Elizabeth Alexander

b. 1962
Elizabeth AlexanderCJ Gunther

Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York, but grew up in Washington, DC, the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, Clifford Alexander Jr. She holds degrees from Yale, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD. Currently the chair of African American Studies at Yale, Alexander is a highly respected teacher and mentor as well as a founding member of Cave Canem, an organization dedicated to promoting African-American poets and poetry. Her accomplishments within academia are numerous and include a Quantrelle Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the University of Chicago and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and the Alphonse Fletcher Foundation. Alexander’s career as a poet has likewise been impressive. Her book American Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2005 she was awarded the Jackson Poetry Prize. She is often recognized as a pivotal figure in African-American poetry. When Barack Obama asked her to compose and read a poem for his Presidential inauguration, she joined the ranks of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams; her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” became a bestseller after it was published as a chapbook by Graywolf Press.

Alexander writes on a variety of subjects, most notably race and gender, politics and history, and motherhood. The poet Clarence Major has described Alexander’s “instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience,” and Doris Lynch, writing for the Library Journal, commented that “memory and race” are “two of Alexander’s most powerful themes,” adding that “when Alexander’s forge is hot, the reader is transported to her world.” Alexander’s poems, short stories, and critical essays have been widely published in journals such as the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review, the Village Voice, and Prairie Schooner. Her verse play Diva Studies was produced by the Yale School of Drama in May, 1996.

Alexander’s first poetry collection, The Venus Hottentot (1990), won widespread praise from reviewers. The poems delve into the minds and emotions of historical black figures, including the eponymous character, Saartjie Baartman, who was exhibited in London and Paris before her death at 25, and was later dissected and infamously preserved by the Baron Cuvier. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Doris Jean Austin called the collection “a historical mosaic with profound cultural integrity,” and a reviewer for Poetry magazine described it as “a superb first book.” Alexander’s second collection, Body of Life (1996), continues to examine what Antioch Review contributor Harryette Mullen called “the ongoing public preoccupation with the black body.” Mullen noted that Alexander “reminds readers that the life of the body cannot be separated from the construction of individual and collective identities.” Like The Venus Hottentot before it, Body of Life mixes poems of personal and family experience with larger historical explorations. The Washington Post Book World described it as a book of “graceful elegance and easy musicality.”

Alexander’s Antebellum Dream Book (2001) was named one of the “Twenty-five Favorite Books of 2001” in the Village Voice. As Cathy Hong stated in her review for the Voice Literary Supplement, the book “moves as if Alexander breathlessly awoke in the middle of the night and jotted down her somnolent wanderings in verse form.” Hong also observed that “Alexander’s poems are deftly pared down, engagingly readable, and impressively generous in their coverage of historical and popular figures,” including a long sequence in the voice of Muhammad Ali. The collection also features poems about paintings and sculpture, and a series of “postpartum” dream poems which Fanonne Jeffers described in Black Issues Book Review, as “by turns, erotic, poignant and delightfully outrageous.” Ed Hirsch also remarked that the book used “the structure of dreams to meditate about the strangeness of race, the mysteries of family, the centrality of African American precursors, and the excitements—the estrangements—of motherhood,” adding that it was Alexander’s “best yet.”  

American Sublime also garnered widespread praise when it was published in 2005, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The book weaves together personal and political histories in fascinating ways. Broken into four parts, each section centers on a different theme. The first, “American Blue,” interweaves Alexander’s personal experiences, from childhood to adulthood, with historical events from the 1970s through the present. In the third cycle, “Amistad,” Alexander recounts the famous 1839 slave-ship rebellion from the points of view of several of the participants. Reviewing the collection for the New York Times, Joel Brouwer noted that “the best moments are those in which present and past collide, sending off welcome sparks,” and attributing “Alexander’s greatest gift” to her ability to show, again and again, “Faulkner’s claim that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’”

Alexander is also an important voice in African-American literary criticism. Her writings on artists, writers and aesthetics are valued for their poise and erudition. The title of The Black Interior (2003), a collection of essays, refers to what Alexander sees as the “black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination.” In these essays Alexander discusses the lives and works of famous African-American artists, including writers Langston Hughes and Anna Cooper, poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Michael Harper, and actor Denzel Washington, and attempts to explain the cultural role that such artists play and have played in both the African-American and wider American communities. Alexander also branches out to discuss, among other things, the stereotype of the African-American male, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and the nature of Jet magazine. “Her concluding piece on the Rodney King case ... is a tour de force,” wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Power and Possibility (2007) collected Alexander’s interviews, essays and reviews, again focusing on African-American artistic and cultural production. Literary critic Arnold Rampersad called Alexander “one of the brightest stars in our literary sky…a superb, invaluable commentator on the American scene.”

Elizabeth Alexander’s careful, precise poetry and her awareness of history, especially African-American history, as well as her personal friendship with the Obamas, made her a natural choice as President Obama’s inaugural poet. Alexander became only the fourth poet ever asked to read at a presidential inauguration, and her poem, “Praise Song for the Day” was heard and watched by billions worldwide. Based on traditional African praise songs, which commemorate the life of an individual in an incantatory call-and-response, Alexander’s poem focused less on President Obama and more on ordinary Americans, attempting to describe the details, languages and encounters that shape their lives. Alexander gestured towards the history of the Civil Rights Movement and its importance to the occasion—”Say it plain, that many have died for this day”—but also attempted to summarize a national journey. The poem received mixed reviews, especially from the poetry community, but it has helped make Alexander one of the most publically-known and respected poets writing today.

 

[Updated 2010]

Career

Poet and educator. Washington Post, Washington, DC, reporter, 1984-85; instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools, Philadelphia, PA, and Boston, MA, 1985-89; Haverford College, Haverford, PA, scholar-in-residence, 1990-91; Village Voice, reviewer; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, assistant professor of English, 1991-97; Smith College, Northampton, MA, Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, 1997-99, and first director of Poetry Center; Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor in African American studies and English, fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center; Cave Canem Poetry Workshop, New York, NY, instructor.

Bibliography

POEMS

  • The Venus Hottentot, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
  • Body of Life, Tia Chucha Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
  • Antebellum Dream Book, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2001.
  • American Sublime, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2005.
  • American Blue: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books (Newcastle, UK), 2006.
  • (With Marilyn Nelson, young adult poems) Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, Front Street Press, 2007.
  • (With Lyrae Van-Clief Stefanon) Poems in Conversation and a Conversation, Slapering Hol Press, 2008.
  • Praise Song for the Day, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2009.

OTHER

  • (Coauthor of phototexts) Houston A. Baker, Jr., Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
  • (Editor) Melvin Dixon, Love’s Instruments: Poems by Melvin Dixon, Tia Chucha Press, 1995.
  • Diva Studies (verse play), produced at Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1996.
  • The Black Interior (essays), Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2004.
  • (Editor) Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems, Library of America (New York, NY), 2005.
  • Power & Possibility: Essays, Reviews and Interviews, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Work represented in numerous anthologies, including Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation, edited by Pamela Gemin and Paula Sergie, University of Iowa Press, 1999; American Poetry: The Next Generation, edited by Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000; The Vintage Book of African- American Poetry, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, Vintage Books, 2000; and By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade, Graywolf Press, 2000.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Alexander, Elizabeth, The Black Interior, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2004.

PERIODICALS

  • Antioch Review, fall, 1997, Harryette Mullen, review of Body of Life, p. 500.
  • Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2001, Fanonne Jeffers, review of Antebellum Dream Book, p. 44.
  • Booklist, October 1, 2005, Janet St. John, review of American Sublime, p. 18.
  • Essence, November, 2001, "Take Note," p. 86.
  • Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2003, review of The Black Interior, p. 1297.
  • Library Journal, January, 2002, Doris Lynch, review of Antebellum Dream Book, p. 108; February 1, 2004, Felicity D. Walsh, review of The Black Interior, p. 85.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 30, 1990, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 20.
  • Poetry, July, 1991, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 233.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 23, 2001, review of Antebellum Dream Book, p. 68; June 27, 2005, review of American Sublime, p. 54.
  • Small Press Review, October, 1991, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 10.
  • Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 20, 1997, review of Body of Life, p. 3.
  • Village Voice, December 5-11, 2001, "Our Twenty-five Favorite Books of 2001."
  • Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1990, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 8; October, 1992, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 18; October, 2001, Cathy Hong, "Dream of Reason."
  • Washington Post, October 21, 1992, Jace Clayton, "Color Everywhere," p. T13.
  • Women's Review of Books, July, 1992, Colleen J. McElroy, review of The Venus Hottentot, pp. 25-26; July, 1997, Judith E. Johnson, review of Body of Life, pp. 28-30.

ONLINE

  • Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."
  • Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."
  • Meridians, http://www.smith.edu/ meridians/ (March 7, 2006), "Founding Editorial Board."
  • Poetry Center at Smith College Web site, http://www.smith.edu/poetrycenter/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."
  • Poetry Daily, http://www.poems.com/ (March 7, 2006), "About Antebellum Dream Book."
  • Yale University Web site, http://www.yale.edu/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."
  • University of Michigan Press Web site, http://http://www.press.umich.edu/alexander/ (January 7, 2009), "Celebrating Elizabeth Alexander."

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Audio & Podcasts

Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf Poetry Off the Shelf
  • Listen Inaugural Poetics
    Hear who Elizabeth Alexander would have picked and her thoughts on Frost and other past inaugural poets.
Poetry Off the Shelf
  • Listen Obamapoetics
    Elizabeth Alexander on how the Derek Walcott-toting, June Jordan-quoting president will affect poets and poetry.
Poetry Radio Project
  • Listen Lincoln and Lilacs
    When Lincoln died in 1865, Walt Whitman wrote a poem in his memory called "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom'd." 80 years later, after the death of another president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Paul Hindemith set Whitman's poem to music. Elizabeth Alexander discusses the music of Whitman's poem, the poet's relationship with Lincoln, and what artists have to offer in times of great national tragedy.

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Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1962–

Elizabeth Alexander

Biography

Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York, but grew up in Washington, DC, the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, Clifford Alexander Jr. She holds degrees from Yale, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD. Currently the chair of African American Studies at Yale, Alexander is a highly respected teacher and . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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