Professor emerita Marilyn Nelson is the 2012 recipient of The Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal for her “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.” Past recipients include Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and most recently Charles Simic.
Nelson, who taught English at UConn from 1978 to 2002, is the author of The Homeplace, The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems, Carver: A Life in Poems, and A Wreath for Emmett Till, among other works. She has written for children, young adult, and adult audiences. Her poetry spans a variety of subjects from an all-female jazz band (Sweethearts of Rhythm) to the story of a lost terrier in search of his beloved owner (Snook Alone). She has been the recipient of many honors, including two Boston-Horn Book Awards, the Poet’s Prize, the Printz Honor Award, and three Coretta Scott King Honor Awards. As the recipient of the Frost Medal, Nelson will deliver the Frost Lecture at this year’s annual Poetry Society of America awards ceremony to be held in New York City in April.
Nelson admits that she never dreamed of being in the company of the award’s past recipients, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. “Only in my wildest fantasies,” she says. “It is a major honor. I’ve been publishing poetry for a young adult audience the past few years, and what I hope [receiving the award] means is that my poetry for young adults has been taken seriously.”
Becoming a successful poet takes drive and true passion, and no one knows that better than Nelson. If you ask her to name the key element necessary for a successful career in poetry, she would say, “Perseverance.”
In 2004, Nelson founded the Soul Mountain Retreat, a non-profit writers’ colony in East Haddam, Conn. Until its closure in 2010, the retreat was host to more than 80 writers from around the globe, providing its residents with the necessary environment to focus on their writing.
Soul Mountain Retreat alumna, poet, and playwright Lita Hooper says the retreat’s ideal atmosphere and Nelson’s warm reception was “wonderful.” “She expressed a genuine interest in me and my work, which is refreshing,” she says. “Overall, I would say that my time with Marilyn marked a pivotal moment in my writing career, one that challenged me and ultimately led to a renewed focus.”
In addition to her teaching career at UConn, Nelson served as the Connecticut Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2006. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.