Nelson, Marilyn 1946–

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Nelson, Marilyn 1946–

(Marilyn Nelson Waniek)

PERSONAL: Born April 26, 1946, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of Melvin M. (in the U.S. Air Force) and Johnnie (a teacher) Nelson; married Erdmann F. Waniek, September, 1970 (divorced, 1979); married Roger R. Wilkenfeld, November 22, 1979 (divorced, 1998); children: (second marriage) Jacob, Dora. Education: University of California, Davis, B.A., 1968; University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1970; University of Minnesota, Ph.D., 1978. Politics: "Yes." Religion: "Yes." Hobbies and other interests: Quilting, traveling.

ADDRESSES: Home—East Haddam, CT. Office—Department of English, University of Connecticut, Box U-4025, 215 Glenbrook Rd., Storrs, CT 06269-4025. E-mail[email protected]; [email protected].

CAREER: National Lutheran Campus Ministry, lay associate, 1969–70; Lane Community College, Eugene, OR, assistant professor of English, 1970–72; Norre Nissum Seminariam, Norre Nissum, Denmark, English teacher, 1972–73; Saint Olaf College, Northfield, MN, instructor in English, 1973–78; University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, assistant professor, 1978–82, associate professor, 1982–88, professor of English, 1988–2002, professor emeritus, 2002–; University of Delaware, Newark, DE, professor of English, 2002–04; Soul Mountain Retreat, East Haddam, CT, director, 2002–. Visiting assistant professor, Reed College, 1971–72, and Trinity College, 1982–83; visiting professor, University of Hamburg, spring, 1977, New York University, spring, 1988, spring, 1994, and Vermont College, spring, 1991; Elliston Professor, University of Cincinnati, spring, 1994; U.S. Military Academy, visiting faculty, spring, 2000.

MEMBER: Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Society for Values in Higher Education, Modern Language Association, American Literary Translators Association, Poetry Society of America, Associated Writing Programs, Phi Kappa Phi.

AWARDS, HONORS: Kent fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1981 and 1990; Connecticut Arts Award, 1990; National Book Award finalist for poetry, 1991; Annisfield-Wolf Award, 1992; Fulbright teaching fellowship, 1995; National Book Award finalist for poetry, 1997; Poets' Prize, 1999, for The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems; Contemplative Practices fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, 2000; named Poet Laureate for the State of Connecticut, Connecticut Commission on the Arts, 2001; J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, 2001; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award and National Book Award finalist in young people's literature category, both 2001, both for Carver: A Life in Poems; Coretta Scott King Honor Book, Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction, Newbery Honor, all 2002, for Carver: A Life in Poems; Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2005, for Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem; two Pushcart Prizes.


(Translator) Pil Dahlerup, Literary Sex Roles, Minnesota Women in Higher Education (Minneapolis, MN), 1975.

(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) For the Body (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1978.

(Translator, with Pamela Espeland) Halfdan Rasmussen, Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children, Black Willow Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1982.

(As Marilyn Waniek, with Pamela Espeland) The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, Carolrhoda (Minneapolis, MN), 1984.

(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Mama's Promises (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1985.

(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) The Homeplace (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1990.

(As Marilyn Nelson Waniek) Magnificat (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1994.

The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1997.

Carver: A Life in Poems, Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2001.

Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, Front Street (Asheville, NC), 2004.

The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2005.

A Wreath for Emmett Till, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2005.

(Translator) Halfdan Rasmussen, Ladder, illustrated by Pierre Pratt, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2005.

The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes through the Eyes of Venture Smith: Poems, Lyme Historical Society/Florence Griswold Museum (Old Lyme, CT), 2006.

Contributor of poetry to numerous anthologies, including A Formal Feeling Comes: Contemporary Women Formalist Poets, 1993, and The New Breadloaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 1999. Contributor to literary journals and periodicals, including the Gettysburg Review, Obsidian II, Southern Review, ME-LUS, Minority Voices, Field, and Studies in Black Literature. Manuscripts by Nelson and other archives relevant to her writing are held in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and in the archives of the University of Connecticut.

SIDELIGHTS: Poet Marilyn Nelson, who has also published under her former married name of Waniek, writes in a variety of styles about many subjects. She has also written verses for children and translated poetry from the Danish and German. A Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor called Nelson "one of the major voices of a younger generation of black poets."

Nelson's first poetry collection, For the Body, focuses on the relationships between individuals and the larger social groupings of family, extended family, and society. Using domestic settings and memories of her own childhood, Nelson fashions poetry that "sometimes sings, sometimes narrates," as the Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor described it. In Mama's Promises Nelson continues to experiment with poetic forms in verses about a woman's role in marriage and society, but she utilizes stanzaic division more than in her previ-ous work. The poems in Mama's Promises also bear a cumulative theological weight, as the "Mama" named in each poem is revealed in the last poem to be God.

In The Homeplace Nelson turns her attention to the history of her own family, telling their story from the time of her great-great-grandmother to the present in a series of interconnected poems ranging in style from traditional forms to colloquial free verse. Some critics praised the variety of poetic expression Nelson displays. "The sheer range of [Nelson's] voice," Christian Wiman wrote in Shenandoah, "is one of the book's greatest strengths, varying not only from poem to poem, but within individual poems as well." Suzanne Gardinier, reviewing the book for Parnassus, found that through her poems Nelson "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."

In her poetry for children, Nelson also writes of family situations, although in a more humorous manner. Her collection The Cat Walked through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children, written with Pamela Espeland, contains poems about domestic problems and pleasures. The title poem, for example, tells of the family dog and cat and the trouble they cause throughout the neighborhood. Such poems as "Grampa's Whiskers" and "When I Grow Up" also focus on family life in a light-hearted manner.

Although biblical allusions appear in even her earliest poems, only with the collection Magnificat does Nelson write directly of spiritual subjects. Inspired by her friendship with a Benedictine monk, Nelson tells of her religious awakening to a more profound sense of Christian devotion. Writing in Multicultural Review, Mary Walsh Meany found Nelson's voice—"humorous, earthy, tender, joyous, sorrowful, contemplative, speculative, attached, detached, sometimes silent"—to be what "makes the poems wonderful." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Nelson's "passion, sincerity and self-deprecating humor will engage even the most skeptical reader."

In The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems Nelson's poems embrace numerous themes, including the changing nature of love, racism, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the collection "stirring" and added: "Strongest is Section III; its poems, grappling with evil and filled with biblical and philosophical references, demonstrate a luminous power." Writing in America, Edward J. Ingebretsen commented that he was drawn to Nelson's humorous poems. "Nelson is at her best when she is wry and comic," Ingebretsen wrote. "Many of her narrative scenes are Swiftian indignities observed with compassion." Miller Williams, writing in the African American Review, called Nelson's voice "quietly lyrical" and her poems ones "of simple wisdom and straightforward, indelible stories."

The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems is a more recent collection of poems by Nelson that explores travel from an African American historical and social point of view. Nelson writes about an encounter with a cab driver, a trip to a Creole village, and a strange trip to Brazil's Bahia. A Black Issues Book Review contributor asserted: "Nelson's gift as a poet is her simple, fluid mastery of poetic forms."

In 2001 Nelson saw Carver: A Life in Poems published to critical acclaim, notable nominations, and awards. Nelson provides a lyrical rendering through forty-four poems 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. As head of the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver specialized in crop research and was especially noted for his work with peanuts, including developing peanut butter. Nelson's poems tell Carver's story within the political and cultural milieu of his time, and the book includes prose summaries of the events in Carver's life and numerous photographs. Ray Olson, writing a review of Carver in Booklist, noted that "Nelson beautifully and movingly revives his reputation." Cathryn M. Mercier commented in Horn Book: "As individual works, each poem stands as a finely wrought whole of such high caliber that one can hardly name a favorite, never mind the best." In the School Library Journal, Herman Sutter remarked: "The poems are simple, sincere, and sometimes so beautiful that they seem not works of artifice, but honest statements of pure, natural truths."

In Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem Nelson writes about the real-life Fortune, a slave whose master preserved his bones for anatomical research after Fortune died. The poems are based on information gathered by the Mattatuck Museum, which stored the bones. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the collec-tion of poems a "slim funeral mass, moving from grief to joy," adding that the author likens the slave's "death as his deliverance from slavery to the ultimate freedom." Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, commented: "Moved by the poetry and the history, readers will want to join the debate." School Library Journal critic Nancy Palmer concluded: "This volume sets history and poetry side by side and, combined with the author's personal note on inspirations, creates a unique amalgam."

Nelson writes about another notorious incident in her book A Wreath for Emmett Till. Till was a young African American from Chicago who was brutally beaten and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised the author's ability to "take one of the most hideous events of the 20th century and make of it something glorious." Cris Riedel, writing in the School Library Journal, referred to the book as being "in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian." A Publishers Weekly contributor further remarked: "For those readers who are ready to confront the evil and goodness of which human beings are capable, this wise book is both haunting and memorable."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.


African American Review, spring, 1999, Miller Williams, review of The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, p. 179.

America, April 25, 1998, Edward J. Ingebretsen, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 27.

Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2006, review of The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems, p. 18.

Booklist, May 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Carver: A Life in Poems, p. 1658; November 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, p. 573; February 1, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 970; January 1, 2006, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 12.

Christian Century, December 14, 2004, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 24.

Christianity and Literature, summer, 1998, Anne West Ramirez, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 510.

Georgia Review, winter, 1997, Judith Kitchen, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 756.

Horn Book, September, 2001, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 606; January-February, 2002, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Carver, p. 41; January-February 2005, Sue Houchins, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 105; May-June, 2005, Betsy Hearne, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 339; January-February, 2006, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 22.

Hudson Review, spring, 1998, R.S. Gwynn, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 257.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2004, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 1011; March 1, 2005, review of A Wreath for Emmitt Till, p. 292.

Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2001, Carol Muske Dukes, "Poets Corner," includes a review of Carver, p. R10.

Multicultural Review, March, 1995, Mary Walsh Meany, review of Magnificat.

New York Times Book Review, July 15, 2001, review of Carver, p. 24.

Parnassus, Volume 17, number 1, 1992, Suzanne Gardinier, review of The Homeplace, pp. 65-78.

Poetry, May, 2006, D.H. Tracy, review of The Cachoeira Tales, and Other Poems, p. 159.

Publishers Weekly, November 16, 1990, review of The Homeplace, p. 52; August 29, 1994, review of Magnificat, p. 67; May 26, 1997, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 82; April 11, 2005, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 54.

Reading Today, December, 2005, David L. Richardson, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 34.

School Library Journal, July, 2001, Herman Sutter, review of Carver, p. 129; December, 2004, Nancy Palmer, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 166; April, 2005, Nina Lindsay, review of Fortune's Bones, p. 57; May, 2005, Cris Riedel, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. 156; October, 2005, review of A Wreath for Emmett Till, p. S81.

Shenandoah, winter, 1992, Christian Wiman, review of The Homeplace.

Women's Review of Books, May, 1998, Marilyn Hacker, review of The Fields of Praise, p. 17.


Academy of American Poets Web site, (September 6, 2006)), profile of Marilyn Nelson.

African American Literature Book Club, (September 6, 2006), brief profile of Marilyn Nelson.

Connecticut State Poet Laureate Web site, (September 6, 2006), brief profile of Marilyn Nelson.

Poetry Foundation, (September 6, 2006), brief profile of Marilyn Nelson.

University of Connecticut Web site, (September 6, 2006), faculty profile of Marilyn Nelson.