Poet, dramatist, short fiction writer, children's writer, editor, essayist, and lecturer. Since the 1960s, Mari Evans has produced a body of works unique for its personal sensitivity, political tenor, and precisely crafted diction and structures. Although principally known for her poetry, Mari Evans's dramas have had repeated productions over the years, and her children's books have been noted as models for unobtrusively premising a constructive, nurturing worldview. Her essays and lectures are marked by explicit political commitment, cogent logic, and quiet fervor.
Evans was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. Her father proved to be a tremendous early influence upon her, and she recounts in an autobiographic essay, “My Father's Passage”(1984), how he saved her first story. She had written it while in the fourth grade, and it had appeared in the school paper. Her father not only saved it, but noted with pride his daughter's achievement. “My Father's Passage”is also important because Evans emphasizes her perception of writing as a craft, a professional occupation.
Evans attended public schools in Toledo as well as the University of Toledo. Although she studied fashion design, she did not pursue it as a career option. Her attention turned instead to poetry, almost unintentionally she asserts. Fortuitously she began her professional writing career as an assistant editor in a manufacturing firm where precision and discipline are imperative. Even in her first, intensely personal volume Where Is All the Music? (1968), this discipline is evident. These are poems celebrating all aspects of personal love affairs, from love at first sight to the endurance that masters disappointment and loneliness. Also evident is a hallmark of Evans's style: dispassionate language conveying profoundly moving fact and feeling.
Having received a Woodrow Wilson grant in 1968, Evans began the first of what would become a series of appointments in American universities in 1969. She was an instructor at Indiana University at Purdue, where she taught courses in African American literature and served as writer in residence. In 1970 she published I Am a Black Woman (incorporating most of the poems from Music), a more complex collection divided into titled sections that gradually expand focus to embrace the whole African American community. The first two sections concern romantic love. The next two treat victims of society's injustices and indifference, especially children. The final and longest section, “A Black Oneness, A Black Strength”draws the most overtly political inferences from this exploration of love. The effect of the poems is cumulative; although each poem is a complete, self-sufficient entity, it is enriched by its position among the others. The success of the poetry in 1970 was matched by Evans receiving an award for the most distinguished book of poetry by an Indiana writer.
Between 1970 and 1978 Evans was assistant professor and writer in residence at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she continued to write and publish, and to be recognized for her achievements. She received an honorary degree from Marion College in 1975, and she resided for a time at the MacDowell Colony. She had a visiting assistant professor appointment at Purdue University between 1978 and 1980, the same year she also had an appointment at Washington University in St. Louis, and she has visited at Cornell, SUNY Albany, and Spelman College.