Life and Work
Marilyn Nelson Waniek was born Marilyn Nelson in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother, Jonnie Mitchell Nelson, was a teacher and her father, Melvin M. Nelson, served as an officer for the United States Air Force, which resulted in his family living on a number of military bases. Because Nelson was able to come in contact with a variety of people, she developed an interest in different ethnic groups and their customs.
While traveling from one place to the next, Nelson began to develop her skills as a writer. She wrote her first poem at the age of eight and continued to write throughout her time in elementary school. She explains in an interview “Many people go through a kind of spiritual search at about age twelve or thirteen, and poetry was my first answer, I guess” (“Interview” 1). She continued to write while in high school. In 1964, she attended the University of California, Davis and earned her bachelor of arts degree in English in 1968. She went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania and earned a master of arts degree, in English as well, in 1970. Also during 1970, For the Body, Nelson’s first collection of poems, was published. It was during her time here as a student that she met and married Erdmann Waniek. She completed her education in 1979 at the University of Minnesota where she received her doctorate degree in English.
Nelson has taught at a number of institutions as an English professor, including Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, Reed College, Norre Nissum Seminarium, and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in Denmark. All of Nelson’s work was published under her married name until she began using her maiden name in 1995. She and her husband were divorced in 1979. Nelson is now a professor at the University of Connecticut, Storrs where she has taught since 1978. In 2004, her home was made a place for writers called Soul Mountain Retreat.
Marilyn Nelson is a writer who is able to use a variety of poetic forms, such as free verse, narrative, and the sonnet, to bring a number of emotions to life on the page while at the same relate her poetry to history as well as to personal experiences. In her poems, different themes can be found as she moves through each of her collections.
In her first book of poetry, For the Body, Nelson’s focus is herself. During an interview, she explains “The poems in my first book For the Body were about things I was experiencing in the early seventies: my roots as Afro- American, my female-ness and my spirituality” (“Interview” 2). The book is divided into three sections, each focusing on either the style of the poem, its meaning, or relation to human beings and society. “My Grandfather Walks in the Woods” is one of the poems that concentrate on an individual’s relationship to a relative. In this poem, Nelson draws on her grandfather’s background. His father, John Mitchell, was killed as his farm was being attacked by an anti-Black group called the night riders. A white family took him into their care, and Mitchell later lost all hope of ever tracing his roots. The grandfather, in the poem, questions the trees “are you my father?” and “They answer / With voices like wind / blowing away from him” (For the Body 5).
The theme of identity is also addressed in another collection of poetry, The Mama’s Promises. However, her attention is now on a particular group, the mothers of the world. She compares them to Mother Nature, personified as a woman and identified as a force of creation. In this work, Nelson does not search for identity but gives her audience a better understanding of what it means to be a mother. One poem in this collection, “Mama’s Promises,” states that “It is not so simple to give a child birth / You also have to give it death / the jealous fairy’s christening gift” (12). Here Nelson presents readers with the idea that a mother not only gives birth to her child but must also give it up one day. “The Marriage Nightmare” explains the changes a woman goes through as a result of becoming a wife and a mother. The poem begins with a woman and her husband about to have sex. However, the poem ends with:
My husband demands to know
Why I’m so sullen
If I can concentrate hard enough
Maybe he’ll go away. (15)
The speaker is faced with the reality of domesticity and how it can deprive a woman of a life outside her home.
In Nelson’s later published work, history becomes the focal point. This is seen in her collection of poetry, The Homeplace. It begins with a story about her family background and finishes by connecting custom and roots to identity. In an interview, Nelson explains the origin of the collection: “I started writing the book as a way out of my mourning, and as a way of making a kind of posthumous tribute to my mother and to her family. After a while, I realized that what I was doing was writing a public book, an explanation of the source of a black family’s pride in its roots” (“Interview” 3). In the book, the poem “Chopin” is written in the form of a sonnet, whose more traditional and fixed form may connect to the theme. The title of her poem is actually the name of a famous musician, Frederic Francios Chopin. His music is another form of poetry; the musical notes are to have just as much an effect as the words in a poem. “Chopin” mentions opposition to democratic candidates, and also explains how people of color are treated because they “can’t read a single bill” and are “meek” which the poem portrays as something normal and accepted (20). “And blessed are the meek /who have to buy in white men’s stores next week (20).
Nelson’s themes, which relate identity with culture, are also found in books written for her young readers. Her crown of sonnets, A Wreath for Emmett Till, is just one model. This is a group of fifteen Petrarchan sonnets that are linked by the first line of each. In the introduction, Nelson explains that “The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter…” (1). Sonnet IX links Emmett Till’s lynching to other injustices of history such as the Nazi gas chambers in the Holocaust, “Piles of shoes,” the World Trade Center bombing, “The broken towers,” to show how brutal American history has been.
Nelson’s other books of poetry use many of the same forms in their emotional responses to historical events. A director of the arts program at the University of Connecticut, Suzanne Holmes, describes Nelson as “a vital American voice speaking of our past and present from her multiple perspectives of daughter, mother, wife, artist, friend and African American.” She has succeeded in bringing the past to life and giving it meaning and style all at once (“Poet Laureate”).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of poetry
- For the Body. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978.
- Mama’s Promises. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.
- The Homeplace. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990.
- Partial Truth. Willington, Connecticut: Kutenai, 1992.
- Magnificat. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1994.
- The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1997.
- Four A.M. in The Woods. West Chester, Pa.: Aralia, 1998.
- She-Devil Circus. West Chester, PA: Aralia, 2001.
- Triolets for Triolet. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone, 2001.
- Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Asheville, N.C.: Front Street, 2004.
- The Freedom Business: Connecticut Landscapes Through The Eyes of Venture Smith: Poems. Old Lyme, Conn.: Lyme Historical Society: Florence Griswold Museum, 2006.
- The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1984.
- Carver: A Life in Poems. Asheville, N.C: Font Street, 2001, New York: Scholastic, 2002.
- A Wreath for Emmett Till. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
- The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005.
- Gettysburg Review
- Hudson Review
- Minority Voices
- Obsidian II
- Southern Review
- African American Voices. Ed. Michelle Stepto. Brookfield, Connecticut. Millbrook, 1995.
- After the Storm. Ed. F.D. Reeve. University Park, Maryland. Maisonneuve, 1992.
- Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry. Ed. Alan Frederick Pater. Beverly Hills: Monitor Book, 1980.
- Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry. Ed. Alan Frederick Pater. Beverly Hills: Monitor Book, 1981.
- The Best American Poetry, 2003. Ed. Yusef Komunyakaa and David Lehman. New York: Scribner’s, 2003.
- The Breadloaf Nature Anthology. Ed. Jay Parini. Lebanon, New Hampshire. UP of New England, 1993.
- Contemporary American Poetry, 7th Edition. Ed. A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. Boston: Houghton, 2001.
- The Discovery of Poetry. Ed. Frances Mayes. Orlando: Harcourt. 1987
- Double- Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters. Ed. Patricia Bell-Scott.
Boston: Beacon, 1991.
- Early Ripening: American Poets Now. Ed. Marge Piercy. Pandora, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1987.
- Encounters: Working with Poetry. Ed. Lach-Newinsky and M. Seltzky. Germany: Verlag Ferdinand Kamp, 1986.
- A Formal Feeling Comes: Contemporary Women Formalist Poets. Ed. Annie Finch. Ashland, OR: Storyline, 1993.
- An Introduction to Literature. Ed. Laurie Kirzner and Stephen Mandel. New York: Holt, 1991.
- Invitation to Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1987.
- Keener Sounds. Ed. S. Lindberg and S. Corey. Athens, Georgia: U of Georgia, 1987.
- Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. Gwynn, R. S. New York: Longman, 2002.
- Memories of Kin. Ed. Mary Helen Washington. Harpswell, Maine: Anchor, 1990.
- The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets. Ed. Dave Smith and David Bottoms. W.M. Morrow, 1985.
- The New Breadloaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Michael Collie and Stanley Plumley. Lebanon, New Hampshire. UP of New England, 1999.
- New American Poets of the Nineties. Ed. R. Weingarten. David Godine, 1991.
- No More Masks. Ed. Florence Howe. Harpswell, Maine: Anchor 1993.
- The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature. Ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Norton, 2005.
- Poets on the Line. Ed. Linda Lerner and Andrew Gettler. <http://www.echonyc.com/~poets/>
- The Pushcart Prize XI: Best of the Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, NY: Norton, 1986-87.
- The Pushcart Prize XIV: Best of Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, NY: Norton, 1989-90.
- Sound and Sense. Ed. Laurence Perrine. Orlando: Harcourt, 1987.
- Unsettling America: Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Maria Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. Penguin, 1993.
- “Aborigine in the Citadel.” The Hudson Review. 11 (2001): 543-53.
- “A Black Rainbow: Modern Afro-American Poetry.” Poetry After Modernism. Ed. Robert Mc Dowell. Ashland, OR: Storyline, 1990. 217-75.
- “Emptying: A Poetics of Patience.” Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. 6 (Summer 1994). 63.
- “Marilyn Nelson.” Contemporary Autobiography series. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 1996, 247-67.
- “Negro Hero.” Field. 61 (Fall 1999).
- “Owning the Masters.” Gettysburg Review. 8.2 (Spring 1995): 201-9.
- “The Place Where Sex Should Be: Toward a Definition of the Black American Literary Tradition.” Studies in Black Literature. 6.3 (1976).
- “Romancing a Ghost.” New Letters. 66.1. (Summer 1999): 7.
- Kent fellow, 1976
- National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 181, 1990
- Connecticut Arts Award, 1990
- National Book Award finalist for poetry, 1991
- Annisfield-Wolf Award, 1992
- Fulbright teaching fellow, France, 1995
- National Book Award Finalist for poetry, 1997
- Poets’ Prize for The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, 1999
- Contemplative Practices fellow, American Council of Learned Societies, 2000
- Poet Laureate for the state of Connecticut, Connecticut Commission on the Arts, 2001
- J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow, 2001
- Boston Global Horn Book Award for Carver: A Life in Poems, 2001
- National Book Award Finalist in young people’s literature category for Carver: A life in Poems, 2001
- Coretta Scott King Honor Book, 2002
- Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Non-fiction, 2002
- Newberry Honor, 2002
- Boston Global Horn Book Award Nomination for A Wreath for Emmett Till, 2005
- Pushcart Prize, 2005
- Coretta Scott King Book Award for Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, 2005.
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Contemporary Authors. 2005. Gale Literary Databases. 11 Nov. 2005. <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>
- Griffith, Paula. “Marilyn Nelson Waniek.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. Jonathan N. Barron and Bruce Meyer. 2005. Gale Literary Databases. 11 Nov. 2005. <http://www.galenet.com/servlet/GLD>.
- “Marilyn Nelson Named State Poet Laureate.” 28 June 2001. Connecticut Commission on Arts, Tourism, Culture, History and Film.16 March 2004. <http://www.cultureandtourism.org>
- Rev. of Carver: A life in poems. Callaloo. 26.2 (2003): 538.
- Rev. of The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. African American Review 33.1 (1999): 179-81.
- Tanter, Marcey. “Marilyn Nelson Celebrates Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin 12.1 (2000): 4-5.
- “Interview: Insights in A Wreath for Emmett Till.” Teaching Books. Nov. 2005. <http://www.teachingbooks.net>
- “Interview with Marilyn Nelson.” National Book Foundation. Nov. 2005. <http://www.nationalbook.org>