Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland on April 26, 1946, to Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force and a member of the last class to graduate from air cadet training at Tuskegee Institute. Nelson’s mother, Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, was 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).
Nelson’s 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 Anisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award.
Nelson has also published collections of verse for children and young adults, including A Is For Oboe: The Orchestra’s Alphabet (Penguin Random House, 2022), co-authored with Lera Auerbach; Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2022); 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 (Carolrhoda Books, 1984), with Pamela Espeland; and Halfdan Rasmussen’s Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children (Black Willow Press, 1982), which she translated from Danish with Pamela Espeland.
Nelson’s honors include the 2019 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the 2019 Denise Levertov Award, a Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and the 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.”
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.” In 2022, she received the Wallace Stevens Award, given annually by the Academy of American Poets to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art 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.