Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 26, 1946 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); 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; and The Homeplace (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), which won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award.
Her honors include the 2019 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, as well as 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.”
She has also published collections of verse for children and young adults, including Lubaya’s Quiet Roar (Penguin Random House, 2020); The Baobab Room (Homebound Publications, 2019); American Ace (Dial Books, 2016); 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.
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.”
Nelson was the guest curator for a special series of Poem-a-Day and has taught at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, since 1978, where she is a professor emerita of English.