Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem, New York, and grew up in Washington, D.C. She received a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Boston University (where she studied with Derek Walcott), and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
Her collections of poetry include Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010); American Sublime (2005), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Antebellum Dream Book (2001); Body of Life (1996); and The Venus Hottentot (1990).
Alexander's critical work appears in her essay collection, The Black Interior (Graywolf, 2004). She also edited The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (Graywolf, 2005) and Love’s Instruments: Poems by Melvin Dixon (1995). Her poems, short stories, and critical writing have been widely published in such journals and periodicals as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her work has been anthologized in over twenty collections, and in May of 1996, her verse play, Diva Studies, premiered at the Yale School of Drama.
About her work, Rita Dove has said that Alexander's "poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh," and Clarence Major has also noted her "instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience."
In 2007, Alexander was selected by Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, and Jane Hirshfield to receive the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers. Her other honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the the Guggenheim Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago, and the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks.
In 2009, she composed and recited “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama's first Presidential Inauguration.
She has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, the first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and a member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians. She has served as a faculty member for Cave Canem Poetry Workshops, and has traveled extensively within the U.S. and abroad, giving poetry readings and lecturing on African American literature and culture.
Alexander was a fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, an Associate Professor in the school's African American Studies Department, and currently she is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.