American history as conceived by Marilyn Nelson is the inside-out, last-shall-be-first version. She inhabits the voices of the overlooked and disenfranchised and shines light into forgotten corners that reveal essential truths about the whole. In her collection Fortune’s Bones, she channels the voice of a real-life eighteenth-century slave whose skeleton, after his death, was boiled down and used for anatomical study and later displayed in a museum for over two hundred years—as well as the voices of his wife, owner, descendants, and people who visited the museum. But if she is a revisionist historian’s poet, she is also a child’s poet, a mother’s poet, a housekeeper’s poet, and scientist’s poet. Her poem “Dusting” is a lament for an “infernal, endless chore,” but also a psalm of thanks for the gift of dust, the spores and fungus which float from equator to pole, and which, because they precipitate rain, are crucial to all life on our planet. It’s this breadth of perspective, from pole to pole, past to present, from spheres domestic to atmospheric, that make her so remarkable. Nelson is also an openhanded citizen of the nation of writers. For many years she operated Soul Mountain Retreat, a retreat center in Connecticut. Because of her tireless energy and generous spirit, Soul Mountain became a great gift to dozens of developing and established writers.
Read Marilyn Nelson's poem The Contemplative Life in Issue 61 here.
Marilyn has several forthcoming books. Snook Alone and The Baobab Room, both allegories about meditation, will be published as free-verse picture-books by Candlewick Press. Ostrich and Lark, a picture-book text created to serve as the vehicle for illustrations painted by a community of San (Bushman) people in Botswana, will be published by Boyds Mills Press, with all proceeds going to the San community. She recently completed a collection of poems about Seneca Village, an African-American settlement founded on Manhattan Island north of New York City in 1925 and demolished in 1857 in the construction of Central Park. This book will be published by Dial and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
The author or translator of twelve books and three chapbooks, Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 26, 1946, to Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. serviceman in the Air Force (a Tuskegee Airman), and Johnnie Mitchell Nelson, a teacher who was herself born and raised in the all-black town of Boley, OK. Brought up primarily on military bases, Nelson started writing while still in elementary school. She earned her B.A. from the University of California, Davis, and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (M.A., 1970) and the University of Minnesota (Ph.D., 1979). Her first full-time job was with the Lutheran Church in America as a lay associate in Campus Ministry at Cornell University. Her long teaching career included positions at St. Olaf College and the Universities of Connecticut and Delaware, and brief stints at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in Denmark, in Germany, and in France.
Her book The Homeplace won the 1992 Annisfield-Wolf Award and was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award. The Fields Of Praise: New And Selected Poems won the 1998 Poets' Prize and was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Award, the PEN Winship Award, and the Lenore Marshall Prize. Carver: A Life In Poems, a spiritual biography of George Washington Carver, won the 2001 Boston Globe/Hornbook Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Fortune’s Bones:The Manumission Requiem was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. A Wreath For Emmett Till won the 2005 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and was a 2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book. The Cachoiera Tales And Other Poems won the L.E. Phillabaum Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.
She has published books of translations of verse and poetry by Danish poets Halfdan Rasmussen and Inge Pedersen; her volume of Pedersen’s poems won the American Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize. Her rendering of Euripedes’ “Hecuba” appears in the Euripedes I volume of The Penn Greek Drama Series. Her most recent books are (with Elizabeth Alexander) Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color; (with Tonya Hegamin) Pemba’s Song: A Ghost Story; The Freedom Business (with art by Deborah Dancy); Beautiful Ballerina (a picture book illustrated with photographs by Susan Kuklin); and Sweethearts of Rhythm (illustrated by Jerry Pinkney). Nelson’s honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, an A.C.L.S. Contemplative Practices Fellowship, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a fellowship from the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, three honorary doctorates, and the Commander’s Award for Public Service from the Department of the Army. Nelson is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut; founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony; and she was Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut from 2001-2006.