Beth Ann Fennelly was born in New Jersey on May 22, 1971, but grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago on the city’s North Shore. From her earliest years, she loved words and enjoyed reading, and at first, she planned to become an actress. However, though she had always had leading roles in the plays presented in her high school, after she enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, Fennelly realized that she was not as talented in acting as she had thought. Then she took a poetry workshop, and from that time on, she had no doubt about her vocation. In 1993, Fennelly received a B.A. in English, magna cum laude.
After a year spent teaching English in a Czechoslovakian coal mining village, Fennelly entered the graduate program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. In 1998, she received an M.F.A. in poetry and was awarded the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship for a year’s postdoctoral work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Fennelly told an interviewer that she was especially proud of another personal achievement that year: She competed in the Chicago marathon.
In the summer of 1999, Fennelly held a University of Arizona Poetry Center residency, and the following summer, she held a MacDowell Colony residency. From 1999 to 2002, she was an assistant professor of English at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois. For several years, Fennelly had been married to the fiction writer Tom Franklin. The birth of their daughter Claire in 2001 inspired her to write the poems later published in Tender Hooks. In 2002, Fennelly accepted a position as assistant professor of English at the University of Mississippi, and the family moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Their son Thomas was born there. In 2007, Fennelly became associate professor.