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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 How I Discovered Poetry (Dial, 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, including 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); 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.

In 2013, Nelson was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Fellow Chancellor Arthur Sze praised her selection, 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

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

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)
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)

Minor Miracle

Marilyn Nelson, 1946
Which reminds me of another knock-on-wood
memory. I was cycling with a male friend,
through a small midwestern town. We came to a 4-way
stop and stopped, chatting. As we started again,
a rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign, 
hurricaned past scant inches from our front wheels.
My partner called, "Hey, that was a 4-way stop!"
The truck driver, stringy blond hair a long fringe
under his brand-name beer cap, looked back and yelled,
          "You fucking niggers!"
And sped off.
My friend and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
We remounted our bikes and headed out of town.
We were pedaling through a clear blue afternoon
between two fields of almost-ripened wheat
bordered by cornflowers and Queen Anne's lace
when we heard an unmuffled motor, a honk-honking.
We stopped, closed ranks, made fists.
It was the same truck. It pulled over.
A tall, very much in shape young white guy slid out:
greasy jeans, homemade finger tattoos, probably
a Marine Corps boot-camp footlockerful
of martial arts techniques.

"What did you say back there!" he shouted.
My friend said, "I said it was a 4-way stop.
You went through it."
"And what did I say?" the white guy asked.
"You said: 'You fucking niggers.'"
The afternoon froze.

"Well," said the white guy,
shoving his hands into his pockets
and pushing dirt around with the pointed toe of his boot,
"I just want to say I'm sorry."
He climbed back into his truck
and drove away.

From The Fields of Praise, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1997 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

From The Fields of Praise, published by Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1997 by Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson

Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of many books of verse and translations, and in 2013 was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

by this poet

poem
We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man
we’d hired as a tour guide, with a van
and driver, for the day. We were to drive
to Cachoeira, where the sisters live:
the famous Sisterhood of the Good Death,
founded by former slaves in the nineteenth
century. "Negroes of the Higher Ground," 
they called themselves
poem
It's the ragged source of memory,
a tarpaper-shingled bungalow
whose floors tilt toward the porch,
whose back yard ends abruptly
in a weedy ravine. Nothing special:
a chain of three bedrooms
and a long side porch turned parlor
where my great-grandfather, Pomp, smoked
every evening over the news,
a long sunny
poem
The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows;
only their children feel the holy ghost
that makes them jerk and bobble and almost
destroys the pious atmosphere for those
whose reverence bows their backs as if in work.
The congregation sits, or stands to sing,
or chants the dusty creeds automaton.
Their voices drone like