbery Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Through the collection’s 44 poems, Nelson creates a lyrical rendering of the life of George Washington Carver, a renowned and revered African American botanist and inventor widely respected for his scholarly mind, hard work, and humility.
In 2004 Nelson established Soul Mountain Retreat, a writer’s colony that aims to “encourage and support emerging and established poets—especially those belonging to traditionally underrepresented racial or cultural groups.”
Nelson is the daughter of one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen. Her mother was a teacher. She spent much of her youth living on different military bases and began writing poetry in elementary school. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at Davis and holds an MA from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD from the University of Minnesota.
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Marilyn Nelson reads two of her poems.