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Her books of poetry include Presentation Piece (1974), which won the National Book Award, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986), and Going Back to the River (1990). In 2009, Hacker won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for King of a Hundred Horsemen by Marie Étienne, which also garnered the first Robert Fagles Translation Prize from the National Poetry Series. In 2010, she received the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. She was shortlisted for the 2013 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for her translation of Tales of A Severed Head by Rachida Madani.
She was born and raised in Bronx, New York, the only child of Jewish immigrant parents. Her father was a management consultant and her mother a teacher. Hacker attended the Bronx High School of Science, where she met her future husband Samuel R. Delany, who became a well-known science-fiction writer. She enrolled at New York University at the age of fifteen (B.A., 1964). To marry, Hacker and Delany traveled from New York to Detroit, Michigan. Delany explained in his autobiography The Motion of Light in Water the reason that they married in Detroit was that, because of their ages and because he was African-American and she was Caucasian, "there were only two states in the union where we could legally wed. The closest one was Michigan." They settled in New York's East Village. Their daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, was born in 1974. Hacker and Delany, after being separated for many years, were divorced in 1980, but remain friends. Hacker identifies as lesbian, and Delany has identified as a gay man since adolescence. Their daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, was a theatre director in New York City for a decade before becoming a physician.
In the '60s and '70s, Hacker worked mostly in commercial editing. She returned to NYU, edited the university literary magazine, publishing poems by Charles Simic and Grace Schulman, and an early screenplay by Martin Scorsese. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in Romance languages.
Hacker's first publication was in Cornell University's Epoch. After moving to London in 1970, she found an audience through the pages of The London Magazine and Ambit. She and her husband edited the magazine Quark: A Quarterly of Speculative Fiction (4 issues; 1970–71). She also performed in a series of U.S. State Department-sponsored readings at British universities with the influential rock band Eggs Over Easy. Early recognition came for her when Richard Howard, then editor of The New American Review, accepted three of Hacker's poems for publication.
In 1974, when she was thirty-one, Presentation Piece was published by The Viking Press. The book was a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and won the annual National Book Award for Poetry. Winter Numbers, which details the loss of many of her friends to AIDS and her own struggle with breast cancer, garnered a Lambda Literary Award and The Nation's Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Her Selected Poems 1965-1990 received the 1996 Poets' Prize, and Squares and Courtyards won the 2001 Audre Lorde Award. She received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004. Among her eleven books of poems, the most recent is Desesperanto, published by W. W. Norton in 2003.
Hacker often employs strict poetic forms in her poetry: for example, in Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, which is a verse novel in sonnets. She is also recognized as a master of "French forms," particularly the villanelle.
From 1990 to 1994 she was the editor of the Kenyon Review, the first full-time editor of the publication, where she was noted for "broaden[ing] the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints."