Marilyn Nelson has built her reputation on finding the universality within aspects of herself – black woman, mother, child, spiritual seeker – and on illuminating characters outside herself, real or invented. Her poetry, written in both formal and free verse, uses simple language with the aim of bringing the reader so close to the experience that he or she can imagine sharing in it. She has been mentioned, along with poets like Rita Dove, Toi Dericotte and Thyllias Moss, as members of a generation of African-American women poets who came of age in the 1960s, and had to wrestle with the issue of inclusiveness vs. separateness – were they writing for a general audience, or a specifically black audience?
Nelson, born 26 April 1946, in Cleveland, OH, came from a military family. Her father, a captain in the Air Force, was a member of the “Tuskegee Airmen,” the noted all-black unit formed during World War II. Her mother was a teacher, and her childhood on a succession of military bases led her to turn inward, and begin writing poetry at the age of twelve. After attending college on both coasts (B.A., University of California at Davis, 1968, M.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1970), she worked for the National Lutheran Campus Ministry, then held a series of academic positions, joining the faculty of the University of Connecticut in 1978, where she has attained the rank of Professor of English.
Her first marriage, to Erdmann F. Waniek (1970), ended in divorce. She married Roger R. Wilkenfeld in 1979, but continued to publish under the name Marilyn Nelson Waniek for several years, reverting to her maiden name in 1995.
Her awards include two Pushcart Prizes, two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, an A.C.L.S. Contemplative Practices Fellowship, and a fellowship from the J.S. Guggenheim Foundation. Her books have been finalists for the National Book Award (The Homeplace, 1991, The Fields Of Praise, 1997, Carver: A Life in Poems, 2001). The Fields Of Praise won the 1998 Poets' Prize, and was also a finalist for the PEN Winship Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize. In 2002 she was appointed Poet Laureate for the State of Connecticut, for a five year term. Carver: A Life in Poems was also honored as a children’s book, winning the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, being named a Newbery Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book.
In The Homeplace, Nelson’s first collection to win her widespread recognition, she staked out much of the territory that she would continue to explore, particularly the family history which opens into the larger territory of black history. The poems in The Homeplace follow her family from the arrival of a great-grandmother on a slave ship, through the story of her father and the Tuskegee Airmen, these last among the most justly acclaimed of her poems. In the series, she captures moments in the lives of these American heroes, including that of Lt. Colonel Bertram Wilson, offered a ten-cent tip by an elderly white woman whom, while in full regalia and combat ribbons, he has just helped with her bags. “[H]ow shall I live and work/to match your goodness?” she rhetorically asks the airmen, and by extension, all of her forebears.
Nelson’s religious poetry is most vividly seen in her second collection, Mama’s Promises, and her fourth, Magnificat. While the poems in Mama’s Promises analyze and celebrate motherhood, both in remembrance of her mother and ruminations on herself as mother, they are ultimately concerned with an understanding of God as the Divine Mother. In Magnificat she creates the character of Abba Jacob, an enigmatic, pithy, sometimes waspish monk, based on the character of a friend from the Benedictine order, and structured, according to Nelson, in imitation of the apothegms of the Desert Fathers, the earliest Christian monks.
Carver: A Life in Poems essays an unusual and demanding task: an imaginative biography as a sequence of poems. Written for children 12 and up as well as adults, Carver includes historical contexts and a clarifying timeline along with each poem. The individual poems are written from a variety of points of view, and a range of experience from nature observation and scientific research through teaching, and into racism (from all sides). In September 2004, Nelson opened Soul Mountain, a retreat for writers in Haddam, CT. The retreat grants residencies to writers of all races during three eight-week periods during the year, funded by the University of Connecticut, and to writers of color during a summer residency, funded by Nelson herself.