Marilyn Nelson Waniek

(b. 1946)

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(b. 1946), poet, critic, and educator.

A poet who has written for both children and adults, Marilyn Waniek (pronounced Von-yek) was born on 26 April 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio, daughter of Melvin M. (an air force serviceman) and Johnnie (Mitchell) Nelson (a teacher). Her family moved from one military base to another during her childhood. She started writing in elementary school. Waniek's higher education includes a BA from the University of California at Davis (1968), an MA from the University of Pennslyvania (1970), and a PhD from the University of Minnesota (1979). Her doctoral thesis was “The Schizoid Nature of the Implied Author in Twentieth-Century American Ethnic Novels.” As a graduate student she argued in an article, “The Space Where Sex Should Be: Toward a Definition of the Black Literary Tradition” (Studies in Black Literature, 1975), that the relationships between “Black protagonists and their white friends” portrayed in African American writing substituted for male—female relationships: “[I]n the space where sex should be is instead the awful confrontation of Black self with white self, and the Black self with white society.” A seminary—trained Lutheran, Waniek was lay associate in the National Lutheran Campus Ministry program from 1969 to 1970 in Ithaca, New York. She has taught English in Oregon, Denmark, and Minnesota. Her first marriage to Erdmann F. Waniek (1970–1979) ended in divorce; she has two children, Jacob and Dora, through her second marriage to Roger R. Wilkenfield. A 1976 Kent fellow and a 1982 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Waniek has been a member of the English faculty at the University of Connecticut at Storrs since 1978, and a full professor since 1988.

Waniek's critical articles include “The Schizoid Implied Authors of Two Jewish-American Novels” (1980), “The Power of Language in N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn” (1980), “Paltry Things: Immigrants and Marginal Men in Paule Marshall's Short Fiction” (1983), and “A Black Rainbow: Modern Afro-American Poetry” (with Rita Dove, 1990). Competent in Danish, German, and Spanish, she translated from Danish Phil Dahlerup's Literary Sex Roles (1975).

Waniek has published six poetry collections, two for children. In 1982 Waniek and Pamela Espeland published their translation of Danish poet Halfdan Rasmussen's humorous poetry in Hundreds of Hens and Other Poems for Children (1982), work that sparked her interest in writing for children and led to The Cat Walked Through the Casserole and Other Poems for Children (with Espeland, 1984). In For the Body (1978), written predominantly in free verse, Waniek explores childhood memories; in Mama's Promises (1985), she experiments with the ballad stanza. In The Homeplace (1990), a text interspersed with family trees and photos, Waniek uses dramatic dialogue and a range of ballad, villanelle, and sonnet forms to tell stories about her family, beginning with her great-great-grandmother Diverne and ending with her father and his fellow “Tuskegee Airmen.” Her 1994 poetry collection, Magnificat: Poems received critical acclaim. In 1997, she published The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. Considered to be one of the major young African American poets, Waniek experiments with traditional and free-verse forms.


Subjects: Literature.

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